“By the sky containing great stars; And (by) the promised Day; And (by) the witness and what is witnessed; Cursed were the companions of the trench (Containing) the fire full of fuel; When they were sitting near it; And they, to what they were doing against the believers, were witnesses; And they resented them not except because they believed in Allāh, the Exalted in Might, the Praiseworthy; To whom belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth. And Allāh, over all things, is Witness. Indeed, those who have tortured the believing men and believing women and then have not repented will have the punishment of Hell; and they will have the punishment of the Burning Fire. Indeed, those who have believed and done righteous deeds will have gardens beneath which rivers flow. That is the great attainment. Indeed, the vengeance of your Lord is severe. Indeed, it is He who originates (creation) and repeats. And He is the Forgiving, the Affectionate; Honourable Owner of the Throne; Effecter of what He intends.”
I am writing concerning the situation in the Central African Republic (“CAR”) following the country’s descent into a civil conflict which no doubt you have all been watching with growing dismay and concern. The images being beamed around the world show the horror of death and destruction at proportions contrary to all humanitarian standards.
According to the 2003 census, the religious makeup of the CAR is Christian 50%, Muslim 15% and Indigenous beliefs 35%. The spate of violence against the minority Muslim populous of CAR at the hands of the Christian militia, namely the anti-balaka, started in December 2013 and the relentless killing with machetes and firearms has been going on with impunity since then and escalated further with the resignation of the country’s first Muslim President, Mr Djotodia in January 2014.
There have been countless reports of Christian lynch mobs out on killing sprees attacking and killing Muslims. The religious violence in the CAR reached a new extreme with acts of cannibalism in the capital last month. The BBC reported a dozen people involved in the mutilation of Muslims which involved large crowds of people who had gathered around the killings, including children. One Christian militiaman then cut one man’s genitals off and put them in his mouth.
In another report last month, a Muslim was dragged off of a bus by a crowd of Christians, the man was then stabbed through the eyes, stabbed in the head, petrol was then poured over the body, the body was then set alight and his limbs were hacked off. Then one member of the crowd ate the man’s flesh in a public demonstration of cannibalism, his whole leg right down to the bone according to the man’s own account. Pictures captured a charred and dismembered body being dragged through the street by a screaming mob and a man holding a severed leg and biting down into it. What’s worse, having saved some of the dead man’s flesh, the murderer was caught the following day placing the flesh in between two halves of a baguette and then eating it.
It is not clear whether or not the army of CAR are also participating in these crimes. Human Rights Watch reported earlier this month that a Muslim man had been lynched by uniformed military officers who slashed the man with machetes, crushed his head with large stones and cut off one foot and his other leg. They then put the body in the middle of the street, piled tires on it and set it alight. Fatou Bensouda, chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, has opened a preliminary investigation into crimes against humanity in the CAR. Mrs Bensouda said the incidents she was looking into included “hundreds of killings, acts of rape and sexual slavery, destruction of property, pillaging, torture, forced displacement and recruitment and use of children in hostilities”. In many incidents, she noted, “victims appeared to have been deliberately targeted on religious grounds [for being Muslim].
Humanitarian Disaster & Wider Implications
What is taking place cannot be underestimated. Joanne Mariner, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International said that “the [Christian] anti-balaka militias are carrying out violent attacks in an effort to ethnically cleanse Muslims in the Central African Republic” and that it is leading to a “Muslim exodus of historic proportions”.
Aid agencies are now warning that an exodus of Muslim traders and cattle-herders could lead to “catastrophic” famine and economic collapse and according to the UN, 1.3 million of the country’s 4.6 million people need food aid urgently.
It is of paramount concern that the current violence in CAR could both broaden and deepen, with greater ethnic and religious underpinnings. The consequences for the country and indeed the region are extremely serious and could turn catastrophic particularly with already troubled nations of Congo and Sudan bordering the country.
The international community has a responsibility to prevent the worst from happening and there is convincing evidence of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief.
Further details of the atrocities of ethnic cleansing in the region can be found in the 32-page report compiled by Amnesty International.
The Companions of the Ditch
Let us turn our attention now to the story of the ‘Companions of the Ditch’ as told in Sūrah al-Burūj as referred to at the outset of this article. This is a Sūrah (Chapter) which requires deep thought whatever the time or place. The Qur’ān through this story, points out to the Believers the road which lies before them, and prepares them to accept with fortitude whatever comes their way, with the permission of al-Hakīm (The Wise).
This is the story of a group of people who believed in the oneness of Allāh and openly proclaimed their belief. They encountered tyrannical and oppressive enemies who were bent upon denying the right of a human being to believe in Allāh which resulted in them being tortured and burned alive. Against these believing and righteous souls were pitted arrogant, mischievous, criminal and degraded people. These criminals sat by the pit of fire, watching how the Believers suffered and screamed in pain. They sat there to enjoy the sight of how fire consumed living beings and how the bodies of these noble souls were reduced to ashes. And when young men or women, some children or old men from among these righteous believers were thrown into the fire, the pleasure of the criminals would reach a new height, and shouts of mad joy would escape their lips at the sight of blood and pieces of flesh. Even a wild beast kills its prey for food, never to derive pleasure through tormenting it as was the case with the Companions of the Ditch or indeed in the CAR.
From the earthly point of view, the end was pitiful and tragic. But the Qur’ān teaches the Believers something else and reveals to them another reality which is that triumph is not limited to immediate victory, which is but one of the many forms of triumph. In the incident described above, the souls of the Believers were given victory over torture which is an honour for all mankind for all times – and this is the true victory as Allāh sets out in the Sūrah when He says “Dhālika l-fawzu l-kabīr”, “That is the great triumph.” Nonetheless, a Believer must never forget the example of the Companions of the Ditch in which the believers have no escape and the criminals have the upper hand. This is so that the Believers should remain fully aware that they can also meet this extreme end in the way of Allāh and they have no say in it.
It also must not be forgotten that such torture was also inflicted upon the noble companions of the Messenger of Allāh (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam). The Messenger of Allāh (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) saw the intensity of tortures heaped upon ‘Ammār, his father and his mother – may Allāh be pleased with them – but he said nothing more than this: “Patience, family of Yāsir! For verily the Garden is promised for you”. And Khabbāb b. al-Aratt – may Allāh be pleased with him – reported: “We complained to the Messenger of Allāh (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) while he was resting in the shadow of the Ka’ba, saying, ‘Why do you not ask Allāh to help us? Why do you not pray for us?’ Then he (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) said: ‘Before you, there were people who would catch a man, bury him halfway in a hole dug in the ground, then saw his head until it split in two; or would comb with iron combs between his flesh and bones; yet this would not turn him away from his religion. By Allāh! Allāh will bring this matter to completion, and a time will come when a rider will ride alone from San’ā to Hadramaut and he will have no fear except of Allāh, or of a wolf against his sheep; but you people are in a hurry”.
Naturally, the question which comes to mind when witnessing what is taking place is whether the commodity of the blood of a Muslim has become cheap in the eyes of the world in view of the ongoing killing fields of Muslims in the modern era, be it in Palestine, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, China, Burma, Syria and now the Central African Republic. Yet in the sight of Allāh, the commodity is indeed precious. Abdullāh b. ‘Umar (radiy Allāhu ‘anhumā) said, “I saw the Prophet (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) doing tawwāf around the Ka’ba saying, ‘How sweet/good are you and how sweet is your scent. How great are you and how great is your sanctity. By the One in whose Hand the soul of Mohammad is, the sanctity of a believer is greater with Allāh than your sanctity’ (i.e. that of the Ka’ba)”.
Though the Ka’ba is considered the greatest Islamic symbol present, with the Muslims all over the world turning their faces toward it five times daily, and though the prayer near it has more reward than anywhere else, the sanctity of the blood of a single believer is worth more to Allāh than the sanctity of this first house built to worship Allāh. It is therefore upon the Muslims to place the same priority upon the blood of their brothers and sisters in the CAR, and treat the violation of that sanctity as worse than open aggression against the Ka’ba. And whilst we are not in a position to respond to the violations we are seeing like those in times gone by—such as when Mu’tasim Billāh sent an entire army to the Roman Amuriyyah fort to release one Muslimah who had been captured—we must ensure that we help in the capacity that we can which includes aid and relief work as well as lobbying our Governments to call for an immediate cessation of the violence. It is also important to remember that one should not see this as cowardly; indeed simply doing nothing is in fact cowardice. Further, do not be miserly in utilising your du’ā, the weapon which provides the Muslim with tremendous strength, and power to scale such lofty heights. With its help, a Believer can pierce through all the curtains between him/her and his/her enemy.
Finally, the criminals may wish to change this struggle which is taking place in the CAR into an economic, political or racial struggle so as to deceive you but make no mistake that the Believers in CAR are being slaughtered for no other reason than that of the Companions of the Ditch and the Companions of the Prophet (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam): that they believe in and worshipped Allāh alone. Whilst we may never see the criminals in the CAR brought to justice with our own eyes in this life, we must never forget that we likewise have no details as to what the earthly end was of those criminals who perpetrated the torture and killing of the Believers in Sūrah al-Burūj. However, the Muslim must understand that it is for Allāh jalla wa’ala to choose to deal with us and with our enemies as He deems proper. He may choose for them any one of the endings known in history, or some other ending which only He knows and sees. However, I swear by the One in whose hands are our souls, that as for the criminals:
“And never think that Allāh is unaware of what the wrongdoers do. He only delays them for a Day when eyes will stare (in horror)”… “On the day when We will seize them with the most violent seizing, surely We will inflict retribution.”