Excerpted from ‘Ya Seen: a hifdh journey in America,’
Chapter 4: Sabr & Water

Setting: Saturday afternoon, kitchen, 6th day of Ramadan
Characters: Khadija and Nani, Ibrahim and Amna

“She’s talking a lot on the phone, these days,” I say to my mother, who is sitting next to me at the kitchen table, and point towards Amna.

Next to my mother on the table is a large pile of notes from her geography class last spring which she is attempting to review in preparation for next semester. I, meanwhile, have received my next water assignment and am trying to make sense of some of the documents.

Baita,” my mother says, “she’s just playing. After all, she’s only just turned three. I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”

“Well, I wish she played a bit more with her transportation puzzles,” I respond.

“Let her be, Khadija. And try not to go looking for issues, especially during Ramadan. I think you have enough serious issues to worry about, including that new project in Bihar,” says my mother, glancing at the map I am looking at. [1] “Also, you do realize you are always on your phone.”

“What?” I exclaim in disbelief.  “Ammi, I hardly ever use my phone. I am either working with the children, or preparing food, or trying to squeeze in some water work. I’m hardly chatting. And,” I say, pausing, and putting on my professional hat, “don’t you realize cellular technology is changing the face of development in the third world.”

Ahista, ahista,” responds my mother, patting my hand gently, “no need to react. I never accused you of ‘chatting’ baita and I would hardly dispute what cell phones are doing for development. I simply said you are on your phone. You use it, quite a bit, from my observation, but I stand to be corrected.”

“Ok, I use it a fair amount it. I’ll give you that. I check mail, and …” I begin hesitantly but my mother continues before I can finish.

“Do you think you need to use it as much as you do? I mean if you really want your daughter to focus on transportation puzzles, which again, in my view are not that important, you might want to put your phone down a little,” she advises me gently, her hand still resting on mine.

“Forget the puzzles. We’re obviously talking about me right now,” I say, offended that my mother thinks I overuse my telephone.

“You were driving yesterday, Khadija,” responds my mother.

“And it was an important call,” I assert.

“Khadija, you were driving,” my mother repeats.

“Ammi, we have an hour before I need to start preparing iftar and do a final hifdh review with Ibrahim. The children are finally playing quietly. Could we please park this conversation for another time?” I ask.

Baita, I do not need to have this conversation at all. You commented on Amna’s habits. I in turn commented on yours. You are more adult than your years, and I defer to you on most subjects, including if you wish to check your mail while I am giving you a cooking lesson, as you did yesterday, but I’ll put my foot down on the driving issue,” my mother states. [2]

Finally recognizing my own shortcomings, I reply, “I’m sorry, Ammi. It was work. I’m trying to keep a lot going right now.”

“Yes, but sometimes you can say ‘no’. Or you can wait. Remember Ramadan, baita?” my mother inquires.

“What do you mean?” I say, tensing slightly.

“Patience, sabr, Ramadan. It’s what we’re doing for sixteen hours every day. Learning it and re-learning it. You’re so good at coaching all of us, and yet sometimes it’s hard for you to take the lesson, Khadija,”[3] my mother replies.

“So you think I should give up my phone?”

“No, I think that’s overreacting. I think you should think about an alternative way to use it. Designate a time, and a place and make it safe, baita,” responds my mother, looking at me with a real sense of concern. “You really don’t need to be on call all the time and you might actually feel as though you are juggling less if you do one thing at a time.”

In front of her now, I am like a little girl, but, before I can fully absorb her comment, I hear Ibrahim.

“Ammi, Amna just swallowed my lego and she’s not giving it back!” Ibrahim shouts from the living room.

I stand up, switching gears back into mother-mode, less concerned with the lost lego and more concerned about any associated choking.  Before I can make my way to the children, Amna has run over to me.

“I like it. It taste good,” she says with a smirk, her two pig tails bobbing.

“Amna,” I say, bending over, still quite concerned, and reaching inside her mouth to see if I can retrieve anything. “Baita, we don’t swallow toys. It can be very dangerous.”

“I won’t w-w-womit,” responds Amna.

“No, hopefully you won’t vomit, but you could have been very sick, and it’s not good for Ibrahim, either.”

Ibrahim has since joined me, and is glaring at Amna as though she has stolen something very important.

“Give it back,” demands Ibrahim, raising his voice.

“I eat it,” says Amna, defiantly.

“Alright, everyone,” says my mother, joining me to help mediate. “Amna, I think you should apologize to bhai jaan, please. And then maybe we could find a replacement for him, maybe something that looks and acts a little like a lego.”

“Nani, it was the last black lego. I was almost finished with my castle. And then she had to come along and eat it! There’s no replacement,” Ibrahim fumes.

“Wait a minute, this is Ramadan,” my mother continues, in real instruction mode. “None of us is allowed to be arguing. I certainly don’t want to break my fast with a fight and quite apart from that, your mother and I have some serious work on this table, then some serious food preparation to do. I also think your father might appreciate knowing you helped with the fruit salad, and samosas, especially after he spent a Saturday in the office.  And then I think you have another ayah from Surah Ya Seen to teach me.”

She looks directly at Ibrahim as she speaks, and I’m watching her intently, appreciating how much I can learn from my own mother when I ease off.

“Nani, I am not teaching, I’m learning,” says Ibrahim, trying to correct his grandmother. “Anyway, I already got it this morning, it’s the one about a revelation being sent down.”[4]

“Oh, is it?” responds my mother, “do you remember how it goes?”

“No, I’m too mad at Amna to remember anything right now,” responds Ibrahim.

Baita, please,” I finally interject. “It’s revelation, let’s try to remember our Quran etiquette and speak nicely, despite anything Amna may have done,” Meanwhile, I have started to roll up the water map as I sense there will be no more headway on this particular front today.

“Wait a minute, Ammi, what’s that?” says Ibrahim, catching a glimpse of the map, and momentarily forgetting the ingested black lego.

I grab the opportunity to distract him and move beyond our little conflict. Unrolling the map, I start explaining. “This shows the water supply across Bihar.”

“Bi-mar?” asks Amna.

“Bihar,” I repeat slowly. “Do you realize that most people living in this state of India do not have running water in their homes?”

“Oh, yeah, you told us about that before, at our school,” Ibrahim replies rather dismissively.

“Not really, baita. I mentioned it only in passing. At your school, we focused on water wars and conservation.[5] This map actually shows the whole water supply network. Why don’t you take a closer look?”

“What’s that?” queries Ibrahim, looking hard at the map and pointing to what denotes a central water supply of a village.

“It’s the place where all the villagers go to collect the water,” I answer.

“Even in Ramadan?” presses Ibrahim.

“Yes, baita, but Bihar is mostly Hindu, not Muslim, so people may not be observing Ramadan. There are, however, lots of other areas where Muslims live and still have to fetch water, even when they are tired, thirsty, hot and hungry, in Ramadan.”[6]

“That would be difficult,” says Ibrahim.

My mother nods her head. Amna is looking at each of us, trying to grasp what is being said.

“Thirsty,” Amna finally adds.

“Me too,” is my mother’s response. “But it’s nothing like this.”

My mother points at my map and continues, “I sometimes forget how much we have to be thankful for.”

Looking at the children, she then says, “Now, how about we all help your mother with iftar preparation, and try reciting as we go? We could do those five ayaat of Ya Seen and, then, what do you say Ibrahim, what’s on the review board for today?”

“Ammi wants us to do all the mid-length suwar in Juz ‘Amma, or at least that’s what she said this morning,” responds Ibrahim, looking over at me, for my approval.

Baita, one longer one too, please,” I say, thankful to have my mother at the helm, especially encouraging the children in their hifdh.

I start to pack up my water work, again, in preparation for Quran and cooking, then put my phone up on a shelf, far out of the way.

[1] Approximately 2 percent of the population in Bihar (India) has access to piped water (Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India 2011). A further challenge is the prevalence of contaminated ground water (due to fluoride, arsenic, bacteria and iron), which also impacts the piped water supply (Swasth-Watsan-Bihar 2012).  Although significant gains have been made in the last decade, Bihar also has among the highest concentrations of poor people in India (World Bank 2007; OneWorld South Asia, 2013).

[2] As of 2011, the United States National Safety Council “estimates that at least 23 percent of all traffic crashes – or at least 1.3 million crashes – involve cell phone use per year. An estimated 1.2 million crashes…involve drivers using cell phones for conversations and at least 100,000 additional crashes can be related to drivers who are texting,” (NSC 2011).

[3] Khadija has her first serious soliloquy about ‘sabr’ in ‘Sabr & Cacti’, Chapter 14, (AQO).

[4] Ayah five of Surah Ya Seen is translated as follows, “It is a Revelation sent down by (Him) the Exalted in Might, Most Merciful,” (Abdullah Yusuf Ali 1989:1117). The associated footnote provided is: “The Revelation again is characterised by two attributes which we find most helpful in contemplating about Allah. It has force and power: for Allah is Exalted in Might and able to enforce His Will. And it brings a Message of hope and mercy; for Allah is Most Merciful. By its characteristics we know that the Quran is from Allah,” (n.3945).

[5] See Chapter 36, ‘Super Men and Women,’ (AQO).

[6] For example, in Sudan, a largely Muslim country, 25 percent of the population relies on surface water and 60 percent on wells and boreholes for its water supply, with considerable contaminants in both, i.e. very limited access to clean, piped water supply (World Bank 2011).

Immediately below, find the 14th (of 40) Chapters of A Quranic Odyssey, Towards Juz Amma, entitled: ‘Sabr & Cacti’

Date/place: mid-December, Ibrahim and Amna’s apartment, Houston, mid-morning
Cast of characters: Yasmeen, Khadija, Ibrahim, Yaseen, Amna

“My cactus isn’t growing. Do you think if I added Christmas lights it would grow better, Phuppi jaan?”

“Yasmeen, they’re very pretty, but no, I don’t think Christmas lights will do the trick. I think there’s another vital ingredient that we require.”

“And what would that be?” she asks. Yasmeen and Yaseen are with us for the first day of school holidays. Yaseen and Ibrahim are on the porch, playing their version of Robin Hood; Amna is busy (momentarily) with her legos, which has allowed Yasmeen and me to address her plant issue. About three months ago, just after we arrived in Houston, I gave all the cousins cacti on Eid ul Fitr, thinking they would be a fun gift. Yasmeen has brought her cactus along for the day as she is concerned that it is not growing.

“Ok, so you have been watering it, every couple of weeks?” I ask.

Jee haan. And I even gave it some plant food. I talked to it and placed it near my butterfly collection, for company. I smiled at it, but still, look. It looks exactly how it looked the day you gave it me it. What should I do now?”

Sabr,” I say, slowly.

“Sorry Phuppi jaan. I don’t quite understand. Sabr?”

Just then Ibrahim pops his head in. “Ammi, is Sabir calling from Cape Town?” Last week Ibrahim and Amna’s best friend, Sabir, had called, which may have prompted him to ask the question.

“No baita, it’s not Sabir, but it is something important. Why don’t you and Yaseen come in for a moment? Which one is Robin Hood by the way?”

“We both are Phuppi jaan,” responds Yaseen, “or at least that’s the way Ibrahim wanted to play. He’s Robin, and I’m Hood, and together we’re Robin Hood and we’re very, very good.”

“You’re also rhyming. Ok, come one, come all, you too Amna. I want to talk about sabr.”

“Excuse me,” says Amna, or more audibly ‘skus me’, as she hiccups, and then stands up and walks over to the group. She finds a seat in my lap as the three other children take up the small chairs in our kitchen.

“So what’s the issue?” says Ibrahim, who is quite accustomed to our impromptu lessons.

“Ibrahim, your cousin is concerned that her plant is not growing. Here it is, exhibit A.” I hold up the plant as if we are embarking on a detective story. “She’s done everything she could: food, water, air, entertainment. She’s even considered dressing it up in Christmas lights for the season, right Yasmeen?”

“I never actually considered that. Maybe the cactus is cold. I suppose I could put some cloth around it.”

“Yasmeen, your house is good and warm inside alhumdulilah. I don’t think the cactus is cold,” I respond.

“But why did you say ‘sabr’ Ammi?” Ibrahim asks.

“Well, I think that’s the missing ingredient. Ibrahim do you remember that song I made up when you were a baby?”

“Which one?”

Sabr, sabr, patience, patience, God loves patience,” I sing.

Sabr, sabr, intizar, God loves patience,” adds Ibrahim, finishing off the chorus.

Then Amna, adds, “Falling down, falling down,” the refrain from her favorite song.

“Phuppi jaan, you’ve lost me, this time,” says Yaseen.

“Look, Yasmeen’s cactus may be growing, but we may not have noticed. The plant may be growing, slowly, in ways that only a microscope could pick up. We all want results, fast. In fact, to use an expression your father uses, Yaseen, ‘we want results yesterday’. But life is actually not always that fast. Do you know, the word ‘sabr’, or ‘patience’, is actually mentioned in the Qur’aan approximately 100 times? It is such an important quality, and yet something that is so hard to practice. I, myself, struggle with it all the time. For instance, sometimes I get frustrated with Amna being two and tipping everything over, drawing on the carpet, and hitting Ibrahim. But just think how much she has grown in the last year? And just think what she can do now? Did you all just hear her? She said ‘excuse me’.”

“I know, I know, Amna is growing, and she can say ‘Alaq’ too, but, back on point Ammi; is ‘sabr’ in Surah Al Humazah?”

“You tell me? Isn’t that what you’re working on this week?”

Ibrahim starts to say the surah softly as if scanning for the word ‘sabr’. “I don’t hear it Ammi.”

“You’re right Ibrahim,” confirms his cousin. “Sabr is not in Humazah. In fact maybe that’s one of the things that the people are missing in that surah?”1

“Nice point Yaseen. Inshaa Allah you’ll earn some points in ‘Your Qur’aan Club’ for that one,” I say, applauding my nephew for his insight.

“But Phuppi jaan, I thought we had school holidays now? Why are we doing this, again?”

“Doing what?” I inquire.

“You know, learning more Qur’aan. Aren’t we on holiday?”

“Hmm, yes, you are on school break, but I don’t think this work is too difficult, is it?”

“Yaseen, listen to my Ammi, she’s older than you.” Then Ibrahim adds, “You can read, can’t you?”

“Yes, I can,” says Yaseen confidently.

“Well then, read that,” responds Ibrahim, pointing to a sign we made, which includes post it notes of the titles of our new, recent and old surahs, together with some motivating text. We decorated it and hung it in the kitchen to help us
stay on track.

Cautiously, Yaseen reads out the following: “The heart is soil, knowledge is a plant and revision is water. If no water is given to the soil, the plant will wither and die,” Ja’far as-Sadiq.2

“Ok, so, we’re still at school is what you’re telling me Phuppi jaan, even if it’s ‘Club time’?” says Yaseen.

“If you want to think of it that way, but maybe we could also just consider life as one good, long lesson, punctuated by a lot of experiences. And the Qur’aan is one of the tools that helps us navigate our way through it all. However, whether or not you believe we’re in school right now, it’s time for a stretch. Which one of you is Robin and which one is Hood, again? And Amna and Yasmeen, how about joining the guys for a little game of pretend archery outside?”

“I’m in, but I’m still concerned about my cactus. Maybe I can leave it with you to practice sabr around it for a little while, while I wait. And then maybe after three more months I’ll start to see results.”

“It’s a deal baita,” I say, putting my arm around Yasmeen, picking up Amna and walking toward the door. And then, looking at Yaseen, “Lesson adjourned until tonight.”

“Phuppi jaan, what does that mean?”

“How about we take up the meaning later? Remember you’re done with school for now,” I say, patting Yaseen on the head and opening the door for the eager children.

H i f d h  t e a c h i n g  n o t e

Sabr is not in Humazah. In fact maybe that’s one of the things that the people are missing in that surah?” offers Yaseen to the group of children who are focused in part on Yasmeen’s seemingly stunted plant. In teaching Surah Al Humazah, just as with the other surahs, one may adopt many different approaches. Like Surah Al Masad, the meaning is strong, focusing on punishment meted out to those who backbite and hoard their wealth. As teacher, one could focus on the backbiting and the associated punishment or, as in the case of cousin Yaseen, actually speak about the characteristics that the ‘scandalmonger’ (Humazah) is lacking, such as sabr, taqwah and other spiritually enlightened traits.

1 Surah Al Humazah is translated as ‘The Scandalmonger’ (Abdullah Yusuf Ali 1989, p.1698).
2 Cited in Londt (2008, p.41).

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