by Al Janssen
The photo was taken during our walk in Gaza. Note the boy holding a toy machine gun at the top.
A RAMADAN CELEBRATION
This is the last day of Ramadan, the annual month-long Muslim fast. For the past weeks, from sunrise to sunset, Muslims have abstained from food and drink. Each day after sunset, they break the fast.
Brother Andrew and I have participated in these evening meals. It is unusual to sit in a restaurant in a Muslim country, with every table occupied, food beautifully displayed, yet no one is eating. Together, we waited for the nearest mosque to announce the sun had set. Then we all ate together. It is a unique community experience.
In December 2002, Brother Andrew and I were in Gaza City at the end of Ramadan. About 4 a.m. in the wee hours of the morning, the loudspeakers at nearby mosques began the call to prayer. Most days, this lasted only a few minutes and I would fell back asleep. But today was the start of Id al-Fitr, the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast, and the celebrations were broadcast throughout the city for several hours. People chanting loudly from the Quran, prayers, and even sermons blasted into our apartment until my head ached.
When the cacophony finally ended, Brother Andrew and I took a long walk. In the city center, most of the shops were closed, except for food stalls! The square was filled with lovely smells as people enjoyed falafel, fresh baked bread and kabobs. For the first time in a month, they could eat during daylight hours. Palestinian soldiers greeted us with smiles. Two boys approached us for a handout. Andrew and I gave them candy.
Children everywhere crowded around us, dressed in their new pants and sweaters—Id al-Fitr is similar to our Christmas. The parents give presents of new clothing to their children. A group of children asked me to take their picture with Brother Andrew. After clicking one photo, I noticed one of the boys holding a toy machine gun. Later that day, I observed several children pretending to wage jihad against Israel. Pictures of their heroes—the martyrs killed in two intifadas—were plastered on poles and walls throughout the city. Clearly, many kids dreamed of joining the exalted group.
CELEBRATING THE MARTYRDOM OF MY SON
Returning to our apartment, we came across an open area filled with hundreds of plastic chairs. A man dressed in a black suit with a red boutonniere stood tall and proud. Other men were warmly greeting him. This was a Palestinian mourning tent. The man recognized us as foreigners and explained in broken English that they were celebrating “the martyrdom of my son. He died three days ago, on 27 Ramadan.”
We started to offer our condolences, but the man ushered us into the gathering and invited us to become Muslims. He was so proud that his son was in paradise. He brought us to the place of honor where we were offered a cup of juice, a fresh date and a piece of candy while the proud father preached to us: “Allah is the only answer,” he said. “Not [then U.S. President] Bush. Not Arafat. Not Europe or the United States. Only Allah.”
A prominent business man sat next to Brother Andrew. He spoke excellent English, but he couldn’t say much because this proud father continued to preach to us. When the businessman got up to leave, we knew it was polite to also depart. We asked the father if we could take a picture with him, but he said, “No, not today.” We warmly shook hands and again offered our condolences.
MUSLIMS DO NOT HAVE ETERNAL LIFE BUT ACT LIKE THEY DO
The two of us were deeply moved by this experience.
Andrew, who has three sons, reflected: “Here is a man who has lost his son. Would I be so proud and bold in my witness three days after one of my sons died?”
Back at our apartment, Andrew sadly observed. “I wanted to speak about Jesus. There was no chance. I couldn’t get a word in.” He shook his head, saying: “That father was convincing, very sincere, beaming with joy and satisfaction because last week his son lived in misery. Now he believes he’s in paradise.”
“With 70 virgins,” I snidely observed. [A widely held Muslim belief says that martyrs enjoy rich sensual rewards for their sacrifice, including 70 virgins.]
Andrew looked at me, sadness in his eyes.
“You think that’s why the father is happy? Do you understand that Muslims believe that when someone dies as a martyr in jihad, he automatically goes to paradise—that’s the only circumstance in which paradise is ‘guaranteed.’ And the martyr is able to bring 70 family members and friends with him.”
“So the father knows he will be in paradise because of his son?”
“That’s my understanding. Yes.”
“That seems like a more powerful motivation for a jihadist than enjoying 70 virgins.”
“We can learn from this man’s zeal.” Brother Andrew paused and then made this striking statement: “We have eternal life and act like we don’t. Muslims don’t have eternal life but act like they do.”
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