By Youssef J. Carter
Juz’ 19 of the Qur’an, which spans Surah 25 (al-Furqan, The Differentiator, ayah 21), Surah 26 (Shuʻaraa, The Poets), and Surah 27 (an-Naml, The Ants), opens with a warning that differentiates between those who believe in God’s word and those who do not. These words were revealed to Prophet Muhammad (saws) who had been given the task of addressing the shortcomings of his society, and of turning his people away from the deeply entrenched problem of attributing power and authority to false gods to transition them toward the Truth during a time when the Muslim community was politically marginalized and publicly ridiculed. It reviews examples of prior civilizations in which the majority of people were led astray and were destroyed; for example, the people of Prophets Nuh, Moses, Hud, Salih, Shu’ayb and Lut (may God extend Everlasting Peace and Mercy upon them). Allah tells us that no society had ever been razed that didn’t first receive a messenger who warned the people of His word:
“Never have We destroyed a town without sending down messengers to warn it, as a reminder from Us: We are never unjust” (Surah 26:208-209).
We would do well to remember that just as in the time when the Qur’an was being revealed in seventh century Arabia, these words are not mere poetry. They are words of guidance that should resonate now for African-descended Muslims in the United States who have known suffering and have inherited a framework for human rights and social justice via submission to the Creator.
In other words, we are on the receiving end of a sacred promise, a Divine code in which “the last shall be first.”
It is well-known that Black Americans, Muslim or otherwise, descend from a people who have deeply known the inhumanity of racist violence and discrimination. I cannot believe that the endurance of this suffering has been for naught. I offer that our collective experience has rendered us particularly sensitive to the plight of the oppressed and downtrodden. In other words, we are on the receiving end of a sacred promise, a Divine code in which “the last shall be first.” Every prophet and messenger has championed the cause of the disempowered in their respective societies. And our responsibility, if we are to follow the Sunna, is to embody a prophetic model of human excellence that recognizes the necessity of advocating for the vulnerable and educating the public toward higher ethical behavior via God consciousness.
Like Prophet Muhammad (saws) who was orphaned and had gained a particular sensitivity for the suffering of others through his own suffering, African-descended Muslims have, by virtue of our historical dispossession, been given an invaluable inheritance: we are simultaneously connected to a deep tradition of humanism and connected to the prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. My reading of God’s word, therefore, finds within it a clarion call for Muslims, African Americans in particular, to continue actively working for the betterment of the society in which we live. As I reviewed Juz’ 19, I felt the weighty and sobering command within to be an example of prophetic tradition of establishing a more just and equitable society — to be a beacon of hope for my community and all of humanity. This itself is certainly, one should argue, a meaningful component of the Sunna. It serves as a reminder that we are vessels through which Allah (swt) works, and it is vital that we view ourselves accordingly.
African-descended Muslims have, by virtue of our historical dispossession, been given an invaluable inheritance: we are simultaneously connected to a deep tradition of humanism and connected to the prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power.
As an educator who has taught African American Studies at a historically black high school for the past three years and is about to transition elsewhere, I read these warnings in Juz’ 19 as an opportunity to reflect more deeply on the role I play in the fabric of the nation. My students and I are currently investigating the long history of the Black Freedom Struggle and I find it interesting how much James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time has in common with this particular portion of the Qur’an. Baldwin’s 1962 publication was aimed directly at the heart of what he felt was crucially wrong with American society — pervasive silence in the face of Black suffering. He asked what kind of society is capable of killing its own in cold blood, and what kind of civilization could produce such cruelties.
Baldwin’s essay was essentially a gesture of prophecy in which he warned America that it was in danger of losing itself by ignoring the consequences of having lost its humanity. Baldwin argued that the nation would implode if it persisted in its quest to deny human dignity to any segment of its population — that to diminish others was to diminish itself. And yet, here we stand on the precipice of what often feels like a tragic, human de-evolution: Americans have voted an incompetent and morally bankrupt troglodyte into office, Black and Brown lives still don’t really matter, and the wealth gap is ever-widening. Lately, white folks have even taken to calling the police on Black people who are waiting for their friends before ordering at Starbucks; who fall asleep while studying at their own college, and have a cookout on a sunny day at a public park.
I read this more specifically as a call to actively lead those in my charge to what is better by being a positive role model for youth who too often lack examples of healthy and positive Black masculinity.
I am tasked with leading my students on a journey of self-improvement by virtue of learning about the legacy of their people. This is the reason that I encourage my students to understand that the African American historical legacy is an inheritance — a tradition of calling for justice that demands equity from the very structures that our shared home is built upon. God tells us to “warn your nearest kinfolk, and lower your wing tenderly over the believers who follow you” (Surah 26:214-215). I understand this ayah as vitally related to the principle that charity begins at home—to dispense the message of justice and divine guidance to the people closest to us and to collaborate for the betterment of our society. On a personal level, though, I read this more specifically as a call to actively lead those in my charge to what is better by being a positive role model for youth who too often lack examples of healthy and positive Black masculinity.
Teaching is a challenging profession and if I am honest, many days pass when I feel like my words are not heard and that my role as an educator is not fully appreciated by the public, by state and federal legislators and even some of my students who have been disillusioned by the prospect of learning. Similarly, many of us feel as though the country that we built will never recognize our full humanity. As God has reminded Prophet Muhammad (saws) that he was but a plain warner, our task is not to get too caught up in having impact. Rather, perhaps our focus should be to carry out the mission of dispensing our valuable inheritance of speaking truth to power:
My Lord, grant me wisdom; join me with the righteous. Give me a good name among later generations. Make me one of those given the Garden of Bliss…And do not disgrace me on the Day when all people are resurrected: the Day when neither wealth nor children can help, when the only one who will be saved is the one who comes before God with a heart devoted to Him — 26: 83–85 and 87–89.
Youssef J. Carter is visiting scholar in the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and research fellow at the International Institute for Islamic Thought. His research interests include sufism in West Africa, the anthropology of Islam, spiritual performance and care, Black Muslimness, African Diaspora and embodiment.