Losing Sarah, and finding Wali ul Asr

The Holy Prophet (peace and blessings upon him) is quoted in Lantern of the Path, ‘there is a light in the heart which is illuminated only by following the truth and intending towards the right path. It is a part of the light of the prophets which has been entrusted in the hearts of the believers.’

If ever there was a hadith that described my understanding of her, I believe with all my heart, it is the one above. I cannot recall where or how I learned of her passing. Just that I was unable to bear it, that this funeral was one I could not miss — I had to mourn, else I would go mad.

Sarah Batool Zaidi

It made no sense. At a mere 29 years old, principal of the first Shi’a high school in North America, this woman, this sister, having devoted her most beautiful, youthful years in service of the pure, immaculate Ahlulbayt (peace and blessings upon them), had left the world stranded. One after another, members in the community stood up to speak of her dedication to the mission of Wali ul Asr (Learning Institute), of her devotion to the mission of the Ahlulbayt (A), of her kindness and care towards peers and students alike, of her close, personal connection with Aba Abdillah Imam al-Husayn (A).

To this day, and even as I write this, her having passed away fills me with an incomprehensible grief — a grief I am unable to contain, let alone understand. 

I, who had never even met the sister. What unrelenting hole would she then have left in the hearts of loved ones near and dear, of students who cherished her every word, of peers who were devoted to her, of family who saw her face day in, and day out?

And just how much would Lady Fatima (A) have yearned to receive this most beautiful, most blessed servant of Allah, on the other side?

I remember distinctly that dim-lit sisters section of the Al-Mahdi Islamic Centre, where alongside others, I wailed like a madwoman. For madness it was, wrenching her good, kind soul away like that, from us all. A friend of her mother’s put a hand on my shoulder, and asked me to have courage, to look at her mother, and instead, to imagine her sorrow. Ashamed at her having to turn away from family and console me, I began praying in an attempt to calm myself.

True, untainted purpose

About two years younger than the brilliance in both dunya and akherah departments that Sarah was, here I sat, having just about nothing of relevant spiritual service to account for. Good grades, good school, good work experience, however, in the way of Allah and for His cause, was nowhere on my resume. A few scattered attempts in the community hardly counted. Missing also was purpose. True, untainted purpose.

Did Allah really bless me with the gifts that He had just so I could eventually manage an advertising production studio like the amazing Steve at my previous workplace? I sure seemed to have a knack for it, and had been working hard to learn the craft under his supervision.

Or in a more recent move to teaching adult ESL, change South Korean lives by helping young, international students learn the intricacies of the English language? I seemed to have a knack for that too, intermediate knowledge of Hangul (Korean alphabet) and Hangukeo (Korean language), enough teaching experience on the side, and was working towards a certification in TESOL.

But would that be enough? Would that do justice to those gifts, and be done with it?

The transition was a result of my exasperation, my months of contemplating the fruit of empty work, my isolation in the corporate world – a world devoid entirely of substance, ruthless, and greedy only for more and ever more.

But it was not one taken entirely in His way. It was ridden with self-interest, towards appeasing the ‘self,’ and perhaps even an almost perverse pleasure in having command over a language others found baffling, and at times, hopelessly beyond their means. Taken with purpose, sure, but taken with a purpose already tainted.

Thaqalayn Muslim Association

Very early on during my undergrad, I had received a Facebook invite to a meeting — having successfully hosted an Ashura Awareness Week the previous academic year, a small group of Shi’a brothers and sisters were getting together to plan a second one. Ryerson University had yet to establish a chapter of the TMA at the time, but the group had been working actively under the guidance of the association’s lead, Brother Muhammad Habash.

The second Ashura Awareness Week gave way to weekly meetings, discussions on sermons and sayings in the Nahj ul Balaghah and other religious literature, and a most beautiful (equal parts spiritual and intellectual) bond of brotherhood and sisterhood, which even in the heart of a campus downtown, and surrounded with every kind of superficial distraction imaginable, consciously served to bring us closer to the Almighty.

When I learned of Sarah’s involvement with the association, the timeframe of which (surprisingly, so close to mine) only further cemented the connection that I have always felt with her. However, while the close of her academic career gave way to her life in service at Wali ul Asr, mine (for whatever myriad of reasons) had led me on a path quite different.

That night of her funeral felt like I was drowning, as though oxygen would fail me at any moment now — for the life’s work of my dearly beloved sister Sarah had been the exact picture I had so long been looking for, to paint my own life as. I promised Allah, and pleaded to Him in the same breath. I promised to clean my heart of all contamination of purpose, and pleaded to Him to help me find my way in His service, just as He had paved the way for her efforts.

I pleaded to Him for Wali ul Asr.

Wali ul Asr

And, I began seeking. Actively seeking. I immersed myself in learning about the school, its mission and vision, its academic and spiritual standards and how it managed to incorporate those on a Ministry of Education level, without losing crucial sense of core, divine purpose. I spoke to anyone and everyone who I found had been at some point, or was currently associated with the school, with employees, volunteers, parents, and students alike. I began following all of its events, activities, and programs on social media.

In between those conversations, and my attempts to evaluate in which of its very many, and equally fascinating departments I would be able to serve best, I also wondered an obsessive lot about whether I was even worthy of such a blessed place, of such ibadah. Many months later, a chance meeting with Sheikh Salim Yusufali — who is also head of the school — at an Iranian Islamic Centre of Imam Ali youth event brought to light the significance of waswasa (repeated, unfounded doubts or fears), and how one of Satan’s many devices was to divert sincere intention away from action, and towards inaction.

Because of, and ever since, my employment at the school, the extended periods of spiritual relief, mental and physical contentment, an unquantifiable increase in my learning, and the peace in my sleep, all demand at least fifteen hundred words of their own. It suffices (could anything ever?) to conclude meanwhile, that for me, life is Wali ul Asr is life.

Active worship

Imam Ali (A), is quoted in the education and conduct section of The Sayings and Wisdom of Imam Ali, ‘knowledge calls out for action: if it responds to the call, then it remains… otherwise it moves away from it.’

Worship is active. It is not passive. Just how fair to our striving souls though, is measuring — and determining as potentially unworthy — an act of ours that we have yet to even begin practicing? We can measure neither depth nor sincerity nor that which is on the surface of the intention.

Whether it is in service of our Lord, or that which is our duty to Him, for any worship to bear divine fruit, we must start somewhere — and start not just anywhere, but only where there is a clear right path, structure, or model, to which we can devote ourselves to (even if just as those miniscule bits in engineering that help in gaining momentum) in the grand, spiritually conscious scheme of things.

If the purpose is divine, it will reign. These infamous words of the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini had been uploaded to Sarah’s Facebook profile only a short while before her return to the Almighty. Words to which I return often.

Often, when doubt springs a tumult down how acutely aware I am of inadequacies of the self, of all the very many deficiencies in skill, in character, in tact, that I feel render my efforts towards the school quite distressing. Often, when I quiet these very doubts with thoughts of the plain and plentiful delight, the satiation of the soul that my work now brings. Often, when I remind myself of how wasteful, even if lacking, my existence and my perseverance in His beautiful creation is no longer.

And reign, it will; for the purpose of Wali ul Asr (both, the school, and the Hujjah of our time, may Allah hasten his reappearance) is divine — and part, however undeserving of which, I must do mine. 

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