This reflection is part of Sapelo’s Ramadan 2020 series. To read other reflections in the series click here.
By Zainab Kabba
I look down at the Arabic script and stare. I wonder if I can still read it. It’s a strange fear that I have, that I’ll open the Qur’an one day and be unable to read. When I pick up the book after some time away, despite my daily prayers, I often struggle. My tongue carries this fear heavy and cautious stumbling over the first few words, until it quickly curves out, moving in chaotic waves of a comfortable rhythm. The tightness ebbs as the words flow.
Juz’ 30 (78:1–114:6) is the juz’ of my childhood. It’s the only juz’ I memorized despite many attempts with others over the years. I don’t recall there being any grand plans from my parents for me or my siblings to become haafidh; nonetheless, my parents took our Islamic education very seriously. Mother accepted Islam upon marrying. She seemed determined to ensure that our knowledge of — a limited canon with stories only from the Middle East — Islamic history, had no gaps. The same diligence she applied in locating the best schools for us to attend, led her to a series of readers and workbooks that contained stories of the prophets; the life of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him; the sahabah; and other key people and events in Islamic history.
Homework notwithstanding, we were required to complete a certain number of pages each week. Surahs from Juz’ 30 were interstitials to these events, contextualizing the revealed chapters.
Al-Fil (105) reminded us of the events around the birth of al Mustafa, the chosen one. Al-Kafirun (109) taught the unwavering faith of the Prophet and attachment to the Message, despite inducements from the disbelievers. al-Nasr (110) was a lesson in victory without fighting, an indication that indeed glory is from Allah. Buruj (85) highlighted the punishment for those who tortured the believers when the Prophet was delivering the Message. Surah al-Fajr (89) aligned the people of previous prophets with those who were torturing the Prophet and his companions, making it clear the results for those who corrupted the earth.
Of course, the Day of Judgement was a recurring theme. One of the other reasons why we needed to memorize, so that the words would protect us on this day. The day when the Fire will be ablaze; when mothers will be trying to save themselves with little concern for their babies and families will be unconcerned with one another; when we will finally reap all that we have sown.
Juz’ 30 (78:1–114:6) is the juz’ of my childhood. It’s the only juz’ I memorized despite many attempts with others over the years.
There were chapters with historical resonance and present-day implications. Although it seemed the Qur’an didn’t talk to children, our parents helped draw the lines, making it clear that this was unlike school subjects which we held for usage later in life. Surah al- Kafirun (109) meant that we should stand proud in public school and not cower to accept all activities that didn’t fit with our own practice. We are supposed to stand out. Zilzala (99) wasn’t about the earthquakes, but the actions which were important because an atom of good or bad had heavy consequences.
And we were familiar with these surahs because N’fa (“my father” in Mandinka, our father tongue) took on the responsibility of our Qur’anic instruction. His own upbringing in the Muslim cultures of Liberia, Guinea and Sierre Leone, coupled with the South Asian and Arab dominance of his new Queens, NY circle, meant the Qur’an was something he was familiar with and parts of which he had memorized. And let’s face it, as a businessman who traveled in and out of West Africa and Europe in the 1970s, languages came very easy to him but not to us.
Long past the days of vowelizing each letter with fatha, dhamma, kasra, sukoon; and identifying the letters at the beginning, middle, and end of a word, our memorization tutelage was constant. There were really three of us for a good short while. My two older brothers, three and five years my senior, and my sister followed three years after. We had three mushaafs. Red, blue, and green. The eldest had red, then green, and mine was blue. When we picked our books off the shelf I couldn’t help thinking about the order of the colors we called out to one another, in our summer games of Red Rover, before N’fa caught us avoiding our lessons.
We’d each choose our place on one of the three living room sofas. Facing one another across the room, we’d begin with the first ayah of the surah. When we started without the basmallah, we would hear N’fa yell a reminder from the other room, “audhu billahi mina shaytani rajeem.” Eyes rolling we’d begin again. When we were on the same surah we sometimes had recitation staring contests to see who would be the first to falter. The rhyming schemes helped and were much like how we were taught in school – the perfect rhymes, ABAB, internal and the ending ones.
When we started without the basmallah, we would hear N’fa yell a reminder from the other room, “audhu billahi mina shaytani rajeem.” Eyes rolling we’d begin again.
On the days N’fa sat in the living room with us to supervise lessons, we sat in a row on the floor eye level with his legs as he sat on the sofa. We took turns reading or reciting, praying we’d get it right, lest we have quick contact with the day’s switch if we messed up. N’fa’s means of encouragement left much to be desired — it would have been of much more interest to Child Protective Services — my father assured us that he had bail covered if we even considered the thought (#africanparents), but I’d be bereft — without my memory store of surahs and the ability to read Arabic if it weren’t for him.
When we were sick in the winters, Juz’ 30 would be there strong and comforting as we recited the rhyming “Quls” into cupped hands, allowing the words reaffirming Allah’s singularity as the source of refuge from all forms of harm, to run over our bodies in healing. During school tests, the Quls were there with Inshirah (94) thrown in for good measure because indeed this was a hardship and all I wanted was ease. And when this didn’t seem to instantiate wahiy, I’d pick Ikhlas (112) and spread it out by syllable over the multiple-choice questions.
Bayyinah (98) remained a favorite for years. The cadence of all of the ‘ta’s in the first ayah, a strong and emphatic message of admonition towards the disbelievers. The juxtaposition of those who were good and bad was clear. The reciprocity displayed in “Allah is pleased with them and they with Him” (98:8) indeed made me feel in awe of Him, desiring to avoid being in the Fire with disbelievers.
Indeed, much of my childhood was filled with the fear of the Fire, the earthquakes, the cracking of the sky, the earth erupting, the dust reshaping, thinking that Allah would get me if I didn’t pass this ultimate test. Yet, in these weeks of isolation and on the cusp of a ripe age of 40, I realize that Juz’ 30 has also been the juz’ of my adulthood.
Tarawih prayers this year are solitary, similar to many I’ve had over the years. Either when the mosque was too much of a challenge to get to or when I just wanted that time to talk to my Lord without witnesses.
Yes, there is the importance of al-Kahf (18) on Fridays, Yasin (36) in the mornings, and Mulk (67) at night, if I can stop with the excuses, but Juz’ 30 is the core of my daily five. These surahs are sometimes an automatic choice and other times when I need warm memories of family, an intentional one. They are also there outside of prayer, as I move in and around my house chasing the glory of the sun (Shams) and seeking pieces of joy from the environmental splendor.
In the morning, sitting in one corner of the sofa among the house plants, allowing their leaves to brush against my hands. In the afternoon, basking in its rays, during a rest in the garden away from Zoom, immobile amidst the gentle winds of Spring. Watching the fig tree ripen with ‘zaytun and balad ameen’ (Tin: 95) always being the next thought. Stooping to gather some mint from the plant beds, eager for the berries to make their appearance, Abasa’s promise of luscious gardens, fresh vegetation, and fruit (80:25–32) is not far from my mind. The neighbor’s cat sauntering in to give and receive some lovin’ as Naziat (79) affirms our need for animals to enjoy.
And, in the early evening back at my desk, looking up from time to time at the colorful transformation of the sky as the sun sets, the swearing by all of these creations remains present. The raising of the sky and its perfection, and Allah giving it its brightness and darkness (Naziat). When the night rolls in the stars and constellations sit fixed and submissive, watching over. The earth metaphors harken back to our origin and an intimation of the Day of Judgement, reminding us what we always were, not what we become.
Tarawih prayers this year are solitary, similar to many I’ve had over the years. Either when the mosque was too much of a challenge to get to or when I just wanted that time to talk to my Lord without witnesses. When I’m not holding the mushaf to read, I draw not only on the linear order of the verses and their rhythm, but the visual memory of where the suraHs are placed on each page of my blue mushaf, as I work my way through the juz’.
Eid won’t be filled with as much pomp and circumstance as we’d all like, but Juz’ 30 rounds us off well to contend with that. It reaffirms our knowledge that Allah is in control, that no actions are in vain, salvation is always at hand, and that we have an ever-present haven when seeking solace. When we all meet again, the peace and pieces of the final juz’ will spread from chest to chest as we embrace, assalaamu ‘alaykum, “may wholeness and well-being be your state” because indeed, with hardship there is ease.
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Dr Zainab Kabba is an educational researcher and program developer from NYC. She holds a DPhil in Education from the University of Oxford, UK, an MA in Computing in Education from Columbia University and a BS in Information Systems from Stony Brook University. Her doctoral research used narrative ethnography to examine the reconfiguration of Islamic tradition for American Muslims in intensive Islamic educational settings in the United States, Canada, and Turkey. Zainab is currently based in Oxford, UK where she is the Associate Director for Programs at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, University of Oxford. She is the former Executive Director of Cambridge Muslim College, UK. You can reach her at zainabkabba.com and read more of her writing at medium.com/@zkabba.