The Jewel In Our Grasp By James Campbell

By James Campbell

It was my first Khutbah.

I had left my shoes at the door and followed my friends into the prayer room, where a man in a long robe was already mid-flow in an animated sermon. So many people sat facing his pulpit – hundreds. But I was frightened, and I kept my head down; I wouldn’t get a good look at them until later.

My friends found a vacant corner of the carpeted floor. I expected them to sit and turn their full attention to the speaking man, but instead, they stood with perfect posture. They raised their hands to cup their ears—allowing them to freeze there for just a few moments—then brought them to their navel, where they folded them over each other. I gawked, unsure what to do, as they stood as statues in complete silence, eyes closed.

Should I follow them?

Without warning, they dropped to touch their knees, backs so level that poured water would not fall from them.

Then, back up.

And then, as the robed man soldiered on with his impassioned appeal, my friends dropped to the floor. Down on their knees, arms out before them, they touched their foreheads to the carpet below them.

But I was still standing. My heart raced and I looked desperately around. What on Earth am I supposed to do here?

They came back up, then they went back down. Then they rose to their feet, and I was sure that it was done. But they repeated the whole choreography a second time, and all the while, I stood, unsure what to with my arms or any inch of my body, my beet-red face aimed at the carpet. When it was finally over, they turned apologetically to me and beckoned for me to sit with them.

Certainly not the graceful entrance that I had hoped for.

This was around the time of the Charlie Hebdo incident. As I finally tuned my ear to the words of the speaking man, I realized that he was giving a sermon on the disrespect of the French cartoons.  “Had they known Rasul Allah,” he kept repeating, following with a stream of guttural sounds that were too fast and foreign for me to follow.

Who’s this Rasul Allah? I asked myself.  An explanation did not come.  I kept myself tuned in, knowing not all the words would make sense to me, and allowed myself to be told a story. The story was of a man who, it seemed, had endured a great deal of ridicule and personal suffering. A man who had been assaulted and insulted, but had always responded with moderation and with patience. A man who, at the famous Battle of Something, had left the field bleeding freely—but catching the flecks of blood before they hit the ground, for fear that if his blood were to wet the soil, his enemies would be sorely punished by God. A man who, once winning this same war and repelling the aggressors, returned the land to his conquered enemies with the promise that neither their honor nor their property would be stolen from them.

Who is this Rasul Allah?

The Khutbah finished soon after, and the hundreds of seated people began shuffling. I turned nervously to my friends, who pointed to the back of the room. I rushed through the columns to the back wall and turned to face the crowd, breathing a sigh of relief to be away and unnoticeable. But as I settled into my safe crevice, a lone voice sounded through the hall, echoing and stirring the hundreds of people to silence.

It was so quiet, save for that voice. At first, I had no idea from where it was coming; it seemed to waft down from all corners of the room, a sleek but deeply soulful call. And yes, it was most certainly a call. The devotees before me gradually settled into distinct lines, all facing the same direction. People from lines further back would step forward to fill gaps in the lines closer to the front, like intelligent pieces to a self-solving puzzle.

And then, it got truly quiet. All sound seemed to be sucked from the room— but in this moment, I was overwhelmed by the sound of a hundred hearts settling. For the first time, I took a good look: many of these people were in work clothes; many nearly wore rags. Some were doctors; some were paupers. They had all abandoned their own brand of trial to come for this Friday Prayer, and by some grace, I was blessed to see the moment that these trials all temporarily vanished.

Another voice roused me from my thoughts—also lone, but different. It, too, seemed to saturate the room, but the sounds carried by it didn’t seem to act like any other sound I had ever encountered. As it passed over my ears, it had a texture that was more like a sweet aroma than the usual, cluttered and clumsy percussion of language. They were words, I could tell, but strung together so that they acted like a long exhale.

And then, with an “Allahu Akbar,” the sound cut off. As a single unit, the believers before me bowed as my friends had earlier. After, they prostrated. Doctors and paupers in work clothes and rags, shoulder-to-shoulder, dropped to the floor.

And still, I stood, but changed. As the sounds and images washed over me, I was revisited by a feeling. I wish I could give it a name for you. But the truth is that it doesn’t belong to language. This feeling had been with me in my moments most sacred, at the soul of all my favorite songs, in the gorgeous eyes of my baby cousin. Until this time, I had never been able to look this feeling in the eye. I had never before truly figured out what it was that was visiting me in these moments so dear—or, perhaps, Who was visiting me.

On March 21st, 2015—one week after my 21st birthday—I took the Shahadah. On that Friday I returned to the masjid, and this time, I bowed with my brothers. These same people that I could not look in the eye came up to me in droves and showered me with hugs and congratulations. More than one shed a tear into my shoulder. In this outpouring of acceptance, I found the answer to my question: Who is this Rasul Allah?

I am in love. I entered that masjid and never left. The aroma of the Qur’an is still around me.

I was stirred to write this for a number of reasons, the first one being that I simply could not contain it. The second, however, is that I feel there is a need for you to hear it. My beloved sisters and brothers in the deen, it is easy to forget the glory of the path which we walk. It is easy, as Americans, to feel like our religion is marginal or out of touch. It is easy to want to banish our faith to the most private corridor of our identity. It is easy to feel shame.

But listen to my words: what we hold between our hands is a jewel. I was blessed to find this community, and was moved by its faith to join it. If I was, so can others. We cannot forget our shahadah; as the guided, we must bear witness to our tradition in our actions before the watching world.

But do not think that because we are guided that we are not tested. We may not always see the wisdom of Allah or understand His ways, but we must always trust that there is a wisdom in His way.

As-Salaamu Alaykum, my siblings under Allah.  Do not be afraid to bear the aroma of the Qur’an.


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