Sunday, October 30, 2005

Street Sainthood

Australians tend to regard all asylum-seeking as Muslim. Perhaps it is because many asylum seekers are from Muslim countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps because many women seeking asylum wear head scarves.

But asylum seeking is part of a long Muslim tradition that began with the Prophet Muhammad. The Islamic calendar commences from the time our Prophet and his companions sought asylum with the people of Yathrib, a town north of the Prophet’s hometown of Makkah.

Among these were many poor and destitute men often too weak or ill to work, who lived on a raised platform in the mosque of the Prophet. They were known as the “As’hab as-Suffah” or “People of the Platform”. They were the homeless, the street people of their day.

A friend who once told me about her brother who lived on the streets. Some months back, I met him for the first time on an inner-city street. It was an unusual and accidental encounter.

I had just parked my car near the intersection of Elizabeth and Cleveland Streets in Strawberry Hills. It was almost midday, and I was meeting a colleague for lunch at our favourite Lebanese restaurant.

He was standing near a shopping trolley containing bottles of water and different kids of soaps. He was babbling away in conversation with people I couldn’t see. He then approached me, holding a wet window cleaner.

“Can I clean your windscreen, Sir?”

Before I could say no, he was already onto the second window. Within 5 minutes, the windows of my humble Daihatsu hatchback were sparkling.

I asked him his name. “My name’s As, short for Aslam”.

I stayed with Aslam for a while. We looked an unusual pair, me in my business suit and Aslam in his t-shirt, trackies and sneakers with no socks. He told me he’d been wiping windscreens for a couple of years. He answered my questions and those of others. It seemed like he was talking to people I couldn’t see.

Aslam told me he stayed at Matthew Talbot Hostel sometimes. MTH is a hostel run by the Catholic Church which serviced hundreds of homeless men.

Of course, the Hostel cannot accommodate all of the many thousands of homeless people, most of whom suffer from untreated psychiatric illnesses and have been turned away by their families. These men can often be found sleeping on park benches or outside churches.

Yet even the most unwell of people have dignity and pride. I felt inspired watching Aslam approach people confidently and sell his services. He didn’t insist on drivers offering him tips.

“I just wanna do something useful”, Aslam told me.

Later, my colleague finally arrived for lunch. I told him about Aslam, and we could see him from the front window of the restaurant cleaning away. My colleague was of Lebanese background, and suggested that perhaps Aslam had some kind of Arab or Muslim background.

He also told me the words “Aslam” and “Muslim” both come from the same Arabic root-word which means to surrender and find peace. Standing with Aslam watching him content with a few dollars and his dignity intact made me feel a strange peace.

In most religious and legal traditions, the mentally ill are regarded as without blame. In Islamic traditions, the mentally ill are not subject to the law whilst affected by their illness. A person who lives and dies whilst in a state of mental illness is a veritable saint.

Islamic tradition ascribes the highest spiritual states to the homeless. The spiritual tradition of Islam, known as Sufism, is named after the People of the “Suffah”, referring to a platform in the Prophet’s Mosque where the homeless were accommodated.

The Prophet Muhammad is reported as spending much of his time with a women suffering from schizophrenia. She would take him by the hand to an old ruined house she squatted in. He would sit and listen to her babbling. He would ask her to pray for him.

A Prophet asking a schizophrenic to pray for him? Why? Because he knew that her prayers would always be answered. Because this woman was a veritable saint.

Christ spend much of his time with the socially stigmatised – sex workers, tax collectors, the poor and homeless. He gave them his time and his love. He realised that true greatness arises from service to those less fortunate.

“Beware the prayer of someone you oppress, for their prayers reach God without any barrier.” People damned by society are the truly oppressed. When they pray against you, watch out. But when they wish you well, expect to find peace and joy.

I found that after spending just 15 minutes watching Aslam. I gave him $20, a small price to pay for peace of mind. And if he ever reads this, I hope St Aslam prays for my soul.


© Irfan Yusuf 2005

0 comment(s):

Post a Comment

<< Home