By Eboo Patel
Islamophobia has reared its ugly head again. As author and journalist Linda K. Wertheimer noted in her previous post, education about world religions couldn’t be more important in today’s climate. Education about other religions comes not only from the classroom, but also from the life stories of others. In his book Acts of Faith, interfaith leader Eboo Patel writes about the time he spent with his devout Muslim grandmother in India. In this excerpt, he recounts the invaluable lesson his grandmother gave him in what his faith stands for.
In The Jew in the Lotus, Rodger Kamenetz writes that many young people view religion as an old man saying no. Growing up, my “old man” was a woman—my grandmother, with whom I was now staying in Bombay. She would come to the States every few years and live with my family, occupying the living room from midmorning to early evening watching Hindi films. I avoided her as much as possible. “Are you saying your Du’a?” she would ask if she caught me before I managed to reach the back staircase. If she woke up earlier than usual and saw me at the breakfast table before I left for school, she would say, “Are you giving your dasond?” referring to the tithe that Ismailis give. She was disappointed that I had no close Ismaili friends when I was a teenager. “You will marry an Ismaili, right?” my grandmother would ask, catching my arm, as I was sneaking out. I am embarrassed to say it now, but I dreaded her visits and did my best to avoid her.
My view of her changed dramatically on this trip to India. She spent most of her days sitting on a simple sofa bed in the living room, clad in white, tasbih in hand, beads flowing through her fingers, whispering the name of God—“Allah, Allah, Allah”—over and over. She would cry during prayer, the name of the Prophet causing an overflow of love from deep in her heart. I told her all about the Dalai Lama, my voice filled with admiration. I am sure she wished that I spoke as excitedly about the Aga Khan, but she never said as much. Instead, she asked me to read stories about His Holiness to her and observed, “All great religious leaders are alike.”
Earlier in her life, it seemed as though my grandmother could speak to me about nothing but Islam, but now she rarely brought it up at all. Yet, through her interest in Buddhism, her constant Zikr (the Muslim term for remembrance of God through prayer), and her love for Kevin, I was getting a sense of what it meant to be a Muslim.
The most important lesson came in the most unexpected way. I woke up one morning to find a new woman in the apartment. She looked a little scared and disheveled, and she was wearing a torn white nightgown several sizes too big for her, probably one of my grandmother’s older outfits. She didn’t appear to be a new servant or a family friend.
“Who is she?” I asked my grandmother.
“I don’t know her real name. The leader of the prayer house brought her here. She is getting abused at home by her father and uncle. We will take care of her until we can find somewhere safe to send her. We will call her Anisa.”
I turned to look at Anisa, who was sitting on the floor with a plate of dal and rice in front of her. She returned my gaze, a little more confident than before. She looked as if she was easing into her new surroundings.
I turned back to my grandmother and said, “Mama, what if these crazy men, this father and uncle, come looking for her? Do you think it’s safe to keep this woman here? I mean, Kevin and I are here now, but when we’re gone, who will protect you and the servants if they come around?”
My grandmother looked at me a bit suspiciously, as if to say that she had little hope for protection from us. “We will check the door before we answer it. And God is with us,” she said.
I couldn’t restrain myself. “Mama, this is crazy. You can’t just take strange women into your home and keep them here for weeks or months. This isn’t the Underground Railroad, you know. You’re old now. This is dangerous.”
“Crazy, huh?” she responded. “How old are you?”
“I have been doing this for forty-five years. That’s more than twice as long as you’ve been on earth. This may be the fiftieth, sixtieth, hundredth person who has come here and been safe.” She got up and walked slowly over to the cabinet and took down a box. “Come here,” she told me. She lifted the lid, and I looked inside and saw a mess of Polaroids. “I took pictures of them.” She reached into the box and picked up a picture. “This one was so pretty. Her father was an alcoholic. Her mother died in a car accident. She was afraid that he would sell her into prostitution for money to drink. Some friends told her about me—Ashraf Ma-ji, they would call me—and she saved up some money, a rupee here and there from small sewing jobs, until she had enough for the train from Ahmedabad. It was the middle of the monsoon season. She was dripping wet when she came to the door. Barely seventeen. So scared, so beautiful. She didn’t talk for two weeks. But slowly, slowly she came around. We sent her to school to improve her sewing, and we found her a good husband. She lives in Hyderabad now. She has had two children and started a very successful sewing business.”
My grandmother started going through the other Polaroids. There was a poor woman with three young sons from the south of India who had heard about my grandmother and come for help. A woman from Calcutta who could neither hear nor speak and whose parents had abandoned her. Several girls whose fathers were sexually and physically abusive. My grandmother helped them find jobs or husbands, sent them back to school, or helped them locate family members in other parts of India. She had made little notes on the back of each Polaroid: name, birthday, current address. The more stories she told about the people she had saved, the more I realized how little I knew about my grandmother.
“Why do you do this?” I finally blurted out.
She looked a little shocked that I would ask, as if to say that the answer was self-evident. But just in case it wasn’t clear to me, she said simply, “I am a Muslim. This is what Muslims do.”
About the Author
Eboo Patel is the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core and the author of Acts of Faith and Sacred Ground. He was a member of President Obama's inaugural faith council, is a regular contributor to the Washington Post, Huffington Post, CNN, and public radio, and speaks frequently about interfaith cooperation on college campuses. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two boys. Follow him on Twitter at @.