Muslim Musings on Easter
This Easter, I discovered the real meaning of divine mercy. I also discovered that the best way to feel God’s mercy is to serve the saints with humility. And I am not alone in this discovery.
The exact theological formula of Easter isn’t what matters. Rather, for the Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and people of other faiths and no faith in particular, Easter is a time to serve society’s true saints.
Coming from a Muslim background, my Easter was a time to wash feet. On the Thursday before Easter, I had the good fortune to wash the feet of 2 Buddhist nuns and a Uniting Church Minister named Bill.
In a room crowded with saints lining up for their lunch, the four of us took turns in placing our feet in the water and having them washed. Bill provided the water and bucket while I provided the ceremonial Jasmine oil which all washers rubbed on their hands and faces.
One or two saints also volunteered their feet for us to wash. I personally could feel the faiz (an Arabic word connoting a kind of blessing associated with the presence of saints) radiating from the water.
It was all made possible thanks to Bill, an enterprising Uniting Church Minister from Ashfield. Bill runs the Ashfield Parish Mission, part of the Uniting Church in Australia.
But Rev. Bill Crews is no ordinary priest. He is also part of a growing ecumenical movement of people from across Sydney working under the auspices of The Exodus Foundation.
The Easter 2006 Newsletter of the Foundation reflects the involvement of people from a range of faiths all working to serve the saints of society. Amongst the volunteers are members of the Temple Emanuel congregation led by Rabbi Jacki Ninio. Jewish volunteers are especially active, and the Temple Emanuel congregation have been serving meals to the saints on Christmas and Easter at the Ashfield church hall (known as "the Restaurant") for over a decade.
Since November 1995, a Buddhist congregation led by Jim Teoh have been providing and serving meals at the Restaurant. Food prepared by individual members of the Buddhist congregation includes noodles and fried rice, freshly cooked on site within 2 hours of being served. The saints just can’t get enough of it.
This Easter Saturday, the Foundation is unveiling a plaque in their Ashfield restaurant to commemorate and thank the Buddhist congregation for their 10 years of support to the community of saints.
My own involvement with saints is not a recent development. Family members, relatives and friends of mine have experienced sainthood to varying degrees.
Late last year, a close friend told me about her brother who had gone missing some weeks back. He's admitted himself to hospital after experiencing severe weakness. His liver almost collapsed and suffered irreparable damage.
My friend took her brother up north to get some country air and keep him away from dealers and other low-life. Thanks to their intervention, her brother developed some kind of psychotic illness and lived on the streets of Sydney managing a group of other saints wiping windscreens.
Some weeks later, my friend and I had one of those major arguments male and female friends have every so often (usually when the male begins acting like a female!). A week later, still feeling rather guilty after the argument, I was at Surry Hills meeting a colleague for lunch. I parked my car, and was approached by a saint pushing a shopping trolley with bottles of water and detergents.
“Mind if I wash your windscreen?” he asked. Before I could say no, he was already onto the side windows. Within 5 minutes, the windows of my humble Daihatsu Mira were spotless.
He was fashionably dressed for a saint. I noticed feeling a strange calmness as I stood in his presence. I then realised he was babbling a name which sounded like that of my friend. He also shared her dark eyes and tall forehead. I asked him his name. He told me. Yep, this was her brother.
I gave him $20 for a phone card and told him to call his sister. I then tried contacting my friend to tell her I had found him. When she returned my message, it seemed she had lost it completely. Perhaps she had joined the ranks of the saints.
Then a few days ago, a prominent Sydney Muslim identity asked me if I could fill in for him at an Easter ceremony with Rev Bill Crews. Each year, Bill holds a ceremony where he emulated Christ who washed the feet of his disciples during the last hours leading upto his arrest.
Muslims have a horrible habit of turning up late. One Muslim stand-up comic from the United States even suggested governments should start naming hurricanes and cyclones with Muslim names to allow more time to de-populate affected areas. I kept the lateness tradition going.
In the distance, I could see Bill standing with the saints. They were dressed in their finest - non-matching clothes, ripped shoes, dishevelled hair. Dressed like true saints.
We entered the Restaurant and sat down for the feet washing. The cameras were there, but they may not have been. We were having too much fun reviving an ancient New Testament practise of Christ to worry about media.
Nearby, the Exodus Choir were singing their lungs out. Amongst them were a variety of saints, including one man who had suffered a number of strokes and could only smile and wave his hands. And how appropriate was their song, being heard and enjoyed by the line of saints collecting their lunch - “When the saints go marching in.”
The Prophet Muhammad’s mosque had a special platform where his homeless followers, known as As-hab as-Suffah (literally “People of the Bench”), lived. From Suffah, we get the word “Sufi”, literally meaning “saint”. The Prophet’s followers often were too poor to afford shelter, were severely depressed or had other ailments.
The Prophet also taught that people who had lost their sense of sanity were not fully responsible for their actions in the sight of God. So the homeless, many of whom are mentally ill, are true saints.
Easter is about Christ, a great man who saw the inherent worth of all human beings. Even tax collectors and sex workers and lepers, those whom the rest of society wrote off. Christ always made time for the saints of his time. If we want to be Christ-like, we should make time for the saints of our era.
© Irfan Yusuf 2006