I wish we had a Hyderabadi version too. That would complete the picture.
“IT’S over,” the waiter said refusing the money I was paying for my lunch.
“What?” I uttered in confusion.
“It’s over. Your bill has already been paid,” he replied without an element of surprise in his tone.
A local had paid, again, for everyone lunching in the modest Asian restaurant.
That was in Sharjah, UAE, 2006.
Some virtues are common in Muslim lands and Saudi Arabia is no different. The land has been Muslim for over 14 centuries. It also witnessed, a little over 150 years ago, one of the most remarkable revivals of Islam.
While we frequently write about the ills that plague our society (and rightly so), we rarely appreciate the precious good that we have become so used to.
Any talk about peace and safety—not locking our doors, being careless about our keys, leaving our cars out in the open anywhere and everywhere without the thought of theft even crossing our minds, accepting gifts and lifts from total strangers—is a boring cliché that evokes a big yawn of ‘Yea, yea, tell me something else’. Because in the decades of our lives spent here, we never, alhamdulillah, witnessed violence, angry mobs going haywire, killing sprees, looting, chaos, gang robbery and so on.
Discussion on affordable living—tax-free country; cheap house rentals; heavy subsidization of electricity, fuel, food, water, etc. that has kept dirt-cheap prices unchanging (literally) for years—usually ends with credits going to petrodollar, not government policies.
So let’s set aside these repetitive (yet incredible!) aspects of Saudi life and look at something else.
How about people?
Everyone in Saudi Arabia has heard about the incredible effort volunteers—the notorious youth—put in to rescue people and deliver aid during the catastrophe of Jeddah floods. It was during those days that we too went with our bunker full of clothes and other supplies to drop them off at a collection point. The large stock that we were quite happy to gather seemed too little when we merely neared the location. The road was jammed with pickup trucks overloaded with brand new supplies of everything one could think of, and the ropes were barely holding them together.
Not surprisingly, they didn’t need our used goods. “Try the regular charity organizations,” I was told (as if they would readily accept what we had for the flood victims!).
We had to plead and plead at a charity organization, apart from having to prove the quality of our goods, to finally make at least some contribution toward the cause.
The day-to-day incidents are more fascinating. Whenever a story of a homeless family is published in the newspaper, the report of them being housed in a furnished apartment by an ‘anonymous donor’ has to appear the very next day.
A landlord who just lives a street apart from us distributes in charity the full rent of one of the apartment buildings he owns.
When a large company was going through a rough patch and reeling in bank loans, it’s competitor bailed it out because it wanted to save the owner from the sin of Riba.
These are neither isolated nor exceptional examples in this society. We may never fully know the extent of charity giving among the rich in Saudi Arabia. An American journalist who was in the kingdom for a special report a couple of years ago wrote to me, “We have… encountered many people and entities who do not wish to speak on record regarding their philanthropic activities, which is a shame as we truly believe that the Kingdom has so much to teach in terms of altruistic alms giving.”
Yes, the wealthy have their ways, but the poor too are not behind. If the amount of money they give is not enough to bring shame to the educated, once-in-a-blue-moon charity giver like me, then their sharing of basic necessities surely will. It may be only Foul and Tameez—already shared by four people—that they’ll be having for breakfast but they will insist upon you to join. And if you don’t, they will be very offended. (I wonder how many of us have shared with one of those poor men and women our plate of scrambled egg, sausages, cheese, honey, toasted bread, butter and jam? O Allah, forgive us!)
Ramadan aside, every Monday and Thursday (days of voluntary fasting) not-so-rich locals of Makkah and Madinah spread the sufrah for Iftar in the Haram. If you borrow some tools from an auto shop for your broken car, he won’t charge you a halalah when you return it back (not to mention his lending in the first place). Shatta, ketchup, extra plastic cups, bags and tissues are all free with your purchase of sandwich and drink from the local café.
And of course tasting those nuts and dry fruits for free whether you purchase them or not is just given. I once questioned a Pakistani shop owner, after seeing a kid fill his pockets with every nut he could get his tiny, but fat, hands on, “How come you don’t say anything?” (I was already surprised that the parents didn’t do anything about it!)
“It’s Ok. It doesn’t really affect that much,” was his reply.
Wow! That kid, I swear, was stuffing, what I thought was, a LOT!
When food prices increased recently, here is what one company did (Its employee wrote in email to a group I’m subscribed to):
We have been distributing packs of food provisions once every month for 120 small category employees; and suggestions are made to increase the beneficiaries to 200 and to double the quantity. These are benefits in kind costing the company negligible amounts but a great deal for the employees who are fighting increasing food prices we have been witnessing.
We also provide free meals/lunch for all employees. Masha'Allah, we see the blessings in return in our business in addition to employee motivation.
If you are in a position to propose something like this in your companies to cushion the impact on the vulnerable kindly do so.
I can just go on and on and on and on, until you get tired of reading about the charitable culture here, Masha Allah.
But that’s not all. Of course not!
What about modesty and hayaa and zero fitnah? —‘Cliché! We already know about that!’—
Ok, then what about contentment? Have you seen how those poor Afghani children selling hand towels in the streets of Jeddah return back the change to you? They don’t want charity! A taxi man I randomly met said he works only for six months. He goes back to his home country to spend the rest six months with his family.
What about people being pleased with Allah’s decree when a loved one passes away? A Saudi lady my mother met on the corniche said with full contentment, “Alhamdulillah,” when she was relating how a dear relative had recently passed away. Or what can you say of the man who did prostration of thankfulness when his beloved son, 15, died in an accident? A sign of complete trust that whatever Allah does is most certainly the best for you!
Speaking of death, charity organizations here completely take care of the funeral—from ritual washing to burial—and relieve the burden of the mourning family “only to seek the pleasure of Allah” as is found plastered on their janazah vans.
Also, the lack of heresies and the sticking to the Qur’an and Sunnah in acts of worship cannot be praised enough. When King Fahd died, may Allah have mercy on him, an Italian priest embraced Islam by merely watching his funeral, because there was no difference, he noted, between the king’s funeral and that of a common man’s—right from the shroud to the burial place. May Allah make the country better!
Dhikr and Du'a are constantly on the tongues of people here. The sound of “Udhkur-Allah, yadhkurukum” (Remember God and He will remember you) and “Salli alaa Muhammad” (Pray for blessings on Muhammad) greets you when you enter shops. Life stops five times a day when people submit in worship to the One and Only God, the Lord of mankind, to acknowledge His greatness, to thank Him for His blessings and to seek His guidance and help.
Honestly speaking, which people worship God today?
And the abundance we so quickly attribute to the petrodollar is in fact Allah’s blessing on this land.
“If the people of the towns had but believed and feared Allah, We should indeed have opened out to them (all kinds of) blessings from heaven and earth; but they rejected (the truth), and We brought them to book for their misdeeds.” (Qur’an, 7:96)
In an ever more materialistic and selfish world, where people have less and less time for each other (let alone concern), virtues commonly found in Muslim lands are truly the endangered “species” the United Nations could do better in preserving and promoting as reminisces of the past, noble human being.
It’s only by being true Muslim—regardless of whether one is officially Muslim or not—can we hope to revive these fading virtues.
Just how will our mindset be when we firmly believe in God as our Lord and submit to His Will? What will we be worried about when we knows our sustenance was written down long before we came into existence? How much will we withhold when we are constantly instructed to give charity to seek the pleasure of our Lord and that the poor have a right over our excess wealth? How much will we be attached to a temporary world when we know we will soon return to our Lord and that what will ultimately matter are only our deeds?
Islam is, after all, the natural religion of man.