The power of forgiveness
I simply cannot thank God enough that I was stabbed.
I am an imam and orthopaedic surgeon in Greater Manchester. On the 24th September 2017 I was nearly murdered by a targeted knife attack on my way to prayers at the Islamic Centre in Altrincham. This is my story of that day.
It was mid-afternoon and I was running a few minutes late. As I walked towards my local Islamic Centre, I had a glimpse of a man just beyond in my line of sight. He stood out as he was tall enough to have his head peeping above the parked cars but then I sensed that he crossed the road towards me. He went past me as I entered through the iron gate.
Out of the blue I felt a terrific pain in the back of my neck. I was only a few steps inside the grounds when I felt as if someone put a hammer drill into the back of my neck. It just felt excruciatingly painful. I turned looking for the tree branch that had just fallen on my neck. I instinctively knew that nothing else could have struck me like that; but there was nothing, only this man. It took me a second or two to realise it must have been him. He was angry. He shouted at me; he used the ‘F’ word and then said “This is for what you have done”. I was still shocked, but then he started moving towards me. Even then I was not aware that he had stabbed me, but I instinctively sensed he was going to hurt me again; his threatening anger gripped me.
Being in such a situation, there’s no time for thinking. It is all instinctive. I sensed he wanted to harm me and I turned round and ran away like mad. I ran so fast. I only realised how fast I ran three days later as my legs kept hurting; my muscles were still hurting three days on. My immediate instincts were to run in a straight line, run fast and don’t look back. I found myself running straight up the path past the prayer hall where everyone was. I ran 20 yards or so to get to the main hall which was straight ahead. (It later occurred to me that this hall is normally closed at this time of day. It was open at the time as we had arranged a committee meeting. If it wasn’t for that meeting, I think I would have come unstuck. I would have run straight into a locked door.)
There were 4 steps to negotiate and I think I cleared them all in one jump. I was literally flying but then I came to an abrupt stop. The glass door leading into the main hall opens outwards! I had to stop to pull the door open. At this instant, I feared for my life, I was petrified. I didn’t even look back. I still vividly recall my thoughts in this split second; how and where am I going to hide. But, as I rushed in, there were two women in the hall. I still cannot make sense of what went through me but as I saw these two sisters something profound happened to me; in that instant the fear vanished.
In that instant I went from me being petrified for my life to becoming protective. It was purely instinctive. As soon as I saw them, I shouted “call the police, call the ambulance”. I grabbed a chair, and I ran back to face this man. The presence of these two women, there, as I entered, changed my life. I am sure that if I faced an empty hall, I would have ended up a completely different person, still hiding. The fear that I felt just before I pulled the door open, it was gone. I was no longer afraid.
My immediate instinct was, “He is not coming in”. This was the overriding issue for me. With these two sisters there, I was not going to let him come in. I truly believe that this protective instinct took away all the fear. I was instantly completely changed. Looking back, I hated being petrified and running away, but these were only a few seconds of my life, and that was it. I did not run away again. I went out to face him. Later when I reviewed the CCTV footage during the trial, I was relieved to find that he did chase after me. He did want to harm me and I was not afraid for nothing. But as I entered the hall, he must have realised there might be other people in there, and he ran back out. He was seen running out of the Centre, back from where he came from. As I went out to face him, he was gone. I looked around just to make sure he was not hiding, but he was gone.
As I went back in, I put the chair down and I grabbed my neck. The pain was by now horrendous. I felt if I let go of my neck my head was going to fall off. It was then that someone asked me to let go. As I pulled my hand away, I heard him say “You have been stabbed”. At this moment, my surgical training kicked in. I looked at my hand, but there was no blood. My hand was moving normally, I was breathing normally. I was OK, but the pain was horrendous. It was not long before the emergency services arrived and I was swiftly carried into the back of the ambulance. Within a few minutes we arrived at Wythenshawe hospital where I work. I was checked over, scanned, given painkillers and stitched up before being allowed home that night. By then, my wife was at my “trolley” side holding my hand.
Back home, the atmosphere was surreal. I was sat alone with my wife still trying to make sense of the past few hours. It was then that I asked my wife how she felt. What she said is deeply personal but I have shared her words in all my interviews. She said “I feel the mercy of God has touched you today”. She fully understood that I walked away from a stabbing in the neck. She is a doctor and she knew fully well the potential for serious harm. It could have gone drastically wrong and she knew that at best I could have died that afternoon. Even then, this was how she felt. There was no feeling or mention of anger. There was no mention of “Why did he pick on you?” There were none of the things that may instinctively be on people's minds.
She said again, “I feel the mercy of God has touched you”, and then she said something that is very personal and religious that may not be fathomable by others. She said, “I believe an angel held the attacker’s hand”. The knife could have gone anywhere. That is how we, as people of faith, tend to rationalise events in our lives. That is how we see life. We see that there is a God, we see that there are angels, we see things in life move in certain ways. The way we see life and the way we feel and react to life, to me, it is imprinted in us, it is who we are. I said to my wife that is how I feel too. My response to her was that I felt exactly the same. I did not feel angry, not the slightest bit of anger came to my mind. There were no negative thoughts. I just felt that I am blessed. I am still alive and “kicking”. It could have gone completely wrong.
As we went to bed, my wife fell asleep but I couldn’t. My neck was in agony and I could not find a comfortable resting place for my head. Throughout the night I was saying in my mind “Thank-you God I'm still alive”. “Thank-you God it wasn't any worse”. I just kept on saying “Thank-you God”. There is a sense of comfort that comes with thanking God. It was as if I was having a dialogue with my inner self and God was with me. As I was thanking God, I instinctively felt the need to apologise to God. I recall thinking “I am thanking God but I’ve not done anything good in return so far”. I have not done anything good since the stabbing. I promised God that first thing in the morning I will make a donation. I then said “Please God help me sleep”. The pain was so bad I even recall being flippant enough to say “Come on God help me sleep”. I think I eventually dozed off by 7 in the morning just before being awakened by an overseas telephone call from my uncle.
Early that morning the media showed up at my doorstep. In my interview with Manchester Evening News, at some point I found myself saying “I don't feel any anger. I am not resentful. I don't feel any hate”. Whatever words I used, it was a moment where I instinctively felt that my words were an honest reflection of how I felt. For whatever reason, I seem to have rationalised on the spot that if I do not have these feelings, I must have forgiven this man. That is what forgiveness meant to me. I don't think that many understood what I meant when I said “I have forgiven him”. I had no negative feelings towards him and towards the fact that I was stabbed. I had no feelings of resentment, anger or hate. If these feelings did not exist, what more is there to forgive?
Till today these remain the exact feelings that I have. Nothing has changed in me or my wife. I have not seen myself feel, say or do anything that has been at odds with what I said. I know that what I instinctively said then was how I truly felt. On that morning, I didn’t have time to think through what I was going to say. I made my statement within hours of being stabbed, and I said I have no resentment and no anger. I felt calm and I didn't feel hateful. I made the statement, “I have forgiven him”. I did not realise the impact of what I had just said. This was the second life-changing moment for me.
On reflection, I was pleased with what I said. We always say things that we later think “Oh, what the hell did I just say”. But not this time. This was, however, my personal statement but I did also say that my wife has also forgiven him. I realised that even though my wife was not angry, I did not consult her before publicly forgiving him. Have I said something out of turn or something that she might later disagree with. When the interview was over and she realised what I have said, her words were “I agree with you totally”. She actually said “I've also forgiven him”. That made me immensely happy. Later when I sat with my children, none of them felt any hate or resentment towards the young man. This reinforcement from them was also pleasing to me. I did not have to negotiate my feelings with my family. What I said in the morning was personal. I didn't run it past the family. When I later did, they all agreed. To me that was amazing.
I later realised that after declaring that I have forgiven him, I instinctively started to make excuses for his actions. I said that my attacker may have been marginalised within his own community and that he may have made some bad decision in his life. Unwittingly, my forgiveness has started to help me understand what has happened to me. I believe that this was another turning point for me but it was all happening so fast. Despite that, I still had a strong feeling that the attack on my life was based on hate.
Having said that I have forgiven him in my first interview, I was then asked by the ITV reporter as to why I was targeted. I said “I don't think he attacked me because he wanted my watch, or the money in my pocket”. That was as far as my mind would permit me to say that in my perception this was not a random attack. Thankfully, I used words that were not explicit, that were not emotive and they did not express resentment or hate. Having forgiven this man, I started taking care in the way I am going to present him. My faith is about fairness, and fairness means you have to be fair to everybody including the person who just nearly killed you.
Soon after, as a family we were getting ‘back to normal’. My son went to school on the Monday morning. I would have assumed that the school expected him to stay at home that day. While at school he did not show any evidence that he was disturbed, traumatised or ‘out of sorts’. In a very short period of time I went through two life changing moments. The two sisters at the mosque - that changed my life. And when I said “I have forgiven him”. That was another major moment in my life. The fact does not escape me that these two incredible moments would not have existed if I was not stabbed. I simply cannot thank God enough.
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