El Coran y las Monjas – The Quran and the Nuns

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Author as a child playing on the grounds of Basharat Mosque, Pedro Abad, Spain

Aeysha Nusrat Jahan, The Netherlands

A story told by the daughter of Amatul Mateen and Syed Mahmud Ahmad Nasir a life devotee who was posted to Spain in 1982. The late, Amatul Mateen Sahiba was the daughter of Hadhrat Musleh Maud (ra), the second caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, and Syed Mahmud Ahmad Nasir is the son of Hadhrat Mir Mohammad Ishaq (ra), who was a respected scholar and the younger brother of Hadhrat Nusrat Jahan begum sahiba (ra), the wife of the Promised Messiah (on whom be peace).

The month of July has a deep significance in my memory – July 22nd to be precise. This day always takes me back to that warm July evening in 1982, when I first set my eyes on that beautiful new shiny building that was to be my home for the next four years. I had heard so much about this place and had even seen a picture of it on a postcard, but its true significance had not quite dawned on me then. The grounds were full of local villagers, men on one side, women and children chatting and playing on the other. I remember feeling extremely shy, sticking close to my mother, as the crowd of women and children gathered around as we got off the car.

Hola!

Buenas tardes!

Como se llama?

I would become well acquainted with those phrases later, but that July evening they made little sense to me.

The first thing I noticed were the endless grounds around the mosque. This land, all 6,000 square meters of it, had been acquired two years before on the instructions of Hazrat Mirza Nasir Ahmad (rh), the third successor to the Promised Messiah(as). It was his ardent wish to build a mosque in Spain. He himself had laid the foundation stone of this mosque on the 9th of October, 1980. In fact, it was on this very day and place that he gave the Jamaat the motto of “Love for All, Hatred for None” – six words which have since become the definition of the character of a true Islamic community. In early 1982, he appointed my father, Syed Mahmud Ahmad Nasir, a life devotee of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, as the first Imam and missionary in charge of the Basharat mosque. I had the privilege to accompany him and my mother as they set off to serve in Spain.

For an eight-year-old child, that first night in a new land was so very overwhelming. The brand-new building was but a shell, everything else needed to be done and there was just a month and a half to go until the inauguration ceremony. The building and the land around it were located in deep rural Andalucía, where even the basic amenities were difficult to access. Even the water was not fit for drinking and had to be carried from the village in canisters. That day, a young girl embarked on a new life-changing adventure with her parents. An adventure which would create such profound experiences and memories of devotion, sacrifice and resilience in her mind that she would recall and cherish them decades later.

And so, began our adventure. It was a mammoth task! I still cannot believe how it ever got done on time! The mosque needed to be painted, even basic furniture, fixtures and furnishings had to be purchased; chairs, beds, pots and pans, basic crockery had to be bought. Even the toilets and drainage systems had not been fully installed yet. We had no means of transport. The nearest town was 30 kilometres away – we would take the bus to Córdoba and spend the entire day there in the summer heat, running errands for the mosque. Many of the wholesale or factory shops were closed for summer and the ones that were open would shut their doors for siesta during the hot afternoon hours! The three of us would then rest under the shade of trees in parks around Córdoba. In the evening we would return on the last bus, lugging large bags up the hill, back to the mosque.

The greatest hindrance was the fact that none of us could speak a single word of Spanish and no one there could understand or speak English. We would sometimes have to act out or draw what we needed. It was a continuous game of dumb charades which would result in either fits of laughter for both parties, or the shopkeepers getting very annoyed with us!

We were amongst a handful of Muslims in the whole country and naturally people were a bit apprehensive and uneasy when we approached them. But with Allah’s help and the prayers, determination and devotion of people around me, everything was miraculously completed on time. My mother had a particular gift for bookkeeping and excelled in organisational skills – she took care of the accounts as well as making sure all the basic, necessary items for the mosque and the attached offices were acquired. She also single-handedly took care of the food preparation for the entire upcoming event. We found Ramon, a butcher in a neighbouring village, who would come in the evenings after work and the goats and sheep would be slaughtered right before our eyes, skinned, and then my mother would guide the butcher on how to cut the meat. This would take several hours each evening. Then she would begin the cooking process and cook large portions of food all night and freeze them. By the time she would finish working it would be time for Fajr. She would sleep for a couple of hours after Fajr, only to be up again for the following day’s projects.

There is something I would like to share here, which has always stuck with me as a lesson. As I mentioned earlier, my mother was busy preparing food for the guests. All of it was happening around me, yet our own meals were very simple. One day my father addressed me and said “Aeysha! Ye jamaat ke khanay tiyaar ho rahe hein, tum ne in ki taraf dekhna bhi nahee [Aeysha! This food is being prepared for the guests of the Jamaat; you must not even look at it!]”. It might sound harsh to some people but I am eternally grateful to him, as it left me with a lifelong lesson that anything belonging to Jamaat must be handled with great care and never used without permission, nor should one ever feel any sense of entitlement about Jamaat matters.

I remember just a few days before the inauguration we went into town with someone who had offered us the use of his car and brought back thirty live chickens in the back seat!

The days rolled by quickly and I witnessed the place coming together as the paint work, plumbing and woodwork projects were completed, carpets were laid, light fixtures were put up and some essential furniture items started filling up the house.

We were expecting the arrival of many elders from the family of the Promised Messiah (as) in Spain for this historic occasion, so my parents did their best to make the house as comfortable as possible. Comfortable did not mean luxurious at all! In fact, lots of mattresses had been ordered and the guests slept merrily on them! My mother, Amatul Mateen, is the daughter of Hadhrat Musleh Maud (ra), the second caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, and my father is the son of Hadhrat Mir Mohammad Ishaq (ra), who was a respected scholar and the younger brother of Hadhrat Nusrat Jahan begum sahiba (ra), the wife of the Promised Messiah (on whom be peace). For them it was even more significant that all the guests of the Promised Messiah (on whom be peace) were taken care of as well as possible. I noted that although these elders were themselves great pillars of nobility, they were the least fussy guests ever. They started helping around in any way they could, making tea and breakfast, washing up, even sweeping the floors.

At last, the day arrived when Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (ra) convoy arrived through the gates of the mosque. It is a bit of a blur to me now, but the air was filled with such excitement! I guess I was too young to realise what a momentous occasion I was a part of. Hundreds of people had gathered in the mosque grounds to welcome Huzoor (ra).

Finally, the much-awaited day arrived: September 10th, 1982. Around five thousand people attended the event, of which two thousand were Ahmadi Muslims who had gathered there from all corners of the world to witness this momentous occasion. The rest were Spanish guests and pretty much the whole village of Pedro Abad. The atmosphere was laden with emotions of gratitude and there was not a dry eye in the house. Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (ra) had delivered an incredibly emotional sermon. The completion of this mosque after seven hundred years of the expulsion of Muslims from Spain was no ordinary event, and of course the one whose vision this was and who had wished and fervently prayed so much for this day was no longer with us (Hadhrat Mirza Nasir Ahmad (ra)). In his sermon Huzoor (ra) paid an incredibly emotional tribute to him. Everyone was congratulating each other like members of a family would on this beautiful historic occasion.

Huzoor (ra) was very happy Alhamdolillah with all the arrangements. He had instructed previously that all guests had to make their own meal arrangements themselves during these days. One or two days after the inauguration, Huzoor (ra) held a shura meeting with Jamaat representatives from all over the world. This in fact was the very first international shura. There were several hundred people in attendance. My father recalls that after the proceedings, Huzoor (ra) asked the audience: “koun koun yahan khana khae ga? [who will be eating here?]” And all audience members raised their hands! All praise belongs to my beloved Allah that He blessed the food prepared by my mother so much that all the attendees were able to enjoy food at the mosque.

As I continue to unpick the flowers from the bouquet of my memory, I may be unveiling so many tiny buds, each with their own unique fragrance, each carving a deep impression on my soul. Some are stories of devotion and hard work, others of sheer resilience, but through the years they all have cemented my belief that the countless blessings of Allah attained, even as a child of a life devotee, far outweigh any struggles that they may ever have to face.

After the initial rollercoaster of events, things became calmer but quieter. I was enrolled in a local girls’ sacred heart convent school in Pedro Abad, our village. As the school was staunchly Catholic, my father was worried and sat me down to make sure that I wouldn’t take part in any religious practices or prayers. He also drilled into me the fact that there was only one God and that He was not a man and no man could attain the powers of God. I understood and said, “Don’t worry Abba [father], I cannot believe in a God who eats and drinks and consequently needs to use the toilet!” The school was run by Catholic nuns, known in Spanish as the monjas, and I was the only non-Spanish non-Catholic child there. They were so mindful of my father’s instructions that they made sure I would not attend the weekly mass, nor the choir practice, and even if I did unknowingly join in any religious activities, they would stop me themselves. Later on, as I grew older, the school allowed me to modify the school uniform to conform to my wish to dress modestly.

My tarbiyyat was not done in what I consider the “customary” way. I did not learn many surahs or prayers from my parents and there was no concept of Nasirat tests and reports (there were only two Nasirat age girls in the whole country!) but their focus was on instilling a strong conviction in my faith and building my character. Prayers and a real connection with Allah were of course the main focus. My father recently narrated the story of me never having seen snowfall and praying daily for it as the winter approached. Snow did fall that year and the locals reported that it had snowed after seventeen years or so. They made sure that I made the connection that Allah had answered my prayers.

I remember once we were in Cordoba for the day and Abba kept reminding me to offer my prayers. I kept delaying them and then forgot, and when we returned home late that evening, he said “now go and offer all your day’s prayers. I kept reminding you and you did not offer them.” I still remember saying all of the day’s prayers feeling quite upset with myself but it was a lesson well learned!

On another occasion I remember, someone had gifted me a very small tiny porcelain sleeping baby. One of our closest Spanish friends, aunty Marianna, came one day as I was playing with my toys and said “oh, look baby Jesus is sleeping!”

My father could not tolerate this, he immediately told me to smash the tiny toy as he could not bear the thought of me having a toy which might depict a prophet, especially one that some people believed to be God.

On my walks to school, I used to ask my parents all sorts of questions. I remember once I had read that humans are “ashraf al makhlooqat” [humans as the noblest of all creatures] and asked Abba what it meant. He must have answered me briefly but enough to satisfy my query, but I do remember his Khutba on the following Friday was based on it.

Another thing both my parents liked to do was to frequently bring up their elders in conversation. This meant that I learnt of their personalities and formed a bond with them even without ever meeting them.

The mosque is located on the edge of a large highway heading north, known as the Carretera de Madrid. My father used to sweep the inside and outside corridors of the mosque daily as it used to get very dusty.As the mosque was on an elevated area visible for miles, we would have many people stop by for a visit. On some days we would have hundreds of visitors. These included families, but also large groups of school children that would come to visit the mosque as well. On one of these visits, a group of girls asked my father, “We have heard your daughter attends the local Catholic school here. What if she decides to become a Christian when she grows up?” To this my father replied: “I would be deeply saddened but faith is a matter for the individual, there is no coercion in religion according to Islam.” Sometimes they would ask my mother about her veil and she would explain to them the teachings of Islam and the logic behind purdah.

At that time, no other Ahmadis lived in Pedro Abad. On some days there would be one or two men who would join Abba in prayers, on others he would call me from the house to join him for prayers. Hadhrat Mirza Nasir Ahmad (ra), on the occasion of the foundation ceremony of Mezquita Basharat, had instructed Jamaat members to not engage in direct tabligh with the villagers, but rather to strengthen the bonds of friendships with them and that is what my parents tried to do. My mother was naturally much better at this as she engaged with the local ladies regularly during her grocery trips in to the village. They would be casually chatting away and despite her limited vocabulary, understand each other perfectly and somehow managed to share jokes as well!

I had some exciting adventures with my father as well, where he would beckon me to help him kill snakes which often slithered their way up from the endless grounds of the mosque. He taught me to hit the back of the snake’s head and decapitate it with a quick blow of a stick. This came in handy as I came face to face with a couple of snakes myself and killed them without Abba’s help. The grounds were not grassy plots but full of wild thorny bushes. Wild rats and snakes roamed around freely. One year I kept two little baby chickens as pets and called them Tutti and Frutti. I kept them inside the house but sometimes doors needed to be kept open due to the heat. At some point a wild rat entered the house and attacked and killed Tutti, after a few days Frutti died of sadness. This was probably my first experience of seeing death and I still remember that Ammi [mother] and Abba had to console me for months after.

Once, on the occasion of Eid, there was a camera crew from Andalucia’s regional television network and they made a news report on our celebrations. Eid was such a simple occasion! After prayers we would walk a couple of miles through heavily fragrant ripening olive orchards to the river banks of Guadal Quivir and we used to take food with us and all Jamaat members (barely a handful) would enjoy a picnic together.

The Basharat mosque is located outside of the village itself and it used to take me fifteen minutes to walk to school. One morning as I was walking towards the school a van driver stopped and asked me where a certain plaza was and I gave him instructions in my, by then, fluent Spanish. He asked me, “You don’t look Spanish, where are you from?” I told him I was the daughter of the Imam at the Mezquita [mosque]. He turned out to be a journalist for Diario 16, a popular countrywide newspaper. He contacted my father and arranged an interview with me at school. During the interview he asked me questions about being a Muslim student in a dominantly Catholic school, and commented on how well adjusted I was with my surroundings. He also made me draw a map of Spain on the chalkboard and said city names and I had to point them out on the map. The interview was published on the main page with the headline: “el Coran y las Monjas [The Quran and the nuns]”.

On another occasion we travelled to Madrid and took part in the new year broadcast at a radio station, in which I recited a part of the poem ”hamdo sana usi ko” by the Promised Messiah (as).

On weekends, we would take some Jamaat literature and leaflets and go to nearby villages and towns for distribution. My parents often noted that as we stood on street corners distributing leaflets, sometimes people would not accept a leaflet from my father’s extended hands, but they would accept one from my mother. And if they refused to accept one from both my parents, they would most definitely accept the leaflets from me. We never ever saw one of our leaflets thrown on the street.

On one of these trips, we had gone further from home with an Ahmadi brother and we saw a lot of people gathered around to look at something. It was near an old castle. Curiosity got the better of us and we stopped the car and got off as well. All of a sudden, all the people gathered there started staring at us and my mother in particular. It was in fact a historical movie being filmed and the onlookers thought we were part of the film. There was so much commotion that even the director and crew stopped filming to have a look at us!

So many precious little memories are gushing back and settling themselves into the folds of my consciousness. As I recall and reminisce about these cherished memories, I cannot help but be grateful to God Almighty and the blessings and prayers of Huzoor (ra) which kept us going during those years. At times as a child it was a very lonely experience, as Pedro Abad was back then a very isolated place. We did not have a phone for a long time, and even when we did, the calls had to be booked in advance and were often disconnected or of poor quality. I remember clearly that when my father’s eldest sister passed away, we did not get the news until many days after. In those days the letters from my maternal grandmother (Hadhrat Choti Apa) were indeed a blessing, as she wrote to us regularly and kept us updated with family news.

I remember we used to get visitors from all over the world and we would get so excited to have them and equally sad when they left.

My stamp collection which I treasured and sadly had to leave behind when we moved was also the result of hundreds of correspondences taking place from people from different parts of the world and our mosque.

Huzoor’s (ra) second tour to Spain was in October 1985. This time it was Huzoor (ra), his family and qafila members.There was an event on the mosque grounds with Huzoor (ra), which was attended by a few thousand Spanish guests. During this trip, we were very fortunate to accompany Huzoor (ra) for a few sightseeing trips.

In early 1986, my brother got married in Pakistan and we were unable to attend. Understandably it was a difficult time, especially for my mother. About the same time there was an outbreak of chicken pox and I suffered severely from it with extremely high fever. At that time there was only one doctor in the area who would visit Pedro Abad once every two weeks and for some reason would not be visiting the village again for several weeks.

I remember having fever so high that I was in a delirious state. At that time my Ammi and Abba would just sit with me reciting prayers and doing paani putti [wet towel treatment]. They told me later, that at one point my temperature had shot up to 107c and they had given up hope of me surviving.

There is a special tradition in Spain, that every town and village have a yearly fair called the feria. I used to look forward to and save for the fairground rides all year. One year a few days before the fair, my mother was telling me how she used to sew clothes for my brothers. Me being me, whinged and said, “you haven’t sewn anything for me!” Unbeknown to me, she went to the market and bought some fabric and despite the pain in her wrist, made two beautiful tunics and matching trousers and even matching hair accessories! She stayed up to sew all night and surprised me with them on the morning of the fair as I woke up, there they were! Two beautiful new outfits hanging all ready for me.

As I cast an eye back on my time spent there, I see a young child running after a ball alone longing for the company of her elder brothers, not giving much thought of her parents’ feelings who had left their sons behind for the sake of their education. I also see my mother humming the verses of the Promised Messiah (as), full of prayers for his progeny as she went through the daily household choresAt that time two of my brothers were in Pakistan and the other two lived in the United States. So, the family was divided in three continents back then much like it is now. My parents kept talking about my brothers’ childhoods, likes, dislikes, their childhood mischiefs and funny stories. I think it was as much as for themselves as it was to keep my heart connected with them.

I also see myself been woken up by Abba and him singing the prayer for waking up in a melodious voice. And after he would leave, I would quickly get ready, offer my prayers and get back into bed and pretended to sleep so I could trick him when he returned, only to hear him jokingly say, “sotay huay logoun ke kaan hiltay hein tum jaag rahi ho. [Your ears are not wiggling, if you were really asleep your ears would be wiggling]” No matter how hard I tried, my ears would not wiggle.

I also see the strongest of bonds forming as me and my mother would place a piece of carpet outside in the winter sun and read Urdu joke books while munching on sunflower seeds and simultaneously learning to cross-stitch. The only stitches I would really accomplish were the stitches in my sides from reading my joke books. That’s when I was introduced by my mother to the stories of Hatam Taee, Sheikh Saadi and many other urdu folk tales. I think that is when my love of reading began in earnest. I am eternally grateful to my grandmother who used to send me Urdu books from Pakistan and my father’s friend Saqi Uncle who used to parcel me English books from England.

As I was departing the mosque for the last time with a heavy heart and tearful eyes on a spring morning of 1986, I remember feeling most of all how much I had fallen in love with and cherished the absolute specialness of that place, and thinking myself so very fortunate to have been blessed with the opportunity to have lived an extraordinary life at that extraordinary place at that extraordinary time.

Author as a child playing on the grounds of Basharat Mosque, Pedro Abad, Spain

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