Eid Mubarak: Stories from West Asia to warm your heart

On a lighter note, another story from the 13th century concerns Mulla Nasruddin, a Turkish Sufi known for his sarcasm.
Image used for representative purposes only.
Image used for representative purposes only.

With Eid greetings in advance to all, I would like to retell some stories from Islamic heritage. ‘Tahira’ means pure and good in Arabic and back in the sixth century, even the constantly warring Arabs of that era could tell a lady. That’s what they called a certain single woman, Makkah-born and based, who traded all over the Arabian Peninsula and maintained her own establishment, employing a number of men. Tahira, at 40, was a widow and a person of repute, respected for her wealth and dignity by everyone around. But she needed a bright, honest man to manage her caravans and trade on her behalf in faraway places.

Someone told her about an orphan of 25, who was known to be exceptionally straightforward. Tahira thought she would like to employ him and negotiated through his uncle, Abu Talib, to hire him.

The young man was sent to Damascus in charge of one of Tahira’s caravans, loaded with all sorts of profitable goods. Tahira was not an astute businesswoman for nothing. She appointed her slave, Muaser, to keep watch over her new manager and give her a full account of every detail of his conduct.

The good report she had of him made her think well of her new employee. Tahira sent him a proposal of marriage through his uncle. He agreed and their wedding took place in 595 CE, with Tahira providing her own dower.

But some women in Makkah found fault with the match. “How could a wealthy person like her marry that penniless man raised on the charity of the Banu-Hashem tribe?” they exclaimed.

Tahira and her husband were too happy to care, despite the 15-year age gap. Their marriage lasted a full 25 years until her death at the age of 65. They had two sons and four daughters. Both sons, Qasim and Abdullah, took ill and died very young. A daughter, Ruqaiyya, went and settled far away with her husband in Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Besides these sorrows, Tahira also had to bear poverty, hardship and great hostility against her husband when he began his life’s work. Through all this, she was staunchness personified.

Her husband, they say, never looked elsewhere through all the years of their marriage. Ever after her passing, he spoke of her in glowing terms, with respect, love and gratitude for her support.

So, the first Muslim was a loyal woman: Tahira, whose real name was Khadija, whose husband was the Prophet Muhammad. Islamic tradition states that she believed in him when nobody did.

Another story comes from Persian tradition, from the Masnavi, a literary work by a thirteenth century theologian and poet, Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi. His verses, ‘recreated’ through English translations by American writer Coleman Barks, were all the rage over twenty years ago. I was disappointed later to discover that Rumi reportedly called Indians ‘black and ugly infidels’ who should be ruled by the Turks. Contrarily, this story is charming.

There was this unworldly shepherd whose heart overflowed with love for the Creator. All day long, as he tended his flock, he would talk aloud to God: “Where are you, my Beloved? How I long to serve you.”

One day, Hazrat Moosa (the prophet Moses) passed by the meadow where the shepherd’s flock was grazing and heard him call aloud: “God, where are you, that I might stitch your clothes, mend your socks, polish your shoes, comb your hair and bring you a cup of milk?”

Hazrat Moosa was horrified at what he considered blasphemy of the formless Almighty. “How dare you speak to God like that?” He raged. “Stuff cotton in your worthless mouth if this is how you blaspheme; at least, others will be spared the sin of listening to your polluting words. Is God a mere human, that he needs to drink milk and have his hair combed and his shoes polished? You insult the Almighty by such talk, you enemy of religion. Let us pray that the Creator will not punish the whole human race because of you.”

The poor shepherd was shattered by this rant. What had he said that was so wrong? Sobbing heartbrokenly, he apologised to the great prophet and led his flock away, feeling wretched and bereft.

Proud that he had caught and taught an erring person, Hazrat Moosa marched grandly away when the Lord’s annoyed voice arrested him. “Why did you interfere with me and mine, Moosa?” asked the Almighty from up above. “Who authorised you to separate the lover from the Beloved? Did I make you my prophet to bring humanity to me or to drive it away?”

Stunned, Hazrat Moosa fell to his knees.

“I did not create this world for my profit, Moosa,” said the Lord sternly. “My creation is for the benefit of my creatures. I have no need of praise and worship; it is the worshipper who benefits, not I. Nor do I care about what form the worship takes. Try to understand me, Moosa. It is the sincerity of the heart alone that interests me. Those bound by outward correctness are unlike those bound by their love for me. Those who love me know no religion but their Beloved.”

Humbled and repentant, Hazrat Moosa went back to look for the shepherd. After much searching, he finally found him in tatters, meditating by a spring. He eagerly related what had passed but the shepherd had no more to say. With a compassionate smile, he simply moved away.

On a lighter note, another story from the 13th century concerns Mulla Nasruddin, a Turkish Sufi known for his sarcasm.

Nasruddin was taking a shortcut home through the cemetery and saw a burial going on. As he walked past the mourners, he heard one of them say: “Alas, today we have buried an honest man and a politician.”

“How strange,” said the Mulla. “They have buried two people in one grave.”

There are other such stories to explore from the tradition beyond Aladdin and Sindbad.

Renuka Narayanan

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The New Indian Express