Three Cups of Tea

3cupstea1I recently finished reading “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.  My first reaction after reading the story of Mortenson’s 15 + year story of building schools for the impoverished children of Pakistan and eventually Afghanistan’s mountain villages was – why do the Non-Muslims do Allah’s work without making any excuses, but we Muslims just argue, cheat and fight amongst ourselves?! 

For those who don’t know Mortenson’s story – he was a mountain climber who in 1993 after a failed attempt to climb K2 (the world’s second largest mountain), came across an impoverished Pakistani village who nurtured and helped him find his way after he got lost and stuck in the middle of the Karakoram mountains. In return for the villager’s kindness, he promised to build them a school for their children, after seeing them sitting in an open-air “classroom” of dirt and using sticks in the sand for their lessons. 

What makes the story an interesting read (I’m sure a documentary or feature film will be made eventually) is the fact that Mortenson, who worked as a medical assistant in Berkeley at the time, had no prior knowledge of the construction business (especially in Pakistan), and was not too familiar with Pakistani culture, the faith of Islam (which majority of Pakistanis follow) and did not speak Urdu or any of the other Pakistani languages!  Besides all of this, he had no organizational help, funding or contacts when he first began this mission of peace.  He had to sleep in his car, struggle and scrape to save every little penny and his girlfriend at the time even left him before he got the first school built.

Of course in reality, Mortenson did have many Muslim people who helped him along the way, such as Mouzafer Ali, the renowned Balti porter who led Mortenson safely off the Baltoro Glacier, Haji Ali, the head of Korphe village and Mortenson’s mentor and Syed Abbas, supreme leader of northern Pakistan’s Shia community, who vouched for Mortenson after he received two fatwas against him.

Not only did he have to deal with having two fatwas issued against him which eventually got overturned by higher authorities (yes, there are some intelligent “Mullahs” in Pakistan), but he was also kidnapped by some North West Frontier Tribal villagers who held by for eight days (they released him after they realized who he was). But his most difficult trial, in my opinion, was  right after the attacks of Sept. 11th, 2001 (Mortenson was in Pakistan – near the Afghanistan border at the time), when he  had to deal with the CIA questioning him and trying to use him as an “informant”, which he declined to do. Not because he was trying to protect his friends, but because he was doing the right thing by keeping the trust he had gained over the 7+ years of working in the remote tribal areas of Pakistan, which he knew had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks, but also would still be in need of schools being built, after the U.S. government and military got involved with the “War on Terror.” Mortenson knew (and still preaches the same today) that the real way to end Terrorism is to provide education (especially for girls), basic needs of people (access to clean water, etc.), and the ability to provide for their families (vocational training, etc.).

Mortenson also had to deal with many hate letters and emails from his fellow Americans shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11th, because they thought he was helping the enemies of the United States.  This really got him depressed and down, but at the same time, it forced him to go out into the public and make slideshow presentations about his work.  In the beginning, at these presentations he had only 1 or 2 people in the audience.  Eventually when his name became more well known (after being featured in several prominent media outlets in 2002 such as the Washington Post, the New York Times and National Geographic) he had large audiences at his speaking appearances.  With the help of positive media coverage and the support of his fellow mountaineers, Mortenson was able to help educate the general American public about the work he is doing in Pakistan and Afghanistan and also raise much needed funds for his Central Asia Institute to build more schools.

It’s amazing to read the real life story of a regular American guy, who not only stuck to his word of building a school for the children of Korphe (the village in Pakistan whose members assisted Mortenson during his hiking ordeal), but went above and beyond what he promised to do and as of 2008 has built over 78 schools in some of the most remote and dangerous areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Over 28,000 children, including 18,000 girls have benefited from the education they have received at the schools that Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute ( have built over the past 16 years.

“Three Cups of Tea” is an inspiring story, which I highly recommend everyone to read, especially those of you who are trying to do some good work in your own community and are sometimes discouraged by the obstacles in your way.  After reading Greg Mortenson’s story, no one can make any more excuses or say that one person can’t really make a difference in the world today – because he has proven that without a shadow of a doubt you can! 

You don’t have to be a wealthy person, a popular politician or a well connected businessman – anyone can help those less fortunate than themselves.  You can start right here in your own backyard, since there are many poor and needy people in the United States.  Giving in Charity (“Sadaqa” in Arabic) is a teaching of the Prophet Muhammad (S) and it is even better to help build a mosque, school or water well, since they are considered “Sadaqa Jariyah” (continuous charity), as they continue to help the people and their families who use them for many years to come.  But if we cannot help to build a school or a bridge in a poor area of the world ourselves then at the very least we should show our support for people like Greg Mortenson, whether they are Muslim or not, because helping humanity is not limited to people of one religion or cultural group.  It is what makes us all human.


7 Responses to “Three Cups of Tea”

  1. it was truly an amazing book
    though a bit slow

  2. Thanks Irfan for being truthful about how you feel as a Muslim reading about a non_Muslim’s good work. Reminder to all of us to look beyond all barriers for goodness in all humans. I do wonder if his upbringing played a major role in his philanthropic adventures?
    I am waiting to read the kids version of the book with my kids and also the newsletter! May Allah bless him for his Sadaqa Jariyaah and thank you for recommending a good read.

  3. Without taking anything away from Greg Mortensen, there are lots of Muslims who also do the same work; the same country (Pakistan) has Abdul Sattar Edhi, Asma Jehangir, Ansar Burney, and many, many other organizations. The Citizen’s Foundation has been building schools for almost two decades (and has a chapter in Silicon Valley, where you live). People from the diaspora have jumped in, too, with DIL, HDF…

    Maybe we pay more attention to lighter-complexioned non-Muslims than we would to a old man with a long beard and sandals–even if he runs the world’s largest ambulance service?

  4. Thanks Irfan for your summary and narrative. I haven’t read the book but heard it’s inspiring. I will put it on my list!

    I’m not sure what iFaqeer is saying below when he states…”There are a lot of Muslims who also do the same work…” First of all, in your blog, you did not say that Muslims NEVER engage in donative efforts, instead you point to a general truth, perhaps over-simplified and over-generalized a bit that Muslims argue amongst ourselves while non-Muslims get the work done. Regardless of whether we all believe this is true, we must be united in rewarding and congratulating non-muslims for helping Muslims. Irfan: Good entry. iFaqeer: Please do not take a comparative approach whenever a non-Muslim performs a good deed that benefits Muslims. Your, “So what? We do it too..” attitude is divisive and irrelevant and disregards the main point; which is to applaud non-Muslims who perform work they needn’t do that purely benefits Muslims.

  5. Thanks for all the comments. Ifaqeer – you make some good points, but as Hdawg stated, I never said that Muslims do not help out each other or those in need. That is why I also mentioned some of the Muslims who helped Greg on his projects. Your example of Abdul Sattar Edhi is a good one, but what makes Greg Mortenson’s story unique is that he is a Non-Muslim who did not have to do what he did. As Muslims it is our duty to help those in need. It is the Sunnah and commandment of Allah in the Quran. Although most Muslims don’t really practice this type of charity (myself included). Mortenson could have just stayed back in the U.S. after he left Pakistan the first time and never went back, but not only did he keep his word to the remote mountain village of Korphe (which is very difficult to get to and have received very little or no help previously from their fellow Muslims or the Pakistani government), but he continued to help them by building a bridge, a school and community center for the women. He then helped nearby villages (again all in remote mountainous areas of Pakistan) with building schools and even went into areas of Afghanistan which we all know is not easy to do. Even today, there is not much support for these type of areas of Pakistan or Afghanistan by the Muslim organizations. There is also the fact that most of these villages in Northern Pakistan are Shia and we all know that there is always problems between Sunni and Shia in Pakistan, unfortunately – so the Pakistani government doesnt put them on a high priority in providing them with the support they need, including the fact that they are up in the mountains which are hard to get to. I suggest you read his story if you havent done so already, because you will be surprised at all he had to go through, with little or no benefit to him financially, but just because of the love he had for the people who saved his life!

  6. Muhammad Says:

    I started reading this book yesterday and it is very much like a story that takes you to Kashmir and North Pakistan. I have decided that one of the things I want to do is go to these areas, not just to see the natural beauty (and from the pictures I’ve seen, Kashmir is the most beautiful place I have ever seen), but to live amongst and to help the people as Greg Mortenson did.

    The original poster posted the question: why do the Non-Muslims do Allah’s work without making any excuses, but we Muslims just argue, cheat and fight amongst ourselves?!

    You are partially correct in your judgment on Muslims. We do have major problems in this area.. But, let’s learn from Greg Mortenson. When there was not much support, he decided to do his own work to build schools.. If there is a good deed to do and everyone is against us, then forget everyone, and work to do it yourself.. Isn’t this was Mr. Mortenson did?

    Three Cups of Tea has changed me to actually want to visit the North Pakistan areas and learn the way the people love and help there. If you remember reading Three Cups of Tea, then you will remember that Greg Mortenson was helped by the people of the village of Korphe, and they never expected anything in return.

    Why don’t we all learn this from the people of these types of villages? In the end, their religion was not Sunni or Shia.. Their actual religion was Humanity.. And whether someone has a school or not, this is the true form of Islam.

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