Remembering Muhammad, the Child, and the Power of Being Human

Greetings of Peace (al salamu 'alaykum) dear Friends,


I pray you are well. This week marks the 23rd anniversary of the murder of 12-year-old Palestinian Muhammad al-Durrah in Gaza by Israeli snipers who targeted Muhammad and his father Jamal, cowering in terror behind a cement block for 30 minutes under a hailstorm of bullets. The video of the incident was captured by a Palestinian cameraman, Talal Abu Rahma. The images shocked the world and soon became a symbol of the Second Intifada, which had begun two days before.



Link to Middle East Monitor article from the 21st anniversary of the killing


Even after 23 years, I still clearly remember how horrified we were by the images captured in the video. It was so painful at the time that I could not stand to watch. Cherif was the same age at the time.


But what horrifies me more is that now, 23 years later, not only have things not improved for Palestine and Palestinian families, but they have grown worse. Palestinian children who were not even born at the time of the Muhammad al Durrah incident now honor his memory and protest the conditions of their lives today. It is heart-breaking.


This anniversary reminds me of the chapter in Dr. Abou El Fadl's book, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books, which he wrote in response to the incident. I share it with you here to honor the memory of Muhammad al Durrah, and that of all the children who have been senselessly murdered before him and continued to be massacred to this day, with no end in sight:


Chapter 60: "Muhammad, the Child"

The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books

by Khaled Abou El Fadl


I call upon the Conference and I hear agonized wailing answer my calls. Where are you my Conference—where is the sanguine voice of reason and the flirtatious melody of beauty? Where is the resonance of your words and the power of your belief in humanity? I implore you talk to me, my Conference. I am God’s slave—I am your faithful son and the lover of beauty. Don’t leave me gasping, frightened, and mummified by this merciless doubt.


I want to devour words and thoughts and pretend that they matter. I want to stroll in the gardens of love and pretend that it matters. I want to inhale the fragrance of beauty and pretend that you matter.


Talk to me my Conference! Talk to me. Don’t you see how much I want to reach out for the heavenly song concealed in her blissful eyes, distill the sweetness of her smile, and build a supernal shrine for the truth of beauty? Don’t you see that every night I enter the shrine, wrap myself in dreams and only then can I sleep?


But I call upon you, and I find you sitting by the walls of the shrine, frozen by the agonized wailing, drowning in the screams of a father and child—unable to speak. We witness the scene in horror and disbelief; how do we reach the father and child, how do we nurse their screams with persuasion and speech, how do we heal the terror in their eyes with gifts of gentle beauty?


Muhammad al-Durrah, a 12 year-old child, cowers behind his father screaming, “Aba ilha’ni (Dad, save me)!” His little hands cling to the back of his father’s shirt, wishfully praying that the soldiers’ binoculars and riflescopes can see his tears. For 45 minutes, father and child scream for help, pleading to be spared this utter insanity. Just an hour earlier, the father decided to visit the used car market and the son, excited by the prospect of a new car, begged to join him. Muhammad wore his colored turtleneck shirt, sneakers, and Uncle Sam’s blue jeans, but now, Muhammad and his father cower next to a wall for 45 minutes, screaming and pleading.


An Israeli sniper moves into position and shoots Muhammad four times and his father eight times. Muhammad first curls in his father’s lap, then slumps to the ground, covers his face with those little hands, and dies. An ambulance that attempts to reach Muhammad and his father is shot at as well, a paramedic is seriously wounded, and the driver is killed.


The father is crippled for life, the mother struggles to make sense of hell, and so she calls it a sacrifice. But I sit with folded hands, on my moronic chair, with my idiotic papers, my revolting coffee, my abandoned books, and stupid, stupid dreams.


You see, if the Conference would speak, Muhammad can no longer hear.


Muhammad, my child, in the embrace of the grave, there is no beauty, only the waste of the life left behind, and the abominations of decay.


I refuse to take you as a symbol for the Palestinian tragedy or Israeli belligerency. I refuse to take you as a sacrifice for Jerusalem or the Mosque’s sanctity. I refuse to take you as a symbol of our utter uselessness and futility. I refuse to take you as a sacrifice, cause, or symbol for anything. I refuse to sugarcoat a rotted, foul, and bitter reality. My son, the truth is that you were not sacrificed for anything; the truth is that after living through an agonizing terror, you were pointlessly slaughtered.


I look at my 11 year-old boy and shudder. I want him to grow and to reach out for the heavenly song concealed in blissful eyes, distill the sweetness of a smile, and build a supernal shrine for the truth of beauty. I want him to be touched by the breath of life, I want him to have the chance to listen and speak, I want him to grow, and when he does, he can decide whether he wants to become a symbol or cause.


Muhammad, I know that now you are among the beauties of Heaven, and this knowledge consoles my heart. My belief in God’s justice empowers me to continue calling upon the Conference to come back to me. But what tortures me is the ugliness of human beings who can politicize the death of a child. What tortures me is that I know that right at this moment some ravished heart is swirling in the torrents of hate, plotting to retaliate by killing another child. What tortures me is that people dare to grant terrorism citizenship, a religion, or a race, and then declare it a diplomatic mission entitled to full moral immunity. In what hellish treatise of immorality has it been written that the death of a Muslim child can make the death of a Jewish child just, or that the death of a Jewish child can make the death of a Muslim child just?


Despite the bizarreness of the logic exploited by humans, my faith in God and in God’s beauty tells me that the murdered children, Jews and Muslims alike, will rest in Heaven side by side.


October, 2000




May we never forget Muhammad al-Durrah and what he and all Palestinian children have had to endure. May we actively fight for the Palestinian children who continue to suffer right now so that insha'Allah, 23 years from now, their lives will be significantly better. May we be able to say with clarity and confidence that in the next 23 years, we will have taken actions that are worthy of God -- for which God will be pleased with us -- for Palestinians and for all the Muslims who are suffering around the world who cannot change their own circumstances. We in the "West" have the most freedom and ability to wield influence and make change. May God aid and empower us, light the fires within us, and help us to fully meet our collective and individual potential. Ameen.


In Peace and Hope,


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