By Zaynab Ansari
In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful
The 12th juz’ of the Holy Qur’ān begins with verse 6 of Sūrat Hūd and concludes with verse 52 of Sūrat Yūsuf (11:6–12:52). In reading this section of the Noble Qur’ān, I was struck by several things. First, Sūrat Hūd is named for the prophet who was sent to the ancient community of ʿĀd, which was likely located in Southern Arabia; however, the chapter contains the stories of other prophets and messengers: Nūḥ, Ṣāliḥ Ibrāhīm, Lūṭ, Shuʿayb and Mūsā, peace be upon them all. Sūrat Yūsuf, on the other hand, is named for the prophet Yūsuf, the beloved son of another prophet, Yaʿqūb, and the focuses almost entirely on his life story in a beautiful narrative arc. Allah Subhanahu wa ta ‘ala (Glory to Allah, the Most High) presents the stories of the prophets and messengers as parables, lessons, and examples that induce us to think, reflect and act.
For those unaccustomed to the style of the Qur’ān, and particularly those readers more familiar with the Old Testament, the Qur’ān presents a very different read and a wholly different paradigm for understanding prophets and messengers, but also for understanding humanity. Where the Old Testament often reads like an exclusive history of the tribes of Israel, the Qur’ān’s presentation of the stories of ancient peoples and prophets has a more inclusive and universal approach. This inclusivity is important as the majority of the prophets and messengers mentioned in the Qur’ān are from Semitic origins, nonetheless their stories resonate strongly with today’s readers, and particularly those who approach the Qur’ān and read its powerful words through the lens of the African American experience.
Reflecting on Juz’ 12, I pondered how to situate the suffering and trauma of Black Americans within the Qur’ānic paradigm. It is telling how the Qur’ān repeatedly juxtaposes the example of the resilient, patient and long-suffering prophet standing up against the dominant group — the people who hold the upper hand in terms of social, economic and political structures, and are so subsumed by their arrogance that they fail to heed, or even validate, the prophet’s call to the truth. See, for example, verse 85 in Sūrat Hūd,
وَيَا قَوْمِ أَوْفُواْ الْمِكْيَالَ وَالْمِيزَانَ بِالْقِسْطِ وَلاَ تَبْخَسُواْ النَّاسَ أَشْيَاءهُمْ وَلاَ تَعْثَوْاْ فِي الأَرْضِ مُفْسِدِينَ
And, O my people! give full measure and weight fairly, and defraud not men their things, and do not act corruptly in the land, making mischief:
Even though the Prophet Shuʿayb, peace be upon him, only asked his people to be fair and equitable and to turn to Allah Subhanahu wa ta ‘ala (Glory to Allah, the Most High) in repentance :
وَاسْتَغْفِرُواْ رَبَّكُمْ ثُمَّ تُوبُواْ إِلَيْهِ إِنَّ رَبِّي رَحِيمٌ وَدُودٌ
Hence, ask your Sustainer to forgive you your sins, and then turn towards Him in repentance – for, verily, my Sustainer is a dispenser of grace, a fount of love! — 11:90
Their response was one of arrogance, dismissiveness and threats of violence :
قَالُواْ يَا شُعَيْبُ مَا نَفْقَهُ كَثِيرًا مِّمَّا تَقُولُ وَإِنَّا لَنَرَاكَ فِينَا ضَعِيفًا وَلَوْلاَ رَهْطُكَ لَرَجَمْنَاكَ وَمَا أَنتَ عَلَيْنَا بِعَزِيزٍ
They said: O Shu’aib! we do not understand much of what you say and most surely we see you to be weak among us, and were it not for your family we would surely stone you, and you are not mighty against us. — 11:91
The response of Shuʿayb to his people’s vituperation and rejection is a Godly response. The Prophet sees something beyond the worldly power structure; he sees the Akhira and he is certain of Allah’s justice:
وَيَا قَوْمِ اعْمَلُواْ عَلَى مَكَانَتِكُمْ إِنِّي عَامِلٌ سَوْفَ تَعْلَمُونَ مَن يَأْتِيهِ عَذَابٌ يُخْزِيهِ وَمَنْ هُوَ كَاذِبٌ وَارْتَقِبُواْ إِنِّي مَعَكُمْ رَقِيبٌ
And, O my people! act according to your ability, I too am acting; you will come to know soon who it is on whom will light the punishment that will disgrace him and who it is that is a liar, and watch, surely I too am watching with you. — 11:93
The Prophet Yūsuf, peace be upon him, echoes the resilience, patience and fortitude of Shuʿayb and his fellow prophets when he is cast in prison for a crime he did not commit. Yūsuf has the ability to see beyond his immediate suffering and trust that Allah Subhanahu wa ta ‘ala (Glory to Allah, the Most High) will vindicate his name; restore him to a place of honor after his having been subjected to the indignity of imprisonment on the basis of false accusations; and, ultimately, a reunion with his beloved father and brother.
In reflecting on the experiences of Yūsuf, Shuʿayb and the other luminaries whom AllahSubhanahu wa ta ‘ala (Glory to Allah, the Most High) favored with revelation, I am struck by the prophetic role that Black American Muslims play in raising the banner of truth, justice and fairness in the face of the intransigence of those who wield worldly power and support the structures of white supremacy — an intransigence that has resulted in the withholding of basic human rights from the descendants of the countless African men and women who were forced into slavery and then compelled to build the very foundations of modern America. Our modern America is riven with contradictions as we witnessed the election of a racist demagogue to power after the historic two-term election of the first Black American president.
Again, we turn to the Qur’ān to gain clarity in the face of competing claims and at a time when the very concept of truth itself is under attack :
مَا تَعْبُدُونَ مِن دُونِهِ إِلاَّ أَسْمَاء سَمَّيْتُمُوهَا أَنتُمْ وَآبَآؤُكُم مَّا أَنزَلَ اللّهُ بِهَا مِن سُلْطَانٍ إِنِ الْحُكْمُ إِلاَّ لِلّهِ أَمَرَ أَلاَّ تَعْبُدُواْ إِلاَّ إِيَّاهُ ذَلِكَ الدِّينُ الْقَيِّمُ وَلَـكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لاَ يَعْلَمُونَ
You worship not besides Him except [mere] names you have named them, you and your fathers, for which Allah has sent down no authority. Legislation is not but for Allah. He has commanded that you worship not except Him. That is the correct religion, but most of the people do not know. — 12:40
As we debate the future course of Islam in this country, we would do well to take heed of the African American experience and reflect on the resonances and parallels in what is unfolding today and what Allah Subhanahu wa ta ‘ala (Glory to Allah, the Most High) revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, Allah bless him and grant him peace, more than 1,400 years ago in the Arabian Peninsula. Just as our beloved Prophet Muhammad sought solace and reassurance from the revealed accounts of the prophets who came before him, so too must we as a Muslim Ummah here in North America take lessons from the struggles and sacrifices of those oppressed peoples who came before us and will inherit the earth after us.
Zaynab Ansari spent a decade studying Farsi, Arabic, and traditional Islam in the Middle East, graduating from Abu Nour Institute in Damascus. Upon returning to the United States, she completed undergraduate degrees in history and Middle Eastern Studies at Georgia State University and subsequently pursued graduate coursework in world history. She is a contributor to various non-profit Islamic educational portals, including SeekersHub, Lamppost Productions, and Rabata, the latter a pioneering organization founded by Anse Tamara Gray, a leading woman scholar of traditional Islam. She currently serves as an instructor and board member at Tayseer Seminary which recently launched a one-year intensive in Islamic Studies under the leadership of Shaykh Hassan Lachheb, scholar-in-residence for the Muslim Community of Knoxville.