Muhammad Jalloh
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A Muslim Passing on an Islamic Passover

Recollections of the aftermath of the passing away of my beloved grandfather.

It was exactly eight years ago today. It started as just another day. Well, except that it was Ashoura’ (the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic Hijrah Calendar.) Millions of Muslims worldwide were commemorating the day in any number of ways, the most common being fasting the whole day.

The fasting tradition was as old as the days of the Prophet Muhammad himself (Peace Be Upon Him). After migrating to Madina, and during the last few years of life, he had asked the Jews of the city why the fasted a certain day every year. They told him that it was to commemorate the Israelites’ divine deliverance from the persecution and enslavement by the Pharaoh of ancient Egypt by the Prophet Moses (Peace Be Upon Him), an occasion commonly known among them as “Pesakh” or, to the non-Hebrew speakers, as “Passover.”

The Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) responded that he and the Muslims would be even more entitled to fast on this day, citing his bond of Prophetic Brotherhood with Moses. He therefore, commanded all Muslims to fast on this day (and the day preceding it, the 9th, or “Tasou’a”,  which he added) from then on, until God commanded the Muslims to fast the month of Ramadhan. At that point, the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) declared it optional to fast on Ashoura (Passover). But its optional nature did not hinder Muslims from fasting on both days every year.

Cherno Abubakar Siddeeq Jalloh was also fasting, too. Though now in his eighties, he seemed as strong as ever. And he proved it by fasting the day, a tradition he had followed for as long as his sharp memory can afford him.

Earlier that day, he had received a call-the “good ole” go-and-tell-him-to-come-now type of call-from his cousin from the next compound, Cherno Ibrahim, because his infant was ill. Chernojo-on (or “The Sheikh”) as he was often referred to and called by others, hurried over to his cousin’s compound and took a look at the ailing child. He recited some prayers on him to alleviate the illness and gave the worrying father more prayers to use should the situation worsen. And, then he took his leave.

As his tradition on this day, he called his wife and told her to cook all varieties of food. The whole village will be breaking their fasts and feasting at his home after sunset later that evening. It wasn’t an easy feat to pull off, but he had done it for years-and people had come to expect it of him. But it wasn’t a magnificent wealth that he owned as much as it was the magnanimous heart that he possessed that enabled him to host the whole village to a sumptuous meal on Ashoura’.

He was a man of modest means, though much hard work – he still reared cattle, poultry, goat and sheep, as well as farmed even at such an age-meant that he always had something good to spare and share. For this reason, the village would always point a visitor to the village-whenever there was one-in his direction; for in his home, the guest would find himself welcomed by a warm heart, a generous hand and a man whom his peers look up to to, in his own image, paint for the guest the best portrait of the village’s people.

As sunset neared, he went out to check on the food. “Mariam, please, cool the food down a little. You don’t serve hot food to a fasting people,” he said. He had earlier on sent word to the village to assemble there at sunset to break their fast as usual. They would soon be there. He knows it. He was expecting them any minute from now.

What he was not expecting was what happened next.

He suddenly felt an excruciating pain in his body. It did not seem to make sense. It was true that over the last two years, his health had gradually failed him. He even had, for the first time in his life, to be hospitalized. But he had regained his old self and would climb the mountainous paths and walk the plains of the land to attend his Friday prayers and to pay homage to friends he loved and places that had an intimate connection with his life.

Nevertheless, the pain increased. So, he called Sounusi, his nearest son and eldest of Mariam’s children. “Please, come and stay by my side,” he said as he walked into the house Lamarana, his eldest son, had built a year ago. He lay on the bed and marveled at his condition. “This pain will not leave me alive,” he told Sounusi. “Stop talking like that, father”, he retorted.

Far in the horizon, the sun had set and the guests were also gathering in the compound to break their fast and partake in the feast. Sounusi knows his father well. He was not a man given to weakness or giving in at the slightest pain. But this pain was different.

And, it was clear to his son that something else was upon them. “At least, break your fast. It is already sunset,” he pleaded. “I have eaten all my life,” he pointed out and declined. “Today, I will meet my Lord while still fasting,” he said, in what were to be his last words to Sounusi or any mortal.

He then stretched himself, recited the Declaration of Faith (“I bear testimony that there is deity worthy of worship except Allah and I bear testimony that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah”) and his soul departed his body and ascended. Sounusi ran his palm over the corpse’s eyes and positioned him well. No dying man wants his corpse to be found in an improper state by strangers. And, it was to be there and help make him presentable immediately after he passes on to the world beyond that he was called there by his father.

His son then went out and delivered the ominous news to the guests who had gathered to answer Chernojo-on’s call to break their fast and feast at his place: their host has himself now answered another call, the call of God Almighty. He is now himself a guest, a guest of the Lord and the angels above.

They all looked at each other with disbelief. Only a few hours ago, he was at his cousin’s compound praying for his ailing child.

Only moments ago, he was telling his wife to cool down the food for the guests.

But a few minutes ago, he had also refused to break his own fast and the Angel of Death had extracted his soul and ascended with it.

The miracle of life, they pondered. The spectacle of death, they wondered. And, now the man who had invited them to a feast was not destined to join it himself. He was now himself a guest in an eternal embrace with the Great Spirit Himself. Staring at the food, at each other and at the absence of their now-lifeless host, they pondered the great mystery of life and death.

Some thousand miles away, also fasting, was his eldest son, Muhammad Lamarana. His neighbors and friends in the city (yes, New York City) had received the news of his father’s passing. But none could tell him while he was still on the road. So, they gathered at his apartment and waited. It was not unusual for people to gather there. After all, one of his neighbors is one of the elders of the Fulani community in New York.

But he felt unease at their sight when he arrived. These last few days, he had had strange feelings running through him randomly. He suspected something may be wrong or going to be wrong. His people called it “dilleh” (or the bearings of bad news). But he also felt unease at the cold silence of his colleagues. His cousins were not teasing him as usual. His friends were not joking about the frivolities of life and their daily experiences.

The “Sanaku” system (as the Muslim West African tribes called the cultural jokes and inter-family, and sometimes inter-tribal, teasing) was nowhere in the air.

The atmosphere was eerie and uneasy. It was the news no one wants to receive, the news nobody wants to have to deliver to a colleague.

But at last, they broke the silence and the cold news that was buried in it: his father had died earlier today.

He wept profusely.

He had lost his mother at six and grown up looking up to his father as both a fatherly and motherly figure in one. This had created an intimate bond between them. But now, forty years after his mother passed away, he had also lost the one person whose guardianship he cherished as a child and whose image and awe he had always carried with him in his travels from city to city, from one country to another and across continents.

But now he was no more. And, worse still, he could not see him before he would be finally laid to rest. Thousands of miles away and unprepared, he would miss the funeral of the one person he had grown to love his whole life. In him, he had found the filling for the void that his mother left when she died while he was still a child himself. He had loved him with a single love that would have being adequately shared and abundantly showered on both parents. But now, his father too had passed on to the Great Beyond.

Moments after he had pulled himself together and listened to the passionate and elegiac prayers of his colleagues for his father’s eternal peace, he picked up the phone and called his own children. For he was a father, too. But they, too, were in another continent, a few thousand miles away. In the city of Lagos, in a crowded room full of young men and boys - and their older
teacher - sat three brothers, studying and helping others with their Islamic lessons.

Suddenly, a phone vibrated. It was Muhammad’s, the eldest of them.  He smiled as he saw the digits appearing on the screen. It was a US number. It could only be his father. He walked over to the balcony and answered the call.

“My father has died,” came the voice on the other end. And, then the caller wept.

It was the first I had seen or heard him weep. I was dumbfounded. I was as shocked as he was when he first heard the news. For the old man was my grandfather and this caller was my own father. His weeping made me even more uneasy. My father never weeps. He seemed to have an endless drainage to channel the tears when they come knocking. But today, that drainage
wouldn’t be useful.

“My condolences. May Allah have mercy on him and forgive him,” I said, almost disoriented. There wasn’t much of anything to be said again, so we hung up. Back in the room, I went over to our Islamic teacher and whispered the news to him. In what was a rare instance, he stopped the lessons, called the neighbors and told them and then we all headed to our house to deliver the news to my mother and sister. It was no easy task.

Of all his daughters-in-law, my mother had been the most trusted and closest to my grandfather and they both spoke highly of each other even though they had not seen one another in about a decade.

As we walked into the living room, Mother felt uneasy. The expressionless faces gave her a cold shiver. There could only be one explanation: that somebody close to her had died. But who? Her brother? One of her sisters? An older relative? There was no telling…yet.

But as soon as we sat down, Cherno Tijani, our teacher delivered the uneasy news to her. They both wept uncontrollably-both daughter-in-law and granddaughter.  Even Abubakar (our younger brother who had being named after him) found the burden too heavy to bear for too long and soon found rivers of tears flowing down his face. Even I could not uphold the “boys don’t cry” principle as I found myself tearing away and over the recollections of the events of our brief days together just a year earlier. It was also the first time I had being moved to compose an elegy for the dearly departed one. (See:Assalaamu
Alaikum, Grandfather )

It was, admittedly, not as classic as the “Ziyaratu Arba’een” (“Mourning the Forty”) elegy written by Jabir ibn Abdullah (May Allah be pleased with him), one of the great companions of the Prophet (Peace Be UponHim), to mourn the massacre and martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson Hussein and his forty companions (May Allah be Pleased with Them), who had been killed by a despotic leader (Yazid) on the day of Ashoura about forty years after the Prophet’s passing away.

Cherno Abubakar’s passing away, though admirably executed-with respect to the day, his last actions and even refusal to break his fast-left an indelible mark on all those who knew him.

A year earlier, I had gone to see him and he had admonished me greatly. He once said, “Three things in life will never miss you: your sustenance, your death and (the consequences of) your intentions-good or bad.” And, pointing to the sometimes tumultuous, but ultimately successful and enviable, life that he led, he once told me, “that a person says, ‘I bless you’, does not shower blessings on you, just as their saying, ‘I curse you’, does not place a curse on you either. Or [if these were so], Abubakar [referring to himself] would not be here today.”

And, though admittedly a stubborn man by nature, he never wavered with the truth. He was always the last resort of conflicting parties, as he himself was known not to ally himself with anyone who harbors a falsehood. He had also never liked the wayward ways of politicians and their sycophants.

In that respect, he followed the footsteps of his great-grandfather, Sheikh Umar bin Ibrahim-a scholar from ancient Timbuktu, who, though he carved and had thrown the first spear in the 17th century revolutionary war that saw the Fulanis establish a new, formidable and just state in what would come to be known as the Imamate of Fouta-Djallon, drew his authority not from the intoxications of political power, but from his sincerity of purpose, purity of character and unwavering adherence to the Islamic principles that defined his way of life. Sheikh Umar, who would be nicknamed “Maama Barkindo” (“the blessed grandfather”), had turned down the privilege of political office even after he had helped to firmly establish a formidable nation. “I just want to teach,” he said in his defense.

Meanwhile, Cherno Abubakar was laid to rest the following day.

It was a day of mourning for the village, for what little was left of surviving friends, but mostly for the men and women he had given life and those that those, in turn, have given life.

It was a life well-lived. A formidable legacy sustained and passed on. But, most importantly, the life of a man intimately loved and fondly remembered by all whose lives had intersected with his.

May you find eternal peace, grandfather.


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