On October 9, 2012, while traveling with other young girls in a makeshift school bus, fifteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai was singled out by a Taliban gunman sent to kill her in retaliation for her public work on behalf of education for girls. Shot in the face at point-blank range, she subsequently passed through a horrific healing process, her life often despaired of.
When Malala finally recovered, she at once gave all credit to God, and to the prayers sent by people the world over. Inspired by her courageous stand for freedom of education and of religion in the face of now all too real threats of violence by the Taliban in her native Swat Valley, Pakistan, people everywhere saw in her a beacon of light in dark and turbulent times, a symbol of hope for a way forward to peace and brotherhood.
Early lessons about cheating and lying
At the end of the twentieth century, Malala Yousafzai was born to devout Muslim parents. She grew up with deep devotion to God, profound respect for the life of virtue, and an unquenchable desire to help others. Her memoir, I Am Malala, is the autobiography of a saint in the making, a soul one feels surely has come into this life to carry out a work for God in service to humanity.
Her father is himself a dedicated educator, founder of schools, champion of the right of all people to receive an education. He is also profoundly dharmic, committed to behaving righteously under all circumstances, no matter the cost. Father and daughter are fellow warriors in the battle for universal education — each strengthening and inspiring the other.
Malala’s essential nobility of character shines through in early life lessons. Caught for taking a friend’s toy, then lying about the theft, Malala, only seven years old, faces her shame head on: “Since that day I have never lied or stolen. Not a single lie nor a single penny, not even the coins my father leaves around the house, which we’re allowed to buy snacks with. I also stopped wearing jewelry because I asked myself, ‘What are these baubles which tempt me? Why should I lose my character for a few metal trinkets?’ But I still feel guilty, and to this day I say I’m sorry to God in my prayers.”
Wisdom from Gandhi and Lincoln
From Malala’s wonderful father, true to his educational ideal, came not judgment but the consolation of wisdom from Mahatma Gandhi: “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” It is at this critical point in Malala’s moral unfoldment that her father tells her of Abraham Lincoln’s beautiful letter to his son’s teacher: “Teach him, if you can, the wonder of books. . . . But also give him quiet time to ponder the eternal mystery of birds in the sky, bees in the sun, and flowers on a green hillside. Teach him it is far more honorable to fail than to cheat.”
Her father introduced Malala also to a great soul from her own Pashtun heritage, Khan Abdul Ghaffer Khan, a man revered as the Frontier Gandhi. This courageous soul introduced a philosophy of non-violence into a culture whose ancient code called for revenge for every insult.
Thus compassionately grounded in moral virtue — especially truthfulness and non-violence — Malala grew up emulating her father’s goodness and her mother’s endless service to those suffering or in need, looking to great heroes of righteousness for her models, and loving God with all her heart. Shocked at the sight of a young girl her own age, forced by destitution to be breadwinner to her family, her skin covered in sores, sorting trash from the stinking communal dump, Malala inwardly swore she would help such needy children. Together with her mother, she pleaded with her father to open his school to everyone, those who could not pay as well as those who could.
To God she wrote a letter: “Dear God, I know You see everything, but there are so many things that maybe, sometimes, things get missed, particularly now with the bombing in Afghanistan. But I don’t think You would be happy if You saw the children on my road living on a rubbish dump. God, give me strength and courage and make me perfect because I want to make this world perfect. Malala.”
The coming of the Taliban
Disaster upon disaster descended on the Swat Valley during Malala’s short life. First came the horrendous earthquake of October 2005, devastating Kashmir and northern Pakistan, killing or maiming 200,000, leveling whole villages, destroying roads and bridges as well as basic infrastructure. Malala’s family stayed put, determined to trust God and do all in their power to help those who had suffered even more than they themselves.
In the wake of the earthquake came the Taliban, thundering from their pulpits that the sinful ways of women were the cause of the disaster, a warning from God that only the rigid imposition of Islamic law could save them. The ensuing years saw increasing violence: against children playing games forbidden by the Taliban, against women not dressed according to the Taliban code, and against anyone not bowing to Taliban absolute authority in all matters, sacred and mundane. Malala was always with her father, learning from him, supporting him in his efforts to maintain freedom of religion and freedom of education, and to restore peace to the valley.
It was during the Taliban occupation that Malala felt inwardly to speak out publicly, through the news media, on behalf of all those terrorized and intimidated by the Taliban: “In my heart was the belief that God would protect me. If I am speaking for my rights, for the rights of girls, I am not doing anything wrong. It’s my duty to do so . . . I prayed to God every night to give me strength.”
Malala’s external world, as she gave herself more and more to her divine service, was a constant horror of bloodshed: violence perpetrated against any who opposed the Taliban, or did not adhere strictly to their standards. All girls’ schools were ordered closed. Even those closed were often destroyed. In the midst of this carnage, Malala, now twelve years old, was giving weekly BBC radio interviews about her life under Taliban rule.
That same year, 2009, war erupted. The Pakistani army entered the Swat Valley to fight the Taliban in open conflict. Two million Swatis were forced into exile, their homes left to the mercy of war. Returned the next year to their often heavily damaged homes and broken former lives, the Swatis had barely begun to rebuild when, in July 2010, the month of Malala’s thirteenth birthday, disaster struck again. The rains came and continued relentlessly. Massive mudslides overwhelmed the valley, thousands drowned, entire villages were swept away, millions lost their homes, their schools, their means of livelihood.
The Taliban threaten Malala.
Malala threw herself with even greater intensity into her mission for peace and education. It was at this time that serious threats against Malala and against her father began coming from the now underground Taliban. Malala stood firm, even when her father suggested they keep a low profile. “How can we do that?” Malala shot back. “You were the one who said that if we believe in something greater than our lives, then our voices will only multiply even if we are dead. We can’t disown our campaign!”
Malala’s prayer life intensified. She would pray to God in this way: “Bless us. First our father and family, then our street, then our whole mohalla, then all Swat.” Then her prayer would expand further: “No, all Muslims.” And further still: “No, not just Muslims; bless all human beings.”
Then came the shooting, and an unconscious Malala hovering between life and death as she was airlifted by helicopter. Father and mother poured their heart’s energy, their grief and shock, not into bitterness and recrimination, but into continuous prayer, prayer that expanded immeasurably to become a worldwide outpouring from souls touched by Malala’s courage and example.
Even the doctors, the whole medical team, turned to God for His intercession, His guidance. Every step of the way, Malala’s parents buoyed their spirits with guiding stories from the Quran: especially the story of Yunus who, like Jonah, was swallowed by a whale and who, while inside the whale, continuously recited the Quranic verse that gives the faithful reassurance that, if one keeps faith, there will be a way out of even the worst danger, the most insoluble problem.
“I had no thoughts of revenge.”
Returned to consciousness a week after the shooting, in a hospital in Birmingham, England, Malala’s first thought—“Thank God I’m not dead”—quickly gave way to gratitude that God had blessed her with a new life. Once she had grasped what had happened, that the Taliban had carried through with their threat, her only regret was “that I hadn’t had a chance to speak to them before they shot me.” Malala goes on, “I didn’t even think a single bad thought about the man who shot me — I had no thoughts of revenge.”
Malala gave all credit for her survival to the prayers of her enormous family of well-wishers. Especially was she grateful to the children of slain Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto, who had sent her shawls that had been their mother’s. One of these shawls had on it a single black hair — a blessing from one great soul who had been killed trying to help and uplift Pakistan to another great soul, this young girl who had survived to carry on the work so dear to them both.
Over and over, before the shooting and during her long recovery, Malala prayed to God, “I want to help people and please help me to do that.” She goes on, “I know God stopped me from going to the grave. . . . People prayed to God to spare me, and I was spared for a reason — to use my life for helping people.”
On her sixteenth birthday, July 12, 2013, Malala spoke before the United Nations. Wearing one of Benazir Bhutto’s white shawls, she reached out to all people living in poverty, in fear of terrorism, to those denied education, praying to infuse them with the courage to stand up: “Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.” Elsewhere she writes, “Islam says every girl and every boy should go to school. In the Quran it is written, God wants us to have knowledge.”
I Am Malala closes with her beautiful credo: “I love my God. I thank my Allah. I talk to Him all day. . . . Peace in every home, every street, every village, every country — this is my dream. . . . To see each and every human being with a smile of happiness is my wish.”
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Sidebar: Inspired Not to Cheat
A young friend wrote of her experience with Malala’s book. She was seated at a table with a study group for a physics class, preparing for an upcoming test, one in a series that had so far proved almost impossibly difficult. Many at her table had found ways to cheat and offered to share with her their “wrong doing” (as she described it). Into her mind came Malala’s childhood lesson from her father, and Abraham Lincoln’s admonition that it is “far more honorable to fail than to cheat.” With quiet resolution she declined the offer and, through concentrated study and hard work, managed an “A” in the course.
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I Am Malala is available through bookstores and online.
Nayaswami Prakash, a long-time member of Ananda, currently serves at Ananda Village doing forestry and landscaping work. He also edits books and articles by Ananda members, writes regularly for Clarity Magazine, and writes the monthly “Thank You, God” tithing letter.