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In remembrance of Karim Khan Afridi

June 21 marks the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere and is the longest day of the year. But even in the pre-sunset twilight that day in Islamabad there was the darkness of midnight in the hearts of hundreds of people – men, women and children – who had assembled in remembrance and prayer for Karim Khan Afridi.

Karim, the 19-year-old son of Ambassador Tariq Afridi and his wife, Christina, had passed away earlier in the week. Despite the crippling anguish of so irreparable and so irredeemable a loss, the parents carried themselves with poise and dignity as though some strange force had given them inner strength.

In his epitaph on the death of a child, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), a founder of the Romantic Movement in English literature, lamented: “Ere sin could blight or sorrow fade; death came with friendly care; the opening bud to heaven conveyed, and bade it blossom there.” Such was the blameless life of Karim – unsullied by the greed and crude ambitions of those much older than him.

At the remembrance ceremony that hot and sultry afternoon, one of the many mourners asked rhetorically: “Why O why, must a person so young be suddenly plucked away from the garden of mortal existence? What is God’s purpose? Why does He put us through such ordeals? What is Islam – is it the religion of the Taliban?” The man, whom I had never met, obviously did not expect an answer. But while listening to him, I remembered a strange incident in the life of the famous English writer and hymnodist, William Cowper (1731-1800) who Coleridge once described as “the best modern poet”.

Cowper had struggled with depression and self-doubt all his life. On a cold winter’s night in 1773 he left his home with the intention of drowning himself in the River Thames. But he lost his way in the dense London fog and wandered on and on through the night. By the time the smog slowly yielded to the advancing dawn, he found himself miraculously standing at his own doorstep.

By then Cowper had recovered sufficiently from his dejection and was convinced that it was Divine intervention that had saved him from taking his own life. He expressed his gratitude that day in the last hymn he ever wrote: “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform; He plants His footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm…Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace. Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.”

These thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the voice of a woman who was speaking through the microphone. She recited verses of the Quran followed by a prayer for Karim. Her sermon which came afterwards was rounded off with a hymn as a mark of respect to Mary (peace be upon her), the mother of Jesus.

In this land of bigots it is unthinkable that a woman should have delivered the sermon and taken the lead in the recitation of the passages of the sacred Quran on the solemn occasion. What they deliberately ignore is that the first convert to Islam was a woman as was its first martyr – Sumayyah bint Khayyat who was killed by Abu Jahl, a leader of the Quraysh and an inveterate enemy of the early Muslims of Mecca.

When I mentioned this to Mullah Muhammad Rabbani, the chairman of the ruling council of the Afghan Taliban during a meeting in Kandahar in 1998, he reminded me that a woman, Hazrat Ayshah (RA) – the illustrious wife of the Holy Prophet – had been one the great law-givers of Islam.

The reference to Mary (peace be upon her) in the sermon was also in perfect harmony with Islamic teachings. She is the most prominent female figure in the Quran and the only one identified by name. Her story appears in three Meccan surahs or chapters (19, 21 and 23) of the Holy Book and in four (3, 4, 5 and 66) that were revealed in Medina. In total there are 70 Quranic verses that refer to her and in 34 of these she is mentioned specifically by name.

Even more indicative of the importance that is assigned to Mary (peace be upon her) in the religion of Islam is that Chapter 19, which has a special place in the history of the early Muslims, is named after her. It was recited by Jafar ibn Abi Talib, the leader of the first group of refugees from Mecca to Abyssinia, before the Christian ruler of that country. This enabled the monarch to understand the esteem for Jesus and his mother, Mary (peace be upon her), in Islam – the commonalities between the two religions was a sub-theme in the prayers beseeching God’s mercy and blessings on Karim.

But the doctrinaire emphasis of Islam on peace and amity is much broader and extends to all apostles, even to those who have not been mentioned in the Quran (4: 162; 40: 78). Furthermore, Muslims are enjoined to accept their teachings “making no distinction between any of His apostles…” (2:285; 4: 152).

The same spirit is discernible in the first Quranic verse authorising war which is permissible only in self-defence and the reason is: “…For, if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, (all) monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques – in (all of) which God’s name is abundantly extolled – would surely have been destroyed (ere now)…” (22: 39-40).

The tragic confirmation of this – just to cite one example out of hundreds – was the terrorist attack on the All Saints Church in Peshawar on September 22, 2013 which killed 107 worshippers including 37 children. One of the groups affiliated to the TTP boasted: “We will continue our attacks on non-Muslims on Pakistani land.” Had military action been taken six years earlier, thousands of blameless people would not have been ruthlessly slaughtered.

The ongoing war in North Waziristan – for it is nothing short of that – is, therefore, jihad in terms of Islamic tenets. Its ideological aspect was expounded in the prayers for Karim. The false religion of the Taliban was demolished in the sermon.

It dealt with the miracle of life and the mystery of death. The Quran says: “… We bring you forth as infants and (allow you to live) so that some of you might attain to maturity: for among you are such as are caused to die (in childhood), just as many a one of you is reduced to old age to an abject state, ceasing to know anything of what he once knew so well…” (22: 5).

But the emphasis quite rightly in the sermon was the two dominant themes which constitute the leitmotif of the entire Quran – the certainty of an afterlife and the pronouncement: “God has willed upon Himself the law of mercy and grace” (6: 12 and 54). None of the other divine attributes has been similarly described.

The two terms rahman and rahim, which are a part of the invocation that precedes every chapter of the Quran with the exception of chapter 9, are derived from the noun rahmah signifying the qualities of ‘mercy,’ ‘compassion,’ ‘loving tenderness,’ and, more comprehensively, ‘grace’. According to the famous Syrian-born theologian, Ibn Qayyim (1292-1350): “The term rahman circumscribes the quality of abounding grace inherent in, and inseparable from, the concept of God’s being, whereas rahim expresses the manifestation of that grace in, and its effect upon, His creation – in other words, an aspect of His activity.”

Such is the mercy of God in whose ‘loving tenderness’ and care Karim now resides. On that hot summer solstice afternoon more than 300 people prayed for him. They heard the message of Islam and a crippling blow was administered to the poisonous ideology of religious extremism. Rest in peace, Karim, and may your family find solace in the promise of God, “And, behold, with every hardship comes ease: verily, with every hardship comes ease!” (94: 5-6).

The writer is the publisher of  Criterion Quarterly.  Email: iftimurshed@gmail.com

S. Iftikhar Murshed, "In remembrance of Karim Khan Afridi," The News. 2014-06-30.
Keywords: Social sciences , Social theology , Islamic teachings , Religion-Islam , Literature-English , Taliban , Islam , Verses , Muslims , Extremism , Quran , Holy Prophet (PBUH) , Mullah Muhammad Rabbani , Karim Khan Afridi , Tariq Afridi , Afghanistan , TTP