By Sheriff Bojang
As a kid, I was what you would call spoilt. Where other kids slept five on a trunk bed, I slept on my grandfather’s until I was sixteen and he died. Where other kids squatted like the foetal Buddha when eating, I sat on a chair and ate with my own silver spoon. Where it was taboo for the kids, I sucked fish head with the elders and wore shoes different from the Seneplast and padam njehel sandals cut from old tyres that children wore.
I was spared the cane at the nursery school and the whip at the madrassa because my teachers considered me at least, a determined pupil. I learnt the aliph, ba, ta, sa, then progressed to the elongated vowels, baa, bii, buu, then words. Often, when learning a new language, one tends to begin with the bad words. I wonder why? But for us, Arabic was different, it was the language of the Qur’an, the unembellished word of God. No indignity. No insolence. For was it not said elsewhere that the word is God and God’s word is God?
I learnt by rote hymns like Tala’al Badru Alayna which I was told was the anthem of the Muslim army on its conquest of Mecca. By rote too did I learn the seven oft-repeated verses of Fatihatu’l-Kitab, which I was later to learn, contains five of the ((celestial Names of Allah in the 6,666 verses of the Qur’an.
In Naas I read about the bad genii; in Falaq I learnt about the forces of good and the counter-forces of evil. In Al-Ikhlas I read that God was not that senescent man who looks down on the world every night from the side of the moon. I read that Allah has no mother and father and no son or daughter. Where did He come from? And oh, how lonely He must be! I couldn’t imagine being without family. How I used to feel sorry for Him in my days of innocence.
In Lahab, I read about a man called ‘The Father of Flame’; in Maa’uun, I read about the value of small kindnesses; in Fi’il I read about elephants, birds and stones of baked clay; in Al-Qaari’a I read about the dreaded calamity in the fall of which the mountains will become as carded wool. At one sixth of the Qur’an starting from the lower chapters is the surah named Muhammad after a man whom the late wild preacher of Brikama Madina, Abdou Gitteh, said: “Fealty to him, is fealty to God.’
In the noonday of my innocence, I believed everything. Call me gullible. I believed in what I imagined and what others told me. Having never seen God, I fathomed Him to being a man (as big as the man in the nursery rhymes -‘if all the men in the world were one man’ – with beards, a Semite of course, floating effortlessly somewhere in one of the “seven layers of the sky” (sang fata woro wula). I believed that non-Muslims were hell-bound, that on the day of resurrection, we shall all speak Arabic and become ‘little’ Arabs. I believed in the hymn singer Landing Kingti-ba when he sang, “On the day of Muhammad’s birth/Iblis (Satan) sobbed and sobbed and at last screamed /As the ever-sprouting fountains and springs instantly dried up.”
I believed as believers in the prophecies of those doom merchants like the famed ‘Oustass Darboe’ who, like the troubadours of past, travers the land, predicting that the end times were nigh like doomsday preppers while selling amulets of protection and good luck. I questioned nothing. I believed in everything. Like Reza Aslan, I was a believer. A Muslim.
But then I grew up. With my age, my horizons. In the advanced forms of Gambia High School, our teachers encouraged us to develop critical minds, to question things. It was indeed what the poet, Kahlil Gibran, calls ‘the dawn of my awakening’. God was the biggest enigma. WHO is HE? Surely, everything must have a beginning and that presupposes an end. What nature of a being is He that sees all things, and knows all things all the time? Is God actually real or a figment of the imagination of ancient charlatans like the Mahoud of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses?
It was oft-repeated in the many ahadith that I read, chronicled by Abu Hourairata, that ‘if you know not, look up to those who know better’. But who are they who know better? The imams? The mu’alim who gave themselves the glorified titles of oustasses? The omniscience, omnipotence-claiming marabouts? How could I look up to them when I know they pilfer monies given for the construction of mosques and schools and instead erect ugly concrete houses for themselves, their harems and hordes of children?
How could I look up to them when I see them break marriages, break homes, drive young men raving mad into the streets, are afraid to speak the truth before cruel rulers even though it is stated in a hadith that that is the greatest of all jihads? How could I look to them when I know they lie, commit adultery, tell selective truth, discriminate against their wives and incessantly break the law of God, the God they claim to know better? I lost my orientation. I became a nonconformist, a nihilist. I stopped calling myself a Muslim, for I argued, didn’t the Muslim God Himself say, ‘know me before worship Me’. I felt I did not know Him. And then I began my quest.
I ate smoked fish and drank ice Coke during Ramadan. I ate pork and indulged in bacchanalia. I came to regard Islam as a form of Arab imperialism and cultural neocolonialism. But such a life of copious looseness was not for me. There was a vacuum – a spiritual vacuum – in me yearning to be filled. I reflected on the hadith, ‘if you know not, look up to those who know better.’ Maybe, I jogged myself into thinking, I am looking up to the wrong ‘those who know better’. I wanted to get to God. I wanted to know Him so that I could speak to Him like my God, like the Israelites of old used to. I wanted God to speak to me from behind the bushes, from behind the rocks. I didn’t want any intermediary.
Faith, I believed, is personal, like breath, there need not be any intercessors. I began the search for my God. I made my premise that if God is a house, then its doors must be Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Muhammad, Zoroaster and others called prophets. They have been dead for thousands of years. I could not speak with them. How do I enter them – the door of my grand search? I began reading. Reading their books, stories of their lives and teachings and the interpretation of others, and after three years burrowing in the morass, the truth became clear, so clear it was blinding. I went back and read the inspired message of the Qur’an that came through Muhammad, an ummi, an unlettered desert man. I read as much of the cornucopia of his sayings and actions, the ahadith, as I could.
I read the writings of Abdul Qadri Jilani, The Secret of Secrets and the Rubaiyyats, and I became humbled. Which seeker of the truth would not be?
In the days of my awakening, often times, I was accused of arrogance. Once, Kenneth Best, the man who gave me my first job even while I was at high school and doted on me like a son, summoned me into his office at the Observer, locked the door and went down on all fours on the floor, crawling and asking: “Why are you so proud, Sheriff?” until he worked himself into a tearful orgy. He was lay preacher in the Anglican Church and I had often accompanied him to the cathedral in Banjul. I knew there was a bit of the thespian about Mr Best. But what he did was a humbling experience for me. It changed me, forever. But whatever effect Kenneth Best’s self-catharsis may have had on me, it was nothing comparable, for example, to what I learnt, learning the story of Muhammad.
Take this parade, for example. One day, a caravan of unbelievers was passing through Muhammad’s town. It was late and everyone had retired. Having heard of the legend of Muhammad’s generous nature, the infidels, instead of pitching tents in the sand, to pass the night, decided to discomfit him by asking for shelter. With a smile, not a wrinkle of frown, Muhammad welcomed them into his household and served them food.
That night, one of the infidel guests sneaked into the food store and ate the quartered feed set aside as next day’s ration for Muhammad’s household and the ‘people of the bench’. The food thief was soon discovered by a woman who bolted the store door with intent to shame him in the morning. After some time, the glutton felt the urge to empty his bowels. But the door was bolted from outside and he was trapped in. Like any man in such heat, he started moaning and prancing around in anguish. Muhammad who sleeps light, was awakened by the noise. He went to the food store, and realising one of the late night guests was trapped inside, stealthily unbolted the door to free him and went into the shadows to save him embarrassment. But deliverance came a bit late for the infidel glutton. He soiled his djellaba as he ran for the sanctuary of the sands.
Over-stricken with the consciousness of his shame, the glutton hid his soiled dress in the sand and dashed into the guesthouse to get fresh clothing. On his return to scrub the dirt off his soiled dress, he saw the silhouette of a man washing the soiled djellaba with his hands. Bewildered, he neared the figure and realising who he was, he screamed in terror: ‘Ya Muhammad! Ya Muhammad! (Oh you Muhammad! Oh you Muhammad!) And that, that night became the noonday of his redemption.
Attempting to write about the manifold sterling qualities of Muhammad on the columns of this page is like daring a candle to the noonday sun. Muhammad is the fons et origo of my faith. Contrary to the claims of Landing Kingti-ba, I read that no apparent miracles attended his birth. On the day he was born, the gaunt hills of Mecca were there, above Mecca. The bazaars bustled and the people went about their business as on any other day.
Here was a man not hedged in with claims to divinity or transcendental attributes. The incident in which he deflated the extravagant notions of some of his followers about himself is now part of the English language. ‘If the mountain does not go to Muhammad, Muhammad goes to the mountain.’ Such is the down-to-earth realism of Muhammad whose birthday we celebrate tonight. His distinction is indubitably in one thing: his character. And that, said the Urdu poet, Jigar, is what everyman should strive for.