Before I went to sleep last night, I got lost in the journey of Mose Schallenberger as I read The Pioneers Go West by George R. Stewart, a story of westward expansion taken from Mose Schallenberger’s writings of his journey. This morning, in our post fajr brief halaqa, we read An Nahl 16:15
And He has cast into the earth firmly set mountains, lest it shift with you, and [made] rivers and roads, that you may be guided,
I recited the ayah and asked the kids what they understood from it. As they tossed around the Arabic words they recognized and I began to explain them one by one, images of covered wagons clattering and rumbling along the trails paved by pioneers, cutting through expanses of desert, and prairies, crossing rivers and squeezing through canyons gushed to my mind.
The key words in this verse for me are:
رَوَاسِيَ – mountains
اَنهَارَ – rivers
سُبُلََا – roads, paths
تَهتَدُون – you may be guided
Allah says that He has cast into the earth firmly set mountains lest it(the earth) sways with you. Imagine laying a piece of paper on the ground and sticking large push pins through it, so as to prevent it from flying away. The mountains are thus like pegs stuck into the earth to stabilize it. A map of the United States came into my mind. Such a huge piece of land stabilized by several mountain ranges, two of which are the Appalachian and the Rockies, like two pegs. If you have that huge a land, you would need several pegs, not just one in the middle. Even the Malaysian peninsula, which is quite a narrow and thin peninsula running southeast has a mountain range running down the middle, like a spinal chord. In fact, even the ocean bed are pegged down by mountain ranges. Science says that these lands rose from the depths of the oceans as volcanic activities took place. Either way, it’s not hard to visualize the mountains and mountain ranges as anchors. And just imagine, on the day where the world as we know it will come to an end, these mountains, which are pegged down to keep the earth stable, will crumble like carded wool and be like a mirage.
And the mountains will be like wool, fluffed up.
And the mountains are removed and will be [but] a mirage. An Naba: 78:20
Then Allah mentions rivers. Just the fact that rivers and mountains are mentioned together should be a cause for reflection. Rivers originate from mountains and flow out to sea, or as I read in the book, sometimes they also disappear into the earth as in the Humboldt Sink
. This was where Mose’s company ended up as they followed the Humboldt River. As they stopped here and let their oxen graze (the grass there was lush despite the lack of water), they found out that the water was very high in alkali and is also poisonous. To make it worse, they were lost, as in, they didn’t know where to go next, though California, their destination, lay somewhere west and south. Between Humboldt Sink and the next stop, which was a hot spring, was 40 miles of desert, so you can imagine how dire it got for these travelers with no source of water.
Rivers are blessings. They are sources of drinkable water, and they also give a sense of direction. Ancient cities were erected along riverbanks as water truly is a source of life. Which reminds me of another ayah in which Allah says,
Allah has created every [living] creature from water. And of them are those that move on their bellies, and of them are those that walk on two legs, and of them are those that walk on four. Allah creates what He wills. Indeed, Allah is over all things competent.
Water is the essence of life. Humans can live without food for a longer time than they can live without water. The blood that flows through us is definitely liquid, such that if we are dehydrated, our blood will get thicker, and our body will soon deteriorate from the lack of water. Out of 100 molecules in our bodies, 99 of them are water molecules.However, despite that, we are in solid form, not liquid. Subhanallah! When scientists look for life on other planets, they look for signs of water.
Water comes in many forms. When Mose was stuck by himself in the cabin he and two other friends built, he practically stayed alive by trapping foxes, coyotes, and some other animals. For about two plus months he remained alone, waiting for the snow to abate so he could join the rest of his company on the other side of the mountain. Coming from Missouri in which there were only mild winters, he was not used to snowshoes, which was the reason he ended up back in the cabin while letting his two other comrades go across the pass. Even with no river close by, he had all the water he wanted, in the form of snow.
Then Allah mentions roads, paths. When Mose’s company halted at the Humboldt Sink, as they looked across the horizon, they saw mountain, gap, mountain, gap. Allah has created mountains, but He has also created valleys cutting through the mountains where people can easily pass through to get to the other side. Imagine if there were no such passes. Before the age of the Industrial Revolution, humans would have to find the end of the mountain range to get through or climb it. Imagine if these pioneers had to do that. Those gaps are a blessing, even today, where we can tunnel and cut through mountains to build highways. Those tunneling and cutting are not without difficulty and deaths. These gaps are what make possible such journeys and explorations. And with every advancement of technology and human discovery is Allah’s will and decree that such discoveries are made.
Donner Pass is one such ‘gap’ that Mose’s company actually paved for other pioneers later on. Located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, it is one of the snowiest place in the United States. This was where Mose was stranded by himself for two plus months.
Allah mentions these things and ended it with ‘so that they may be guided’.
The next ayat,
And landmarks. And by the stars they are [also] guided.
Landmarks. The mountains, rivers, pathways are huge landmarks. The pioneers who traveled these trails rely on landmarks and even today, we do too, to some extent. At least women do. Well, men do too, but they do it from a bird’s eye view. For women, it’s the details that count. They zoom in and look at it at eye level. Either way, we rely on landmarks be they the Baskin Robbins around the corner or south to west orientation of the streets.
And the stars, subhanallah, every time we travel, when it’s night time, I would stretch my neck trying to get a panoramic view of the night sky, not easily done from inside a moving vehicle unless I roll down my window and hang my head out at 75 miles per hour speed. As I looked at the stars, I couldn’t help but be awed to silence. When my gaze returned to the ground, the bright lights of the cars and trucks on the road seemed so inferior to the light emitted by the stars. No wonder they are called burooj.
Burooj is the plural of barj, which comes from the root ب ر ج. This root gives the meaning of standing out. Burj is used for a tower, because a tower, being tall and all, stands out.
Baraja means ‘to be tall’ because when something is tall, it’s very visible and stands out. Stars definitely stand out.In surah al Burooj, Allah swears by the sky scattered with stars in the very first verse. Burooj is translated as stars, but literally it means castles/towers, as evident here. So the meaning of ‘standing out’ and ‘visible’ is in this word.
85: 1 Sahih International
By the sky containing great stars
That brings me to a verse we recently covered in class. An Nur 24:60
And women of post-menstrual age who have no desire for marriage – there is no blame upon them for putting aside their outer garments [but] not displaying adornment. But to modestly refrain [from that] is better for them. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing.
The wordمُتَبَرِّجَات is translated as ‘ones displaying’ .The root of this word is the same as the root for burooj, so the meaning of ‘standing out’ helps explain what this word means in this context. This ayah, like other verses in this surah, lays out part of the definition of hijab. In this ayah, Allah says that women who have no such desires for marriage due to old age or lack of interest due to old age has an allowance of not putting on the outer garment when leaving the house. If a woman is too old that it’s difficult for her to even walk, putting on an abaya or jilbab may become a hardship for her every time she is to leave the house. This reminds me of my grandmother, her eyes gray but still bright with life, telling me that if she doesn’t say Bismillah, she will stumble or fall upon walking. So for a woman in such situations, it is allowed for her to leave the outer garment. On top of this, Allah includes ‘but not displaying adornment’.
The word mutabarrijaat is translated as ‘ones displaying’. Tabarruj means to show or display zeenah which must be covered. Zeenah is adornment and there are different categories of zeenah. But the basic meaning of zeenah is that which adorns and beautifies. It can be wealth, children, houses, health, physical beauty, tools to accentuate physical beauty, and this is what is referred to here in this verse. An old woman who is allowed to discard her outer garments is still not allowed to accentuate her physical beauty particularly when leaving the house, in view of non mahram men. For instance, she is not allowed to put on make up. The meaning of ‘standing out’ and visible carry over into this because when a woman beautifies herself in such a way, she is making herself stand out and quite visible. The make up attracts the gaze. Striking colors stand out. There is a reason celebrities are called ‘stars’. This amazingly establishes the limit entailed by Allah in the command of hijab despite the allowance to discard the outer garment. This is also proof that a woman is not to wear her house clothes when leaving the house, that there is an outer garment that is to be worn in fulfilling the requirement of hijab. What is worn inside the house then, by implication, can be imagined to be quite adorning and revealing (though not necessarily in an overtly sexual manner. Short sleeved T-shirt is still revealing in the context of leaving the house). Thus it is to be kept for inside the house and not outside.
From mountains to stars, pioneers’ to today’s travels, stars to make up, the Arabic language is indeed very rich with layers of meaning that translations really do not do them justice. It is truly with the in depth knowledge of Arabic that the Muslim ummah can once again reclaim their ‘izzah and dispel the negative propaganda that seeks to inject misunderstandings and misconceptions of the Quran and Sunnah in the hearts of Muslims. We really should not be content with just knowing the translations, because as they say, “things get lost in translation.”