Time and Knowledge Nazrana: A Quest Through the Seven Valleys9 min read

 

This post discusses the fulfillment of my Time and Knowledge Nazrana, but it is a very different kind of post. Here, you will not find the details of my TKN assignment, the numbers of hours I clocked, how I went about working in a new setting, or the resulting impact of my work. Instead, you will find the inner quest of a young, American-born Ismaili woman who was granted the gift of self-transformation.

My hope is to contribute towards a deeper understanding of TKN – that it is not simply about ‘giving back’, but rather, it is a call, an invitation (da’wah) to an inner quest of spiritual expansion and purification.

This post is dedicated to everyone who made my journey to Afghanistan possible – beginning with my family and friends at home, the TKN Office staff, the host institution, and particularly the individuals who took me in as one of their own and eventually became my Kabuli family.

Sometime in the last few weeks, it dawned on me that my TKN experience had taken me soaring through each of the Seven Valleys described in Farid ud-Din Attar’s magnificent poem, The Conference of the Birds. Composed in the 12th century, Attar’s words encompass essential truths that continue to reverberate into the present era. The search for Simorgh is no longer just a mythical allegory, but rather, it is a mystical experience – available for those who seek such a quest…

April 2008

“Why should I sign up for Time and Knowledge Nazrana? Mom, I have nothing to offer; I’m still in college.”

“Today, you may feel like you have nothing. But in time, you will have completed your first-world education and that will enable you to give of your time and knowledge,” she replied. “When your grandparents moved to Karachi due to the 1947 war, they arrived with very little. Hazar Imam’s institutions provided everything: housing, healthcare, and education. So many volunteers must have come forward to help our families transition from being refugees to becoming residents in Pakistan. So many volunteers had a hand in creating this life of luxury for you – one day, the world will need a hand from you and it is our wish that you welcome such an opportunity. Be sure to fill out your TKN niyat form tonight, so you can submit it before you leave for Boston tomorrow.”

The desire to give was still only loosely planted in my mind during the Golden Jubilee Didar in Chicago. It had been a troubling academic year since I was graduating college a year early, but was still terrified of stepping into the real world. “Gone are the chances for me to spend a summer volunteering in some foreign country,” I thought. “That’s what students spend their time doing. I, on the other hand, will soon be an adult and will have no time for such lofty goals.”

Everything familiar was swiftly slipping away – classes, friends, relationships, home and family – setting the scene for the birth of my individual identity. Feelings of loneliness gripped my heart in every free moment…until I learned how to love myself. I found within me the source of all that I needed, whether it was love, comfort, security, or guidance.

January 2010

“Aren’t you scared?” asked a friend.

“Scared of what?” I replied.

“Scared of getting hurt, of not coming back…scared of…you know…losing your life?”

“Why would I be scared? I can’t think of a more honorable, more nobler death than when one is in the service of humanity. Can you?”

I wasn’t always that brave about living alone and away. In fact, I was homesick for the entire time I attended Babson College in Boston. The opportunity to fulfill my Time and Knowledge Nazrana presented itself only 18 months after graduation. But in that time, I had found within myself a world of fearless solitude.

When I received the call to interview for the voluntary position at a children’s hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, I instinctively said, “Yes.” There was no thinking involved, and certainly no hesitation or fear. Instead, there was a solemn joy unlike anything else I had encountered before.

In the weeks that followed, I signed the TKN contract, appointed beneficiaries for my life insurance policy, and drew up my will, which read:

“In the event that my soul decides to jettison my physical body, I would like my family to use the funds in my bank accounts to arrange for a healthy and celebratory meal to be shared among family and friends in Chicago, IL and Westport, CT after the burial ceremony.”

April – August 2010

Love is…painful. And it is not meant for the weak-hearted.

The heart-wrenching human suffering I witnessed in Afghanistan jarred my soul…

I remember the filthy, putrid odor permanently surrounding the families in the corridors was so unbearable that I would hold my breath and race to my office on the second floor. Only after reaching a safe breathing zone would I allow myself to inhale again. As soon as I settled in and began working, I would plug my ears to avoid hearing the children crying. I would try to forget that I was working in a hospital, surrounded by sick and destitute children.

After the first few weeks, I could no longer make eye contact with the parents of the malnourished, unkempt, and often physically deformed children. The painful tremors within my heart left me feeling paralyzed and powerless. I felt utterly useless. What good was my world-class Babson education valued at $200,000, if I could do nothing to support human life?

I searched for ways to barricade the pain, but it was spreading everywhere. It gnawed at my confidence until I could no longer stay afloat amidst the emotional turbulence. The world felt like it was closing in on me.

I couldn’t even identify with my reflection in the mirror. Having to wear an entirely foreign identity – everything from clothes, food, language and even social norms – I felt stripped of my real identity. My mind frantically searched for something permanent to lay my heart on. I craved familiarity and security.

I looked fine on the outside, but I was screaming inside. Who could I rely on? Who was watching out for me? Why didn’t anyone care? After 16 consecutive weeks in Kabul, I feared the loss of my sanity. I felt trapped, abandoned, and forgotten.

Suddenly, a moment of truth emerged.

My soul seemed to beckon, “Is it I your eyes are seeking?”

“Yes,” I said, “Yes, it is you! You are the only constant, life-affirming, link to eternity. And through you, I can detach from all that rises and sets.”

In that moment, truth witnessed a momentary death of my self-preserving ego. The knowledge of my soul released me from my worldly fear of abandonment.

“This isn’t your real life. Remember who you are and why you are here. Think of your ultimate destination,” my soul reminded me every morning. With this thought, I was able to center myself and resume work with even greater clarity than before. And serenity followed soon after.

Since I was on a TKN assignment, I was free from the hope or expectation of any kind of reward – be it remuneration, promotion, or praise. After all, I was not working on my behalf; I was working on behalf of the Imam of the Time. I physically reported to my boss, but my soul reported to the Imam of the Time and through him, to the Absolute.

Through the palpable presence of my soul, I felt at peace with how things were in that moment. For the first time in my life, I felt the Absolute working through me.

I realized that if the Absolute was working through me, then He must also be working through everyone else. My sense of self expanded to include not only my world back at home, but also the people of Kabul, of Afghanistan, of the planet. Lines of separation were no longer distinguishable. I had become a global citizen – identifying with people and stories from every part of the world, finding within each of them, a piece of myself.

September 2010

I spent hours every day rewinding and replaying the experiences from Afghanistan in my mind as if I was searching for my lost self amidst my own story. My surroundings were familiar, but the feelings they invoked were not. In an effort to help me readjust to life in Chicago again, my parents urged me to look into graduate school.

“Why do you want me to go to graduate school?” I asked.

“So you can earn a second degree, and secure your future. We want you to have a house of your own, upgrade your car, and have the financial means to live a comfortable life.”

Overwhelmed by their expectations, there was nothing I could have done except allow the tears to form and flow down my cheeks. The silence between us allowed me to gather the courage I needed before speaking again.

“Mom, Dad, I just spent four months in a country where people don’t have anything. I’ve seen a man wash his face with puddle water. Even if I had accidentally stepped in that puddle, I would have washed my foot with a bottle of mineral water. But that man was washing his face with puddle water because that’s all he had.”

I paused to let them imagine the scene I couldn’t delete from my mind.

”How can I forget everything I’ve witnessed? How can I go on to graduate school and spend another $100,000 just so I can have a chance at a secure future? How can I forget that I’ve been so blessed? You’ve always taught me that these blessings come with responsibility – responsibility to care for those less fortunate. How can I plan a future that doesn’t include the people on the other side of the world?”

October 2012

When Hazar Imam conveys his deep gratitude for the Time and Knowledge Nazrana, my heart is put to shame by his humility and love. He profusely thanks us for sharing what we mistakenly believe to be ours – time and knowledge – both of which are simply entrusted to us.

Anything worthy of giving can only belong to the Absolute, and He gives – when, where, to whom and through whom, as He so wills. The time and knowledge that were made available were never mine to begin with. The choice and courage to journey to Afghanistan were not mine either. And thus, the praise and pride resulting from the quest could not be attributed to me – for this is the meaning of real poverty: the soul of each person must be “poor” like an empty vessel, through which the Absolute bestows His time and knowledge to humanity.

27 Comments

  1. […] Read more sabrinalakhani.com | Sojourn. […]

  2. Avatar
    adil October 22, 2012 at 11:23 am - Reply

    You continue to raise the bar with each post! This one is definitely my favorite. I’m looking forward to your next piece. Thank you 🙂

  3. Avatar
    nausheenfarishta October 22, 2012 at 12:07 pm - Reply

    Just…amazing.

  4. Avatar
    Nazir Nensi October 22, 2012 at 12:44 pm - Reply

    Mubaraki, Sabrina Mawla bless you with immense happiness, success and lots of barakat Ameen.

  5. Avatar
    Nadia October 22, 2012 at 2:41 pm - Reply

    lovely, sabrina… i remember when you were just preparing to leave on your assignment 🙂 thanks for sharing your journey this way.. xo

  6. Avatar
    Salim Lalani October 22, 2012 at 3:28 pm - Reply

    Very Encouraging & Stimulating. Salim

  7. Avatar
    Dr Syed A Naqvi October 22, 2012 at 4:18 pm - Reply

    very nice

  8. Avatar
    Zeni October 22, 2012 at 8:48 pm - Reply

    Sabrina, may your journey be enlightened with light from the entire universe and all its galaxies. Ameen.

  9. Avatar
    mohsin October 22, 2012 at 10:34 pm - Reply

    awsm..

  10. Avatar
    Jalaledin Ebrahim October 23, 2012 at 12:24 am - Reply

    Beloved Sabrina: Allah Karim! Love, light and shadow, Jalaledin

  11. Avatar
    NAsir KArim October 23, 2012 at 5:06 am - Reply

    Simply beautiful.. 🙂

  12. Avatar
    SaminaMeghji October 23, 2012 at 6:27 am - Reply

    Masha’Allah!! May Maula bless you with more and more courage.

  13. Avatar
    Inaam Muhammad Baig October 23, 2012 at 9:34 am - Reply

    A journey following the foot prints of Prophets. Mubarak.

  14. Avatar
    Asad October 23, 2012 at 9:54 am - Reply

    Wow! Inspirational… Thank you for being role model for our generation of young Muslims!

  15. Avatar
    Mansoor October 23, 2012 at 5:29 pm - Reply

    The above article was really great, I really see you in future to to serve humanity. I pray for your success in future. Ameen

  16. Avatar
    ali October 24, 2012 at 1:51 am - Reply

    Just…………amazing..//////////GOD Help u

  17. Avatar
    Mehboob Ali Khan October 25, 2012 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    KHUDA KE AASHIQ TU HEIN HAZAROUN …BANO MEIN PHIRTE HEIN MAREY MAREY
    MEIN USKA KA BANDA BANO GHA JIS KO KHUDA KE BANDOUN SE PYAR HO GHA
    (There are many who claim love of God, they are found everywhere even in jungles. I am the
    slave of the one who loves God’s creatures and serves the humanity)

  18. Avatar
    Najeeb Ullah Baig October 31, 2012 at 11:18 am - Reply

    intelligently articulated the idea :):)

  19. […] Time and Knowledge Nazrana: A Quest Through the Seven Valleys. […]

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    Gulaby November 5, 2012 at 12:05 am - Reply

    Mubaraki Sabrina,very few can go into such depths.you are the chosen one.it was wonderful reading your story and very encouraging.i wish we all could be blessed like you.good luck always.Yaalimadad

  21. Avatar
    AA November 16, 2012 at 2:28 pm - Reply

    It is really inspiring!

  22. Avatar
    Aziz Ali December 23, 2012 at 9:09 am - Reply

    Congratulation for the job well done, really difficult for girl from State to come to Kabul and work in very difficult environment but it is the will power and belief on H I and commitment for the great cause of humanity.

  23. Avatar
    Jehan December 23, 2012 at 10:27 pm - Reply

    this is beautiful! thank you for sharing, Sabrina.

  24. Avatar
    Raamayan March 21, 2013 at 1:50 am - Reply

    Beautiful Sabrina.. loving your work…

  25. Avatar
    Aziz karim February 11, 2014 at 7:32 am - Reply

    Great exprience Sabrina. i realy enjoyed the whole post.it tuchs our spirits. M also a mini membr ov TKN.ths’l help me

  26. Avatar
    Rahim Tajdin November 8, 2016 at 3:09 pm - Reply

    Inspiring! Brought back memories of the internship I did there in 2003! Love the parallels you drew with the Conference of the Birds!

  27. Avatar
    Shellina March 22, 2018 at 1:42 pm - Reply

    Yes! time and knowledge ..never ours in the first place. May Mawla bless you. Amen

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