A Daughter of Detroit, by Najah Bazzy
I was born on April 15 in Downtown Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital on a Christian holiday, Good Friday, to a blue collar Arab Muslim family, while all of America was rushing to the post office to mail their taxes, in a decade called the Sixties that would belong to civil rights, civil strife, old glory, grief, and greatness.
With such a start I can’t pretend to be surprised that a lot of my life has since been shaped and defined by civil rights, human rights, grief and sadness, joy and greatness. My father called me Najah, (it means ‘success’), after an artist named Najah Salam. Salam, the root word of Islam, means ‘peace.’ I learned early in life that a person who aspires to peace would model success, while a person who aspires to success may not always be peaceful. I am a Muslim by birth and by choice, a person who submits her will to God in a collaborative partnership between Creator and Created. The message of Islam in the Holy Qur’an, coupled with the example of the Messenger Muhammed and his holy family’s way of life, play key roles in shaping who I am, what I do, how I do it, and why.
Being a Muslim is not rooted in the rote performance of religious rituals. It is based on living your faith every moment of the day. Islam is cellular to a devout Muslim. It is a blue print for humanity, a blue print I use daily as a guide. I pay reverence to my Lord, and I reference His messengers, including Muhammed, Jesus, Moses, Noah and Abraham. It is, however, the life of Muhammed that has most influenced how I conduct myself and make decisions. He was the most complete of human beings, a mosaic of man and prophet, who taught us how to live a faithful life through his day-to-day example. He was, to paraphrase one of his contemporaries, the living Quran manifested in humanity. For Muslims, he is the divinely inspired messenger whose teaching completes the divine ring of dialogue between humankind and the Creator, beginning with Judaism and ending with Islam.
I measure my daily life by my impending death, as did the Prophet Muhammad. For me, he remains a constant reminder of the sacredness of time. He did not waste time. He utilized every moment to be of service to his Creator. For Muslims, Muhammad is the exemplary manifestation of a principled life. He has taught me that each breath is a gift, as is every thought. He has taught me to be efficient.
As a Muslim nurse, I am doubly aware of my physical body and its miracle. How it moves, walks, talks, sees, hears, speaks, and regenerates itself. Muhammad’s prayers and supplications have been handed down to us. Through them, I have learned to thank God for all of these faculties, which allow me to be productive as a human. I might have been created a bird, or an animal that slithers on the floor. I might have been born to crawl on my belly or carry a burden on my back. Instead, I was born a human, with a brain, free will, a heart that loves, and a womb that can bear children. How grateful I am to this Creator, and how worthy He is of my admiration and acknowledgment.
Raising a righteous family has been a primary goal in my life. I sometimes ask myself about the legacy or imprint I want to leave behind. When I depart this life what will my children say about me? I look to Muhammad’s legacy to help me answer these questions. On his deathbed he said, “I leave behind two weighty things, the Holy Quran and my revered Family. And he who holds firm to these two will never go astray; they will meet me at the fountain of abundance in Heaven.” I draw from these words the notion that our legacy lies in our most inspired actions and in our children.
Islam has taught me how to live with a conscious difference. It has taught me to be a nurse of a different kind, one that advocates for the rights of patients to exercise their faith, so that as they lie sick in their hospital beds their faith can play its proper role in their healing or their dying. Islam has taught me to be a daughter of a different kind, often through lessons derived from the life of the Prophet’s glorious daughter, Fatima. The Messenger taught me how to be a parent of a different kind, one that would not favor a son over a daughter, one that would love children and grandchildren. Islam has taught me how to be a wife of a different kind, one who understands that a marriage is a society’s strongest unit, because the family rests on its foundation. Islam and the Prophet have taught me how to exercise modesty as a testimony to the status of women. It has taught me that women are not commodities to be exploited by a billion dollar pornography industry. A woman is precious, valuable. She is not for sale. In all these ways, Islam has taught me how to hold my physical nature back, and move my humanness forward. This is the way I’d like to be remembered. This is the legacy I want to leave my children.
My favorite “watch words” are called the Key to Success. They were written by an unknown author. When I was in junior high school, it was a tradition for the ninth-grade class to pass down the “Key to Success” to upcoming students. It was a large, white key made of hard cardboard wrapped with red ribbon. The words inscribed on the key became a creed for me. It was presented to me as an upcoming class representative, and the following year I presented it to the next class. I quote it here because it expresses the legacy I’d like to leave behind. Its message is the cellular message of Islam.
“She was a success because she lived well, laughed often and loved much. She gained the respect of intelligent people and the love of little children. She filled her niche and accomplished her task whether by a kind gesture, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul. She always looked for the best in others and gave the best she had to give. For mom was a person for whom peace was a noun, verb, adjective, and an article of her faith. Her success was that she was a Muslim, she loved Islam, the faith of peace, and to God she did indeed humbly submit.”
Every person should have a mission and vision, says Steven Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Today, corporate America looks to Mr. Covey to teach principle-centered guidelines to run profitable businesses with integrity. I was introduced to his lessons and philosophy as part of a corporate training seminar for the health care system I worked for. Covey says that to be effective you need to start with the end in mind, as your first guiding principle. His second guiding principle is, Put first things first. I became enthralled with Mr. Covey’s message because it expresses Islam’s code of conduct in plain English. Its value system has been around for 1500 years, (somewhat longer than Mr. Covey). As I listened to the trainers teach the seven habits for success, I thought to myself, How interesting: I grew up with the seven habits rooted in my faith. Using Covey’s frame of reference, the developer of my program is God, the trainer is Muhammed, and the training manual is the Holy Quran. As a nurse in my field, these principles resonate with the tone of who I am now and who I will continue to be.
Through everyday learning experiences like this one, I have come to see that the principles I was taught as a child are principles worth sharing. For a Muslims, to “think with the end in mind” means to strive each day on earth to be worthy of Heaven. “Putting first things first” means giving God first place in life, my family second, and all else will follow. This coordination of priorities is powerful and effective in building a character of peace and success. Islam is indeed a way of life. Muslims believe that everything we do is a form of worship. Even sleep is a form of worship.
My first conscious memory, at the age of three-and-a-half, is marked with vivid images I still recall.
My mom was opening the oven to baste the turkey and, as always, I was under foot. I remember the smell, and the hustle of the kitchen laid with gray and red tiled linoleum. I remember my mother in her white shirt and apron, and how pretty I thought she was. Then I heard a sudden scream from the living room and my mom rushed to my father, who stood motionless, crying out loud. Seeing my father cry surprised me; I’m not sure that I understood anything except the sadness. I also recall a few days later, televised pictures of the hearse and seeing a little boy about my size saluting his daddy’s flag draped casket. I remember the death of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.
More than pictures, the sadness remains imprinted on my brain. This first impression of grief, I am sure, remains the unconscious base of my deep feelings for the dying and for those they leave behind. Today in my practice as a nurse, I am keenly aware of the power of grief and how it manifests itself in the many patients I see and serve.
I am one of those privileged people whose work permits me to listen often to the war stories of men, women and children. Over the last decade, many of my patients have immigrated from Bosnia, Kosovo, Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. When they relate heart-wrenching stories of losing their homes, their babies, their spouses, their parents, their hope and even their minds, I listen and cry along with them, wondering at our cruelty and hoping that one day mankind will grow up. If it weren’t for my faith in Islam, and my belief in a Judgment Day that will bring justice to oppressors and joy to those oppressed, I would not be able to do my work. It is hard to fathom the mind of a child who has watched a bomb falling on his home. It is difficult to hear elders speak of the black skies over Iraq after the air strikes, the fleece of white sheep turned black by debris, the wanton destruction of life in the years following the Gulf War. Yet with each painful story comes a surrender, an acceptance, and a proof that the human spirit has the capacity to endure somehow, some way. It is one of the aspects of my work that intrigues and attracts me and keeps me coming back.
Certain events in the Prophet Muhammad’s life affirm my own responsibility to the poor, the orphaned, the wayfarer, and even to one’s enemies. I keep these stories close to me.
According to one report, the Prophet had a neighbor, a pagan Meccan with a tribal mentality who hated him. Every night, the man would place his household trash in front of the Prophet’s door to humiliate him. Each morning the Prophet would open his door to leave his home and be greeted with the man’s garbage. In time, however, the neighbor fell ill, and the Prophet knocked at his door and went in to visit him. When the Prophet sat by his bedside, the man was so surprised, he asked, “What would bring you here to see me? Don’t you know I don’t like you?” The Prophet said, “Yes I know, but I am a man of principle, and my faith tells me to take care of my neighbors and to visit the sick. You are my neighbor and you are sick.”
This story has always been dear to me. Through it, I’ve been taught something about humility, grace, and caring for the ill. And because the man was of Jewish descent, the story also teaches me to respect people whose faith differs from mine.
One day I was giving a lecture to a group of nurses on caring for Muslim mothers. I was out of state and speaking at a hospital that served a high concentration of Muslim women seeking obstetric services. My lecture was on Women in Islam the first hour, and Care of the Muslim Mother the second hour. I was explaining the ethical code of Islam concerning birthing, death, burial of babies and fetuses, abortion, genetic counseling, grief counseling and other related issues. When the discussion ended, a managing nurse came to me and asked if she could see me privately. She wore a troubled expression. Of course I obliged. When we were alone, she began by asking if I had a strong stomach. Then she invited me to visit their pathology laboratory. As I followed her through the corridors, she unlocked one door after another. I could feel a coolness as we approached the room, and then we entered a typical pathology lab. There the woman raised her hands and gestured to the shelves lining the walls. “Here is our museum of babies,” she said. “I don’t know what to do with them all. I’ve had them on shelves here for years.”
I could see by their dated labels that some of the containers were seven years old. I looked at the white tubs filled with human beings, little bodies of people in formaldehyde, and my eyes welled. Some of the containers held two and three babies settled on top of each other. They ranged in fetal age from 12 weeks to full term. Little hands and feet, little faces and bodies. I thought of the Prophet.
Each day as he left his home, on the way to his Mosque in Medina, he would stop at the cemetery along the way. He would stop on the way and again coming back and say Salaam, the salutation of peace, to the people in their graves.
I asked to be left alone for a while. When the nurse had gone, I began to lift down the containers one by one. I said “Assalamu Aleikum, little ones, from me and your Messengers.” As I looked over the lab file of 220 babies with no names, I thought of the Prophet’s warning to care for the orphaned and those who are homeless and helpless. I wondered what to do and knew from his teaching that Muslims must be buried. But the responsibility, I slowly realized, was not just to bury the Muslims among these babies (of which I found none), but to bury all of them, since Islam concerns itself with everyone.
In the old days in Arabia, before Muhammad became a prophet, there was a widespread practice of burying babies alive- especially baby girls. Later, Muhammad put a stop to this. The Holy Quran contains a verse that says babies buried alive will call out a question on Judgment Day, before God’s eternal tribunal of justice, asking what sin they had committed to warrant being buried alive.
I recall all this now because it taught me two things: The babies in their bottles were orphaned, homeless, helpless. And I was guided.
On another occasion a mother miscarried her fetus, which fell into the toilet.
The mother became so upset that the nurse panicked. I was entering the room to visit the mother and heard the commotion. Luckily, I caught the nurse, who was about to flush the toilet, grabbing her hand. Then I found a sifter and lifted the baby. As we rinsed it, it lay in the palm of my hand, about 10 weeks old. That baby was buried, like the others.
When I was about fifteen, I began to assist in the ritual washing of the Muslim women who have died. The first person I attended was my aunt, who passed away suddenly. She was the love of our lives and many of us grieved for her. I remember watching as we wrapped her body with the plain sheets Muslims use to shroud the dead. I recall how we placed a scarf-like head covering over her hair. I remember thinking, How interesting it is, that we are born without clothes but die shrouded. I wondered: Were we born naked and innocent, only to die shrouded, as if to cover up a life of sins? I wasn’t learned in the rites of Islam at 15. I was a practicing young Muslim girl, who observed modesty in my character and clothing, but there was a lot I didn’t understand.
One day a few years later, I came across a book called simply, Muhammed. It was a biography. Near the end, when I reached the part about his death, I wept over the story. How does the world lose an Abraham, a Moses, a Jesus, a Muhammad? How does the world recover from such a loss? He died in his home, in the arms of his beloved cousin and son-in-law Ali. In my tradition Ali, who was raised by the Prophet, washed, shrouded, and buried the Prophet’s body. Reading about this, I recalled the shrouding of my aunt, and realized that if the Prophet was shrouded, it must teach us something about death: The body is a dignified gift and carrying case, and even in death the genitals should be covered and the body clothed. I began to revise my thought of a few years before, about shrouding and sin, for I realized that Muhammad was a man without sin, yet in death he was shrouded.
From that time on, the circumstances surrounding death became sacred moments for me. Today, I spend many of my working hours helping people through the dying process, the grieving process, and more. I advocate for improved hospice services, and I belong to several coalitions dedicated to treating people with dignity near life’s end.
When I was growing up my grandmother lived with us. She was my love and I was hers. We shared the same bedroom. She would tell me stories of the old country and her youth. One day she called me to our room. I was about 20 at the time. . She told me to get a pad and paper and write her last will down. I wasn’t ready to live without my grandmother. I would never be ready. But I sat with her, and as she spoke her wishes, I wrote them down. She asked me to be sure her shroud was white and green, to visit her grave often, to always plant flowers at her grave. She asked me to be sure her daughters and I washed her and to be sure no one other than us saw her. She held me to this Amana or trust, that I would care for the elderly and that I would never as a nurse be harsh with the ill or the elderly. I have until this day lived up to the promise. Tomorrow, God willing, I’ll go on.
The Prophet Muhammed was once brought to a dying man who was suffering so terribly with a lingering illness. The Prophet asked many questions and discovered that this was a man who had been harsh with his mother, and she in turn was unforgiving of him for it. The Prophet went to speak to the mother. “Will you forgive your son? He is suffering because you have not forgiven him for what he has done to you.” The woman replied, “He was too harsh with me, after I gave him all I had in my life.” At this point, the Prophet of God instructed his companions to build a bonfire. And he said to her, “Then push your son into this fire.” She said, “Prophet of God, you ask me to do what I cannot, he is my son.” The Prophet replied, “If he dies without your forgiveness the fire will be his eternal home.” The mother quickly forgave her son, and he died in peace.
I carry these stories with me. They are living lessons of a dynamic faith.
This year my mother joined me on the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. It was the second time each of us had performed these sacred rites. Holding her hand, praying next to her, eating with her, and hearing her supplication for her children, as she made her circuit around the holy Ka’ba, are among the peak memories of a lifetime. I looked at my mother often on our trip.
A young person once asked the Prophet, “If my mother and father call me at the same time, to whom should I respond?” the Prophet replied, “Your mother.” “And the second time?” The Prophet replied, “Your mother.” “And the third time?” The Prophet replied,”Your mother.” “And the fourth time?” The Prophet replied, “Your father.”
Although I am 42 years of age, my mother looked after me constantly while we were on the pilgrimage. She tried to feed me and felt concerned about my whereabouts every minute that I was not with her. In short, she worried about me as though I were a baby. I thought, “Yes indeed, all six of her children will always be her babies. Just as all four of my children will always be my babies.” I watched her with sadness in my heart because she was aging, slowing down and, when fatigued, forgetful.
There we were in Mecca, the Prophet’s birthplace, and then Medina, his chosen place of refuge, the two holiest cities in Islam, and I was with my mother. I couldn’t help recalling in those surroundings that the Prophet Muhammed had lost his father soon after his birth, or that he had lost his mother a few years later. I wondered about the trials of a child without parents, how much he must have missed them. He knew what it was to be orphaned. When he called upon his people to care for orphans, he knew first hand the lonely heart of a child without parental love. At the age of seven or so, he came into the protecting arms of his grandfather, Abu Muttalib, but lost him too before long, then passed into the hands of a loving uncle, Abu Talib, who raised him into adulthood. No wonder this safety net, the extended family, remains important in Islam. For me, it is as important as the nuclear family.
In Mecca and Medina, I could feel the presence of this man, this messenger, Muhammed. I could feel his spirit and his blessings in my life. In Mecca when I prayed before the Ka’ba, and again in his Mosque in Medina, I recommitted myself to being the best example of a human being that I can be. I recommitted myself to the principles laid down by this most complete human being: a man and a messenger, a father and husband, an advocate for human rights, founder of a just and fair government. If more people knew his story and the world in which it took place, they would understand that Muhammad liberated women and the voice of the oppressed. He exiled racism, freed slaves, married widows, and protected orphans. Moreover, his message lived after him, and soon united much of the world under the banner of monotheism. Muhammad’s teaching lives on today, attracting new people, revitalizing the lives of those who learn about him. He makes me proud to be a Muslim.