It was one those monsoon days in Kuala Lumpur. Actually, nobody agrees where the monsoon season is, so let’s say it was a rainy day in Kuala Lumpur; and Kuala Lumpur, when it rains, it gets sticky. That was a new sensation for me: rain and heat. And I liked it. Sip your coffee while it rains outside and you’re wearing a t-shirt, not what I was accustomed to in Europe.
We were driving to meet a man that we have been told could help us for the purpose of our trip, to build a mosque in Seville. We had not heard anything about this man, other than he was wealthy and well connected. And what we found surprised us, as much as I hope it will surprise you, because is the story of how the love for the Prophet, peace be upon him, changed the destiny of a man. Or, we may say, how the love of the Messenger made his destiny unfold in an unexpected way even to himself.
We met him at his office at the top of a tall building. His office was decorated with an exquisite taste. Simple but comfortable. Glass windows covered most of the walls and gave way to a beautiful sight of the city underneath. At the centre of it, there was a desk, a beautiful and impressive piece of furniture which contours resembled those of an aeroplane and, without being pretentious, it dominated the entire office.
We sat in an adjacent room, part of the office but separated by a glass wall, and we were told to wait there. After a few minutes and a traditional tea -a welcoming drink in that sweaty weather- he came in.
It was a short man, very well dresses in a western style with a tweet jacket and pair of chinos. When he came in, his presence was felt by all of us. He had a neat appearance, a man of between fifty and sixty -difficult to tell exactly- lean and with sharp but Malaysian features, with a perfectly combed hair and no beard.
He sat with us and after the customary introductions, the conversation drifted to address the purpose of our trip. He had excellent manners, courteous without being disrespectful, interested without being curious. After some time talking about the issue at hand, where he offered his help and advice, I cannot remember exactly how, but he began to tell us about his life. It was probably the fact that he offered to donate an umbrella for the garden of the future mosque in Seville, like those in the Mosque of the Prophet in Madinah, that led us to wonder how that would be possible and to him telling us the following story.
When he was twelve or thirteen he went to Saudi to work as a servant for a rich family. The family had paid a handsome amount of money to his parents and the dire situation of his family did not give him a choice.
He spent the following years in Saudi Arabia serving this household. He did not tell us this, but I suspect that he was also educated while he was there and became fluent in Arabic, something that would become very handy later in his life.
After a few years in Saudi, he told us, the family that he was working for went to Madinah and, in a break from his duties, he went to visit the Prophet at his mosque. He was seventeen by then. During this visit, at the tomb of the Prophet, peace be upon him, he made a Dua’. The words of the Dua’, as his related to us, were: “Oh Allah, allow me to serve your Prophet if only for a second of my life as I serve this family”.
It kept pouring outside. From the windows we could see the gloomy sky and grey city underneath. It is telling to observe how the absence of sunlight makes the colours disappeared and how that influences the observer. Nonetheless, by this point, we were grappled by this man, his charisma and his story. His English was also perfect.
Later, in the beginning of his twenties, he was given leave and returned to Malaysia where he pursued a career as an Architect and became mildly successful. So much that he could undertake an Umrah pilgrimage with his family. In Malaysia, as in most of the Muslim majority countries, going on Hajj is a long a patient endeavour, so many people would go on Umrah before Hajj. Also, when they do, the entire family travels: parents, grandparents, brothers and sister, uncles, cousins… it’s a family affair.
As is the case with most Umrah pilgrims, they stayed in Jeddah, which is conveniently located not too far from Makkah but also relatively cheaper. After some time there, and having already fulfilled the purpose of their trip, the day of leaving was approaching soon.
The day before the departure our man had gone alone to take care of some routine endeavours. While on a taxi on the way back to his hotel he heard the adhan and asked the taxi driver to stop in the closest mosque that was on the way. He asked the taxi driver to wait for him, but the taxi driver, scared of losing some other clients, told him that he will drop him and leave.
He went into the mosque right after the adhan and sat waiting for the prayer. As is the norm, there is always a short delay between the adhan and the prayer to give people time to prepare for it and get to the mosque. He was early and sat in the front row waiting. When the time of the prayer arrived, he stood up and conducted his prayer with everyone else. He noticed that an old man was next to him but didn’t pay more attention to that fact. After the prayer finished everyone stood up and left, but he remained for a little sitting doing some Dua’s.
When he was about to leave he realized that there was no one else in the mosque but saw the old man that had stood next to him in the prayer waiting at the mosque’s door. As he was going out they greeted and a conversation ensued. The old man asked him what was the purpose of his visit and he answered that he had come with his family to do Umrah and that he was leaving next day. To this, the old man told him: “No, you cannot leave tomorrow, you have to come see me tomorrow”. Surprised by this firm request, he tried to explain to him that he could not, he was there with his entire family and they were all returning next day. But the old man insisted and would not take a no for an answer. “Tomorrow, at nine o’clock, a chauffeur will come and pick you up from your hotel”, he said. He agreed, knowing that opposing will not make a difference, but thinking to himself that he would not be there next day.
He returned to his hotel and told his family what had happened. They all agreed that he had to go back next day, except for his father. His father told him that he should go meet the old man. It was all set for everyone else to return safely, it would not make a big difference whether he was going with or not. He decided to follow his father’s advice.
We were sitting listening as this man told us his story. New tea came in. From time to time he would stop and make a remark about a different subject. He was humorous, a witty comment will spice up the conversation now and then, and he knew how to tell a story. By now we were seriously intrigued by him. The setting in which this conversation was happening did not match the beginning of his life, and we still did not know how he arrived at it.
Next day, at nine o’clock, there was a car waiting for him at the door of the hotel. He climbed into the car and let the driver took him wherever he was supposed to go. They arrived at a big tower. Jeddah is full of very tall buildings that contrast sharply with the old two storage constructions. He went through some security checks and was taken to the highest floor where the old man awaited him.
By now he suspected this old man was someone important, important and wealthy. But he still did not know what he wanted from him.
He was received by the old man in his office, who was dressing in the customary dress from Saudi Arabia, a long white thobe, a headscarf and a tiara on top. The old man looked noble but simple. They greeted once again and the old man conveyed him his delight at him having come to meet him. After a short conversation, the old man asked him: “So what was the purpose of your trip?”. He thought strange that he would ask this question again but answered the same that he had the day before. The old man asked him again, this time with more emphasis. “No. Why did you come to Saudi Arabia? What was the real purpose?”. He paused and repeated his answer, not convinced that that was the answer the old man wanted. And he was right. The old man asked him a third time, almost impatiently, as if trying to move a big stone from the path which is too heavy for one person. This time he paused for a bit longer, thoughtful and almost scared to answer because he knew that the old man knew that there was something else. Something that he himself had not consciously thought about, but that it was there. Something to do with his past.
“When I was seventeen”, he said, “I was a servant in this country for a rich family. During one of the trips that they undertook and I accompanied them, we visited Medina and I went to visit the Prophet at his tomb. There I made this Dua’: ‘Oh Allah, allow me to serve your Prophet, if only for a second of my life, as I serve this family’”. The old man almost jumped off his chair. “That was it. That’s it”. He said with fervour. Our man watched him, not really understanding what was happening. The old man went to a desk and opened a drawer. He took an old key and approached him. “This is one of the keys to the tomb of the Prophet, peace be upon him, there are only three in the world, and now you have one”.
Our tea had gone cold. We were absorbed by this man and his story and we have forgotten to sip it. He realized and new tea came in. It continued raining and Maghrib time was approaching.
He then told us that this old man was the head of a very influential family who oversaw the caring of the Haramain. That not only had he given him this key, but that he made sure that from that moment on he could conduct his business in a way that could allow him to take care of the responsibility that he had just received.
After this, we heard the adhan and he asked us to join him for the prayer at the Musallah in the building.
Before departing he invited us for supper at his house a few days late, during which we found many other sides to this enigmatic character. But that’s another story.
It continued raining outside.
(The picture that accompanies this post is of the Mosque of Imam Busiri, author of the Burdha Poem and one of the lovers of the Prophet, peace be upon him, taken during a recent trip to Alexandria, where he is buried)