By Ahmed Zaafran
Certainty. It is what we seek as humans to offset the inconsistencies of our lives. Fortunately, when we experience anxiety due to the unknowns that occupy our minds and hearts, we have the necessary tool, the Qur’an, to navigate us in the direction of providence. Nearly 10 years ago, I began medical school in Grenada, the West Indies. I was not sure what I wanted to do with my life. I did not know what direction my life would go; whether I could complete my studies, whether I was ready for marriage, or whether my relationship with Allah, subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He), was something I was content with.
One of my favorite spots in Grenada was right outside the anatomy lab. The lab sits atop a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, and I would stand there in awe, taking in the seemingly endless ocean as it met the horizon. The sea was characteristically still but its endless stretch into the horizon embodied the limitations of our senses. I could hear the waves beat the shore in a gentle, rhythmic drum.
Prophet Abraham’s (as) Encounter
Reflecting on Grenada’s ocean waves reminded me of a passage in the Qu’ran where the Prophet Abraham, alayhi as-salaam (peace upon him), is reflecting upon Allah’s (SWT) signs, such as the sun, the moon, and the stars. For him, the celestial structures gave him peace in a world that couldn’t always be understood; one riddled with people who didn’t share his values, primarily monotheism:
“And thus did We show Abraham the realm of the heavens and the earth that he would be among the certain. So when the night covered him [with darkness], he saw a star. He said, “This is my lord.” But when it set, he said, “I like not those that disappear.” And when he saw the moon rising, he said, “This is my lord.” But when it set, he said, “Unless my Lord guides me, I will surely be among the people gone astray.” And when he saw the sun rising, he said, “This is my lord; this is greater.” But when it set, he said, “O my people, indeed I am free from what you associate with Allah. Indeed, I have turned my face toward He who created the heavens and the earth, inclining toward truth, and I am not of those who associate others with Allah.” And his people argued with him. He said, “Do you argue with me concerning Allah while He has guided me? And I fear not what you associate with Him [and will not be harmed] unless my Lord should will something. My Lord encompasses all things in knowledge; then will you not remember?” (Qur’an, 6:75-80)
Abraham (AS) used Allah’s (SWT) signs to navigate through the questions of his existence. He utilized the tools of the seen world as a portal into understanding the celestial realm and directed his questioning as a guide towards understanding the divine. Allah (SWT) graced him with intuitive inquisitive thought; and He answered him in ways that he could understand. These signs exist for us well. They may be used as a spiritual compass so long as we realize that the path is ultimately to Allah (SWT).
However, in a full reversal of perception, it didn’t take too long for those gentle waves to turn into ferocious towers of water. I didn’t expect what happened during that first year on the island.
Having Faith in Allah’s (SWT) Signs
It was Autumn 2004. We were just beginning our medical studies, and we were completely engrossed in our work. Word came that a hurricane was brewing in the Caribbean Sea, but the likelihood of it hitting Grenada was slim to none. We did not pay much attention to the warning and went about our routine; studying followed by more studying. Later that evening, we were told that the next day’s classes would be canceled given the slight chance the hurricane would take a turn for Grenada. We took the rare opportunity to put down our books, hunker down in our dorms, and enjoy the night hanging out.
By early morning, we turned on the television and received a rude awakening. Ivan had changed course and his eye was heading for the center of Grenada.
Given the unexpected turn of events, my friend Taha and I drove over to a spot where we could grasp the power of what was happening. Waves were smashing into the coast ferociously, and the locals were busy protecting their windows with wooden panels. Feeling overwhelmed and knowing that we were in the midst of Allah’s (SWT) power, we did what felt natural. We stayed right where we were, and we prayed.
Once the hurricane struck, we spent an entire night challenged by window-shattering wind, sheets of rainfall, and a home flooded to our knees with water. We all felt an ominous vulnerability that night. When would someone come to help us? Did we have enough food to last more than a week? Could we protect ourselves from imminent danger? It is when you are alone in an uncertain world that you realize only Allah (SWT) is the Comforter. Praise Allah (SWT), we worked together to endure the night and the few days following, and we established a community to help ourselves and local residents recover from the storm.
Seeing Faith in the Stars
One of the main unexpected blessings that took place following the hurricane was the lack of light pollution. The entire island lost its power in the aftermath of the hurricane. I remember going down to the beach situated near our dorms the night before our departure from the island. The sand was characteristically black and silky, a far cry from the sandy beaches I was accustomed to back home. My friends and I had started a campfire, and we took time to reflect upon the days and nights we had gone through since the hurricane. As I lay down on the sand, without the artificial bulbs veiling the heavens, I was able to visualize something entirely unique and wondrous.
The sky above was a back-lit canopy of red, white, purple, and blue. Stars were clustered into perfected formations; branches extending from the trunk of the universe pushing the boundaries of what I knew existed. Feeling entirely vulnerable and insignificant within Allah’s (SWT) realm, I remembered an often-cited verse from Surat Noor in the Qur’an:
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light. Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah is Knowing of all things. (Qur’an, 24:35)
I came to the realization that we are not so different than Abraham (as) in our quest. We all yearn for certainty, but that only comes to those who actively seek it. Muslims around the world are feeling uncertain and vulnerable, particularly at a time when the violent actions of others are heavily portrayed as the norm. But we don’t have to despair. We should look to God (swt) and His signs as our bearing point. We must continue on our journey, leading with good character and positive energy. We must be honest with our weaknesses and ourselves both individually and collectively. Only then can we improve.
Savoring that last night on the island, enamored by the stillness of the ocean, and the universe glistening above, l laid on the beach, and I closed my eyes. When I opened them, I felt some certainty in an uncertain world.