“Souls are like conscripted soldiers. Those familiar with each other get on easily while those who don’t know each other feel mutual estrangement.” From the very moment Imam Sohaib Sultan and I met we got on with easy familiarity. Something about his posture and demeanor immediately disarmed me. Usually, a kind of ritual “feeling out” takes place when Muslims with public profiles meet. In addition to the semiotics regularly associated with dress and presentation; the manner in which a person deploys classical Arabic, the scholars they cite, their take on certain contemporary issues, etc. places them in some category or another: Traditional, progressive, Sufi, reformist, liberal, conservative, woke, apolitical…whatever. My encounters with my brother Sohaib were never degraded by the issuance of such litmus tests. We always spoke as friends.
The qualities of strength and gentleness rest at different points along the same axis but this eludes many men. The Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace) was simultaneously the most gentle of people and the strongest of them. Concerning gentleness, he (upon him be peace) is reported to have said, “Everything characterized by gentleness is beautified by it and everything devoid of gentleness is marred.” For me, the term “gentleman” has always been a “tongue-in-cheek” designation. A man that hails from a certain class background whose commitment to purposeful, often arcane, manners in dress, speech, and behavior mark him as distinct from the “rabble.” The greatest irony, perhaps, is that there is never anything gentle about an attitude of condescension. Imam Sohaib, on the other hand, was a gentle man. Even in his position as chaplain at Princeton, an institution known for its patrician bearing, I never knew him to look down upon anyone. In my visits with him there, everyone seemed to have the same affinity for him. He was known for many things: his avuncular charm, his intelligent, inquisitive demeanor, his distinct, infectious laugh. However, the thing for which I pray my brother will be best remembered is the great gentleness and compassion with which he engaged his family and students.
Princeton was actually one of the first places I lectured after I began my work with the American Learning Institute for Muslims (ALIM). When I landed at Philadelphia International Airport, Sohaib and his beloved wife, Arshe Ahmed, then just a duo, picked me up together. As we rode along the freeway, Sohaib and Arshe went back and forth seamlessly sharing perspectives about pastoral care and advising me of the best ways to connect with students. Arshe’s perspectives were as unique and personal as those offered by Sohaib. When I earnestly questioned, “So you both work at the university?” Imam Sohaib responded, “This is very much a team effort. I currently serve as chaplain but we do this together.” I started lovingly referring to them as “Imam Sohaib and Imama Arshe.” And that openness to collaboration, itself a Prophetic trait, was very much at the heart of the way he led our community.
Once, Imam Sohaib phoned me on a Friday morning. His characteristic mellow and warm tenor had given way to a slight urgency. “Some of the students on campus have made suggestions concerning the Friday Prayer,” he said. “Some brothers and sisters,” he continued, “feel that the current seating arrangement, with the sisters seated behind the brothers, inhibits their ability to fully connect with the service. Additionally, many of the sisters have expressed a desire to hear from a greater diversity of khaṭībs (preachers) including women. What do you think?” Reflecting upon our conversation, the thing most telling to me now was that my protective instincts were focused on the tradition whereas his were fixed upon the students. The fact that he also held great respect for the tradition and I also identified with the aim of making Islam accessible to people on campus made for a memorable exchange. I fulminated, “No time is devoid of shifting cultural currents and ours’ is no different. In our time, these shifts tend to be about race, gender, and sexuality and in others they were about epistemology, the nature of divinity and political power. Through it all, the core elements of Islamic practice have, for the most part, resisted being reactionary. Cultural shifts will inevitably take place but they should take place elsewhere.” He simply countered, “But Ustadh Ubaydullah, our goal on campus is simply to meet people where they are. We’re not tasked with making decisions for the entire Ummah! I just want the students on campus to feel comfortable at Jumu’ah. And I don’t want to do anything which contradicts the guidance of our tradition. In sha’ Allah, we will be guided to something that fits within the boundaries of the tradition and meets the needs of our students.”
The next time we spoke I asked, “what happened with the Jumu’ah?” He said, “We divided the room in half with lanterns so that the men and women are separate but equidistant from the khaṭīb. And for the khaṭīb, we all agreed that the responsibility of leading the prayer would remain that of the brothers. However, at the conclusion of the prayer, every week one of our sisters will offer a reflection and lead the attendees in du’a.” Caring, brilliant, creative, deeply rooted in knowledge, devout, and unafraid to challenge a prevailing norm if he thought it would help people connect with our vast, beautiful religion, this was Imam Sohaib Sultan.
The last time my brother and I spent time together was at the Ivy Muslims conference in East Windsor. Sohaib had recently become a father; welcoming his precious Radiyya, and he was incandescent. He probably didn’t notice me watching him as he endearingly gazed upon the child darting about his peaceful home. That morning, we had breakfast with his parents and the omelet that Arshe prepared was so delicious it nearly distracted me from the fine company I was blessed to enjoy. As a parent myself, I thought, how gratifying must it be for Sohaib’s parents to witness their son getting an opportunity to share with Radiyya in parenthood some of the gifts they had shared with Sohaib. And his cancer diagnosis and subsequent passing will not frustrate that legacy. God-willing, Radiyya will one day read the memoirs and listen to the addresses that her father delivered in his final days. Sohaib offered us lifetimes of beauty, reflection, compassion and grace. What a beautiful man he was. May Allah grant him access to Firdaus, the Highest, the company of the Prophets, the martyrs, the righteous and the spiritual ecstasy of gazing upon His (Glorified and Exalted) blessed countenance.
Dr. Sherman Jackson is very eloquent, mashallah. In fact, so appreciated is his ability to “turn a phrase” that we jokingly use the term “Jacksonian” to describe the rhetorical flourishes for which he’s known. However, the most eloquent I’ve ever heard him is in response to a question about the “essence of Ramadan.” For Dr. Jackson, such a broad, open-ended question was like a pitch right down the middle of the plate. So in his simple response, “Ramadan is about being hungry” he appeared to bunt. A slight chuckle could be heard among the audience. For many, he had either ironically or jokingly stated the obvious.
Hunger is undoubtedly our most primal urge. It is at once the greatest unifying factor within our humanity and the source of our greatest disparity. And for all that could be correctly said concerning our advocacy around hunger: the obligation to fight it, to repudiate the greed that subjects so many of our fellow men and women to it involuntarily, the unacceptable callousness with which we turn a blind eye to those afflicted by hunger, it remains a perennial human universal. In the Qur’an, God says, “Be sure We will test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere.” [2:155]. Stated differently, we might say that hunger always contains lessons; whether those are about insensitivity, greed and callousness or restraint, patience and perseverance. Dr. Jackson’s statement prompted me to think about hunger more broadly and why it figures so prominently into our worship during the month of Ramadan.
In this regard, it might be helpful to think about hunger as a visceral expression of the word “No.” For the over-indulged, “no” is something we almost never hear and have been conditioned to regard with a mixture of incredulity and contempt. Plied with biographical fragments of historical personages who “refused to take no for an answer,” in our regard, “no” is a mere hurdle upon the path to self-realization. To be sure, when applied to pertinacity this ethic can produce great inspiration. However, applying the same attitude to consumption has resulted in a rapacious, consumerist ethic that has led the world to the brink of ecological catastrophe and our souls to a hollow decadence. One wonders, what can become of a people for whom degeneracy and freedom have become indistinguishable from each other?
It would be disingenuous of me to subject readers to an environmentalist tongue-lashing. I enjoy eating meat on occasion (even though bovine flatulence is responsible for a sizable contribution to our greenhouse gas emissions) and a long leisurely drive down a windy road has always been a favorite pastime. However, the fact that we’re living in an epoch that some geologists term the “anthropocene” (to mark the disproportionate impact of humans on the planet) is haunting. And to think, this is mostly due to our inability to accept that sustainability might dictate some self-restraint. May God help us. And first and foremost, may He help me. How timely of a reminder is the month of Ramadan?
In Ramadan, we voluntarily accept “no.” We subject our bodies to intentional privation in order that our souls might feast. As a result, we usually increase our sensitivity to the plight of others and generosity. The weight that we shed in Ramadan is transferred to the mizān (the scale upon which our deeds will be weighed on the Day of Judgment) in the form of our charitable giving. Of course, this is provided we don’t transform the month of ṣiyām (fasting) into the month of ṭa’ām (food!). In Bidāyat al-Hidāyah (An Introduction to a Life of Devotion)—which is quietly becoming an American touchstone—the famed jurist and spiritual aspirant, Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī reminds us: “The underlying purpose of Ramadan is to reduce our consumption so don’t be like the one who overeats at the time of ifṭār! He engorges as if to make up for all of the food he’s missed throughout the day!” That isn’t a gracious acceptance of “no.” In fact, such a practice would be tantamount to a series of delayed “yes.”
This Ramadan let us lean into voluntary hunger; recognizing its implications not only for us personally but for the entire world.