Ustadh Abdul Aziz Suraqa (right) reflects on how small acts of kindness some 20 years ago has had a profound effect on his life.
After nearly twenty years, Allah blessed me to visit and spend time with my former neighbor and dear brother, Shaykh Muhammad Adeyinka Mendes, at the Toronto airport as he and his family were making their way back to the U.S.
He Saved My Life
Many of you know Shaykh Muhammad Mendes as a dynamic teacher and active member of the Muslim community in North America. What you do not know about Shaykh Muhammad is that he saved my life. Yes, that’s right. He saved my life. That might seem an exaggeration but it is true. He doesn’t know that so let me share a story with you all.
As a young Salafi in 1997, I moved to Columbus, Ohio and took a job as an apprentice electrician. One of the radiant, smiling faces in the masjid down the road from my apartment was none other than Shaykh Muhammad Mendes, who at the time was a University student. It turned out that we were neighbors on the same street. Shaykh Muhammad invited me to his home, fed me, sat with me, and spent time talking with me. Walking into his humble apartment was like walking into a different world–at least to me at the time. Books in Arabic and English filled his apartment–works from Islam’s greatest minds and spiritual masters, works from authors I never heard of un til visiting his home: authors like Shaykh Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili, Shehu ‘Uthman Dan Fodio, Shaykh Ahmad Bamba, Ibn ‘Ata’illah, just to name a few.
The Islam I Had Been Taught
The Islam I had been taught at the time condemned following schools of Islamic law, and here was Shaykh Muhammad Mendes, the first person I met who followed a school of law (Maliki) and had the ability to rationally and textually explain why it is legitimate and necessary , especially if one is study Islam’s vast legal tradition. I should add that when Shaykh Muhammad and I would spend time together in the masjid or in his home, it was not for the purpose of debating each other.
The Islam I had been taught at the time condemned Sufism (tazkiya, ihsan—Islam’s spiritual tradition)
as an aberration, and here was Shaykh Muhammad Mendes who patiently explained what Sufism was and wasn’t and allowed me to borrow many, many of his books. There I was, a Salafi youth secretly reading Imam al-Ghazali, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, Shaykh ‘Uthman Dan Fodio, etc., and benefiting from them and enjoying their works.
Dignity, Warmth, Concern & Love
I was a Salafi and Shaykh Muhammad Mendes was not. We had lively discussions and disagreements, but never once did he argue, raise his voice, use harsh language, or make me feel like less than his brother in Islam. Even in our disagreements he exuded dignity and warmth and showed real concern and love. If we disagreed over something he would explain his position and I would explain mine—over tea and a smile.
Some time later I traveled to Yemen to further my study of Islam, and Shaykh Muhammad Men
des traveled to Syria (and elsewhere), and we lost touch with one another. I later learned that we were both in Morocco and Mauritania around the same time but never crossed paths.
So How Did He Save My Life?
In 2003-2004 I experienced something of an existential, Ghazalian spiritual crisis; the Islam I had practiced and studied was, for the most part, dry and unable to quench the thirst of my soul to know Allah and have a deep spiritual connection with Him. Prayer, once a joyous experience, had became a series of outward motions; something to be completed and out of the way.
“My passions kept me chained in place, while the herald of faith cried, ‘Take to the road! Take to the road! Life is brief, the journey is long. Knowledge ad deeds are nothing but mere outward appearance and illusion. If you are not ready at this very moment for the life to come when will you be ready? And if now you do not break your moorings, when will you break away?’ At that moment, I felt impelled to go; my decision to depart and escape would be made….'” —Imam al-Ghazali, Deliverance from Error
The path I was on took me to a dead end. Something had to be done. I took a job teaching English in an extremely remote corner of Europe and kept to myself: lots of time to reflect, take long walks in the forest; lots of time to wrestle with my own struggles and flaws.
Seeds Upon Seeds That Grew Many Years Later
In those difficult days and nights , for some inexplicable reason, my mind and heart kept returning to the memories of the times Shaykh Muhammad Mendes and I had spent together years before . The memories of the warmth and beauty of his character , his optimism, his good opinion of others —these memories inspired me to climb out of the pit I dug for myself . Of course, getting out of that pit required much more than just pleasant memories (that’s a story for another day), but without a doubt it was the time with Shaykh Muhammad Mendes in 1997 that planted seeds upon seeds that grew five or six years later.
I consider Shaykh Muhammad Mendes as such, “and we do not exonerate anyone above Allah ”
(نحسبه كذالك ولا نزكي على الله أحداً). Never underestimate the power of simple, unpretentious warmth of character with those around you. You never know, it might be a seed that Allah causes to grow much later in the person’s life. May Allah preserve Shaykh Muhammad Mendes and give him light upon light and reward him on behalf of those seeds planted in 19 97. Amin.
Resources for seekers
- With Hearts United, We Must Respect Differences of Opinion
- Poem: The Would-Be Sufi and the Would-be Salafi
- All you need to know about whether to follow a madhab
- The Limits to Differences of Opinion In Islam – Dr Umar F Abd-Allah
- Why is There so much Concern with ‘Manners’ (Adab) in Islam?
- The Path of Taqwa: Avoiding Differences of Opinion
- On Unspoken Love And Friendship
- Understanding Ijtihad and Legal Differences
- Why Do We Serve? What is Prophetic Concern?
- Is orthodox Islam possible without Sufism?
- Does Sufism Inherently Feed Into Perennialism?
- Has Sufism been corrupted? Shaykh Faraz Rabbani answers