The Shoes

Saturday, September 12, 2015 - 6:10am
Photo by Nilufer Demir

The Shoes

It was the shoes
that broke your heart.

The sweet boy, chubby in the flesh
was laying down on the beach
Face in the waves

He almost looked like he was sleeping
Except that this sleep
Had no awakening.

It was the world’s conscience that seems to be asleep
with little sign of awakening.

You couldn’t see the boy’s face.
Aylan is his name.
Aylan was his name.
Aylan was the name his momma called him.

You couldn’t see Aylan’s face,
But you saw the shoes that a parent,
Had lovingly put on him earlier that day.

Aylan was dead, his family fleeing the Turkish coast of Bodrum, trying to get to the island of Kos in Greece, and from Greece to mainland Europe. Fleeing their ancestral homeland of centuries, hoping beyond hope to find life, safety, security.

Many of the recent refugees flee Syria. There are now more Syrians as refugees and internally displaced people than there are Syrians living in their own homes.

Syrian refugee camp, Karkosik Erbil.

(Mustafa Khayat / Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).)

In the last few years, Syria, that cradle of human civilization, with ancient Damascus and magnificent Aleppo, has witnessed the largest refugee crisis in the world. 250,000 killed. Millions of refugees. In four short years, the utter destruction of Syria has led to double the number of the largest previous refugee crisis, that of the Palestinians after the expulsion of half of their indigenous population upon the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

A human rights organization presented a scroll containing the names of all the known refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean over the last 20 years. The scroll is over 17,000 names long.

So many Aylans.
So many shoes.

Where to start?

Do we start with the responsibility of the European countries, many of which were complicit in the colonialism and the support for dictatorial Middle Eastern regimes that led to the devastation of the African and Middle Eastern countries? Do we start with the devastating hypocrisy of many Muslim regimes who have done next to nothing to take in the refugees? Do we start with the corruption of Muslim rulers, who rent out the totality of Four Seasons hotels and get gold decorations everywhere — instead of rescuing the innocents?

(Mustafa Khayat / Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).)

I wonder if they are reading the same Qur’an I am. Not only are Muslims to identify with the experience of the Prophet and his community, who were made to leave behind their homeland of Mecca for Medina, but they’re to take care of refugees even if the refugees are from another faith community.

And if anyone of the disbelievers seeks your protection, then grant him protection so that he may hear the word of God, and then escort him to where he will be secure. (Surah 9:6)

Do we start with the hypocrisy of certain Europeans who wish to pause to decide who among the dying deserves to be saved, and who should be left to drown? Such as the Hungarian prime minister who advocated taking in Christian (but not Muslim) refugees? Or German evangelists who see in the plight of the refugees an opportunity to convert the (mostly) Muslim refugees to Christianity?

As for the Christians and Jews in Europe who are turning a callous heart towards the suffering of the refugees, I simply wonder if they are reading the same scripture they claim to espouse. In the Hebrew Bible, we are told to connect the treatment of the stranger to that of our own past as strangers:

Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

How powerful it is if we come to translate the word “stranger” as refugee...

Hundreds of Syrian refugees wait for the next train in Vienna, Austria.

(Josh Zakary / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

Leviticus tells us to go beyond not merely oppressing the refugee, and rise to the majestic height of love:

But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34)

Or do we speak about the geopolitical game of death that has some supporting the bloodthirsty Bashar al-Assad (Iran, Russia, etc.) and others supporting ISIS (Saudi Arabia)?

This is what the hometown of the precious martyred child, Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed on the Turkish coast and broke the world's heart looks like now. This is Kobani/Kobane. There are many towns like this in Syria, in Gaza, and elsewhere.

But it is also urgent to address the reason why Kobani and Gaza look as they do. Without addressing the root causes of the war, of the conflict, of the powers (both Western and Muslim) that perpetuate the conditions of these wars, we will be faced with millions of more refugees, and more Aylan Kurdis to bury.

So whether the regimes making this destruction are from the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or Iran, no solution is complete without addressing those factors.

What does faith have to say at a time like this?
Where do we hear the voice of God?

Before rushing to any answer, let us sit with the ache, the breaking, and the broken.
Let us sit with those who suffer, and remember that God is with the long-suffering.

God does not merely come to the broken-hearted.
God is already with them.

The question as always, is not where is God,
but rather where is humanity?

Where are we?
Where am I?
What are we doing?

A missionary in training from Madison, Wisconsin washes the face of a young Syrian refugee in Turkey.

(YWAM Madison / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).)

The Qur'an confronts the moral imagination of its audience, asking:

"For what sin was the child killed?" (Surah 81:9)

This is a question that humanity as a whole has to be asking itself, about each and every one of the refugees whose bodies are washing up on the shore of Europe and Turkey.

Yes, if have hearts that feel, our hearts have to break.
But that breaking also has to be a breaking open.
That breaking has to lead us to direct action.

Yes, there is immediate, direct, urgent work that needs to be done for the refugees who are fleeing these towns because of the war and because of the lack of economic opportunities. That time is now. Please support Oxfam America, or any of the other organizations doing meaningful work on the ground, such as these.

It is not hopeless. One of the most powerful images of the refugees was that of a father clutching his little child. The look of agony on his face was one that haunts every parent, every human being with a heart. And yet, that family survived. The next picture shows them in safety.

Something can be done to alleviate the suffering, one family at a time.
Do it for Aylan.
Do it for what’s left of humanity inside us.

Laith Majid, a Syrian refugee, cries tears of joy and relief that he and his children have made it to the Greek island of Kos.

(Daniel Etter / New York Times / Redux / eyevine.)

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Omid Safi

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

Share Your Reflection



Thank you for his name. I will say it often Remembering it
Often sharing it with anyone who will hear.
Now to Oxfam.

Firstly, Thank you. Thank you for sharing your heart. In these lines all was said,"Yes, if we have hearts that feel, our hearts have to break. But that breaking also has to be a breaking open. That breaking has to lead us to direct action." These sentences, feelings resonate within me on many levels.

We see it everyday and not just in the life and death struggles of the refugees but on a local and global scale from all over the world. So many aspects of our society are breaking down and it is because it has to in order for all of us, regardless of our backgrounds and differences, to realize that we are ALL ONE. It is our differences that make us unique and interesting, diverse, but getting to the heart of things we are not separate, different, we are all one species of Being. If you hurt I hurt. We have to learn how to love each other and our planet again.

Why are we so divided? I listen to people on the news who are so caught in there beliefs that they are blinded. How can a person who states they follow the bible, for instance, and they call themselves Christian, turn their back on the hungry or chant to let someone die who has no insurance, or turn their backs on people who come to their own door in need? Or as this article says how can Muslim leaders spend huge amounts of money for their own luxuries in the face of such suffering? Is it because money and greed have become the new God?

Whatever the reason I believe that the tide is changing, people are waking up to what is truly important. Compassion, love and a genuine desire to care for each other must be the new thought within our world consciousness. One one person at a time.

No act is too small. There is a light hidden within this dark time if we have hearts to see it.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. Your words have moved me...and I will act now.

We must remember we are all brothers and sisters of the same Father. We are tied together and when one hurts all are hurt. God does not want this but He does expect us to respond in love and compassion. We have so much to give. God bless and protect all who are hurting. Give them comfort when they are in pain by knowing things will get better. And that there are many prayers being said for them and God does answer prayers. This is not a Muslim, or a Christian or any other religious problem. This is a human problem and we must act out of our humanity.

Yes. For me it was the shoes, too. So many pairs of the same are scattered by my back door. There is no such thing as other people's children. May we never forget those shoes; may we never stop asking the hard questions that you ask here. Thank you for this.

Thank you.

Live with your heart, then we will act with compassion, love - do I need the theologians - as Saint Kabir said. Very moving, well written, Thank you.

Amen, amen... Thank you Prakash!

As a photographer, I can only stare at this image in horror and shame. Yet this image is the very essence of the power of photography--real, un-manipulated, a testament of our time here in this experiment in cooperation called Civilization. As a father, I can only weep at the loss of this little angel. As a human being, I can only attempt to forgive all of us our trespasses, yet none of us is without blame for this tragedy. We share one world and each of us contributes to or spoils his/her share. How many more Aylan Kurdises must we ignore before those that we love meet similar ends? The Qur'an asks, "For what sin was the child killed?" (Surah 81:9) Must we answer, "For the sin of being born?"

dear omid, thank you. you are asking all the questions that must be asked, must be answered. you are asking all the questions that pound through my are asking the questions that aylan puts before us. and will not let us look away.

with broken-open heart, bless you and thank you.....

Thank you, Mr. Safi, for writing such a warm yet chilling essay. My heart is heavy....yet hopeful.

Please share any information on Helping: Names of organizations taking action, etc. I am the child of immigrant parents and siblings not born in America. I listened to their stories all my life. The welcome here was to Not want my parents to walk on the same side of the street as others did; garbage dumped on our lawn with a cross defaced; windows broken with rocks, etc. in Boston, Massachusetts where "freedom" was "ignited". Nothing much has changed for some of us. But WE CAN and MUST welcome the "stranger in our midst no matter what our faith or beliefs are.

Or do we begin with the US for trying to force it's lifestyle onto other countries.

Thank You.

We are all one.

Humans are the same everywhere, wanting the same things always. A safe place to live, to feel productive and needed, to be a part of community, and LOVE, above all LOVE . . .
My heart breaks seeing the desparation, the death, and the rejection.

Thank you for such a balanced essay. I've been called to do what I am able to do. And I feel fortunate to hear a call and be able to respond to this human tragedy.

I read this carefully and see a certain controlled but quite evident hatred towards Jews in what is otherwise a thoughtful and heartfelt plea for all peoples of every religion to reach out to refugees fleeing in fear. While I agree that this is a tragedy often repeated, I do not understand why the author mentioned Jews so prominently given that we are a tiny fraction of the world's population. As for the Palestinian refugees being forced to leave their lands when the state of Israel was created, the "facts" are not so simple. Six million Jews were going up in smoke in the concentration camps, and this fact cannot be ignored. What Great Britain did in creating a safe haven for Jews was driven by politics as much as anything, but blaming the Jews seems farcical. Talk about persecution, we have always been scape-goated, and the author does the same here. Such a shame, as his point is well-taken, and we Jews, standing here at the gates of judgement on Rosh HaShanah, are each of us wrestling with how we can be a better person in the year to come and how we can work to do our part in upholding the commandment, "Justice, justice, you shall pursue."

Dear Cathy:

Thank you for your comment. I am puzzled where you found “quite evident hatred towards Jews.” There is only one mention of Jews in this essay, in this sentence: "As for the Christians and Jews in Europe who are turning a callous heart towards the suffering of the refugees, I simply wonder if they are reading the same scripture they claim to espouse.” The other reference to Israel is in this sentence: "In four short years, the utter destruction of Syria has led to double the number of the largest previous refugee crisis, that of the Palestinians after the expulsion of half of their indigenous population upon the creation of the state of Israel in 1948”, which of course is factually true: Half of the indigenous Palestinian population was indeed driven out in 1948, over 700,000 people. All of us share in grieving over the horror of the Holocaust. The role of Great Britain, however, far precedes the Holocaust. Remember that the Sykes-Picot agreement is decades before the Holocaust, back in 1916. The British Mandate starts in 1920. Even Theodore Herzl’s own writings, which discuss the exile of the indigenous Palestinian population, go back to the late 1890s. So yes, let us all share in the beautiful commandment of "Justice, justice, you shall pursue”, and let us insist on doing so in a way that is informed by historical facts. The real history of this region is embedded in great suffering over the last century, and addressing questions of justice and injustice calls for each and everyone of us to do so in a way that is informed by compassion, self-criticism, and historical accuracy. All of us, people of every faith and no faith, deserve to live together in peace and justice.

Dear Omid, very powerful testimony. Please try to get this published more widely in the mainstream media. I, perhaps mistakenly, read and watch the mainstream media all the time, and the progressive Muslim voice is nearly absent in that space. Even on "liberal" sites like the Huffington Post. It seems to me there are pockets of places where powerful interfaith solidarity and action are taking place, but these are rarely seen more broadly. Your piece can help inspire interfaith action. Thank you, may God give you strength and clarity, keep writing.

Dear Monica, thank you so much for your kind words. You are so right about this missing voice in more mainstream media outlets. It's not due to lack of Muslim voices committed to peace and justice. It's that they not usually highlighted. As I keep asking, are we willing to listen to Muslims speaking and acting out of the depth of the prophetic tradition, committed to upholding the dignity of "the least" of God's children? Blessings!

Oh, dear God, lead me. Your writing, Omid, I have found/read today for the first time and my heart rejoices. I'll return weekly, I promise you this. Thank you. God be with you.

The Story of Aylan could not help but move most any reader. Your essay prompts many thoughts and feelings. Feelings of pain and sorrow, of course. But it is the thought of how unwilling the powers that be, can have so little appreciation of suffering and human life. Your use of several scriptures from both Judeo-Christian and Muslin sources may prompt some sense of morality. Let's hope so.
Thank you,
Doug Wagner