This weekend, I found out our kind, elderly landlady's husband of over 60 years had died. Not a few days ago, but back in June.
As Helen spoke to my husband about the tragedy, she mentioned that she had told one of our neighbors in the building about her spouse's death. Our neighbor had either forgotten to tell us or assumed we already knew about it
I was not only embarrassed that we didn't know sooner so we could at least give our condolences, but also surprised and hurt by the lack of communication.
Such is the state of neighborly relations in most of America today. A slight nod of the head, a brief hello in the hallway or perhaps helping with a car stuck in the snow during winter. That's usually the most communication many of us have with those who are physically closer to us than most of our relatives.
I don't fault my neighbor for not sharing the news of Helen's husband's death. It's clear that I haven't been fulfilling my Islamic duty towards her or my other neighbors. If I had, she probably would have told me about the death.
I, too, am guilty of the "hello in the hallway" syndrome when it comes to how I treat my neighbors. This is despite the fact that the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) once said, "Jibril kept recommending treating neighbors with kindness until I thought he would assign a share of inheritance" (Bukhari and Muslim).
Wow, my inheritance.
But let's think of something smaller. How about food? It's been said that food unites. While we all have our own tastes, "American" food (i.e. fruits, veggies, chips, cookies, chocolate cake, frozen pizza, etc.) can be found in virtually all of our homes, even those who staunchly cling to their ethnic identities. When was the last time I offered a bag of chips or cookies to the kids downstairs? When was the last time I cut up some watermelon on a hot day and offered it to my neighbors?
"O Abu Dharr! Whenever you prepare a broth, put plenty of water in it, and give some of it to your neighbors," the Prophet advised his Companion in a Hadith in Muslim.
It's not just about hunger. In America, the land of plenty, Alhamdu lillah, you won't find the shortage of food you would in many Muslim countries. Here, food really is about uniting people, sharing what's common to our humanity. It's also about building neighborly relations through small acts of kindness.
"By Allah, he is not a believer! By Allah, he is not a believer! By Allah, he is not a believer,' the Prophet said. It was asked, "Who is that, O Messenger of Allah?' He said, "One whose neighbor does not feel safe from his evil" (Bukhari and Muslim).
Maybe I'm not so bad. At least I don't yell and scream at my neighbors, threaten them, cheat them or lie to them. Most of us probably fit in this category. But I'm reminded of my negligence towards my neighbors when I realize that how I treat them relates to my relationship with God, which is the very core of who I am as a Muslim.
The Prophet said, "the best of companions with Allah is the one who is best to his companions, and the best of neighbors to Allah is the one who is the best of them to his neighbor" (Tirmidhi).
After 9/11, Muslim leaders in America have emphasized the need to share Islam with our neighbors to encourage better understanding and to build bridges. The future of Islam in this country doesn't only depend on this exchange of values and information. Our very faith and connection to Allah is reflected in how we treat our neighbors. Perhaps this is the push we need to start connecting with them so we can better our relationship with God.
Photo Attribution: Phil Scoville - http://www.flickr.com/photos/philscoville/440374432/