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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