This reflection is part of Sapelo’s Ramadan 2020 series. To read other reflections in the series click here.
By Jameel Aalim-Johnson
I took my shahada in 1988 at Masjid At-Taqwa in Brooklyn, N.Y. It was administered to me by the well-known Imam Siraj Wahhaj. Like many African Americans, I was guided to Islam, in part, after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. And similar to many others who have taken shahada, I have no Muslim cultural background to either guide or distort my understanding of Islam. Therefore, my knowledge of the deen is almost solely based on the sources of knowledge known as the Qur’an and the authentic sunnah. Furthermore, I want to clarify that these are personal reflections and are not meant to be mistaken for what I consider to be an authoritative tafsir of the Qur’an. For that please refer to Ibn Kathir, Qurtubi or some other classical work of the scholars.
Allah makes it very clear that we shall be tested all of our lives.
Surahs al-Isra and al-Kahf make up Juz’ 15 (17:1–18:74). Like other parts of the Qur’an, these two surahs contain stories of key events for people of faith. One is a major event in the life of the Prophet Muhammed (SAW) that guides our daily practice and the other illustrates an act of extreme faith when faced with unenviable circumstances.
Surah al-Isra begins,
“Glorified be He [w]ho took His slave (Muhammad SAW) for a journey by night from Al-Masjid-al-Haram to the farthest mosque, the neighborhood whereof We have blessed, in order that We might show him (Muhammad SAW) of Our Ayat. Verily, He is the All-Hearer, the All-Seer” (17:1).
These verses describe, al Israa, the night that Allah took the Prophet (SAW) from Mecca to Jerusalem and then to the highest level of heaven. At that time, it normally took several days to travel from Mecca to Jerusalem, yet the prophet’s journey took only one night. This became a great test of faith for the companions who were now being asked to believe something that they knew to be physically impossible. Some companions lost faith or didn’t believe the journey to be a physical one. However, the Prophet’s closest companion, Abu Bakr said “If he (Muhammad [S]) said that, then he is speaking the truth. I believe him concerning the news of the heavens — that an angel descends to him from the heavens. How could I not believe he went to Jerusalem and came back in a short period of time — when these are on earth?”
I know people who have lost their children through sickness, accidents and violence. Yet, their response to a life event that I fear would break me was only, “it is Allah’s will.
This incident reminds me of the idiom, “separating the wheat from the chaff.” Allah makes it very clear that we shall be tested all of our lives. Muslims often quote the Qur’an and hadith in our everyday lives. We remind each other about how we should think and act based on the Prophet’s sunnah in both our worship and daily activities. However, it is not until we are faced with severe trials, both difficult and beneficial, that we truly reveal our iman.
“Your Lord is He Who drives the ship for you through the sea, in order that you may seek of His Bounty. Truly! He is Ever Most Merciful towards you. And when harm touches you upon the sea, those that you call upon besides Him vanish from you except Him (Allah Alone). But when He brings you safely to land, you turn away (from Him). And man is ever ungrateful” (17:66–67).
I have experienced individuals who exhorted the importance of deen and brotherhood among their companions, but then usurped the rights of those companions when facing financial straits or financial windfall. Conversely,I know people who have lost their children through sickness, accidents and violence. Yet, their response to a life event that I fear would break me was only, “it is Allah’s will.”
“It was better for you to say, when you entered your garden: ‘[As Allah wills]…! There is no power but with Allah’. If you see me less than you in wealth, and children. It may be that my Lord will give me something better than your garden, and will send on it thunderbolts from the sky, then it will be a slippery earth” (18:39–40).
The Israa (night journey) is accompanied by the Miraj: the Prophet’s (SAW) ascension into heaven. This is when the Prophet (SAW) received the command of salat, originally for 50 prayers a day that ultimately was reduced to five yet each individual prayer would be blessed ten times. This story always reminds me of the mercy of al-Rahman. He has the right to command His creation to do as He wills. Yet knowing of our laziness, procrastination and the like, He gave us an ultimately easier task (to our benefit) and still He blesses us as if we did the harder task.
While the companions of the cave sought solitude to preserve their faith, we are seeking solitude to preserve our health while trying to maintain our faith practices without the companionship of the ummah.
Also in this juz’ is the story of the young companions of the cave. These youth were strong believers in Allah alone, but their people were disbelievers. It came to a point that they left their people and took refuge in a cave to preserve their faith.
Since everything that happens was written in al-Lauh al-Mahfuz (The Preserved or the Protected Tablet) long before the rest of creation, it is no coincidence that I write this while so much of the world is seeking refuge in our homes from one of Allah’s creations: the Coronavirus. While the companions of the cave sought solitude to preserve their faith, we are seeking solitude to preserve our health while trying to maintain our faith practices without the companionship of the ummah.
Some of us are holding Jumu’ah among our own families as opposed to with the masses at the masjid. I can’t remember the last time I went this long without being in a masjid; perhaps 30 years or more. The Coronavirus has upset plans across the globe. Major sporting events around the world have been cancelled or postponed; even the Olympics. This microscopic creature has wreaked havoc and fear in even the most powerful of nations. Even the ritual of the Hajj has been cancelled.
As Allah reminds us in Surah al-Kahf, “And never say of anything, “I shall do such and such thing tomorrow. Except (with the saying), If Allah will[s]” (18:23-24). It has certainly reminded me that we take our everyday life for granted. It sometimes takes a test like this from Allah to remind us to be grateful for whatever He has provided us.
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Jameel Aalim-Johnson has been President of the Prince George’s County Muslim Council since its founding in 2008. The mission of Prince George’s County Muslim Council is to involve the Muslim community in the civic and political affairs of the county. He is a former Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Prince George’s Muslim Association (PGMA) and a former Chair of PGMA’s Board of Education. Jameel has extensive experience in the political arena having served 10 years as Chief of Staff for U.S. Congressman Gregory W. Meeks and previously as a Community Liaison for former Congressman Floyd H. Flake. He was a founding member and first president of the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association, as well as former President of the bipartisan House Chiefs of Staff Association. Professionally, he is Associate Vice President in the Government Relations Office for a New York-based FinTech company. He holds an MBA in International Finance from St. John’s University and a BA in Economics from the University of Virginia. He lives with his wife and three children in Lanham, Md.