Chapter 16: Boxing

The following chapter is excerpted from ‘A Qur’aanic Odyssey’ which will be republished early in 2016. At the time, Ibrahim and Amna were ages 5 and 2, respectively. In this chapter, they are visiting their non-Muslim grandmother over Christmas, and still learning suwar from the Quran.  The chapter touches on several subjects, including Khadija’s career, the relevance of Surah At-Takathur, the spirit of Christmas and Boxing Day. The footnotes go a long way in explaining theological differences and similarities.

Setting: December 2010, the day after Christmas, Nonna’s kitchen, Brooklyn, New York, early afternoon
Characters: Nonna, Khadija, Ibrahim

“Khadija, after six years, I think I can speak to you candidly and you won’t take offense,” says my mother-in-law.

“Of course, what’s the matter?” I respond.

“Dear, you’re a professional. What are you still doing at home?” she asks. After all the activity yesterday, including feeding shut-ins, my mother in law, has decided to stay at home in her pajamas today. She’s leaning up against the counter, coffee mug in hand, and looking relaxed, for the first time in a while. Watching her, I wonder whether I too should have opted to stay in my pajamas.

It’s our first visit over Christmas. Abdurrahman and I thought long and hard about the trip, but when we learned that Geo was going away and Nonna would be alone we immediately made up our minds to visit, despite any religious disagreements.[1] As Abdurrahman explained to the children before we left Houston, “just because we don’t believe that God has a son, it doesn’t mean that we can’t honor your grandmother with a visit on Christmas. It’s clear to me, and I hope it will be clear to you that my mother is still my mother and I owe her everything.”[2] The children seemed to grasp it better than anyone. After all, Nonna was Nonna, super grandmother, and Christmas was, as we had always taught, a reminder to them of Prophet Eesa. We don’t celebrate like Christians but we also don’t need to make any unnecessary distance with our family and neighbors.

My mother-in-law puts her mug down and says “Well?” as if trying to prompt me to respond.

Refocusing, I finally say, “Carmen, I’m trying to set up a home in a new country. It takes time. And I’m also working towards some weighty hifdh goals. I’m aiming to have the last section of the Quran within the next four months insha’Allah.”

“And then?” she probes.

“And then, insha’Allah we’ll move onto the next section. In the meantime, I’d like to follow your lead and pick up Spanish to help bridge some divides. It feels like there’s such a cultural barrier in our new home-state,” I explain, trying to engage her on another front.

“But what’s happened to your career?” my mother-in-law laments.

“It’s on hold for a little while,” I say, very matter-of-factly.

“And are you really managing? Isn’t there a piece of you that is a little unsettled? When Nico and Geo were growing up, I needed the outlet, and the extra income. I’d also attained a certain level where stepping down or scaling back wasn’t really an option. The travel was tough for the kids, but they also learned a lot, even when ‘mama’ wasn’t there. I just wonder when you’re going to reconsider all this homemaking and return to your real roots. For goodness sake Khadija, you did a doctorate in your field, and have ten years under your belt. I think that you might serve humanity a bit better if you get back out there and start working. Your mother could help with the kids, and I am here for you as well.”

“Ammi, are you going back to work?” asks Ibrahim, literally walking into our conversation. He’s wearing his blue ski cap and is bundled up. Taking my hand in his mittened hand, he then continues. “Because if you go back to work now, then I’m going to have a really hard time with the next surah. And Amna will struggle as well. And you’ll also disappoint Hafidha Rabia. Remember she said we could celebrate the end by coming to visit her in Jakarta, in person, not on the phone. You might even lose some of your Quran Club points.”

Baita, please don’t get upset. Your grandmother and I are just brainstorming here. It’s an open discussion about what’s the best course of life, for now. I loved my work, as you know, but at present, it’s just a little incompatible with the hifdh goals, and all the homemaking,” I explain.

“Papa said you were married to your work once, I remember that,” says Ibrahim, causing me to blush a little.

“Maybe he did, baita. Insha’Allah I will soon be married to my hifdh goals, or perhaps a better way of saying it would be, I’ll be truly committed to them, but also create lots of time for you and Amna and your Papa and all the other important people in my life. And maybe then, we’ll re-evaluate how to integrate the water sector work. By the way, did you finish cleaning the car? Or is it too cold for you out there? And is Amna really ok out in the cold?” I ask.

“Amna is boxing,” responds Ibrahim.

“What?” says Nonna, with surprise.

“Well, first we cleaned the car, but Nonna, it was really dirty. Next time, you need to ask Uncle Geo to help you out, because I don’t think you should have been driving such a dirty car on the highway. Or maybe, Ammi, we could come more often to Brooklyn to clean Nonna’s car?” says Ibrahim looking at me.

Jee baita, that sounds like a good idea. But why is Amna boxing, and do you think your father needs help with her?” I ask trying to get to the bottom of Ibrahim’s story.

“No, no, Papa is fine and so is Amna. Just wait. Let me explain. After cleaning, Papa said I could recite Surah At-Takathur in the driver’s seat. Remember we did that at Uncle Geo’s house over Thanksgiving, and I think it helped me get Al Kawthar.”

“Ibrahim, why is your sister boxing?” reiterates Nonna now, beginning to get a little concerned.

“Man, you don’t have patience, do you?”

“Ibrahim, remember what I said about not calling your elders ‘man’,” I say, shooting a glance of ‘not acceptable’ in his direction. My expression is much stronger than my words.

“Yes, yes, sorry about that, but it’s just I’m getting to my point and you are both being a little impatient.”

Bambino, tell us, we’re waiting now,” says Nonna, “but yes, try to always speak gently, especially to us old people.”

“Ok, ok, where was I? Oh yes, I was reciting At-Takathur behind the wheel. And, before that, Papa also reminded me of the translation about all the piling up of stuff.[3] He said we all do this, especially him, and he explained how we compete with each other about how much we each have.[4] And Nonna, you also have a lot in your garage, and that’s before you count all the Christmas presents,” he says, stopping briefly to look at his grandmother, as if concerned that he might have offended her. I too look at her, wondering whether Ibrahim’s words may have been too strong. She thankfully is nodding her head and shows no sign of being offended.

Bambino, I know, I’ve got an issue, always had. Your late grandfather called it my weakness, packing up momentos. Maybe it’s part of being a journalist, trying to hang on to piece of stories. You may just have to accept that and my full garage and work with me on it. I also know that the real spirit of Christmas is the spirit of giving, and love, not about lots of piling up, if I understand your surah correctly. I might not grasp all the Arabic and I might never be able to do the kind of memorization your sister and you do, but a lot comes through in translation and I believe any person of faith can understand that, and the true message of the holiday,” she says smiling at both Ibrahim and me.

“Ok, so maybe we can help you a little with your garage,” Ibrahim offers. “And maybe it’s not exactly what they were talking about in the surah,” he looks at me for affirmation, trying to make the distinction. “But now let me get to my point. When I was reciting, I saw a punching bag. Don’t worry Ammi, I finished the surah without interrupting myself.  Then I asked Papa whether I could play with it. He told me he used to use it in high school. He never buried anger before he met you Ammi, but he did get all of his agre… ss… ion out with the bag. Is that true, Nonna?”

“Yes, sir, your father even had some big black boxing gloves. Suffice it to say, Rocky was a hero for all of us. And of course Muhammad Ali was too.”

“Ibrahim?” I say, also sounding concerned now.

“Yes, yes, anyway, Papa gave Amna and me a demonstration. It was really cool. And then he started to tell me about Boxing Day. Isn’t that amazing? Today is Boxing Day!”[5]

“Yes, pretty amazing, and your sister, Ibrahim?” repeats Nonna.

“Well, she didn’t really care about Papa’s lesson about Boxing Day. She just liked hitting the punching bag. So she’s still out there. I started to get a little cold, standing around watching her punch and so I decided to come in and have another gingerbread cookie. Can I Ammi-Nonna?” says Ibrahim looking at us both and smiling at himself.

Nonna and I look at each other. She starts to say ‘yes’ and I start to say ‘no’ but somehow I change in the middle and Ibrahim manages to get two ‘yes’s’ out of us.

Grazie,” says Ibrahim, still smiling. “But Ammi, promise me, you’re not going to leave me behind in my suwar. Remember Papa’s Quran contract?”

“Yes, baita, and no, no one is abandoning anyone or anything. By the way, I’d like to see that punching bag. I think it actually might come in handy in Houston. Will you take me out?” I say to Ibrahim and Nonna.

“Let’s go,” responds Ibrahim, grabbing two cookies from the kitchen counter and forgetting that he was cold in the garage. I think about reprimanding Ibrahim for taking the second cookie, but give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he thought we were each consenting to one cookie. I want to focus on boxing, and the garage and yes, a lesson from At-Takathur that I couldn’t have anticipated before coming to visit Nonna over the Christmas holiday. Once again it is clear that we plan, and plan, and yet Allah Subhanahu wa-ta‘ala is always the best of planners and educators.

[1] Muslims do not believe that Allah (God) has a son, as clearly stated in Surah Al Ikhlas (112th surah in the Quran) and therefore generally do not celebrate Christmas. They do, however, consider Eesa (Jesus) AS to be a prophet. Considerable attention is given to Christ in the Quran and also in hadith. Furthermore, Maryam (Mary), the mother of Christ, has an entired surah devoted to her in the Quran and is revered by Muslims for her piety.  Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah‘s Messenger SAW said, “Both in this world and in the Hereafter, I am the nearest of all the people to Jesus, the son of Mary. The prophets are paternal brothers; their mothers are different, but their religion is one,” (Sahih al-Bukhari 3443, In-book reference: Book 60, Hadith 113, USC-MSA web (English) reference: Vol. 4, Book 55, Hadith 652,

[2] Abu Huraira reported that a person said: “Allah‘s Messenger, who amongst the people is most deserving of my good treatment? He said: Your mother, again your mother, again your mother, then your father, then your nearest relatives according to the order (of nearness),” (Sahih Muslim 2548 b, In-book reference: Book 45, Hadith 2, USC-MSA web (English) reference: Book 32, Hadith 6181,

[3] Ayat 1 of Surah At Takathur, the 102nd surah in the Quran: “Rivalry in world increase (seeking and then boasting of the acquisition of things, wealth, pedigree, and posterity), distracts you (from the proper purpose of life),” (Unal 2013: 1248).

[4] As explained by Emerick, “This chapter was revealed to the Prophet after he saw people from two different tribes in Mecca having a shouting match. Each tribe said that it was better and richer than the other. After he received this chapter from Angel Jibrael, the Prophet said that the message of this surah was so important that it was worth as much as a thousand other verses,” (2010: 803). As pointed out in text, however, Christmas, at its core, has nothing to do with competing in worldly goods, even though considerable emphasis is placed on shopping.  In essence, Christmas, within a Christian framework, is about giving and love, as Nonna ultimately tries to explain.

[5] Boxing Day is a public holiday, generally celebrated the day after Christmas, in the UK and in many other English speaking countries, excluding the USA. The tradition may date back to the Middle Ages. The origin of the name appears to stem from ‘box’, namely the gift of a box from one’s employer/benefactor on that day.

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Chapter 15: From milk bottles to vases, at ‘asr

Originally published in 2012, the following excerpt, from A Qur’aanic Odyssey, will insha’Allah be republished in 1Q2016, with some adaptations. Here below is a chapter set in December 2010 in Houston, Texas, when Ibrahim and Amna were 5 and 2, respectively. The subject is recycling and Surah Al ‘Asr.

Setting: December 2010, Ibrahim and Amna’s kitchen, mid-afternoon
Characters: Ibrahim, Nani, Amna, Khadija

“Ms. Suzy doesn’t like it,” says Ibrahim with a look of concern. He stands up from the kitchen table and walks over as if to intercept his grandmother. He’s wearing his blue and white overalls, which are showing signs of being too short and his red socks are now visible above his ankles.

Kiya?” My mother asks, obviously surprised.

“Ms. Suzy, does not like it,” Ibrahim repeats very slowly to his grandmother.

“Not like it,” repeats Amna, waving her index finger at her nani.

Jee baita, I understood your English but not the meaning. What is it exactly that you would like to say?” My mother says equally slowly back to him, opening her hands in the gesture of a question.

“You are throwing out the milk bottle,” Ibrahim explains.

“Yes, and what would you like Officer Ayesha to do with it instead? Paint it and use it as a vase?” she says, using her new title as given by the children after our trip to see the whooping cranes.

“Well, that’s an interesting idea, Officer. It might even be better than mine. But, first look, here,” says Ibrahim poiting at the closet, with authority. “It’s our new recycling center. We made it last week when you were at Mamoo’s house. First Ms. Suzy taught us how to do it at school, and then Ammi said we could take over this closet, and she re-read The Queen of Green, one of the books we brought from Cape Town.[1] And then last week, we went to a real recycling center, where they even recycle motor oil and telephone books. Can you believe that?”[2]

Amna moves into center stage and starts unpacking one of the bags filled with plastics (most recently the dish washing soap container). She starts to lift up the container to her mouth, saying slowly “Queen of clean.”

“Whoa, stop, please,” I call out to Amna, from where I am standing in the kitchen, just before she tastes the soap residue. Closing the recycling closet door gently, I then say, “Bohaut shukria Ibrahim. That’s an excellent introduction. I’m sure your Nani has some things to teach us about recycling as well. Don’t you Ammi?”

“Nani, have you ever had a recycling closet?” Ibrahim asks.

“Well, not like this. It was different in Karachi. First we didn’t have so much plastic. Everything was not wrapped up, like it is now. I can’t recall having all these plastic drinking bottles either. And when I went out for shopping, I took my jute bags with me. I’m sure your Nonna had something similar. And with four growing children, there was hardly ever any food waste. Whatever was left over, we fed to the pigeons, up on the roof. Next time, you see your Abdullah Mamoo you can ask him about all those pigeons. You are the one who generally connects the links Khadija,” says my mother looking at me, then continuing, “but I find it interesting that you were just working on Surah Al ‘asr with Ibrahim and here we are talking about recycling and reusing through the ages. Did you already read the translation Ibrahim?”

“Me? No. I can’t read that translation. Some of the words are too long,” he responds.

“No, I mean, did your mother already read you the translation?” My mother clarifies.

“Yes, in the big Quran, but then I sort of forgot it because I was too busy trying to recite Surah Al Humazah again. Ammi said I am forgetting my mudood.”

“Oh no, forgetting your mudood… maybe you can teach me about that, along with the important lessons from Ms. Suzy, but in the meantime, I just want to reread the translation of Surah Al ‘Asr for all of us,” says my mother, moving over to the bookshelf and into prime teaching mode. I’m thankful for her reinforcement. She settles herself at the small kitchen table, adjusts her dupatta over her head, and reads out the following:

In the Name of God, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate
1. By Time(especially the last part of it, heavy with events),
2. Most certainly, human is in loss,
3. Except those who believe and do good, righteous deeds, and exhort one another to truth, and exhort one another to steadfast patience ( in the face of misfortunes, and suffering in God’s way, and in doing good deeds, and not committing sins).[3]

‘Asr is nice and short,” says Ibrahim.

“Yes, it is, and very powerful too,” I add.

“Are we doing righteous deeds when we recycle Nani?” inquires Ibrahim.

“Only Allah will be the judge of that baita,” responds my mother. “But I think that generally treating the earth as a living being and trying to have less of an impact is a good thing, and as that kitchen magnet says here, ‘we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.’”[4]

“I hope that Allah will be pleased with my recycling center,” says Ibrahim, then, “Ammi, did you hear Amna?”

Kiya?” I say.

“She just said, ‘patience, patience’. I guess she remembered it from our song. There’s another ‘sabr’ in Surah Al ‘Asr isn’t there?”

“Yes, Ibrahim, there is. And another ‘haqqi’.”

“What do you mean Ammi?” he asks.

“I mean, I heard the word for ‘truth’ (haq) in Surah Al ‘Asr. Haven’t you seen that word in your first eleven suwar?” I clarify.

“Ammi, is this a trick?” Ibrahim looks at me with suspicion.

“No, baita, I just thought we’d encountered it,” I say, trying to calm him.

“I don’t think so, but…if you really want I can recite everything right now for you and see if I hear a ‘haq’,” Ibrahim offers, changing course, now with his customary enthusiasm.

“Please do,” I respond. “I’ll listen out for it.”

Ibrahim engages in an impromptu review of his first 11 suwar, and we all listen in. After the first couple of suwar we sit down around him. Ibrahim seems to be running a marathon, but is seemingly unphased by the outlay of energy or the time passing.

“Ammi, we haven’t had a haq yet,” Ibrahim finally says, just after he concludes Surah An Nas.

“No, not explicitly,” I say, mostly to my mother.

“So was that a trick just to get me to review?” Ibrahim follows up.

“No, I honestly thought we had seen a ‘haq’ before, but what I just alluded to with your grandmother is that while the word ‘haq’ itself has not yet been mentioned, there is a lot of haq or truth in the first eleven suwar.”

“All truth, Ammi,” Ibrahim says, as if correcting me. I can’t help but notice his short overalls again.

“Yes, baita you are right. All truth, and so much for me to learn. Insha’Allah you’ll be getting lots of points for that one. By the way, I really liked Nani’s idea about the vase and the milk bottle. What do you think Amna?”

“Milk?” says Amna, smiling, and licking her lips.

“Yes, milk. What if after ‘asr prayers, we undertake a little arts and crafts, and what if…”

“And what if we find a flower and then give it to Ms. Suzy,” says Ibrahim finishing the sentence.

“Better yet, why don’t you plant a flower and then in two weeks when school resumes after holiday break you can give it to her, and insha’Allah the plant will be alive, maybe even thriving,” my mother says, one upping us all.

“Nice,” says Ibrahim. “I’ll keep it right next to Sabr, Yasmeen’s cactus, which Ammi is trying to help grow up.”

“Nice, nice,” says Amna, in her characteristic repetitive way, which sounds now as though she is casting a double vote for the next activity and the cactus-plant collection.

“I might even write Ms. Suzy a little note on the back of this recycled cereal box, thanking her for her contribution to our home,” concludes my mother. And then looking over at me, “It looks like I have my New Year’s resolution-orders, sahih?”

Sahih,” responds Ibrahim before me, then adding, “Ammi, do you remember those plants at Kirstenbosch, in plastic bottles. Remember we saw them right before we left South Africa? I wonder whether everything is still growing there? Maybe Sabir will know, and maybe we can write him. I think it was in that special show called something like taming or tamed or untaming.” [5]

“Yes, baita. I can’t believe you remember that, masha’Allah. It’s time to write Sabir and inquire about that exhibit at Kirstenbosch, and meanwhile maybe I can do a little research about it and share it with your school as well insha’Allah, but first let’s pray ‘asr, and let’s also all try to use Surah Al ‘Asr and take to heart what Nani read just now, ok,” I nod, looking at the children.

Amna is the first to nod, and I sense that she’s absorbed much more than a recycling lesson. Then to myself, I make a little du’a: that Allah Subhanahu wa-ta‘ala, in His infinite mercy accepts these small efforts and that He guides us all, always, on the straight path.[6]

[1] See Taylor (2010).

[2] As of 2009, the United States of America ranked third worldwide with regard to per capital municipal solid waste (MSW), after Norway and Ireland (OECD 2009). Approximately one third of all MSW in the US is made up of packaging (Center for Sustainable Systems, Municipal Solid Waste, 2009).

[3] Surah Al Asr, 103rd surah in the Quran (Unal 2013: 1249). “This short surah contains the basic teachings of the Quran in a compacted form. Imam Safi’i said: “If no other surahs had been revealed, this short one would have been enough for the happiness of people in both worlds,” (Yazir). When the Companions joined in a gathering, they did not ususally leave there without reciting this surah (al-Bayhaqi, 6:501),” (ibid).

[4] Phrase attributed to environmentalist, David Brower.

[5] UNTAMED, exhibit at Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, opened in June 2010, Cape Town, South Africa.

[6] Excerpted from Surah Al Baqarah, “Our Lord! Accept (this service) from us. Surely You are the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing,” (Unal 2013: 68). Prophet Ibrahim offered this prayer after completing the Ka’ba with his son, Ismael, peace and blessings be upon them. It is a common du’a (prayer) offered by Muslims after the completion of any task, great or small.

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In the wake of violence, Islam

Author, Katharine Gratwick aka Umm Muhemmed, penned the following article in the wake of the San Bernardino tragedy.  She, like every other Muslim she knows, condemns the tragic events, and seeks to find peaceful and constructive solutions, always. Her Islamic faith guides and inspires her.  The article was submitted to the Houston Chronicle and The New York Times on December 3, 2015 though was not published.

In the wake of violence, Islam

“It wasn’t me,” Hawa repeated, again and again. The refrain from her poem sounded out across an audience, accented by hijabs and topis–all nodding, knowing of what this young woman spoke.[1] Guilty until proven innocent. Guilty, by the simple act of association. Islam.

The long foretold clash of civilizations is upon us. Islam and the West are incompatible. One represents terror and intolerance; the other, freedom. They cannot coexist, or so mainstream media broadcasts day in, and out, on every conceivable platform. Good vs. evil. Truth vs. falsehood. The new Red Scare, the new ‘other’ needs to be contained.

This fiction cannot, however, be further from the truth. Islam and the West have coexisted for years. Both are porous, both adaptive. Islam vs. the West remains a false and dangerous dichotomy.

While every recognizable Islamic scholar has denounced terror, their voices are not picked up by mainstream media. Neither are other Muslim outlets such as CAIR, ISNA, and Unity Productions.[2] Their voices are drowned out by vitriol.  My neighbor says, ‘fear sells, and this is a business.’

Perhaps fear sells, but consider the other consequences. Fear breeds distrust, suspicion, hate and ultimately violence, none of which help a society to flourish. Cultivating mass fear destabilizes, all.

Of course there are very bad guys, but they are not universally Muslim. And it certainly wasn’t young Hawa. Muslims should not be on trial for the terror in our midst.

How then do we counteract the fear that is spread so widely, at present? We, all, today, start recognizing our common humanity. We are all connected–virtually and actually. We are global and local neighbors. Our similarities are much greater than any of our differences.

Let us meet each other, break bread together, discuss our fears and prejudices. Let us serve together, the elderly, the poor, and the environment. And let us exchange gifts.

This is not Utopian.  Instead, it is the only way to build dynamic and prosperous communities. Yes, let us start to recognize our common humanity, our real bonds. And let us go forth, and do good in the world, together.

Katharine Gratwick, a practicing Muslim, lives in Texas, with her family, and works as a development economist.  She is also the author of ‘Ya Seen: a hifdh journey in America,’ which seek to show how Qur’aanic memorization may unfold in a family context, in twenty-first century America.  In her free time, together with her family, she helps coordinate multiple community efforts to promote environmental sustainability.

[1] Hawa a 16 year old, American-Muslim, performed her poem, “Boom, it wasn’t me,” at the Islamic Society of North America’s (ISNA) conference in Chicago in August of 2015. ISNA is the largest organization of Muslims in the United States, conducting educational, advocacy, spiritual and charitable programs nation-wide.

[2] CAIR, Council on American-Islamic Relations. See Fact vs. Fiction released by Unity Productions following the shooting in Chapel Hill in February 2015.

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Preparing for Thanksgiving

The following chapter is excerpted from the first volume in the Quranic Odyssey series, ‘A Quranic Odyssey: towards Juz Amma,’ drafted in 2010 and published in 2012. The text is presently under revision and will be re-released in March 2016 insha’Allah. Ibrahim and Amna were 5 and 2 at the time and had recently moved to Houston, and were preparing to visit extended family, including non-Muslim relatives, over Thanksgiving. The chapter raises questions about our interfaith gatherings and key messages when we meet and touches on lessons from Surah Al Kafirun.

Chapter 9: Getting Ready for Thanksgiving

Setting: November, 2010, on the sidewalk, walking back from a public park, Houston, late afternoon, a week-day
Characters: Ibrahim, Khadija, Amna

“Ammi, what is stuffing?” asks Ibrahim.

“What?” I respond.

“I heard Papa talking to Uncle Geo about stuffing last night on the telephone. Papa asked him what kind of stuffing he was going to make, and then I think he said something about being extra careful about it being halal and having no wine, and then Papa seemed a little upset or Uncle Geo sounded mad or… I don’t quite know.”[1]

“Upset stuffing?” I say, smiling and pausing for a moment, then continue. “Hmm baita, I may be the wrong person to ask, but let me give it a try. As far as I know stuffing is what they put in the turkey or the chicken. And it’s different from what we talked about with The Velveteen Rabbit. Normally it’s made out of bread crumbs.”

“Like in Hansel and Gretel?”

“Yes, if you wish, breadcrumbs like the ones Hansel and Gretel used, but mixed in with other spices and sometimes other things. If I remember correctly, your father once told me that Uncle Geo used kumquats in his stuffing.”

“Robots?” Ibrahim asks, turning back to me.

He’s been walking up ahead just calling out his questions, but here he finally stops and turns back to Amna and me (or me carrying Amna and all our other paraphernalia). We’re on our way back from the public tennis courts where we went for our first impromptu game with our new rackets, which Ibrahim chose for his Eid gift instead of a set of water guns. The water guns somehow lost their appeal in the last couple of weeks; but then again, the weather is also colder these days.

“No, kumquats. They’re a smallish orange-ish type of fruit. You know your Uncle Geo, he’s a gourmet cook. As for anyone being upset, I wouldn’t worry about it. They’re brothers, and most of the time they get along like you and Amna, but they also have some differences. I think what’s hard for the two of them is that certain things have changed, like, for instance, your father…”

“Converting to Islam,” Ibrahim is quicker than me and more direct.

“Well yes, Abdurrahman’s reversion. For Uncle Geo, Papa is ‘Nico’, his kid brother, and I don’t think he always appreciates being instructed on how and what to cook.”

“Cook. Cook. Cook,” Amna intones. Her mouth is pursed and her eyes are focusing on my mouth as if to ascertain the correction formation and pronunciation.

“But Uncle Geo invited us for Thanksgiving,” says Ibrahim.

Bicul, baita. Uncle Geo invited all of us masha’Allah, and of course he wants us to share a wonderful meal with us to commemorate the pilgrims’ Thanksgiving meal with the Native Americans, but there are still certain differences and ironing them out takes time and effort. Just think, Uncle Geo has never had to prepare a halal meal before, and he is going out of his way to ensure that we may all eat together. I think he is really looking forward to hosting us, but it takes some time and effort, and I don’t think he likes receiving cooking instructions from his younger brother.”

“I would listen to Amna,” Ibrahim affirms.

“Would you? I’ve seen the two of you argue making brownies before,” I say.

“That’s because she makes a mess. Maybe it might be a little difficult if she wanted me to make a turkey and stuffing in a certain way,” Ibrahim admits.

“You see, and you’re both Muslim. Imagine if you had to learn a different religious recipe?” I ask.

“Well, if we were all vegetarians, there wouldn’t be any issue,” Ibrahim says smiling. It would appear he’s getting the point.

“By the way, did you have a chance to speak to David or Alexandra last night or was it just Papa and Uncle Geo who spoke?” I follow up.

“Yup, I spoke to Alex. She’s going to make an apple pie, and she wants me to cut up all the apples,” explains Ibrahim.

“Cut them?” I repeat, somewhat concerned.

“Yes, she said I could. I told her that Nonna taught me how to use a knife.”

“Ok, well let’s see about that, and David?” I probe.

“He just wants to play cricket with us,” responds Ibrahim.

“Cricket? On Thanksgiving?”[2] I say, not grasping the connection.

Ibrahim nods his head ‘yes.’ “You remember when they visited us in South Africa, and he saw me and Sabir play, and he really liked it. Well, he said that we can play cricket together, after the turkey and the stuffing,” Ibrahim clarifies.

“Does he have a bat?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Maybe we can just make it up?” suggests Ibrahim.

Amna has been unusually quiet, but her eyes light up with the words ‘cricket’ and she so starts her characteristic chorus of “cricket, cricket, cricket.”

Ibrahim seems to ignore his sister and continues, “Ammi, what do you think about Thanksgiving?” He sits down on the sidewalk as if preparing for a longer discussion. I sit too. Amna is starting to get a little heavy, and I’m also feeling the weight of her (not so baby) baby bag and the tennis rackets. I wonder about us just encamping on the sidewalk and so move off toward a small piece of grass.

“Well, it’s new to me,” I respond. “But I’m glad to be sharing a meal with different family members and friends. I also think that it’s nice that it falls so close to Eid this year when we share the sacrifice as well. And, it’s a good reminder of so many of the suwar we’ve been learning lately, including Surah Al Kafirun, which is all about respecting and also accepting differences.”[3]

“Do you think Nani would also agree?” he continues.

“I do,” I affirm. “I think that Nani and Nonna would both agree.”

“But Ammi, I think Surah Al Kafirun is hard,” says Ibrahim, bending over, his head resting on his knees.

“I do too, and do you know that until I met Hafidha Rabia and you, I couldn’t say it correctly? I always used to invert the different ayaat.”

“Ammi, you didn’t meet me. I’m your son, and I’m also your part-time Quran coach and that’s what we’re supposed to do: help each other. So will you help me?”

“Only if you promise me you’ll let Alexandra do most of the cutting and you won’t worry about your uncle and father.”

“Ok, it’s a deal. Now, let’s get Kafirun down before Thanksgiving and then… Amna, stop it.” I have to hold Ibrahim’s arm as he is ready to strike his sister who is now beginning to irritate him with her incessant chorus of ‘cricket’.

“Ibrahim, please don’t hurt your sister. Remember we’re getting ready for Thanksgiving. I suppose in a certain way we’re all taking out our old stuffing and putting new stuffing in and making sure that it is all good and wholesome.”

“Like during Hajj,” Ibrahim offers.

“Yes, sort of, like on Hajj. Your father may be able to help us connect all these dots, but it’s starting to make sense to me. Ok, I’m ready to listen to you. Give me the third ayah of Surah Al Kafirun and then the fifth one and let’s see just how hard it really is. I know you can do this,” I say, encouraging.[4]

“You think so, Ammi?” says Ibrahim, now tentatively, as though he’s temporarily lost his confidence. He looks around and then settles his gaze on me. There is no one else on the sidewalk and the cars seem distant.

“I do,” I reaffirm, patting him gently on the back. “And you could probably even do it right here and now,” I say.

“Here?” asks Ibrahim, pointing at the side walk.

“Here,” says Amna, gesturing to all of us.

As if taking up the challenge, Ibrahim inhales deeply, then in a light voice he says. “Ok, here, I go, A’uthu billahi minash shaytanir rajeem, Bismillah…”

[1] In Arabic, the word halal means permitted or lawful. Halal food excludes the following: pork or pork by-products, animals that were dead prior to butchering, animals not slaughtered properly or not slaughtered in the name of Allah (God), blood and blood by-products and alcohol. The recent debate over the quality of meat and poultry in the United States, including coverage in the documentary film Food Inc. (2009) as well as in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Pollan 2006), raises critical questions about the integrity of food and whether it is truly ‘tayyib’, (good) which could have implications for how/what Muslims consume as well.

[2] Although no longer known for cricket, the United States was involved in the first international cricket match, which was played against Canada in 1844.

[3] As summarized by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Surah 109, Al Kafirun (The Unbelievers), “…defines the right attitude to those who reject Faith; in matters of Truth we can make no compromise, but there is no need to persecute or abuse anyone for his faith or belief,” (2011: 1707). Unal provides a similar rendering, “they [the Muslims] should not compel the unbelievers to accept faith,” (2013:1254). This surah was revealed in direct response to a deal that the leaders of the Quraysh tried to strike with Prophet Muhemmed SAW, namely “if he worshipped their gods for a year, then they would worship his One God for a year. After that, they would talk about whose religion was better,” (Emerick 2010: 810). The principles of non-coercion, behind the surah, remain equally relevant to today.

[4] The 3rd and 5th ayaat are identical in terms of the Arabic language. There are, however, nuances related to the context which allow for the apparent repetition to actually carry different meaning, and thus they are generally translated somewhat differently, namely: 3) Nor are you those who ever worship what I worship; and 5) And nor are you those who do and will ever worship what I ever worship (Unal 2013: 1254). Emerick provides a similar distinction in his translation (2011: 810).

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Chapter 5: Another Tafseer

Selected chapters from the 3rd book in the Quranic Odyssey series, ‘From Surah Al Kahf: journey of a lifetime,’ are being shared via this page. Immediately below please find an excerpt from Chapter 5: Another Tafseer. See About for more information on the series, Glossary for any definition of terms appearing in italics below and Cast of Characters for further description of characters. 

Setting: Saturday mid-morning, the next day, mid-March, family home, kitchen
Characters: Khadija, Ibrahim

“We need to look at the lessons, then dig deeper and ask what we can learn and apply today. How and why is this relevant to us, now?”

I push pause on the CD player and look over at Ibrahim, who’s seated at the kitchen table, finishing up a late breakfast of sheermal. The light is pouring in through the windows, as if beckoning us into the day. “Well, what do you think, baita? Any ideas?”

“Ammi, this is your surah now. I’ve already learned it,” says Ibrahim, somewhat dismissively, turning back to his chapter book. He’s completely ensconced in another story. Apparently there is an old badger whose kingdom is threatened by marauding animal pirates. [1] I can’t keep up with his reading, but am still trying to check in. It would seem that every parent has a different position on appropriate books, but all agree that you keep asking questions.

“Ok, well, I’m asking for your help. How about you put your book down for five minutes and you help me out with this one?” I say pointing to my mushaf which is open to Surah Al Kahf.

“I’ll give you ten, but then you have to let me read, Ammi,” says Ibrahim, more responsive than I was expecting. “What was the question again and why did you turn off the CD? It actually sounded interesting.”[2]

“Thanks for listening,” I say, a bit tongue and cheek. “And yes, the CD was interesting; it’s a tafseer of Surah Al Kahf.”

“Ammi, I know that. I’m not deaf,” says Ibrahim, reacting.

I let the comment go and move on. “So what the scholar was asking us was how is Surah Al Kahf still relevant today, to your life?”

“Ammi, you’re the one learning the surah. I think that’s your question. How is it relevant to your life?” Ibrahim rephrases, unwilling to take up my charge, but still engaging.

“My life?” I say pointing at myself. “The scholar has been emphasizing the value of work, constructive work, which Thul Qarnayn helped motivate. It wasn’t enough for the people simply to sit on the sidelines and pay for services; he wanted to have them participate, and give their actual labor, be part of the solution.”[3]

“Ammi, I heard all of that,” says Ibrahim. “The question is how is it relevant to your life,” he repeats.

“Give me a minute. I’m coming to that,” I respond, gathering my thoughts, surprised by Ibrahim’s selective retention. “In general terms, we all need to participate, but if I think specifically about my own work, I need to constantly assess if what I’m working on is contributing in a genuine way to the society in which we live, for the upliftment of humanity.”

“Big words, Ammi,” says Ibrahim. His new code word for ‘please rephrase’.

“Is what I am doing enough? Good enough?” I say.

“You’re always busy,” remarks Ibrahim, putting the last piece of sheermal in his mouth.

“But busy isn’t what we’re after,” I say, anticipating that a much larger conversation is about to begin.

“But you are,” he says, looking down at his book, which is competing for his interest.

“I’m sorry you feel that way. I would hope you also feel that I’m available for you and your sister, and supportive, and doing work that matters, and motivates you to do good work too,” I offer.

“Sometimes,” Ibrahim says, shrugging his shoulders, “but not when you make me late for soccer practice.” I had sensed this would come back. Neither he nor I had broached the subject last night, despite Amna’s recommendation to apologize. Frankly, I hadn’t wanted to open the wound, and I thought Ibrahim might have forgotten.

“I’m sorry Ibrahim. I shouldn’t have pushed you on Surah Al Waqiah, right before practice, but I also didn’t like how you ran off like that,” I say, trying to adopt a middle course and set the record straight.

“Ammi, I was late, and I was frustrated,” says Ibrahim, starting to bite on his pinky, among his most recent habits. I have to hold myself back from chastising him about that now, sensing the more I focus in on nail biting the more he bites.

“Ammi, I’m sorry, but…”

“It’s ok, baita,” I say cutting him off.  “How about we let that go, for now, and I’ll try not to make you late, and you honor your review schedule inshaAllah so that everything gets finished well before practice.”

I stop and readjust the Quran stand in front of me. “In all honestly, though, I could really use your help on Surah Al Kahf. I can’t believe you memorized it, and here I am still toiling on the first page and a half, after a month. Hafidha Rabia told me that once I get into the stories I won’t be able to put it down, so I’m trying to understand each of the stories better to get motivated.”

“Ammi, there are four stories in Surah Al Kahf. The one about Thul Qarnayn is the last one. Don’t you think you should start with the first one and move forward? Anyway, it took me nine months, and then I forgot everything and then I had to relearn it, and I’m still always forgetting it,” says Ibrahim, in an attempt to console me.  “But, I thought we were talking about work and whether your work is enough,” he follows up bringing us back to the exact place where we left off in our conversation.

I nod, signaling for him to continue.

“In terms of whether it matters, I thought your water work was really important, and it made a big difference in the world. I still remember the water wars, do you?”

We both pause. That was a long time ago. Ibrahim was half the size he is now when I gave that presentation in his Montessori class.[4] I can’t believe he still remembers, but he’s come back to it time and again.

“And I remember the arsenic too,” he says, continuing.[5] “I can’t believe you got to work on that…by the way, where’s Amna?” Ibrahim looks around the room as if expecting her to emerge. Despite the fact they fight so often, they definitely take note of each other’s absence.

“Nani took her for a haircut at the women’s salon,” I respond. “So you and I could have a little time together, and you could help me with Surah Al Kahf,” I cajole, smiling at him.

“I get it Ammi. I am helping you, but I also need a haircut,” responds Ibrahim.

“Don’t worry. Your father is going to the barber later today, when he gets back from his class, and he’ll take you, and probably for an ice cream too. Ok, so you think I should focus on the first story?” I ask, picking up on Ibrahim’s advice.

“If you want to try to get it through the stories like Hafidha Rabia said, take it one story at a time, and start with the cave, definitely start with the cave. It’s number one.”

“How about you recite that part to me?” I suggest.

“Ammi, your ten minutes are almost up,” responds Ibrahim, “But because you’re struggling,” he says, smiling back at me, “I’ll take you through the cave. You need to give me the prompt though, I can’t just start mid-page like that.”

“You’ve got your wudu?” I ask.

Ibrahim nods. “You got yours?” he returns the question, more forthright than I would expect.  I can’t imagine saying that to my mother at his age, but then again, I may have. I wonder whether Ibrahim inherited this trait from his father, or me, or whether in his own unique way he’s simply growing up, and figuring out how to express himself.

I nod ‘yes’ to his question, and also observe that he’s no longer biting his nails.  Looking through my mushaf, I scan the translation for the first mention of the cave, finally finding ayah nine. Starting with the ista’aadha, I then read it aloud to help Ibrahim find his place, “am hasibta anna asaabal kahfi war raqeemi kaanoo min aayaatinaa ‘ajabaa.”[6]

With the sun still beckoning, Ibrahim picks up ayah 10 and we are off, alternatively following and leading each other.

[1] This is a loose reference to the Redwall series by Brian Jacques.

[2] The initial reference was informed by ‘Tafseer Surah Al Kahf’ by Safi Khan (2010), a CD released by Ilmquest. There is, however, no direct quoting of the scholar; all statements have been paraphrased.

[3] See Quran, 18:95, “So help me with strength (manpower) and I will set a strong rampart between you and them,” (Unal 2013: 621).

[4] See Chapters 35 and 36 in A Qur’aanic Odyssey: Towards Juz Amma (2012) which highlights conflicts related to water. “Baita…Just look here; for almost a decade, between the 1870s and 1881 there were disputes about water rights in New Mexico, which borders Texas. And there was violence. Then look here, in South Africa, just seven years ago, there were violent uprisings due to lack of clean water and sanitation. Again, there was violence, and considerable damage. Across India and Pakistan, which you know well, there have been many conflicts, including one in 2001 in Karachi.”

[5] See Chapter 18 in Ya Sin: a hifdh journey in America, which discusses Khadija’s work related to Bihar and the arsenic contamination in the water. As reported in the International Journal of Environmental Research (Singh et al. 2014), “the groundwater [arsenic] contamination in Bihar was first reported in Semaria Ojha Patti village of Shahpur, a block of Bhojpur district in 2002… In 2007, Nickson et al. reported groundwater [arsenic] contamination in 50 blocks in 11 districts…Currently, the groundwater [arsenic] contamination has spread to 16 districts, threatening more than 10 million people in Bihar…Recently, Singh and Ghosh (2012) estimated that there is a very high health risk in the [arsenic] contaminated areas in Maner block of the Patna district. They found that the cancer risk and hazard quotient owing to drinking [arsenic] contaminated groundwater was as high as 192 micrograms [µg/L] (Singh and Ghosh, 2012).” The World Health Organisation says that levels above 10 parts per billion ((ppb, equivalent to µg/L) present health hazards (Tewary 2007).

[6] See Quran 18:9, “Or do you reckon the People of the Cave and the Inscription as something strange among Our signs (manifesting the truth, and too extraordinary to believe)?” (Unal 2013: 600).

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Chapter 4: A Game

Selected chapters from the 3rd book in the Quranic Odyssey series, ‘From Surah Al Kahf: journey of a lifetime,’ are being shared via this page. Immediately below please find an excerpt from Chapter 4: A Game. See About for more information on the series, Glossary for any definition of terms appearing in italics below and Cast of Characters for further description of characters. 

Setting: Later that evening, neighborhood soccer field
Characters: Ibrahim, Khadija, Abdurrahman and Amna

“Papa, Ammi said that we don’t get to jannah because of our good deeds,” asserts Ibrahim.

“Ibrahim, I did not say that,” I say defensively, spinning around to face him. I’m in the front seat and Abdurrahman has just pulled into the parking lot of the YMCA for soccer practice.  Amna is seated next to Ibrahim in the backseat, following along closely.

“You did and then Amna paraphrased it,” insists Ibrahim.

I feel like I’ve just had the rug pulled out from under me. A couple of hours ago, we had what I understood to be a profound exchange about heaven and earth in our backyard, and now I’m being sorely misquoted.

“Ibrahim, I need you to be quiet for a minute and we’re both going to think about what we actually said and then, we can talk,” I say, trying to take a different approach. Abdurrahman parks the car and turns off the engine. There is a momentary silence.

“Sorry, I’m late for practice,” responds Ibrahim, cavalierly. “I need to meet the coach now, or he’ll count me as late.” He unbuckles and starts getting out of the car.

“Wait a minute,” but Ibrahim is already gone, running off toward the field. The back of his navy blue, number 10 jersey is all I see. I feel myself getting irritated again.

“This is not acceptable. Do you realize he just ran off? I swear he’s an adolescent already. And you do know I didn’t say that?” I look to Abdurahman for affirmation.

Janu, I’d be pretty surprised if you said anything like that, but kids hear different things, and they remember different things too. Selective retention. I think I’ve been accused of that too,” he says, winking at me, but I don’t appreciate his humor now, or the fact that he is so calm.

“I can’t believe he just ran off like that and that you’re not getting upset. He shouldn’t be allowed to play today. I’m going to go talk to the coach,” I respond, increasingly agitated, and opening the car door.

“Khadija, wait a minute. Slow down. Ibrahim’s going to play soccer. It’s his favorite part of the whole week. You made him late at home by asking him to complete that second cycle of hifdh review. First Surah Ar Rahman, then Waqiah. You stole a good 10 minutes of extra soccer practice from him. Honestly, if it had been me, I’d be pretty frustrated too, and I say that as both an aspiring hafidh and the parent and spouse of one too. I think you overdid it today, and I would strongly discourage you from speaking to his coach about any of this.”[1] As he speaks, Abdurrahman sits up taller and raises his voice in defense of his son.

“What?” I say in disbelief, unable to grasp that Abdurrahman has taken Ibrahim’s side.

“Ammi, I want to play too,” pipes in Amna. I’d almost forgotten that she was with us. She’s seen and heard everything we’ve just said. I put my hands over my face, ashamed. It’s amazing how children sometimes have the ability to humble us. I finally take a deep breath, then another one.

“I’m sorry for getting upset,” I say, looking at Abdurrahman, then Amna.

“Maybe you should apologize to Ibrahim?” suggests Amna in an attempt at a broader reconciliation. “But I’ll review with you Ammi, after we play. I can help you with your Surah Al Kahf or you can help me with my Surah Al Abasa,” she offers, as if reading out of my family hifdh record which charts each of our different progress across suwar.[2]

Janu, just ease up a little,” follows up Abdurrahman. “They’re still kids. You have to accept that soccer has a place too.” Then continuing, “And don’t offer vegetables and dessert at the same time, otherwise you’re going to be disappointed as a parent.”

How does Abdurrahman know this? And why don’t I remember this wisdom, in the heat of the debate? Of course, Ibrahim wants to play, and of course I shouldn’t get upset, and especially not in front of Amna. I wonder when I’m going to cross that milestone and become that tranquil parent who always has perspective. Maybe after hajj and that anticipated spiritual rebirth? It seems so far off though, and we have countless soccer practices before then.

“Come on, let’s go cheer Ibrahim and the Rapids on,” encourages Abdurrahman, breaking my train of thought. “Amna and I are getting bored here with all this serious talk, aren’t we Amna?”

“Papa, I just want to make a goal and then sing the mermaid song behind the old net,” she responds smiling at her father. Last week she had the time of her life, behind one of the old, dilapidated soccer nets on the side of the field. She must have sung for over an hour.

He smiles back at her, playfully. “Ok my little mermaid, let’s go then.” Abdurrahman unbuckles his seatbelt and then turns to me a last time before getting up, “and one final unsolicited piece of advice: stop beating yourself up. Parenting is a process, not an event. You mastered so many episodes today. This was just one. Let it go. You know I’m your biggest fan.”

Another cliché and a smile. I’m batting zero and one, but Abdurrahman just cleared the score board. I wish I could read from a parenting manual sometimes. Then again, I also know that the Sunnah and the Quran are this manual and that it’s a matter of opening my heart to the teachings. [3] However tempting it may be, I can’t simply wait for something transcendent to happen on hajj in six months.

“Ok, let’s go play,” I say, joining in. I fasten my hijab tighter, anticipating a good workout, and then get out of the car. Abdurrahman and Amna are already hand in hand in front of me. Meanwhile I catch a glimpse of number 10 racing across the field in the first running drill. He’s at the head of the pack, and
[1] In Chapter 3, a hadith was cited which explained how it is ultimately God’s mercy that allows one to enter paradise, not simply the good deeds of the believer. Part of the hadith, however, also recommended a moderate course of action, particularly in religious deeds. Another similar hadith is cited below, extolling moderation: Allah’s Messenger SAW said, “The deeds of anyone of you will not save you (from the (Hell) Fire).” They said, “Even you (will not be saved by your deeds), O Allah’s Messenger SAW?” He said, “No, even I (will not be saved) unless and until Allah bestows His Mercy on me. Therefore, do good deeds properly, sincerely and moderately, and worship Allah in the forenoon and in the afternoon and during a part of the night, and always adopt a middle, moderate, regular course whereby you will reach your target (Paradise),” Sahih al-Bukhari 6463, USC-MSA web (English) reference : Vol. 8, Book 76, Hadith 470,

[2] In the previous chapter, which took place earlier in the day, Amna was reviewing Surah An Nazi’at (79), as part of her review of Juz ‘Amma. Her reference to Surah Al ‘Abasa (80) here suggests that she is completing a cycle of review and knows the order of the suwar. Among the most important themes from Surah Al ‘Abasa is that “everyone, whatever their family origin or social status, is equal with respect to the communication of God’s Message,” (Unal 2013: 1207).

[3] Abu Hurairah narrated that a man came to the Messenger of Allah and said: “Teach me something that is not too much for me so that, perhaps, I may abide by it.” He SAW said: “Do not get angry.” He repeated that (the request) a number of times, each time he replied: ‘Do not get angry,” (Jami` at-Tirmidhi 2020, English translation: Vol. 4, Book 1, Hadith 2020, This same hadith was also quoted in Chapter 4 of A Qur’aanic Odyssey: Towards Juz ‘Amma, “Burying Anger.” See also 3:134: “They spend (out of what God has provided for them) both in ease and hardship, ever-restraining their rage (even when provoked and able to retaliate), and pardoning people (their offenses). God loves (such) people who are devoted to doing good, aware that God is seeing them,” (Unal 2013: 156).

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Chapter 3: A long time to jannah

Selected chapters from the 3rd book in the Quranic Odyssey series, ‘From Surah Al Kahf: journey of a lifetime,’ are being shared via this page. Immediately below please find an excerpt from Chapter 3: A long time to jannah. See About for more information on the series, Glossary for any definition of terms appearing in italics below and Cast of Characters for further description of characters. 

Setting: a month later, mid-March, 2015, afternoon, outside family home, back porch, two tables
Characters: Amna, now 6, Khadija and Ibrahim, now 9

“Yousuf is going to jannah,” says Amna. I raise my head immediately, trying to make sense of Amna’s words.

“Yousuf?” I ask.

“Yes, Yousuf is going to jannah, next week,” she says, trying to clarify. I’m sitting directly across from Amna at the children’s green, plastic table, on the back porch, but still not catching on. It’s a beautiful afternoon–still a couple months before Houston’s heat hits–and we’ve decided to take our review lesson outside. I’m holding the mushaf for Amna, who’s making her way slowly through Juz ‘Amma.

Ibrahim, who is sitting at a larger, wooden, picnic table, a couple paces away, busy with his own review, gets up and walks over to us.

“Ammi, no one is going to jannah next week,” he asserts. He has his white topi on, which he started donning to encourage Amna to wear her hijab during our lessons, and is the spitting image of his father.

“Well, that’s quite a strong statement. Surely between the two of you, there must be a middle road,” I respond. “Which Yousuf are you talking about Amna?” I inquire, turning back to face her.

Whenever I take the time to look at Amna, really look at her, it would appear she’s grown. Her face is thinning out and her dark eyes are becoming ever more alert and perceptive. There’s a new level of texture to her skin, and her hair, now in a long pony tail, makes her look older.

“Yousuf B.” she says, as if mimicking the roll call in her class.

“Yousuf B. is not going to jannah,” affirms Ibrahim again. “He’s going to Mecca.”

“Really?” I say.

“Yousuf B. and his family are going to perform umrah, not jannah,” says Ibrahim in full instruction mode, though bordering on condescension. I beckon for Ibrahim to come towards me and give his sister a little more space. Based on experience, whenever he’s in instruction mode and they’re too close, there’s almost always an eruption.

Umrah, jannah, Mecca,” Amna repeats, stringing together the concepts, and reaching out to push her brother.

“Amna, baita,” I offer, “Apparently Yousuf is going to Mecca to perform umrah, the lesser pilgrimage. Insha’Allah one day he will go to the highest levels of paradise or jannah al firdous and return to Allah Subhanahu wa-ta’ala but that’s not planned for next week.” I look at her intently wondering if my explanation made any sense. It would be helpful to have a world map and a diagram of the solar system, though even then, I might struggle with placing jannah, and distinguishing it from umrah.

“Ammi, am I going to jannah?” follows up Amna.

Baita, insha’Allah, you too will go to jannah al firdous, like Yousuf, but before that hopefully we’ll all have the opportunity to perform umrah and travel to Mecca,” I explain.

“And Medina?” says Ibrahim.

“Yes, that too, but one step at a time, please,” I respond, pulling Ibrahim into my lap, affectionately. Though he is now a lanky 9 year old, I still manage to get him to sit down.

“It’s taking a long time to get to jannah,” Amna says, then sighs.

“Mecca,” repeats Ibrahim and glares at his sister.

Jannah,” repeats Amna, as if finally understanding the difference, but wanting to make her point, too.

“Yes, it is taking a long time to get to jannah, Amna, you are right,” I say, putting my arms around Ibrahim, who is still in my lap, to subdue him. Even though we’re supposed to be reviewing Surah An Nazi’at, and I may not be able to fully explain paradise to the children, I want to linger here a minute longer to address Amna’s latest point.

“It’s taking a long time to get to jannah,” I repeat, “but do you know that every good deed gets you closer insha’Allah. Every time you help with the dishes, and get a glass of water for your father, or your grandmother…and all that sadaqah you keep collecting and giving…you’re actually working toward jannah. And yet, at the end of the day…” I pause thinking how to phrase the next piece. “It’s really Allah Subhanahu wa-ta’ala who opens the door to jannah, not just because of our good deeds and our belief, but because of His infinite mercy.” I open my hands up, and hold them over my heart.[1] [2]

“So what’s the point of doing good deeds if it’s all about Allah’s mercy?” asks Ibrahim, cutting right to the chase. He’s picked up on the logic which philosophers have debated for centuries. I sense we might have a discussion in free will coming on, but am also mindful of our hifdh lesson and the pending Surah An Nazi’at review, not to mention any extra work with Ibrahim. I am also acutely aware that my own review needs attention.

“Oh Ibrahim,” I respond, patting him on the shoulder. “Allah wants us to do good deeds, always. He’s told us that throughout the Quran, including the type of good deeds He expects: sharing our wealth and honoring our commitments, being patient, especially in the face of adversity.[3] You know all of this, as does Amna. Prophet Muhemmed’s entire life, salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, is an example of the good deeds that are expected from us.[4] But at the end of the day, we all rely on His Mercy.”

Ibrahim nods, but I sense that this nuance may be too much for him. I make a mental note to ask Abdurrahman about jannah. So much of this, he knows from his own deeper inquiry into the deen.

“Ammi, I understand,” interjects Amna, surprising me. “We try as much as we can, but Allah’s heart is the biggest, and He lets us in to jannah, not because of us, but because of Him.”

She actually got it. She got it all, and she even clarified it for me, maybe even for her brother, too. I look at Amna, wanting to record her lesson.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I hear Hafidha Rabia’s voice, “Some say that the hearts of children whose parents go on hajj are filled with sakeena.” We haven’t broached the topic yet, but Amna is showing signs of maturity that I had never appreciated.

“Ok professor one and professor two,” I finally say, pointing at both children, “How about 15 minutes more? I’ll listen to Ibrahim on Surah Ar Rahman, to change it up a little, and then Amna and I will finish Surah An Nazi’at. In the meantime, I suggest Amna, you simply keep drawing that image you were working on for Nazi’at.”[5]

“That’s not fair. She gets to color and I have to work,” complains Ibrahim.

“No, she’s doing a pictorial review and you have your mother’s undivided attention,” I say, tickling Ibrahim and trying to motivate him to move on. “Let’s go now, otherwise, it’s going to take a really, really, really long time to get to jannah, isn’t it Amna.”

Amna looks over at me and smiles then starts to take out her colored pencils. Ibrahim finally grasps my point, appreciating that he is receiving more attention. He stands up to get me his mushaf, which is already open to Surah Ar Rahman. The Most Merciful.  I can only smile at the beauty of it all, as if someone were actually giving us a perfect script to follow, but one that is clear only at the end of the dialogue.

[1] It was narrated from Abu Hurairah that the Messenger of Allah SAW said: “Be moderate and adhere to moderation, for there is no one among you who will be saved by his deeds.” They said: “Not even you, O Messenger of Allah?” He said: “Not even me. Unless Allah encompasses me with mercy and grace from Him,” Sunan Ibn Majah, Zuhd, English reference: Vol. 5, Book 37, Hadith 4201,

[2] Ibn ‘Umar (May Allah be pleased with them) reported: I heard the Messenger of Allah SAW saying, “A believer will be brought close to his Rabb on the Day of Resurrection and enveloping him in His Mercy, He SWT will make him confess his sins by saying: ‘Do you remember (doing) this sin and this sin?’ He will reply: ‘My Rabb, I remember.’ Then He SWT will say: ‘I covered it up for you in the life of world, and I forgive it for you today.’ Then the record of his good deeds will be handed to him,” Al-Bukhari and Muslim (Arabic/English book reference: Book 1, Hadith 433

[3] See 2:177 for an example of the behaviors expected of Muslims, one of countless such Quranic ayaat: “Godliness and virtue is not that you should turn your faces in the direction of the east and west; but godliness and virtue is (the state of one) who believes in God and the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the Prophets, and gives away of his property with pleasure, although he loves it, to relatives, orphans, the destitute, the wayfarer, and those who have to beg (or who need a loan), and for the liberation of slaves, and establishes the Prayer, and pays the Prescribed Purifying Alms; and (of) those who fulfill their covenant when they have engaged in a covenant, and who are patient and persevering in hardship, and disease, and at the time of stress (such as a battle between truth and falsehood). Those are they who are true (in their faith), and those are they who have achieved righteousness, piety, and due reverence for God (Unal 2013:83).

[4] Immediately after receiving the first revelation, Khadija RAA consoled Prophet Muhemmed SAW saying, “God will not let you suffer any humiliation, because you are kind to your kinsfolk, you speak the truth, you help those in need, you are generous to your guests, and you support every just cause,” (cited in Ramadan, 2007: 30, Sahih Muslim 160 a, USC-MSA web (English) reference: Book 1, Hadith 301,

[5] The surah is full of powerful imagery. As summarized by Ali Unal: “Revealed in Makkah, this surah of 46 verses takes its name from the word an-nazi’at (those angels who fly out) in the first verse. It reminds us of death, warns against those who deny the afterlife, and draws attention to the Pharoah, whose power could not save him from God’s punishment. It also mentions some acts of God in the universe and establishes the truth of the afterlife (2013: 1204). See also, ‘The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an for School Children (Emerick 2010). Chapter 39 from A Qur’aanic Odyssey: Towards Juz Amma, provides additional ideas for how to animate the surah with children.

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