Who, when disaster strikes them, say, “Indeed we belong to Allah , and indeed to Him we will return.” [TMQ 2:156]
Funerals are by their very nature poignant affairs; an occasion to pause and reflect on the ephemeral nature of life and to contemplate what lies beyond (assuming you believe in an afterlife). Accordingly as I sat waiting for the coffin to be wheeled into the main prayer hall of London’s central mosque – or Regent’s Park Mosque (RPM) as it’s more commonly known to the capital’s Muslims –I was in pensive mood, ruminating for the most part over my religious shortcomings and how I might best requite them. As an orthodox Muslim who believes that our actions in this life have a direct bearing on our fate in the next, it’s the incalculable aspect of death that most unnerves me every time I find myself forced to confront it. When will it come for me and will I have done enough when it does are the two questions that continually play through my mind and doubly so while at a funeral. The answer to both questions, my faith informs me, is that only Allah (swt) knows yet the presumption that I can approximate the answer to the former to “when I’m old” has always served to inform my answer to the latter – “still plenty of time to put things right”. Needless to say the death of someone not yet into middle age let alone old age tends to vitiate such reasoning and drive home just how precarious our sojourn on this earth is.
The sight of the coffin finally being brought into the prayer area, accompanied by security guards (intoning sternly that no pictures of the corpse were to be taken), jarred me from my introspection and suddenly my mental focus switched to the deceased doctor to whom we had come to pay our respects. On a subconscious level I found myself questioning what possessed a man of such education and undoubted medical talent – he was training to be a surgeon – to forsake the relative safety and comfort of south London in exchange for the danger and desolation of northern Syria and its capital Aleppo? Certainly I can grasp the concept of altruism but surely there was no need to go there in person – I mean there are plenty of charities that we can donate to from the safety of our laptop (or even mobile phone). On reflection, of course such reasoning fails to consider the oft overlooked reality that such charities are not mere abstractions accessible only via PayPal or an 0800 number but corporeal entities comprising real people; people who most often receive nothing by way of remuneration yet selflessly volunteer their time – and in the case of Dr Khan their life – in the endeavour of bringing hope and comfort to those who have precious little of either. It then dawned upon me that too many of us use charitable donations as a way of assuaging the guilt of our own torpor – Dr Khan proved not such a person.
As I glanced around I noticed the multitude that had entered since I’d sat down fifteen minutes earlier so that the commodious main prayer hall was now approaching capacity. For those who have ever attended midday prayers at RPM (outside of Ramadan) would know that the normal attendance numbers in the tens; yesterday it stood at around two thousand. The cognisance that thousands of Muslims, for the most completely unrelated and unknown to Dr Khan, had taken the time and effort to attend his funeral prayer not only touched me deeply but furthermore reanimated a part of my conscience that has for too long lain dormant, atrophying as a consequence of years of disconnect. Here before me stood the Muslim community, in all its vibrant diversity – black, white, brown, HT, Ikhwani, Salafi, Sufi, practising, non-practising, orthodox and modernist – united not just by a common creed but also by a common purpose. Together in unison we prayed for the soul of our martyred brother and as one we sat in silence to hear tributes from an erstwhile colleague and a eulogy from his consanguineous brother (Dr Shahnawaz Khan). I truly felt that our presence in such numbers was in itself an act of defiance towards the murderous Syrian regime who no doubt had hoped that this funeral would have been a much more low-key affair. Our small act of solidarity in London with a solitary bereaved Muslim family was undoubtedly but a microcosm representation of the solidarity of the global Muslim Ummah with the thousands of bereaved families of Syria.
The eulogy itself was laconic, eloquent and clearly heartfelt yet not maudlin but most of all it was inspirational – as any eulogy for a martyr must be. And while Dr Shahnawaz’s grief was palpable he acquitted himself of this most plaintive of duties with remarkable dignity and aplomb. Of course the expressions of inconsolable grief from Dr Khan’s mother were completely understandable and any who witnessed her grief-stricken lamentations could not fail to be touched by and empathise with, her plight. For her loss is as our loss and without doubt one day justice shall be served on those who so cruelly snatched her son away from her – be it in this life or the next. If those callous assassins supposed that by taking his life they might dissuade others from following in his footsteps then they committed a monumental error of judgement. Far from attenuating the links between the Muslims of Syria and Britain this brutal killing has instead served to strengthen them and redouble the determination of our community to aid our brothers and sisters in their hour of need.
Whilst I doubt Assad or any of his bloodthirsty cohorts will ever read this, on the off-chance that they do then my message to you is that your fate was sealed the day you murdered the first Muslim who peacefully spoke out against your tyranny. Your fate will be that of Gaddafi’s – to be dragged from your sewer to face the same form of justice that you meted out to countless thousands. As for the British politicians who failed to intervene on behalf of Dr Khan with the requisite robustness, instead confining themselves to the occasional tepid statement of support then know that the Muslim community holds you also culpable.
As I walked out of the courtyard of the mosque, pausing to cast a cursory glance over the martyred doctor’s visage (he looked at peace), as I walked past the assembled media with their cameras and notepads I felt once again after an absence of many years, a deep sense of belonging combined with a sense of duty and purpose. Maybe, the dastardly murder of this courageous man has finally instilled in me what years of expostulations by parents and teachers, marriage, divorce, penury, affluence, health scares have singularly failed to do. We have but one life and it need not be like “a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more” and depending on the path we choose to tread it can certainly amount to more than “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Dr Khan chose to stand up and be counted, to discharge his duty and to leave his own small indelible mark on this world; as a community we should take pride in his self-sacrifice and let it be the fillip for those who have lost themselves in the petty distractions of this life. I only pray that God now grants me the fortitude and perseverance to do likewise in what remains of my life.
“Among the believers are men who have been true to their covenant with Allah, of them some have fulfilled their obligations, and some of them are still waiting, but they have never changed in the least.” [TMQ 33:23]
Dr Abbas Khan leaves behind a widow and two young children. A fund has been started in order to provide for them. I would encourage everyone to donate to it and to ask others to do likewise: http://www.justgiving.com/DrAbbasKhan