This reflection is part of Sapelo’s Ramadan 2020 series. To read other reflections in the series click here.
By Bilal Ansari
“None but the righteous, None but the righteous, None but the righteous shall see God.” — Black Spiritual
This Black spiritual proclaims three times who will attain the great reward and destination and is the same motif found in the three chapters of the 18th Juz’ (23:1–25:20). Both make an implicit and explicit claim that racism and/or sexism can only be conquered with righteousness. Despite the prison of slavery or patriarchy or any system of oppression, God’s promise is true to those who work to steadfastly remain in the community of “None but the righteous.”
Despite the prison of slavery or patriarchy or any system of oppression, God’s promise is true to those who work to steadfastly remain in the community of ‘None but the righteous.
Several examples of this are shared in this juz’ beginning with the people of ‘Ad, a community that failed to follow its shepherd, Prophet Hud. This example was understood intimately by everyone in Arabia as a reminder and communal example of the outcome of an unrighteous nation whose ruins lay exposed in the light of day along Arabian trade routes. Those who abandon their trusts and pledges, either individually or as a society will not meet the criterion of success with God. None but the righteous will meet that criterion.Clearly, this juz’ shines light on such past communal examples to emphasize the theological fact that: “[n]o nation can advance its time, nor can they postpone it.”— 23:43 In the concluding verses of this surah, we read a plea to everyone to reflect on the cosmological argument to become righteous.Because God governs everything in the universe, that alone is enough of a criterion to ponder, Who is the Lord of the seven heavens, and Lord of the Splendid Throne?” They will say, “To God.” Say, “Will you not become righteous? — 23:86–87 Turning to the next surah in this juz’, The Light, in its middle verses we read the three core pedagogical elements of clarifying revelations, examples of those who passed, and counsel for righteousness. All of which further explains this theme of “none but the righteous,” found in Juz’ 18.” This is because even during the last phase of the Prophet’s (PBUH) mission in Medina, God was still disciplining and educating the Muslim community in Juz’ 18 about how to “become righteous” through clear signs (within themselves and on the horizons), verses giving examples of past communities, and rational arguments for those who are aware of God: We have sent down to you clarifying revelations, and examples of those who passed on before you, and advice for the righteous. — 24:34
Those who abandon their trusts and pledges, either individually or as a society will not meet the criterion of success with God. None but the righteous will meet that criterion.
I began this reflection with an epigraph taken from an “old-time religion” gospel song sung by our Black ancestors, “None but the righteous shall see God.” To the enslaved, this song held a double meaning, one that was misunderstood by their Christian slave owners. The song was only allowed to be sung because slave owners understood it to mean that only white members of their church would be rewarded a good final destination as the righteous. On the other hand, to the enslaved or formerly enslaved like one prophetic voice of the time, Frederick Douglass, it meant something different. Douglass understood this both as a supplication for divine intervention and a lamentation against an unrighteous people:
When I think that these precious souls are to-day shut up in the prison-house of slavery, my feelings overcome me, and I am almost ready to ask, “Does a righteous God govern the universe? and for what does he hold the thunders in his right hand, if not to smite the oppressor, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the spoiler?” (Douglass, 35)
God answers both this rhetorical and emotional question. God affirms the meaningful plea implicit in Douglass’s theological question about deliverance for, “None but the righteous.” Douglass was channeling this Black spiritual that has for centuries been supplicated from the souls of Black folks about our unrighteous nation. In the latter part of The Light, God promises a change of circumstances and moral responsibility that comes with His intervention:
God has promised those of you who believe and do righteous deeds, that He will make them (successors) on earth, as He made those before them successors, and He will establish for them their religion—which He has approved for them—and He will substitute security in place of their fear. They worship Me, never associating anything with Me. But whoever disbelieves after that—these are the sinners. — 24:55
In closing, for all those who identify with the Black gospel song, None But The Righteous, particularly to the marginalized believing Black people, be encouraged. If you are a believer, following the light of God, as the criterion for your life, as given in the shepherding example of our Prophet Muhammad then you will be among none but the righteous.”
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Bilal Ansari, D. Min, is Faculty Associate of Muslim Pastoral Theology and Co-Director of Islamic Chaplaincy, Hartford Seminary. Dr. Ansari is also the Assistant Vice President of Campus Engagement at Williams College. He is the former Dean of Students at Zaytuna College during its initial accreditation. Dr. Ansari has worked as a faith leader and/or staff chaplain, in prisons, colleges, hospitals and military bases in California and New England for more than 20 years.