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14 Topics All Islamic Schools Should Address During High School | Dr Shadee Elmasry

Dr Shadee Elmasry

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If you or someone you know is involved in an Islamic school, please read this and pass it on. This is critical to our growth as a community.

The people in Islamic schools have been honored with the charge of teaching the deen to the next generation. Teachers have them for 180 days a year. If they have a deen or Islamic Studies class twice a week, that is 72 periods a year. If we multiply this by four years of high school, that’s nearly 275 hours of tuition.

By 7th grade, students should have completed Shamail, seerah, aqidah, and fiqh —basically the fundamentals of the religion. All of high school should then be spent wrestling hard with the shubuhaat (doubts and thorny issues) that will be thrown at them in college.

Here is a list of things that I believe can be covered by junior year, leaving all of senior year for it to marinate in their minds through a comprehensive review and a senior paper. Here’s the list (in no particular order). Please feel free to add to it in the comment section:

1 Myth or truth: The historicity of the sources. How the Quran and Hadith were compiled and preserved

2 The theology and cosmology of gender

3 Evolution: what are our beliefs regarding the creation of the first man. Animals? The concept of “Be and it is.”

4 Secular ethics: who has the authority to decide what’s right and what’s wrong? Can religion be boxed into only the home and the masjid

5 Universalism: are religions subjective? Do all paths lead to God? Or is one of them true?

6 Women in Islamic history. There is an eight volume work on female scholars of hadith. There were many more rulers and queens among and influential contributors in other fields.

7 Sexuality between fiqh, theology, and interaction. How do I interact with my gay colleague? Can I go to his wedding? How do my deal with my sister if she comes out as a lesbian?

8 Riba: what is is and how does it relate to loans and modern finance contracts

9 Marriage: the right ways and the wrong ways of going about it. Marriage related issues in the Muslim Student Associations.

10 Citizenry, Loyalty & Identity: Between faith and nationalism. How to balance our deen and it’s world-wide Ummah and our citizenry in a non-Muslim majority country, particularly one at war with Muslim countries

11 The Deluge of Temptations: the spiritual, psychological, physical, familial, social, and financial side-effects of pornography and drugs.

12 Philosophy: the “Problem of Evil,” “Can God create a rock He can’t lift?” And other failed coups. A high school senior in a Muslim school should be able to write an essay on these topics with their eyes blindfolded.

13 Liberal Reform in Islam: Is the Sunnah a source of legislation? What is usul al-fiqh? A high school junior in an Islamic school should be able to give a talk on the sources and methodology of Islamic legislation as well as the fundamental differences between the madhhabs.

14 Spirituality – students must learn to detect the signs of a dimming faith and spiritual atrophy,  as well as know the simple methods of haunting and reversing the downward spiral.

I would venture to say that thousands of American Muslims and  millions world-wide lose their iman in college. Islamic schooling is truly effective if it’s seniors graduate armed with deep and nuanced understandings of the challenges to come. We need to be a creative minority. Our seniors should enter into college with an agenda of their own (outlined in their senior thesis). We need to be the subjects of history not the objects. Instead of being the naive targets of someone else’s agenda, we need to have our own thought and our own agenda.

Be the predator, not the prey.

Dr Shadee Elmasry was born and raised in New Jersey and studied in the Muslim world in Fez, Hadramawt, Cairo, Makka, and Madina. He completed a Masters from The George Washington University in comparative religion, then a PhD from the University of London, SOAS on “Da’wa in the Works of Imam al-Haddad.”

22 Comments

22 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Osman Umarji

    January 17, 2018 at 3:21 AM

    JazakumAllahu khair for raising these important issues to be discussed in Islamic schools.

    While I agree that children should learn all the topics mentioned, we need to address who among the Islamic school staff is capable of discussing these topics. These are topics that academics and scholars struggle to explain, in addition to the lack of consensus on many of these matters.

    Before these matters can be taught to adolescent Muslim youth, both rich content needs to be available for educators and a pedagogy for how to teach these issues. This requires a fair level of collaboration among teachers and subject matter experts.

    • Avatar

      Nabeel Hasan

      January 17, 2018 at 4:04 PM

      Muslim children in addition to everything Dr ElMasry has mentioned, need to be taught Islamic history as well. They need to know how the Khilafa was abolished in Turkey, they need to understand the colonial history and how much of every single Islamic country was under the grip of the European powers and how that caused an erosion of much of our literature, history, culture, language and overall identity of being Muslim and the concept of Ummah. However, with the minimizing of the globe through globalization, I think we have a unique opportunity to really get our children to link with the Ummah. Only then will we rid ourselves of the secular aspects of nation states and the blind faith we place on this aspect.

    • Avatar

      Fatima Ahmad

      January 19, 2018 at 7:55 PM

      -Logic/Mantiq- the basis for critical thinking, is NOT taught in public schools, or Islamic schools

      –VERY important: the study and PRACTICE of Islamic Arts, the indifference to beauty is indifference to Allah, as one Islamic Arts professor put it very eloquently in his article, The Silent Theology of Islamic Arts. (a must read for us all).

      -I agree with the above comment of Islamic History, Ottoman/ Moghul Empires.

      May Allah help us in realizing these high aspirations!

    • Avatar

      Sami

      February 12, 2018 at 3:58 PM

      Completely agree.

  2. Avatar

    Imran

    January 17, 2018 at 2:47 PM

    Thank you for this list; it’s helpful, and unfortunately not brought up nearly enough. I would add the importance of encouraging the three physical components of education that comes to us by way of hadith: teach your children swimming, horseback riding, and archery. There is benefit in other sports, but these have particular spiritual benefits that we can be assured are prophetic.

    Another glaring problem in our curriculums is the lack of very good history books. I’d say Destiny Disrupted might be a good book for high schoolers, but the most important thing is understanding the roots and development of Western culture as well as the causes of decline of Muslim civilizations. It’s of critical importance that Muslims know at what point in history they stand, so that they may learn what it is they must do, bi’dnillah.

    And Allah knows best.

  3. Avatar

    Maryam

    January 18, 2018 at 10:35 AM

    What about purification of the heart?

    • Avatar

      Farid

      January 18, 2018 at 1:26 PM

      I appreciate this effort of making the issues available for teaching contemporary Islam in schools for students who are in a panic state. More importantly, caliber muslim intellectual borad dealing worldwide islamic issues should be set up to tackle the burning problems in muslim world. Backwardness of muslims is the cost of lack in group efforts. And we muslims have ideas but these ideas grow and exhibit without utilisation. Unity is what ummah atfirst place represents for.

  4. Avatar

    Usman Quraishi

    January 18, 2018 at 3:39 PM

    i think this is expecting too much from high school children. they should focus more on secular studies to get into good college and enhance their critical thinking skills. Nowadays, high school students have short attention span and are pretty immature

    • Avatar

      Amatullah

      January 19, 2018 at 1:51 AM

      And covering these topics from a young age might exactly be the solution to the problem you are stating.

    • Avatar

      Raadiya Shardow

      January 29, 2018 at 11:52 PM

      Not only is that statement offensive, it is false. You have no idea the capabilities and intellect of high school students when they actually put effort into it. Look at other programs across the country, AP and IB classes all have this amount of rigor or more. Why can’t the same bar be applied to a crucial subject like Islamic Studies? When we start dumbing down our future, we have already lost.

  5. Avatar

    Muniba

    January 18, 2018 at 7:20 PM

    Although these topics are truly important and relevant, I must assert the importance of instilling the basics of faith and understanding of the deen both intellectually and emotionally in children in much younger stages.
    Although we focus a lot on the youth, part of the problem is that children are growing up only knowing Islam as a list of requirements, words recited in Arabic, and a list of prohibitions.
    Someone who grows up armed with only the above, yet emotionally vested in non-Muslim cultural norms may not find it worthwhile to sort through the more complex “youth” topics.

  6. Avatar

    Irfan Farooqui

    January 20, 2018 at 11:59 PM

    Masha-ALLAH the topics are very comprehensive. However along with them please provide the resources also.

  7. Avatar

    Md Nayeem

    January 23, 2018 at 10:06 AM

    You have pulled out some points, which are really need in our education institutions, even, not only for Islamic school but also in Islamic state school. Unfortunately it is happening alter, i.e. our Islamic schools have been following basic schools curriculum as to be modern. My brother!! you made some valid points, these are very essential to guide our advance mature child. These should be the very first tuition to get through our child as a decent human being in this growing secular & nasty society. Hope for the best in future,,,may Allah help us to imply these all….

  8. Avatar

    Amos

    January 23, 2018 at 1:30 PM

    They say that education is wasted on the young.

  9. Avatar

    LWR

    January 23, 2018 at 5:41 PM

    Several points come to mind after reading this excellent post and the comments which follow it:
    1. Many of the older Muslims in the U.S. were not born or brought up here, but our Muslim youth were born here and are being brought up in the United States. If we, as serious and caring Muslim adults, leaders, guides, and educators, truly want to prepare our youth to take pride in an identity which is often misunderstood, and which has been – especially recently – the subject of attack and concentrated misinformation, then we owe it to them to give them the wherewithal to do so. This very much includes the tackling of the post’s topics… and more.
    2. This should not be considered a “fluffy, liberal” extra tacked on to traditional Islamic educations. It is absolutely critical that these issues be addressed head on, in an atmosphere which is non-judgmental and non-threatening. I have been in Islamic education for many years and have witnessed first-hand the disillusionment, sense of betrayal – and bewilderment our Muslim youth face at college and beyond after leaving the protected confines of their Islamic school and/or community.
    3. It is NOT serving our Muslim youth, our Muslim Ummah, or even the future of Islam in the United States, to ignore these thorny issues. Bottom line: If they are not getting their answers from knowledgeable, conscientious, understanding adults, they most certainly WILL ask others! And they often don’t like the answers that they get. The Internet is a Pandora’s box of information, and misinformation. Shameful but true: American, anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination is widespread. When we send our youth into such situations unarmed, uninformed, and/or under-informed, they SUFFER – a LOT!

  10. Avatar

    Habib of LWR

    January 23, 2018 at 7:40 PM

    having worked a number of years with troubled youth and being a father of three I can assure you that the muslim youth that are insulated from reality due to over protective parents (this not exclusively an issue with muslim parents) who feel they are preparing children for adulthood are preparing them to venture out into the world (college for instance) ill-equipped and thoroughly enabled setting them up for the harsh reality that their peers are going to challenge them to think and question their belief system. College is not only a time to continue academic studies to earn a degree in a subject that will hopefully translate into paycheck, college is a time when the student is trying out being an adult and socializing with their peers. A time when they are full of idealism and really think they are able to change the world. if they are unprepared to meet the inevitable struggle that awaits them they will indeed be prey and the predator will be able to smell their vulnerability as soon as they walk in the room.

  11. Avatar

    Rifat Islam

    January 28, 2018 at 7:17 PM

    I know another commenter has mentioned Mantiq/Logic but a science that’s both praised in the ancient and modern worlds is rhetoric and debate. Islamic high schools throughout the country have generally been absent from the state and national debate tournaments. Debating domestic and foreign policy trains them to think critically, argue fluently and persuasively, etc. So I highly encourage any Islamic high schools to register motivated students to their local debate tournaments.

    • Avatar

      Dr. Shadee

      April 24, 2019 at 7:02 PM

      Mantiq is critical.

  12. Avatar

    Maureen Newton

    February 2, 2018 at 11:29 AM

    Usman Quraishi has it in one. Education in Britain should be non religious. In Britain think British all are here to improve the country as a whole not be biased to a religious backwater.

  13. Avatar

    Uzma

    November 16, 2018 at 7:47 AM

    Thank you for your suggestions which I found very relevant and pertinent. The problem is now finding the right people and correct information to teach these topics. Could you recommend any books, online lectures, websites; which provide authentic knowledge on the topics you have listed. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you again.
    Warmest salams
    Uzma Jung

  14. Avatar

    Senad Agic

    April 23, 2019 at 12:39 PM

    I would appreciate if a lesson about “Sticking to the Jama’ah” would be added. Our youth tend to distance themselves from the Jama’ah and the Imam to the point to declare that there is no need to follow any person or any authority or institutional religion. Some of them later become disoriented and religious in their own way. This way often leads to all kinds of deviations and extremism.
    The Prophet sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam has informed us in the hadith of Hudhayfah radiallahu ‘anhu in which he said: “The people used to ask the Messenger of Allah sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam about the good, and I used to ask him about the evil out of fear that it would reach me.” So I asked the Messenger of Allah: “O Messenger of Allah, we were living in ignorance and evil, then Allah brought this good to us. So will there be any evil after this good?” He replied: “Yes.” I then asked: “Will there be any good after this evil?” He replied: “Yes, but it will be tainted.” So I asked: “What will be its taint?” He replied: “A people who guide others to other than my way, you will approve of some of their actions and disapprove of others.” I further enquired: “Then is there any evil after this good?” He said: “Yes! Callers at the gates of Hell – whoever responds to their call, they will be thrown into the fire.” I then said: “O Messenger of Allah! Describe them to us.” He said: “They will be from our people and speak our language.” I asked: “So what do you order me to do if that reaches me?” He said: “Stick to the Jama’ah (the united body) of the Muslims and their Imam (ruler).” I further asked: “What if they have neither Jama’ah or an Imam?” He said: “Then keep away from all those sects, even if you have to bite upon the roots of a tree, until death reaches you whilst you are in that state.” Related by al-Bukhari (no.7084) and Muslim (no.1847)

  15. Avatar

    Farheen Khan

    April 23, 2019 at 5:21 PM

    I hate to disagree, but as someone with extensive experience in curriculum design as well as a mother of 2 high schoolers (a junior and a senior), this article shows a shocking lack of understanding in respect to educational psychology, child development, and general curriculum design. Most disheartening is the lack of understanding for the needs of high schoolers, especially seniors. At this point in their studies, the topics they study should be focused on action not theories. Especially as seniors on the cusp of entering the “real world”, they should be DOING not philosophizing. Of the 14 points mentioned in the article, only a few address the social issues that are inevitably faced by college students. The rest – philosophical. The emphasis needs to be shifted, drastically. Topics should be relevant, meaningful, and actionable from a student’s perspective.
    Additionally, students need to revisit topics periodically throughout their formative years. The idea presented that students should have completed their study of seerah, aqidah, fiqh, etc. by 7th grade might sound great in theory but not in reality. The changes that take place in a student morally, cognitively, physically, emotionally, etc. from 7th grade to 12th grade are astounding. There are also issues for implementing this schoolwide, which I will not get into on a FB post at the moment :) The solution: a spiral design curriculum, the reevaluation of student goals, and a more action-oriented pedagogical approach to achieving those objectives.

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The Spirituality Of Gratitude

Shaykh Tarik Ata

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Gratitude

The Quran tells the reader of the importance of gratitude in two ways. First, worship, which is the essence of the relationship between man and the Creator, is conditional to gratitude “and be grateful to Allah if it is [indeed] Him that you worship” (2:172). The verse suggests that in order for an individual to truly worship Allah then they must express gratitude to Allah and that an ungrateful individual cannot be a worshiper of Allah. The second verse states the following “And be grateful to Me and do not deny Me” (2:152). The Arabic word used, translated here as ‘deny,’ is kufr which linguistically means to cover up. The word was adopted by the Quran to refer to someone who rejects Allah after learning of Him. Both the linguistic and Quranic definitions are possibly meant in this verse and both arrive at the same conclusion. That is, the absence of gratitude is an indicator of one’s rejection of Allah; the question is how and why?

What Does Shukr Mean?

Understanding a Quranic concept begins with understanding the word chosen by the Quran. The word shukr is used throughout the Quran and is commonly translated as gratitude. From a purely linguistic definition, shukr is “the effect food has on the body of an animal” (Ibn Qayyim v. 2 p. 200). What is meant here is that when an animal eats food it becomes heavier which has a clear and visible effect on the animal. Therefore, shukr is the manifestation of a blessing or blessings on the entirety of a person. From here, spiritualists understood the goal of shukr and added an extra element to the definition and that is the acknowledgment that those blessings are from Allah. Thus, the definition of shukr as an Islamic spiritual concept is “the manifestation of Allah’s blessings verbally through praise and acknowledgment; emotionally on the heart through witnessing the blessings and loving Allah; and physically through submission and servitude” (Ibid).

Based on this definition, the goal of shukr can be broken into five categories. First, gratitude that brings about the submission of the individual to his benefactor. In order for an act to be worthy of gratitude, the beneficiary must conclude that the benefactor’s action was done for the sake of the beneficiary – thus making the benefactor benevolent. In other words, the benefactor is not benefiting in the least (Emmons et al 2004 p. 62). When the individual recognizes his benefactor, Allah, as being completely independent of the individual and perfect in of himself, one concludes that the actions of the benefactor are purely in the best interest of the beneficiary resulting in the building of trust in Allah. The Quran utilizes this point multiple times explicitly stating that Allah has nothing to gain from the creations servitude nor does he lose anything from because of their disobedience (Q 2:255, 4:133, 35:15, 47:38). Through shukr, a person’s spirituality increases by recognizing Allah’s perfection and their own imperfection thus building the feeling of need for Allah and trust in him (Emmons et al 2002 p. 463).

Gratitude in Knowing That Allah Loves Us

The second category is love for the benefactor. Similar to the previous category, by identifying the motive of the benefactor one can better appreciate their favors. “Gratitude is fundamentally a moral affect with empathy at its foundation: In order to acknowledge the cost of the gift, the recipient must identity with the psychological state of the one who has provided it” (Emmons 2002 p. 461).[1] That is, by recognizing Allah’s perfection one concludes that his blessings are entirely in the best interest of the beneficiary despite not bringing any return to Him. Thus, the Quran utilizes this concept repeatedly and to list a few, the Quran reminds the human reader that he created the human species directly with his two hands (38:75), he created them in the best physical and mental form (95:4), gave him nobility (17:70), commanded the angels to prostrate to him out of reverence (38:72-3), made him unique by giving him knowledge and language (2:31), exiled Satan who refused to revere him (7:13), allowed him into Paradise (7:19), forgave his mistake (2:37), designated angels to protect each individual (13:11) and supplicate Allah to forgive the believers (40:7-9), created an entire world that caters to his needs (2:29), among plenty of other blessings which express Allah’s love, care, and compassion of the human.

The remaining three categories revolve around the individual acting upon their gratitude by acknowledging them, praising Allah for them and using them in a manner acceptable to Allah. In order for gratitude to play a role in spirituality the blessings one enjoys must be utilized in a manner that connects them with Allah. Initially, one must acknowledge that all blessings are from him thus establishing a connection between the self and Allah. This is then elevated to where the individual views these blessings as more than inanimate objects but entities that serve a purpose. By doing this one begins to see and appreciate the wisdoms behind these created entities enlightening the individual to the Creators abilities and qualities. Finally, after recognizing the general and specific wisdoms behind each creation, one feels a greater sense of purpose, responsibility, and loyalty. That is, engaging the previous five categories establishes love for the benefactor (Ibn Qayyim v. 2 p. 203). Observing the care and compassion of the benefactor for his creation establishes the feeling of loyalty towards the one who has cared for us as well as responsibility since He created everything with purpose.

Blessings Even in Hardship

One may interject by referring to the many individuals and societies that are plagued with hardships and do not have blessings to appreciate. No doubt this is a reality and the Quran address this indirectly. Upon analysis, one finds that the blessings which the Quran references and encourages the reader to appreciate are not wealth or health; rather, it is the sun, the moon, trees, and the natural world in general. Perhaps the reason for this is what shukr seeks to drive us towards. There are two things all these objects have in common (1) they are gifts given by Allah to all humans and all individuals enjoy them and (2) humans are dependent upon them. Everyone has access to the sun, no one can take it away, and we are critically dependent upon it. When the Quran draws our attention to these blessings, the reader should begin to appreciate the natural world at a different level and Surah an Nahl does precisely that. This chapter was likely revealed during the time of hijrah (immigration); a time when the companions lost everything – their homes, wealth, and tribes. The chapter works to counsel them by teaching them that the true blessings a person enjoys is all around them and no matter how much was taken from them, no one can take away the greater blessings of Allah.

In sum, these verses bring light to the crucial role shukr plays in faith. It serves as a means to better know Allah which can be achieved through a series of phases. First, the individual must search for the blessings which then leads to a shift in perspective from focusing on the wants to focusing on what is available. This leads to greater appreciation and recognition of the positives in one’s life allowing the person more optimism. Second, the person must link those blessings to the benefactor – Allah – which reveals many elements of who He is and His concern for His creation. Once this is internalized in the person’s hearts, its benefits begin to manifest itself on the person’s heart, mind, and body; it manifests itself in the form of love for Allah and submission to him. Shukr ultimately reveals the extent of Allah’s love and concern for the individual which therein strengthens the trust and love of the individual for Allah and ultimately their submission to Him.

Allah knows best.

Emmons, Robert A., and Charles M. Shelton. “Gratitude and the science of positive psychology.” Handbook of positive psychology 18 (2002): 459-471.

Emmons, Robert A., and Michael E. McCullough, eds. The psychology of gratitude. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Jawziyyah, Ibn Qayyim. madārij al-sālikīn bayn manāzil iyyāka naʿbud wa iyyāka nastaʿīn مدارج السالكين بين منازل إياك نعبد وإياك نستعين [The Levels of Spirituality between the Dynamics of “It is You Alone we Worship and it is You Alone we Seek Help From]. Cario: Hadith Publications, 2005.

[1] Islamically speaking, it is not befitting to claim that Allah has a psyche or that he can be analyzed psychologically.

Download a longer version of this article here: The Sprituality of Gratitude

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Lessons From Surah Maryam: 1

Shaykh Furhan Zubairi

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Alhamdulillah, it’s a great blessing of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) that He has given us both the opportunity and ability to come here tonight to study and explore the meanings of His words in Surah Maryam. I’m truly grateful for this opportunity. May Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) accept this effort from all of us and place it on our scale of good deeds.

Alhamdulillah, in our last series we were able to complete the tafsir of Surah Al-Kahf. InshAllah, in this next series, we’ll be exploring the meanings, lessons, and reminders of Surah Maryam. Tafsīr is an extremely noble and virtuous discipline. The reason why it’s so noble and virtuous is that it’s the study of the divine speech of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). As mentioned in a hadith the superiority of the speech of Allah over all other speech is like the superiority of Allah over all of His creation. There’s nothing more beneficial and virtuous than studying the Quran. And by doing so we’ll be counted amongst the best of people. As the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “the best amongst you are those who learn the Quran and teach it.”

All of us need to build a stronger relationship with the Quran. The Quran is full of wisdom and guidance in every single verse and word. It’s our responsibility to seek that guidance, understand it, contextualize it and more importantly act upon it. Tafsīr is such a unique science that it brings together all of the other Islamic sciences. While exploring a Surah a person comes across discussions regarding Arabic grammar and morphology, rhetoric, Ahādīth, fiqh, sīrah and all those studies that are known as the Islamic Sciences. One scholar described the Quran as an ocean that has no shore, بحر لا ساحل له. The more we study the Qur’ān the stronger our relationship with it will become. We’ll become more and more attached to it and will be drawn into its beauty and wonder. The deeper a person gets into tafsir and studying the more engaged and interested they become. They also recognize how little they truly know. It develops humility. That’s the nature of true knowledge. The more we learn the more we recognize we don’t know. May Allah ﷻ allow us all to be sincere and committed students of the Qur’ān.

Surah Maryam

Surah Maryam is the 19th surah in the Quran. It is a relatively long Makki surah made up of 98 verses. Some commentators mention that it’s the 44th Surah to be revealed, after Surah Al-Fatir and before Surah Taha. It has been given the name Maryam because Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) mentions the story of Maryam (as) and her family and how she gave birth to Isa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) miraculously at the beginning of the Surah. Just like other Makkan surahs, it deals with the most fundamental aspects of our faith. It talks about the existence and oneness of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), prophethood, and resurrection and recompense.

The Surah is made up of a series of unique stories filled with guidance and lessons that are meant as reminders. One of the main themes of this Surah is mercy… It has been mentioned over 16 times in this Surah. We’ll find the words of grace, compassion and their synonyms frequently mentioned throughout the sūrah, together with Allah’s attributes of beneficence and mercy. We can say that one of the objectives of the Surah is to establish and affirm the attribute of mercy for Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). That’s why all of the stories mentioned also have to do with Allah’s mercy.

Another objective of the Surah is to remind us of our relationship with Allah ﷻ; the concept of Al-‘Ubūdiyyah. These are the two major themes or ideas of this Surah; the concept of Rahmah and the concept of ‘Ubūdiyyah (Mercy and Servitude).

The Surah can be divided into 8 sections:

1) Verses 1-15: The surah starts with the story of Zakariyya (as) and how he was given the gift of a child at a very old age, which was something strange and out of the ordinary.

2) Verses 16-40: mention the story of Maryam and the miraculous birth of Isa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) without a father and how her community responded to her.

3) Verses 41-50: The surah then briefly mentions one part of the story of Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), specifically the conversation he had with his father regarding the worship of idols. The surah then briefly mentions a series of other Prophets.

4) Verses 51-58: Mention Musa and Haroon 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), Ismail 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) and Idrees 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) to show that the essence of the message of all Prophets was the same

5) Verses 59-65: compare and contrast the previous generations with the current ones in terms of belief and actions.

6) Verses 66-72: Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) addresses the Mushrikoon rejecting their false claims regarding life after death and judgment.

7) Verses 73-87: continue to address the Mushrikoon and warn them regarding their attitude towards belief in Allah and His messengers. They also mention the great difference between the resurrection of the believer and the resurrection of the non-believer.

8) Verses 88-98: contain a severe warning to those who claim that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) has taken a child. They also express that Allah is pleased with the believers and mentions that one of the objectives of the Quran is to give glad tidings to the believers and to warn the non-believers.

Story

From various narrations, we learn that this surah was revealed near the end of the fourth year of Prophethood. This was an extremely difficult time for Muslims. The Quraysh were frustrated with their inability to stop the message of Islam from spreading so they became ruthless. They resorted to any method of torture that they could think of; beating, starving and harassing. When the persecution became so severe that it was difficult for the Muslims to bear it, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) gave permission to migrate to Abyssinia. “For in it dwells a king in whose presence no one is harmed.” 10 men and 4 women migrated in the 5th year of Prophethood secretly. After a few months, a larger group of 83 men and 18 women migrated as well. This migration added more fuel to the fire. It enraged the people of Quraysh.

Umm Salamah [rahna]narrated, “When we stopped to reside in the land of Abyssinia we lived alongside the best of neighbors An-Najashi. We practiced our religion safely, worshipped Allah without harm and didn’t hear anything we disliked. When news of our situation reached the Quraysh they started to plot against us…” They decided to send two delegates to persuade An-Najashi to send the Companions back by offering him and his ministers’ gifts. The plan was to go to each minister with gifts and turn them against the Muslims. So they went to each minister with gifts and said, “Verily, foolish youth from amongst us have come to the country of your king; they have abandoned the religion of their people and have not embraced your religion. Rather they have come with a new religion that neither of us knows. The noblemen of their people, from their fathers and uncles, have sent us to the king asking that he send them back. So when we speak to the king regarding their situation advise him to surrender them to us and to not speak to them…” The minister agreed.

Then they went to the king, offered him gifts and said the same thing… The ministers tried to convince him as well. An-Najashi became angry with them and said, “No, by Allah, I will not surrender them to these two and I don’t fear the plotting of a people who have become my neighbors, have settled down in my country, and have chosen me (to grant them refuge) over every other person. I will not do so until I summon them and speak to them. If they are as these two say I will give them up, but if they aren’t then I will protect them from these two and continue to be a good neighbor to them as long as they are good neighbors to me.”

al-Najāshī then summoned the Prophet’s ﷺ Companions. When his messenger informed the Prophet’s Companions that they were to appear before the king, they gathered together to discuss what they should do. One of them asked, “What will you say to the name (al-Najāshī) when you go to him?” They all agreed on what they would say to him, “By Allah, we will say what our Prophet ﷺ taught us and commanded us with, regardless of the consequences.” Meanwhile, al-Najāshī called for his priests, who gathered around him with their scrolls spread out before them. When the Muslims arrived al-Najāshī began by asking them, “What is this religion for which you have parted from your people? You have not entered into the fold of my religion, nor the religion of any person from these nations.”

Umm Salamah [rahna] narrated, “The Person among us who would speak to him was Jaʿfar ibn abī Ṭālib [rahnu] who then said, “O king, we were an ignorant people: we worshipped idols, we would eat from the flesh of dead animals, we would perform lewd acts, we would cut off family ties, and we would be bad neighbors; the strong among us would eat from the weak. We remained upon that state until Allah sent us a Messenger, whose lineage, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and chastity we already knew. He invited us to Allah – to believe in His oneness and to worship Him; to abandon all that we and our fathers worshipped besides Allah, in terms of stones and idols. He ﷺ commanded us to speak truthfully, to fulfill the trust, to join ties of family relations, to be good to our neighbors, and to refrain from forbidden deeds and from shedding blood. And he ﷺ forbade us from lewd acts, from uttering falsehood, from wrongfully eating the wealth of an orphan, from falsely accusing chaste women of wrongdoing. And he ﷺ ordered us to worship Allah alone and to not associate any partners with him in worship; and he ﷺ commanded us to pray, to give zakāh, and to fast.” He enumerated for al-Najāshī the teachings of Islam. He said, “And we believe him and have faith in him. We follow him in what he came with. And so we worship Allah alone, without associating any partners with Him in worship. We deem forbidden that which he has made forbidden for us, and we deem lawful that which he made permissible for us. Our people then transgressed against us and tortured us. The tried to force us to abandon our religion and to return from the worship of Allah to the worship of idols; they tried to make us deem lawful those abominable acts that we used to deem lawful. Then, when they subjugated us, wronged us, and treated us in an oppressive manner, standing between us and our religion, we came to your country, and we chose you over all other people. We desired to live alongside you, and we hoped that, with you, we would not be wronged, O king.” al-Najāshī said to Jaʿfar [rahnu], “Do you have any of that which he came with from Allah?” Jaʿfar [rahnu] said, “Yes”. “Then recite to me,” said al-Najāshī. Jaʿfar [rahnu] recited for him the beginning of Surah Maryam. By Allah, al-Najāshī began to cry, until his beard became wet with tears. And when his priests heard what Jaʿfar [rahnu] was reciting to them, they cried until their scrolls became wet. al-Najāshī then said, “By Allah, this and what Mūsa (as) came with come out of the same lantern. Then by Allah, I will never surrender them to you, and henceforward they will not be plotted against and tortured.”

Describing what happened after the aforementioned discussion between al-Najāshī and Jaʿfar [rahnu], Umm Salamah raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) said, “When both ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ and ʿAbdullah ibn abī Rabīʿah left the presence of al-Najāshī, ʿAmr [rahnu] said, “By Allah tomorrow I will present to him information about them with which I will pull up by the roots their very lives.” Abdullah ibn Rabīʿah who was more sympathetic of the two towards us said, “Don’t do so, for they have certain rights of family relations, even if they have opposed us.” ʿAmr said, “By Allah, I will inform him that they claim that ʿĪsā ibn Maryam is a slave.”

He went to the king on the following day and said, “O king, verily, they have strong words to say about ʿĪsa (as). Call them here and ask them what they say about him.” al-Najāshī sent for them in order to ask them about ʿĪsa. Nothing similar to this befell us before. The group of Muslims gathered together and said to one another, “What will you say about ʿĪsa when he asks you about him?” They said, “By Allah, we will say about him that which Allah says and that which our Prophet ﷺ came with, regardless of the outcome.” When they entered into his presence, he said to them, “What do you say about ʿĪsa ibn Maryam?” Jaʿfar raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) said, “We say about him that which our Prophet ﷺ came with – that he is the slave of Allah, His messenger, a spirit created by Him, and His word, which he bestowed on Maryam, the virgin, the baṭūl.”

al-Najāshī struck his hand on the ground and took from it a stick. He then said, “ʿĪsa ibn Maryam did not go beyond what you said even the distance of the stick.” When he said this, his ministers spoke out in anger, to which he responded, “What I said is true even if you speak out in anger, by Allah. (Turning to the Muslims, he said) Go, for you are safe in my land. Whoever curses you will be held responsible. And I would not love to have a reward of gold in return for me hurting a single man among you. (Speaking to his ministers he said) Return to these two (men) their gifts, since we have no need for them. For by Allah, Allah did not take from me bribe money when He returned to me my kingdom, so why should I take bribe money. The two left, defeated and humiliated; and returned to them were the things they came with. We then resided alongside al-Najāshī in a very good abode, with a very good neighbor.”

The response was simply amazing in its eloquence. A believer puts the needs of his soul before the needs of his body. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) starts the Surah by saying,

Verse 1: Kaf, Ha, Ya, ‘Ayn, Sad.

Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) starts Surah Maryam with a series of five letters. There are many different saying or explanations regarding these five letters. The most correct opinion is that these are from the broken letters. There are 29 different Surahs in the Quran that start with the broken letters. Only Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) alone knows the meanings of these letters. They are a secret from amongst the secrets of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), meaning that no one knows what they truly mean. Only Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) knows their meanings so they are from amongst the Mutashaabihat, those verses whose meanings are hidden.

However, we do find that some great Companions, as well as their students, sometimes gave meanings to these words. For example, it’s said that it is in acronym and each letter represents one of the names of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). Kaf is for Al-Kafi or Al-Kareem, “haa” is for Al-Hadi, “yaa” is from Hakeem or Raheem, “’ayn” is from Al-‘Aleem or Al-‘Adheem, and “saad” is from Al-Saadiq. Others said that it is one of the names of Allah and it’s actually Al-Ism Al-‘Atham or that it’s a name of the Quran. However, these narrations can’t be used as proof or to assign definitive meanings. They offer possibilities, but no one truly knows what they mean.

Now the question should come to our mind that why would Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) start of a Surah with words that no one understands?

1) To grab the attention of the listeners.

2) To remind us that no matter how much we know there’s always something that we don’t know.

3) These letters are the letters of the Arabic language and the Quran was revealed at a time that was the peak of eloquence of the language and it was their identity. The Quran was revealed challenging them spiritually and intellectually. The Arabs never heard these letters being used in such a majestic way.

4) To prove the inimitable nature of the Quran.

Allah then starts the story of Zakariyya 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him). Zakariyya 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was one of the Prophets sent to Bani Israel. He was the husband of Maryam’s paternal aunt. He was also one of the caretakers or custodians of Baitul Maqdis.

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