By Fatimah Jackson-Best
Reflection is a recurring theme throughout the 26th juz’ of the Qur’an (46:1–51:30) and it calls for humankind to consider our personal states, the wider community and the hereafter. Very early in the juz’ Allah, in Their infinite wisdom and mercy, reminds us of Their oneness and power and urges us to recognize this through Their creation. In Surah al- Ahqaf , ayah 33 Allah says, “Do they not see that Allah, who created the heavens and earth and did not fail in their creation, is able to give life to the dead? Yes. Indeed, He is over all things competent.” During Ramadan, many Muslims increase our prayers, engagement with the Qur’an, hadith of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), and remembrance/dhikr of Allah. All of these different methods allow us to reflect and affirm our belief in one God. In this particular ayah, Allah urges us to look at what has been created around us, such as in nature, to be reminded of Their infinite power. This message isn’t lost on me as I embark on my second year being back in my birthplace of Toronto, Canada — a place that now seems to have more concrete buildings than trees. Leaving the Caribbean in 2018, made me realize how often and easily I was reminded of Allah through creation, and also how frequently I took that for granted.
All of these different methods allow us to reflect and affirm our belief in one God. In this particular ayah Allah urges us to look at what has been created around us, such as in nature, to be reminded of Their infinite power.
That message was also very present while I visited Panama in the spring for The Sisters Retreat. The 7-day retreat created by and for Muslim women allowed us to recharge, connect and restore our spirits while being immersed in an environment that was linguistically and culturally different. One afternoon as our group visited a small city that was located in a dead volcano’s crater we began to talk about Allah. I was inspired to speak about the majesty of our Creator because of my surroundings: we were sitting in a hot spring full of natural minerals that was still being heated by a technically extinct volcano. All around us were various kinds of plants, trees, birds and flowers. I marveled that we were being made to bear witness to God through Their creation, and although the trees and plants around us were different in size and utility they still existed in the same environment. Through this co-existence, they created a lush setting that we were blessed to be in. While plant life does this with ease, human beings oftentimes find it difficult to imitate nature in this simple yet fundamental way. In fact, our differences are often used to stoke xenophobia and hate between us, which stands in direct contradiction to Allah’s words and example.
As a Black Muslim woman, much of the discrimination I have encountered is directly tied to my identities, whether these are perceived singularly or intersectionally. Later in Juz’ 26 in Surah Hujurat, Allah urges us again to contend with Their intention for creation. In this verse Allah (SWT) says,
O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted. — 49:13
This is perhaps one of the most quoted verses from the surah, and many of us may have heard the ayah in a response to racism or a discriminatory act committed between Muslims. This is an important way to intervene in racist behaviors or attitudes, but what if we also used the ayah to explore other ways that Muslims become divided? More specifically, what if we thought about nations or tribes not just along ethnic or race lines, but also to include the different branches and groups of Muslims.
Sadly, when some of us hear about Black Muslims who belong to branches of Islam that are not Sunni they are seen as being somehow outside of the confines of “orthodoxy”. These attitudes do very little to build understanding between us, and they stand in direct opposition to the work of fortifying our communities.
Gaps found in a recent research project I completed with the support of the Black Muslim Initiative and the Tessellate Institute confirmed that, although Black Muslims in Canada do not just adhere to Sunni branches of Islam, very little published information exists about Black Muslims who also identify as Shia, Isma’ili, Ahmadiyyah, Nation of Islam and other groups and sects. Sadly, when some of us hear about Black Muslims who belong to branches of Islam that are not Sunni, they are seen as being somehow outside of the confines of “orthodoxy.” These attitudes do very little to build understanding between us, and they stand in direct opposition to the work of fortifying our communities. We must be able to engage in discussions about our histories, politics and Islam with love and honesty about the ways we inflict pain on one another. Allah challenges us to do this — to know one another and to build understanding about each other — which can enlighten us about the ways that we cause and experience suffering. By doing this, the promise of righteousness comes closer within our grasp, but it will continue to escape us if we marginalize our own people. This Ramadan, I urge all of us to invite one another into our homes, mosques and communities with the intention of increasing love and knowledge of one another and to ensure our collective success.
Fatimah Jackson-Best is a public health researcher specializing in mental health and whose work focuses on communities in Canada and the Caribbean. She holds a PhD from the University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health, and conducted her dissertation research on Black women’s experiences of maternal depression in Barbados. Her work has been published in peer-reviewed journals such as BMC Public Health, JENdA: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies, Gender and Education, and the Journal of International Women’s Studies. Currently, Dr. Jackson serves as the Project Manager for Pathways to Care, and is designing a mental health intervention for Black children, youth and their families in Ontario, Canada.