I am writing to you because you are my only family member that whispers salawat on the Prophet when I say his name, like clouds aching towards birds, with joy. I am writing to you because I wish I could tell you where it hurts. I am writing because our memories, our taqdirs, are tangled, twisted, breathless at each other. I am writing because the love between a nephew and his uncle is sacred, like the breath of Jibrail at dawn. I am writing because the Prophet, tearfully joyful blessings cradle his soul, marched to his uncle Abu Talib, in the parched deserts of Hijaz. ‘Azrāīl, soul-snatching angel, gripped his mother’s soul, leaving the Prophet parentless. But the Prophet had his uncle—and he wandered to him. So here I come to you.
To go to your uncle in grief is to practice a sunnah—prophetic act.
I am writing because your own uncle fled a house so cruel to him, never to return—he once wrote a letter to his little sister, your own phuppu: Don’t come and find me. The oak-brown letter was stamped from Delhi. Because to find someone is to confess all their faults. But here I am confession-giving to you. Will you come and find me?
I am writing to you because the wounds from Partition, the train from Amritsar to Lahore, won’t heal and I don’t know what to do—no, not like you. Write down my history. Let it seethe. Let it feel. Let it be yours. Let it remain ours, as it was when we approached, hearts sinking in our hands, the Ottoman stone-cold Cave of the Patriarchs, in Palestine, tomb of the father of Prophets, Ibrahim, on a tyrannical summer day, in July, driving from Jerusalem, from the very spot where Umar ibn al-Khattab possessed the city. And how we didn’t visit the grave of Ibrahim’s nephew, Lut, buried just a few feet away, jutting Hebron. Abed, did you know we hear more of Ibrahim and his nephew, than Ibrahim and his son, in the Quran? I ask that you see me as you always have. You once said to never use adverbs unless they were necessary. Now, I come and ask you: what is more necessary than me writing this?
I write because our lives are marked with such different shades, even though we share the same cold blood of Hyderabad, of Aurangzeb spending sleepless nights camped outside of Golconda. You once asked me, in a glitzy donut shop in San Jose off 680, to tell you about Madrasa. Before that, your older sister had interrogated my older sister why I pulled your coat so often, why I arrived at your threshold. So here I am. But I need to tell you from the beginning.
Say! your Lord knows more about who is guided and who has knowledge of the life-after.
I will say my first memory of you—I laugh when I say first, because our memories are not organized by chronology, but by grief—is when you came to visit California in 1999, with your father and your deceased uncle’s wife. I had nothing besides some surahs memorized from the last chapter of the Quran. I was five—that is to say, all I had was revelation. And you began to make cartoonish faces, puffing up your cheeks and pillow-casing your ears, and I bounced up and down, giggling—not so different than now when you say something wry and I contort in joy, twenty years later. But what you didn’t know, amid my bouncing, was that Seema Baji, your own cousin, while I clutched her hand the day before, dressed in a white Tommy Hilfiger blazer, when you arrived at the oak-covered apartment complex of my grandmother, had said to me: you’re going to ditch me for Abed, aren’t you? How she knew my heart branched to, with, and for you, without my allusion to it—though I didn’t even know how to read. In Urdu, your father’s sister later called it “dil ki baatein.”
And Ibrahim said: Will you debate me of Allah whilst He has guided me! Your lord and my lord.
And we granted Ibrahim: Ishaq and Yaqub! and we guided all of them!
And we delivered Ibrahim (and his nephew) Lūt to Jerusalem!
So let me begin again. Our tangled story begins so much earlier—do I start when your grandfather Ghulam Jeelani was born? Or when he, in Hyderabad, held his first born, post-Partition baby: Hasan, named after the Prophet’s first grandson, only to see him wane away into death, which is to say, tawakkul on God. Or perhaps when his wife, your own dadi, Tahira Sultana, that is, the Pure Empress in Arabic, on vacation to Ajmer, died, where Mughal king Akbar once bowed to Moinuddin Chishti for a baby boy—his wife Mariam barren then. Five kids scampering across leaping hills that tower over the white-orange shrine of the Sufi. To then hear the news of the pure empress, Tahira, slipping her arms in embrace with maut, death! Ajmer: where Akbar, grandson of Babur, gained a boy, and where my grandmother was robbed of her mother by the death-angel. And isn’t this the miracle of the Sufis? So, Abed, here I begin. I commence with “b” as Allah opened the Quran with bismillah, and Rumi opened with bishno! “Listen” in Persian.
Listen to how the reed tells its tale.
From separation: see how it complains? Listen!
Are you listening, Abed?
How will you remember? Isn’t the whole Quran so that we remember? Is not the Quran called a zikr, a remembrance?
You must know this already, but every grief is connected to another grief, like green waves raging against each other. Have you ever seen just one wave? God forgive you.
Abed, why is it every time we begin a story, we ruin it? Is it because we erase everything before it, the mothers and the fathers, the angels on their shoulders, studiously jotting? Why is it so we want to imperil stories? Is it because we want to write ourselves? But here I am writing you.
Do you remember when five kids: Shakir, the grateful, your father; Hamid, praiser; Muhammadi, of Muhammad, my grandmother; Atiyya, a divine gift; Mazhar, manifestation of godly light, clutched their father’s hand, not in Arabia, but in Ajmer, only a few years after Partition. Five kids swinging the hand of one whose name means “the servant of Jeelani.” Abed, why is it that in Iran and Morocco they howl “Ya Jeelani,” for aid but your father and my grandmother held the very hand of a Jeelani and received no angels. Answer this. I don’t have answers. I don’t dream anymore. I can only think of what the servant of Jeelani said—what he could only say—to his five kids upon his wife’s demise: “We’re going home” Hum ghar jaarain. And the train rustled back to Hyderabad. Back home; five kids meditating on the death of their mother. Mazhar never came back.
Abed, will you come home?
Did you know when the Hebrew prophet Moses bubbled, wooden cradled, across the Nile, all he had was his sister? How his mother sent his older sister to footstep this baby Hebrew-prophet. An older sister overlooking a prophet! On the shaky banks of Egypt, drifting with driftwood. Allah said “qussih” follow him, but did you know the verb to follow and the noun for a story—qissa—are the same in Arabic? Because to follow is to tell a story. So, Abed, here I am storytelling you and me. And the baby prophet floated into the camphor arms of Asiya, wife of Firawn. And she said, Allah quotes in Surah Qasas, the chapter of stories, “La taqtuluh” Don’t kill this baby. A joy for us. I know that after I relinquished Madrasa, you often said of me to other family who relinquished me: “A joy for us.” Will you listen to this story? That is, will you follow me to Pharoah’s palace to make sure I reach Asiya’s arms?
Do you remember when we elbowed into a Palestinian taxi in West Jerusalem, setting off for Prophets? I told you “We’re going to the grave of a Prophet” and you immediately dressed up, all 6’3 of you rising. The heat scorching the hills of Palestine into mirages. We snaked around the red sandhills that the Prophet soared over from Mecca, with only his zam-zam heart and his buraq—thunder-steed—and all you had in your hand was a sunken water bottle, the sun lashing us. We stopped on the outskirts of a slipshod sign displaying JERICHO: OLDEST CITY IN THE WORLD. You and I did not believe in time, just the Prophet, even then. We exited and it was Nabi Musa’s grave, at the crest of a crimson mountain. The prophet most mentioned in the Quran, and here we were! No not there. After passing oxen-blood hill after hill, ravines sneaking in the middle, we were led into a miniature-esque courtyard of bushes and roses, small domes peppering the mausoleum. A kid, likely autistic, you and I suspected, was the tombkeeper, the timekeeper. He could only speak by jerking his head and with guttural Arabic sounds. He held the clacking keys to the grave of Prophet Musa. We stepped in, and other Palestinians streamed in, and we prayed Zuhr, and then we arched to the green-laced grave of Musa, king of prophets, ancestor of Jesus, of David, of Solomon, and uncle to the Prophet. I say again: Musa was an uncle to our Mustafa, through the brother relations of Ismāʿīl and Ishāq. We learn in Bukhari that when the Prophet soared from Arabistan into Palestine, across Jordan and the rolling sands of Northern Arabia, he saw Musa standing in his grave, praying, bowing, kneeling. A nephew who saw his uncle kneeling. And here I saw you praying. We asked the gatekeeper, a mere child, if we could enter the enclosure of Musa, and he shook his head, unable to speak. Musa was Kalīmullāh, the speaker-to-God. To guard Musa, then, is to be left voiceless, speechless, breathless. How can you gatekeep one who spoke to Allah? You and I stood speechless at the tomb of the uncle of the Prophet.
Peace be upon Musa! Peace be upon Musa! But you already know that, Abed.
Let me start again. That is, let me tell you where it hurts. Let me be a cypress tree for you. A metered poem of Rumi, a flame of Tabriz, a candle of Musa’s mother, a prayer on a tongue. Let me be singing stars beyond the universe, near the second heaven, where Prophet Musa welcomes you.
Musa, Musa, we have chosen you, we have elected you, we will watch.
Gorgeous are the mothers of prophets. Gorgeous are the daughters of prophets.
The day before I would commit to five years in South Africa, I creaked outside my home and cut to a beaten path near my wooden gate in Fremont. I crouched and called your older brother. Salams, Amer Bhai, you are the only family member who left America to study Arabic, and I wanted to share with you I’ll be moving to South Africa to study in a Madrasa. Nobody else from my family knows-just you and my grandmother. A memento of Ghulam Jeelani, I later thought. And there began my relationship with an uncle, qarāba we say in Arabic, from qurb, that is closeness, related to qurban, sacrifice.
Because to be close to your family is to sacrifice yourself. Isn’t that what I’m doing right now, Abed?
Over the next years, month to month, on a payphone, in a booth swelling with students from Thailand and Malaysia, I would call your brother, a joy from home, him planning out what life might hold after Madrasa—would I be an Imam or reenter school? I could often hear how he throbbed with concern and grief for the future, that is, the afterlife of the family, the after-death. How that same fikr, thought in Arabic, but concern in Urdu, helped to plow through in Madrasa, on those distant days, Arabo-Islamic manuals splattered before me, laboring to answer the question: Why am I here? But what I didn’t know is you would step in, as I made my return to Madrasa, eight years later. That year, my year of Bukhari, the final year of Madrasa, I would sit, my knees like two levers, one up and one down, through ten-hours of just the Prophet’s words: Qal rasullullah, we wept over and over and over. The Prophet said. The Prophet said. The Prophet said, we recited in Arabic from after-morning till after-evening. But, Abed, what you didn’t know was that even as we moored tear-sensitive page after page, Bukhari heading after Bukhari heading: the Book of Revelation, the Book of Saying Salam First, the Book of Duah Before You Sleep, the Book of Salman the Persian, the Book of Maryam, the Book of the Grandchildren of the Prophet, I anchored myself in our phone call that we made every Saturday.
That is: Why is it when we read through hundreds of prophetic reports, I landed in you? When they confiscated my phone, you called me through a Zambian roommate’s flipphone. Above your commitments to your parents, your company, your siblings, your self, your heart, your older brother. There I crouched against a steel railing, like I did years ago with your own brother, white-kurta’d Madrasa students sauntering on brick, and burnt field as far as the nose could smell. A nephew in glazed wait for his uncle. Saaleh, did you need me to send you any books, you asked so softly. And I might be able to come to your graduation in South Africa. Let me try to move some things around.
Once, when I was lecturing on Iqbal and Rumi, a hesitating, grey dupatta-hanging Pakistani grandmother asked me about the Orientalist notion that Rumi was queer for his Sufi-master, Shams Tabrizi. How Rumi had penned thousands of ghazals in Persian, head-lost across summers and winters in Seljuk Konya, titling his volume Divān-I Shams Tabrīz. Rumi’s pen name was Shams Tabriz, and with it, he signed off every lyrical ghazal. That in this world the only human who knew Khuda and his Prophet was Shams Tabriz, Rumi had wept in Persian:
“Come, Shams Tabriz, the whole world is dark, and you lit it on fire. You are the sun, Shams.”
How British scholars reading the simmering love of an old Mufti like Rumi for Shams, they judged it as carnal. How could a legal scholar love a man as hotly as Rumi trembled for Shams Tabrizi, and it not be strange? But in Islam a man could love a man, more than his own self, and it didn’t need to be carnal. Isn’t that what Muslims have enacted for the Prophet—a thousand years and more? Upon hearing the question, I looked down and thought for a moment, and turned to the crestfallen, country-fallen Pakistani grandmother, and I said: Do you know how much Sayyiduna Abu Bakr loved the Prophet? They could never understand that. She nodded so solemnly that a church could have fallen, crashing down on all of us.
Did you know I would love you this much?
After my third year in South Africa, years of cracking through medieval manuals on Islamic law and arcane grammar books of Arabic, my parents came, spending half of the Ramadan with your parents. You and I hailed from such various worlds then: You were building your company in healthcare, I a scrappy Madrasa kid from South Africa. We had never had a real conversation till then; how could we? You were eight years my senior and my life had only known Madrasa, yet still blood remained. Over Iftar, in your living room after the late-night prayers, on bulb-grey leather couches that screamed memories, we spoke one night much past vigil-prayers. And as we went through the social platitudes of an uncle and a nephew, one night you drove me to the city, and not being able to locate any restaurants open, we decided on a McDonald’s—as cars sped past us, the McDonald’s signs shocking blue and green. And as we deliberated over what to order, in that hesitation, you—with unordinary tenor—perked up saying, “You know, Saaleh, I remember you fussing over food when you stayed with us, as a baby, as your parents left you in Chicago.” In my carved path of Madrasa, after Madrasa, you and I had shared the memory fields of my grandmother being your father’s sister, and that you had seen me before anyone else had. Is the gaze a singular act? Or do we repeat it over and over, seeking to construct a newfangled memory each time? Didn’t you see me anew every time?
You had known me before every teacher—and from that moment, when my mom deposited me with her mother, herself trying to piece together her health and children, away from her uncles, our link would fuse more than it would with anyone else. I can’t explain the metaphysics of it to you, but here I am giving you a mess. Later that week, each Chicago suburb flying into us, and you brought me as your nephew to your alumni iftar, you said “You’re not becoming a firebrand Mawlana, are you?” I would hold on to those moments in eternity.
Abed, if we’re not gorgeous in this life, at least can we be gorgeous in the afterlife?
Abed, did you know Sayyiduna Isa, son of Maryam, grandson of Hannah: his uncle was Yahya? From his mother’s side. Yahya was his mother’s first-cousin. Wherever we see Yahya mentioned in the Quran, we see Isa, too. Allah says: “Zakariyya sobs for a baby in the night, who will inherit me?” In Jerusalem. In the walls of joy-giving Prophets. Maryam also wept when she carried her sky-baby past Jerusalem. How Jibrail brought news to Zakariyya of Yahya, who ached for a baby, and how Jibrail, in the same era, the same hill-geography, ferried news to Maryam of a baby boy, Isa, Maryam trembling at the thought of a baby-boy.
Here: an uncle and nephew were given to Jerusalem. Only to be despised, mocked. Abed, do you remember when we walked through those same hot-pebble streets Yahya and Isa also sauntered. How these two uncle-nephew prophets already had knowledge of our Mustafa, from the ghayb. How you and I paced those same blue-pebble streets, under the plaster of Armenian and Greek Orthodox Churches, where an uncle once held the hand of his nephew, both prophets. How we stepped into the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, sliced in half with a mortar-and pestle wall. Tabari tells us that Umar ibn al-Khattab rode from the Roman-route from Madina into Syria then down south into Jerusalem, hillocks that will soon witness Yajuj, Majuj, Dajjal, and Imam Mehdi. How Sayyiduna Umar only arrived with his one attendant, commanding him to ride the mule, while the Caliph walked through dust, sand, and grass. The Syriac Patriarch stood on a battlement, on the last city wall, observing in robed silence. Abu Ubaydah ibn Al-Jarrah, Abdur Rahman ibn Awf, Khalid ibn al-Walid, Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufiyan, stood, heads bowed in the sight of the Amir ul-Muminin. Here Umar stood outside of Jerusalem, not so different than when Isa ibn Maryam himself rode into Jersualem. Umar looked up at the sky, remembering how his Prophet soared into the city. The Syriac priest welcomed him and led him into the Church. As they discussed the terms, that no church or temple would be leveled, no retribution would be dealt on any Christian or Jew, that Muslims would rebuild Masjid al-Aqsa, the time of Zuhr approached.
Abed, do you remember when we were upright at that very same spot, our minds beating back any noise. Did you know we stood at the same spot of prophecy, delivered when the Prophet was digging trenches in Madina, stones lapped on his stomach to blunt the hunger? The Priest told Umar to pray Zuhr in the church. Amir ul-Muminin refused! Instead, he took permission and stepped outside, the sun of Palestine grinning at him, and prayed by himself in the courtyard, with his four Companions, notably Abu Ubaydah ibn Al-Jarrah, whom the Prophet called the “Amin” or the trustworthy of the Ummah. Did you paint the image of that in your head, as you stood with your black backpack and crunched water bottle? A thunder of priests and Rabbis atop rooftops, sashes and papal hats cresting their heads, silent as they watched the five companions kneel in the courtyard, whispering Fatiha, the opening. After they swiveled their heads, saying salam, they got up and walked back into the Church, receiving the keys to Jerusalem. In the same courtyard we halted, Abed, to reflect Umar ibn al-Khattab. Didn’t we feel the spirit of Umar ibn al-Khattab, as we kneeled Zuhr in that exact location, across the church? The energy of Sayyiduna Umar’s Zuhr still keeps Palestine afloat in Jersualem. You and I witnessed it. You and I were the first of our family to see Jerusalem, to see the ruh of Umar in Jerusalem. Sayyiduna Umar told the priests “I prayed outside—perhaps later Muslims might interpret my act to demolish your church into a Masjid.” So you and I honored that wish by praying Zuhr in the courtyard of the church. What could be more gorgeous for a nephew and uncle to share than Sayyiduna Umar ibn al-Khattab?
Khushī upon Umar ibn al-Khattab, liberator of Jerusalem and Iran.
It is my first week in college. I have given up on Madrasa. I call you, groaning about the workload, the cruelty of the essay, of the sentence. I don’t know how to read five-hundred pages a week, I can’t keep up with the dates of the Cold War. The imposition of coherently writing escapes me. The hallway I’m striding through, pacing, is shot through with golden floodlights, sandy marble peering at me, students who have learned this so many years ago, while I parroted Arabic conjugations in South Africa, are strolling past. You counsel how to read, how to sift through, how to write. Language isn’t about the most complex word, but the right word, you say. You emphasize the importance of maintaining a stellar GPA over gunning for challenging classes. You say it’ll all turn out fine. I never knew that I’d be writing for the Ummah. But, Abed, you knew. Two years later, on a bright Friday morning, I and a dozen other creative writing classes sat down to peer-edit an essay, entitled “Abed Bhai,” pronouncing the “bhai” as “bye.” At the end of the class, a white girl told me “Wow, you really love your uncle. Sounds like he’s really special,” after she told me I didn’t engage the craft principle of “Show and Tell” enough. I never wanted to show you to anyone, just tell them. Isn’t this what the Afghans called ghayrat?
“I was a corpse. Now I am alive
I was weeping. Now I am in joy
The fortune of love arrived, and I became love-fortified”
So Rumi wept in Konya.
Do you remember how we stood outside the entrance of al-Aqsa, the Salahuddin-arch shielding our vision, as an Israeli soldier tested us on Surah Fatiha, the Opening. All Praise is due to the Sovereign of the Universe. Eternally-Merciful. We passed! We were then permitted into the arch-hall, the opening. And there it was. Masjid al-Aqsa. Bayt al-Maqdis. Bayt al-Muqaddas. Abbasid, Mamluk, Ottoman, Fatimid colors exploded in front of us, as the sun seemed defensive of this portal to the Ghayb, the unseen. How we could barely move our knees around this Masjid. How many Prophets had kneeled in this courtyard, sobbing to Allah. We paused at the feet of the beige walkway, just to look. Here we did not lower our gaze. How could we?
Later, after you washed your feet in the epicenter of the Masjid and the Dome, you sat with me in the same spot from where the Prophet galloped to the heavens. Rumi called Paradise our “old city.” Our old Palestine. And you opened the Quran. The opening. And you whispered, perhaps in the same whisper the Prophet whispered to his thunder-steed, Can you show me where the Prophet leaped to the heavens—that story of him meeting the Prophets? I told you that was in Hadith, in Bukhari, as the shimmering blue of the interior dome flashed atop of us, Quranic verses blazed in a golden Ottoman script. You paused, confused, shattered. You wanted to see Prophets as I did, in the speech of Allah. In Jerusalem, we migrated from memory to memory. Sky to heaven. Revelation to Revelation. Prophet to Prophet.
Peace be upon Isa. Peace be upon Isa. But you already know that, Abed.
Abed, of course you remember when I played Mohaisany’s Surah Ṣāffāt in the car in Haifa, his voice trembling at every Arabic letter. And the verses, on the tongue of Sayyidunā Ilyās. “Do you invoke the deity Ba’l and abandon the most excellent of Creators?” We ascended Mount Carmel in Haifa, pines and shrubs decorating it like a Persian courtyard, and we legged into the musty cave of Sayyiduna Ilyas. With Rabbis humming in the background, you saw an inscription of Ba’l—that false deity—on an inscription of the cave, scribbled underneath the Hebrew, recalling the Quranic ayah. How you again were shattered. Isn’t that what Palestine does? Shatters you, crucifies you. Then sends you aloft to the heavens. I never saw someone silenced by a Hebrew Prophet’s mention like I saw you were in Haifa.
Peace shroud Ilyas! Peace shroud Ilyas!
Abed, did you know that Yahya was executed? And Matthew in the Bible records Jesus sought solitude, hearing news of his murdered uncle, on the still-Sea of Galilee. How he grieved for his mother’s first cousin, his mamu. Do you remember when we crossed the same Sea, driving down from Salahuddin’s fort in the Golan, and I played Kanye’s “Jesus Walks” for you, across the shimmering lake where Isa strolled atop of water? And you gazed to your left, to the blueness of miracle. But they wouldn’t leave Isa alone, alone to think about his uncle. How often when you visited me in New York, I reflected over you. And then you left, honeycombing me in nephew-uncle affliction. It scorched me, no matter how cold it was, leaving me in cinders floating in the Euphrates after the Mongols. Here I was grieving for my mother’s first cousin, so far away from Galilee and Palestine.
Peace be upon Yahya the day he was born. Peace be upon Yahya the day he was executed. Peace be upon Yahya the day he will be resurrected, gorgeous.
Abed, did you ever grieve for me? Like I did for you?
Where are we going? A screen of memories dazzles you before the age of ten. Is this the future? Or is this my heart.
A magnolia in a blaze of my grief. Abed, I promise, I won’t waste my tears.
I’ll love you. But first I need to go to where it hurts.
The apricots only drip when I open up. Because an opening is only the peak. Where I say your name. Where I stand after you.
Where I will be. Where I shutter my eyes.
Do I need you? Can you listen to my recitation?
I told you it won’t stop. I told you I’ll be there, a flash of sorry and my memory. Around the lives of the beautiful, I forgot everything. I won’t remember you. I won’t say your name,
Abed. I promised to promise. And I failed.
Abed, why is it that when I look at you, love for my own mother cinders, like the tree of Zaqqum in the Quran, blazing like a prairie wildfire?
Abed, I’m four. We’re parked outside your house, engine growling. My father rented a white van. Your sister is in our van. You’re standing outside, your fingers prying the van door, a white shirt over you, and denim shorts that cover your knees. You want to come, too. Your sister scolds you. You walk away, dejected. Your sister’s name means “one joy” in Arabic.
Hello, Abed. I’m twelve, it’s two-thousand-and-five, and I memorized the Quran, just last week, and I’m at your sister’s house. You’re hunched, arched on your sister’s leather-brown couch, your legs pressed against each other, your father is watching the Seahawks in the Superbowl, with Matt Hassleback. You mutter congratulations to me.
Abed. I’m fourteen, and it’s two-thousand-and-seven. And you’re in my mom’s brother’s house, a magenta, magnolia blazer suited on you, you’re holding a plastic-plate of Karachi biryani. You elect to sit away from the adults, alone. I come and follow you; you grin: “I knew you would follow me here,” the words violating the redness of your shirt.
Abed. I’m seventeen. It’s two-thousand-and-ten. We’re walking through the lamp-lit streets of Chicago. Your friend is with us. Later that day, the time of Asr comes in, nobody seems to be praying namaz. I tell you if I can pause and pray Asr, near Streetersville. You say: “Wait I want to pray with you.” We both pray Asr. I later tell your friend his name means thunder in Arabic. He scoffs “I know the meaning of my own name,” the words crawling past the Chicago skyline.
Abed, I’m nineteen. I’m leading you and your parents in Taraweeh, pictures of Ghulam and Tahira peering at us overhead. I’m reciting Surah Anbiyā. I hum the verses in the second quarter of the Para “And we saved Ibrahim and (his nephew) Lūṭ towards Jerusalem.” You say nothing after, creaking upstairs. We had no idea we would spend a July in Jerusalem, weeping by the epitaph of Ibrahim, meeting a Palestinian uncle shot in the gut praying Fajr by a Brooklyn settler, right outside the grave of Ibrahīm’s son Isḥāq, and that you would donate to the Waqf of Ibrahim.
Joy upon Ibrahim. Joy upon Ibrahim.
Abed, I’m twenty-three. We’re walking through the red-sandstone fort of Shah Jahan, in Agra. The same fort, where Aurangzeb ascends, after he puts his older brothers to death, and then imprisons his father, Shah Jahan. We’re skipping down from where the same path where Mughal Shehzades would ride down from. I mispronounce compartmentalize. You chuckle. Shah Jahan would never see this pathway again, his sons executed in Delhi, while Shah Jahan wept in Agra, his hands stroked by his eldest daughter, Jahanara, consumed by death. The day before, we stood outside the Kashmiri Darvaza, outside the Red Fort in Delhi, known locally as the Khooni Darwaza, or the gate of blood, where the British grabbed hold of two sons of the last Mughal king and his nephews, not even twenty, and erected them alongside the gate, hands bonded, mouths bounded, aiming British rifles at the Mughal princes and shooting them dead, ending Babur’s line in India, proclaiming the era of Queen Victoria, the blood of a nephew splattering the Red Fort of Delhi, the Laal Qila. The father, the uncle, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was led off in groaning chains to Burma, never to see sons, nephews, daughters, or poetry ever again.
Abed. I’m twenty-four and it is exactly twenty-four years since the death anniversary of your uncle, Hamed Mama, his ṣalāt al-janāza. You were there for him. And you are here for me, now. I ask you what your thoughts are, inside a shimmering staircase in my college library. You said you’re reflecting on the tragedy of Hamed Mama, and the shortness of life.
Abed, I’m twenty-five, and we’re parked outside the graveyard of your uncle, Hamed Mama, in Elmhurst. My older brother is with us. One of your cousins just told me background of Hamed Mama’s passing—the whys and wherefores of his death. I’m furious—perhaps even feral. You tell me we should move on, Hamed Mama would want us to. I move on.
Abed. Let me clutter the timeline, as I do when I tell you a story, shelling you with eight timelines at once. I’m eighteen. I’m in South Africa. I overslept, and there’s roll-call after Fajr. Light is spilling across the horizon, heating up the end of Fajr. In order to make it to the Masjid, to make it to roll call, after the doors are locked, is to walk around dust-pathway of the Madrasa, and climb a metal gate. I’m walking, but, really, I’m thinking of you. I’m thinking of the short exchanges you and I shared at a wedding on a pink tablecloth. I’m remembering the joy, how you saw me as so much more than a nameless nephew, or a child condemned to the unfortunate halls of a Madrasa, as I’m walking towards punishment in Madrasa for missing the morning prayer, the morning tears. That short joy of you is blunting the anxiety of punishment. It’s 4:30 in the morning, that is to say, the angels are unfurling their scrolls and recording who is reading the Arabic of soft revelation. I whisper Allah, whisper to Him in the back of my consciousness: If you gift that joy with Abed again, this will all be worth it, the separation of home, the halting of life and career, the memorization of a hundred-thousand Urdu words, and double that in Arabic, the lentil seven-days a week, the yearning for a life I envy from other Muslims. I wonder to Allah if we’ll be ever close. Many years later, you and my brother would be my only family members at my college graduation, halting your own life to see me walk across the stage. The jurists say prayers during Fajr are heavily beloved to God: I don’t know how many times I prayed for you walking on that dust-field in South Africa, stepping to offer myself for punishment in a land so far away from you.
Abed. I’m twenty-four. I just graduated college two weeks ago. You were there. A hematologist in the Mount Sinai hospital just told me my hemoglobin is a 3.2/15. I don’t know what that means. He’s puzzled why I’m not dead, blanched with shock that I even walked here with such staggeringly low blood counts. I text you at 4 A.M. It is the same time I used to pray for you and I in South Africa, six years ago, walking to Fajr, when I was only a single data point in the arc of your life. You say you’re coming to New York immediately. My mom feels ashamed, so she comes instead. But I would’ve preferred if you had.
Salams Abed, I’m twenty-five. I’m back in South Africa. You told me to complete it. You said it would be worth it. Once, against the Madrasa policy of only wearing bleached shalwar-kameez, I sported grey sweatpants because of the icy cold swooshing through the air. My teacher throws me out of class, ordering me to change to white. As I creak back into the classroom, with a white shalvar, the classroom grows quiet. Our lecturer halts the lesson. He turns to me. It is absent of joy. I’m on my feet with the Hadith manual Abu Dawud, measuring nearly 16 inches long. The reckoning begins. He tells me how bull-headed, how disrespectful, how worthless I am—the barbs are in Urdu. If everything sounds more beautiful in Urdu, then everything sounds more painful, uglier in Urdu, too. The seventy kids are quiet, faces arched towards me. I tilt the colossal hadith book, covering the bubbling tears in my eyes. To stopgap the grief, I remind myself that God gave me an uncle like you, gave me joy like you, gave me a sycamore like you. I remind myself as I hold four-thousand Hadiths of the Prophet in my trembling hands. Was that an act of Quran, an act of remembering?
In the Battle of Uhud, the Prophet orders his mother’s cousin (the same way I’m related to you), Sa’d ibn Abī Waqqāṣ, conqueror of Iran, on the crest of a brown mountain. The Prophet directs his mother’s cousin “May my mother be sacrificed for you! Shoot, shoot!” at the incoming Quraysh army, on the hill-pass. After the battle, the Prophet, light-of-both-worlds, is walking quietly, observing the dead, as he would observe the living. He stops. The corpse of his uncle, Ḥamza ibn Abd al-Muṭṭalib. His uncle’s body mutilated. Before, Hadiths tell us, the Prophet only ever wept lightly, like a flicker of morning light. Here, he sees his uncle mutilated. Here the Prophet doesn’t just weep. He sobs loudly. A Prophet sobbing at the corpse of his uncle. The corpse is mutilated. He was speared, knifed; blood waterfalling out of an uncle. The reports say seventy wounds. I can hear Imam al-Bukhari weeping from Samarqand, as he pens it down a millennium ago. Hamza suffered them for his nephew, the Prophet of God, the soul of the cosmos, the raison d’etre of you and I.
How many wounds did you take for me, Abed? But, Abed, would you and I exist if Hamza didn’t take those seventy wounds for his nephew? Would you and I exist if Aurangzeb didn’t spend thirty years of his life in the Deccan? Would we exist if the world didn’t see the Prophet weep angel-tears upon sight of his uncle? I promised to ask you one day.
Abed, it’s me. I’m 28. I’m in the passenger seat, and my roommate is cruising past Elgin, past memories of fields. You call. We discuss the problematic dynamic of Arabs selling liquor in south side Chicago. After a moment, you pause, shattered, hesitating, roiling. You then tell me you’re getting married. You explain, I catch a few phrases “and when the dust settles” “I have a lot of respect for you” and “You have taught me so much.” At the end of it all, you stop. Silence blazes through the January brambled air. I say “May my life be sacrificed for your joy.”
You weep. I had never seen you weep before. Not even when your grandfather passed away.
In what is known as Ḥajjatul-Wadāʾ, or the Farewell Sermon, where the Prophet bade not only farewell to his family, his companions, but also to his trees, the tree who wept when ceased to recline on it, his mountains, the mountains that sheltered him, the jinns who held audience with him, his angels, his own body. In that speech, everyone recalls “No Arab is superior to a non-Arab” and “No white man has superiority over a Black man.” But what we glide through is: as a hundred thousand Muslims crowded the valley of Arafat, the Prophet speaking on the ridge, his voice magnified by only the sky, the Prophet only mentioned one person in that speech. I repeat: The Prophet only spoke of one human in his final speech. His uncle Abbas ibn Abdul Muttalib. In what would be the final public appearance the Prophet, the last human being mentioned by the Prophet was his own uncle. How many Bedouins, parents to a dozen children, never weeping nor kissing their children, wailed, hands through their hair in grief, seeing the Prophet remember his uncle. The Prophet later said: Allahuma ishad! ishad!
Allah, bear witness. Bear witness, the Prophet supplicated Allah. The heavens were sent into chaos, fragile at every letter of the Arab Prophet.
So—here Abed I testify you. This is my shahada. Testimony. In Arabic, the word for martyrdom and testimony are the same—Shahadah. To be a witness is to be a martyr. To be a Shāhid is to be a Shahīd. I am both for you. May my life be sacrificed for your joy.
Abed, they will say, when they read this essay, that I didn’t do a good-enough job of describing you, of writing you, your habits, the way you only eat salad and Lacroix water, the way your legs crisscross each other when you trot, the way you push against arguments with your razor-sharp logic, shooting back softly with “what about”; the way, when you ask “are you okay,” it’s like a mountain gentling you; your switch from journalism to business management, your breezy blue jacket that, when I told you of your overwear, you responded with “hey, I don’t care”; your shattering love for the homeland Chicago, your joy at looking at raw nature, at the weeping mountains, and the unsung trees, that your favorite city in the world is Istanbul, that your mother, when you were seven, made you stand outside the Dolmahbahce palace and pose for a photograph, the way you told your dad you’re going to prom despite his staunch resistance, the way you never say no to a photograph, the way you detest back-biting. How you never laugh, only grinning downcast.
I have written you the way Allah wrote his beloveds in the Quran—their interactions with the sacred, with the sky, with family, with the land, with the tortured mountains. We learn more, Allah reminds us, of someone by the way they interact with creation. And I have shown the reader how you interacted with me. Let that be enough to describe memory, love, an unprecedented affection shared by a nephew and his uncle, a thunder of emotions, as Iqbal, Hafez, and Ghalib wept in Persian: aflāk ra begardān! (that could send the heavens into chaos!)
Abed, I’m 23. You, I, and your mom are sitting with backs thrust in a taxi, your father in the front. We’re driving through Mallepalli, where your father and grandfather were born. Your father points to a dry cricket field, and then a Masjid, barely moving his lips, “Hamed and I used to play cricket here.” We swing around and park outside a weed-strewn, dust expanse. A shrine, a tomb, sits in the middle, its blue, recalling the explosive blue of Samarqand tiles. Mir Sardar Beg. Mir is from the Arabic Amir: commander. Sardar is from Persian: leader. Beg from Turkish: Captain. Your father leads us to the right-hand side of the shrine and pushes a small gate open. Here we see graves, set forth in Urdu, curvy Nastaliq letters sprawling before us, stiches of grass dancing wildly. Here we were looking for Ghulam, your grandfather. We spy one Ghulam. Shakir Mama shakes his head. We notice another Ghulam—in Urdu, your father shakes his head again. I whisper to you—“How common was Ghulam a name in Hyderabad in the 1920’s?” You’re quiet. I waddle through some thorn-branches, hoping to land the grave. It’s not. We cut across to the south-western section of the cemetery. A Muslim divine, rose-bead circling between his palms, says it’s likely here. We stand needle-silent. Here Ghulam’s son, his grandson, his great-grandson, stood to recite Fatiha. The opening. Could Ghulam have known his great-grandson would love his grandson this much? To be gathered with him outside the gates of Firdaws, our old home, our city, with all his five children, we say in Arabic:
All praise is due to the Sovereign of the Universe. Merciful. Compassionate. Sovereign of Judgement-Day. To you we worship, to you we beg for help. Lead us to the path. The path of those whose you have loved and favored. Not the path of those who evoked your anger, nor those who abandoned the path.
I am quiet. You are quiet. Your father is quiet. We conclude with: And may the most joy be upon the Prophet, the master of Prophets.
We walk away. I fly to New York later that day.
This is all to say, Abed, we are going home. Hum ghar jaarein. May we see the Prophets with their uncles. The Prophet with Ḥamza and ʿAbbās; Prophet Lūṭ with Ibrahim. The Prophet with Sayyidunā Musā. The Prophet with Sāʿd ibn Abi Waqqāṣ. Sayyiduna Isa with Sayyiduna Yaḥyā. And may I also tell the Prophet, his eyes blazing through me, you: “Mustafa, my master, my Prophet, my blood-shot tears—this is my uncle, Abed,” the Prophet’s uncles circling us. Hamid Mama not too far away.
Photo by Damian Denis on Unsplash
About the Author: Mulla Saaleh Baseer studied the traditional dars-i niẓāmī in South Africa, after which he earned is bachelor’s from Columbia University, majoring in History. He is currently an iftā student at Darul Qasim. Dancing between Hanafi Fiqh, the Mughals, and creative writing, his interests seek to understand how Qur’anic grammar and storytelling may inflect our own gestures of writing and interrogating form and function.
Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.
2 thoughts on “A Joy for Us”
I couldn’t stop reading…
So beautiful, so engaging and so unique a style of writing…I am moved to tears!
May Allah SWT bless your beautiful soul, writer, and your amazing uncle, with the best of this world and next – may He JWA preserve your love and protect your loved one
May He AWJ bless us with this type of love in our lives and hearts!
Ameen ya Rabb Al Aalameen
Truly we cannot imagine such depth and breath of love between men in this age of fitnah, this age of emasculation… except through the light of Islam, our illustrious predecessors and their perfect example
Jazakallah khair katheera!
This article is absolutely beautiful māshāʾAllāh.
May Allah SWT reward the author and accept amin.
What an incredible uncle-nephew relationship.