When I first accepted Islam as a teenager, I became friends with an elderly American man named Curtis Shabbaz. He was ill. Having worked in an asbestos factory in his younger years way before regulation or even knowledge of its dangers, he was later diagnosed with cancer. His wife would drive him to the Masjid on Sundays when he felt well. Only when they arrived he would be so weak that he was unable to exit the car. She would park the car in the direction of the Qibla, and he would pray in the passenger seat all by himself. I would often go out and sit in the car with him, keep him company, and have a pleasant conversation.
One day, while I was asking him about how he grew up and how he found Islam, he asked me what it was I was going to do now that I had become Muslim. He told me “The Imams and teachers of my generation took us as far as they could and they did a good job. But you will need to go and study. You will need pick up where they left off, to go learn Islam from the source,” he said. This was the first time anyone told me about studying Islam. The first I had heard anything about “seeking knowledge” as it were. He continued, “You need to go overseas. Go get this deen and bring it back to the people. And when you’re over there, you’ll find people that will help you, they’ll support you, they’ll equip you with the knowledge you need to bring back to us.” While I was in Medina, I found people that were willing to give us the shirts off their backs, all because we had come to study in the City of the Beloved Prophet. If I told you stories of people’s generosity, you may not believe me.
Abu Harun said: We used to visit Abu Sa’id al-Khudri, and when we would enter upon him he would exclaim “Welcome to the bequest of the Messenger of God! The Messenger of God informed us saying: People will come to you from distant lands to gain understanding [in faith] so welcome them and treat them well.” In another narration he added “…and teach them.”(1)
Br. Curtis was right, we found exactly that. Curtis continued, “When you get back, look for me. I will be there to support you, and so will the Muslims.”
Sadly, Curtis’ Janaza was the first I ever prayed over. I remember crying uncontrollably. Crying inexplicably. I was unable to understand why, but I never forgot the lessons that he taught me in the front seat of his car.
(1) Narrated by al-Baghawi in Sharh al-Sunnah, with supporting narrations found in Sunan Ibn Majah. The aggregate of these narrations seems Hasan.