By Dr. Rudolph Ware
The African Qurʾān-Part III*
—And with all We tell you about the stories of the Messengers, We fortify your heart.”—
Qurʾān , Sura Hud, 11:120
Juz 16, made up of almost half of al-Kahf and all of Surahs Maryam and TaHa (18:75-20:135), is driven by tales of the Prophets. The Meccan period of the Prophet’s (s) mission was marked by surahs that focused on the pre-Islamic Prophets and their struggles to establish God’s religion. And as the epigraph from Surah Hud reminds us, those stories were revealed to strengthen the hearts of the Prophet (s) and his community who had a mission of bringing light to a world lost in many kinds of darkness. This hadith reported by A’isha helps us see just how important the tales of the Prophets were to Prophet Muhammad (s):
The Prophet’s stomach was never full, but he did not complain to anyone…I used to weep for him…and I rubbed his stomach…because of his hunger. I said…”If only you had enough of this world to feed you!” He replied, “A’isha, what do I have to do with this world?’ My brothers among the resolute Messengers were patient and steadfast in the face of worse than this. They died as they were and went to their Lord and how honored they were! God was very generous in rewarding them. So I am shy to enjoy a life of ease if it means that tomorrow I will fall short compared to them. There is nothing I want more than to be joined to my brothers and dear friends.”
That exchange took place in the last month of his life. Mecca had fallen, the world was laying itself down at his blessed feet. Nevertheless, the Prophet Muhammad (s) continued to measure himself against the great people mentioned in Surahs like Kahf, Maryam, and TaHa. If the tales of the Prophets inspired him and strengthened him for his mission, they should do so for us as well. As we gaze out onto a world that seems to be in its last days, we too need to fortify our hearts, and Juz 16 offers us as human beings and as Black people preparation. For what instrument will we use to reshape our surroundings, if not our hearts?
Juz 16 begins in the middle of Moses’ travels with a knowledgeable guide, an ambiguous figure usually identified as Khidr, who gives Moses a powerful lesson in following the teachings of a spiritual guide. Khidr, as the great Jakhanké scholar Imam Fodé Dramé reminds us, is there to help Moses confront his fears and overcome his grief. In his discussion of Moses & Khidr (20:50 mark in the video), Imam Drame describes Khidr’s challenge to Moses to face his fear of death by breeching the hull of their boat on the open sea and to face his grief over the death of a youth who was destined to work evil. Khidr, Imam Dramé explains, also shows Moses that labor for God’s sake is its own reward by repairing a wall—free of charge—in a town where they were treated harshly.
In each case, the guide seems to act unjustly, but things are not as they appear. God’s decree is always guiding Khidr and the beneficiaries of his puzzling actions are—in each instance—the poor, meek, and humble. God’s decree is not always easy, but always just; even if its justice is not immediately apparent. Given all that God’s decree has contained, in the way of suffering and hardship for our people, this is something we ought to keep in mind.
Fear deafens the heart, grief blinds it. Fear of an unknown future keeps us from moving forward. Grief about past suffering keeps us chained to it. As African Americans we are torn apart by grief and crippled by fear. As a people we have been traumatized. As individuals we have been scarred. Many of us have great difficulty accepting an inevitable conclusion; that the collective and individual traumas we have suffered were ordained for us by God.
Whatever He wants to miss you will not hit you. And whatever He wants to hit you will not miss you. The great Senegalese scholar Shaykh Ibrahim Niass (d. 1975) put his own suffering into perspective as follows:
I have been subjected to things my pen refuses to record. But I persevered in patience for the sake of God…I have realized that [my enemies] can cause neither harm nor benefit. Only what God wills comes to pass, and what He wills is invariably the best. He has granted me His Victory, and He has protected me from the wickedness of my enemies.
God is the only teacher and the only guide. Whatever his enemies challenged him with, Shaykh Ibrahim’s teacher was God. In Surah Kahf, Khidr is teaching Moses, but God is always the author of the lesson. Whatever hardships we encounter and whatever bounties we enjoy, God is the source. Tasleem (surrender, acceptance) demands that we accept the decree.
*Dr. Ware’s two-part reflection on juz’ 16 concludes his discussion of “the African Quran. (See Part I, Part II and Part IV)
Dr. Rudolph Ware is a historian of Africa and Islam. Ware earned his Ph.D. in history in 2004 from the University of Pennsylvania where he was trained in African History, African-American History, and Islamic Intellectual History. He is Associate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor as well as Director for IKHLAS Research Institute and the author of The Walking Quran: Islamic Education, Embodied knowledge, and History in West Africa.