The clouds covered the horizon, as Mr Smith looked out of the window. Grey, everything was grey. The sky, the playground outside, even the classroom he taught in. Mr Smith looked at the clock ticking away on the wall above the white board, 'Five minutes to go before the lesson starts,' he thought. 'Five minutes before history with year eleven!' He had set them a novel assignment; to make their own dream team of eleven of the world's greatest people. Now Mr Smith waited to see their response.
The bell rang and 'Abdullāh was the first to come in. Dressed in his long white robe and black beard, 'Abdullāh was a rarity in a school dominated by the latest designer trends. It always amazed Mr Smith how kids from some of the most deprived backgrounds could afford clothes from the most expensive boutiques in town. 'Abdullāh had intrigued Mr Smith since the first time he had met him. 'Abdullāh's father, Dr Saleem was a consultant at the local hospital, yet he adopted the same dress code as 'Abdullāh. Mrs Saleem was the headmistress of the local Islamic school. What was the long clothing and veil she wore called again...? Ah yes, the hijāb. Mr Smith clearly remembered the last parent's meeting he had with Dr Saleem, when he had said, 'Abdullāh is the most intelligent pupil in the school, I'm sure he's Oxbridge material.' Dr Saleem's answer had shocked Mr Smith at first and still puzzled him to this day. 'I appreciate your judgement Mr Smith, but I think 'Abdullāh wants to study Islām. Whether Oxbridge is his first choice, I don't know.'
The sudden rush and noise interrupted Mr Smith's thoughts as the rest of the class came in, five minutes late! 'Abū Bakr, John, 'Umar, Zubayr, 'Abdur Rahmān, Sā'd, Sa'īd, 'Alī, 'Uthmān, Talhah, Abū 'Ubaydah…' Mr Smith, quickly went through the names of the class as they took their seats. It had taken him six months to learn all their names. Having grown up and trained in a rural area, Mr Smith had not heard, never mind pronounced, the names of some of his class. John, was the only name Mr Smith had picked up straight away.
'Right lads, how many of you have completed the homework from last week?' A flurry of activity took place, as the students took out their books from their bags. 'What I'm going to ask you to do is give the rest of the class a brief summary of your dream team and name the person who you think is the best from your selected group of people. Think of it as selecting a captain, perhaps. Who wants to go first?'
'Umar put his hand up. 'I will sir,' he said. Mr Smith looked at 'Umar as he stood up and came to the front of the class. 'Umar was a large lad for his age. A champion kick boxer and sportsman, 'Umar commanded respect from all. As 'Umar began to speak the rest of the class shuffled a little to listen to what he had to say. Mr Smith sat down at his desk.
'I chose boxing as my criteria for my top eleven. The reason for this is that I think professional boxers have considerable skill which should be admired. They are also adored by a lot of people and in their own way, they are also quite beautiful.'
Sniggers bounded around the classroom at this last comment but 'Umar went on unperturbed. 'My number one boxer is Muhammad 'Ali because... well, to put it simply, he is the best.' Cheers and cries of ''Ali, 'Ali,' erupted in the classroom. Mr Smith stood up from his chair, 'Alright, alright, quieten down! Well done, 'Umar, you made a very good effort. Now...' Mr Smith was cut off midway through his sentence by a noise at the back of the class.
The gold chain was noticeable before the neck that wore it could be seen. Mr Smith was quite used to the sequence now. The class would have started and he would be disturbed midway through the lesson by a shadowy figure entering the class, not through the door but via one of the windows at the back. Mr Smith stood up a little straighter. 'Nice of you to join us, Muhammad. Have you done your homework?'
'Yes, I have,' was the reply. The gold toothed smile that followed the answer was mischievous. 'Would you like to share it with the rest of us then?' Mr Smith braced himself for the reply. 'You know what sir, I made a team but because it was a dream team, I made it in my sleep. I've forgotten the team now.' The class burst into laughter, only 'Abdullāh, who sat next to Muhammad, looked sadly at the floor. 'Alright, alright very funny,' said Mr Smith. Who would like to volunteer next?'
Over the next half an hour, Mr Smith's classroom was graced by some of the world's greatest figures; Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Pelé, Bill Gates, Sigmund Freud, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X... Mr Smith was genuinely pleased with the class' efforts. 'Abdullāh was the last to come to the front. Knowing the intelligence of his star student, Mr Smith keenly waited to hear about the team 'Abdullāh had compiled.
'Before I begin to talk about the team that I put together, I would just like to tell you why I chose the team I did. Is that OK Mr Smith?' Mr Smith nodded, prompting 'Abdullāh to continue. 'Whenever we see someone as great, we generally base our judgement on one of three factors. These three factors are beauty, achievement and the benefit such individuals have provided to society. I am sure all of us considered one or more of these factors when choosing our teams.' The class nodded in response, even Muhammad looked interested.
'So I began thinking about my team, based on these things but I very quickly encountered a problem. As I thought over each of these three things in detail, I began to find that it was hard to think of people who were the best in each one of these categories. For example, someone can be so physically beautiful that we can be lead to loose our senses and some of our lists reflected this...' The class burst into laughter again, as they recalled in their mind's eye, 'Alī's enthusiastic presentation about famous actresses a few minutes earlier. Even Mr Smith could not stifle a smile. 'But beauty in reality, consists of both the external appearance combined with the internal beauty of manners and good character. Likewise, I found problems with achievement and benefit to others; either someone had only achieved something in one specific field or had achieved something that was only applicable or recognised in a specific period. As I continued to think about how to solve this problem, I thought, 'Why don't I think of the people I know and think about what I like about them so much? Maybe that might help me.' And the first person I thought of was you Mr Smith.'
'Abdullāh suddenly turned around to face Mr Smith. Mr Smith stood up from his desk, slightly embarrassed. 'I hope you don't mind me saying this sir, but your first name is David isn't it?' Mr Smith nodded in reply. 'Abdullāh turned back to face the class, who were clearly intrigued to know what 'Abdullāh would say next.
'As most of us probably know, David in Arabic is Dāwūd, and this is the name of one of the greatest and wisest Prophets of God, or as Muslims we say, Allāh. That's probably why Mr Smith is so clever, because he shares a name with such a wise Prophet.' Abdullāh looked at Mr Smith and smiled. The rest of the class laughed and cheered loudly. Mr Smith turned a brighter shade of pink.
'So thinking about names and how they affect and shape our lives made me think of the rest of my class, and I began to think of you guys. I thought of how John's name in Arabic is Yahyā, the name of another great Prophet of Allāh. Then as I went through the names of the rest of the class, I thought, wow, my class is named after a unique set of people. A set of people so unique that their legacy continues to this day, a set of people so famous that the libraries of the world are filled with books describing their achievements, and a set of people so great that people have been named after them for over 1400 years.'
The class was completely silent, their gazes fixed intently on 'Abdullāh. At the back of the class Muhammad sat straight in his chair. 'Who could 'Abdullāh be talking about?' thought Mr Smith.
'Can I carry on Mr Smith?' asked 'Abdullāh. 'Yes, 'Abdullāh, by all means, please carry on,' replied Mr Smith. 'The group of people I am talking about are called the Companions. The Companions were the first generation of Muslims and I am sure many of you have heard of them. Every single one of them was unique and special in their own way and amongst them we find role models for all of us, whether male or female, young or old.' 'Abdullāh continued, 'But among this special group of people, were a group of people who were so special, so unique that they earned the greatest prize of all, a prize so great, so unique that it is even beyond our wildest dreams. Does anybody know who this group of people are?'
No one uttered a word, even Mr Smith was speechless. 'Go on Abdullāh, tell us...,' the serious and interested voice belonged to Muhammad. Mr Smith was amazed, he had never heard Muhammad sound so interested in his history class before. 'Can I write on the board please Mr Smith? Is that okay?' asked 'Abdullāh. 'The pens are on the side 'Abdullāh, go ahead,' replied Mr Smith. 'Abdullāh picked up the black marker and began to write on the white board, talking as he wrote.
'The group of ten superstars I am talking about are called the 'Asharah Mubash-sharah', or the ten Companions who achieved the promise of the greatest prize attainable; they attained the promise of entry into Paradise, or as it is called in Arabic, Jannah, in this very world.' A gasp went around the class as 'Abdullāh turned back to face the class. Mr Smith looked closely at the board and noticed that 'Abdullāh had written ten names on the board. Ten names of ten students in Mr Smith's class!!
'The first of these great people was the Companion Abū Bakr, the first leader of the Muslims, the best friend of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and the bearer of the title: the most truthful. Next on my list is the second leader of Islām, the great warrior, commander and defender of Islām, 'Umar Ibn Khattāb.' Mr Smith stole a glance at the 'Umar that was sitting in his class. 'Umar's chest was filled with pride and his face was a beaming smile.
'Then we have the third leader of Islām, the great businessman 'Uthmān Ibn 'Affān.' 'No wonder Uthmān's so good at business studies,' thought Mr Smith. 'Fourth is the great scholar and courageous Companion, the cousin of the Prophet, peace be upon him, 'Alī Ibn Abī Tālib. 'Wow!' shouted out 'Alī, 'I didn't know I was named after the Prophet's cousin. Nuff respec to dat.'
'And then we have the great companions Talhah Ibn 'Ubaydullāh, Zubayr, 'Abdur Rahmān Ibn 'Awf, Sā'd Ibn Abī Waqqās, Sa'īd Ibn Zayd, and Abū 'Ubaydah Ibn Jarrāh.' 'Abdullāh looked at the rest of the boys in the class as he mentioned their names and told them a little about the great achievements of the people whose names the boys shared. Mr Smith had never seen his students so intrigued or so interested. Even little Sā'd, usually sleepy and rather quiet, was a bundle of activity.
'Is it OK for me to carry on, Mr Smith? I'm nearly finished,' asked 'Abdullāh. 'Yes carry on 'Abdullāh; we've still got a few minutes left.'
'Abdullāh turned away from Mr Smith and once again faced the class. 'Now that I've told you about my team, I want to tell you about my captain. As you guys probably found out when selecting your teams, selecting a captain is really hard. I spent a lot of time selecting my captain, because I wanted him to be the best there ever was. And while I was doing my research I came across the following piece of writing by the French writer Lamartine. I'll read it to you and you guys tell me if you can guess who it is. Can I read it out Mr Smith?' Mr Smith nodded enthusiastically and told 'Abdullāh to carry on.
'Lamartine writes: The most famous men, and women for that matter too, created arms, laws and empires only. They founded, if anything at all, no more than material powers which often crumbled away before their eyes. This man moved not only armies, legislations, empires, people and dynasties, but millions of men in one third of the then inhabited world. And more than that he moved the altars, the gods, the religions, the ideas, the beliefs and souls. As regards all standards by which human greatness can be measured, we may well ask, “Is there any man greater than he?”'
'Abdullāh stopped reading and slowly looked up at the class. 'Any idea who my captain is?' he casually asked. No answer. The class willed 'Abdullāh on with their eyes. 'Go on 'Abdullāh, tell us!' thought Mr Smith.
'My captain is the one who is known as the praised one, the one who is renowned throughout the world as a symbol of mercy and the one who is the greatest man ever to have walked this earth. My captain is...' 'Abdullāh suddenly paused and looked directly at the back of the class, directly at Muhammad. The class followed 'Abdullāh's gaze. Muhammad surprisingly looked at the floor, avoiding the attention that he usually basked in. 'Has Muhammad got tears in his eyes?' thought Mr Smith. 'Amazing!' 'Abdullāh continued his unflinching gaze at Muhammad. 'And the name of my captain? The name of my captain is Muhammad, peace be upon him, the last and greatest Prophet of Allāh.'
The sudden ringing of the bell disrupted the spell 'Abdullāh's speech had cast on the class. Chairs were scraped and books hurriedly shoved into bags, as the usual commotion ensued. As he gave the class instructions for next week's homework, Mr Smith noticed that most of the boys had formed a huddle around 'Abdullāh. 'Umar's voice could be heard loud and clear, 'Tell me more about Ibn Khattāb later, don't forget!' In a few minutes the class was empty.
'Abdullāh thanked Mr Smith as he left the class. 'Thanks for giving me so much time sir.' 'No Problem,' replied Mr Smith as he asked 'Abdullāh to bring him some more information about the Companions. Last to leave though was Muhammad and surprisingly he left through the door and not the window. As he walked past Mr Smith he suddenly looked up and said, 'Sir, can I speak to you for a second?' 'Wow', thought Mr Smith, 'Muhammad's never called me sir before, never mind asking to speak to me. 'I'm sorry for giving you so much hassle this year Mr Smith. Things will hopefully be different from now on.'
As Muhammad walked out of the door, Mr Smith sat down at his desk. 'Five minutes before history. This time with year seven. I understand why 'Abdullāh wants to study Islām now. With such a great history of heroes, who wouldn't,' he thought. 'I'll read about these people, these Companions when I get home.' The sun streamed down through the windows lighting up the dull classroom as Mr Smith contemplated about his star student. Once again Mr Smith was disturbed as the bell rang.