The Stories We Tell

One of the stories I remember clearly from my childhood concerns Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the insult he suffered from a woman everyday on his way to pray.

The story, in brief, is that the Prophet would be walking to prayers everyday and a woman would dump garbage on him as he walked by, necessitating a thorough cleansing before prayers. This series of events went on for some time, and then for several days it stopped. Upon inquiring the Prophet discovered the woman had fallen sick. He then took to her abode and nursed her back to health.

For a long time I thought this was a story particular to my family. Then I heard it in my religious education classes, and thought perhaps it was unique to my community. Recently, I’ve started using it in lectures and realized that it is a fairly universal story amongst Muslim communities in the US.

I always liked this story as a child. Now I look at it and think about the lessons it offers. There is clearly the notion of forgiveness; of having a purpose and not letting others dissuade you from it; and of the importance of ritual. Reading the story now, I see so much more to it.

The woman was clearly a non-Muslim, but she was allowed to live unhindered in a Muslim milieu, even after insulting the Prophet. I think about how many Muslim communities would be offended by the presence of a non-Muslim in their midst. For some reason though, it wasn’t objectionable to the Prophet and his companions.

The Prophet spent time with a woman, without any indication of a chaperone, and in all likelyhood, she wasn’t even veiled. Now, as good Muslims we must let little girls burn in buildings unless they are covered from head to foot and have a male escort to protect us from their beguiling ways. I wish I could say I was proud of this particular advance made by the Muslim community.

I know this is a story, and not part of any “historical” record. However, I believe the stories we tell are our aspirations; a telling of what and who we hope to become; an idealization of the human experience. The fact that this story has such universal reach makes me wonder, do we still have hope? do we still strive to move beyond our limitations? or is this another story to fill our heads with no thought of what it might actually mean?

I hope my grandchildren will know this story one day. But I fear too, that one day it will be changed. I can hear the banging of the war drums when the first bit of rubbish touches the Prophet. Of course, it won’t be a woman, and it won’t be a non-Muslim, because in the revisionist world view, there were never any non-Muslims in the Prophet’s time, and women were kept in secluded parts of the basement never to come near a window. The man at the window will be someone who thinks independently, which is bid’a, an innovation, conformity always having been the call of Islam. Of course, stories do reflect our aspirations, and this change in the story does come to pass, then the story is not the only thing I fear for.

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