“You have a great responsibility Amina – not only to your guardians and others but also to yourself. You will find challenges ahead but have faith in Allah and always believe in yourself”.
Amina’s beloved late grandfather spoke these words to her during Ramadan. He said she would one day visit a Garden of Knowledge to retrieve a precious book called ‘The Month of Magnificence’. This book would give her a deeper knowledge of Ramadan but finding it would mean overcoming several fears and challenges. That night, Amina heard her grandfather sing an old folk tale…
A camel sings
a web of strings
snaring the stings
Though you may tire
in a whirlwind of fire
you will rise higher
A camel bellowed, echoing ten-fold through the desert.
“You can’t stop now Ruhail – you have to take us to the Garden of Knowledge!”, Amina pleaded.
Ruhail refused to inch another step.
Amina tugged gently on the leather reins, persuading Ruhail to press on but he dug his heels in even more. Ruhail laid his head down on the sandy, golden carpet as if he were ready to sleep a thousand sleeps.
Amina, though frustrated, dismounted and took a moment to acknowledge Allah’s creations. She planted a finger on the unique mole above her left upper lip (shaped like a black half moon, a talking point sometimes among people she knew and met). She lifted her head to the sky, her hazel-brown eyes bordered by the folds of her pale blue hijab. The sun was such a powerhouse of energy and heat to all who lived on earth. So far yet so near, felt especially near during Ramadan. Her skin warmed as her spangly gold and pearl brooches shone brightly, pinned to either side of her hijab.
Though Amina was fasting, she was certainly able to give Ruhail some dried grass. As Ruhail chewed (and chewed and chewed again), Amina pondered her journey ahead. Amina knew fasting was a physical sacrifice but also one that required great mental, emotional and spiritual strength. Her grandfather had also warned her of several trials she would encounter.
She was not alone though. She had Ruhail, and in her bag there were her precious prayer beads, a book of prayers, a prayer mat and a pocket knife. She also had a beautiful pewter compass inscribed with her name though she never used it, using the sun as her guide instead. There was also a Bird of Paradise’s yellow feather she had found earlier, a keen and colourful reminder that the Garden of Knowledge existed. Amina hung a copper shield off her back, etched with the most ornate Arabic inscriptions. This was her precious Shield of Sabr, her amulet of protection. Above all though, she knew she had Allah’s divine protection.
“Right Ruhail, time to go!”
Though the sun had not yet reached its zenith, Amina and Ruhail felt its searing warmth. Squinting her eyes, Amina saw the tiniest black dots forming on the horizon. These were the dreaded Hunger Bugs that her grandfather had told her about. Amina started to feel small stitches of pain form in her stomach.
“I must be ready for them”, she told herself.
As Amina and Ruhail pressed on, the tiniest dots became tiny dots but Amina also saw some glistening, white strands and gnarled, dark branches. Amina realised it was a giant spider’s web anchored across a barren tree. Then, a huge spider came into view! Amina was very scared of their spindly bodies and long legs.
“Arrrrgggghhhh! Ruhail, let us pass quickly!!!”
Amina tugged on the reins with a sense of urgency, forcing Ruhail to change course but he became confused and tumbled right down in front of the spider’s lair.
After gaining her footing, Amina was standing so close, she could see her very own reflection in the spider’s two shiny, beady eyes. She could even see the tiny hairs on its eight spindling legs! Amina was fixed to the ground, unable to blink her eyes.
“Do not fear me, dear Amina. I know all about your quest. You’re a very special girl”, the Spider acknowledged her presence in a shrill yet tender voice, raising its two front forelegs and joining them together in a sign of respect.
Amina started blinking her eyes, a talking spider!
“Though you have many more miles and you are bereft of food and water, you are a strong girl”
But!”, the spider’s voice became high-strung and serious. “You must take note of what I am about to say”.
Ruhail started sniffing the spider’s web, licking the outer edge of the stringy vines as if it were sweet fairy floss – the spider looked on with great disdain. Ruhail stopped mid-lick, frowned, and planted his head under his feet.
“Watch for the middle of the day Amina; it is the hour at which you will feel your biggest weaknesses, your greatest pangs. It is perhaps the hardest hour”.
“At this time, you will encounter the Noonday Dragon. This dragon is a very powerful enemy in these parts, only appearing in the middle of the day. The dragon will cause you to feel terribly weak, thirsty and will speak in strange tongues which sound Arabic but are not Arabic”.
“You must think quickly to defeat this creature using your Shield of Sabr”.
After dispensing the valuable advice, the Spider knitted a book bag of white silk in which Amina would carry her book. Amina also repaid the spider’s kindness by carving and weaving some branches together.
“Thank you Spider, a water catcher for you!”
“Much appreciated, my dear child. May the rains come soon. Godspeed and Allah guide your way”.
Sure enough, the tiniest dots that had earlier become the tiny dots had now become six waspish, very real Hunger Bugs swarming towards Amina and Ruhail. They had steely olive eyes and thorny twig-like legs.
Ruhail started shaking its head and drumming its feet while Amina brought her Shield of Sabr out to defend their onslaught.
They were too fast! Amina ducked as she felt the pesky horde buzz above her. She turned to see Ruhail trying to dodge two of them as they flew past him.
The six of them circled back, with four taking a swipe at Amina, entrapping her arms with their legs.
“Unhand me!”, shouted Amina, shaking them off with all her might.
They buzzed off but came back in a frenzy.
Amina skillfully maneuvered her Shield of Sabr up, tailoring her position carefully as each bug came close. As they made contact with her shield, one by one of the barrage whittled to the ground.
A Hunger Bug had ricocheted onto Ruhail trying to sting his ear but the bug finally succumbed to unconsciousness.
She patted Ruhail’s ear to comfort him and noticed the little pangs in her stomach had momentarily disappeared…
After walking for many miles, Amina noticed a bright orange feather in the sand…another Bird of Paradise must have past earlier.
She knew “We must be getting closer”.
Amina had now grown wearier like a gnawing giant was burrowing a cave inside her.
“…It is perhaps the hardest hour”, she heard the spider’s words drum inside her head.
It was then that the Noonday Dragon came out from behind a gigantic sand dune with the heaviest of footsteps, making large moulds in the sand. It sent a chasm down the desert. Amina was terrified by the sheer size of her enemy, feeling weak and thirsty but she managed to jump up from the split.
Ruhail retreated several steps back; camels were loyal but not fighters.
The dragon’s molten scales of green, copper and violet offset his ashen amber eyes. Amina felt her pangs of hunger sear. As the Spider said, the dragon spoke in strange tongues in among its roars.
Menacingly, it stepped forward and lunged its head, swooping towards Amina.
It breathed fire without warning.
Within a millisecond, acting on instinct and smarts, Amina lifted her shield towards the powerful sun, catching its laser beam, which hit the centre of her shield.
Both forces collided at such alarming speed, the shield deflected the fiery furnace back towards its breather, something the dragon did not expect.
“Help me, Allah”, Amina cried, twisting her head away from the force of the sun’s ray coming off her shield.
The dragon roared and toppled back, singeing its scales and tail.
All of a sudden, there came a great gust of wind.
Grains of sand landed in the dragon’s eyes. It roared loudly, lost its footing and engulfed itself in a sandstorm of its own making. The dragon swirled in and out, bewildered, writhing and twisting as the tornado whooshed the dragon away.
Amina and Ruhail rode swiftly out of harm’s way, leaving the dragon dancing to a whirlwind of smoke, sand and fire…
Praying zohr, Amina thanked Allah for the wind, her shield, a creature with eight legs and for her riding companion – Allah’s comforting ways of letting Amina know she was never alone, both in life and in nature. Feeling a great sense of peace, Amina was gleeful to meet the Garden of Knowledge and was patient for the coming hour of breaking fast…
At last Amina and Ruhail arrived at the Garden! A sign hoisted at the opening doorway made of vines and flowers had a Quranic quote scripted in calligraphy:
“And if all the trees in the earth were pens, and the sea, with seven more seas to help it, (were ink), the words of Allah could not be exhausted. Lo! Allah is Mighty, Wise” (Surah Luqman, 31:27)
Ruhail was happily singing (sounding like an opera singer with a frog stuck in his throat) while he drank gallons of water from the Lake of Luqman; Birds of Paradise hovered overhead with plumage of every bright colour (Amina managed to get a purple feather, one of her favourite colours); butterflies, flowers and fountains adorned the Garden; there were glistening honey waterfalls and an apple orchard. A little marching colony of ants, the smallest of creatures but the hardest of workers, dropped a feather quill softly onto Amina’s feet.
Carved into the trees were rows and rows of books. The most adored and adorned, the mighty Quran, the greatest book ever, was sitting on the highest ledge of the canopy…
As she retrieved her book ‘The Month of Magnificence’, Amina took a bright green leaf as a bookmark, she felt a moment of quiet solitude as she read the pages and wrote her thoughts with her feather quill. She then placed her book into the book bag the Spider had made her.
Amina took a moment to affix the yellow, orange and purple feathers she had collected to Ruhail’s leather brace, tassles of remembrance of a journey never forgotten.
As she left the Garden, Amina saw a shimmering lake, so real she could almost taste it!
It was no mirage.
A proud palm tree stood tall full of glistening dates beside a small lake. Amina ate the dates and drank the water, fragrant like the finest Eid atr. Amina felt an enormous amount of gratitude to her creator and sustainer, her one and only Allah.
The night sky of Lailatul Qadr landed! A black slate with painted stars, like little white alifs befriending the moon. She and Ruhail looked towards the sky, appreciating Allah’s creativity, their two silhouettes stenciled against the horizon.
As Amina lay down to sleep that night, she did not have nightmares of monsters.
Instead, she dreamt of flying on her prayer rug, holding “The Month of Magnificence”, together with a thousand angels, singing a heavenly chorus:
Waiting for the blessed moon
Eid will come soon!
the holiest of celebrations
the joyous of salutations
the brightest of gleeful faces
the sweetest of warm embraces
Amina’s inner nur shone like a lamp in a library, a chandelier in a mosque, a candle in a minaret…
Maureen Farah Usman is a children’s & young adult’s writer and poet of general & religious poetry.
lllustration by Ziyaad at Ziy Art @ziy_art. Ziyaad is a photorealistic, comic and cartoon artist and produces both hand drawn and digital art.