Stop for a moment and focus on your heartbeat. Don't stray from that focus, and try to count your heartbeats. Ask yourself- had Allah (swt) left total control of our own heart to us, would we ever have been able to keep up and focus on maintaining that perfect rhythm and balance of our own heartbeat for even 3 minutes of our life?
The very autonomic nervous system of your body that keeps you perfectly alive and fully functional is a constant, continuous blessing of Allah (swt) of such mind-numbing complexity and depth- that not even a millisecond goes by that Allah (swt) does not command your heart to beat, your lungs to breathe, your stomach to digest, and your internal organs to operate as they should throughout the entire day without you ever knowing nor realizing just how precious each end every one of these organs are to your very life.
And for all of these enormous yet silent blessings, there's one organ in particular that we hardly show any gratefulness for, because it's the one bodily organ that we truly take complete advantage of throughout our entire lives without ever knowing just how critically precious it is to us- our brain.
Admittedly, I myself am incredibly ungrateful- and shamefully so, because Allah (swt), through His infinite wisdom and mercy, showed me the true face of being denied this particular blessing. He showed me a glimpse of His power over our minds, and how humbling His mercy is upon all of us. Most people only hear scary stories about people who are struck with severe dementia and psychosis- those whose minds are warped and twisted to such unfathomable levels of deterioration that they lose their very grip on reality and aren't able to tell what's real from what's imaginary.
And I had met such a person face-to-face.
It was about 2 years ago, during one of my summer medical internships- I was stationed to volunteer in that particular hospital's Psych Ward. It was a guarded, enclosed section of the hospital that had thick steel doors with electronic locks and security cameras placed in every hallway- it felt like a prison, and there was always an eerie atmosphere of silence in the ward. The psych patients undergoing treatment would freely wander the hallways during their free time- they would shuffle slowly and aimlessly with almost soulless expressions on their faces. Some of them would carry conversations with themselves, or repeat strange bizarre actions over and over again.
It was terrifying for me seeing all this for the first time- this was a different fear than what I had experienced before when I saw trauma in the Emergency Room or when I'd watch surgical operations on car accident victims. This was a feeling of uneasiness that I couldn't shake.
I sat in a meeting room with a few other students and the head psychiatrist introduced us to one of the patients in their psych ward. He was an African-American man in his mid-30s or so- well built, and above average in height. You would never have suspected anything was wrong with him if you didn't see him dressed in a patient's gown. He sat before us silently and I could see him scanning us slowly. I glanced down at my notebook, fishing around for some paper, and I was interrupted by his first words to our group:
I didn't even realize it- it didn't sink in until a few moments after he said it, that I was shaken with disbelief. I couldn't believe what I had just heard, and when I looked at him, he was staring at me- he clearly directed that salaam to me.
"Wa alaikum salaam."
I replied with a mix of surprise and hesitation. I was clueless as to how he knew I was Muslim. I had a light beard that covered my jawline, but my name-tag was hidden from him, and yet he somehow knew I was Muslim when we had never met before. It wasn't his intuition that had struck me, however- to this day I never forgot what he said to me immediately after I returned his salaam:
I didn't know how to respond to that. I didn't understand him- why would he say that? Why Al-Fatihah? I was filled with so many questions for this man, but the psychiatrist prompted him first by asking him to tell us a little about himself.
He said he was an undercover government operative- an agent sent to spy on famous Muslim speakers, but he was captured and sent to this psych ward in order to neutralize his mission. He said he was in fact a double-agent who was working on his own, and he specifically mentioned that his primary contact on the outside was Imam Siraj Wahaj- and that he had to go to Brooklyn at all costs in order to notify the good imam of a mysterious conspiracy. He asked us if we could go out and complete his mission for him, and he told us that the government would let him free once the task was completed, so his freedom essentially depended on it.
As ridiculously outlandish as that sounded to us, he kept an absolutely serious face throughout his lecture- he wasn't joking or even exaggerating. There was such conviction and sincerity behind his words that you could tell he truly believed in everything he was telling us. As he became more heated in his tirade about his mission, the psychiatrist kindly stopped him and politely dismissed him from the room.
The doctor than closed the door and turned to us- and the smile he was wearing up until that moment disappeared and he then began to tell us the real history behind this psych patient.
He was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY to a Muslim family that frequented the masajid in the area. The man was known for being aggressive as a child, but everyone thought it was just a phase that he would grow out of. His aggressiveness started to worsen as he grew, and it began to border on strong paranoia- he was brutally lashing out against people out of an innate unexplained fear of being attacked or assaulted. The slightest hint of confrontation directed at him would set him in a wild fit of self-defensive anger.
One day, while he was in the kitchen fixing a sandwich for himself, his mother had entered the room- he was focused on his food and didn't quite notice her presence. She approached him with his back turned, and almost instinctively he felt as if he was about to be jumped from behind, so he grabbed a nearby knife, spun around, and lunged at his own mother. Her shrieks alerted the man's younger brother, who rushed into the kitchen and managed to wrestle the knife out of his hand. No longer equipped with a knife, the man then grabbed his mother's throat and began to strangle her while his little brother frantically called 911.
It was horrible- the more the doctor told us about this man, the more I felt sick to my stomach. The police had arrived in time to save the family, and wrestled the man into handcuffs. At his family's request, he was admitted to a psych ward, and upon examination was diagnosed with a severe form of paranoid schizophrenia. His disease was rapidly eroding his grip on reality, and so his treatment needed to be swift and potent.
After nearly murdering his own mother, his family disowned him- the doctor told us that following his admission as a patient, his family ceased all communication and refused to come during visiting hours. As far as they were concerned, he was better off never coming back, out of fear that he might mentally snap and try to kill another family member again.
I felt compelled to meet with that man again, and so I asked the doctor's permission to sit with him. The doctor granted my request, but warned me never to step behind the patient's back nor make any menacing or confrontational gestures.
I met with the Muslim psych patient again the next day.
He was sitting in the psych ward's art therapy session- a room that eerily resembled a kindergarten classroom, with crayons, markers, and paintbruses lined up against the wall, and whole stacks of childrens books and coloring books laid out on a table. The psych patients would spend 1 hour a day either working on coloring books, or drawing on blank pieces of paper. I sat in the room too, supervising them alongside a few nurses.
The Muslim patient was peacefully coloring in a firetruck- it was so odd watching him do something so childish, but it felt terrifying at the same time, knowing that this man who was innocently coloring in a picture was also the same man that nearly murdered his own mother.
After the session, I was allowed to sit with him one-on-one in one of the conference rooms. Finally, I had the chance to speak with him directly.
This time, I said "as salaamu alaikum" to him, and he only replied with "Fatihah al-Fatihah."
I asked him if he knew surah Fatihah, and he gave me a puzzled look- almost bewildered by what I asked him. I guess he didn't know it at all- or maybe he had forgotten what Fatihah was. Regardless, I pressed a bit further and asked him to tell me a little more about himself.
He started again with his grand delusions- about how he was selected at a young age to be trained as a government agent, and how he was specifically instructed by the government to trust no one, and to consider everyone his enemy. I don't know if he ever actually met Imam Siraj Wahaj, but he mentioned him again as his main contact, and he asked me directly:
"I know you're a Muslim. I need you to take this, and give it to him. He knows who I am, and he knows my mission. He's the only one who can get me out of here. They got me, and they won't let me leave. You have to deliver this for me."
He opened up his personal folder, and I swear to you- I nearly gasped when I saw the contents of it. It was like a horror movie- inside of his folder he had written down hundreds, if not thousands, of little words and numbers all over the inside flaps. The arrangement was random- he had written numbers over words, wrote slanted and crooked sentences that seemed to run right off the edge of the folder, and it looked like a giant mess of graffiti.
He pointed at one of the random sequences of numbers he sloppily penned into the folder flap, and said,
"This is the government's number. Only I know this number, and I have to get him to call this number to get me out of here. Take this number, and give it to him."
I apologized, and I told him I was just an intern in this volunteer program, and that I couldn't possibly do this for him. He was clearly upset that I had turned down his request, and he refused to speak with me after that. He just stared intensely at his folder markings and didn't say anything at all. I wasn't really sure what else to say, so I thanked him for his time, and gave him one last salaam before leaving the room. He didn't reply.
That was the last time I ever saw that man.
According to the psychiatrist, he had been refusing to take his medication for weeks, and his schizophrenic state was steadily worsening, making him a dangerous and risky patient to hold in the psych ward. The hospital was still in the process of contacting his family to receive permission to transfer him to what most likely would be a permanent residence in a specialized psychiatric hospital. My internship ended before I had the chance to see that man again, and it ended before I was able to find out what ultimately became of him.
But despite all that, to this day I have never forgotten him.
Allah (swt) left that man in perfect physical health- his body was in great working order with his heart pumping away, his lungs breathing with ease, and his internal organs working as they always have. But Allah (swt) slowly took from that man a single piece of his overall health- his mind, and from losing that one blessing, that man's life had changed forever. "Fatihah al-Fatihah" and "As salaamu alaikum" became the only semblance of what he still held on to from his deen that others could recognize. And that was perhaps the most jarring observation of all.
Allah (swt) gathered us both together in that conference room to sit one-on-one for 20 minutes- I don't know how much of a benefit it was for that man to meet with me, but I saw that time as a striking reminder of His mercy. It was a reminder of the one blessing I completely took for granted without ever even realizing it nor even understanding how critical it has been for my intellectual growth and social development as a person- my own mind. Through His favor and His mercy alone, He has allowed me to retain my own sanity, and He has graciously preserved my mental health, and has protected me from crippling psychological disease and mental deterioration. Alhamdulillah.
What value could I possibly even begin to place on such a profound blessing from Him?
And if you were to count Allah's favors, you would not be able to number them; most surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. [Sūrah al-Nahl: 18]