By Tariq Mehanna

‘Ashoora by Tariq Mehanna


‘A Brief Conversation’

The photocopied lunar calendar affixed to the wall reminds me that today is the tenth of Muharram, 1434. It is the day of ‘Ashura’…

…My mind travels back 1433 years to the city of Madinah, to an important conversation that occurred on this exact date. The great Companion and scholar, ‘Abdullah bin ‘Abbas, narrated that his cousin, Muhammad – the final Prophet and Messenger sent by Allah to mankind – passed by a group of Jews who were fasting that day. He questioned them about this, and they replied: “This is a very significant day. It is the day on which Allah rescued Moses and his people, and drowned Pharaoh and his people. So, Moses fasted it out of gratitude, and we also fast it.” In another reported wording: “This is the day on which Allah gave victory to Moses and the Children of Israel over Pharaoh.” The Prophet (peace be upon him) responded: “We have more of a right to Moses than you.”

This brief exchange summarizes the history of the struggle between good and evil, between Iman (faith) and kufr (disbelief). As I look at my surroundings on this day, I’m starkly reminded that the struggle has not ceased, and some thoughts come to mind:

i) History comes full circle.

Thousands of years prior, the Israelites were an oppressed nation, living under the whip of the most powerful and tyrannical government on Earth. Sent by Allah to lead them from slavery to freedom, Moses was one of thousands of people chosen throughout time by Allah as a Prophet to mankind to teach us three basic concepts:

– The entire universe and everything in it was created by Allah alone.
– Therefore, we are obligated to submit to Him alone, and worship Him alone (i.e. Tawhid).
– The correct application of Tawhid is found solely in the teachings of the Prophets (i.e. Islam).

This is why the first thing Moses did after the Exodus was to take a covenant from the Israelites. The small group who proved loyal to that covenant formed the nascent community of believers, considered the Muslims of the Mosaic era, who decided to mold their lives around the creed of Tawhid as manifested in the Ten Commandments – the same creed taught by many Prophets before him and many after him, including Noah, Abraham, Jesus, et al. Muhammad (peace be upon him) was the final installment in that line of Prophets who were all sent to teach the same concept. Those who decide to follow him – the Muslims of today – are the sole inheritors and preservers of that creed, while everyone else has either distorted it or rejected it altogether. Therefore, we are more akin to his followers and have more of a right to him than anyone else, hence the Prophet’s response to the Jews in Madinah: “We have more of a right to Moses than you.”

As for the descendents of those Israelites, they not only abandoned that covenant, distorted their scripture, and disbelieved in Prophets, but today have gone so far as to adopt Pharaoh’s role in oppressing the sole inheritors of the creed that Moses taught their ancestors, and through which he freed them from oppression. We witness them doing this in Palestine and elsewhere, on a daily basis.

So, the struggle between Iman and kufr is one shared by all of the Prophets and the few people allied with them and their creed throughout time. It is only the people and places that change; the nature of the struggle remains unchanged.

ii) This brief conversation summarizes not only the history of this struggle, but also its future.

In the Qur’an, Allah related the promise of Moses to the Muslims of his era: {“…the Earth belongs to Allah. He allows whoever He wants of His slaves to inherit it, and the best outcome is for those who are mindful of Him…it may be that your Lord will destroy your enemy and grant you succession on Earth to see how you would act.”} [al-A’raf; 128-129] Then, He mentioned an introductory step towards this destruction, and the eventual fulfillment of that promise: a strike at the economy, as mentioned here: {“And We struck Pharaoh’s people with years of famine and deficient crops so that they would take heed.”} [al-A’raf; 130] But they did not take heed: {“And they said: “No matter what sign you bring to bewitch us with, we’ll never believe in you.””} [al-A’raf; 130] And their military only increased in arrogance: {“And he was arrogant on Earth, he and his soldiers, without any right, and they thought they wouldn’t return to Us.”} [al-Qasas; 39] So, Allah responded by sending them five additional signs warning them of their empire’s imminent collapse. The first of these signs, interestingly, was a flood: {“So, We sent them a flood…”} [al-A’raf; 133] Their disbelief and arrogance as a nation continued, culminating in what those Jews in Madinah described: “…Allah rescued Moses and his people, and drowned Pharaoh and his people,” and as Allah Himself described in the Qur’an: {“So, We took retribution from them, and We drowned them in the sea because they denied Our signs and were heedless of them. And We caused the oppressed to inherit the East and the West which We had blessed, and the good decree of your Lord was fulfilled for the Children of Israel because of what they had patiently endured. And We destroyed all that Pharaoh and his people had been producing and building.”} [al-A’raf; 136-137]

Just like that, the empire of Pharaoh, who considered himself God on Earth, was no more, bringing to mind Arthur Ferrill’s concise commentary on the Roman Empire: “The best-known fact about the Roman Empire is that it declined and fell.”

This is an eternal principle applying to every nation, society, and indeed, every individual, that rejects Tawhid and oppresses its adherents. Contemporary ominous signs include a hurricane named Sandy and a general named Petraeus. The fate of each player is laid bare.

iii) As I sit at my desk writing this, in a cell among the many cells, in a prison among the many Pharaonic prisons, a final thought emerges in my mind as I juxtapose the past to the present.

I place myself in the mind of one of the Muslim Israelites. He has been walking all night, and the Sun is now starting to rise. Finally, he reaches the seashore, setting his sight on the vast body of water stretched out before him. He turns around and, to his horror, sees thousands of elite special forces, led by Pharaoh himself, racing towards him. I look to my right and to my left, and see my brothers and sisters helplessly staring at the technologically superior enemy before us, fast-approaching. Will they overtake us? Do we drown in the sea behind us? None of us know what to do. One of us turns to Moses and says: “We will surely be overtaken!” [ash-Shu’ara’; 61] Moses immediately responds: “No! My Lord is definitely with me, and will guide me!” [ash-Shu’ara’; 62] Suddenly, he strikes the seawater with his staff, and the water rapidly divides into two towering mountains. We all walk through the path left for us in the middle. I turn around and catch a glimpse as Pharaoh and his soldiers – the purveyors of disbelief, arrogance, and oppression across the land – are swallowed up by the water. My brethren and I were just previously fearing for ourselves! They were certain they would overtake us, and we were certain that we were done for. When they’d perceived that they’d reached the pinnacle of power and we the depths of helplessness, the situation was completely reversed in the blink of an eye.

Such is the pattern of the struggle…

…I then turn to the Qur’an, to Surat al-Qamar, to the fortieth verse, for yet another mention of Pharaoh: {“And We have certainly made the Qur’an easy to remember. So, will anyone ponder over it? And a warning certainly came to Pharaoh’s people. They denied Our signs, all of them, so We seized them in a manner of the Mighty and Able. Are your disbelievers any better than those, or do you have immunity in the scriptures? Or do they say: ‘We are a coalition, supporting each other’? Their coalition will soon be defeated, and they will turn their backs in retreat…”} [al-Qamar; 40-45]

I want to close by drawing your attention to a beautiful comment on these verses, which were actually revealed in the early days, in Makkah, when the Muslims of that era found themselves living the same persecution of the Muslims of the Mosaic era, with no end in sight – much as the Muslims of this era find themselves today. The comment is by none other than ‘Umar bin al-Khattab, who said: “When these verses were revealed, I asked myself ‘What coalition will be defeated? What coalition will be overtaken?'” The reality ‘Umar saw before him didn’t match what he was hearing. A few short years later, however, ‘Umar and those with him found themselves not in the harsh heat of Makkah, but rather, hundreds of miles away at the wells of Badr; they found themselves not in the custody of a tyrannical government, but rather, on a battlefield preparing to confront its very leaders in what we now know ended in swift victory for the former and shocking defeat for the latter. ‘Umar concluded: “So, when it was the day of Badr, I saw the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) putting on his armor and repeating: “Their coalition will soon be defeated, and they will turn their backs in retreat.” It was only then that I finally grasped the meaning of that verse.”

The Sun has now set, and I must break my fast.

Written by: Tariq Mehanna
On the day of ‘Ashura’
Saturday, the 10th of Muharram 1434 (24th of November 2012)
Terre Haute CMU
United States Federal Prison


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