One day, years ago when my currently 8-year-old son was only a year old, we were at an acquaintance’s house for a visit. This was an Iranian secular family we were visiting. They had invited us along with several other families, one of whom was a middle-aged woman who had completely left Islam altogether to become Buddhist.
She was staying at their house for a while.
Halfway through the visit, our hostess showed me into one of the guest bedrooms so I could change and nurse the baby in privacy. After I finished those tasks, I also prayed `asr as the baby played near me.
Everything was going fine up until he wandered away from me and toddled over to a nightstand that had what looked like a small ashtray on it, heaped with ashes or dirt. My son tipped this ashtray over and got dirt on the carpet, giggling happily.
Simultaneously, the ex-Muslim Buddhist woman happened to walk into the room (she was staying in this guest bedroom, as I found out). She looked at me finishing up my salah and at my baby who was now excitedly sticking his chubby finger into the dirt in the carpet.
She rushed over to where he was and knelt down, frantically trying to scoop up the dirt with her hands to put it back into the ashtray.
“I’m so sorry! Muhammad found the ashtray and knocked it over and made a huge mess all over the carpet. Sorry, let me clean this up!” I apologized sincerely, thinking she was distressed at the dirty carpet.
I looked around for a vacuum. “Do you know where the vacuum is? I’ll vacuum this because it’s probably going to be easier that way,” I said.
“Oh no! No vacuum!” she said quickly.
“Do you prefer brooming the carpet?” I was very confused.
“No, it’s not the carpet. It’s the dirt. This is holy dirt!” she replied.
I tried to cover my surprise. “Holy dirt?”
“Yeah. The Chinese monks gave it to me when I was at the Buddhist temple. This dirt is for worship.”
“Oh.” They worship dirt? She left Islam to worship Chinese dirt?
As I tried to wrap my mind around the bomb she had just dropped, she mused aloud as she looked at the remaining dirt on the ground, “Hmm… although maybe if I use a vacuum, I can get almost all of it back. And then I can just open the vacuum container and pour it back into this bowl. Oh, but that won’t work if the vacuum already has dirt inside the container!”
I contemplated her, as she contemplated her options. She was trying to think of a way to get the “holy dirt” back into the ashtray by possibly using a vacuum cleaner but was worried about mixing up the “holy dirt” she worshipped with the regular dirt in the vacuum.
Where was the higher-level thinking that might allow her to step back and realize what she was doing? Dirt? Is the absurdity and futility of the situation lost on her?
I felt very sad for her.
Recently I thought of this long-ago incident because I heard of a similar incident but with a happy ending.
A little while before the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم migrated to Madina, almost everyone in Madina had become Muslim (except for the Jewish tribes). The vast majority of the previously-pagan tribes of الأوس والخزرج (Al-Aws and Al-Khazraj) had embraced Islam. One household, in particular, had a group of grown children who had all accepted Islam, but their elderly father was still on the old shirk of idol worship. This father had a favorite idol he kept in his room that he liked to worship.
His sons had tried to encourage him to consider Islam, to no avail. He was simply comfortable with his old habit and accustomed to the idol. So one night as their father was sleeping, the sons secretly came into his room and put dirt and trash all over the idol and left.
In the morning, the father woke up to see his idol all dirty. He was surprised, and asked the idol,
“من فعل بك هذا؟!”
“Who did this to you?!”
The man cleaned up the dirty idol and then worshipped him as usual, much to the chagrin of his sons.
The next night, they did the same thing again. In the morning, the father was surprised to see his idol yet again vandalized, and he cleaned him up again. This time, he tied a sword around the statue’s neck, telling him chidingly,
“المرة القادمة، دافع عن نفسك!”
“Next time, defend yourself!”
The following night, the sons took the idol and the sword and smeared them both with sheep’s blood and guts and threw everything into the trash bin.
In the morning, the father woke up to find his idol gone. He searched everywhere for it, finally checking the trash. He was shocked to discover his precious idol more dirty than ever, covered in blood and intestinal tissue and the sword uselessly tossed next to it in an ignominious heap in the garbage.
The father looked up at his sons, who were all standing there gazing at him with hope and longing in their eyes.
The father looked back down at the idol and told him,
“أنت مثلك لا يُعبد!”
“The likes of you is not to be worshipped!”
He took his shahada and became a Muslim like the rest of his family, alhamdulillah.
Shirk is a dark path that defies logic and warps the fitra of a human being. Why stray from the worship of the Creator of all existence only to sink into the dark depths of worshipping a stone idol or a heap of dirt?
وَإِذْ قَالَ لُقْمَانُ لِابْنِهِ وَهُوَ يَعِظُهُ يَا بُنَيَّ لَا تُشْرِكْ بِاللَّهِ ۖ إِنَّ الشِّرْكَ لَظُلْمٌ عَظِيمٌ.
“And ˹remember˺ when Luqmân said to his son, while advising him, “O my dear son! Never associate ˹anything˺ with Allah ˹in worship˺, for associating ˹others with Him˺ is truly the worst of all wrongs.” (Surat Luqman, 13)
May Allah save us and our children from the darkness of shirk, ameen.