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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From Surah Al Kahf: journey of a lifetime (Chapter 2: Sakeena)

Selected chapters from the 3rd book in the Quranic Odyssey series, ‘From Surah Al Kahf: journey of a lifetime,’ are being shared via this blog. Immediately below please find an excerpt from Chapter 2: Sakeena. 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: one week later, family home, study, late evening
Characters: Khadija and Hafidha Rabia (via Skype, from Jakarta)

“It’s really not a long surah, it just looks that way,” says Hafidha Rabia, encouraging me.

I’m staring down at my mushaf, trying to wrap my mind around the next challenge. It would almost seem that Hafidha Rabia and I are looking at two totally different suwar. I see 12 pages of Arabic in front of me and shudder. A year, two years. How long realistically before I can remember all of this, and then won’t I start forgetting? I’m glad the children are asleep and don’t see the doubt on my face. I feel borderline hypocritical after all I’ve told them about memorizing long suwar.

“We’re going to break it up, Khadija, into small packets.” There is some static on the line, and her voice fades out for a moment. Finally, I hear her clearly again. “We’ll take it ayah by ayah, as we always do, and then you’ll get into the stories and you won’t want to put it down. I promise.”

I shake my head, still unconvinced, then look around the dimly lit study. There is a small piece of calligraphy, hanging behind me, that my neighbor, Maryam, made as a farewell gift before we left Cape Town, now almost five years ago. She overlaid shades of blue, then gold. Al Hakeem. The All Wise. In all its cliché, art imitates life, and signals yet again that He is always there, listening and encouraging, in His infinite wisdom and mercy. Al Hakeem. Who am I to doubt His presence, the miracle of the Quran and the miracle of hifdh? It’s never just us memorizing. That would be futile. His book speaks through us, if we open ourselves up—again, a lesson I’ve preached to the children so many times, but have somehow forgotten as I advance into Surah Al Kahf.[1]

“It will illuminate you, jumah to jumah,[2]” Hafidha Rabia says, following up with a well-known hadith, unwilling to let go.

“Yes, of course,” I finally say, smiling.

She returns my smile, removing some of the distance–Jakarta to Houston and back. Al Hakeem, then a smile. I take a deep breath.

“Hafidha Rabia,” I say tentatively, “May I ask you something before we begin?”

“Surely,” she says, still smiling.

“Abdurrahman would like us to go on hajj this year, well, actually, we both would like to go,” I rephrase, but it still sounds presumptuous. Hajj is about being Allah Subhanahu wa-ta’ala’s guest, not about our mere desires.[3] “We’ve made the intention,” I finally say.

Masha’Allah, that’s beautiful,” is her response.

“But I just don’t know about leaving the children. My mother has offered to help, and of course they’ll have school, but it’s three weeks. Anything could happen. What if something did happen?” I say, confessing my deepest fears.

“Khadija, hajj is about letting go. You do realize it’s the only real spiritual death we live through,” she counsels. “Everything you’re feeling is normal, but the children will be absolutely fine. Some say that the children whose parents go on hajj are filled with sakeena. Allah Subhanahu wa-ta‘ala puts tranquility in their hearts for the duration of their parents’ journey.”

I hadn’t heard this particular wisdom, but feel almost a sudden calm myself.

“There are many things you can do to help prepare Ibrahim and Amna and special activities for when you’re gone. We can talk about all of that later, but I don’t recommend you speak to the children, not yet. It’s too early. You have months to prepare yourself and them insha’Allah. For now, I would focus on your niyyah and do lots of du’a. Then start to work on the logistics and entrust the children to Allah Subhanahu wa-ta‘ala.  After all, ultimately, like you, they belong to Him.”


“Are you ready to start, Khadija?” she asks.

“I am,” I finally assert, nodding at the screen in front of me.

“Repeat after me three times. We’ll take only the first three ayaat today, one at a time and then we’ll turn back to review. Authu billahi minashaitanir rajeem. Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem….” As she starts in, I follow along in my mushaf, glimpsing the translation on the margin:

  1. All praise and gratitude are for God, Who has sent down on His servant the Book and has put no crookedness in it (so that it is free from contradiction and inconsistency, and anything offensive to truth and righteousness).
  2. (He has made it) unerringly straight, to warn of a stern punishment from Him and give the believers who do good, righteous deeds the glad tidings that for them is an excellent reward (Paradise).
  3. Abiding therein forever.[4]

[1] As described by Ali Unal, Surah Al Kahf, “was revealed in the Makkan period of the Messenger’s mission, at a time when the polytheists had begun to escalate their opposition to the preaching of Islam. Searching for a way to stop this preaching the Makkans occasionally made contact with the People of the Book in order to get from them questions they could put to the Messenger. This surah apparently was revealed in a response to questions about the People of the Cave, the story of Moses and al-Khadr, and Dhul’l-Qarnayn. It also contains the parable of two friends who owned vineyards. The surah takes its name from the ninth verse, where the people of the Cave are mentioned. It consists of 110 verses (2013:599).

[2] “Whoever reads Surah al-Kahf on the day of Jumu’ah, will have a light that will shine from him from one Friday to the next.”(Narrated by al-Haakim, 2/399; al-Bayhaqi, 3/249. Ibn Hajar said in Takhreej al-Adhkaar that this is a hasan hadith, and he said, this is the strongest report that has been narrated concerning reading Surah al Kahf. See: Fayd al-Qadeer, 6/198. It was classed as saheeh by Shaykh al-Albaani in Saheeh al-Jaami’, 6470) (further reference forthcoming).

[3] Abu Hurairah said: “The Messenger of Allah said: ‘The guests of Allah are three: The ghazi, the Hajj (pilgrim) and the Mu’tamir” (Reference: Sunan an-Nasa’I, The Book of Hajj, 2625, English translation: Vol. 3, Book 24, Hadith 2626,

[4] The Qur’an with Annotated Interpretation in Modern English (Unal 2013: 18:1-3).

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Part 3 in the Qur’anic Odyssey series

For those of you interested in Part 2, Ya Sin: a hifdh journey in America, alhumduilah it is now available via Amazon & Createspace. See below for a taste of Part 3, Chapter 1:

From Surah Al Kahf: journey of a lifetime (forthcoming part 3 in the Qur’anic Odyssey series)
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. 

Chapter 1: A departure
Setting: Kitchen, family home, Houston, February 2015
Characters: Khadijah and Abdurrahman

“Do you think they’ll understand?” I whisper to Abdurrahman, who is seated next to me at our kitchen table. We’ve just said goodnight to the children and I’m concerned they may still be awake and listening to our conversation, despite the fact doors are closed, upstairs.

“I do,” he responds clearly, nodding his head for emphasis. “And I also don’t think you need to whisper, but it’s your call,” he adds, smiling at me, and brushing a crumb off the table. He stands up to get a glass of water.

A residual pots soaks in the sink, but otherwise, the dinner dishes are done.  There is a sense of closure to the day when everything is put away in the kitchen—the hub of every home I know.  At least that’s how it feels for me, but probably Abdurrahman would have another perspective.

“My parents went before we were born, and then Ammi went later with Abdullah, but before their children,” I explain, while simultaneously wrapping a loose purple thread from my dupata around my index finger, as if that might help put things in order. My back is turned to Abdurrahman, though I watch his reflection in the window. Eventually comes back to sit down next to me with his glass.

“I know, janu. I’m well aware of that, but, with all due respect, we’re not you’re parents. Every year, I’ve asked you, and every year, you’ve told me that they are too young, but Khadija do you see us now? At some point, we might be too old. It’s already been eleven years. Ibrahim is almost ten masha’Allah; Amna will soon be seven. They are going to be ok. Quite honestly, it’s you I’m more worried about,” he says, putting his hand on my index finger, where I’m starting to the cut off the circulation by incessant winding.

I look at him and let go of the thread. Tears start to form in my eyes at the prospect of leaving the children. I wasn’t expecting the struggles of hajj to start so early. We haven’t even booked our tickets, and my heart feels as though it’s being squeezed.

“Listen, let’s not talk about this anymore tonight,” suggests Abdurrahman. “Why don’t you speak to your mother in the next couple of days? Hafidha Rabia and Ruqiyyah should also have some ideas. Let’s head up,” he says beckoning to me. “Maybe I can even help you review tonight?”

I nod my head in agreement, as tears continue to fall gently. Part of me senses that we’ve already left.

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Chapter 20: Passing

Immediately following is a chapter from ‘Ya Sin, Towards the Heart of the Qur’aan,’ a recently completed story by Umm Muhemmed, which follows from ‘A Qur’aanic Odyssey, Towards Juz Amma’. ‘Ya Sin’ narrates the family’s ongoing journey through the Qur’aan with a focus on Surah Ya Sin, the surah they set out to learn following completion of Juz Amma, throughout the month of Ramadan.  Although each of the chapters are connected, each one may be read as a stand-alone text as well.

Setting: local park, Friday morning, Ramadhan
Characters: Khadija, Ibrahim, Amna, Beatrice

“When do you want to call him?”

“I’m ready now,” responds Ibrahim.

“I call,” offers Amna.

It is mid-morning, but overcast today. We ventured out to the park before the swimming lesson as the children were eager to play and, with the cooler weather, I felt a little more energetic. They also wanted to take Sail for a walk, albeit in his traveling jar. We’ve settled ourselves on a small bench and have been busy making leaf prints.

“What do you think I should say?” asks Ibrahim.

“Well, how about you ask whether we could drop off some samosas and fruit salad,” I suggest. “We could stop by this evening before iftar.”

“Do you really think they eat samosas?” asks Ibrahim.

“I eat samosas,” responds Amna.

“A lot of people eat samosas,” I say, “and don’t you remember that time you gave Uncle Bill and Aunt Beatrice those samosas on Good Friday?”[1]

“Ummm, no, but I’ll trust you on that one,” says Ibrahim, walking over to my purse and rummaging around in it. He finds my phone and starts to look up Uncle Bill’s number.

“It’s not under ‘Uncle’,” says Ibrahim.

“No? Well, maybe check MacIntyre. I may have included his last name,” I say.

Ibrahim scans the names. “I got it,” he finally exclaims. “May I call now?”

“So long as you are sure it’s him. I’d rather not have you call the regional office in Bihar right now.” I say more to myself, then turn back to Amna and our leaf prints.

“Uncle Bill?” I hear Ibrahim say. He has started off in the direction of his favorite tree, perhaps to have more privacy or perhaps simply to explore.

“Ibrahim, not too far,” I call out.

“Not too far,” Amna mimics.

“Ammi, why is Ibrahim calling and not me?” she then asks.

“Because you and I are busy right here, and we have serious work to finish before your swimming lesson.  I also want to see what happens when we put an acorn under your paper.”

“It will blast,” responds Amna.

“Blast?” I say.

“Yes, like what you told Ibrahim, like that ayah, blast.”[2]

“Maybe burst, or break….?” I counter, looking around for a small acorn.

“Ammi, you’ve got to speak to Aunt Beatrice, something happened,” calls out Ibrahim as he runs back in our direction, and thrusts the phone toward me.

“Beatrice? Bill?” I say tentatively, trying to ascertain who is on the other end.

Amna has dropped her crayon and both children are standing close to me. Ibrahim looks very concerned.

“It’s me, Khadija,” I continue, “your old neighbor, I’m really sorry we’ve been so out of touch, it’s just with…what?” I stop talking and try to hear. Beatrice seems very far away.

“When?” I then ask. I can’t focus on Beatrice’s voice and the children’s faces at the same time and so turn away briefly.

“Oh, Beatrice, I am so sorry to hear that. He was such a wonderful, wonderful man. I just wish we knew sooner.”

“Ammi, what happened?” Ibrahim is behind me, pulling at my dupatta.

I try to quiet him, by placing my finger over my mouth.

“Ammi, what happened?” Amna repeats, also coming up to me.

“Beatrice, just one moment, the children are here, could we come by this evening and see you, I’d understand if you don’t want visitors, but we’d really like to see you.”

“Ammi,” Amna says, raising her voice.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim seems to understand. Just as I end the conversation, he runs off. Within seconds he is at the base of his tree, and then in another minute, climbing up. Before long, I am unable even to see his shoes through the branches.  I had no idea that Uncle Bill had left such an impression. We had not seen him since we moved, well before Ramadhan. I had always thought that Ibrahim was a bit apprehensive, particularly given all of Uncle Bill’s bugs, but obviously I had misunderstood. I wonder how he would have reacted if he had known my own father, but then stop myself from thinking in this direction.

“Ammi,” Amna repeats, as I walk over and put the phone back in my purse.

“Yes, baita,” I say, turning around to face her and bending over so we are eye to eye.

“What happened, Ammi?” Amna asks.

I pause for a moment wondering what to say. “Amna, may I draw something for you?” I finally ask.

She nods her head.

I sit back down on the bench and pick up my own leaf print. I start making lines, from the leaves toward the sky.

“Ammi, you can’t take the leaves for a walk,” says Amna, trying to make sense of my drawing.

Baita, I know…do you see these leaves?”

“Yes,” replies Amna, “there are lots,” she then adds.

“Well, they are all part of the universe, and ultimately they are all Allah’s, like all of us.”

“We’re not Allah’s,” says Amna.

“Yes, baita, we actually belong to Him, and for a very brief period we exist here on this earth, working and playing and growing, and laughing and singing and building, and then at some point Allah calls each of us back to Him, like these leaves,” I say, hoping that my explanation made sense.[3]

“Why are the leaves on the ground?” asks Amna.

“Hmm, good question, they take a little bit of time, but eventually, they cycle back,” I say tentatively, concerned I may have lost her now.

“To Allah….? And the ground?” persists Amna, seemingly bewildered.

“It also belongs to Allah,” I venture. “The point is that there is a time for life and a time when we all pass away, when Allah calls us back, just like he did with Uncle Bill,” I continue.

“But he’s not Muslim,” I hear Ibrahim say behind me, who appears to have descended from his tree and may be looking for more meaning.

“No, he’s wasn’t Ibrahim,” I respond, turning my head back and gesturing for him to come sit with us.

Ibrahim walks around the bench and slouches in my lap. I notice that he has been crying, and there are brown, dusty smudges on his cheeks.

“And so if he wasn’t Muslim then how do we know that he will go back to Allah, and that everything will be alright?” asks Ibrahim.

“We don’t baita. Only Allah Subhanahu wa-ta‘ala knows that, but we do know that he was a good man, a very good man, and that counts for a lot.”

“Being good?” Ibrahim asks.

“Yes, being good, which isn’t always that easy,” I say.

For a minute, we are all silent. I brace for the next series of questions.

Rather than speaking, however, Amna, picks up a green crayon and finishes what I have started with the leaf lines. The activity seems to grab Ibrahim as well, and he picks up his discarded leaf print. I wonder what they are thinking.

Or maybe they are not thinking. Maybe their hearts are simply feeling, and that is why at this moment they draw rather than ask more questions.

“Ammi,” Ibrahim finally says, after nearly five minutes have passed. “I’m going to give my leaf print to Aunt Beatrice tonight, and before that, I need to recite Yā Sīn, because that’s what we do when someone dies, that’s what Papa told me. I think maybe Uncle Bill will hear and maybe Allah will hear it, and everything will be ok,” he concludes.[4]

Inshaa Allah,” I say, for really there is nothing else to say.

[1] See Chapter 33, ‘The Fasts and Holy Friday,’ in A Qur’aanic Odyssey, Towards Juz Amma, p.127.

[2] See footnote 103 (for a description of ayah 29 in Surah Yā Sīn), Chapter 19, ‘School time?’ in Yā Sīn, Towards the Heart of the Qur’aan.

[3] See Ecclesiastes 3 (King James Version), verses 1, 2, 5, 7, 11, 20-22 excerpted here: “1 To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: 2 A time to be born, and a time to die…5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing…7 A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak…11 He hath made everything beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end…20 All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. 21 Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth? 22 Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?”

[4] The Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, said, “There is not a person who dies and Ya Sin is read for him, but that Allah makes it easy upon him.” Al-Hafiz [Ibn Hajar] said, “The author of al-Firdaus attributed this hadith to a chain of transmission from Marwan ibn Salim, from Safwan ibn `Amr, from Shuraih, from Abu Darda’, and from Abu Dharr,” as cited at, accessed October 14, 2013. Consider also the following hadith: “It has been reported by Aisha RA that the Prophet SAW said that there is a surah in the Qur’an that intercedes for its reciter and forgives its listener. Know! It is Surah Yasin. It is called ‘Mu’amma’ in the Torah. It was enquired, what is Mu’amma? The Prophet SAW said, ‘it embraces the person with the goodness of this world and removes the dismay of the Hereafter’,” (Hashiya of Tafsir Jalalalayn, p. 368).


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Chapter 15: Mudood in I’tikaf

Immediately following is a chapter from ‘Ya Sin, Towards the Heart of the Qur’aan,’ a recently completed story by Umm Muhemmed, which follows from ‘A Qur’aanic Odyssey, Towards Juz Amma’. ‘Ya Sin’ narrates the family’s ongoing journey through the Qur’aan with a focus on Surah Ya Sin, the surah they set out to learn following completion of Juz Amma, throughout the month of Ramadan.  Although each of the chapters are connected, each one may be read as a stand-alone text as well.

Setting: Tuesday morning, home, outside, Ramadhan
Characters: Khadija, Ibrahim, Amna

“So I was thinking I might bring Pinocchio with me,” says Ibrahim.

“What?” I respond, looking up.

“Pinecone…coke…ia,” repeats Amna, assuming I haven’t heard properly.

“Ibrahim, you cannot bring Pinocchio into i’tikaf,” I assert, having heard everything.[1] I am seated outside with the children, who are busy with a small sandbox that Abdurrahman and I assembled over the weekend. Ibrahim is making racing tracks for his small, toy camels, while Amna is enjoying sifting the sand with some of my kitchen utensils that she’s allegedly ‘borrowed’. I have my stack of work papers nearby, but once again am flummoxed with how to make headway, while fasting and taking care of the children.

“Well, then what about The Little Prince? He’s not as mis…chie…vous as Pinocchio,” says Ibrahim slowly. If memory serves me correctly, I taught Ibrahim that word after the third chapter, when we read how the little marionette had started laughing and making fun of Geppetto.[2]

“Ibrahim, not in i’tikaf, baita,” I reassert.

Stuart Little? Peter Rabbit? Charlotte’s Web? The Jungle Book,” he says, reeling off the titles of recent books we’ve either read or planned to read.

“Ibrahim, not in i’tikaf,” I maintain.

“Our pet snail?” says Amna, pointing to the snail they trapped yesterday in the garden, after they found it eating the tomatoes. Presently, ‘Sail’ the snail inhabits a shoebox, replete with lots of tomato leaves, and some mint that the children insisted he would like. I wonder about the diet and the longevity but have succumbed to their desire to keep a pet, particularly if it keeps larger, more complex pets like cats and rabbits, about which they also have been asking, at bay.

Baita, I suppose you could bring Sail, but it’s sort of missing the point,” I explain.

“Ammi, you said we’re supposed to ‘reflect on God’s creation’; those were your words. Sail is part of God’s creation,” says Ibrahim, standing up and walking over to check on the shoebox pet, near the back door, which the children insist gives the snail a view of us when we are indoors and helps it not feel lonely.

“Yes, he is, but if you bring Sail into your thirty minutes of i’tikaf you might start to play with him,” I respond, not quite knowing how to make sense of this last question.

“So what’s wrong with playing with him? He would enjoy it,” says Ibrahim.

“He is a girl,” says Amna with emphasis. “And he is all mine,” Amna also gets up and walks over to join her brother at the backdoor.

I anticipate a fight and so get up from where I am seated. As expected, in the seconds that it takes me to reach the children they have already begun pushing each other.

“Mine,” insists Ibrahim, reaching for the shoebox.

“Mine,” responds Amna, pulling the box back.

Within another second, the box is torn in half. The children had made it a moist environment, softening the cardboard considerably; and so whatever force they both just applied was enough to break the box. Sail, affixed to Amna’s side, appears to remain intact.

“See, mine,” says Amna triumphantly, after recognizing that she has the snail side.

“Ammi, we’re going to lose the snail, and, if we do, the black lizards will eat him,” says Ibrahim, as though his fictitious characters are coming alive, and apparently deeply concerned about the fate of his newfound pet.

“It’s ok, baita, we’ll find another shoebox inshaa Allah, remember we still have your Eid shoes packed away in a box, and then of course, I’m sure there will always be more snails,” I try to reassure.

“Sail is different. I don’t want another snail,” says Ibrahim, more attached than I expected. It would appear that some of the lessons of the recently completed Little Prince actually did reach him.[3]

“Well then, let’s hurry up and make another habitat,” I say, trying to be as responsive as possible. “And in the meantime, why don’t we transfer Sail into a glass jar and put some tin foil on top and…”

“He’ll suffocate,” exclaims Ibrahim.

Baita, let me finish. We’ll poke holes in the foil and that will buy us a little time.”

“Then, will you promise to let me take him into i’tikaf?” persists Ibrahim.

“No, not necessarily. I will, however, try to ensure that nothing happens to him, or her,” I say looking at Amna, “while you are in i’tikaf.” Amna responds by handing me her side of the box, along with Sail. I then open the back door and enter inside, with both children trailing me. I rummage around in our recycling box, in the kitchen closet, and finally find an old achar jar, which I think will work as a temporary home. I give the glass jar to Ibrahim, then, while still holding Amna’s box side, find a small piece of tinfoil that was also discarded in the recycling box.

“Can we transfer him here?” asks Ibrahim, eagerly, holding up the glass jar.

“No, all transfers must happen outside,” I say, wanting to limit the indoor science experiments. “Chalyae,” I then add, turning around and heading outdoors again. Amna opens the door for us, intent to help as well.

“So if I can’t bring anything, then what am I supposed to do?” says Ibrahim, following closely by my side and beginning to resign himself to an i’tikaf without Pinocchio or Sail.

“Ibrahim, give me one minute,” I say as I start to pry the snail off the cardboard wall and slide him into the jar that Ibrahim is still holding, “I actually need to concentrate on just one thing at a time, for a minute, and then I may have an answer for you. Meanwhile, I suggest you pick up that tomato leaf on the ground as your friend may be hungry again,” I point to one of the discarded leaves that fell out after the box broke.

Amna is faster than her brother and reaches down for the leaf. “Here baita,” she says pushing the leaf into the jar and talking to the snail. “Now finish your dinner, all of it.”

I can’t help but smile. I hear in Amna my voice, and Abdurrahman’s, her grandmother’s, and amidst the inaneness of keeping a pet snail, this comment touches my heart.

“Now the tinfoil Ammi, with holes,” cautions Ibrahim, who seems still to be concerned with suffocation.

“It’s coming baita,” I reach for one of my pens that I had on the small table where I was trying to work and make a couple of holes in the tinfoil, and affix it to the top. I then put the snail back down in its previous spot.

“So what’s your answer?” asks Ibrahim, not letting another minute go by.

I sit down slowly, trying to refocus. Intuitively, Amna senses a mini lecture and goes back to her sand play.

“Remember the mudood in Surah Yā Sīn?” I say.[4]

“Yes, I do remember,” says Ibrahim with a sigh of exasperation, “you made me find them yesterday, there are fifteen on page two that I have to hold for four to five counts.”[5]

“Well, what did I tell you about them?” I ask. Meanwhile, I observe Amna starting to sieve the camel tracks her brother made and wonder whether this might be the next conflict.

“If we don’t say them, we could change the meaning of the words, and they are also resting spots for us to think and prepare for what’s coming,” says Ibrahim, demonstrating that the lesson did sink in.

“Exactly,” I say.

“So what does that have to do with me not bringing Sail into i’tikaf?” asks Ibrahim.

“Would you consider sitting in the shade for a minute and thinking about the answer to that question,” I propose.

“Is this a punishment?” inquires Ibrahim.

“No, it’s an opportunity, baita, to find the answer on your own; if there’s one thing I want to teach you, it’s how to look for…”

“Ammi, you are trying to teach us a zillion things, not just one thing,” responds Ibrahim. “If it was one thing, it would be easy, but you’re trying to teach us i’tikaf, and how to cut grapes and all those synonym things, and parables,” Ibrahim races through the list. I am stunned that he has remembered the word for ‘synonym’ and ‘parable’, although we are definitely still working on the concepts.

Ibrahim then gets up and starts walking toward a small piece of shade in our backyard, near his tree-climbing tree. I wonder when the tree will also get a name of its own.

“Ammi, is bhai jaan in trouble?” asks Amna, seeing her brother walk away.

“No, he’s thinking,” I respond.

“What’s thinking?” she asks, though I sense she meant ‘what’s he thinking about.’

“I think he is thinking about how he can use his last 10 days of Ramadhan and those extra quiet times I was explaining to you on Sunday called ‘i’tikaf’,” I say.

“I’m not doing more quiet time,” responds Amna defiantly.

“No, baita, you don’t have to. And it’s not like nap time. You don’t need to lie down and sleep. It’s just time to pray and think and remember Allah Subhanahu wa-ta‘ala,” I say, trying to make some sense of i’tikaf for Amna.  

“It’s not dhuhr,” she says.

“No baita, not now, it’s not dhuhr salah now, and i’tikaf is not exactly salah, but it is like that, quiet time to thank Allah Subhanahu wa-ta‘ala and think how we might improve.”

“Improve what?” says Amna, following more than I expected.

“You, not grabbing,” says Ibrahim, who’s back from his thinking moment in the shade. “Ammi, you know, I got it, but next time, don’t send me away like that. It did feel a little like a punishment.”

“It wasn’t intended to be one, baita,” I say, putting my arm around him.  “So I’m all ears, what did you come up with?”

“You’re not all ears,” says Amna, looking at me, and pointing at my nose.

“It’s an expression, Amna,” says Ibrahim, playing the older and wiser brother. “Ok, so the reason why you don’t want me to take Sail into i’tikaf is because you want me to stop and think and wait like we do with those mudood.”

“And?” I say, pressing for more than just Arabic grammar.

“And if I have Sail I will probably get distracted and forget some of my 15 four to five count mudood,” he adds, taking the point more literally but also showing that he’s got some of it. “I do still think it would be fun to have Pinocchio, not the book, but the actual puppet in i’tikaf. I mean I know he’s naughty and all, but sometimes naughty can be fun.”

“I hear you, baita, although I don’t always agree with you. Now, you do realize that I was trying to work here, before we had this extended interruption with your pet, and I am really trying to send off some documents before my own i’tikaf starts,” I say.
“I think you might want to call Nani, she might be able to help with us,” offers Ibrahim.

“I do too,” I say, finally realizing the limits to my concentration and work. “I know she was going to try to study this week, and she may be helping your Abdullah Mamoo out, but I think I’m going to call her.”

“Does that mean Yaseen is coming over?” asks Ibrahim eagerly.

“It may mean that,” I say, looking down at my watch and also realizing that we have another swimming lesson in forty five minutes. “Ok you two, it’s time to start cleaning up,” I say.

“I’m not done,” responds Amna.

Baita, you can come back to this, later, inshaa Allah,” I respond. Then add, “Ibrahim, do you think we can do the morning suwar in the car on the way?”

“I’m really good at reciting on the go,” he says, smiling.

“A little too good, I’d actually like to see you do a little more sitting,” I respond.

“Bo…ring,” Ibrahim sounds out slowly.

“That’s not true. You remember the flying carpet. We were all sitting, with our imaginations, and it was hardly bo…ring, and remember how you had me sit down at the Museum; I don’t think you’d call that boring.[6] I actually challenge you to remember all our exciting sitting recitation activities, later, though. For now, let’s get the camels back in and then….”

“Hey, who destroyed my tracks?” says Ibrahim, finally seeing Amna’s impact.

“Sail,” says Amna, pointing at the glass container.

“No, you, don’t lie,” responds Ibrahim pointing at his sister, then changing his stance, “but it’s ok, because I’m going to make Sail his new home now. I don’t really care about those baby camels anymore.”

“I do,” says Amna, holding up the camels tenderly.

“So do I,” I say, patting Amna gently on the back and opening up the back door. “And I care about you, and getting to your swimming class, now let’s go get changed.”

“What about Sail?” asks Ibrahim.

“I think he and the camels, and Pinocchio, and The Little Prince, and Stuart Little, and even Charlotte’s Web, will do just fine without us for a couple hours; remember Allah Subhanahu wa-ta‘ala is watching them all,” I say, trying to put an end to this discussion.

“You forgot The Jungle Book,” says Ibrahim, following closely, and getting in the last word. He smiles broadly at me and races inside the house, presumably to look for the other shoebox, before we leave.

[1] The reader may wish to refer to Chapter 14, ‘For Swimming,’ (footnote 73) for a description of i’tikaf, including partial i’tikaf that may be undertaken, especially by children.

[2] Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi was first published as a complete novel in Italian, in 1882, with individual chapters published prior to that date in a Rome-based newspaper in the children’s section. The reference above is to the Penguin Classics edition (1996, p.13). See also The Little Prince by Saint-Exupery, first published in 1943, in French (1995).

[3] After sighting five thousand roses in a garden on earth, the Little Prince reflects on his lone rose on his planet and says the following, “You are beautiful, but you are empty…one could not die for you. To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you—the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen…because she is my rose,” (Saint Exupery, p.82).

[4] As explained in A Qur’aanic Odyssey, Towards Juz Amma, footnote 4, Chapter 34, ‘The Moths’, mudood (plural of madd) is the Arabic grammar terminology referring to the elongation of a letter. The term was first introduced in Chapter 15, ‘From Milk Bottles to Vases, at Asr,’ which also highlighted recycled objects being reused by the family. It should be noted that A Qur’aanic Odyssey, while referencing several grammar exercises and texts (including Towards Reading the Qur’an, Part One and Two), does not provide comprehensive grammar lessons and that the science of tajweed, including the complexity of mudood, should be undertaken with a qualified instructor.

[5] See footnote 1, Chapter 1, ‘The End’ in Yā Sīn, Towards the Heart of the Qur’aan which refers to the fact that the family is primarily using a 15 line Uthmani script mushaf for its hifdh work.

[6] Chapter 22, ‘A Carpet,’ of A Qur’aanic Odyssey, Towards Juz Amma describes a scene where the children, accompanied by Khadija and Nani prepare to ‘fly’ to Doha and back, while seated on their prayer mats, aka flying carpets, and recite Surah Al Qadr (pp.76-79). Chapter 34, ‘Moths’, concludes with Ibrahim and Khadija sitting on a bench at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and reciting (Ibid, p.131-133).

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