Prayers of the Oppressed

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I continued to be upset by the fact that folks didn’t seem to care, or didn’t know how to show that they did. But I cared, so why not do like those who came before me and take more spiritual agency; make my prayers more intimate, more expressive of my own history and needs? Why not write a prayer for the ancestors, why not incite that kind of remembrance?

It was early in the 2000s, ’03 or ’04. I was working in lower Manhattan and would attend jummah at a masjid in the area. One Friday during jummah prayer, another sacred act was occurring nearby. It was a procession to honor the enslaved and free Africans interred at the African burial ground in lower Manhattan. This burial ground was discovered during the construction of yet another high-rise and the community had to fight to protect the site’s sanctity and the sanctity of the remains buried there. I was told archeologists who had examined the site noted Islamic burial practices, indicating Muslims were buried there as well. This made the space even more special for me — as the descendent of enslaved Africans who is also Muslim.

I had an internal debate that day: should I join the procession or go to jummah? I had always attended jummah, never saw myself as excused, and even though I despised the cramped conditions of the women’s prayer space at that masjid, I felt obligated to respond to Allah’s call. So that day I went, reluctantly, because I was certain, at this masjid run by non-Black Muslims from the Middle East, there would be no recognition of my ancestors, let alone me and my communities during jummah. In particular, during the supplications that culminate the khutbah, where the khateeb repeatedly pleads to God to deliver people from Pakistan to Palestine, sometimes Chechnya, with my people nowhere to be found.

I remember being fretful throughout the khutbah, or perhaps regretful. I had a small hope there would be a mention, but as anticipated there wasn’t. And right as they called the iqamah, right before we began the two rakats for jummah, the procession began to pass on the street right below us. And I shouted out in the cramped room full of women, it felt like into the wind: please pray for the ancestors.

Around that same time, I had read a description of the way companions of Prophet Muhammad would write down sections, bits, and pieces of Qur’an that were significant to them, for their own remembrance and I loved that idea. I loved it because it demonstrated a kind of spiritual agency or ownership of their own faith –they identified the things that were meaningful to them and gave a space for that. It illustrated a kind of intimacy they had with the Qur’an, one I sought for myself and so I began to do the same.

Fast forward to a little over 10 years later, I participated in a local program where we read the famous Prayer of the Oppressed by Imam Muhammad b. Nasir al-Dar’i. This prayer, written by a celebrated Moroccan scholar, drew on the Qur’an and hadith but was not a reproduction of verses from the Qur’an or sayings of the Prophet. It also was not composed in the 7th or 11th centuries but in the 17th, likely around the time that those Africans buried in what became lower Manhattan began to be kidnapped from their homelands and perhaps, around the time my ancestors were taken as well. And it was later used by Moroccans as a spiritual tool against French colonialism.

The context around the poem inspired me. I continued to be upset by the fact that folks didn’t seem to care, or didn’t know how to show that they did. But I cared, so why not do like those who came before me and take more spiritual agency; make my prayers more intimate, more expressive of my own history and needs? Why not write a prayer for the ancestors, why not incite that kind of remembrance?

And so in Ramadan of 2016, I composed this prayer:

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O Allah, have mercy on our ancestors; those who were taken unjustly from their families, communities and homelands; those who died in the maafa (Middle Passage) and those who made it to these shores only to suffer the indignity, cruelty and tortuous violence of slavery; those who held onto You and prayed for us. Ya Allah, we do not call them by their names, we do not know them, but You do; we were not there to pray over their bodies, but You were. And so we ask You to have mercy upon them in their graves of land and sea and reunite us in Jannatul Firdaus (highest abode in paradise).

I composed this prayer because I no longer wanted to shout in the wind and I needed a sacred and intimate way to acknowledge the depth of the loss and mourning. A loss and mourning that, worldwide, Africans are encouraged to forget or downplay. A loss that was massive but happened to each individual soul. In fact, while the prayer speaks of “them,” I was driven to write because I sat in deep reflection on the fact that “they” were real-life flesh and blood, mind and spirit people. We don’t always know their names, but they lived. There is a person who lived, a woman who was raped, a man who was whipped, a family who was torn apart – they lived — laughed, loved, fought, and they must have prayed, begged, and pleaded with God. They lived and returned to their Lord and from that I am here and for that I want to remember them. I wrote this prayer because I wanted to pray for them and I shared this prayer because, quite frankly, I want everyone else to pray for them too.

I put pen to paper and literally wrote the prayer during Ramadan in 2016 and first shared it at the end of a post-iftar lecture I gave at a masjid in downtown Chicago. Then, as we do these days, I shared it on Facebook with the aim to get it on more tongues. Soon after, a friend Kamilah Shuaibe, created a quote graphic for it and used her platform, Love is Always the Subject, to spread it even further. In 2019, with the help of my peoples, I translated it into Spanish; and this year into Arabic:

As I feel compelled to translate and share, I have come to realize that I not only aim to get more people to remember the ancestors, but I also hope to encourage others to do the same – take more spiritual agency and create their own prayers that speak with intimacy to their places, times and histories. When I look at the Muslim communities I know best, those in the United States, I have noted how the more we have grown in our book knowledge of the Islamic tradition, in ijaazas and certifications, the more we seem to seek and need permission from others to own our faith, and our own expressions of it. On one hand, this fidelity to tradition is admirable (and is precisely how traditions endure) but on the other hand it can be stifling, in a way the tradition itself has never called for. I wonder, how many times has not knowing the right saying, the right phrase, pushed someone into silence (and not the good kind)?

And what good is that kind of silence for Black people, when sometimes being Black feels like being in perpetual mourning? That may sound melancholy but as death is part of life, so is mourning; and for mourning, we need prayers, prayers for our own. So I composed this prayer because I want you to write your own prayers in the language of your need. I want you to write prayers for the ancestors that can take flight off my tongue as well, so that we may be bound to them and each other and so that we are strengthened for the struggles ahead by those prayers of the oppressed that know no veil before God.

This article was first published on Sapelo Square, written by Dr. Su’ad Abdul Khabeer. The original article can be found here.

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