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Monday, December 06, 2004

The Dinner

By Tavis Adibudeen

The brisk morning air felt refreshing over Hassan's forehead as he arose for the dawn prayer. As he finished the final tasleem of prayer and sat on his prayer rug, he thought about the wonders of Allah's Mercy and how Allah had gifted him with Islam while he was still only 20 years old. He found it hard to believe that only two years ago, he was a typical college guy who had little regard for family, neighbors, or community.

He was once so self-centered, and now he dreamed of the Noble Prophet's character in dealing with people. Reading about the manners and morals of the Prophet is what convinced him to accept Islam.

Although Hassan was new to Islam and new to his community, he was busy planning all kinds of activities for his MSA (Muslim Student Association). He had already participated in dawah (propagation) events at the university that went very well. In the long breaks between studying and classes, Hassan made it his duty to study Islam as often as possible and to be active in the small college community.

Islamic Awareness Week was a huge success, and people were already talking in anticipation for what Hassan would pull out of his bag next.

Later on that afternoon, Hassan was walking along the cobblestone sidewalks of his university from his comparative literature class. The class was two hours long and getting back out into the crisp autumn air felt relieving. He was never one who could sit and listen to lectures for very long, but somehow he still managed to do fairly well in school.

"Hey Hassan! Hassan!" a voice said from the distance amid the congestion of the mid-afternoon student traffic.

Hassan turned to see his friend Uthman approaching with his always clumsy gait.

"Assalaamu 'alaikum akhi," said Uthman as he greeting Hassan.

"Wa 'alaikum assalaam bro," Hassan replied as he embraced his good friend.

They began walking together, and Uthman reminded Hassan that he was still anxiously awaiting Hassan's next idea for the MSA, as was everyone else.

"So, bro, what's it gonna be?" Uthman said clasping his hands together like a mad scientist about to devise a scheme to take over the world, "The sky is the limit, you know."

Hassan grinned, "Yeah, I know, but I want this one to be something special…something for the Muslims."

They continued to walk, and Uthman bounced ideas off of Hassan like he was on a game show and had to name as many different activities as he could in 30 seconds. What would it be? Hassan half listened to Uthman while the other half of his brain was deep in creative thought. A volleyball game? A guest speaker? A public showing of The Message?

Hassan's thought was interrupted as he noticed that his chatterbox friend has stopped talking. Uthman had turned and was looking at a bulletin board just outside of the student union. The flyer was all black with red letters and read, "The Devil's Deception" in bold print.

Uthman read out loud, "Join us for a lecture by the visiting Shaykh, Abdullah bin Muhammad Abdul-Qaabid, who will inform us about the danger of associating with deviant sects and tell us how to keep them from taking over our masjid." Uthman paused and then commented, "Wow, you'd think the Israeli army was coming into the masjid or something."

Hassan could feel the blood racing in his veins. He hated the idea that Muslims were so casual in attacking other Muslims. He had heard about an incident of a few Shi'a brothers praying in the masjid and how much disturbance it had caused with the local Salafi group. Hassan could not stand disunity. He had accepted Islam because of the Prophet's character and his ability to unite people who differed from each other, without causing emotional scars.

'Uthman said with a frown, "You know, sometimes I think that if people would just sit down and talk we could avoid a lot of this nonsense."

Hassan then knew what he had to do.

The next day Hassan began planning a Unity Dinner that was to be sponsored by the MSA. He did not hold an executive position on the MSA board, so he would have to clear it with the people in charge. Hassan observed that most of the people on the executive board always talked for hours about establishing an Islamic state and liberating the Muslim lands as if it was something imminent. He figured that such people surely wouldn't oppose a dinner about unity, and they did not.

It was only a formality getting the president and other members to agree to hold the dinner, but then they injected a clause. The president, Ahmad, who was a good friend of Uthman approached Hassan and stated his demands.

"Muslim unity is a good thing, akhi, and it is definitely needed. But I want you to realize that we cannot do it without a khilafah (Islamic State). All I'm asking for is 15 minutes. Let us get up and speak for 15 minutes only. We'll just put out the idea and the rest of it can just be casual chatting. OK?"

While Hassan did not like the idea of one particular group monopolizing the event, he recognized that the president was obviously not giving him a choice in the matter. Underneath his kind words, he was saying, "Let us speak at this dinner, or you can forget calling it an MSA event." Hassan knew he needed the MSA funding, so he agreed.

Weeks of planning ensued. Hassan had to handle most of this planning alone. Although the executive board seemed very interested in presenting their views at the event, they seemed to show little interest in helping to make it happen. Other than 'Uthman, no other men even helped with the planning. The female population of Muslims, however, helped Hassan in a big way.

The sisters called their own meeting and decided to handle all of the food and decorations. Hassan did not ask them to do this, and they did not ask for any compensation. They did not want to speak at the event, and they did not expect to be given any kind of special treatment. This made Hassan feel good about the status of women in Islam.

Before accepting Islam he had heard all of the usual arguments against it, one of which was the treatment of women. Much to his surprise, however, Muslim women seemed much more involved in community affairs and in speaking out about Islam than most of the men. Apparently, Hassan thought, covering themselves in hijab automatically makes them spokespeople for Islam, and they have to deal with it even if they don't want to. As a result, he thought, they tend to take on much more active roles than the men who can sometimes blend into the rest of society.

After a few weeks of planning, the day of the first annual Muslim Unity Dinner had arrived. Right after 'Asr prayer, the sisters were already hard at work setting up the decorations in the special events room of the student union. Hassan had only been able to reserve the usually busy room because one of the sisters had an uncle who worked at the university and was able to pull some strings.

A sister saw Hassan approaching the room and asked him to come in and take a look.

"Amazing, SubhanAllah!" Hassan said.

"Thank you brother, may Allah accept our efforts," said the sister whose name Hassan had forgotten.

Although he didn't mention it to the sister, his amazement was not over their decorations at all. When he looked into the room, Hassan saw sisters of all nationalities, Sudanese, Somali, Saudi, Jordanian, Lebanese, Iranian, South African, Malaysian, British, Australian, Mexican, American, and many more. He saw sisters who were Sunni, sisters who were Shi'a, sisters who belong to every Sufi order known to man, sisters who belong to political organizations, sisters who belonged to social organizations, and sisters who normally were housewives. Despite their differences, they all worked together. This gave Hassan a sense of hope and relieved some of his anxiety.

As the event was beginning, Hassan could not help but walk around with a perpetual smile. Perhaps his dream was about to be fulfilled.

Finally, the time for the dinner to begin had arrived. Everyone had just finished praying Maghrib, the sunset prayer, so the MSA execs were able to convince a few more people to come to the dinner at the last minute. They came with a mob from the masjid as if they were about to hold a rally. Hassan was sure people around campus were undoubtedly stunned by the crowd of Muslims marching from the mosque to the student union. He kind of chuckled to himself to wonder what they might think of such a large mob of "Moslems."

After the crowd settled in, sisters on the right side, brothers on the left, 'Uthman approached Hassan who was still standing outside.

"So, this is it, huh? Are you gonna give a speech, bruh?" 'Uthman said cheesing from ear to ear.

Hassan shook his head, "Nope. My work here is done. Now we just sit back and pray for a miracle."

The two walked in and sat down inconspicuously at the back table. Hassan knew that the MSA would take credit for the event, so he did not even try to assert himself as the coordinator of the whole thing, which he really was. Instead, he sat in the back content that his reward would be with Allah on the Day of Judgment.

The president of the MSA approached the podium. Interestingly, the executive board had seated themselves in a panel fashion facing the crowd as if there was going to be a panel discussion. The sisters had not arranged the tables as such, but the MSA came in and moved them at the last minute.

The president began, "All praise is due to Allah and may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon the last Prophet, Muhammed, the Messenger of Allah, and upon his family, his companions, and his righteous followers. Dear respected brothers and sisters. Allah says in the Qur'an "But no, by your Lord, they do not believe, until they make you judge in all disputes between them, and find in their souls no resistance against your decisions, but accept them with the fullest conviction." (4:65)

Brothers and sisters, unity in Islam is commanded to us by Allah. He has made it obligatory upon us to be a united Ummah, and we can NEVER be a united Ummah until we appoint a khalifah and establish the Islamic State!" Ahmad's voice echoed even out into the hallway so that passers by had stopped to see who was the man pounding his fist on the podium.

After about 25 minutes of lecturing about the Islamic State, Ahmad took a sip of water from a glass that had been handed to him by the vice president. The MSA had promised 15 minutes, Hassan thought. The people were still waiting for food to be served, and this brother wants to keep going?

Just then, a brother from the Salafi table stood up. The Muslims had neatly seated themselves according to their groups. He shook his head in disgust and began to leave quietly. The other brothers from his table soon followed him as they made their way to the door. Hassan felt discouraged, but he was also relieved that they were leaving without disturbance. But then, just as they were about to head out of the door, it happened.

The speaker, Ahmad, took notice of their impending exit as he sat down his glass of ice water and wiped his forehead that had become moistened with perspiration during his fiery speech.

"Leaving so soon, brothers?" he said in a sarcastic tone. "Why don't you stay? You might actually learn something. That is unless; you're just all pacifists who don't care about the Muslim Ummah!"

One of the Salafi brothers turned around, his face reddened with anger, and marched up to the podium and asked the speaker to hand him the microphone. He began to talk, "Bismillah…"

"Brothers, wait," said the secretary of the MSA, Ali, who had been quiet up until this point. "We can talk after dinner. We've already wasted enough of these people's time. Let's eat."

The brothers agreed, and Hassan breathed a sigh of relief. The Salafis had returned to their table. Nothing could have prepared Hassan for what would happen next.

The dinner was served, and it was immediately made evident to Hassan that he had made the right choice in allowing the sisters to handle the food preparation. It consisted of delicious halal meat, vegetables, bread, juice, tea, and anything else the culinary mind could imagine.

The brothers continued mingling amongst their own groups until one brother from the Sufi table stood and walked over to the Khilafah table. He extended his hand to them and began to speak loudly enough so that the whole room, including the sisters, could hear him. The crowd could not help but grow silent in anticipation.

The Sufi brother, Musa, who had probably only come over to talk casually was now on the spot. He paused and then began to speak, "Allah has commanded us to unite, and it is commendable that the MSA has taken the initiative to move us a step closer to unity."

After a few chants of "Takbir" and "Allahu Akbar", a Salafi brother said to his friend, "You know, they can't really expect us to unite with people like this, so far from Islam. They are Ahl-Bid'a, people of innovation. I just heard about them at the Devil's Deception lecture. They're trying to take over the masjid."

Suddenly a loud voice called out from the other direction, apparently after overhearing this conversation.

"You know what, that's it!" A young man stood from the converts table just in front of Hassan's table. He grabbed a handful of hummus and hurled it across the room right at the Salafi brother.

The Salafi brother was still going on about the Devil's Deception lecture when the hummus smacked him in the face knocking him back and nearly causing him to fall out of the chair. The room fell silent. At first, the stunned brother gave no reaction. He calmly wiped the hummus off of his face onto his napkin and tried to collect himself. Hassan thought the incident was over, but just as he began to resume working on his chicken breast, he noticed one flying through the air towards the convert's table.

Instead, however, it landed on a Shi'a. The Shi'a brother, from Bahrain, stood up and hurled it back at the Salafi table. A Salafi picked up some hummus and was about to launch it when some salad hit him from behind. It came from the Sufi table. He turned and tossed his hummus in a high arching throw back at the Sufis. It was heading right for the local Sufi Shaykh. He was young, but he was still pretty respected in the community. All of the Sufis took a deep breath, but the Shaykh ducked.

As the saying goes, however, things that go up must come down, and the hummus landed on a brother from Tabligh-e-Jamaat, a group which had, until then, been silent. All of them promptly stood up at once and started throwing food in every direction as if they had some kind of war strategy planned out just in case. The first barrage hit most of the khilafah brothers. What they didn't see was a group of about five Shi'as who had flanked around the other side of their table with a dish full of yogurt. They left the Tablighi brothers in a wet mess.

The Ikhwan Al-Muslimun were busy attacking various converts with flatbread as they advanced toward the podium, apparently wanting to speak. The converts, however, were not to be outdone and responded with secret stashes of spinach and tomatoes, which were much more damaging.

Casualties were high that day. Hassan had retreated to a corner trying to think what he should do. His own friend, 'Uthman, had abandoned him and was leading a party of Sufis toward the Salafi table to "finish them once and for all."

Food was flying left, right, up, down, and in ways that most could not imagine was possible unless they were there to witness it. Unfortunately, there were witnesses, and the crowd of non-Muslims that was watching from outside was still watching as the battle of consumables raged on.

Just as the Shi'as were preparing what would be a difficult campaign against the khilafah exec members, a young teenager from the back stood up and yelled at the top of his lungs, "Kuffar!!!!"

To this day, no one is sure what group he belonged to or even who he was, but they will never forget his throw. Being a short youngster, he perch himself atop one of the back tables with a tray full of deserts. He unleashed a massive air attack against the Shi'as with amazing precision and accuracy, until he made one throw that will live in infamy. One of the Shi'a brothers had enough and was heading towards the exit on the far side of the room. The young man leading the air attack, rather than let him escape, sent a baklava flying all the way across the room. His once precision accuracy must have momentarily left him, and the baklava went flying over the divider where the women were sitting.

A brother from the MSA ran toward the divider in an attempt to intercept the stray baklava. Instead he ran into the divider and sent it to the ground. The whole crowd grew silent as the normally harmless treat made its descent. There was Rafeeqah, a young convert to Islam who was very quiet and reserved. As fate would have it, she was the baklava's target. It struck her directly in the forehead and tumbled down her dress leaving it covered in sticky honey.

The room was silent. The food was grounded, and everyone stood staring at Rafeeqah. She was still in apparent shock from what had happened. It nevertheless could have easily been an accident, so she looked up to see who had launched the attack. Then, she saw grown men covered in hummus, salad, and sauces. She saw tables overturned to create makeshift bunkers, a salad tray held up as a shield, a cookie sheet on the side of a book at an angle so that cookies could be catapulted off of it, men on top of chairs, under tables, and on tables, chicken breasts all over the floor, and a podium drenched in garlic sauce. A tear rolled down her cheek, and then another. She began to cry uncontrollably as all the combatants just watched.

Her friends handed her napkins and tried to console her as they gave glances at the men like a mother might give to a mischievous child. The men were frozen, just as the child might be when he'd been caught.

Hassan pulled out a folded paper from his pocket and walked to the podium. No one noticed him until he touched the microphone and caused a screeching feedback to travel through the speakers.

He began, "His name was Muhammad ibn Abdullah. People of Arabia knew him as As-Sadiq (the Truthful) and Al-Amin (the Trustworthy). When people saw him, he smiled at them. He greeted everyone with equal respect. He never remained in the company of people so long as to overstay his welcome and he never turned away someone in need. When he spoke people listened, but when he did not speak his beautiful manners and character spoke just as loudly. His love for fellow human beings was such that when his enemies spoke of him honestly, they could not find negative words to describe him. He loved the children and made time to play with his own. He treated women with respect and valued their opinions. Despite being the leader of the Muslims who rose to prestige in the world, when visitors from other lands came to visit him, they could not distinguish him from his followers by his manners and way of dressing. He sat amongst them and ate from the same food as they did. And he never wasted food. He sometimes cried to himself saying, "My Ummah, My Ummah." He worried about future generations, including you, although he would never see you face to face. He lifted up the weak when they had fallen and fought against the oppressors when they sought to dominate. He was and is a Mercy to humanity. So peace be upon him the day he was born, the day that he died, and the day that he shall be raised up."

The crowd of Muslims was speechless. The Sufi Shaykh began picking pieces of salad out of his turban when a Salafi brother came over and reached for his head. The other Sufis braced themselves, but the Salafi brother began pulling out lettuce and tomato pieces from the Shaykh's turban and laying them on the table. Gradually, other brothers began to mingle with people from other tables, and soon everyone was laughing and talking about the "fight" that had occurred. Converts were sitting with Ikhwanis, Tablighis with Shi'as, Sufis with Salafis, and no one argued or even concerned themselves with labels. At least for that night, those young men forgot about their differences and accepted each other as brothers. The boy who had flung the baklava began to pick up food from the ground. Others gradually began helping him clean up the mess that they had made. Surprisingly, the non-Muslims, who had until then only been spectators, joined in and helped in the clean-up.

Long after the sisters had left and many of the brothers had begun to leave, mixed groups of Muslims were still chatting and having a good time.

For weeks after the event, people approached Hassan and commended him on the speech that he gave at the dinner. He felt like the entire tone of the Muslims on campus had changed. But he was no longer naïve of the situation of the Muslim community. Eventually, people migrated back to their own groups and re-established their barriers. Hassan could only hope that the dinner had left a lasting impression on them. Since that time he made a habit of praying to Allah just for that.

One day 'Uthman approached him and asked him his thoughts on the dinner.

Hassan paused and then responded, "You know, 'Uthman, that night, the war was fought with hummus and baklava, but 10 years from now, it could be automatic weapons and grenades. If that day ever arrives, we won't be able to laugh it off or clean up the mess. The effects will be lasting, and the casualties will be permanent. Allah help us all."

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