By Dr. Jamillah Karim
If all the sky were paper and all the seas ink, I would not be able to describe the brutality of the slave trade.—W. Bosman, 1701
I read this quote at the entrance of the dungeons of Gorée Island, Senegal, where Africans were held before their tormenting Middle Passage journey began. My tears flowed there, as they always do, when their tragedy is retold. Yet, my dominant emotion at Gorée Island can be described as contentment with God’s perfect decree. It consoled me greatly to know that God returned the progeny of the enslaved Africans, forced in chains through the Door of No Return, with a most beautiful return; that is, with Islam, the religion that was systematically stripped from many of them.
This state of contentment with God’s perfect decree in the face of the most horrific conditions, I attribute to one of God’s signs that I witnessed two nights earlier as I stargazed along Senegal’s coast. It is a sign mentioned three times in the Qur’an, first in the fourteenth juz’ (15:1–16:128). This section begins,
Many a time the disbelievers will wish that they had submitted. Leave them to eat and enjoy themselves and to be beguiled by hopes, for soon they will know.—15:2–3
The tone is clearly set: those who disregard God and His clear signs may appear to get away with their injustices, enjoying riches acquired wrongfully, but in reality they are the losers. The Qur’an describes the ways of “the guilty,” and then reminds us of several of God’s signs that make His Majesty undeniable. The first is a sign for stargazers like me:
We have set constellations in the sky, and We have adorned them for the onlookers.
And We have preserved them from every satan outcast
Save he who gains a hearing by stealth, and then a manifest flaming star pursues him.—15:16–18
The flaming star, or shooting star, is a meteor. God sends down “missiles against the satans” who hear fragments of “the discourses of the heavenly assembly,” which occasionally reach soothsayers before the satans are struck (The Study Qur’an, commentary, 1085–1086).
I witnessed a shooting star for the first time while stargazing that April night in Senegal. And, because it was also my first time at the shores where my ancestors met their calamity, I witnessed the shooting star just when I had been imagining the pain of my ancestors and praying that God shower them with mercy and grant them the highest level of Paradise. It was as though God was telling me to remember Him, in all His Splendor and Perfection, whenever I am called to face the tragic suffering of my African and African American ancestors.
When I was led to read this section of the Qur’an after returning from Senegal and saw the reference to the shooting star, I was moved to find that following the verses enumerating some of the signs of God, “the Wise, the Knowing,” there is an immediate retelling of the story that explains the origin of evil in the world, the story of Iblis and his refusal to prostrate before Adam (peace be upon him).
God curses Iblis, now Satan, and, after Satan requests it, gives him respite to the Day of Resurrection to “beautify (evil) things for them on earth,” causing people to sin and deny the signs of God, “save Your sincere servants among them,” whose final outcome will be Paradise: “No weariness shall befall them therein; nor shall they be expelled therefrom” (15:26–40). The remainder of the chapter gives examples of the followers of Satan and their fate, and ends reminding the Prophet Muhammad (prayers and peace be upon him) and the believers who suffered greatly, “Strain not your eyes toward the enjoyments We have bestowed upon certain classes of them” (15:88).
The second chapter of this section (al-Nahl, The Bee) contains similar themes, assuring the early Muslims who left their homes because of persecution that God “will surely settle them in a good place in this world—and the reward of the Hereafter is greater, if they but knew—those who are patient and trust in their Lord” (16:41–42). The section ends, “Be patient, and your patience is only from God. And grieve not on their account, nor be distressed by what they plot” (16:127).
These verses reminded me of the peace I felt after witnessing the shooting star in Senegal. God did not grant Satan respite and permit evil like that of the Atlantic slave trade without purpose. Rather, God has allowed darkness so that we might see the light; and the splendor of God’s Light is worth the struggle. According to Shaykh Musab Penfound, “It is to feel the exquisite warmth of the sun when the clouds part, and all of these signs are there for ultimately one thing, to point you towards recognition of and experiencing the One who caused the rains to fall in the first place” (“Purifying Our Hearts, Unconditional Love”).
The shooting star was a bright light in the vast darkness, the sight of which makes hearts certain of a Magnificent God in control of all things. It was also a sign that God has authority over the satans whom he strikes with piercing flames.
Although it may appear that the beneficiaries of the Atlantic slave trade have the best of this world in terms of resources, as we continue to suffer from systemic racism and wealth inequalities, indeed, we have been given the greatest treasure: the religion of our ancestors, the Qur’an that was imbued in their hearts, and the Prophet Muhammad (prayers and peace be upon him) who was their guide.
The Qur’an guides us to act with the most beautiful of human traits, exemplified by the Beloved of God, Prophet Muhammad (prayers and peace be upon him). One such trait is constantly returning to God or tawbah. Dr. Bilal Ware noted that tawbah is not just returning to God after a sin, but also “returning every affair to God, no matter what, and accepting His decree.” This disposition we must demonstrate in relation to slavery, Ware commented, “We have to accept this pain that has been inflicted upon us because its author is none other than the Creator of the heavens and the earth” (Dr. Bilal Ware at First Aswad Conference).
Our acceptance and peace with slavery does not mean that we do not fight evil and its perpetrators, but we fight free of rage and despair. We fight with the noble character traits of Prophet Muhammad (prayers and peace be upon him), for he was the Qur’an walking and a radiant light. In real battle, he fought oppression, but fighting the oppression of the soul was the greater battle, he told his companions. Similarly, God promises to free the believers from the oppression of evildoers in this world, but the greater outcome will be found in the next life where true freedom depends on God’s Mercy and the state of our souls.
Through a greater focus on the next life, may our hearts and souls be refined so that we see God’s Wisdom and Light in the face of the greatest oppression, equipping us to grace the earth with the faith and excellence that will afford us the best of this world and the next.
May Allah grant our ancestors Gardens beneath which rivers flow, sweet companions, and contentment from God (3:15).
Jamillah Karim is an award-winning author, speaker, and blogger. Jamillah specializes in race, gender, and Islam in America. She is author of American Muslim Women and co-author of Women of the Nation: Between Black Protest and Sunni Islam. Jamillah is former associate professor of Islam at Spelman College and holds a doctorate in Islamic Studies from Duke. In 2014, she was highlighted as a young faith leader in the African American community by JET magazine.