The Unsung Heroes by Tariq Mehanna

‘Cuff up’ is how I was rudely interrupted one morning, several winters ago.

Handcuffed through the slot in my door, I was pulled out, told I was being investigated for some miscellaneous matter, then taken to a segregation cell. Bereft of personal belongings, what I had in that cell was a novel from the library department, which I read over the course of the week I spent there.

The title of the book isn’t important, but one incident in it struck me. The hero of the story had arrived at a motel in one of the world’s many poverty-stricken cities. On his way out of his room each morning, he’d pass a caravan of men carrying large containers of water on their backs up several flights of stairs. One day, it finally dawned on him what those men were doing. He’d never stopped to think that all of the water he drank, cooked, and bathed with was the result of these men silently climbing those stairs each morning to replenish the water tank all the way on the rooftop of the motel.

The plain concrete walls of this cell can likewise fool you into forgetting that they conceal the maze of electrical wiring, plumbing, air ducts, etc. that make it inhabitable. This theme is also evident when we observe other types of cells: Billions of your skin cells die each day, flake off, and are replaced via the process of cell division. Beneath the skin, your skeleton completely replaces itself every seven years via a process known as bone turnover. Beneath the skull, your brain contains glial cells which conduct electrical impulses along the neurons by day (this is how you register a smell, an emotion, a memory, and so forth), and work as you sleep to remove the 85,000 of those neurons that died in your brain during that day.

These cycles maintain your body around the clock, and they do so inconspicuously.

Once neurons die in your brain, they’re generally never replaced. However, scientists have found that one region of the brain where they are replaced is one responsible for learning & memory. It’s through this region that you’re elevated above all other creatures, human or otherwise: {“Allah elevates by ranks those of you who believed and those who were given knowledge.”} (58:11) ash-Shawkani wrote that “in other words, He elevates those of you who were given knowledge to high ranks of honor in this life and reward in the next. And the verse means that He elevates those who believed by ranks over those who didn’t believe, and elevates those who were given knowledge by ranks over the rest of the believers. So anyone who combines Iman with knowledge will be elevated by Allah by ranks because of his Iman, and then further elevated by Him by ranks because of his knowledge.”

And Ibn Hazm wrote that “there is consensus on the obligation of showing respect to the following: the people of the Qur’an & Islam, the Prophet (sall Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), as well as the Khalifah (hafidhahullah), the virtuous person, and the scholar.”

Other scholars noted that nowhere did Allah command His Messenger (sall Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) to ask for more of anything except in this single verse of the Qur’an: {“And say: “My Lord, increase my knowledge.””} (20:114)

Ibn Hajar clarified that “what is meant by knowledge is Shar’i knowledge, which leads one who is responsible for his actions to know his religion: how to worship, how to deal with others, how to know Allah and His qualities, what rights He has upon you that must be fulfilled, and that He is exalted above having any shortcoming or deficiency. All of this knowledge hinges on the fields of Tafsir, Fiqh, and Hadith.”

Ibn al-Jawzi added to this: “Be keen to analyze the lives of the people of the past, and to study their books. If you study their books frequently enough, it will be like seeing them. It was said:

I missed the chance to see the lands with my eyes * So perhaps I’ll see the lands with my ears…

And I’ll describe my own situation. I can’t get enough of the study of books. When I discover a book I haven’t previously seen, it’s as if I’ve discovered a treasure. If you were to say that I’ve read twenty thousand books, the actual number would be higher. To this day, I seek out books. By looking in them, I’m able to observe the demeanor of the people of the past, their level of determination, their strong memories, their customs & habits, and unique pieces of information that remain hidden from one who doesn’t read.”

Ibn al-Jawzi developed such determination in part due to his view on the value of time, as he wrote elsewhere: “Know that time is too valuable to waste even an instant of it. How many hours does a person waste in which he misses out on plenty of reward? These days are like arable soil, in which we’re being told to plant one seed to get a thousand crops. In such a case, would a smart person stop planting seeds? In order to take advantage of your time, get in the habit of solitude whenever possible. Limit socialization to the ‘Salam’ or essential matters. Reduce the amount of food you eat, because excess eating causes excess sleep, which causes a wasted night. Whoever looks to the lives of the Salaf and believes that he will be recompensed for his actions one day will see what I’m talking about.”

Unlike the cells in your body, time isn’t replaced for you. It can only run out, as Mujahid said: “Each day says to you: “I’ve arrived upon you today, and I will never come back again. So be careful as to what you do in me.”” And al-Hasan al-Basri would often tell people that “each day is your guest, and each guest must depart.”

And as time departs, it doesn’t go alone. It grabs with it the Iman & knowledge by which Allah elevates people. When he described the signs of the end of time, the Prophet included that “the righteous people will die, one after the other, until only useless people will remain,” that Allah will “remove knowledge by removing the scholars, to the point that when no scholar remains, the people will follow the ignorant,” and that “fitan will pile up like pieces of dark night, in which a man will wake up as a believer and go to sleep as a kafir, or will go to sleep as a believer and wake up as a kafir. He will sell his religion for a worldly gain.” an-Nawawi wrote that “it’s due to the severity of such fitan that a man will flip like this in a single day.” This becomes particularly evident in times such as ours in which we’re afraid, being pressured to amputate the teachings of the Din, and so forth.

Even if each & every one of us were to flip, the Angels could not: {“And if they become arrogant, then those with your Lord praise Him night and day without tiring.”} (41:38) On the night of the Mi’raj, as they were both standing before al-Bayt al-Ma’mur, Jibril explained to the Prophet that “this is al-Bayt al-Ma’mur. Each day, seventy thousand Angels enter it. When they leave, they never return,” and this is to make way for the new batch of seventy thousand who take over the next day, thereby maintaining a continuous succession.

Allah doesn’t need the Angels, and He doesn’t need us. With that, al-Imam Ahmad said that “Allah has abdal (righteous people constantly succeeding one another) on Earth.” Although the specific term ‘abdal’ isn’t used in an authentic hadith, the meaning is conveyed in others (e.g., those describing at-Ta’ifah al-Mansurah, the hadith about the revivers of the Din who appear at the head of each century, etc.). The general concept of Allah replacing one group for another also appears throughout the Qur’an, such as here: {“O you who have believed! If any of you turns away from his religion, then Allah will bring people whom He loves and love Him…”} (5:54) here: {“And if these people disbelieve, then I’ve entrusted it to a people who don’t disbelieve in it,”} (6:89) and here: {“And if you turn away, He’ll replace you with people other than you, and they won’t be like you.”} (47:38)

In other words, anyone who flakes off is replaced in some way by the presence of a continuous caravan of men & women through whom everyone else is maintained. Ibn Rajab wrote that “the lone person who obeys Allah in the midst of people who don’t and are heedless of Him can be the reason that a calamity is repelled from all of them. It’s as if he’s protecting and defending them… One of the Salaf said that “one who remembers Allah amidst the heedless is like one providing cover for a defeated army during its retreat from the battlefield. Were it not for those who remember Allah while everyone else forgets Him, everyone would’ve been destroyed.”” And this is how some scholars viewed the verse {“And Allah wouldn’t punish them while you were amongst them…”} (8:33)

So every story has a hero. Some of our heroes are known, but many aren’t. They are inconspicuous. They are the poor, the weak, and the helpless who are capable of offering nothing beyond their love for Allah and a heartfelt du’a’ in the middle of the night. It’s their likes to whom the Prophet was referring when he said that “Allah aids this ummah through its weak: through their du’a’, their salah, and their sincerity.” Like the cells silently replenishing your body as you read this, these are the unsung heroes of our story.

Perhaps, without realizing it, you know one of them.

Perhaps you are one of them.

Written by: Tariq Mehanna
Friday, the 1st of Jumada al-Ula 1436 (20th of February 2015)
Marion CMU 

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