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Thoughts From Auschwitz

As we travelled from Krakow to Oswiecim there was something beautiful yet eerie in the landscape. The team of brothers and I had prepared for this trip, we had read a range of literature, set up a WhatsApp group to share ideas, but right at this point, in spite of our reading, there was a frightening subtlety that could too easily be missed. Oswiecim, home of the concentration and death camps Auschwitz and Birkenau, had been a centre of typographical cunning, a utopian centre of industry and progress, and at the centre of the burgeoning hub laid the dystopia that is Auschwitz. We reflected on land, landscaping, spatialisation and otherness and it was Surah al-Naml that formed a considerable part of our deliberation.

We are told, ‘And [one day] there were assembled before Solomon his hosts of Jinn and of men, and of birds; and then they were led forth in orderly ranks.’[1] The verse allows us to consider the spatial typography of empire, of power and authority. But then we are immediately compelled to consider another sphere, one unbeknownst to that radiated visual icon of empire – ‘till, when they came upon a valley [full] of ants, an ant exclaimed: “O you ants! Get into your dwellings, lest Solomon and his hosts crush you without [even] being aware [of you].”[2]

We reflected on the arrival into a space that is not ‘here’, ‘there’, but ‘elsewhere’. How might we learn from Sulaymān’s encounter with those ants mentioned thrice in a single verse, and the boundaries of space which Sulaymān crossed from a chapter entitled ‘The Ants’? The prayer of Sulaymān which follows through in the next verse is a response to the challenges of space, of binary distinctions and authority, and reflects the imperative of kayfiyya (how-ness) mandated in temporal authority. Sulaymān asked His Lord,

‘Thereupon [Sulaymān] smiled joyously at her words, and said: “O my Sustainer! Inspire me so that I may forever be grateful for those blessings of Yours with which You have graced me and my parents, and that I may do what is right [in a manner] that will please You; and include me, by Your grace, among Your righteous servants.’[3]

The remarkable contrasting in these three verses brought us to reflect on the depravity of Auschwitz as a place of ‘inclusive’ exclusion, stocked of the collective mass of untermenschen and yet excluded from the world outside the wires. As a remarkable contrast in the divine text, Sulaymān was not indifferent to the space and place of others and the importance of those others is described beautifully but perhaps most decisive is the Prophet Sulaymān’s prayer of humility and meekness in spite of his earthly kingdom.

An obvious point of reflection at Auschwitz is injustice, cruelty and killing, and how these are reflected as a Qur’anic discourse. We considered the wife of Abū Lahab who carried fire wood only for the purpose of bringing harm to the Prophet (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam), of Fir´awn and his killing of new-borns, and perhaps most evocatively was our recounting of Surah al-Burūj. The chapter brings to the fore not only the act of mass killing but also the mind-set of its perpetrators. It describes that they “sat over it (the fire)….”[4]

In the sūrah the wrongdoers are described as aṣḥāb al-ukhdūd, as the ‘Companions of the ditch’. Here the believer is reminded that temporality and finality are conjoined in the sphere of our human existence as the temporal punishment inflicted upon the believers in ‘the ditch’ was a cause for the transgressors to enter ‘the ditch’ in the next life and be perpetually remembered and recognised by the negative epithet. The degree of their barbarity was enough to diminish any other remembrance. The companions of the ditch are described as ‘sitting over the fire’. Here some commentators suggest that both ‘sitting’ (quʻūd) and ‘over it’ (‘alayhā) denote ‘closeness’ to the ghastly scene, a nonchalant attitude towards the suffering, an ultimate hard-heartedness – watching and enjoying people being burnt alive. The verb quʿūd rather than julūs is usedthe former suggesting a longer, casual sitting. We learn that the perpetrators were close to the flames, enjoying the ghastly scene and taking delight in the pain they were inflicting.

In spite of the horror of the scene that they had created and were witnessing with their own eyes, they remained unmoved – physically and emotionally. The fact that they were direct witnesses, unmediated in their consciences by distance or altitude, makes their crime an even greater one. We spoke about these few words from the Qur’ān – idh hum ʿalayhā quʿūd (“when they sat by it”) and how they come to be strikingly important in the midst of killings and human suffering we are witnesses to in our world today. I then read from Laurence Rees’ description of Birkenau to show that such entertainment in killing and the creating of a spectacle of suffering was also present in the Holocaust:

“He tried to understand how the SS could be responsible for the appalling cruelty in front of them, and yet still consider themselves civilised. In Birkenau he had heard the camp’s orchestra playing pieces by German, Austrian and Italian composers. SS men were sitting by the crematorium where children, mothers, women and men were burning but they were just sitting there. Now I think that they were just pleased to have properly completed their work and were due for a cultural entertainment – they had no dilemmas. The wind from the Birkenau blew the smell from the death camp in but they were just sitting and listening to Mozart and others, this is what a being is capable of.”[5]

We considered the ḥadīth which describes a woman who imprisoned a cat, failing to feed or provide water for the animal, nor allowing the cat out to catch its own food, and “on account of the cat she entered the fire”. We also reflected on the example of Ibn Mas´ud (raḍī-Allāhu ´anhu) who narrates that he would often strike his servant with a whip, until he was one day confronted by the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) who admonished him, “You should know O Ibn Mas´ud that Allāh is more able than you than you are over this boy’. Taken aback, Ibn Mas´ud responsed by saying he would free the young boy. The Prophet reminded him that if he did not free him (as an expiation for the cruelty) then the fire wold touch him.[6] We also deliberated on Abū Hurayra’s admonishing of some Qurayshi youth who had tied up a bird to use as target practice for their shooting of arrows. The companion reminded the young boys that Allāh’s Messenger cursed the one who takes a living thing as a target practice.[7]

As an offset to indifference, empathy enables human beings to consider their own vulnerabilities and take part in ‘imagined storying’ of the lives of others. I began by prodding the group about empathy, what it means and how we could seek to empathise with the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau. We began, again, with space. S. Yizhar, in his novella Khirbet Khizeh which describes in very disturbing and evocative terms the violent expulsion of Palestinians from the village of Khirbet Khizeh in 1948, considers the struggle in conscience of a perpetrator at once challenged by self-reflection and temporalities of space as a medium for consideration of human boundaries related to suffering and victimhood and belonging. Yizhar’s empathic outlook in his description of the village as a compromised space speaks of what Nussbaum calls eudaemonistic judgement: the considering of one’s own vulnerabilities in another’s suffering. In that distress there may be a potential for similar distress in one’s life. He describes:

“The people who would live in this village – wouldn’t the walls cry out in their ears? Those sights, screams that were screamed and that were not screamed, the confused innocence of dazed sheep, the submissiveness of the weak, and their heroism, that unique heroism of the weak who didn’t know what to do and were unable to do anything, the silenced weak – would the new settlers not sense that the air here was heavy with shades, voices, and stares?”[8]

We spoke about German philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno (d. 1969) who sought, through his seminal essay ‘Education after Auschwitz’, to usher forth a new sentiment of empathy, ‘a premier demand upon all education’ that Auschwitz not happen again. His appeal was precipitated not only by the events of the Holocaust, but by a reflection on the causes that activated indifference in the German peoples, ‘barbarism continues as long as the fundamental conditions that favored that relapse continue largely unchanged.’ It is promoting an education founded on critical self-reflection that lies at the core of Adorno’s thesis, and we deliberated on ways we could seek to instil empathic tendencies in our own children and families.

We reflected on the man of Banī Isrā’īl and his thirst. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) described,

“A man was walking on a road when he became very thirsty. He found a well and went into it and drank and came out. There was a dog panting and eating earth out of thirst. The man said, ‘This dog has become as thirsty as I was.’ He went down into the well and filled his shoe and then held it in his mouth until he climbed out and gave the dog water to drink. Allāh thanked him for it and forgave him.”[9]

The man’s actions are the quintessence of what empathy is, to be able to see yourself in another and to see them in you. The man was spurned to act upon considering his own vulnerability and then seeing in the dog that same vulnerability.

Part of our discussions revolved around the parameters of dehumanisation and the propaganda that created such virulent hatred. We spoke about the importance of names, how personal identity can be stripped away when names are replaced by numbers. We spoke about proximity and altitude, drawing on David Grossman’s book On Killing and his analysis on distance as a buffer to human emotions of empathy and guilt, and what gas chambers meant in that sense when the act of ‘killing’ is deferred to ‘something’ else – like drones today.

And finally, we prepared ourselves mentally and emotionally to enter Auschwitz in light of the statement of ‘Isā (ʿalayhi al-Salām) who said,

“In the world there are two types of people: the ones tested and those who are preserved. So have mercy on those tested and thank Allāh for being preserved.”

Being here, and elsewhere, it was important that we always have in mind that Allāh sent our Prophet (ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) “as a mercy for the worlds”[10] and that the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said that “he who is a wretched fellow is the one deprived of mercy”[11] and “he who does not have mercy will not be shown mercy”,[12] and finally

“The merciful ones are those upon whom the Most Merciful will show mercy, so be merciful with those on the earth and the one in the Heavens will be merciful unto you.”[13]

One of the profound moments of the trip was to hear our tour guide’s concluding words before we parted. She drew in the importance of bearing witness to the suffering of others, of remembering that not all perpetrators were the same, and that though the crimes of the Nazis were inexcusable, to stereotype is also a form of dehumanising  – which reminded me of Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men. She emphasised that no-one should ever participate in evil unto others because of ‘obeying orders’, that each person should have the strength to question and resist. She also drew a much needed comparison with current times and said that the world had not learnt its lesson from the Holocaust, and that what is presently happening in Syria is a proof that it had not learnt.



[1] Al-Qur’ān, 27:17

[2] Al-Qur’ān, 27:18

[3] Al-Qur’ān, 27:19

[4] Al-Qur’ān, 85:6

[5] Laurence Rees – The Holocaust

[6] Muslim

[7] Muslim

[8] S. Yizhar, Khirbet Khizeh (Granta Publications, London: 2008), pp. 109-110.

[9] Muwaṭṭa Mālik

[10] Al-Qur’ān, 21:107

[11] al-Tirmidhī

[12] Bukhārī and Muslim

[13] al-Tirmidhī

About Dr Uthman Lateef

Dr Uthman Lateef has a BA (First Class Hons) in History, an MA (Dist.) in Crusader Studies, and has completed a PhD in the Place of Fada'il al-Quds' (the Merits of Jerusalem) and Religious Poetry in the Muslim effort to recapture the Crusades. Currently, he is a khateeb at Stoke Poges Lane Mosque and Islamic Centre, Slough. He is in the process of publishing his PhD thesis and is currently conducting post-doctorate research in International Relations ('The effect of war media iconography on US identity: disruptive images, counter hegemony and political syncretism'). He presents a weekly show on Islam Channel (813), 'The Greatest Generation' and is a speaker at mosques and universities in the UK and internationally.

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