The office building I once interned in houses state of the art serviced offices, bedecked with the functional yet chic elements to create an environment that makes work fun and easy. It’s tall height is dwarfed by the gigantic Burj Khalifa that stands bang opposite to it like its big daddy. My story, however, does not revolve around the times when we feel larger than life, rather when our vanity goes down with prostration to the giver of life. The building has a prayer room just big enough for a few Muslims to practice their daily prayers on time and in between the office hours. It is during during these times that I always met Shafi-ul-Islam – a young, soft spoken man from Bangladesh.
He seldom prayed with the congregation and would studiously stand by the sides of the abolution (washing) area and wipe the water that had splashed onto the seat. To ensure that the washing area was clean before the next group of men used it, he would swipe the floor even if it meant that the men had to patiently wait. When the meticulous yet repetitive and seemingly boring ordeal was over, he always had time for a smile and words of greeting. Even as I finished praying and wore my shoes preparing to leave, I would always notice him stand in an alert position with the mop by his side in one hand as if he’d made it his friend. There was something awkward about him standing this way, smiling and waiting for me to leave every single time. I then realized that he waited for me to leave so that he could continue swiping the water from the floor without splashing it on me. I was once late for prayer and found only myself and him in the prayer hall. He was in the middle of his prayer and I remember thinking to myself that he must have finally arrived at his optimum-tidiness and separated from his mop for a few minutes.
There is great emphasis on maintaining cleanliness and keeping the prayer area free from impurities. This discipline is something that I noticed even in the mosques in India – a country not particularly reputed for its sanitation and waste-disposing facilities. This order and spruceness is not made possible by waving a magic wand, but by the efforts of the brush, the hands that guide it and the man who is determined to guide his hands to task. Some volunteer to the job occasionally, while others are hired to dedicate their services in helping the worshipers in attaining half the faith. It was sometimes embarrassing to come across these ‘cleaners’ in the mosques of India. Embarrassing because many of them were frail and old, rigorously scrubbing the floor while I left the mosque having prayed with the age and comfort on my side.
We live in a time when parents pass on values to their children and teachers impart morals in the guise of stories. We have at least have lived in moments well before our ‘mistakes’ and ‘experiences’ could get the sobriquet of being a teacher. Stories and scriptures that emphasized the importance of cleanliness, for instance, is something I remember from school days. My parents explained the significance of cleanliness in the Islamic faith and philosophy with the popular axiom – “cleanliness is half the faith.”
On another occasion, my teacher shared the story of a stained window that led to the viewer’s perception that her neighbour’s clothes on the clothesline were perpetually soiled. The folly does not always lie in one’s character, but the frame of reference, the window of perception that one uses to know and understand a fellow being. Dirt, in this story of the stained window, was not the literal impurity welcomed with soap and water, but rather it is an unlikely hero that rose from the dust to provide wisdom. It’s the philosophical process of scrubbing your attitude and cleansing it off the stains of judgement and prejudice.
What I chose to portray through my encounter with Shafi-ul-Islam is a path where literal cleanliness intersects with philosophical purity. A nexus where faith meets morals and values. Had there not been people who volunteer to get their hands dirty, practicing a religion which is particular about cleanliness would become a challenge and most worshipers would look only after themselves in their endeavour to reach the desired level of tidiness.
It is men like the one in my story who don’t just take on the onus of such community service, but also give us the opportunity to scrub our thoughts clean of ignorance and appreciate small things. It helps us to philosophically cleanse the tiny window through which we try to view a world which in actuality is much larger than our lives spent in vanity. Many times, we are too engrossed in the faith and forget to dedicate a thought or two to those who facilitate its practice. If cleanliness is half the faith, then indeed, Shafi-ul-Islam is a humble, smiling face of that faith.