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God’s Plan and Muhammad Ali – Imam Zaid Shakir

Imam Zaid Shakir



The analytical methods which postmodernism has given birth to are qualified by many sad features. One is the rejection of the idea of greatness. These methods leave no space for great men or women. What we find instead is an unrealistic leveling that reduces every prince to a valet and confers upon every valet princely pretensions. For example, Malcolm X, eulogized by Ossie Davis as a “black shining prince,” a man who had the courage to change when his commitment to the truth demanded change, as highlighted in his autobiography, is reduced to a conniving hustler who is constantly “reinventing” himself in Manning Marable’s deconstruction of his life.

More disturbing, and of perhaps greater import for Muslims, is the removal of God as an active agent in history. Providence has no bearing on historical outcomes. Similarly, Divine guidance is not to be considered when examining the complicated array of decisions and choices that lead any of us to become who we are. There is only a boring, random collection of unrelated accidents, which if they are to be examined systematically, it will be through a framework provided by sociology or anthropology. Some would call the whole arrangement, “new school.”

Being an old school person I have never been impressed with the new school. It is much too predictable and intellectually hegemonic. There must be ways of assessing reality that differ from the stark materialism bequeathed to us by the modern and now post-modern West. Islam provides us one of those alternative approaches, for more than any other system it demands that the Divine be considered in all things. It is through the prism of Islam, specifically through the unfolding of God’s plan, that I wish to examine some of the major aspects of the life of Muhammad Ali, may God have mercy on him.

My contention is that Ali would never have become Ali had not God both prepared him for his times and prepared his times for him. That preparation began with Ali’s deeply religious mother, Odessa Lee Clay. His mother’s deep religiosity left an indelible imprint on the young Ali. That imprint would influence Ali becoming a dedicated member of the Nation of Islam (NOI) and a faithful follower of Elijah Muhammad. It would also sustain Ali once he moved away from the NOI under the leadership of Imam Warith Deen Muhammad, and later in his life as he became more deeply influenced by more traditional expressions of Islamic spirituality.

Of course, it is highly possible for a child growing up without the influence of a devout parent to end up deeply religious, however, the odds are greatly enhanced when those closest to you during your formative years are themselves devout. In both his home and in church Ali was being prepared for a religious life. This is something all who knew Ali note. Like Moses, his being placed in a particular house was one of the first notable acts of Divine intervention in Ali’s life.

Ali was also conditioned in childhood to make the kind of history-altering choices he would make later in life. He knew from a young age that there was danger in the path of a black man in America, hence, whatever decision you made you needed to be prepared to die for it. This sense of danger was drilled into Ali’s consciousness by the lynching of Emmitt Till. Ali would never forget that brutal Mississippi murder of a young man his own age. It informed him of the depths of hatred some men could sink to when you offended them, either via imagined or petty offenses, such as that attributed to Emmitt Till, or in highly charged ways, as Ali would later do. That being so, Ali knew that when you took a stand you had best be prepared to die for it. Hence, he was dead serious when he said, commenting on the hell he caught when he refused induction into the United States military, “Whatever the consequences may be, I will not renounce the religion of Islam. I’m ready to die. If you put me before a firing squad tomorrow, I’m ready to die.” Both that consciousness and courage were necessary gifts God gave to Ali.

Ali’s boxing career itself began with what can only be described as an act of God. Of course, as Muslims we believe that everything is “an act of God,” I state it here for emphasis. That particular act was the theft of Ali’s brand new bike. Such an occurrence is common. I can remember my bike being stolen as a young boy, however, what happened next is extremely uncommon. First of all, Ali reported the theft to the police, something I never considered doing because the relationship between the police and those living in the vast public housing project I grew up in was such that you did not think of inviting the police to intervene in such matters.

Young kids in our community were usually trying to avoid the police at all costs. Ali, however, went to the police and the officer he found, in segregated Louisville, Kentucky, happened to be a white boxing coach, Joe Martin, who had taken an interest in helping young black kids. Instead of blowing off the skinny twelve-year-old he suggested that he learn how to fight if indeed he wanted to punish the thief were he to find him. There are tremendous odds against this series of events occurring as they did. God had a plan for Ali and Ali was always aware of that fact.

In preparing Ali for the world God blessed him not only with incredible physical ability, perhaps, during the earlier phase of his boxing career, he possessed the fastest hands in the history of the sport. He was also blessed with great physical beauty and a quick, poetic wit. There had been many talented boxers before Ali. We could mention in that regard one Ali himself idolized, Sugar Ray Robinson. However, none possessed Ali’s charisma and beauty– two attributes that would serve him greatly via the medium of television.

In that regard, God brought Ali unto the national stage at a time when television was just emerging as a household standard and Ali was tailor-made for that particular medium. Whether bombastically threatening Sonny Liston, predicting the round in which his next opponent would fall, playing around with the Beatles, or bantering with Howard Cosell, Ali was the first athlete whose fame and/or notoriety was boosted to such an extent by television. A medium had been prepared for Ali which would be instrumental in projecting him unto the global stage. Like John Kennedy, whose improbable victory over Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election was attributed in large part to his televised persona, Ali’s rise, initially as Cassius Clay, was greatly enhanced by television. Had he appeared even five years earlier he would have been just a talented boxer little known outside of the fight world.

Thereafter, God guided Ali to Islam. When one considers the likelihood of a brash, charismatic, highly successful athlete, with the prospect of making millions of dollars because of the aforementioned emergence of television and the tremendous revenues it opened up for top-level professional athletes (remember the picture of Ali sitting on a pile of cash), one must concede that Ali’s Islam itself is a miracle. God alone guided Ali to Islam and in so doing made him one of the most popular men on earth; for the entire Muslim world could relate to a boxing champion named Muhammad Ali. Ali became their champion. Had he remained Cassius Clay he would not have gained that degree of global recognition and popularity no matter how talented a fighter he was.

Ali’s popularity was further enhanced when he took his stand against participating in the Viet Nam War. By refusing induction into the United States military Ali suffered the loss of his title, the loss of his livelihood and the constant threat of losing his very life. However, he would not back down. By so doing, he was facing, up close, the same forces that were ravaging not just Viet Nam but countless other countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In defying those forces Ali was now the champion of not just the Muslim world but the entire Third World. As he left the 1960s stripped of his title but steeped in his dignity, Ali was the most popular man on Earth.

Throughout the ordeal he was forced to endure because of the stand he had taken Ali was acutely aware of the dangers he faced. As we mentioned earlier, he was always haunted by the specter of Emmitt Till’s murder. Shortly after he became Muslim, his most significant early mentor, Malcolm X, was assassinated. Soon after Ali’s defiance of the US war machine, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down, in all likelihood because of the stand he had taken against the war in Viet Nam. Yet Ali persevered and he never resorted to taking a bodyguard. He knew that God was with him. When asked if he has a bodyguard Ali responded,

I have one bodyguard. He has no eyes, yet He sees. He has no ears, yet He hears. He remembers everything with the aid of mighty memory. When He wishes to create a thing He orders it into existence, but His order is not conveyed with words, which take a tongue to follow it or the sound carrying ears. He hears the secrets of those under quiet thought. Ask me, who is that? That’s God, Allah. He’s my bodyguard, He’s your bodyguard.

Through his courage and defiant speech, Ali had captured the hearts of the struggling, oppressed Muslim and Third World masses. He commanded the global stage. Yet there was another audience God prepared Ali to capture, white America. Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the army occurred at a time when the movement to end the war in Viet Nam was just building up momentum. His courageous stand, taken as the heavyweight champion of the world instantly made Ali’s case the cause celebre of the antiwar movement. It also catapulted Ali, despite his involvement with the NOI, into the hearts of America’s rebellious white youths. As these youths, many of them attending elite universities, made their way into professional and public life, Ali would benefit in many tangible and intangible ways.

Not all of white America was antiwar though. Not all of white America had been able to cleanse itself of the persistent stench of racism to an extent that would allow it to embrace such a fiery young black voice. The conquest of larger swaths of white America would come not through Ali’s words but through his silence. As Ali, once famously dubbed the “Louisville Lip” owing to his loquaciousness, lost his speech he began to speak with the tongue of his state. It was that tongue that was able to touch the hearts of millions of white Americans who, pitiably, were not prepared to listen to the young Ali, or Malcolm, or Dr. King, or Fannie Lou Hamer, or the angry black youth flooding the streets of Detroit, Newark, Watts, Hartford, Chicago, Washington DC and elsewhere throughout the nation.

That silence allowed those who refused to listen to Ali or the masses he spoke for to finally hear him. God sent them a voice they could understand. That voice was a silent Ali. Contrary to what some may believe and have stated, that voice was not a passive voice of weakness, defeat and resignation. It was a powerful voice that roared through its dignity, love, compassion, perseverance, and its matchless affirmation of the ability of the human will to triumph over the most desperate circumstances. It roared in the presence of kings and presidents. It roared from the top of the Olympic stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. It roared, even after his passing, in Louisville, as Ali’s body wove through the streets of his childhood home en route to his final place of rest. It roars even today for those who care to listen.

Finally, it was also God’s plan was to enter Ali, in my estimation, into a relationship with Himself of love, nearness and service, a relationship Muslims refer to as Wilaya. Ali was once asked by a young man in Ireland what he planned to do after boxing? Ali’s response was that he planned to use his remaining days to prepare to meet his Lord. God facilitated that preparation, among other ways, by taking Ali’s speech. The ensuing silence led to the contemplation, serenity, reflection, devotion and service necessary to cement Ali’s relationship of Wilaya with his Lord.

Finally, just as God ordered Abraham to proclaim the pilgrimage among all nations of the world, promising him that He would ensure that every soul would hear his voice, He made sure that all of the nations of the world, even those who refused to listen, would hear Ali’s voice. It was always a voice calling to peace, and ultimately to love, mutual respect and goodwill towards all. As we stand today in a nation rife with polarizing hatreds, resurging racism, entrenching tribalisms and a debilitating refusal to listen to each other, it is time we started listening to Ali. It is God’s plan.

Imam Zaid Shakir

Imam Zaid Shakir is a scholar and co-founder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California. In 2001, he was the first American male graduate from Syria's Abu Nour University.



  1. Avatar


    June 3, 2018 at 2:38 PM

    Thank you for writing this! This gives me confidence in Gods plan for me. I may not be like Muhammad’s Ali, but I hope to change the lives of many using Islam as guidance InshaAllah.

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    Seth Ibrahim

    June 3, 2018 at 2:51 PM

    A moving tribute with Historical significance, and a reminder for any who would take a lesson from it.

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    Virginia Bemis

    June 3, 2018 at 2:55 PM

    All of us with Parkinson’s Disease and Parkinsonism will remember him with great respect and thankfulness for what he did to help us. His work in raising awareness of the disease and the research and treatment centre he founded will be helping people with Parkinson’s for years to come.

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    June 3, 2018 at 2:56 PM

    Boxing is haraam and his awrah is not covered. Why are we celebrating this man?

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      June 3, 2018 at 5:26 PM

      Because he made a more positive image of Islam, and he knocked out racism in America. He was such a very religious Muslim, that almost everything he did in life, he depended on Allah for that. It doesn’t matter what’s haram in boxing. That’s not the point.

      – He spread a positive image of Islam
      – He knocked out white establishment America
      – He was a very religious Muslim and loved Allah.
      – Everything he did in life, he depended on Allah.

      Allah does not denounce Muhammad Ali because of him being a boxer. Besides, Muhammad Ali loved Allah so much. Allah would have loved him back.

      This is why you should celebrate him

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        June 6, 2018 at 5:24 PM

        Maryam, since when is hitting people on the face and head for sport a halaal thing?

    • Avatar


      June 6, 2018 at 6:30 AM

      How on earth is boxing haram?? If you have a problem with what the players are wearing, then change the dress code, not the job.

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    June 3, 2018 at 9:38 PM

    I think it’s a little inappropriate having a shirtless pic of him on the front page of MM. Yes, it’s a little blurred, and its not absolutely haram, but still. Be mindful for your Muslimah sisters.

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    Jody Fleming

    June 4, 2018 at 5:03 AM

    My husband will be 85 years old next month and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 16 months ago. his main symptom were and rigidity or stiffness of his right-hand side.he also had some difficulty writing. The original diagnosis was confirmed three months later by a second neurologist. He was on one tablet of pramipexole (Sifrol), 0.25 mg three times a day. Four months ago his neurologist added Biperiden, 2 mg. he takes half a tablet of Biperiden three times a day. He still didn’t feel any better, Since the original diagnosis, his stiffness has slowly increased. He lost touch with reality suspecting it was the medication I took him off the Siferol (with the doctor’s knowledge) and started him on PD natural herbal formula we ordered from NATURAL HERBAL GARDENS, I spoke to few people who used the treatment here in Canada and they all gave a positive response, his symptoms totally declined over a 7 weeks use of the Natural Herbal Gardens Parkinson’s disease natural herbal formula. He is now almost 85 and doing very well, the disease is totally reversed! (Visit their website naturalherbalgardens. c o m) I am thankful to nature, herbs are truly gift from God. Share with friends!!

    • Avatar


      June 17, 2018 at 7:30 AM

      Assalamu ‘alaikum,

      My cousin, who is a dentist by training with an MSc in Oral Surgery lost his sight about 9 years ago because of Glaucoma. I contacted The Natural Herbal Garden and they said by taking their herbal formula they are 100% sure he will regain his sight. My cousin has seen the top eye specialists in London and the only thing the could do is to relieve the pressure in his eyes. Do you think he should give the herbal formula a try? It costs $400.
      wa salaam,

  7. Avatar

    Hina Khan-Mukhtar

    June 5, 2018 at 2:37 AM

    Beautifully written, masha’allah. What a wonderful summary of a great man’s life — so many opportunities to reflect and learn while reading this essay. I’m planning on sharing it with my 14-year-old so he can also see why it’s important to know about one of the greatest of all time, Muhammad Ali.

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    June 6, 2018 at 12:09 PM

    Assalaamu’alaikum. The article mentions a reply of Mohammad Ali:

    “When asked if he has a bodyguard Ali responded,

    I have one bodyguard. He has no eyes, yet He sees..”

    But in Qur’aan and Sunnah, numerous times there are mentions about ALLAAH’S EYES…SO, the correct creed of Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaa’ah is:”ALLAAH HAS EYES”. We cannot say that, Allaah has no eyes…

    My humble naseehah to the author Imam Zaid Shakir:

    When the honorable Imam (hafizahullaah) spreads a quotation of Mohammad Ali(may Allaah have mercy upon him), which delivers wrong conception about the attributes of ALLAAH SwT or Islamic Creed/Religious matter, then he has the RESPONSIBILITY to also ADD the CORRECTION with that misleading quotation.

    This is a humble naseehah for the sake of Allaah..hope Imam Zaid Shakir(hafizahullaah) will revise and re-write the article and ADD a “NOTE of CORRECTION” with the previous post and the subscribers will receive an e-mail of the new corrected article before late.


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    June 6, 2018 at 5:26 PM

    Amjad, if it was a Muslim female boxer (and all the ones that exist get a lot of hate for not being a “good” Muslimah), then would you be saying the same thing?

    • Avatar


      June 24, 2018 at 5:56 PM

      Do try to switch topics to female boxers. I’m talking about his deep faith in Allah, not about female boxers. His deep faith in Allah is what mattered most to Allah. Just because he was a boxer doesn’t mean Allah won’t accept him.

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    June 8, 2018 at 5:15 PM

    haha hes not getting into heaven until he changes his name back to what his mother gave him..good try…no

  11. Avatar


    June 24, 2018 at 5:57 PM

    Don’t try to switch topics to female boxers. I’m talking about his deep faith in Allah, not about female boxers. His deep faith in Allah is what mattered most to Allah. Just because he was a boxer doesn’t mean Allah won’t accept him.

  12. Avatar

    sery why

    June 27, 2018 at 8:18 PM

    for every dollar Ali made for himself the capitalist system (was it is it “white”-ruled?) made several – the rich got richer by way of Ali’s boxing endeavours
    it was NOT “slaying and being slain in the cause of Allah”
    and now what is Trump doing with black help of course like the help of Kanye West and even Floyd Mayweather?

  13. Avatar


    July 4, 2018 at 2:25 AM

    Well Written, Keep it up!!!

  14. Avatar


    February 24, 2019 at 6:16 PM

    Do the Vietnamese or the Vietnam Govt aware of Ali’s refusal to fight against them ?

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The Spirituality Of Gratitude

Shaykh Tarik Ata




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



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.


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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