True power and compassion flow when validation comes from within
Of the many stories relating the beautiful character of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, the one I’ll call The Tale of the Trash has been the most present in my life.
From a young age, my mom would tell me and my sisters this story to describe how the Prophet of Islam acted with mercy. The version in my memory goes something like this:
Muhammad lived in a house, much like ours in Canada, perhaps with a front porch and a small front lawn. There was sometimes a fence around the lawn and sometimes the house was situated along a tree-lined cul-de-sac, depending on where we lived. We moved a lot.
One of the prophet’s neighbours, a grouchy woman with deep frown lines on her forehead, would come by every day rain or shine, and throw a little garbage on his doorstep like she was delivering a morning newspaper. And every morning, the Prophet would go out like he was picking up the paper and carefully collect every piece of trash with his bare hands. Every banana peel and used plastic cup, and dispose of it.
He wouldn’t get angry. He wouldn’t fight. He wouldn’t react at all. He’d just gently clear away the mess, and go on with his day.
(Obviously it’s absurd to imagine banana peels or plastic cups or picket-fenced green lawns in the deserts of seventh century Arabia, but allow me to indulge the version of the hadith that nestled itself in my heart as I was growing up.)
This pattern repeated month after month. Until one day, the Prophet went out to pick up the trash like he was collecting the morning paper, and found nothing. The woman hadn’t been by that morning.
This is where the essential message of the story is revealed. Rather than feeling relieved at the prospect of being left alone, the Prophet became concerned. He suspected something must be wrong. He promptly walked over to his neighbour’s home and asked of her whereabouts and condition. It turned out she had fallen ill. The Prophet asked permission to visit her and prayed by her side for recovery, health and wellbeing.
The woman was so moved by Muhammad’s compassion that the hostility she felt toward him quickly dissolved. Eventually, she embraced Islam, that state of being where a human accesses and bows to the Divinity found at the inmost place within the heart. Where we find the Self of and in God.
In another version of the story, Muhammad’s neighbour doesn’t come to his home, but pelts trash at the Prophet every time he walks by her home. In yet other iterations, it’s a man, not a woman. Some even say it isn’t an authentic hadith at all.
Whatever the truth may be, the story feels real to me and the wisdom it contains expands the more I walk the Sufi path. As with any spiritual tale, layers of meaning are revealed as we deepen in our own hearts.
On the surface, the Prophet’s behaviour could be construed as cowardly — almost a call to accept injustice or allow people to treat us poorly. There were many points in my own life that I swallowed unkind treatment and let people trample on my (non-existent) boundaries. On some level, I may have presumed I was acting like the Prophet by not getting angry.
Unlike his conscious and mature choice not to respond, though, my behaviour stemmed from an unconscious fear of rejection and low self esteem: I simply didn’t feel worthy of better treatment.
Now, let’s examine “The Tale of the Trash” more deeply and imagine that the Prophet’s home is a metaphor for his heart. No matter what negativity is thrown at the doorway to his heart, it is not permitted to enter into this sanctuary. It is simply and gently cleared away. This requires extraordinary certainty and conviction in the wisdom of the heart — certainty that another human being’s negative behaviours are a reflection of their own state, not ours.
Or let’s assume that the neighbour with the trash isn’t another person at all — but, instead, a metaphor for the negative thoughts that arrive each day into our consciousness. Rather than attach ourselves to them, perhaps the wisdom is to witness them and then allow them to be cleared away.
Someday, when we are ready, we may even walk over to those parts of us that are ill and need attention and give them some loving kindness and mercy so they no longer feel the need to protest. Like the woman in this story, those parts might then feel warmly held and ready to reintegrate into the wholeness that we truly are.
Which brings to heart for me the many toxins in our environments — on television, at work, online, in our intimate relationships — that penetrate into the inner chambers of our souls. It is so easy to absorb negativity and react from a place of immaturity. In the case of this story, some people may respond in anger or rage: yelling at the neighbour or getting revenge by throwing an even bigger pile of trash on her lawn. I could imagine myself desperately trying to win the favour of this neighbour even if it meant bending my convictions. Or I might complain of her to others to garner sympathy for my plight.
As I write this, I open Jewels of Remembrance, a collection of Rumi’s poetry, to lines that offer some timely wisdom on where we expend our energy:
What is justice? Giving water to trees.
What is injustice? Giving water to thorns.
Justice consists in bestowing bounty in its proper place,
not on every root that will absorb water.
[Mathnawi V, 1089–90]¹
Beyond what it reveals of mercy, another jewel of insight that I hear in “The Tale of the Trash” has to do with sincerity, or ikhlas in Arabic. Muhammad, as an embodiment of perfected humanness, was able to detach himself from the need for external validation as he challenged the prevailing discourse of his time. This required absolute trust in his Rabb, the teaching function of the Divine that educates our particular souls, in the face of the hostility he endured from all but a handful of dear companions.
While the conditions of my awakening have been nowhere near as daunting, standing in my own Truth has meant accepting rejection from some of the closest people in my life. I am very grateful for the deep comfort this heart has found in the embrace of my beloved Prophet in these times.
It is clear from Muhammad’s behaviour that he was so completely connected to the Source that he didn’t waver, even when he was treated cruelly and unfairly. It’s not that he didn’t feel pain when a neighbour threw trash on his yard. I imagine he did, he was human after all. But within his heart, Muhammad was invulnerable, wholly held by that most trustworthy handhold that shall never give way.²
It occurs to me that only from this place of deep connectedness within our hearts can we act with the authentic compassion, or rahma, that the Prophet displayed to his neighbour when she fell ill. This immense, womb-like compassion is extraordinary because it holds all possible human behaviours in the embrace of unconditional love.
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1. Jewels of Remembrance, selected and translated by Camille and Kabir Helminski, p. 104.
2. Surah al-Baqarah 2:256.