By Arthur Richards
The 15th Juz’ of the Qur’an begins from the start of Surah al-Isra until the 74th verse of Surah al-Kahf (17:1–18:74).
There exists, for most of us, experiences that prove to be either catalysts to our growth or anchors that weigh us down and drown us. As a Black man, I find it difficult to watch films like Detroit that told the story of police brutality and civil unrest in 1967, which is eerily similar to our current social climate, or the television series Roots, which depicted the historical reality of slavery and how it separated us from our ancestry. I suspect I am not alone in my unease. As a young man I longed for a reality where the ties of ancestry had never been cut, where despite the hardships of being a young black male in America, I would have a chain of people behind me to strengthen me. I longed for a reality were I would feel more like T’Challa and less like Erik Killmonger.
In reflecting on this surah I’d like to step into the life of the Prophet Muhammad (God’s peace and blessings upon him), a man who had many anchors in his life that aimed to hold him back, but with the help of God was able to overcome them and ascend to heights unimaginable to most men. Surah Al-Isra begins at the conclusion of some of those difficulties; it begins with God (Sublime is He) telling the listener,
Exalted is He who took His Servant by night from al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al-Aqsa, whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him of Our signs. Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Seeing. — 17:1
This journey as we know from hadith was one of great spiritual nourishment, a journey wherein the Prophet was chosen to lead the previous prophets in prayer, showing that the Prophet Muhammad was the greatest of them. This journey was not simply to show the importance of the Prophet, it connected him to the prophetic lineage when all other connections and ties seemed to be breaking. The night journey had a major role of showing him that others also had to persevere and that he was not alone in his struggle. Establishing this connection to the past strengthened Prophet Muhammad and enabled him to continue his work. In hadith, we find that after leading the Prophets in prayer, he was taken up into the heavens (the ascension) and there he personally met some of the previous prophets of God. When Prophet Muhammad was at his lowest point, God chose to honor him by connecting him to those who came before him. What a beautiful mercy.
Connecting to my roots has always been important to me. Before coming to Islam, I spent my university years studying slave narratives and the post-colonial history of the Caribbean and West Africa. It was in those studies that I found that many West Indians have roots in West Africa, and I continuously prayed to one day have the opportunity to connect.
That passion to connect brought me to Egypt, and just over a month ago brought me to The Gambia. This tiny country is what some of the locals call, “The second Jamaica” (where I’m ethnically from). In this country, I stayed with a descendant of Kunta Kinte. I prayed in masājid where the Imam’s voice sounded less like Husary’s and more like my own. I heard dancehall and reggae on every corner, and I marveled at the colorful spectrum of clothing. I even smelled the ganga that fumigates the streets of Jamaica. And while I don’t endorse ganga, being in that environment felt like my own night journey. These people who sat with books on Black Power and Frantz Fanon while sitting on the beach told me the country had to stop airing Roots on national television because it caused the locals to begin hustling the European and English tourists. My Gambian brothers and sisters couldn’t understand the stereotype that Black people can’t swim as they dove meters under the water to cut a fishing net that had become stuck. I stood in awe as the cultural load I had always carried, taunted and feared because of my dark skin and treated like a second class citizen, was lifted away, in a place that felt so very much like home. In this tiny West African country, I was a part of them; when I walked the streets, a flurry of Mandinka or Wolof filled my ears as they spoke to me assuming I too was a local — that I was of their own. It all felt like I had been whisked away to my own Masjid al-Aqsa atop my Burāq of Moroccan Airlines. I now have a new powerful connection, one that has given me a new perspective on what it means to be Black and Muslim, to be an educator and student of this rich Islamic tradition.
On the first morning of my arrival in The Gambia, I wrote the following poem as I sat teary-eyed on the beach overlooking the ocean:
They say black skin can’t swim
That’s because for us they built boats
And whenever we tried to swim they would go for our throats.
But beware of black skin that is one with the sea,
Because that black skin will always be free.
When he looks hard enough across the ocean he can see his home,
And a man standing tall, calling, while holding a stone.
His voice carrying, “I laid them across the ocean floor for the lost to track,”
But I was never lost,
I know my home,
And I’m glad to be back.
And We have certainly diversified [the contents] in this Qur’an that mankind may be reminded, but it does not increase the disbelievers except in aversion. — 17:41
God (The Great and Powerful) ain’t never lied.
Arthur Richards (@arthurkrichards) is a father, writer and student of the Islamic Sciences. Currently living in Cairo, he studies at Al-Azhar University while also working as a translator and writer at the Dar Al-Ifta (Center for Islamic Legal Research) of Egypt. He also occasionally works as a freelance photographer. Along with his writing, work and family life, Mr. Richards is committed to serving the Muslim community however possible.