It began with young men packing their rucksacks and disappearing quietly into the night, their anguished parents unaware they had gone to join the bloody war raging in Syria. Then began the unexpected trickle of girls, also vanishing without a word to go to Syria to marry complete strangers. No lavish Bollywood wedding for them, no mehendi parties into the late hours of the night, no shopping for gold and red organza lahengas with matching bracelets, anklets, clutch bags, shoes and even hall décor. What fate awaits them, heaven only knows. Now we see entire families, often with very young children, all outward bound for Syria. We see images of fathers carrying their infant children, young mothers, primary school children skipping happily as if they are off on an Enid Blyton adventure. Their lives, possessions, studies, games and studies all packed into small rucksacks.
Why are we seeing this small but steady trickle of British Muslim families turning their backs on Britain, on their families, jobs and friends? Why are they abandoning their comfortable lives here to travel to a distant land in which mortars land on buildings daily, where snipers stand in windows of abandoned homes, and where slavery is openly practised? What makes the situation so unfathomable is that those who actually live in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and so forth are desperate to travel in the opposite direction. They are taking un-imaginable risks, throwing themselves and their children onto the mercy of pirates, slave traders and the open seas. They prefer to cram into tiny fishing boats rather than remain in their present condition. The vast waters of the Mediterranean are entombing the lifeless bodies of men, women and babies as they desperately attempt to flee their savaged homelands. And in the midst of the tragedies witnessed daily by the oceans, we see British Muslims choosing to travel in the opposite direction; leaving safety and freedom for slavery, war and pain. What on earth possesses a seemingly ordinary couple to choose to take their small children voluntarily to danger?
Perhaps these parents believe that it is time for Hijrah (emigration). Like the rest of us, they are watching the daily news of death, savagery and human misery that is engulfing such a large portion of our planet, especially the heartlands of Islam. Yes, it is an incredibly painful time for all of us. Many Muslims believe that the time of Armageddon is drawing frighteningly close. Islamic sacred texts contain detailed descriptions of the last era in the life of our planet. They speak of a breakdown in the social order, with families falling apart, children showing no respect for their elders, and greed dominating the human condition. As the internal family disintegrates, so the external natural world will fracture. The texts speak of a rise in natural disasters, with the earth swallowing up entire cities in earthquakes, floods and storms. They speak of vicious and murderous leaders who will bring carnage to their own people as well as to others. These leaders will rule with tyranny, injustice, lies and fear. The texts also speak of a final great Battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil; they speak of the Dajjal, the Anti-Christ who will leash untold brutality and pitiless barbarity on the people who oppose him. They also speak of the Mahdi, a great leader, and the second coming of Jesus son of Mary (May God’s peace be upon them both). Jesus will descend in Syria and the huge army he will lead will defeat the Anti-Christ in Palestine. Sacred texts also speak of the terrible suffering of the people on earth. Massacres of the innocent will be so widespread that the living will see the graves of the dead and wish they too were inside those graves. There will be no respite except in death.
The Prophet (May God’s peace be upon him) also spoke of Dajjal controlling the skies and raining fire down on the people. The Arabs of seventh century Arabia may not have understood this reference except as an indication of the power of the Dajjal. But in today’s Middle East, the people know too well the ability of gunships, surface-to-air missiles and other instruments of modern warfare capable of raining fire down from the skies.
It seems that many Muslims are convinced that Armageddon is not too far away; that international alliances and politics are all preparing for this greatest and deadliest of all battles. And it seems that some Muslims believe it is their religious duty to travel to the land in which the Mahdi and Jesus will arrive to lead the battle-weary to victory. Although I can see the thread of this argument, it does not weave into a coherent discussion. Firstly, Muslims have faced terrible wars previously in history, but have then seen peace and prosperity. We cannot assume that the present condition will lead directly to the final battle and the end of time. In the 13th century, the Mongol general Hulagu Khan set out with a deliberate mission to conquer Persia, Syria and Egypt, and to destroy the Abbasid caliphate. His army laid siege to Baghdad which capitulated after only two weeks. Then the Mongols embarked on a frenzy of slaughter, burning libraries and destroying palaces and hospitals. Five hundred years of history, scholasticism, architecture, poetry, arts and beauty were drowned in blood. The inhabitants of the entire city of Baghdad were butchered so that rivers of blood literally flowed. The Muslim world had never before seen so much brutality and became convinced that the world was coming to an end. But Iraq and the rest of the region recovered. The descendants of Hulagu Khan embraced Islam and established a stunning civilization in India, with the hated word ‘Mongol’ eventually becoming the word ‘Mughal’. The Abbasid caliphate may have come to a dreadful end, but the Mughal civilization was just about to rise.
Secondly, the Islamic concept of khilafah is a personal responsibility laid by God to all human beings, regardless of race and gender. This concept makes it mandatory for all humans to work to improve the world we live in, and not to run away from problems. The Prophet (may God’s peace be upon him) once said to Anas ibn Malik,
“If the Day of judgement comes while you have in your hand a sapling, plant it.”
In other words, continue to better the world in which you live, even though the world may be ending or you may be taking your final breath. The Quran tells us that the earth was given as a Trust to human beings, and it is our duty to discharge this trust faithfully. This means campaigning for peace no matter how helpless we may feel; this means protecting our environment, the natural world, the species that are threatened with extinction, the air quality, the way animals are farmed and slaughtered for consumption and so forth; this means never giving up hope and continuing the struggle wherever it is needed.
There is no logic nor religious legitimacy in abandoning a country in which we can campaign for peace and improvement of the human condition to go to a land of war, brutality and suffering. The parents who take their children out of primary school and travel to a war zone are committing a crime against their own children. Instead of giving up hope, it would be far better if they dug a hole and planted a tree.
Khola Hasan, April 2015.