Yesterday, I Wept at the Courthouse

Yesterday, I wept at the courthouse. Not because I had to miss class to contest a speeding ticket nor because my officer decided to show up nor because I feared my auto insurance rates would go up. Even though, I had secretly hoped the officer wouldn’t show up, I’m glad he did, otherwise I would not have wept nor learned a lesson.

I would not have wept because my case would have been dismissed early on and I’d have left the courtroom before any of the trials took place. So I stayed and during the first trial, I wept as did many in the courtroom that morning for the loss of man I didn’t know.

Seated around the prosecutor’s table was the dead man’s wife and son. He has other children too and young grandchildren, the youngest, the one he never met, born last December, carries his name. His wife wrote a letter to the judge detailing how the loss of her husband of forty years, her high school sweetheart, and business partner had affected her. She said she felt as if she were missing half of herself.

Her son began to read from the letter until overcome with emotion he handed the letter to the prosecutor to finish reading for him. Also seated around the prosecutor’s table were the court’s translator and the two Latino men who had worked with the woman’s husband and were with him that fatal day.

At the other end of the courtroom was the defendant, a man perhaps in his late forties or early fifties, a retired military veteran and firefighter. His hair was closely cropped and his face red with the emotion of a man trying to hold back tears. While it was easy to feel empathy for those sitting around the prosecutor’s table, I didn’t know what to feel for this other man. But even for him, I can only feel empathy for a man forced to carry his burden.

One rainy day, three men stopped their van on the side of the road to adjust their windshield wipers. Two were outside and one stayed inside the van. Without warning, their van was struck by another vehicle at speed. The power of the impact forced the now deceased man’s head through to the outside of the van. His companions also sustained serious injuries. They have had multiple surgeries since the accident and may suffer some permanently disability. Neither, both manual laborers has worked since the accident. One of them has a wife and two small daughters and worries how he will be able to support them.

The sorrowful man behind the defense table offered the excuse of being distracted as he looked into his driver’s side mirror. Continue reading “Yesterday, I Wept at the Courthouse”

How Muslims Don’t Express Condolences

I’ve always had an awkward relationship with death. I didn’t attend my first funeral until after I became Muslim. I’m still not comfortable and don’t feel competent in expressing condolences to someone grieving the loss of a loved one. I’ll often say the common Muslim phrase about how how we all come from God and will eventually return to him and a prayer asking God to have mercy on the loved ones left behind.

If I meet someone mourning, my tongue becomes knotted and my chest constrained. I want to offer a word of comfort but am never quite sure what to say. I remember in high school, the husband of my Spanish teacher committed suicide. So she took a leave of absence for a few weeks and when she returned, I wanted to say “I’m sorry” or express some compassion but no one mentioned her loss and I didn’t want to put my foot in my mouth or make it worse. So I didn’t say anything.

Since becoming Muslim, my anxiety over how to offer condolences has only increased. I’ve been taught that as a point of theology, we can and should pray for everyone while they are alive but that it is improper for Muslims to ask forgiveness or pray for a person who died as a non-Muslim.

In the Muslim tradition, the Prophet Abraham’s father was not Muslim but out of his mercy and gentle disposition, Abraham continued to pray for his father’s forgiveness even after his death. Although, it is later said that Abraham eventually gave up these prayers for his father.

It is narrated that the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) asked God to visit the grave of his mother, who had died while he was very young, and to pray for her forgiveness. He was granted permission to visit her grave but not to pray for forgiveness.

Along with other evidence, the dominant opinion in Sunni legal orthodoxy appears to be that a Muslim should not pray for a non-Muslim person after their death. Some will even argue that saying a phrase like “rest in peace” is also prohibited.

Thus, I’ve tried to be careful and conscientious in adhering to this legal opinion even as I sometimes still find myself out of a habit that flows from an emotion in my heart wanting to say a word of gentleness and comfort or “rest in peace”  for the deceased. But then I quickly catch myself and ask, “Am I supposed to say that?” or “Was that a prayer?” If it is I try to internally disavow that statement and reword it as a prayer for the person’s living loved ones.

I do find it challenging to understand this edict. And I can’t help thinking about my own family, none of whom are Muslim, yet. I can’t imagine how painful it would be to lose one of them and to not be able to pray for them after their death.

In the Islamic tradition, one of the most praiseworthy acts is to continue to honor your parents after their death either by your own good deeds or by praying for them. For many converts with non-Muslim parents, the reality that this path of goodness is cut off for us is very painful.

I’m a little envious of the outpouring of prayers easily offered up by my fellow Muslims upon hearing of the death of another Muslim even if they didn’t know the person. And I wonder what will be said or more likely what won’t be said when my own family members pass away. Continue reading “How Muslims Don’t Express Condolences”

I didn’t know Amy Winehouse but I knew Tobi Ekeze

The Death of Amy Winehouse

Yet, her death this past weekend made me reflect. Winehouse and I are the same age, although, she was born a few months before me. I saw a news story that mentioned other famous people that died at the age 27 including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and others. None of us know how long we’ll live, I doubt many of us think that we’ll die at 27.

If you knew the precise time of your death wouldn’t you try to make the most of your life? Have you lived the life you wanted to the fullest or are you treading the life others (who don’t really know or care about you and can’t help you) want you to live?

Read this on a friend’s facebook status:

‎”Rupert Murdoch says he is deeply touched by all the messages left on Amy Winehouse’s voicemail.”

Reflexively, I laughed and almost immediately felt bad for doing so. I’m not the best at holding in my laughter and tend to laugh at some of the most inappropriate times.

The Death of Tobi Ekeze

Democrat & Chronicle: Educator’s heart was as big as his smile

I didn’t know Amy Winehouse but I did know Tobi Ekeze who died two weeks ago. He was a husband to Karen, married probably now for twenty years, and father of two teenage kids. Tobi like my parents came from Nigeria and somehow ended up in Brockport, my small hometown in upstate New York.

I’m told he lived with us for a time while completing his degree, I don’t really remember that because I was too young. When Tobi and his wife Karen got married they asked me to the little bridesmaid and I remember being overjoyed at the prospect. As the youngest and baby of the family, it was a small way to upstage my two older sisters.

I always admired Karen and Tobi’s relationship, growing up they were one a handful of interracial couples I knew and I always admired their courage to go forward loving someone of a different race and ethnic background. Most of my relationships have also been interracial, not consciously, it just happened that way. Part of that I credit to my parents who although I’m sure they would be happy if we married someone from our tribe, never discouraged the idea of interracial relationships.

That’s one of the things I love the most about my parents, the home environment they created for us was in many ways so open and accepting. I can’t ever recall my parents discriminating against anyone nor ever using common stereotypes or slurs. Those are things that I learned out in the neighborhood, at school and from books and television.

I was deeply pleased to hear that Tobi completed his PhD and had become a vice-principal at my former high school, which was far from the most diverse place in the world. Once again, proving to me the value of hard work and determination to persevere and to achieve whatever goals you set out for yourself.

My dad wrote me a letter informing me of Tobi’s death, after a battle with cancer, and he called him a “gentle soul.” That’s how I remember him. My condolences to all of his loved ones.

From the Storehouse

Obituary: Mildred Loving

Being Muslim in the Age (and now death) of Bin Laden

Ten years ago on September 11th, 2001, I had just moved from New York to Virginia, and was at work babysitting my new next door neighbor’s four-year old kid before I walked her to school for her half-day kindergarten class. Before we left, her mother called, frantically asking me if I’d heard the news and to ensure that I kept her daughter home from school that day. I hadn’t heard anything that bright sunny morning so I turned on the television but couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing. The imposing and seemingly unshakeable buildings that had always loomed so large in the recesses of  my memory were ablaze with massive gaping holes in them.

And last Sunday night, I was also at work, when I heard the news that President Obama intended to make an unusual Sunday evening address to the nation. When the news finally broke that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces, I was stunned and felt a gradual and spreading sense of relief. I didn’t rejoice and I didn’t mourn at the news of his death. However, I did reflect on the enormous loss of life and continued suffering and harm that has occurred and continues to occur throughout the world.

I reflected on my life before September 11th, when I was not Muslim. Religion, much less Islam, was far from my mind. How thankful I am to have become Muslim in the intervening years.

Then I went out into the cool and dark night for a walk and I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and that low-grade fear and apprehension that always comes after a significant (usually negative) event with Muslims in the news. As a few cars sped by, I assumed the occupants had probably heard the news on the radio or phone or by text or tweet, and I wondered if like on other occasions one person might  feel emboldened enough to shout out some nonsense in my direction. Thankfully, none did. And feeling the tenseness building in my muscles, I made an effort to relax and once again enjoy the quiet solitude of my walk.

Our fears must be faced, challenged and defeated each day.

On a side note, I wonder what happened to the guy who said he would not shave until Bin Laden was captured.