by Ammar AlShukry
Haunting my mind for the past year or so has been the fact that I have not seen a starry night in almost a decade. As a child, I would take frequent trips to my family's village in Sudan (that did not have electricity until the late 90s) where we would sleep outside to escape from the heat, our nightly ceiling being the North African sky in all its splendor. The stars were simply incalculable. I learned the constellations from my grandfather and songs to be sung to the moon from my great-grandmother. Only on dark nights would we be in need of kerosene lamps or flashlights; otherwise, when the moon was full, we would simply walk in its glow.
That image of a night filled with stars stayed imprinted in my mind. I started off locally, searching online for “the best places to see the stars in New York”. My searches brought up the names of restaurants and clubs where celebrities were most likely to frequent. It was easy to see that the Big Apple was not a place for the type of star-gazing I was looking for. As I traveled from city to city and town to town, I would often ask locals if there were any locations where one could see the stars. Finally, in Los Angeles, I read that the Nevada Desert was of the best locations in the country to see the stars, but it was a four hour drive and my stay would not allow for such an aggressive undertaking. It would have to be at another time or in another place.
Yesterday, I happened to be speaking with a friend who lives in New Jersey, a good sixty miles west of New York City and its suburbs. Before he hung up I asked him if the stars could be seen from his house.
“The sky is filled with stars here,” he responded.
With the phone still in my hand, I reached over to my computer and began searching for hotels in his area. I hadn't found any hotels that I was satisfied with, but I assumed that I could simply book a room somewhere with my phone when I got there. I jumped into my car and began driving west.
It was appropriate that my phone would die 15 minutes into the drive. I mean here I was, chasing a memory imprinted from a world long past, so how could I do it depending on a cell phone and GPS? Although I was confident I'd still be able to get to where I wanted to go, I would no longer have the flashlight application that I would probably need on my phone. No matter.
It wasn't long before I reached my exit off of the highway. I turned on to a main road and, looking up at the sky through my windshield, I could see maybe one or two stars above me and an airplane. I continued to drive until the street lights became fewer and, finally, the main street forked into a smaller winding road no longer surrounded by gas stations, car dealerships and offices but by trees.
I wouldn't say traffic disappeared so much as human company at all did. Every few minutes a car would drive by from the opposite direction and blind me with its high beams. I turned off my headlights ever so briefly and the sky filled with stars. I spent another few miles looking for a place to park off road where I would be able to soak in the majesty of the night's canopy. I finally found a decent sized lot that may or may not have been part of a large house that stood a few hundred feet away. The house actually reminded me of the cover of Welcome to Deadhouse, the 1st issue of Goosebumps, a popular horror book series that I used to read as a child. It was as though my childhood was coming back, just like I wanted. I pulled into it, my headlights shining into the dozens of trees behind the metal railing off the road. When I stepped out of the car and turned off the lights, I looked to the sky but what I saw in my periphery distracted me.
I was swallowed in darkness; complete and utterly perfect darkness. I looked up at the sky and saw what must have been thousands of lights shining. Then I looked down and could not see anything. I stood for a while, waiting for my eyes to adjust, checking to see if my phone would decide to heroically give me a good few minutes and turn on again but neither my phone nor my eyes did what I expected. I began to think of where I was: the middle of nowhere, by a thicket of trees, a wide lot, an open space, a dark house…without being able to see anything near me…I began to read Ayatul Kursi.
The star-gazing was very anticlimactic. I took a few more glances at the sky before jumping into my car and driving back towards civilization. It was the darkness that had captured my imagination- darkness and fear.
I'm not afraid of the dark, I was pretty confident about that. Then why would I cut short the entire purpose of my trip and something that I had waited so long for? I realized that as city dwellers, we very rarely come across the power of nature. We walk from electricity-lit homes to streets to cars to buildings. Even when we turn off the lights at home, to test whether or not we are afraid of the dark, we still know where the light switches are and that we are in a controlled darkness, a comforting darkness. We know we are protected from the elements, that we are safe and secure. I imagine the darkness experienced by caravans traversing deserts throughout history or by sailors at sea to be of a much different kind.
In Surat Al-Noor, Allāh describes the darkness of a “…vast sea with waves, above which are waves, above which are clouds, darknesses – some of them above each other. If a person were to stick their hand out in front of them, they would not see it…”
I thought of a sailor's predicament under stars hidden behind clouds, when even their light and guidance is hidden. In my temporary darkness, I was comforted by glancing upwards at the sky even if I could not see what was around me. How could the two darknesses be the same?
And if light, no matter how distant, was of comfort as compared to not having any light, then it makes perfect sense why the request of the hypocrites from the believers on the Day of Judgment – the day of the extinguishing of all previously known sources of light – will be that they give them some of their light. They will be without light on that day due to their lack of preparing to have their path illuminated, just as I had assumed my phone's flash light application would carry me through the darkness here only to have it die sooner than I expected. If only I had charged it more, if only I had prepared.
I thought of how many times darkness is mentioned regarding the world of the Hereafter: the darkness of the grave, the darkness of a person resurrected blind after having sight, the darkness of the bridge over the Hellfire, and the darkness of the Hellfire itself.
What induces fear of uncontrolled darkness is the unknown, what may come out of the thicket, the house, the trees, the open space. So when everything about the Hereafter is new and unknown, then the thought of the darkness that it brings is terrifying.
I drove back feeling so foolish. How could I possibly have let myself go so long without this experience? How could I fall to the illusion of a manmade world? An illusion carved up in my mind into countries and cities that are traveled to, from one manmade airport to another. All the while, thinking that I've traveled across the world when I have seen none of the world nor the signs that Allāh has placed within it.
How can I appreciate the power of the verses that I recite describing the stars falling, the mountains crumbling and the oceans ablaze if I have never appreciated the innumerability of the stars, the might of the mountains, the utter vastness of the oceans?
I have heard many times that the Universe is among the Signs of Allāh that are witnessed, and the Qurʾān is comprised of the Signs of Allāh that are recited. What happens to a people who neither witness nor recite His signs? Isn't that a sure recipe for a hardened heart?