Hammad Shami is a quiet, earnest 13-year-old eighth-grader with an inborn skill at math, an easygoing personality and a penchant for tennis and wrestling. He’s going to go to college, that’s for sure, and he might be a doctor, like his brother plans to be, or he might be an engineer, like his father.
Or perhaps, his parents think, he could become a sales rep for a technology company because of his combination of intelligence and social skills.
He says: “I’m not too sure about that. They say it, so I trust them.”
Hammad was born in California. He makes friends easily; he likes to draw and, given the right book, can get lost in reading. He tries not to squabble with his sister and finds his older brother a bit strict as a teacher in his Sunday School class. He thinks he is a pretty average teenager.
But Hammad also has an above-average thoughtfulness about life — especially as seen through the lens of his faith.
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t go to the mosque.”
Hammad’s mother wakes him, his elder brother and younger sister every day at 6 a.m. They get ready for school and, together, the family says the first prayer of the day at 7 a.m. Prayers are based on sunrise and sunset, so the times change through the seasons.
When he gets home from school, Hammad says the afternoon prayer on his own; the family says the third and fourth prayers of the day together; the fifth, together or at the mosque.
“Not all families follow this routine. It’s not like you have to do it, but ... you’re supposed to get more reward for doing it as a family. (Plus) it’s just good to get in the practice.”
Prayer — or namaz, the Urdu word — creates the structure of the day. Once, when Hammad was hanging out with friends, the time came for namaz.
“I just said, ‘Alright, I need to step aside and do prayers.’ They were fine with that — they actually wanted to know more about it after I had done it.”
The three major religions — Christianity, Islam and Judaism — share a common ancestry, a fact that Muslims are very much aware of.
“Islam says that they’re all linked because we believe in Jesus; that he was important (and we believe in) all his miracles, like being able to walk on water and stuff like that. And Moses, how he split the two seas.
“As a Muslim, you’re not allowed to say any disrespect for religion, no matter how crazy you think it is. It shows respect to others and what they think is correct.”
This summer, Hammad participated in a summer camp where kids from a kaleidoscope of faiths participated. Together, they made a mosaic of a tree, showing that the three faiths are branches of the same trunk.
“In Islam, you’re supposed to be the best person you can be while balancing your faith. So I think that — as a person — I should keep my faith strong about my religion.
“And be as nice to other people as I can. And have good morals.”
Over the summer, during the holy month of Ramadan — a month devoted to study of the Koran and to fasting — Hammad chose to make a special 10-day retreat, called Itikaf, sequestered in the mosque and mostly alone. Because nights are more blessed, he and occasionally a few other men would stay awake all night saying prayers, listening to lectures, reading the Koran in Arabic.
“Basically, you have to isolate yourself and try to become as good a person as you can be. Learn as much as you can, read as much as you can. … try and gain as much knowledge as you can about the religion.”
It was an intense experience.
“I noticed my attitude changed. ... I started taking things more seriously. After that, I knew a lot more (about my religion), which changed my behavior. ... ”
And because he was away from his family for those 10 days, he also discovered something else.
“Don’t take your family for granted, definitely. Since usually I’m with my family, I don’t have to worry about that. As a teenager, kids usually take their parents for granted — they don’t want to see them, they can get annoyed with them.
“I don’t want that to happen with me. So I want to keep that experience in mind.”
The respect for his family and parents also shows up in relationship with others.
“(There’s) the Golden Rule, like the Bible: Do unto others as you would have done to you. ...
“I try to accept people and try not to be mean.
“Like when my sister and I pick a board game, it’s usually me who changes my answer so we can play a board game. Me and my sister are always in a disagreement, so usually I just say OK, if you want to, we can play this game.
“It’s helpful; you don’t really want to be in arguments. And people usually like it when they get what they want.”
Although, he is quick to point out, this goes beyond just being nice.
“In Islam, you’re supposed to give up what you like for someone else. Like, say you’ve toasted bread and there’s two different pieces of toast: one that’s nice golden-ish brown and another that’s a dark one. As a Muslim, you would take the burnt one for yourself. ...
“One, it’s good morals and two, I think you get reward for it. You could just take (the golden one) for yourself, but when you give it to someone else, even though you want it really bad, you get a lot of reward for that. ... It makes them happy.”
Those words seem unusual from someone so young, growing up in a culture that is so centered on personal and instant gratification.
“In this religion, you’re supposed to be grateful for things that you have. ...
“Everything is a blessing.
“Like the food you get — i n some places they actually make dirt cookies. It’s really sad that they (have to do) that and that they’re grateful (to have even dirt to eat). And we say things like, ‘Oh, they messed up my order’ and become really ungrateful.”
This summer, Hammad’s stomach started to hurt; a sharp, stabbing pains that made him not want to eat. Eventually, he was diagnosed with a debilitating disease called ulcerative colitis.
“I was pretty bummed out about it when I got it. Then my mom was saying to me like, ‘Be grateful that it’s something that’s manageable,’ because it is manageable. ... And there are people who have it worse than me. Now I’m not too bummed out about it; I’m glad I didn’t get something that is worse.”
The disease also has significant implications for Hammad’s health in the future.
“I usually don’t think too much about what will happen in the future. The ulcerative colitis, it will increase your chances of getting cancer in 10 years. So I try not to think about what would happen.”
Instead, he focuses on the now. That’s how he is learning to deal with his disease, and also how he, as a young person, looks at the problems of the world.
“There’s a point where you can’t make the changes by yourself. ... There’s some problems that are too big — like all of these wars being started — that unless you have high enough power, you can’t really stop those.
“But we can at least do something about it where we live, try to create fewer problems where we live. Like I could volunteer (at a homeless shelter) to help some people, instead of just sitting here and watching and feeling bad about it or feeling sorry for the people but not contributing to help them. ...
“Like having more people encouraged to help and make the world a better place for everyone else — and for the generations to come, really.”
Katherine Jones: 377-6414
Know someone living “from the heart?” Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email email@example.com.