By Humera Afridi
Power, kinship, beauty, and grace evince themselves in unified, embodied supplication. Hope and victory reside in solidarity.
This protest was prayer in action.
There is a certain magic to Jummah. That midday hour on Friday is imbued with a sweetness which on some lucky Fridays extends a numinous quality all the way to sunset. Jummah—Friday in Arabic, Urdu, and Persian—is the etymological cousin of Jama’a: gathering. In the Islamic tradition, the Jummah communal prayer is an obligatory ritual; women may choose to observe it at home.
I discovered its magnetic pull late–in my forties. By then I’d been a naturalized American citizen for a decade, awakening more and more to the ideals of social justice after an apolitical adolescence and early adulthood spent in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Although I grew up in Muslim countries, I wasn’t observant. My parents were secular, molded by a colonial legacy, with mother and father tongues all but expunged by efficient imperial mechanisms that included distancing from “native” rituals. Nevertheless, our faith was in the air, all around us, a reminder of which resounded melodiously five times a day from minarets in the cities I lived in. Back then, the thought of praying in a mosque would have struck me as foreign.
However, as an immigrant in America, the various threads of my life were beginning to feel interconnected, folding into the braid of my diasporic identity. Each Friday at my little Sufi masjid in Tribeca, I marveled at the diverse array of worshippers, amazed that familiar strangers from the neighborhood—a couple of South Asian traffic cops, a Gourmet Garage supermarket employee, the Senegalese guys on Lispenard Street who sell top-quality, ‘couture’ handbags—shared this intimate space and spiritual hour with me. For a brief interval, our disparate worlds dissolved and became one.
When the pandemic forced us into isolation and shut down public gatherings, I discovered—in loss—the mystical potency of Jummah. I missed the intentional physical togetherness, standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow worshippers, as we joined in praise and thankfulness to supplicate to Al-Jami, the Gatherer: God. In the long weeks of separation, I became acutely aware of the simple and obvious—humans are social; we need each other. And of something subtler—an energetic exchange happens in intentional group settings. During Jummah, when we organize ourselves into rows, standing side by side, synchronizing our movements in worship, we are re-attuned; re-made in our togetherness. Absorbed in lines of prayer, we merge into a greater whole, individual egos subsumed in the collective. An entrainment occurs.
Al-Jami,one of the ninety-nine powerful names of Allah, evokes that very particular attribute of the Beloved that gathers dispersed elements, irrespective of whether they are similar or diverse, and integrates them to form a whole.Shaykh Tosun Bayrak al-Jerrahi al-Halveti. The Name and the Named. Fons Vitae, 2000. The stars, moon, asteroids, and solar system comprise the Milky Way. The organs in our bodies work in unison to enable life. A pod of orcas; a flock of seagulls; the six million cells in a drop of blood—collectives that have been tapped by the Gatherer’s wand. The wonder of political differences coexisting harmoniously within democracies strikes me as a feat of Al-Jami working through each one of us as we endeavor to play our part as ambassadors. It is in this vein that Muslims across age, ability, and socio-economic status assemble as one body—the ummah—on Fridays, in response to the call of the Gatherer.
The spirit of Jummah is encapsulated in a simple yet powerful way in the ummah. A single letter separates these phonetic cousins: Jummah envelops ummah, folding it into itself, protective as a cloak. Ummah shares the same etymological root as umm—mother—signaling an embodied sacred community that, in its ideal manifestation, promises the warmth and shelter of a mother’s love. Linked across countries, continents, and cultural differences, the ummah is held aloft by the radiant Book of Love, the Noble Quran, and Arabic, the language of revelation and ritual prayer. On Fridays, the sense of solidarity in the community is heightened, rising uncannily above the many differences, ranging from petty to political to sectarian, that inflect the fallible ummah. When we bow and prostrate together as a single, unified body, we are reminded that the ummah, despite its innumerable differences, is actual and experiential. It is tangible and visceral, yet it spans oceans and transcends borders to unite with all the other Jummah gatherings happening across the globe in an expansive embrace of kinship.
On Friday, October 13th shockwaves reverberated through the ummah. The morning rolled out ominous as an armored tank, replete with the dark, associative horror and superstition of the date—Friday the 13th. For the audacious acts of violent resistance committed by members of the Hamas militant group on October 7th, Israel had unleashed a rampage of retribution in Gaza as it allegedly sought to eradicate the militants and free over 200 hostages, among them several children and international workers from Asian countries. A deep well of anger and helplessness bloomed in me; not a trace of beauty left in the world, it seemed.
On the sixth day of the unrelenting siege, the death toll of ordinary Gazans, from airstrikes alone, had risen to a staggering 1800. Blockaded on three sides and with the Mediterranean on the fourth, civilians were trapped in the 41 kilometer-strip of land, unable to escape the bombs raining down on them with ferocity. Graphic images of mutilated bodies pulled from the rubble exploded on our social media feeds. We saw shock and terror written on the tear-streaked faces of quivering orphaned children, witnessed the unfathomable grief of fathers and mothers wailing over little corpses wrapped in white kafan shrouds, and the desperation of survivors sifting through mountains of rubble with bare hands, in search of loved ones trapped beneath. These heartbreaking scenes felt disturbingly familiar. They took me back to the massive earthquake of 2005 in Northern Pakistan and Kashmir which killed over 87,000 people, including thousands of children who were swallowed up in the rubble of collapsed school buildings. What was happening in Gaza, however, was not a natural disaster, but targeted and weaponized man-made destruction. All one can do, in the face of nature’s wrath is to wait until it has subsided, then throw oneself into relief and rescue efforts. But this monstrous suffering was imminently stoppable. That it was still continuing defied comprehension.
Glued to our screens, we learned that the occupation had cut off access to food, fuel, and water to civilians. Abruptly, 1.1 million residents in northern Gaza were ordered to evacuate to the south within 24 hours, ahead of a planned ground invasion—an impossible feat in the best of conditions. It was Jummah, traditionally a day of rest and prayer. But for the ummah in Gaza, a panicked state of emergency prevailed as civilians sought refuge amid non-stop airstrikes. As the first few cars laden with families began their journey along the designated safe route, they were bombed. The shocking news conjured an image of a trigger-happy teenager, lounging in his gaming chair, shooting up moving targets to smithereens in a video game. But this was not a scene from a dystopian film; it was macabre reality. The cars had been full of families with young children, alive with fear one moment, a blood-soaked heap the next. In New York City, and around the world, the ummah held its breath, watched the asymmetric war and disproportionate violence unfolding in Gaza in real time. We felt the pain and suffering of Gazans as our own—when a limb is wounded, the entire body is impacted.
By one o’clock, Jummah time, I was a cannonball of emotions: perplexed and seething at the insatiable cruelty of governments, distraught by the images of ever more wounded and dead bodies caught in the rubble, and the sheer scale and depth of anguish in Gaza. A river of fire coursed through me with the dawning recognition that the rage I was feeling wasn’t mine alone. My family had experienced ethno-religious strife instigated by the divide-and-rule tactics of British colonizers. They lived through the injustice of arbitrarily sliced borders imposed by the colonial regime. Survivors of India’s bloody Partition in 1947—that killed over 3 million and led to the mass displacement of 18 million people—the dormant memories and experiences of my family were stoking my outrage and grief. My maternal grandparents were compelled to leave their beloved city of Bombay for the newly created country of Pakistan, in fear for their lives. The existential threat born out of that trauma lives and breathes in my blood; now it roared to life. The ummah is a sheltering body; each one of us contributes to the comfort of the collective. But trapped in a surging sea of anger, I was flailing.
The Jummah khutbah, delivered in a gentle, even-tempered voice was a welcome salve. We were asked to drop into our hearts, to hold forgiveness and engage in kindness. We were reminded that it is better to offer a kind act in return for an unkind act and to turn away from ignorance so we can keep ourselves free from excessive anger. “Become purveyors of forgiveness and kindness,” said Shaykha Fariha al-Jerrahi, spiritual guide of the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi community, who was delivering the sermon via Zoom where our Jummah gatherings had migrated since the pandemic.Some khutbah recordings are available here. The Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi tariqa, with its warmth and openness, and profound love for the universal sacred path revealed by Prophet Muhammed had ignited my connection to Islam in America. Shaykha Fariha sealed the gathering with a supplication: “Oh Allah, inspire me with the best intentions towards your servants. We want the best for others. It’s what we want for ourselves—happiness, safety, wellbeing; we want life, good and happy families; we want abundance, food, shelter, and water; and then we want peace for our sisters and brothers, because we want those for ourselves. I want forgiveness for anyone who has done wrong and that’s, of course, all of us.”
I sensed a collective exhalation as the prayer drew a blanket of peace and calm over our ravaged hearts, grounding us in awareness. I was grateful for a softening of the rage coiled in me. As the day progressed, calamitous images and updates poured in with ever greater urgency from civilians under siege and the brief interval of internal calm evaporated. Unable to focus, my mind raced with competing thoughts: Will the blood of martyrs pave the way for freedom and peace? I wondered if on a global scale the legions of people whose histories are marked by colonization and subjugation represent a majority of the world’s population. If so, were we all feeling equally shattered by the bloodshed in Gaza and the global apathy to it? Gaza’s children comprise over fifty percent of its total population. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that despite this the bombardments were continuing mercilessly. I thought, too, of the terrified Israeli hostages, among them kidnapped children, who were surely just as vulnerable to becoming casualties of Israel’s indiscriminate bombing as the Palestinian children of Gaza.
The following Friday, October 20th, I made my way to Bryant Park to participate in a demonstration calling for an immediate ceasefire. I was more conscious than ever that the ground I call home is the hallowed homeland of the Lenape (Lenapehoking) people and my residency here as a person of South and Central Asian ancestry, a result of the collusion of violent forces and shifting tides of history. The struggles of our present moment and the historical past are more connected and intimate than we care to admit, I thought, as I joined hundreds of New Yorkers gathered on the sidewalk and steps of the Stephen A. Schwarzman branch of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, in the pouring rain.
Young and old, Black, white, and brown, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, and agnostics, together we formed a united body—an expanded Ummah for humanity—crying out for freedom, dignity, and peace for all. “Ceasefire Now!” and “Let Gaza live!” we shouted in unison, as we marched along 41st Street towards the United Nations. It was cathartic to meld into a vast, motley crowd aligned in action—anger was replaced with hope; feelings of helplessness by courage and confidence in the collective. “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond”— I imagined the words of the African American poet Gwendolyn Brooks rising over us in a benediction.
But our leaders remained belligerent. With no sign of an imminent ceasefire nor agreements on an exchange of hostages, the prospect of peace remained utterly elusive. Each passing hour, the death toll grew and with each passing day the agony of seriously wounded children and bereft, grieving parents intensified. The world watched the catastrophe close-up in an unprecedented manner, aghast at the sheer scale of the destruction conveyed through eye-witness accounts, videos, and reportage from Al Jazeera and independent journalists in Gaza.
Then came the devastating news that Heba Abu Nada, an award-winning novelist and poet from Gaza had been martyred. Mere hours before her death that Friday, by an Israeli airstrike, she composed a remarkable passage in which her voice is oracular as she bears witness, her identity merged in the collective experience of Gazans. Amid terror, her inner calm and euphoric expression speak to tawakkul—unconditional trust in Allah’s plan. One of Heba’s last public messages on social media is a poem in Arabic, posted on October 8th, twelve days before her death.
Gaza’s night is dark apart from the glow of missiles,
Quiet apart from the sound of the bombs
Terrifying apart from the comfort of prayer,
Black apart from the light of the martyrs.
Good night, Gaza.
Heba’s serenity and composure embedded in the quiet stoicism of this verse of witness suggest a relinquishing of fear in favor of acceptance of a divinely decreed fate, an intimation of her imminent admission to the rank of shaheed—witness and martyrBoth “shahid” and “shaheed” have their root in the Arabic letters š-h-d (ش-ه-د). A martyr bears witness before God for the sake of justice (on Judgement Day), and so a … Continue reading— along with thousands of fellow Gazans. Heba Abu Nada was one of now 4127 civilians brutally killed in just under two weeks of the ‘war’.
At Jummah prayers on October 27th, concern and distress were palpable. Earlier, it had been announced that the occupation was completely cutting off Gaza’s electricity and telecommunications that night—a complete blackout in advance of a planned ground invasion. The terror of beleaguered civilians, cruelly deprived of water, food, and fuel, and now anticipating even greater adversity, sent waves through the ummah and far beyond the walls of masjids to people across the globe united in grief. The collective punishment of Gazans became our silent collective scream of anguish. “We are people of love—what can I say of love within this raging injustice all over the world,” said Shaykha Fariha in her khutbah. “The dua, the prayer, is the weapon of the believer. The Prophet has said: Make peace among yourselves, peace will flow. Share the peace we have in our heart with another. May we all be these people of light.”
It was challenging, yet ever more urgent, to uphold a vision for peace as the scourge of Islamophobia opened its jaws. On October 14th, Wadee Al-Fayoumi, a Palestinian-American boy who’d just celebrated his sixth birthday was savagely murdered at his home in Illinois, stabbed 26 times by the family’s landlord. The man had turned against Wadea and his mother—who survived a dozen stab wounds—after Hamas’s shocking breach of the Israeli-imposed Gaza barricade and the ensuing violence of October 7th. Shock and grief pummeled the American ummah. The heartbreaking images of dead and wounded Palestinian children on television had found a sinister echo right here in the United States. To many Muslims and Arabs the message was clear—western governments would watch and rationalize the killing of over 2000 Palestinian children in two weeks in the name of “self-defense,”; This would embolden people, including a septuagenarian in ‘egalitarian’ America, to act upon their bigoted and murderous impulses.
On the evening of October 27th, I joined an emergency sit-in at Grand Central Station organized by Jewish Voice for Peace. The occupation had plunged Gaza into darkness. We were hundreds, if not thousands, united across faith, age, ethnicity, ability, and language, calling for an immediate ceasefire and an end to taxpayer funding of foreign military aid. Protesters filled the Grand Concourse and the spillover crowd stretched as far as the eye could see for blocks in either direction of Grand Central. We chanted vociferously, protesting the collective punishment of Gazans. I was uplifted by the jamaat— vast throng—which felt like a universal expansion of the afternoon’s Jummah congregation. It was healing and hope-inspiring to lend my body to this growing movement crying out with all its heart for humanity and peace—a protest that felt very much like an extension of prayer.
Perhaps, this is the secret ensconced in the Gatherer’s call for ritual congregational prayer. Power, kinship, beauty, and grace evince themselves in unified, embodied supplication. Hope and victory reside in solidarity. This protest was prayer in action. “When you live in a world that is very unjust you have to be a dissident,” said the Egyptian feminist writer, activist, and physician Nawal el Sadaawi.Stephanie McMillan. A conversation with Dr. Nawal el Saadawi. Two Eyes Magazine, June 1999. https://oceanpark.com/webmuseum/2004/saadawi.html We are all dissidents together, I thought, more than once that evening, reveling in the power of the people rising and speaking up.
Sleep evaded me. What horrors had unfolded in the cover of dark as armored tanks rolled into the besieged strip cut off completely from the world? On the night of October 27th, Al Jazeera TV relayed images of frightening “belts of fire” caused by Israeli attacks.Quoted from livestream news footage on Al Jazeera. I imagined the terror of the elderly, of people with disabilities, and children and parents huddled without electricity, food, or water; whole families sheltering in one room—to be together in the event of death—amid loud bombing and indiscriminate missile attacks that brought apartment buildings thundering down in a flash.
The world watched with increasing dismay—disbelief was not an option; our eyes were seeing minute by minute footage as air strikes decimated even more residential neighborhoods, mosques, churches, schools, universities, bakeries, health centers, and vital infrastructure in Gaza. Was Israel’s intent wholescale erasure? We witnessed survivors crouched over piles of rubble calling out to loved ones, desperate for signs of life. As dust from the debris coated their mouths and noses, unquenchable thirst compounded fear, pain, and grief. A social media post distilled the terror and helplessness: “not sure what’s worse, a child trapped under the rubble screaming for a parent who never responds, or a parent listening to their child screaming in pain & knowing they wouldn’t be able to rescue them.” Without fuel, whatever little clean water remained in tanks could not be pumped. An epidemic of thirst erupted. Dehydrated mothers were unable to produce breast milk and nurse their newborns. Gazans were not just thirsty; they were literally dying of thirst.
The deprivation of water struck a raw nerve with the ummah, evoking the calamitous seventh century Battle of Karbala in Iraq. At Karbala, the tyrannical Ummayid Caliph Yazid with his vast army massacred Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammed, and a small retinue of his followers, including close family members. One of the searing details of this horrific battle, mourned and memorialized by Shia Muslims each year in the Islamic lunar month of Muharram, is the deliberate and sadistic denial of water. It created immense suffering among the women, children, and men in Imam Hussain’s camp as they were besieged and martyred in the scorching desert.
“I’m disturbed by how other countries are evacuating their citizens from Israel and supporting Israel with arms and medical supplies, as if Palestinians’ lives were of no value,” wrote the Palestinian poet Mosab Abu Toha in an opinion piece for the New York Times. “Do they not know that we have the same number of eyes and ears, the same number of body parts? That we all came into this world after our mothers gave birth to us? That we laugh at the same jokes in different languages and curse when our favorite team loses? That we have fears and tears?”
A fortnight into the unleashing of terror in Gaza, I observed a strange and troubling epistemological shift underway in the city I call home—language was being policed; false equivalences perpetuated. With nearly as much impunity as the bombs decimating Gaza, dangerous accusations of “terrorist” and “Hamas sympathizer” were leveled at demonstrators who were demanding an immediate ceasefire. Chants of “Free Palestine” and “From the river to the sea”—calls for the freedom, equality, and dignity of a dispossessed, occupied, indigenous people—were suddenly construed as threatening, and more disturbingly, “antisemitic”. People were let go from jobs and contracts canceled for empathizing with the cause of liberation and human rights in Palestine. Even as university students protested, not a whisper materialized from these institutions including those with postcolonial and cultural studies departments—whose very subject matter is resistance and decolonization—to counter the false, dominant narrative. A suffocating air of insidious surveillance and censorship threatened to snuff out the invigorating spirit of democracy that I so cherished about America, and, especially, New York City.
For the ummah, the incendiary accusations of “antisemitism” were a ludicrous insult. Muslims trace their lineage to Ishmael, the son of Prophet Abraham, a forefather of the Jewish peoples. Quranic revelation affirms earlier scriptures—among them the Torah, the scrolls of Abraham, the Psalms, and the Gospel—even as it offers renewed and refreshed guidance for its age and future periods. Arabic is a semitic language. Palestinian Muslims and Christians, a semitic people, lived alongside Palestinian Jews– referred to as awlad al balad or children of the land—for centuries until Palestinian Muslims and Christians were violently displaced and dispossessed of their lands by European settler-colonizers. The attempt to silence the ummah and its vocal allies, many of whom are Jews, with false, defamatory accusations was not just baseless but an affront to the vaunted American ideals of liberty, equality, and freedom of expression.
Absorbing the sickening campaign of cruelty in Gaza through social media, Arab and Muslim American children slid into disillusionment and anxiety, reprimanded, or worse, doxed, for expressing sympathy for beleaguered Gazans. The silence and seeming apathy of educators over the daily horror of escalating casualties of Gazan children, even as those same educators expressed concern about Israeli hostages and the attack of October 7th, was shocking. The message Muslim students were receiving was that the sanctity of human life is selective.
We bore witness via social media to a carnage that carried all the signifiers of a genocide. Appalled by the atrocious bias of mainstream western news channels, we turned to Al Mayadeen and Al Jazeera which had Palestinian reporters on the ground, featured interviews with knowledgeable experts, and did not shy away from changing their news banner from “Israel-Hamas War” to “Genocide in Gaza” as the unrelenting nature of the massacre in Gaza became evident. We anxiously awaited posts from Bisan, Plestia, Motaz and other independent journalists reporting from Gaza. They had become as close as kin in these harrowing days as they transmitted eye-witness reports, extending a lifeline to a Gaza being systematically eradicated, a Gaza that lived on in their reportage. They were conveyors of raw, unfiltered truth, reporting even as they sought shelter from missiles, and were rendered homeless by the occupation’s siege. We became avid witnesses to their work of witnessing. We actively interacted with their posts, and shared them widely and with urgency for the sake of our collective conscience.
The world was fast becoming dystopic, shrouded and ashen, with light and oxygen sucked out of it. How could America aid and abet the massacre of thousands of children? How could the president of the most powerful country in the world, perpetuate the preposterous and macabre fiction—even after the rumor had been debunked—of “40 beheaded babies” falsely attributed to Hamas fighters? And what a travesty of journalistic ethics that western media channels endorsed and disseminated, without substantiated evidence and eyewitness testimony, the dangerous accusation of rape—a tired, orientalist trope—by Hamas on October 7th. While sexual violence has, no doubt, through the ages, frequently been employed as a horrific tool of war, in this instance there was, as yet, no plausible evidence of the crime. It was a catastrophic unmasking of American values. Overnight, for many, the United States had transformed into the Unconscionable States of America.
As for the heirs of independence and liberation struggles, how could we remain silent in the face of a massacre of a captive and oppressed civilian population by a colonial state apparatus? It was clear as daylight that the conflict was decades in the making; it did not simply commence on October 7th. We saw through the invidious propaganda designed to fuel hate and manufacture consent for the warmongers. Given the generational traumas of our colonial histories—the scars of which have yet to fade—most of us could not turn a blind eye to what was happening in Gaza.
The universal Ummah rallying for humanity, justice, and peace grew rapidly. The virtual space swiftly transformed into a novel front of the resistance, a creative ‘battlefield’ where we deconstructed and debunked dangerous lies and hacked algorithms and shadow bans. In an unspoken covenant, we became activists and archivists on Instagram and X, keeping a record of the brutal details of a genocide progressing in real time. In an asymmetric ‘war’ of false propaganda operating as the chief flagbearer of a cruel colonial expansionist agenda, truth was a vital and precious asset that needed to be disseminated.
The world was swiftly dividing into two camps: those who were demanding a ceasefire and those in favor of the machinations of warmongering; those in favor of peace and those in favor of colonial expansion under the guise of eradicating terrorism. The latter appeared to be winning. Unfathomably, the massacre continued, unrelenting in its brutality. Unapologetic about the gargantuan cost of civilian life, the occupation targeted even more residential neighborhoods. It struck a hospital. It bombed the Jabaliya refugee camp. I sat the better part of that day in shock and grief, unable to process the news. It bombed a school. It killed scores of journalists, artists, medical staff, teachers, and UN workers. The Arabic word thakla – a parent who has lost a child—went viral on social media. The number of Gazan children orphaned by the war grew by the day. Quadcopters and snipers consistently shot at pedestrians evacuating along the designated ‘safe route.’ Israel bombed the south though it insisted people evacuate there. It destroyed more than forty-five percent of the homes in Gaza. It bombed the Al Omari Grand Mosque established in the seventh century. It bombed the Church of Saint Porphyrius, the third oldest church in the world. It bombed more schools and health centers. It bombed Jabaliya refugee camp again. By the third week, it had killed over 3200 children and maimed countless more. The death toll was 7326 with hundreds missing and lost beneath rubble.
“There’s a Cane and an Abel, there’s light, there’s dark, there’s sweet, there’s bitter,” Shaykha Fariha had said in her khutbah that afternoon. “There are two different agendas. One that seeks toward destruction and one toward wholeness, community, peace, integrity, righteousness, beauty, creativity, love, freedom. By which road do we want to get to peace? How does a vision of peace settle itself?”
Peace remained elusive. As death proliferated in Gaza, the flames of hate were further stoked in America. On October 30th, a young white man attacked Dr. Talat Jehan Khan, a beloved pediatrician and mother of two, while she was relaxing with her dog at a park bench near her apartment building in Conroe, Texas. In broad daylight, in public, he stabbed her several times, and killed her. Stunned by grief, the heart of the American ummah clenched, a body in pain, bracing itself. How many more would be sacrificed to the maw of Islamophobia?
In the culture at large, there was a cognitive dissonance between the horrific, industrial style massacre unleashed in Gaza and the self-serving propaganda spilling from the mouths of our leaders, politicians, scholars, and United Nations officials. They endlessly debated the definition of genocide; pundits weighed the benefits of a ceasefire versus a ‘humanitarian pause.’ Meanwhile, the bombs and snipers were unrelenting, and with every passing hour the death toll climbed. Medical staff worked around the clock in Gaza even amid personal tragedy as they discovered loved ones among the injured and dead. The occupation targeted scores of journalists, muting voices of witness forever. In a vicious act of vengeance, they assassinated the wife, son, daughter, and grandchild of Al Jazeera’s Gaza City Bureau Chief Wael Dahdouh, who learned of their killing while he was live on air.
The hubris of the occupiers was boundless. They breached the Geneva Convention with impunity and defied international humanitarian laws that in the midst of the gruesome conflict revealed themselves to be as impotent as a mirage. We watched clouds of white phosphorous, designed to destroy olive groves and burn the flesh of children to the bone, descend in sinister plumes. The brutality was inescapable. It entered our homes through our screens; it occupied our dreams. Grief settled into our bodies.
I yearned for the antidote of Jummah even as I detected a pattern—assaults seemed to escalate to harrowing levels on Fridays. When we thought things couldn’t possibly get worse, they did. On November 3rd, Israeli forces targeted a convoy of ambulances outside the busy Al Shifa hospital, scattering the bloodied bodies of medical workers and civilians by the hospital entrance. Egregiously, that same day, the occupation bombed the entrance of the Al Nasr pediatric facility and targeted the vicinity of the Al-Quds and Indonesian hospitals. The death toll in Gaza climbed to 9227, with thousands more seriously wounded, and several hundred unaccounted for beneath the sea of rubble.
“We will pass through this valley of death into mutual love, into peace.” Words from last week’s khutbah came unbidden to my mind.
The carnage was ungraspable; the impetus driving it, more so. The threshold for inflicting pain on an ‘other’—a captive and besieged ‘other’– flagrantly in full view of the world while claiming “self-defense”—vied to surpass previous records of human cruelty. Humanity was in a state of crisis—as was democracy. Institutions and the highest levels of government persisted in turning a deaf ear to their constituents. Shockingly, many continued to shrug off the deaths of thousands of Gazan children as “collateral damage” in Israel’s alleged pursuit of Hamas. With each passing day, the global Ummah expanded. In the face of horror, our fundamental human connection to each other clarified with resounding certainty, transcending faith and cultural identity, in the clarion call for justice and peace in Gaza. We were being remade—paradigmatically and spiritually—by the grievous weight of witnessing, close-up and intimately, the mass-scale cruelty inflicted on civilians in a barbaric ritual of evisceration, in service to megalomaniacal colonial-supremacist ambitions.
“It’s not only the deprivation of political rights and economic devastation that Palestinians have been suffering from. It’s the human side that is the most important. They are treating us like stones. If they believe we are human beings, they would not be bombing a multistory building on the heads of families,” wrote Mosab Abu Toha.
If to the heartbroken world, it looked as though God had forsaken Gaza, Gazans did not behave so. In the midst of unfathomable loss, we witnessed them praising God. In place of lamentations, we heard expressions of submission to God’s will, over and over again, in a testament to colossal faith. “Hasbunallhi wa nimal wakil,” children, mothers, and grandfathers recited with utter conviction. Allah is enough for us, Allah is the best disposer of our affairs, they cried as a building collapsed, and as they frantically waved little white flags while hurriedly evacuating in single file at gunpoint from hospitals, with occupation snipers shooting at them even as they obeyed orders.
Scripture narrates that this succinct prayer was uttered by Prophet Abraham when mighty king Nimrod and his army punished him in a massive fire for destroying their idols. Just before the teenaged Abraham was flung into the conflagration, he uttered Hasbiallahu wa nimal wakil, affirming that the power and love of Allah sufficed and that no one can come between God’s will. Abraham’s enemies watched the angry flames lash at him, yet he experienced the fire as a miraculous garden, at once cool and fragrant, a blessing of God’s guardianship. Abraham gained a following from among the very people who wished to kill him. Gazans are as unshakeable in their firmness of faith as Abraham, we observed in awe. A people united in their undeniable and indelible love for their homeland and unwavering in their commitment to each other as a collective. Their extraordinary spirit, rooted in deep faith, was a mirror in whose reflection the global Ummah attuned itself.
“Allah’s teachings are very much in the way of inayah—of concern; of caretaking,” said Shaykha Fariha in her khutbah of November 3rd. “In this inayah-consciousness, we are aware of others and sense when they are in need. There is no lack of care or mothering at any point in this life. My gaze was always upon you, Allah tells Moses. We are each of us raised up under Allah’s gaze, trusting in Allah’s care, provision, and foresight.”
On Saturday, November 4th, our hearts rang with hope. Around the world, protesters across age, color, and creed thronged the streets of metropolises from London to Istanbul in massive demonstrations, many in defiance of their country’s leaders, calling for a ceasefire, equal rights, and freedom for Palestinians. Hundreds of thousands marched in solidarity, chanting in unison, demanding an end to the brutal siege and occupation of Gaza. More and more people were awakening to the terror tactics and atrocities of the occupier and its illegal settlers and appalled by the images of suffering and death of children in Gaza. The movement for justice was growing steadily, in opposition to the collusion of powerful governments that had shown themselves as unapologetic enablers of brazen acts of terror and mass assassinations that were, with each passing day, building an indubitable case for genocide.
Gaza was experiencing an unprecedented catastrophe of human suffering. The average age of civilians killed in Gaza was five. According to Save the Children, in one month Israel had killed more children in Gaza than the total number of children killed in all conflicts around the world in each of the past four years. It had killed 102 aid workers from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) alone. By week seven of the conflict, Israel had killed more journalists in Gaza than in twenty years of the Vietnam war and all six years of World War II. All ostensibly in the name of “self-defense.”
The following Friday, on November 10th, Israel escalated assaults. In the morning, forces struck the Al-Buraq school in Gaza City where hundreds of families were sheltering. Meanwhile warplanes and tanks circled four hospitals in Gaza amid ongoing shelling and bombardments. Deprived of water, fuel, medicines, and supplies, medical centers were already crippled and patients suffering. The trauma of airstrikes had sent scores of pregnant women into premature labor. C-sections and amputations performed without anesthesia were the new ‘norm.’ In an act of unfathomable cruelty, that same day, Israeli forces struck Al Rantisi, the only hospital in Gaza that specialized in cancer treatment for children, killing several people. The medical staff from the adjacent Al-Nasr pediatric hospital were forcefully evacuated at gunpoint, ordered to abandon four premature babies in incubators. Insisting that Hamas had a military base in tunnels beneath the Al Shifa Hospital—albeit sans evidence from their own investigation—they targeted the facility with five missiles, and in a seemingly calculated move struck the maternity and labor ward.
In a desperate and angry appeal, Dr. Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian physician working at Al-Shifa posted a harrowing video message on social media as the massacre was unfolding in the hospital. Gut-wrenching, terrifying screams of wounded men and women in pain and fear amid bombing surround him as he delivers a scathing message to the world’s powers: “Hospitals are the temples of humanity and protection!” he declaims as the chilling sounds of death indicate that Al Shifa was anything but a sanctuary and was fast transforming into a graveyard in real time. “WHEN. ARE. YOU. GOING. TO. STOP. THIS?” he demands. “You are all complicit!”
By Friday, November 10th, the death toll in Gaza had climbed to an estimated 11,078 of which 4506 were children. The number of injured had grown to 27,490, including 8663 children. More than 2700 people were missing under the rubble, 1500 of them children.
A vast human family traversing countries, continents, and faith traditions, the Ummah was now an expansion of our collective heart, growing bigger and wider in awareness, concern, and the understanding of our collective responsibility as caretakers. Acts of civil disobedience and protests unfolded in cities around the world. They became a sacred ritual that activists vowed would persist until a permanent ceasefire was achieved in Gaza. We were a tribe of dissenters refusing to look away from the catastrophe our tax dollars were funding. We protested our complicity; refused silence. We called out the litany of heartbreaking and devastating injustices, holding fast to the role of shahid—witness—and to the plight of the besieged civilians and the shaheed–martyrs—of Gaza.
“The Divine Consciousness does not sleep, it is never complacent. Our task is to transform ourselves from complacency which is the ego’s hiding place,” said Shaykha Fariha in her Jummah khutbah that afternoon. “As soon as we are aware, caring and compassion grow. We feel another’s suffering near to us. May Allah make the fire cool for the people of Palestine and for people all over the world who are suffering. And we ask Allah to open the hearts of those who are perpetrating suffering. Our prayer is that this terrible tragedy may lead to a great leap on the path of all humanity—not just to have a ceasefire but to have peace and share the natural resources of the earth.”
I took my place on the prayer mat, connecting in spirit with fellow worshippers. As one body, we were led in prayer, uniting our movements in a choreography of supplication. I pressed my forehead to the ground. The firmness of the earth met my palms and a wave of gratitude washed over me: a feeling of sanctuary, of relief, in relinquishing to the all-Seeing, all-Hearing, most Praiseworthy, the best of Judges, the terror and heartbreak I’d witnessed from afar, yet close-up. Folding my body over the earth in prostration, I was reminded that we are fashioned from sounding clay and dark slime transmuted yet we are also exalted with the breath of God that enlivens our being—at once humble and regal. I rose thankful for this glorious path of love, that is also one of social justice. We are only as good as our actions, not simply our prayers.
As we commenced the second cycle of prayer, I thought of the global Ummah, how each of us is a thread in the fabric of a cloak that stretches energetically across cities and continents, time and space, wrapping us together. There is power, peace, and grace in solidarity. An image began to build like a polaroid in my mind’s eye. I pictured the children and residents of Gaza, and all the martyrs, luminous and alive, and the hundreds of thousands of protestors across the globe marching for peace gathered on the sacrosanct land of the strip, waves in an ocean of humanity. Above us the sky is blue and peaceful, empty of missiles and rabid drones. There is a sweetness in the air.
High, high up Al-Jami the Gatherer’s all-Seeing eye gazes upon us.
|Shaykh Tosun Bayrak al-Jerrahi al-Halveti. The Name and the Named. Fons Vitae, 2000.
|Some khutbah recordings are available here.
Both “shahid” and “shaheed” have their root in the Arabic letters š-h-d (ش-ه-د). A martyr bears witness before God for the sake of justice (on Judgement Day), and so a martyr is also a witness. The witness and the martyr are intimately linked. If only speaking of a witness then “shahid’ is used. They are linked in a manner similar to the way ummah/community and umm/mother are connected.
|Stephanie McMillan. A conversation with Dr. Nawal el Saadawi. Two Eyes Magazine, June 1999. https://oceanpark.com/webmuseum/2004/saadawi.html
|Quoted from livestream news footage on Al Jazeera.