There is a homeless Chinese man who I often see walking around my neighbourhood. You would not know from looking at him that he was homeless, but I know because I see him often. Today I saw him outside my house, walking on the street. He was carrying a couple of bags and was trying to look normal, which is why a lot of people probably don’t realise he is homeless. He always smiles and never asks for money. He is always clean , though invariably in the same clothes. He even keeps his cheap white trainers immaculate. I don’t know how old he is, it’s hard to tell with oriental guys, he could be maybe forty – five. Then again he could be sixty five.
When I saw him outside my house today, I thought it was very strange. It made me realise that the fact that I see this guy so often in a city as large and as impersonal as London is very odd. Actually, come to think of it, of all the hundreds of thousands of strangers and even the many homeless people in Stratford, he is the only one I would recognise, including all the pretty shop girls and attendants that I see regularly who all eventually blend in to one. I first saw him at the library, sitting and reading a book. But he stayed for a very long time, and I would see him whenever I was at the library. It was small things like this, and the way I would see him in a park on a warm day, looking wistfully at the children playing, that made me realise that despite his façade, he was in fact a homeless person. He would also take very long walks around East London, always looking clean, his long straight hair combed and trying his best to smile when people looked his way. But his eyes never joined in the dance of the smile on his mouth, which always danced alone because his smile was like his crisp white shoes, just a disguise.
Despite all this, when I saw him as I stood outside my own house, I did not smile back at him. In fact, I did not acknowledge him at all, let alone offer him a drink or waffle on about the weather with him. After all, who would want a strange homeless man, even one as well turned out as him, in their house? Or even outside their house?
I went on about my business. The episode troubled me though. It made me think I was missing something, just as how everyone else was missing the fact that he was probably sleeping on the streets. It reminded me of what the Sufis say, that everything is a ‘sign’ or more profoundly ‘tajalliyyat‘, a manifestation of the will of Allah. If that is the case, then what did the Chinese man represent? Was he really a ‘symbol’, and of what? And what was the meaning of my own (in)action towards him?
‘The world has issued from the pages of God’s words. And though man himself is but a great word of God – more precisely a great sign on the horizons of the world – it is man alone who is in a position to interpret here…not only God’s Book, the Quran, but also another open book revealed by God – the world…Sufism underlines that both the Quran and the World should be interpreted by means of the same hermeneutics (tawil)…The basic principle in Islam: ‘There is no divinity except God’ means that all the phenomena of the world, as well as the world itself, are no more than manifestations of the Absolute, the Reality, the Eternity. To describe those manifestations the Sufis like to use the Arabic word tajalliyyat’ – Enis Karic
Muslims, in apologetics and otherwise rightly attack atheists for the idea that ‘it’s all just random, a big coincidence’. But then the Muslims must appreciate that if is is NOT all random then it means something. The whole and every part. We must then, try to find the meanings.
I was reminded of the Hadith of RasoolAllah (SAW) about the rights of the neighbours:
“He is not a believer whose neighbour is unsafe from his mischief.” They announced it thrice and then to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) pointed towards forty doors to his right and forty to the left indicating that forty houses in every direction constitute ones neighbourhood. One is obliged to observe their rights.
It further reminded me of a story about Imam Abu Hanifa. He had gone to visit his neighbour who had been imprisoned for being drunk for the umpteenth time. Abu Hanifa wanted to fulfil his rights as a neighbour, though the man was a drunk and in jail. Abu Hanifa was amazed that despite everything, the man had been able to find alcohol yet again. The man said to Abu Hanifa: ‘Imam, today it is I who will teach you something: it is God who is hard to find, alcohol can be found with little effort’ (I have paraphrased the story from memory).
The Chinese man, being homeless, is actually a neighbour to more people than anyone else, since he drifts about and has no fixed abode, hence, according to the Hadith, he enjoys more rights than anyone else with a house, since he has more neighbours, though you wouldn’t know it from the way I treated him.
It also made me think that there is no way that the Prophet (PBUH) would have ignored a man like that. Not that the man asked for anything, or even needed anything. For all I know he may have deliberately chosen to live that way. Even if offered him money I don’t think he would have taken it. I can tell that he is like that. In fact, strangely I feel that I know him quite well. I just don’t think RasoolAllah would have ignored him, that’s all.
It also reminded me of a Muslim story about Jesus (PBUH). Jesus had very few possessions, and he only used to take with him a jug with which to drink water and a comb for his hair. One day he saw a man at the river drinking water using his hands. Upon seeing this, Jesus threw away the jug. He later saw a man combing his hair with his fingers, and upon seeing this he threw away the comb as well.
It is also narrated about Jesus (PBUH) that he said: ‘He who seeks after the world is like one who drinks sea water; the more he drinks, the more his thirst increases, until it kills him’.
Or, as the Second Imam of the Caucuses put it: ‘The world is a carcass, and he who seeks it a dog’.
And maybe that’s what the Chinese man represented or ‘manifested’: that to turn away from a good deed is to turn away a gift from God. And who would be stupid enough to do that?
Well, me apparently…