Waking up in Al-Hasakah
A war is taking place in the realm of the unseen. It is the battle for the mind, where prejudice is beset by enlightening information. It is the battle for the heart, where contempt is being replaced with love. It is the battle for the soul, where a regenerating wind comes to bring life out of death. Indeed, these are the weapons that destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of Allah. What if the soldier finds out that his cause is rooted in misunderstanding? What if he finds out that he has been misinformed? Would he be willing to reconsider his allegiance? The honest man recognizes that when things are not as they previously appeared to be, he ought to consider a change or two.
When morning broke, I opened my eyes. Casting a look at an unfamiliar sight, I realized that this had not been a dream. A higher ceiling, stacks of books on the shelves, framed pictures on the walls… I was not in Faruq's cabin; I was waking up in Al-Hasakah. Part of me was saddened by that thought, but I trusted that Allah was guiding me as a shepherd guides his sheep. Even through the darkest valley, I would fear no evil. I noticed that the sun was shining its rays through the window, casting long shadows in the apartment. Under normal circumstances, I would have already woken up to do my prayers, but I did not take an alarm clock with me on the journey. Maybe Allah knew that I needed extra sleep. Nevertheless, hearing the unmistakable call of duty, I got out of my cot to do my prayers.
This time, it was not simply my right knee that was sore, but my whole body. The pain in my muscles kindly greeted me, and the stiffness in my joints caught my attention. However, I would not let that deter me from fulfilling my duties. I immediately proceeded with the custom. But, I could not escape an embarrassing question: What was I trying to accomplish through my prayers? Was I trying to make myself acceptable in the sight of Allah? Was I trying to purify my heart? Will my sincere devotions really earn Allah's favor? I knew that it was right to pray, but perhaps I had misunderstood what prayer is all about. Maybe I was not praying the right way. Maybe I was trying to accomplish what only Allah can accomplish. Maybe I was relying on my own works rather than relying on the works of Allah. Strangely, that might be the greatest sign of my lack of faith: the fact that I was trying to make myself righteous, instead of receiving the righteousness that comes from above.
Up to this point, all my prayers, fasts, ritual washings, and almsgiving were based on the fact that I was still trying to earn Allah's favor. But, I now realize that I had it backwards. It should be the opposite. If my devotions are to be pleasing to Allah, they must come from a heart that has already been washed. They must be an act of gratitude for the gift of righteousness that comes from above. Otherwise, am I not insulting Allah by trying to buy His favor even though I am clearly convicted by the Moral Law as a lawbreaker? It would be like trying to pervert justice by paying a bribe to the judge so that my sentence may not be carried out… a very pathetic bribe. Besides, what good is a service rendered with the goal of receiving something in return? Is it not better to render a service from a heart purely motivated by love and gratitude? Will I simply serve Allah and pray to Him because I am trying to get something out of Him? This should not be. Perhaps the time has come for me to change the way that I relate to Allah…
Moe – Allah, show me how much You have done for me. Draw me near, beyond the veil that separates the Holy One from an unclean human race! Cleanse me from my sins… so that my prayers may be acceptable in Your sight. Provide the price of my redemption… to purchase me out of slavery. Adopt me as a child… so that I may have a share of Your estate. Fill me with Your love… so that I might love you in return. In Your kindness, draw near to me, so that I may praise Your Holy Name!
After some time in heartfelt prayer, I heard a sound coming from the living room. Haroun was watching the morning news on the television. It sounded like important information. So, I silently opened the door, peeking around the corner. I listened carefully, eager to learn what the anchorman had to report. To my surprise, I heard the reports through new ears. It was as though the cry of my conscience had finally broken through a thick wall. It suddenly struck me: these were neither acts of valor, nor noble accounts of resistance. Far from it! On the contrary, I was hearing the cry of injustice… insights into the depravity of human beings: another attack against innocent civilians; another chapter in the annals of Boko Haram, ripping open pregnant women and sending children to their deaths; another propaganda video inciting people to violence; another act of hatred disguised as the solution to the problem of evil. On and on, it went… The more I listened, the more upset I became. Part of me was angry that such horrors could be committed in the name of Islam. Part of me was ashamed that I had once endorsed these acts of depravity. For the first time, I listened to the voice of my conscience. I wrestled with its penetrating questions: How can a perpetual campaign of terror be conducted in the name of peace? How can one more act of evil be the solution to the problem of evil in the world? Let's face it: such a hunger for blood will always find a new enemy. Isn't there a better solution?
Haroun – Mohammed, you can come out of the doorway. Don't just stand there.
Moe – How did you know that I was standing here?
Haroun – I saw your reflection in the glass. But, I would much prefer to see your face.
Moe – Yeah…
Haroun – Hey… a thought just came to my mind!
Moe – What?
Haroun – The glass! You know, that's a good lesson for you to learn! Even though you can recognize an object by studying its reflection or even by looking at its shadow, it could never replace the object itself. It would be foolish to reject the object for the sake of its shadow, or for the sake of its reflection. Do you agree?
Moe – Sure…
Haroun – Well, the truth is that many people reject Jesus, the Messiah, because they are too captivated by His shadow.
Moe – What are you talking about?
Haroun – Everything that pointed to Jesus, before His coming.
Moe – Like what?
Haroun – Pictures of eternal things… which were meant to teach us spiritual truths: the dietary laws, purification rituals, temporal covenants, foretastes of Allah's eternal promises. These were only shadows, pointing to something greater. Trust me, Allah would not create pigs just for the sake of telling us that they are unclean animals… rather, the distinction between clean and unclean animals was teaching us a lesson about the reality of the problem of spiritual uncleanness.
Moe – Okay…
Haroun – There's a lot more background that you probably don't know about. One day, you should read the Old Testament (the Scriptures that were written before the coming of Jesus) and see how many things point in that direction. I'm not just talking about the prophecies, but the whole system! For instance, the sacrifices that Allah required for the sins of His people were meant to teach us about the need to make atonement for our sins, and the need for purification in order to enter into the presence of Allah. The strict regulations of the Old Covenant that had to be meticulously followed were teaching us about Allah's eternal covenant, and the need for perfect obedience to the demands of the Moral Law in order to earn its blessings.
Moe – I've never heard of these things.
Haroun – That's fine. Let me give you an example. In the Old Testament, the people had to celebrate a feast called the Day of Atonement. On that day, the High Priest had to take a goat called the "scapegoat," place his hands on the animal's head, and transfer all the sins of the people unto the scapegoat. Once this was done, someone had to take the scapegoat away and lead it into the wilderness. This was to symbolize that Allah was removing the sins of the people, far away from His presence, so that they might be holy and acceptable in His sight. But, there was a problem: this ritual never fully and finally dealt with the problem of sin. That's why they had to repeat it every year, over and over again! In reality, it was pointing forward to a greater scapegoat on whom our sins would be transferred; one who would have the ability to cast away all of our sins, once-and-for-all, as far as the East is from the West!
Moe – Huh… so, you're saying that these were only shadows? Like my reflection in the glass…
Haroun – Yes, and Jesus fulfilled them. He came to fulfill not just the conditions of the temporal covenant, but also the conditions of the eternal covenant. In fact, now that He has done so, we are supposed to see with greater clarity what Allah requires of us, instead of simply following shadows of spiritual things.
Moe – What do we see with greater clarity?
Haroun – The revelation of Allah's plan of salvation... The manner in which the Messiah would come to save us from our sins… The object of our faith… The path to spiritual life… The knowledge of Allah through the incarnation of His deity into human flesh… How Allah deals with our sins once-and-for-all, and the way in which He established an eternal covenant with us.
Moe – And, those things are clear? Clear as mud… right. I'll be honest with you; most of this just went right over my head! I have no idea what you're talking about… It's like your mind is floating above the earth or something.
Haroun – Haha! The Lord still has to unveil your mind, that's why. When Allah will open the eyes of your understanding, you'll be able to set your mind on the things that are above, instead of simply looking at these things through the eyes of the flesh.
Moe – Quite frankly, it seems easier to just follow the law. I prefer to follow something that I can see.
Haroun – That's where your problem is. Don't you realize that Allah's promises are greater than the elemental principles of the world? That's what is so attractive about a system of rules. It's something that you feel comfortable with, because you think that you can master it. You think that you're doing okay when you follow a bunch of rules… but, the truth is that you're supposed to rise above these things! There's something greater. You're supposed to look upon the horizon and let the Spirit of Allah lead you to a place that no eye has seen, through the doorway of eternity.
Moe – If that's the case, why did Allah bother to give us these things? Why all the shadows? Why did He even bother to give us temporal conditions for us to follow according to the elemental principles of this world?
Haroun – They were paving the way for the greatest act of all! They were preparing us for the revelation of His salvation. They were signposts leading us to our destination. Just think about this: Once you find the final destination, there is no more use for the signposts. But, up until that point, they were important markers. However, you're not supposed to stay captivated by the markers. In the same way, these temporal things were meant to lead us to the Messiah. But, once they lead you to the Messiah, you are to focus your attention on the life that flows from Him. Once you have laid hold of the gospel of Jesus, you have no need for the old way of practicing religion according to the flesh. You are liberated from the old law that kills, and you are free in the law of the Spirit of Jesus.
Moe – Wait a second… Now you're talking about a second law… a spiritual law… or the law of Jesus… or whatever. I don't understand how the two are related.
Haroun – Well, let me clarify something: the Moral Law doesn't change since it is eternal and anchored in Allah's character. However, the ritual law does change, since it was particular to the covenant that Allah made before the fulfillment of His plan of salvation through Jesus. With the enactment of the New Covenant and the law of the Spirit, we are actually going closer to the heart of Allah's character, who is a Spirit.
Moe – Oh, my head is starting to hurt… I need some time to think about these things.
Haroun – That's normal. Don't worry. It's not something that you can quickly grasp. It takes time to understand the richness of Allah's plan for the world. We shouldn't expect any less. After all, this is not a system that has been invented by men; this is a divine plan that surpasses our finite minds. Just remember what I said, meditate on it, and pray that Allah would open your heart and your mind.
Moe – That sounds good.
I have to admit that even though I was slightly annoyed by Haroun's lofty speech, something within me wanted to learn more about it. I sensed that he had a greater understanding of spiritual things. I had to be honest: Haroun's theology was much richer than mine. Mine was simple and rudimentary, whereas his was profound and sophisticated. My theology was based on the elemental principles of this world, whereas his theology rose above our temporal world to lay hold of spiritual, eternal truths. He spoke of things for which I did not even have a category. I would have to be stretched, but I trusted that Allah was able to do the impossible. What was impossible for my finite mind to comprehend, Allah could easily put into place. Nonetheless, I needed to take a break from the intensity of this discussion. Maybe I could get to know his personal story instead.
Moe – Haroun, can I ask you a personal question?
Haroun – Of course!
Moe – How did you come to believe these things? I'm not talking about the intellectual component. I mean, at what point did you have a change of heart about these things… about religion?
Haroun – Good question. Well, it took a while. It started when I met a woman named Sanaa. I met her at the annual fair. She was a Yazidi. I have to admit that even though I wasn't the best Muslim, I had trouble with her view of Islam. She was clearly misguided. She was idolatrous in many ways, and spiritual in dangerous ways. Nevertheless, she was precious. She was a precious human being, made in the image of Allah. Then, one day, I saw her again… but, she was a mess. Her clothes were dirty and her hijab barely covered her unkempt hair. She told me that the Islamic State had destroyed her village. They killed the men, raped the women, and sold her as a slave. She was beaten, violated, and ridiculed by men who claimed to be faithful servants of Allah. She managed to escape, but she had no one left in her family. It was a complete massacre. They had no mercy, no concern for human life… She asked me how people could be so evil. She asked me if I would act the way that these men acted… I couldn't escape the fact that these men were devout Muslims. In fact, the more devout they were, the more merciless and violent they were.
Moe – But, not all devout Muslims are violent.
Haroun – I know. But, I still wrestled with it. It troubled me.
Moe – So, what did you do?
Haroun – I started looking for a true religion of peace. At first, I was only interested in what other Muslims had to say. But, I noticed that those who promoted peace weren't really conservative Muslims. They were progressive. It's like they were borrowing that concept from someone else's worldview. So, I thought that I should look somewhere else.
Moe – Christianity?
Haroun – Actually, I looked into everything at first. But, it seemed like the most substantial message of love and peace came from the lips of Jesus in Christianity. It wasn't vague or elusive. It was clear. The origin of evil was clear, and the solution as well. I saw how Jesus addressed the problem of sin in a way that no one else can. He had a divine solution! That's why He could so boldly proclaim the message of love. Also, I was shocked by some of His statements: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself"; "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you"; "Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword"; "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." He could only say these things because He had a better way, a better solution… because of what He had come to accomplish on the earth. So, I steadily grew in my appreciation for the message of Christianity. But, I had a long road to travel.
Moe – What kind of obstacles did you have to surmount?
Haroun – Mostly prejudice. I couldn't accept what was recorded in the Bible as historically accurate because I thought that the Christian Scriptures had been corrupted. But, I couldn't find any evidence to prove it. At best, there were minor changes from one ancient manuscript to another, the kind of changes that would mistakenly be inserted during the copying process. For instance, I realized that many ancient manuscripts had notes written in the margin, and that when they were later copied, these notes were also copied as part of the text because the scribe assumed that they were supposed to be in the main text. However, I could not find wholesale theological changes from one manuscript to the other. There was no doubt about it. In fact, it was impossible – considering the evidence – to deduce that Christians had deliberately invented new doctrines or misrepresented the teachings of Jesus.
Moe – Okay…
Haroun – Plus, I had always thought that the things recorded in the New Testament about Jesus were written centuries after the fact, until I realized that all the books of the New Testament were written within the lifetime of those who lived with Jesus, and that we even have some manuscripts dating back to the second century. I was especially impressed by the work of Daniel Wallace, who made some ancient manuscripts accessible to the public through the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.
Moe – What about the Old Testament?
Haroun – Well, I was shocked to find out what Jesus Himself thought about the Old Testament, and how He accepted it as divinely inspired. Also, I noticed that Jesus would always go back to the source, to the Word of Allah, instead of simply trusting the traditions of the elders. That's why the Jewish religious authorities were so angry at Him. He wouldn't submit to them. He would only submit to Allah and proclaimed His Word with authority.
Moe – So, that's when you became more open…
Haroun – I guess you could say that. I visited a few churches, asking tough questions. But, often, I wasn't satisfied with their answers. I felt like many of them were just Christian by tradition, but not really passionate or devout. So, I kept looking. Then, the Lord placed all kinds of people in my life who encouraged me to keep seeking the truth. You were one of those people… but, you don't seem to remember… Anyways, throughout my visits, I finally found a group of believers who call themselves "evangelical." They use that name because they are passionate about the gospel of Jesus. They helped me to make the distinction between those who are "Christian" in name only, and those who bear the name with honor. I realized that when you find Christians like that, there's power… there's life… there's the real presence of Allah among them!
Moe – So, not all Christians are like that…
Haroun – No. I realized that in the same way that we have "progressive Muslims" who don't really hold to the fundamental tenets of Islam, they also have "progressive Christians" who don't really hold to the fundamental tenets of Christianity. That's why it's important to make the distinction between those who live according to their own standards and those who follow Allah's standards in the Bible.
Moe – I see. So, they helped you to understand those things…
Haroun – Yes. To make a long story short, I started attending their Bible studies, doing more research about the historical foundations of Christianity, and eventually I became convinced that Jesus had really died on the cross for my sins, and that He had really been raised from the dead to make me righteous before Allah. I couldn't argue with the facts, so I was converted. When my family found out, they kicked me out of our home, and they publicly disowned me.
Moe – I'm sorry to hear that.
Haroun – Well, I have already forgiven them. At least they spared my life. Besides, what matters is that I have found the true religion of peace. And, because of what Jesus has done for me, I now have peace with Allah.
Moe – Could you explain what you mean by that? I'm not sure that I understand.
Haroun – Okay. Let me ask you this question: For what purpose do people make war? To what end do people fight and kill each other? What are they trying to accomplish?
Moe – It depends who you ask…
Haroun – No. Just think about this for a second. They may be trying to bring a people into subjection… Maybe they want to remove a threat… Or, perhaps they are bringing judgment against a group of people for the evil that they have committed. But, regardless of the particulars, there is a state of enmity between the two, and they are trying to resolve that problem. Now, what if Allah had already given us the solution? What if the solution did not involve taking up physical weapons or trying to resolve the problem of evil and sin on our own?
Moe – Wait a minute… You really have two problems to deal with: the problem of evil between human beings, and the problem of sin towards Allah. Even if you resolved the former, that wouldn't resolve the latter.
Haroun – Actually, the two are related. In fact, everything that we do in this world is done before Allah and will be judged by Him. Your actions towards others demonstrate how much you really love Allah, just as our relationship with Him affects our relationships with other human beings. In fact, the reason human beings fight against each other is because they live in a fallen world, alienated from Allah!
Moe – Okay. So, what is the solution?
Haroun – We must be reconciled to Allah, on His terms. He must bring us near – into His presence – and give us an eternal inheritance. When He looks upon us, He must see a friend, rather than a foe. There must not be a stain of sin, or an ounce of rebellion in our heart; we must be completely washed. And the terms of peace must be perfectly upheld. Otherwise, we would incur His wrath.
Moe – And Jesus did that?
Haroun – Yes! He turned Allah's wrath away from us by taking it upon Himself. He established a New Covenant, sealed by His own blood, so that we might be on good terms with Allah. He fulfilled the demands of Allah's righteousness and gave us the inheritance that He had received from the Father above. He dealt with the record of our rebellion that would otherwise make us obnoxious in the sight of the Holy One; He nailed it to the cross! And, in exchange, He gave us His perfect record. That is the certificate that gives you the right to stand in the divine presence. That is your ticket to the Holy City in Paradise.
Moe – And, because of that, we don't have to fight against human beings?
Haroun – Yes. Because you are looking forward to a better kingdom in Paradise, you do not need to fight for an earthly kingdom. And now that you know the message of divine love and forgiveness, you are called to extend an invitation to your fellow human beings. In the same way that you have been shown mercy when you were an enemy, you are to show mercy to your enemies. In reality, the only way to fully achieve reconciliation with men and women is through the path of spiritual reconciliation with Allah. It begins with an act of divine love, and it ends with a response of love, love towards your neighbor, and love towards Allah.
Moe – I see what you mean. And, I suppose that before this had been revealed, Allah's people fought for a physical kingdom since they lived in the shadows of those spiritual realities… is that correct?
Haroun – Yes, that is correct.
Moe – Okay… thanks for sharing all of that.
Haroun – My pleasure.
I decided to pick up a book from the shelf, so that I would appear to be occupied. I pretended to read the cover for some time, giving my mind the opportunity to digest what I had just heard. Quite frankly, it was nice to take a break from our conversation. Haroun really seemed to enjoy talking about these things, but I needed some time to meditate on all these concepts. Shadows… scapegoat… elementary principles of this world… Old Testament… New Testament… ancient manuscripts… Christians in name only… state of enmity… act of divine love. Enough to make your head spin! So, I now found myself in an awkward moment of silence. The television had long been turned off. Haroun decided to celebrate his oratorical accomplishment by stretching out his arms behind his head, looking comfortable on the sofa chair. His joy could not be concealed, even though he obviously worked really hard at containing himself. I could tell that he wanted to say more. Thankfully, he managed to exercise self-control. I pretended not to notice, lest I should provoke another avalanche of words. So, what should I do now? Could I just serve myself something for breakfast? After all, Haroun had just served me quite a meal!
Haroun – By the way, I should let you know that we're going to visit some of those people today.
Moe – What people?
Haroun – The group of evangelical believers that I mentioned... In fact, I've already called Pastor Tallat to let him know that we're coming. Do you feel well enough to go?
Moe – Sure… but, can we eat first?
Haroun – Absolutely! We'll need the energy!
Moe – Do you have any olives?
Haroun – You like olives in the morning?
Moe – I do.
Haroun – I've never met anyone who eats olives in the morning…
Moe – Don't worry about it. If you don't have any, I can eat something else.
Haroun – No, that's not what I meant. I've got plenty of those, but I usually eat them in the evening. That's not a problem, Mohammed. Let me show you where everything is…
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