A Ramadan Quran Journal: A MuslimMatters Series – [Juz 15] The Night Is Darkest Before The Dawn

Muslim Matters - 26 March, 2024 - 09:51

This Ramadan, MuslimMatters reached out to our regular (and not-so-regular) crew of writers asking them to share their reflections on various ayahs/surahs of the Quran, ideally with a focus on a specific juz – those that may have impacted them in some specific way or have influenced how they approach both life and deen. While some contributors are well-versed in at least part of the Quranic Sciences, not all necessarily are, but reflect on their choices as a way of illustrating that our Holy Book is approachable from various human perspectives.

Introducing, A Ramadan Quran Journal: A MuslimMatters Series


The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn

by Naved Bakali



Now well in the midst of the month of Ramadan, we are reminded of the importance of our connection to the Quran. Ramadan is the month of the Quran. It was in this month that the Quran was revealed and based on the examples of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), the Sahaba [ranhuma], and the pious predecessors of the past, we understand the importance of renewing our connection with the Quran during these blessed days. When I read the Quran, I always try to remind myself that the lessons and stories contained in it are timeless, and just as applicable now as they were when they were first recited from the blessed lips of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). Over the years, I have come to realize that, depending on the circumstances one is experiencing, the Quran will impact and speak to you in different ways. For many of us in the current moment, our minds and hearts are with our brothers and sisters in Gaza, who are enduring a genocidal onslaught and famine. It is with our brothers and sisters in Palestine and all over the world enduring oppression that I share some reflections from the 15th Juz of the Quran.

The 15th Juz is composed of two chapters; Surah Al ‘Israa (17th chapter) in its entirety, and most of Surah Al Kahf (18th chapter). These surahs are complementary to one another. Surah Al ‘Israa begins with the glorification of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) and Surah Al Kahf begins with the praise of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). Both surahs were revealed in Makkah and their revelations speak to the challenges and realities of that period. Lengthy commentaries and tafseer have been written on these two chapters of the Quran. For the purpose of this reflection, I’ll be selectively referring to brief portions of these surahs in attempts to draw lessons from them. From Surah Al ‘Israa I’ll be discussing the first verse and more critically, the timing of the event that this verse describes. Thereafter, I’ll engage in a discussion of Surah Al Kahf and one of stories therein.

Reflections on Surah Al ‘Israa


Verse one of Surah Al ‘Israa states:

“Exalted is He who took His Servant by night from al-Masjid al-Haram to al-Masjid al- Aqsa, whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him of Our signs. Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Seeing.” [Surah Al ‘Israa: 17;1]

Al Aqsa [PC: Cole Keister (unsplash)]

This verse is describing one of the most significant moments in the Seerah, known as Israa wa al-Mi’raj.  This was the moment when the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) engaged in his night journey from the Ka’bah in Makkah to Masjid al-Aqsa in present-day Jerusalem and from there ascended through the heavens to engage in a divine discourse with Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) to receive the commandment of the daily prayers. There are differences of opinion as to the precise date of this event. According to Aisha raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her), the passing of Khadija raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) took place before the commandment of the daily prayers.1 As such, evidence suggests that the momentous event of Isra wa al-Mi’raj took place within the last 18 months of the Makkan period of the Sirah.2 It was around this time, in the 10th year of the Prophethood, that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) experienced immense social and emotional challenges. This is referred to as the year of sorrow in the Seerah literature. It was in this year that both the uncle of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), Abu Talib and the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) blessed wife Khadija raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) passed away, within 40 days of each other.3 Abu Talib and Khadija raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) represented the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) two pillars of support. Abu Talib, as the head of the Banu Hashim, the most renowned and a powerful clan of the Quraish, extended protection to his beloved nephew, which was essential in the tribal system of Arabia. Khadija raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) through her unwavering love and support of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) and his mission, was his pillar of emotional support that he needed to endure the challenges of his mission. Upon their passing, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was in a vulnerable state and needed to look beyond Makkah for support. He traveled to the neighboring city of Ta’if, only to be repelled in the most vile and abhorrent fashion. Pelted with stones by the foolish riffraff of the city added to the grief and sorrow experienced by the prophet in these latter years of the Makkan period. In a tradition related in Bukhari, Aisha raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) had asked the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) if he had ever experienced a day more difficult than Uhud, to this, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) recounted how he was turned away from Ta’if. It was after the difficulties experienced throughout this year that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) in His Divine Wisdom willed that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) go on his miraculous night journey.

The Night Journey: A Tremendous Blessing after Hardship

As is described in Surah Al-Israa, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) had the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) engage in this journey so that He could show the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) some of His Divine signs. This was a miraculous journey into the world of the unseen, where the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) interacted with angels and other divine creatures, led all of the Prophets in prayer, ascended the heavens to greet a number of Prophets and receive council and advice from them, saw the rewards and punishments of the afterlife, had a meeting with the Divine beyond the furthest Lot Tree from behind a veil, and was gifted with the most central act of worship that Muslims were to perform. All earthly conceptions of time, space, and reality were defied on that journey. After experiencing the magnitude of the realm of the unseen and catching a glimpse of a world beyond the stretch of human imagination, how could the residues of worldly pain, concerns, and challenges dim a heart that was imbued with the light of these realities? The timing of this event gives credence to Allah’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) saying in the Quran:

For truly with hardship comes ease!

Truly with hardship comes ease! [Surah Ash-Sharh: 94;5-6]

As we watch our brothers and sisters in Gaza living through and experiencing a genocide in real-time, our Rohingya brothers and sisters languishing in refugee camps as survivors of a genocide, our Uyghur brothers and sisters being ethnically cleansed from their homeland in East Turkistan through imprisonment in concentration camps, and all of the other places around the world where Muslims are suffering and going through hardships and oppression, we may feel helpless and powerless. At times, we may feel that our prayers, sadaqah, letter campaigns, and protests don’t amount to anything. We should never lose hope and remain steadfast, as the first verse of surah Israa reminds us at its end, Truly, He is the Hearer, the Seer! All of our actions are important and a means for change to take place. Change may come about sooner or later. Regardless of the circumstances we see before us, it is paramount for us to take heed from the lessons of the Quran and to know that with these difficulties and hardships, ease will eventually follow in a way that is befitting to Allah. subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)

Surah Kahf


The Night is Darkest

Surah Kahf [PC: Hafizh Haqqani (unsplash)]

The second surah in the 15th Juz is Surah Kahf. Surah Kahf is situated right in the middle of our present-day mushaf. It is a surah that we are encouraged to recite every Jumu’ah, as a tradition relates thatWhoever reads Surat al-Kahf on the day of Jumu’ah, will have a light that will shine from him from one Friday to the next.” Furthermore, among the blessings of this surah is that the opening verses are a protection from one of the greatest fitan that Muslims will face, that of the Dajjal.4

There are four main stories in Surah Kahf: the story of the youth who fled to the cave; the man with the two gardens; the story of Musa and Khidr; and the story of Dhul-Qarnayn. Each of these stories are a treasure trove of lessons and priceless pearls of wisdom. For the sake of brevity, I’ll be reflecting on the first of these stories, from which the surah derives its name.

The Story of the Sleepers of the Cave: Placing this Life in Perspective

The story of the youths who sought refuge in the cave is recounted from verses 9-27 of Surah Al Kahf. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) tells us of their story:

Or have you thought that the companions of the cave and the inscription were, among Our signs, a wonder? [Mention] when the youths retreated to the cave and said, “Our Lord, grant us from Yourself mercy and prepare for us from our affair right guidance.” So We cast [a cover of sleep] over their ears within the cave for a number of years. Then We awakened them that We might show which of the two factions was most precise in calculating what [extent] they had remained in time. It is We who relate to you, [O Muhammad], their story in truth. Indeed, they were youths who believed in their Lord, and We increased them in guidance. And We made firm their hearts when they stood up and said, “Our Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth. Never will we invoke besides Him any deity. We would have certainly spoken, then, an excessive transgression. These, our people, have taken besides Him deities. Why do they not bring for [worship of] them a clear authority? And who is more unjust than one who invents about Allah a lie?” [The youths said to one another], “And when you have withdrawn from them and that which they worship other than Allah , retreat to the cave. Your Lord will spread out for you of His mercy and will prepare for you from your affair facility.” [Surah Al Kahf: 18;9-16]

Classical sources of tafseer bring forth lots of opinions about the details of this story. However, I wanted to focus on the essence of the story encapsulated in the above verses. Ultimately, these youths were sincere people who feared persecution by their society. The threat was so serious that they were forced to hide away, seeking refuge in a cave. They sacrificed their homes, families, and all other comforts and attachments. Viewing this story from a materialistic perspective, these youths lost everything and were destitute. However, in reality, they preserved what was most important and essential. Their faith and beliefs. Our temporal existence when compared to the eternity of the next world, is but a drop in an ocean.

Though I’ve read this story hundreds of times over the years, in light of the deprivation and suffering happening to the people of Gaza, this story holds so much more meaning for me at this moment. It reminds me of the reality of how life can become unbearably difficult, to the point that we may be driven to caves in the mountains. This would be a miserable and pitiful situation to be subjected to by anyone’s reckoning. However, if one can hold fast to what is most important, to what gives meaning to life in this world and ultimate success in the eternal realm of the akhira, the situation described above is success.

Our brothers and sisters in Gaza’s persistence, steadfastness, and will to survive in the face of depraved oppression and brutality is an inspiration and reminder for the ummah of what success in its truest and most raw expression looks like. Their example brings this and so many other lessons in the Quran to life, placing the deceptions of this life in perspective with the realities of the next.



Overcoming Trials | The Message of Surah al Kahf

The Magnificent Journey: Al-Israa’ wal Mi’raaj


1    Ibn al-Athir, Usd al-Ghabah, vol. 7, p. 862    Yasir Qadhhi, The Sirah of the Prophet: A Contemporary Analysis3    Yasir Qadhhi, The Sirah of the Prophet: A Contemporary Analysis4    Al-Jami’ al-Sahih of al-Tirmidhi, 2190; Sunan Abu Dawud, 4321

The post A Ramadan Quran Journal: A MuslimMatters Series – [Juz 15] The Night Is Darkest Before The Dawn appeared first on

Between Japa And Sapa: Nigerians Unearth Ghosts Of Ramadan Past

Muslim Matters - 26 March, 2024 - 08:31

Iya Alhaja e dide nile, nitori Oloun, saari ti too gbo! 

Baba Alhaji e dide nile, nitori Oloun, nafila ti too ki!

The sound woke me up almost every day, long immeasurable minutes before my mum or Anti Sera, the maid, came to get us up for sahur. “Were”, sung by boys and young men in their early twenties, usually students in the local madrassahs, are irrevocably tied to my childhood memories of Ramadan. Going from street to street, singing with or without the accompaniment of drums, waking the neighborhood to prepare the sahur (for women) or pray supererogatory naafil (for the men) they were the communal wake-up call long before we all had handheld devices with inbuilt alarms. This art form would eventually devolve into Yoruba fuji music, but that is an entirely different subject.

At the time, my family lived in a three-bedroom flat in central Lagos. The compound had two or three buildings (we moved when I was nine, some details have fallen through the cracks of my memory) each with three levels, and three units on each level. With the norms of large family sizes and housing a myriad of distant relatives, there were probably over a hundred people living in that compound. A community unto itself, complete with a mosque just inside the gates, that high occupancy was most keenly noticeable in Ramadan.

From the increased attendance at salah, especially in the first half of the month, to the evening tafsir sessions held in the open expanse of the compound after ’asr every day. These culminated in communal iftar, a potluck-style event where people tried to outdo each other with the food and fruits they provided. We prayed maghrib in that air of fanfare, stomachs stuffed with local seasonal fruits (I was in my late teens the first time I saw a date), different assortments of paps, porridge, and foods we considered ‘snacks’ and placeholders – ogi, akara, moinmoin, tapioca, the list is endlessly varied. After maghrib, everyone retreated to their homes for proper foods, an array of carb-laden dishes that guaranteed half of us children were drowsy by halfway through ashamu (tarawih, in Yoruba.) Two minutes after we were carried or finally crawled into bed, the ‘were’ boys were at it again…


First year of boarding school, all of 11 years old, I was appalled to find out a lot of my Muslim classmates had never fasted before. The school also had no provisions for Ramadan. With a handful of other students, mostly older kids doing the actual work, we managed to extract a concession from the school for a modified meal timing. That was what we got: the standard school-issued breakfast at 4 am, and the cold dishes from lunch served alongside our dinner at 7 pm. Undeterred, we organized and encouraged, assigning different tasks to different students, talking the other kids into joining us. Six years later, when I was graduating, Ramadan was an unmissable event in that Muslim-(by a slight)-majority school. 

Nigerian (Abuja) mosque

Mosque in Abuja [PC: Habila Mazawaje (unsplash)]

Sahur and iftar meals were prepared on a proper, special menu, taking into account the types and quantity of food fasting teenagers needed. Quality, unfortunately, was a feature we’d all learned to give up on within a few weeks of admission. We also began, for the period of the month, to pray in congregation: fajr (after sahur), isha’ and tarawih for which we were exempted from night prep. Initially led by the few male Muslim teachers, we later had a group of student imams, from the few who could recite the Qur’an. Held out in the open assembly ground, the festive air of tarawih – and the dressing accommodation: girls could turn up in colorful wrappers and hijabs over the ugly brown of the school-mandated ‘house-wear’ – resulted in a number of students suddenly discovering long-lost ancestors that were Muslim in their family tree. Everyone was welcome.

For my generation of Nigerian Muslims, university was when we connected spiritually with the deen. Ramadhaan was a particularly heady time, drunk as we were on what we were learning: of aqeedah, and fiqh, and stories of the Prophets and his companions, and Arabic, tajweed, the proper ways of doing our ‘ibaadah… For the first time in our lives, Ramadhaan was more than food and festive community, and we threw ourselves into milking every possible good we could from the month. We ‘raced for the goodness of our Lord.’ Organizing and attending circles of learning, we read the Qur’an and many, many beneficial Islamic books. We spent hours in tarawih, and even longer in our personal qiyaam-u-layl. And we prayed, making elaborate dua’ lists weeks before the month started, to ask for everything we wanted: from good grades and a good life, to brother Abdullaah bin Abdullah (or sister Umm Sulaym) as our chosen partner in both Dunya and Jannah.


As a mother of young children just beginning to build a medical career, the spiritual rituals of my university days are what stayed with me the most. I did not belong to any neighborhood Muslim community like my parents had back in the day: Nigeria had gradually moved into the culture of gated estates, in the face of rising insecurity. Besides, with an early career in medicine and 2 kids under the age of 5, it was all I could do to complete the recitation of the Qur’an once in Ramadan and pray the Salafi-approved 11 raka’ah of my qiyaam. Sahur, iftar, tilaawah, qiyaam: Ramadan became a me-and-my-children affair occasionally accompanied by decorations or a new picture book. This isolation, the loss of community, would be worsened – rather ironically – by our family moving to Saudi Arabia.

In the early 2010s, Saudi life was very segregated and women existed, for the most part, in the domestic realm. This did not change during Ramadan. Unless you were in Makkah, Madina, or another big city, the masaajid remained a male realm. It would take several years of finding myself in this new place, and a move to Madina, to find places open to women for tarawih. And that was the extent of it; even regular halaqaat of hifdh closed for the month. Unless you went to the Haramain, Ramadhaan in Saudia was pretty much a private/familial affair, especially isolating for a foreign female-led household. I yearned for the Nigerian Ramadhaan of my childhood.


Dates [PC: Saj Shafique (unsplash)]

When you move away, though, home moves on, too. The march of time is relentless, and time has not been kind to the Nigerian economy. For Nigerians living in Nigeria, the Ramadans I kept alive in my memories are a thing of the past. Many of them answered my call on Twitter, sharing their childhood memories of the month. Mayowa Oladeji, who was born of an interfaith marriage and accepted Islam as a teenager had this to say, “Lagos in the 90s, sweltering under the Harmattan’s dusty caress, hummed with a different rhythm during Ramadan. I, a curious eight-year-old, wasn’t a Muslim at the time, but Ramadan was an annual spectacle that painted my childhood memories in vibrant hues.”

“The pre-dawn call to prayer, a haunting melody echoing through the labyrinthine streets, would jolt me awake. I’d peek out the window, mesmerized by the silhouettes of neighbors scurrying towards the mosque, prayer mats clutched under their arms. The day stretched long, punctuated by the aroma of steaming moin-moin and golden akara wafting from nearby kitchens…

Come sunset, the world transformed. The muezzin’s call, this time a joyous song, ripped through the lazy twilight. Laughter crackled like electricity as neighbors emerged from their homes, faces aglow with anticipation. The air buzzed with an infectious excitement, a communal joy I yearned to share.

The mosque courtyard, usually quiet, became a vibrant tapestry of activity. Colorful prayer mats covered the ground, children chased each other in gleeful abandon, and elders sipped on dates, their faces etched with contentment. As the call to Maghrib prayer resonated, I’d stand mesmerized, watching rows of people bow in unison, their voices rising in a collective hum of gratitude.

The communal feast that followed was a sensory explosion. Platters heaped with jollof rice, spicy stews, and mountains of fried chicken were passed around, eliciting delighted gasps and satisfied sighs. Laughter mingled with the clinking of cutlery, creating a symphony of joy that resonated long after the last morsel was devoured.

As the days of Ramadan unfolded, I absorbed its spirit. I learned the value of patience, the power of community, and the sheer joy of giving. The dusty haze of Harmattan became a backdrop for a season of generosity, where the true feast wasn’t just for the stomach but for the soul. Even today, the Ramadan moon evokes a childhood memory painted in warmth, laughter, and the sweet taste of togetherness, a reminder that joy can bloom even in the harshest of environments.”

Unlike Mayowa, looking as he was from the outside, one of the most common threads of childhood Ramadhaan memories mentioned by the respondents raised Muslim include getting treats, as kids, for participating in Ramadhaan rituals: tins of milk after tarawih, gifts for the one who fasted the most among siblings, monetary gifts for every day fasted – varying from family to family, Nigerian Muslims from across different parts and ethnicities made the children included and invested in Ramadhaan. 

The act of singing by madrassah boys to signify sahur time, called by different names in local languages, cut across geo-political zones. The communal tafsir / Islamic lecture sessions, after asr in some places, at night in others, was another recurrent memory. As is, by the overwhelming majority, the communal feel of iftar. Breaking the fast together as a community, potluck style so everyone brought what they could and no one went hungry appears to loom largest in the collective memory of Nigerian Muslims, home and in the diaspora.


Almost all of that is non-existent in the Nigerian Ramadhaan experience of today. The economic freefall and rising insecurity has driven the month more and more to an individual/family event, rather than a communal one. “People can no longer afford to feed other people,” Hawa says. “People no longer give gifts.” The Nigerians who can afford to, now exist behind locked doors and gates of their homes and estates; everyone is suspicious of everyone else. 

The communal iftar of our collective childhood memories have devolved into a spate of food distribution campaigns with unoriginal names and slogans. We assuage our guilt by donating money to ‘charities’ that display no transparency. And they hand out meal packages to the most desperate members of our community, the only ones who engage with those ‘Feed a Fasting Person’ type drives. Everyone else “no longer trusts enough to eat food from other people,” Hawa concluded.

Within the confines of their homes, too, Nigerians are not smiling with the impact of the economy on their Ramadan. “The abundance of fruits for iftar has almost been erased,’ Saeedah says. Rafeeah agrees, “the food options and variety…It costs too much now…” Gone are the days of pounding yam for sahur almost every day, and iftar spreads every night. Nigerians back home have had to adjust to a leaner, lonelier version of the month, just like those of us in the diaspora. 

And maybe there is space here for a conversation about moderation and the spirit of Ramadan, about focusing on spirituality and not food (or even community), about how full moon upon full moon would pass and there would be no cooking fire kindled in the house of Rasulullah. Or how many of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world – Palestine, Sudan, Yemen – do not have the little we take for granted. Yet for many Nigerians the nostalgia for the Ramadan of old lingers, even as we tighten our metaphorical girdles for the ones to come.

May Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) make us from those who benefit from Ramadan.



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