September 07, 2006

Sidewalk Afterthoughts

Every once in a while, I let myself get frustrated. That's a fairly natural human emotion, but I tend to feel guilty afterwards; life overall has been very kind to me, and the worries I struggle with seem so insignificant in retrospect. Monday was one of those days where I let impatience overcome me, forgetting all the good in my life for the sake of a few minor frustrations.

Vancouver is a beautiful city, but it holds a dark secret: there is more poverty here than almost anywhere else in Canada. The Downtown Eastside area, situated just a few blocks from beautiful waterfront condos and trendy boutiques, is home to what is considered to be the poorest area of Canada. The sad consequence is that the neighbourhood is rife with drugs, homelessness, and prostitution. The crime rate is reportedly one of the highest anywhere in North America, and the results of that trickle into the more mainstream areas of downtown.

I see more beggars on the street here than anywhere else in Canada. The impoverished come in all shapes and sizes; if you were to see some of them just walking down the street, you'd never expect that they would have to beg just to make ends meet. Many of them are young, with seemingly good heads on their shoulders; they could have so much potential were it not for the drug addictions. Others have lost their wits entirely, walking around aimlessly for days on end, yelling and screaming profanities at the wind and rain.

And that's when I start feeling guilty about ever feeling frustrated. There was no choice these poor souls made that have brought them to where they are. None of these people simply decided that this was the life for them. They fell victim to circumstances mostly beyond their control, and now walk the streets with little hope of ever enjoying a comfortable life. They walk hungry, dirty, and incapable of even sorting out their own thoughts. Their beds line the sidewalks, and trashed coffee cups become their wallets. And my daily realities far exceed even the best of their dreams.

Neither my talents nor my hard work have saved me from such a life. There was no choice I made which protected me. Every breath I take, and the comforts I enjoy while taking them, have been gifts from my Creator. And perhaps the greatest gift I have is that I recognize this to be so; how many millions of people go through their lives with no belief at all? How many millions of people suffer from hardships without having the comfort of faith in their corner? It is a gift in itself to believe that there is Divinity listening to our thoughts and prayers; without this, we would all fall entirely to despair.

Ramadhan is fast approaching. Sometimes, I look at the beggars in the streets and try to justify my complacency by reminding myself that I will be fasting for an entire month in a few weeks. But that fasting, as valuable as it is, is still insufficient to truly show gratitude for all the favours I have been blessed with. Fasting in itself is a favour, because it is a sign that I have been given the gift of faith. So how do I show gratefulness for the ability to fast? What thanks do I give for the ability to perform prayers during the night and day? As one scholar said, "prayer alone is not a sufficient token of gratitude to Allah. In fact, the prayer is itself another blessing we must show gratitude for."

Truly, no amount of action on our part will ever complete our obligation towards gratitude, but Allah remains the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. We do what we can, and pray that our actions are accepted; please remember me in those prayers.

Update 9.16.2006: Please read this wonderful post at Reflective Dust for a practical response to this piece.


  1. True... I always feel incredibily uncomfortable in Karachi for the same reason. Even though I know the beggars all belong to rings which exploit children and so forth and by giving money I'd tech. end up encouraging the kidnapping and mutilation of children so they'd get even more money. But then what to do. At the same time that money will help feed them. It's like this really awful Catch 22. Karachi always makes me feel like crawling into a hole merely because I had it good and those on the street didnt. Still trying to gather the courage to quit everything and move back and do something concrete.

  2. Assalaamu'alaykum wa rahmatu Allah wa barakaatu

    SubhanAllah that was beautiful and comes as such a wonderful reminder to be grateful.'s so true... Hatha min fadhli Rabbi. (Edited)

  3. Vancouver... my old hometown... *Sniffles*

    But what you said was absolutely true. There is SO much to be thankful for, to be grateful for. We have been blessed almost beyond our comprehension.

    Yet often, when I think about things like this, I don't find it sufficient to just, well, reflect on it. I want to fix it, preferably NOW. I know, it's really hard, almost impossible, but that's how I feel.
    I also think that if everyone just followed the Qur'an and Sunnah, this stuff wouldn't be happening... if everyone paid Zakaah, there would be no poverty... or at least not extreme poverty as we see it today. I dunno, maybe not, but yeah...

    Argh, I can't seem to express myself the way I want to right now. But hopefully you got the gist of what I meant to say.

  4. May Allah (swt) reward you for sharing these thoughts with us.

    I can't imagine what it would be like not to have Islam, though I often take it for granted. It's a complete guide to everything in a time and place where almost nothing else is certain - and that's such a blessing!

    I often wonder how Athiests get through life, how they experience pain, fear, love, and hope. I want to know how people survive without faith in God. How do they find anything in the world meaningful? How can they every experience hope in something greater than what we have in this world?

    Alhamdulillah for the greatest gift. Alhamdulillah times 10.

  5. Subhan'Allah. This specific post is one the most touching readings i've done in the past few days at the www, masha'Allah. Indeed, it was worth a read, and worth a post on your blog, and for that, Jazak'Allah.
    And us humans can never thank our Creator enough for His great blessings.

    (I feel very empty now when I realize that i'm in so much debt -- debt that can never be paid off, never)

  6. Saira: I've felt the same thing during my travels. I've spent extended periods of time in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and have been to Saudi Arabia a couple of times as well. It's very disheartening sometimes; you witness such poverty that you start feeling guilty for any good if your life.

    But really, we shouldn't feel guilty for the favours we have. We just need to use those favours in the right way, insha-Allah.

    Some of the most disturbing images I've ever seen of beggars was at Mount Arafah in Saudi Arabia. The sad reality is that, like you said, many of them probably belong to rings which mutilate the children.

    Honestly, when I first heard that most of those children are intentionally mutilated, I was absolutely shocked and disgusted. I can't imagine how some people can be deprived so completely of humanity that they would commit such atrocities just for some loose change. And yet, there doesn't seem to be many voices against it.

    Sister Farzeen:
    Wa'alaykum assalam wa rahmatullah wa barakatuh,
    JazakAllah-khair. The greatest reminder for me were the images of the poor themselves.

    The ayah you quoted actually goes Hadha min fadhli rabbi. "This is from the Bounty of my Lord."

    And for the benefit of everyone else, the rest of the ayah goes like this:

    Liyabluwani a ashkuru am akfur. " test me as to whether I am grateful or ungrateful." Wa man shakara fa innama yashkuru li nafsih. "And he whom is grateful is but grateful for his own good." Wa man kafara fainna rabbee ghaniyyun kareem. "And he who is ungrate­ful; verily, my Sustainer is Self-Sufficient, Most Generous in giving."

    Surah Naml, Ayah 40

  7. AnonyMouse: You're from Vancouver originally? I've been here for a few months now; beautiful city, but it amazes me as to how insignificant of a Muslim presence there is in downtown. Very different from Ottawa, Montreal, or Toronto where you can't walk more than five minutes without seeing Muslims or halal shops or other such signs.

    Zakaah and Sadaqah are critical, but we don't even see this in the Muslim world right now. It would be nice if everyone just started following Quran and Sunnah, but there's an effort to motivate people which needs to come first. Alhamdolillah, things are changing for the better in many ways; there seems to be more awareness and activism nowadays, especially among the younger crowd. In time, we'll start seeing the fruits of these efforts.

    Sister Asmaa: We all take it for granted at times. But sometimes I see how people are caught up in such trivial matters for years at a time, things that I've been spared from worrying about, and I start realizing, I am so lucky. I have a few stories on that for which I might dedicate a later entry. Sure, things are far from perfect in the Muslim world, but at a purely individual level, I find more peace and contentment amongst Muslims than anyone else. I'm content with my life, and content with where I am in life; that's something that very few others have the luxury of saying.

    Ameen to your du'a.

    Sister Maria: JazakAllah-khair.

    We do our part, and pray that it's accepted. That's all we can do really. The best way to show gratitude remains to use those gifts we've been blessed with in the best way. If we verbally thank Allah for the gift of speech, for example, but use that same gift of speech to curse others or tell lies, our verbal gratitude is less meaningful. But if we use that speech for good, insha-Allah it will be a step in the right direction.

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  10. Assalaamu'alaykum

    Jazak'Allah khayr! -- for both the correction and elaboration. I have never studied the ayah, but learnt it from a frame hanging in my sister's home. I mistook the the kasra for two joined dots which I thought were the bottom of a ya (the stylish/quick way of writing two dots). I never used to say the ayah until after I thought I read it in the Qur'an (finally found it).. but now I'm trying to find the ayah I thought I read, and it seems I didn't read that correctly either. :( I have a lot to learn...

    I never signed in when I posted that comment, so if it isn't too much trouble, could you please edit my post and correct it. I hate having it there like that because people can pick it up on google and it's incorrect. Thanks.