Baba, The Quran and Me

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Hiba Masood

When we were young, every Ramadan, we had to com­plete one recita­tion of the Qur’an because my dad made us. There was no ques­tion of not com­plet­ing it. It’s just what we did.”

Sit­ting togeth­er with my friend and our tod­dlers in a Mom­my & Me art class, the words were bare­ly out of my mouth before regret kicked in. I saw the sur­prised and dis­ap­prov­ing frown form­ing on my friend’s face. Forc­ing the Qur’an on a child? How polit­i­cal­ly incor­rect. How back­ward. How unen­light­ened. One sim­ply did not say these things in polite, mod­ern, com­pa­ny. I could prac­ti­cal­ly see her cen­sur­ing thoughts and I felt dis­may at my inabil­i­ty to explain myself. Thank­ful­ly, the con­ver­sa­tion took a turn else­where, both of us wise enough not to go too deep into a poten­tial­ly tricky top­ic.

Lat­er that evening, after my kids were asleep and the blessed cov­er of the night slow­ly drift­ed over the city, I lay in the qui­et, think­ing. Remem­ber­ing. And laugh­ing over the real­iza­tion that if I were to ever retell this sto­ry, I would prob­a­bly begin the exact same, inap­pro­pri­ate way:

When we were young, every Ramadan, we had to com­plete one recita­tion the Qur’an because my dad made us. There was no ques­tion of not com­plet­ing it. It’s just what we did.

I think I must’ve been sev­en or eight when I first gained an under­stand­ing of this fam­i­ly tra­di­tion. My Baba, dur­ing the course of some of the most pre­cious con­ver­sa­tions of my life time, would often tell us, my broth­er, sis­ter and I, sto­ries from his child­hood. What his life and his days spent with his eight broth­ers and sis­ters used to look like.

The Ramadan sto­ries were par­tic­u­lar­ly pow­er­ful to hear because he would speak of things that seemed so for­eign, so unfa­mil­iar – like abject pover­ty, split­ting one bowl of food for Iftar amongst a fam­i­ly of eleven – that it was almost dream like.

The sto­ry we mar­veled over most was the amount of Qur’an that, as kids, he and his sib­lings read each Ramadan. “We would each try to be the one who fin­ished it the most num­ber of times. I usu­al­ly reached four and gave up. One of my sis­ters did it sev­en times each year. No one could ever beat her.”, he would chuck­le as he remem­bered. “But how did you guys find the time, Baba?!” we would gasp. And he would look equal­ly amazed. “It was Ramadan. Once work is done, what else is there to do except read the Qur’an every sin­gle pos­si­ble minute?” His gen­uine shock, that one could pos­si­bly, crazi­ly, choose to spend their time in unessen­tial world­ly mat­ters and how utter­ly unfath­omable that was to him, seeped into our young, impres­sion­able minds. We would pester him again and again for more nuances to this sto­ry and he would oblige. “Do you know every let­ter you recite dur­ing Ramadan has 70 times the reg­u­lar reward? That means every let­ter, like say­ing Alif, gets you sev­en HUNDRED good deeds? Just do the math for read­ing the whole Qur’an! Go on! Now do the math for your aunt who reads it sev­en times!” Our minds prop­er­ly bog­gled, we would be wide eyed try­ing to fig­ure out the answer to this cos­mic equa­tion from the math­e­mat­ics of the Divine.

And even­tu­al­ly, our amaze­ment and inter­est in this par­tic­u­lar com­pe­ti­tion led to the for­ma­tion of our own inter­nal, lit­tle fam­i­ly game. The rules were sim­ple: The tar­get was Eid, and, more specif­i­cal­ly, Eidee, the cash gift that we received from Baba on Eid morn­ing. Who­ev­er fin­ished one, just one, com­plete recita­tion of the Qur’an before the offi­cial dec­la­ra­tion of Eid, would have their Eidee dou­bled.

When we first heard this wager, I think we each of us prac­ti­cal­ly clapped in glee. Oooh, twice the amount of mon­ey! A par­ent-sanc­tioned chance to open­ly beat the sib­lings and earn brag­ging rights, and that too, not just in some vague, metaphor­i­cal way, but in actu­al, crisp, crack­ling, Sau­di riyal note earn­ings! Oh Dad­dy, this game was on!!

And our glee was because, you see, the very first year, we oper­at­ed from a place of total igno­rance. We’d nev­er actu­al­ly attempt­ed what was being asked and so we fig­ured “Eh, how hard could it be? Those old aunts and uncles of ours, if they could do it up to sev­en times, what was ONE time? This should be a cake­walk.”

Well it wasn’t. It wasn’t the first year. And it still isn’t 25 years lat­er.

There have been years of start­ing and stay­ing strong. Of plan­ning from before­hand. Of think­ing, okay, rough­ly 30 days, 30 juz. If I read a lit­tle more than one a day, I am on track. And in that same pat­tern, of sail­ing eas­i­ly and com­fort­ably to the fin­ish line. Of stand­ing, grin­ning on Eid morn­ing, keep­ing my palm extend­ed as first one 50 riyal note was laid on it and then, nod­ding proud­ly, yes I did com­plete my recita­tion, get­ting anoth­er 50. Of exult­ing over my father’s proud­ly beam­ing face.

There have been years, in late tweens/early teens of total mis­man­age­ment. Of let­ting life take over a lit­tle too much and then real­iz­ing, aghast, that only five fasts were left and I still had eigh­teen juz to go. Of rac­ing, hel­ter skel­ter, through more than six juz on the very last day, squeak­ing past the fin­ish line just min­utes before what would be the last Maghrib prayer of Ramadan. Of encoun­ter­ing a slight­ly raised, father­ly eye­brow, “So you real­ly did fin­ish?” and of meek­ly nod­ding yes, delib­er­ate­ly neglect­ing to men­tion the par­tic­u­lar speeds of recita­tion.

Lat­er, once wom­an­hood kicked in, there were years of get­ting unex­pect­ed­ly over­ly long peri­ods and that throw­ing my entire cal­cu­la­tion off. Of feel­ing gnaw­ing des­per­a­tion around Day 21, 22. How will I com­plete it now? Of not giv­ing up. Of, after ghusl, stay­ing up all night and then con­tin­u­ing to stay awake after Fajr to com­plete the required read­ing, but now, with the sense of adult­hood inside me, only read­ing in the most mea­sured, dig­ni­fied man­ner pos­si­ble.

There were years when, long after the dou­ble-Eidee wager had fad­ed away with oth­er rem­nants of child­hood, with all the impetu­ous, rebel­lion of youth, of spend­ing my days in smoke-filled rooms, strate­giz­ing with socialist/activists, and my evenings protest­ing against the Iraq war on the frozen streets of Toron­to. Of not pray­ing at all, of not so much as glanc­ing towards the dusty shelf where my Qur’an sat the entire year. But then, out of sheer habit, on the first of Ramadan, shame­faced from all the spir­i­tu­al neglect of the past eleven months, tak­ing it down, clean­ing it and then get­ting to it. Of feel­ing, verse by verse, page by page, chap­ter by beau­ti­ful chap­ter, cleansed. Redeemed. Able to start over.

There was the first year of my mar­riage. When my brand new hus­band, sat back, aston­ished at this sur­pris­ing wife of his. This wife who nev­er even put her shoes in the right place when she got back home from some­where. Whose phone was always mis­placed. Whose clos­et always a dis­as­ter. “I nev­er knew you could be so dis­ci­plined.”, he mar­veled as he wit­nessed my steady pro­gres­sion over the course of the month, the pages on the right of the book­mark grow­ing and the pages on the left less­en­ing.

There were sub­se­quent years in which he fig­ured if I could do it, he could too. Of moti­vat­ing each oth­er. Of gen­tly teas­ing who­ev­er was behind. Of even­tu­al­ly acknowl­edg­ing, that his long office hours and unre­lent­ing cor­po­rate job would get the best of him. Of con­sol­ing ‚“Don’t wor­ry. I read it for both of us. Niyyah is what counts. You got it.”, and of vow­ing, “I’m going to do it next time for sure!”.

There was the year of expect­ing my first­born – a boy who would lat­er go on to have devel­op­men­tal delays and addi­tion­al needs – when Ramadan was in the month just before his birth. Of, that year, with all the ner­vous excite­ment and joy­ful antic­i­pa­tion of a first time moth­er-to-be, com­plet­ing the Qur’an three times. Of grow­ing big­ger and more uncom­fort­able, curl­ing up on the couch and slow­ly work­ing my way through the Book again and again, and one more time, to give myself a sense of pur­pose and calm. A steady­ing feel­ing that I was being a respon­si­ble moth­er and giv­ing my very first baby his very first gift as a Mus­lim child.

And there have many, many more years. Of anx­i­ety. Of scary finan­cial strain. Of a tur­bu­lent mar­riage. A dif­fi­cult son. Of sick­ness. Of fear. And of deep, deep grief.

In all of those years, those months and weeks of uncer­tain­ty, Ramadan and the accom­pa­ny­ing habit of com­plet­ing the Qur’an has stood like an immov­able bea­con.

In the ear­ly years, the prospect of either receiv­ing dou­bled earn­ings on Eid or fac­ing the dis­ap­point­ed expres­sion on my father’s face was the moti­va­tion. In the mid­dling years, it was force of habit, a year­ly rit­u­al that I nei­ther ques­tioned nor pon­dered very much over. Com­plet­ing the Qur’an was just anoth­er part of Ramadan for me, sim­i­lar to fast­ing. I had to fast and so I had to fin­ish the Qur’an. And in recent years, with the onset of matu­ri­ty, the wis­dom that has come in my thir­ties, the set­tling into the very bones of my life and my self, this year­ly prac­tice has become an iden­ti­ty and a gift. An eager­ly antic­i­pat­ed recon­nec­tion. To Allah. To the Qur’an. To my child­hood. To my father. To my self.

Ramadan1

The moti­va­tions behind this prac­tice have shape shift­ed and blurred over the years. They have entered ques­tion­able realms and they have exit­ed. They have wavered repeat­ed­ly, stretched unbe­liev­ably and some­times dis­ap­peared com­plete­ly. But, now, today and insha’Allah for­ev­er after, they are strong, sol­id and sin­gu­lar in focus. And so per­haps, a bet­ter way to start this sto­ry would have been:

Every year, in Ramadan, I have to com­plete the recita­tion of the Qur’an because this is who I am. There is no ques­tion of not com­plet­ing it. It’s just what I do.

I know, in writ­ing this, that there will be dis­senters. There will be those who strong­ly dis­agree with this idea – those who will be dis­gust­ed by the link­ing of mon­e­tary moti­va­tion to the Holy Qur’an. Those who will insist every­one should give weigh­tage to spend­ing more time under­stand­ing the Qur’an rather than rote recit­ing it. Those who will find my descrip­tions of “rac­ing” through the Qur’an in my ear­li­er years the exact rai­son d’etre for not set­ting unre­al­is­tic tar­gets.

Per­haps, they are each right in their own way. But they, their rea­sons, their moti­va­tions, their goals are not right for me.

I can­not explain to them how I feel about my father and how the prospect of attain­ing his plea­sure can com­pel me to move moun­tains. I can­not explain how this prac­tice he has instilled in me has been my spir­i­tu­al life­line. I can­not explain to them the deep, intrin­sic plea­sure of read­ing that Book from cov­er to cov­er in a fixed time frame and that too, dur­ing the most blessed days of the year. I can­not explain because I am always far too busy try­ing to make sense of my own sto­ry.

See, I feel, to thrive in this Life, we each have to do what we can to try and make sense of the lot we’ve giv­en. To try and com­pre­hend our messy, mar­velous sto­ries and see them for the trea­sure they are.

When I look at my life, when I take the long view, I see two, exact­ly oppo­site, com­plete­ly dia­met­ri­cal truths. I see that I have had, through the Will of Allah, so much tur­bu­lence. Such storms. Such dark­ness. And I also see that my father in the form of this and oth­er tra­di­tions, gave me such sta­bil­i­ty, so many anchors. So many lifebuoys. In all the years of my life, when I was flail­ing and thrash­ing about in the uncer­tain seas of phys­i­cal­ly painful, fibromyal­gia-filled school days, a rebel­lious uni­ver­si­ty life, a tumul­tuous ear­ly mar­riage, a spe­cial needs child, dif­fi­cult sub­se­quent preg­nan­cies, finan­cial strain and unem­ploy­ment, sick­ness, grief, this tra­di­tion was an always present mark­er on my hori­zon. A rope to grab on to every sin­gle year no mat­ter how stormy and dark­ened the rest of the eleven months were. A steady, bright­ly shin­ing light­house that by virtue of always being there, always brought me back to my cen­ter.

As anoth­er Ramadan approach­es, I think of the ghosts of Ramadan past. The years flit­ter in my mind like a fast paced slide show and I see my recita­tion efforts stacked up on each oth­er. Year after year after year of try­ing. Of work­ing towards a chal­leng­ing but clear­ly iden­ti­fied goal. Of hon­ing my dis­ci­pline and time man­age­ment skills. Of expe­ri­enc­ing the fear of fail­ure and the ded­i­ca­tion required in over­com­ing that fear. Of expe­ri­enc­ing the high of per­son­al achieve­ment and the two-fold­ed spir­i­tu­al sat­is­fac­tion of recon­nect­ing to this glo­ri­ous book of Allah and, in the process, beat­ing down my inner demons of lazi­ness and indis­ci­pline, those less­er parts of me who, every year would rather give up but don’t.

Some­times, when I am feel­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly lost as I look at my son, this boy who refus­es to com­ply, whose anx­i­ety lev­els are always so high, who doesn’t speak like oth­er kids his age, I clutch to my heart the mem­o­ry of those hours and hours my preg­nant self spent with the Qur’an, those three com­plete recita­tions he heard while he moved inside me.

Some­times, when things seem excru­ci­at­ing­ly lone­ly, I think of my ances­tors and my aunts and uncles and my cousins. All those chil­dren of all those sib­lings of my father. I think of the dozens and dozens of my fam­i­ly mem­bers, all of whom car­ry on this tra­di­tion proud­ly today. Each and every one of the kids and adults in my dad’s side of the fam­i­ly (and there are many!) com­pletes the Qur’an every Ramadan. Because that is who they are. That is who we are. If they can do it, I can do it. I am remind­ed that I not alone. I am held aloft by a strong fam­i­ly, good val­ues and faith-full tra­di­tions.

Some­times, when life seems par­tic­u­lar­ly over­whelm­ing, too much work, not enough time, I think of all those years in which I took stock of the sit­u­a­tion, ”Okay ten days left, 16 juz to go. How can I man­age this?” and then slow­ly and dili­gent­ly accom­plished what ini­tial­ly felt to be an insur­mount­able task. I hold dai­ly to my soul the knowl­edge that I am resilient. That I can over­come. That I have. That I will.

And some­times, when my now sick and aging father is asleep, his gray hair glis­ten­ing soft­ly in the shad­ows, I lean down and press my cheek to his. I put my lips to his ear. And I whis­per things. I whis­per how the kids made me laugh today and cry simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. I whis­per that Ramadan is com­ing and he bet­ter get my dou­ble-Eidee ready. I whis­per my love and my prayers and my hopes. I whis­per how afraid I am of the future. How much I already miss him. But most of all, I whis­per my grat­i­tude. Grat­i­tude for gift­ing me so freely all the things, all the lessons, all the beliefs, all the forces of habit and inspir­ing sto­ries and abid­ing, enrich­ing tra­di­tions that have blessed my life. For giv­ing me an iden­ti­ty and an anchor. For always being my light­house when he was able, and when­ev­er the time came that he wasn’t, to make sure to leave my life with enough Light to see me through.

Rab­bir humhu­ma kama rab­bayaani sagheera
Rab­bir humhu­ma kama rab­bayaani sagheera
Rab­bir humhu­ma kama rab­bayaani sagheera