Reflections: The Islamic tradition of courtesy

Reflections: The Islamic tradition of courtesy December 11, 2011
A simpler time

Since I woke up late that morning, I had to rush out without my morning coffee fix and ran toward London’s Edgware Road station — just five minutes away from the apartment where my family has enjoyed many summers. I finally reached the tube station and lined up to buy a ticket, because I did not have the right change for the machine.

While I was waiting, I started calculating if a day pass would be a good buy as opposed to a return ticket. Still unsure about what I wanted, I said “good morning” to the ticketing officer. He was a heavy man, bald with some white hair on the sides and had a round face on which his glasses sat firmly on the tip of his nose.

“Good morning,” the officer replied, who would be in his late fifties.

“Can I have a day pass?” I said.

He then gave me a look that I couldn’t decipher. The officer lurched forward, looked into my eyes, summoning my absolute attention, and demanded, “say please!”

Oops! Now I know the reason behind that look.

The memory of feeling deeply ashamed, standing with a lowered gaze and my face and ears gradually turning red is still vivid. I said sorry with a convincing sound and asked for a ticket emphasizing the adverb “please.” It was not a public humiliation that was troubling me, because there was really no one lining up behind me to witness this, but I was in utter dismay for being unable to uphold the values that my parents hammered into me over the years like a goldsmith patiently working on a piece of jewelry.

My parents had already set the example — it was not limited to greeting elders, saying please and thank you; they were a well-composed set of moral values that formed the very foundation of my being.

As I grew older, I had the privilege of meeting learned Muslim scholars, like Abdullah Adhami whom I first met as a freshman at Columbia University in 1999, then I had a chance meeting with Faraz Rabbani in Amman, Jordan, in 2005 and Zaid Shakir few years later, who are the epitome of Prophetic mannerism. They were all exceptionally polite, affectionate and eager to get to know me better. Where do they find the time to get to know a nobody like me, I always wondered. They left behind a lasting impression, as fragrant as the smell of pure Oud, which still remains with me and renewed every time I meet them or exchange emails.

It saddens me when I come across a youth who lacks basic courtesy. Many years ago, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, a young boy asked me to get something for him and thanked me for doing so. I have never been happier saying welcome in return of a favor. Most of the times, however, I had to shamelessly teach youths a lesson that I was reminded of at the Edgware Road station that morning.

It is not so much about the mere social courtesy of thanking someone that I wish for young lads to uphold; in fact, deep inside, I wish to see young boys and girls embracing the beautiful Prophetic tradition of greeting others with compassion and affection. And the onus to teach this is on parents.

Most of my Muslim acquaintances keep the greeting quick and short. Since “assalamu alaykum” is too traditional and not so cool, “ahlan,” “wassup?” and “how’s it going, dude?” has taken the place of a greeting. Others, very few, seem to have all the time in the world — they will inquire about me, my health, my parents and everyone else they have met through me. It’s rare, but meaningful and lively.

“Actions are lifeless forms, but the presence of an inner reality of sincerity within them is what endows them with life-giving Spirit.” From The Kitab Al-Hikam of Ibn Atallah.

Whenever I whine about the deteriorated observance of courteousness, our mannerism as a community and wonder if this is to be blamed on the movies or our upbringing, I get nowhere. It could very well be a combination of both.

Often times, I am given the argument that no one has the time for such formalities. It is true that anyone with a capitalist mindset would not have the time to inquire about my health and happiness, especially if I am of no use to them, but what about the youth? Perhaps they have too much homework? As the backpacks are getting heavier with books, basic courtesy is going down the drain.

I remember that incident in London to date. To ensure that it never happens again, I say please twice, if I am not sure. But I dare not correct anyone like that, because of the expected retaliation: some may be really aggressive. I grew up playing tennis, which is not an aggressive game. But who knows what these kids play?

The video games I remember playing include Pac-Man, Mortal Combat and Need for Speed. I was best at Pac-Man; Mortal Combat led to karate lessons that I did not pursue for long; and since I was never good at Need for Speed, I made up for that on the road for most of my adulthood that led to few car accidents, but, luckily, no injuries. I learned my lesson the hard way.

Recently, I have played Halo 3 and Dead or Alive with some mature men. It was nice to hold these new controllers, after the joystick for Atari. But these games brought out the worst in them, as they turned abusive and violently competitive.

“It’s just a game!” I said, but no response.

It reminded me of Robert Thurman, my Buddhist Ethics professor at Columbia University and a good friend, who wished there was a video game geared toward earning good deeds instead of scoring points, so that it would have a positive effect on the players. He knew such a game would not do so well.

Choosing what is good for your lad is sometimes juxtaposed to what they want, but the firm decision has to be made for good upbringing. And that is the duty of parenting.

I was never allowed to spend nights at a friend’s place, and I still do not know why. I remember my father standing at the doorstep if I was out with friends past midnight. I remember the long face of my mother if my shirt smelled of smoke. “Friends were smoking, ma!” was not a good enough explanation, because she never wanted me to have such friends in the first place.

Basic courtesy has a lot to do with your nurturing. Our parents, our friends, and our surroundings, all play some part. And it is best when courtesy is ingrained at childhood.

Fahad Faruqui is a journalist, writer, and educator. You can email him at or connect with him on Twitter at @fahadfaruqui. This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

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