“Behold, We shall bestow upon thee a weighty message (and,) verily, the hours of night the mind most strongly and speak with the clearest voice, whereas by day a long chain of doings is thy portion. But (whether by night or by day) remember thy Sustainer’s name, and devote thyself unto Him with utter devotion. The Sustainer of the east and the west (is He): there is no deity save Him: hence, ascribe to Him alone the power to determine thy fate.” [73:5-9]
1) a: a watch formerly kept on the night before a religious feast with prayer or other devotions
b: the day before a religious feast observed as a day of spiritual preparation
c: evening or nocturnal devotions or prayers — usually used in plural
2) the act of keeping awake at times when sleep is customary; also: a period of wakefulness
3) an act or period of watching or surveillance
Origins (Wikipedia mode: ON): From the Latin vigilia, meaning “wakefulness.”
My muses sing to me this Ramadan, keeping me awake, filling my mind’s inner most inkwell, sharping the quill, preparing the parchment, the papyrus, the paper, the electrons on my computer screen. The heavens orbit above me as I perform my vigils, the massive celestial bodies trekking on their assigned course, not to deter one nanometer, but only to obey the One who sent their paths in the first instance before Time itself came into being. In a fashion similar to that of my gaseous, cosmic brethren in the dark heavens, I take to walking the dark asphalt roads, a peripatetic once more, thinking about my own orbit, my own path, and where it has lead me thus far in the short journey that is my life, and, most importantly, about where I’m headed next.
Each step is as a prostration, a sajdah, save with my feet; and with each sajdah upon the asphalt or grass or concrete, I’m driven back along the trajectory of my orbit, back to pivotal decisions, back to life choices, as if God is turning back the very hands of Time. I see, for example, the desiccated body of my mother, intubated, a large tube sprinkled with yellow mucous and phlegm going down her throat, breathing with the help of a respirator, withering away on a hospital bed. I see the priest, an old, quiet but loving man, giving her the Anointing of the Sick sacrament with holy oils and water, but she is unconscious and doesn’t feel his hands make the sign of the Cross on her forehand. I can see myself sitting in a chair at her bedside, trying to cry, but somehow unable to do so because I know deep down what’s about to transpire in a few hours, as if I could see the Angel of Death Izrāʾīl (Azrael) slowly pulling my mother’s soul from her body or the ferryman Charon carry her soul across the river Styx. I see her at the wake, her body exsanguinated and filled with formaldehyde. I see the casket being closed and lowered into the earth. Then it’s done.
I wonder if her journey to the barzakh, the isthmus between the dunya and the akhira, the life of the grave, will be one of torment and despair, since she never accepted Islam and since I never wanted her to accept Islam because of my disappointment in the Muslims; or one of forgiveness, both for her and me. These thoughts haunt me, even though she’s been gone for almost a year now. You could say, “the affair is dead and done, Anthony. Get the fuck over it already, would ya?!” and you’d be right; but your correctness is irrelevant, you see. Despite the elapse of time, perceived guilt and thoughts of inadequacy can spread in one’s psyche like the cancer which metastasized in my mother’s body.
And each step is as bowing, ruku’, save for while walking; and with each ruku’, I’m transported back to high school, those awkward years of self-discovery and bad acne from working at evil, greasy McDonald’s. I survey my career choices, prepare for my sojourn into the “real world.” I’m a bright, pensive, shy teenager with a propensity for both numbers and letters, equations and words, a rare combination. I coquette with celibacy, poverty, and priesthood because I don’t know yet what a Muslim is, the wealthy seemed to all be morally bankrupt (indeed, in most cases, not far from the truth), and marriage seemed to spawn nothing but unhappiness and unwanted children – “mistakes,” they called us. History, philosophy, English literature are my first choices, but instead of following my first mind, I decide to study engineering because, although I admire the priests and nuns for their austere lifestyles, I ultimately fear poverty and the ghettos I crawled out of. I figure if I study what I love, I’ll find myself back in the position I most feared.
And so, I go with it. I fool myself but without regret. I do everything they tell me to do to be successful: I mask my Southern dialect and talk “like them;” I study the physics of the nucleus, of subatomic particles, of fission reactors; I become what most people have difficulty even pronouncing, including our former President George Bush (who I’m convinced was an idiot); I get the engineer’s job, the plush cubicle facing nothingness and fake walls; I grab success but happiness, fulfillment, and purpose – greatness, as it were – remain elusive.
I wonder if I wasted my time, if perhaps it would have been better served in the pursuit of becoming a scholar of letters and ideas as opposed to equations. I compare myself to my peers, who all appear to have found their places in this world already, while I tarry to and fro, like a decapitated chicken. You could say, “the affair has already been decided, Anthony. Move on, would ya?!” and you’d be right; but your correctness is irrelevant really. To know where you are going, you first have to you where you’ve been, and mostly importantly, why you’ve been, else the same story is doomed to be told and retold, again and again.
And each step is as the tashahhud, save while silent; and with each utterance, I look at skin, the merest reflection of the heavens above me, and the chip on my shoulder because of it. I see old White ladies clutching their purses and old White men grasping their wallets in their pockets as my mother and I walk through the supermarket. I hear the fourth grader at the bourgeoisie Catholic school yell at me, calling me a “slave.” I moreover hear the voice of that White lady who told my mother that my high school must have “lowered the standards” when she caught wind that I was the valedictorian of my class. I look into the eyes of my grandfather, who is eighty-three years old and who says, when I ask him about race and when I ask him if things are getting better, “It ain’t gettin’ no betta. Gettin’ worse in fact. Look at what they did to that man in Mississippi. Don’t let’em fool ya. Cause nowadays they just hide it, cover it up, ya see.” I think of Muslims, and my utter disappointment in them for their traditional predilections for lighter skin, among other things (classism, patriarchy, cultural hegemony, the list goes on).
The affair, I know, has already been settled in heaven and in eternity, so I don’t need to hear anything from anyone. I don’t wonder about what if would be like being White or White-looking or any of that crap. I don’t wonder what the true Muslim ideal would be like or any of that nonsense. I only wonder what it would be like to not be so hung up on race and my Blackness.
It is these things, and so much more, that I discuss within myself this Ramadan, my apprehensions of future, my personal failures, my misgivings: those very things which ail my consciousness. I place them before my Lord on these starry nights in all the humility I can muster, saying all the while, “O My Sustainer! Did I do the right thing? Did I err? Won’t you relieve of these things?” I don’t expect answers, at least not now. And yet I pray to my Lord that He assuages their impact on my mind and lays them to rest so that I can move on. These days of fasting, these nights of contemplation have brought me closer to my desired goal: a nafs free from this strife.
As I’ve said once before, I don’t always have control over what I write, over what thoughts which speed through my mind: they just come sometimes, with no rhyme or reason; they have a life, a temperament, a consciousness all their own, as unique as one’s finger print and yet as indicative of circumstances which engendered them as an automobile collision. And why should there always be a reason? World affairs pierce the very panoplies of meaning we construct to make our world seem reasonable, seem logical, like a skilled fencer with an estoc. We are forced to casted down our supports, those things we lean on, and they in turn can become amorphous, slithering like a snake, much like God made Prophet Moses discard his staff, only to transform it into a serpent.
“Now, what is this in thy right hand, O Moses?”
He answered: “It is my staff; I lean on it; and with it I beat down leaves for my sheep; and (many) other uses have I for it.”
Said He: “Throw it down, O Moses!”
So he threw it – and lo! it was a snake, moving rapidly. [20:18-20]
Perhaps Allah gives us a staff, just so that we can learn to throw it down.