Hope in Surat al-Hajj

The metaphors that the Qur’an uses for shirk (idolatry) will often stand out for me, so that after I read a sura, the one verse that mentions idolatry stays hanging in my mind. This was my experience with reading Surat al-Ra’d (The Thunder): the verse there reads:

To Him is the call of truth; and those upon whom they call, apart from Him, answer them nothing, but it is as a man who stretches out his hands to water that it may reach his mouth, and it reaches it not. The prayer of the unbelievers goes only astray. (Verse 14, Arberry translation)


It has happened to me again with Surat al-Hajj (The Pilgrimage). This is the verse:

Whoever associates anything with God—it is as though he has fallen from the sky, and is snatched by the birds, or is swept away by the wind to a distant abyss. (Verse 31, Itani translation)


My first hypothesis about this kind of verse, is that it referred to an utter lack of consequence: an inability to make any difference to anything, because of hoping for the wrong things—things that in themselves are illusions. Let us say, for example, an image of domestic bliss in Better Homes and Gardens. The person working towards such a goal, at the end of their life, would find nothing, because what they worked for does not exist in the way they imagined. In that sense, their hard work is seen to have amounted to nothing. (I think of Surat Ibrahim here: “The likeness of those who disbelieve in their Lord: their works are as ashes, whereon the wind blows strong upon a tempestuous day; they have no power over that they have earned – that is the far error!” (Verse 18, Arberry translation)).


Surat al-Hajj presents me with another metaphor that I like, that of the earth joyfully breaking into green. Verse 5 makes an explicit link to resurrection: such breaking forth into green is a proof that God can resurrect our bodies. But the idea of green breaking out is repeated again in verse 63, so that the idea of green “hangs over” the whole sura. Perhaps the metaphors of green and of shirk are related?


What is arresting about the green verses is their joy: to make an argument for resurrection, there is no need to describe the green as “joyous” (Verse 5, Arberry translation).


Therefore my second hypothesis about shirk: it is the opposite of joy. Perhaps falling in the sky or into an abyss (verse 31) represents a disconnection from everything.


A strong connection to everything would be something like this: you are happy that the grass can grow again, because the force that runs through the grass is something that runs through you too. To grow again, or to have hope, is to realize that underneath the rubble of false hopes, is a simple and honest breath of God. Something given to you, that you are not responsible for creating, but that comes again and again by itself, like the grass after rain.


On the occasion of the conquest of Makkah (20 Ramadan)

Al Rahman mosque, Aleppo

Al Rahman mosque, Aleppo


When I lived in Aleppo, I liked to attend evening prayers in the Rahman mosque because of one verse in the Qur’an. It included the words that God addresses to Moses, “And I spread over you love from me and so that you might be formed under my eye” from the beginning of Ta-Ha, which the imam at the Rahman mosque often read. They helped me, as an unemployed and not-qualified-for-much young man, to imagine that I was a lesser Moses. That my troubles were worthwhile, that they were forming me, qualifying me, for something great.

It might have been delusional, or presumptuous, to think of myself as a kind of Moses, but I don’t think that it was. In the last verse of Surat al-Fath, we see that all believers are a project for God, a crop of tall and sturdy plants.

With the conquest of Makkah, the believer plant has grown to its full height. But Surat al-Fath celebrates the event, as well as, more especially, the qualities that make that growth possible: the water, which God “sends down” to the believers. What God sends down is sakina, serenity.

The word sakina appears three times in the sura, taking on a number of meanings. Some have to do with the conduct of the believers in the short span of time that includes the battle and its aftermath. There, the believers have cool heads, as opposed to hot-headed hamiyya. But there is also a long span: the time that the plant needs to grow, the lifetime of the plant. Reading the last verse of the sura, we can even imagine the plant continuing to grow over the course of centuries.

In this long span of time, sakina translates into something like faith in what is small, early, un-proven. Without this kind of faith, nothing can grow, and that may be why the hypocrites, those who would not side with Muhammad when his victory was uncertain, are called “an unfruitful people” (“qawman bura”).

We see further that the faith in the small amounts to faith in God himself. The hypocrites who did not side with Muhammad are also described as having “bad thoughts about God.” They thought that God does not help anyone: or certainly not the weak.

Abdal Hakim Murad (Timothy Winter) sees a parallel between those hypocrites and today’s fundamentalists. The latter’s belief that God has abandoned the world, means that they will not cooperate with anyone: there is nothing worth cooperating on. There are no good seeds and no good soil: nothing will grow. About what is small, early, tentative, God is indifferent. Until he sees results, he doesn’t care. That is a reason, Murad believes, that the fundamentalists will use immoral means to obtain their ends. And the end is to simply begin again, from scratch. But what kind of growing will you do, when you don’t have sakina? Will you just mushroom overnight? The hoped-for perfect Islamic state ends up being not so perfect. Then begins the further hypocrisy, of pretending that it is.

There is a lesson there, Murad believes, for Muslims living in Western societies. In these societies, there are worthwhile causes everywhere that need our cooperation. To demand that our actions be certified as “Islamic,” or to demand the umbrella of an “Islamic State” before we accept to begin doing anything—to begin treating people like our neighbour, and caring what happens to them—parallels the refusal of the hypocrites to help Muhammad because he had not been “proven” a winner. It is to act as if God is indifferent to the world as it currently happens to be. The opposite, sakina, would be to have the confidence to deal with the world as you find it, knowing that God knows that you are taking his side. And that you are not afraid to wait.





Letter to Afaf



Dear Afaf, how are you there where you are,

after so much hard travelling,

riding a bed of pain the length of a century,

dragging with you your frail body

and Nabila?

I am still here,

and here there is still a smell from you,

a salt breeze, and the sweetness of plumeria.

What else? I can see your house,

a long glare of afternoon sun

or a burning at dusk, a naked bulb

thick with moths.

I see it despite everything:

and that is my latest

definition of reading.

Old mosques and new mosques


A mosque is old if the clogs are a white, parched wood. Out of charity you wash your feet in them, for what is better than to give water to the thirsty? New mosques have not suffered the sun. Nor are their minaret steps worn so thin, you have to walk on air before you find the stone.

An old mosque has a creaky wooden cabinet that you can open, and hold the soul of the mosque in your hands. It is a tattered Qur’an left by someone hoping for forgiveness. In new mosques, the Qur’ans are a gift of Saudi Arabia.

Bring your dusty bales and bundles to an old mosque, and pile them in a corner while you decide where to shift them. These mosques are roomy and not fastidiously clean. No one will demand to know what you are carrying. Of course you are a traveller and this is where travellers come to water and rest. Stretch out your feet, and marvel at the long lines the calligrapher made. Who to understand grace better than the dishevelled?

In the old mosque, talk about a sore hoof. Or what greens to pick in spring, or how to read the winter sky. Talk about how you got sick, and where you stopped, and how long you waited for a caravan. In the new mosque, travel alone by rocket.


The purposes of Moseses




Is it possible that when God, after giving him the miracle of the staff and the hand, promised Moses that he would show him his biggest signs (“That We may go on showing you Our greater signs,” Ta-Ha 23)—is it possible that his encounter with Pharaoh was one of those signs?

After all, the staff and the hand were the kinds of sign that impress a Pharaoh. So what kind of sign would impress a Moses?

But signs are not just to impress. They make us think, and they make us understand. Perhaps because Pharaoh was obsessed with power, the signs were about power, a reminder to Pharaoh of his ultimately limited power. In the case of Moses, who was willing to think and understand, what were those mysterious “biggest signs”?

When God tells Moses about what he has given him, and takes Moses back to the story of his birth and upbringing, he tells him that he covered him with love, and constantly watched over him as he was being “made,” being formed (“And I loaded on thee love from Me, and to be formed in My sight,” Ta-Ha 39). God was giving Moses an education.

Reading the story, we can get the impression that Moses’ formation, his being made a man and a prophet, has its high moment in the encounter between Moses and Pharaoh. Moses was being made ready for this.

But Pharaoh will not be impressed with Moses. Was it then a waste, to watch over Moses? What was the point of making Moses? Or Moseses?

In the last three pages of Ta-Ha, we can read what it is like to be the opposite of a Pharaoh. It is many things, but one of them is this: It is to be content, and with small things. To praise God. To say that God is good, and life is good. (“So bear patiently what they say, and celebrate the praises of your Lord before the rising of the sun, and before its setting. And during the hours of the night glorify Him, and at the borders of the day, that you may be satisfied,” Ta-Ha 130).

After you have gone to Pharaoh, your business is to be un-pharaoh-like. Your education continues. (“and say, “My Lord, increase me in knowledge,” Ta-Ha 114).