Wednesday, March 14, 2012

From My Eyes

by Michelle Sarver

Photo Credit

Listening to John Esposito’s “The Future of Islam” podcast, a Gallop Poll statistic he cited left me both frustrated and disenchanted. Since 9/11 the world turned its focus to Islam with increasing interest, and yet 57 percent of those polled said that they could not find even one thing that they admired about the religion
. Such negative perceptions are often attributed to the overwhelmingly negative headlines and exaggerated fears of terrorism provided to the public. Americans’ Islamophobia became so mainstream that despite increased exposure to the religion since 9/11, negative perceptions of Islam increased over the years.

While ugliness exists in any religion, a closer look at Islam illustrates many beautiful elements. One of the most admirable virtues of Islam is revealed in the concept summed up for me through “Min Ayouni”(من عيوني), often portrayed by pointing to each eye, one followed by the other. Its meaning, “from my eyes,” indicates the level of sacrifice a person would endure to assure another’s comfort. Even if you asked for their eyes, they would be offered. Maybe those that cannot find any aspects of beauty within this religion lack exposure to this level of generosity and hospitality, often offered by its followers. 

While studying Arabic, I developed friendships with many international Muslim students, both male and female. When I was comfortable enough to ask for favors, their response was always "min ayouni," and I never lost my sense of trust in their promise.The level of care was something I never experienced before in the U.S, and something I now wish I could. The sense of altruism in their actions is utterly contagious. Even gift giving as a form of generosity is evident in their actions. Admittedly, at times culture shock got the best of me, particularly when a still-warm, freshly killed goat appeared on my front porch, but the smiles could not disguise the level of appreciation these international students had for my family's continuous help. As one poet stated, “the face of the generous man is the essence of hospitality.” This killing of a sheep occurred whenever a friend or family member was entering the area as well. Life stopped when a guest arrived and an opportunity for God’s pleasure was available. Coffee, tea, and dates were provided before food while preparing the meal. At the communal dish, the guest is placed next to the best meat. 

"He who believeth in one God, and a future life, let him honor his guest." - Prophet Muhammad

The meals were often executed precisely as prescribed by the Hadith. Rules of etiquette and hospitality always applied. While normally frowned upon, hurrying is an exception in the presence of guests (and in a few other circumstances). All guests should be taken care of according to their particular guest or neighbor “right.” And yes, a non-Muslim neighbor holds “neighbors rights” as one of the three types of neighbors that Muslims must care for. The roots of this non-Muslim care lie in the Prophet Muhammad’s kind treatment toward his Jewish neighbor. In addition, even if barely able to tend to themselves, a Muslim should tend to those in need until they have nothing left to offer with roots again in the Prophet Muhammad's directions according to Abu Hurayrah, considered one of the most accurate or most reliable and trusted recorders of the actions of the Prophet Muhammad. The prophet believed the best servants to God provide for others before providing for themselves, even in desperate need. One day and one night is the minimum duty of any host, three days is hospitality, and any more is great kindness and goodness in piety. God rewards those who go the extra mile. The wording of the Quran leaves no mistaking the importance of generosity, stating "Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should be hospitable with his or her guests." 

Such stories of the prophet and his subscribed measures are evidence that the hospitality and generosity in the meaning of min ayouni is no recent phenomenon.  The virtues of Islam, one of which is this immense level of hospitality, are rooted in both in the Quran but also in the hadith, with teachings and actions of religious figures like the Prophet Abraham and the Prophet Muhammad. 

Saint Francis and the Sultan
Throughout history, the generosity and hospitality is observed. For example, there is documentation of astonishment of the level of hospitality offered by Muslims. Catholicism’s venerated and benevolent Saint Francis, upon being welcomed and cared for by the Sultan of Egypt and thoroughly impressed by the level of hospitality, applied much of this virtue into his own guidelines for religion. Similarly, I came to consider it as one of the most hospitable cultures I ever interacted with. The level of altruism was exceptional, seeing that is also no expectation of reciprocity and, in fact, is viewed more as a duty subscribed by the religion than for personal gain.

Level of piety is established though such measures as religious figures like Sheikh Farahat Al Mongi promoting generous lives in resemblance of the Prophet Muhammad in conjunction with progressive religious scholars like Amr Khaled who televise the journey of the prophet and promote the betterment of society though development of community and community services. He promotes piety, but not religious extremist movements, shunning such extremist movements like al Qaeda in Yemen. In addition, reputation is at stake. An individual or family’s reputation could depend on their hospitality and generosity. In the Gulf in particular, it is required for social acceptance and social standing, especially for a woman. This social obligation encourages them to splurge on their guests, offering shelter, food, and water as well as entertainment and general kindness.

Level of generosity skyrockets during Ramada when stress falls on alms-giving, one of the five pillars of Islam. However, it is rarely the case that care for the poor ends at the conclusion of the month. Exploring cities as a kid, I learned the "avoid eye contact" rule when dealing with solicitors. Thanksgiving 2009 with two friends truly tested my sense of self when I neglected a man's existence walking through the  streets of Boston. I turned to find them providing the man with all of their spare cash to buy turkey for the city's homeless community. I've seen shock at our neglect for the homeless and lack of elderly care by the family and family togetherness in general. Disappointment by the amount of elderly in nursing homes and assistant living programs stems from their believe that caring for the elderly is a blessing. Even Americans' nerve to put kids on leashes -something I simply laughed at- and the concept of disowning a child they found quite appalling.

Slowly, exposure to this culture changed me. I considered myself a charitable person and volunteered my time and money when possible. Yet I recently overstepped my once assumed limits, abandoning my established rules for dealing with the homeless on city streets and helping members of families I never met without hesitation. Once the kind of person who dreaded the ringing of a doorbell as it was a hindrance to my schedule set precisely for me and my benefit, I've been humbled. Today, I welcome the opportunity to improve someone else’s day over catering to my own as priority.

Amidst all of the negative perceptions of Islam, with the bad deeds outweighing the good in headlines, I can’t dismiss or neglect the beauty within a religion that brings warm dinners (in whatever form) and full smiles to my doorstep, a religion whose roots shaped a group of people who earned an immense level of my trust. Due to their generosity, I’ll continue to defend that Islam holds admirable qualities, من عيوني.

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