By Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool
My accidental discovery and deliberative usage of my inner power – the Power Within – has been one of the more difficult of my life journey to share. The difficulty lies in both confessing how unconscious I was when uncovering my inner power as well as how desperate the circumstances when I realized that, unless I harness it, I may perish. However, I decided to dig deep into my soul to find the best way in which to make this journey accessible for an audience needing to search for an inner power in order to radiate outwardly the barakah or blessing inherent in its positive harnessing.
This journey goes back to 6 June 1987. After my first stint in apartheid South Africa’s prison, I spent the next 18 months ‘underground’, escaping the draconian powers that the state of emergency conferred on the already powerful police: the power to detain people without trial indefinitely, to disappear them, to isolate them in solitary confinement, and to interrogate them relentlessly. They finally caught up with me.
I was to spend the next 14 months as a political detainee, firstly in a Wynberg police cell, and then Pollsmoor prison, where Nelson Mandela too was a political prisoner. The first four months of my detention were in solitary confinement where the only people I engaged were the security branch interrogating me.
For this period in prison, especially the months of solitary confinement, the only resource I had was the Qur’an. It was the Qur’an around which my life and survival would depend. Every conscious moment was based on finding sustenance, strength, and power from the Qur’an. Around the morning prayers, I simply sought to complete as many Arabic recitations as possible. After breakfast, I memorized my favorite verses and chapters. In the afternoon I read it in English in a conscious search for meaning, my interpretations of which I recorded on the blank spaces left by Yusuf Ali. In the evening I did an index of the themes of the Quran on toilet paper (the only paper available) with the refill of a pen smuggled from a warden.
For me, the Qur’an was my conversation with God . It was about its melody, but also being attuned to its spirit. It was about its rules of worship and living, but also about its intent. It was about reading the history of Prophets, but for the purpose of being inspired to act today. At that moment in prison, the Qur’an was my conversation about how not to break and betray under interrogation, how to remain sane and in charge against your enemy, and how to remain intact by limiting the damage to my soul.
However, it was not the Qur’an itself that stepped into the breach against my interrogators. Rather, it was the Qur’an that alerted me to the power within and linked it to the Source of Power.
The Qur’an was a manual on how to harness internal power to radiate barakah (blessing) externally. This was a journey that had seven tips I only made sense of in retrospect.
Tip 1: Plug into The Ultimate Source
The Prophet [SAW] said to his companion: “I will give you the ultimate treasure of paradise: Say ‘La hawla wa la quwwata illa billah (There is no power and no strength except with Allah).” [Sunan Ibn Majah]
This affirmation that all original power comes from Allah, the Ultimate Source of Power, is at once a statement of humility and a safeguard against arrogance; a possibility to share in this power and a warning against becoming a competitor source; and an invitation to access of this ultimate power and then to harness it for good. The Prophet did not seek to disempower us as human beings because such an interpretation would negate the unique characteristic of human beings to utilize the power of choice and decision, and would relegate us to the level of other creatures that possess instinct without a will, and hence are free of responsibility and accountability.
We are encouraged to be powerful devices. Every device has a unique and magnificent capability when it is powered up. However, this only happens when connected to a power source, whether plugged in or having a battery inserted. It has to be charged. Therefore, the precondition for discovering, uncovering and harnessing the power within is to submit first to getting charged from the power source, the Ultimate Origin of Power: Allah Al-Qawy (The All-Powerful, Source of Power)!
Tip 2: Be whole to be powerful: the Qur’an is not a supermarket
The first two weeks of my detention was defined by mixed emotion. I needed to be strong and powerful to resist the relentless interrogation. Simultaneously, it was about denial: I was not so powerful and important and therefore, I was sure to be released when the statutory two-week review occurred. In that period of hopeful desperation, my reading of the Qur’an was as if I was in a supermarket: I went to my favorite aisles – all the socio-political chapters – seeking the shelves with my favorite products – the verses exhorting unrelenting battle against injustice – and choosing my favorite brands – promises of martyrdom and paradise for my efforts. My reading was a relentless search for Divine affirmation for why I was in detention and the promise of Divine deliverance from suffering or Divine reward for sacrifice.
But was I reading the Qur’an – conversing with God [SWT]– any differently from the Muslims I was questioning: The Imam who stands up for Fajr, but not moved by it to stand for justice, who reads only to perfect the rituals? The devout who reads to affirm their length of pants and extent of hijab, but oblivious to human sacrifice? How different was I to those who choose the aisles and products and brands that only deal with their preoccupations? Was I, too, only reading the Qur’an to confirm what I know and who I am?
At the two-week mark, in a cruel blow to my hopes of release, the police indeed asked me to pack my belongings, sign my release form, and exit the door of the detention cells. As I stepped out, they re-arrested me, having complied with the letter of the law. As I reconciled myself to a long stint in prison, a verse from the Qur’an jumped at me:
“Do you believe in a part of the Scripture and reject a part?” [Qur’an 2:85]
This was the Qur’an telling me to be whole, comprehensive and complete if I were to access the ultimate source of power and plug into it. There is a middle way between the solitude of the ritualist and the activism of the jihadi that prevents the former from being a coward and the latter from extremism; between escapist spiritualism and soulless social commitment; and between the rules and regulations of Islam and the intents, values, and principles thereof. But to find this middle way, I needed to read the whole Qur’an, from cover to cover, engaging in the conversation with Allah [SWT], but not on my supermarket terms!
Tip 3: Be disrupted to disrupt: worship vertically and serve horizontally
Being whole allows social activism to emerge from a deep spiritual commitment, and ensures that spiritual commitment leads to social action. Those whose life is based on perfecting the rituals – their vertical worship – are reminded in the Qur’an that their standing at night must be balanced with their social commitment by day, and must, therefore, be tempered. Similarly, those whose activism – horizontal service – is so consuming that they find no time for meditation, reflection, and spiritual connection can be as one-dimensional.
For me, at that moment when the consequence of my social commitment was that I was vulnerable and isolated, I needed to disrupt my own life: how to interrupt my meetings so that I could pray; how to fast outside of Ramadan even in the midst of life and death struggles; how to donate from even the little you earn from an informal existence; how to have an ideological viewpoint that could be subject to scrutiny and ridicule in a world grown skeptical of God when so much suffering is justified in the name of religion.
My reading of the Qur’an then taught me that it could just be that in the very design of every prescribed worship, there was the dual impact of being disrupted to disrupt! Prayer, sometimes at odd times, vertically connects to God , but is simultaneously the means ‘to enjoin good and avert wrong’; while fasting teaches God-Consciousness and solidarity with the poor simultaneously; just as zakah purifies the giver while assisting those disadvantaged; and even the pilgrimage to Makka ultimately gains you knowledge of God , but only after you have come to know yourself. Indeed, the disruption to the self allows an even more powerful ability to disrupt the forces of injustice, poverty, hunger, ignorance and the many more. This is the barakah – the blessings that radiate horizontally – when the vertical axis is allowed to be disruptive. This vertical axis is the point at which the power flows from the Ultimate Source to the appliance.
Tip 4: A two-way conversation with God : asking and listening
In those desperate first weeks in prison, I was frantically communicating with Allah . I wanted to be relieved of my ordeal. I wanted to be released from prison. I wanted to withstand my interrogation. I wanted mercy and I wanted forgiveness and I wanted paradise and I wanted my family taken care of…. It was about me. It was an unfulfilling communication.
As Ramadan approached, and I was preparing for fasting, the prison authorities thought I was embarking on a hunger strike, the ultimate weapon of political prisoners, the decision to starve yourself and draw attention to the injustice you’re facing. Suddenly the menu changed: a mishmash of food became, by prison standards, a gourmet meal, served at the moment of your greatest hunger to entice you out of your hunger strike or fast, carefully weighed before serving and then at the point of collection to refute – even by a milligram – your claims to hunger strike. But resolve at that moment wasn’t my most important Ramadan lesson.
The lesson emerged from a more intensive reflection on the usual verses of the Qur’an that deal with the month of fasting:
“O ye who believe! fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you that you may (learn) self-restraint.
(Fasting) for a fixed number of days; but if any of you is ill or on a journey the prescribed number (should be made up) from days later. For those who can do it (with hardship) is a ransom the feeding of one that is indigent. But he that will give more of his own free will it is better for him and it is better for you that you fast if you only knew.
Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur’an as a guide to mankind also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting but if anyone is ill or on a journey the prescribed period (should be made up) by days later. Allah intends every facility for you He does not want to put you to difficulties. (He wants you) to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him in that He has guided you, and perchance you shall be grateful.
When my servants ask you concerning Me I am indeed close (to them); I listen to the prayer of every suppliant when he calleth on Me; let them also with a will listen to My call and believe in Me; that they may walk in the right way. [Qur’an 2:183- 186]
It was especially verse 186 that caught my attention:
“When My servants ask you concerning Me, I am indeed close to them: I listen to the prayer of every suppliant when they call on me. Let them too, with a will, Listen to My call, and believe in Me; that they may walk in the right way.”
How many times have I missed Allah’s side of the conversation because I was obsessed with my needs and wants?
I was very good with the first part of the exchange, where I am listened to, but often oblivious to the reciprocal part: to listen with a will!
And Allah knows what distracts from listening to His message, the failure to listen diminishes our own power and barakah. The Qur’an therefore, advises even about the best time to enter into this conversation. The ‘reading of the Qur’an at dawn is ever witnessed.’ [Qur’an 17:78]
Allah is ever-present. Allah does not only suggest the time that is best, but at the moment of the Prophet’s [SAW] greatest vulnerability, when he was taking refuge in his cloak, a chapter of the Qur’an was revealed to elaborate the idea of this conversation, and to motivate for this to occur when distractions are at their most limited:
“Stand to pray by night, just a little, half the night, or even less, or a little more. And read the Quran in slow, measured, rhythmic tones. Soon will you receive an important message.” [Qur’an 73:2-5]
After emphasizing the time, duration and manner of reading, as well as the anticipation of an impending message, the rationale for such detail is unveiled:
“Truly the rising by night is most potent for governing the soul and most suitable for framing the Word of prayer and praise. True, by day there is for you prolonged occupation with ordinary duties.” [Qur’an 73:6-7]
I realized that I was not receiving the message – the other side of the conversation – because I was either distracted by my daily preoccupations or by my own obsessions. I needed to govern my soul to be free of these competing interests.
What was intriguing was the notion of ‘framing the Word.’ The Word of Allah, the text, is inviolable, but its framing requires a soul free of competing interests, biased intentions, the exigencies of now and here as the main determinants. For the Word to be heard, understood and internalized, the soul needs relative purity and discipline. In other words, for the Word to be suitably framed the text must at once be responsive to, but not overwhelmed by, the context – time and place – nor by the pretext – what needs you bring to it – and neither by the subtext – preceding scholarship. The solitude of the night may well be the best atmosphere for such a conversation where I may be liberated from fears and anxieties, distanced from anger or excessive affections, or devoid of distractions. A conversation thus framed, unleashes the power within because the link to the Ultimate Source thereof is unshakeable.
Tip 5: Intentionality: the power of establishing the purpose
The notion of niyyah – intention – is in danger of becoming cliché-ic or ritualistic. With a two-way conversation opening up falteringly, imperfectly, but ultimately empoweringly, I had, at last, the courage to ask ‘why?’ One of the whys was about the dozens of formulas we learned by rote before each prayer, ablution, entry to, and exit from, the toilet, the home, transport, and in almost every life event. Why the “I intend…”? Because I was building sufficient will to also listen, my mind was opening to meanings that transcended ritual. If God [SWT] says that human beings were created ONLY to worship, then is this an exhortation to be only in the mosque, in constant prayer and fast mode? Or is intention (niyyah) the mechanism with which to transform every act, event, or engagement in life into an act of worship? Have I understood worship only as ritual – which is crucial – but missed the even greater opportunity to transform life itself into worship by harnessing the power within and radiating barakah and blessing?
At every moment of loss, we remind ourselves about the two fixed points in life: our origin – ‘from Allah we come’ – and our destination – ‘to Allah we are returning’. What a privileged worldview we have in which we build purpose into everything we do, we build intentionality, because we are aware of our destination. We start not simply by expressing intentionality, but by purifying intention – ‘for the sake of God’. Thus, barakah is embedded – more obviously in the ritual acts of worship – but more importantly in the daily acts of life when working, playing, learning, relaxing, relating or pondering, if we allow them to be transformed by intentionality.
Tip 6: Finding true north: what is worth dying for?
In the midst of my time in Pollsmoor Prison, a warden contrived to set up an encounter with Nelson Mandela. This was a moment that could make any ordeal worthwhile. Imagine meeting someone whose image, voice and words were banned and prohibited under apartheid. Imagine being with someone about whom you sang freedom songs and for whose freedom you marched and under whose inspiration you confronted the apartheid machinery. Now you met a leader, undiminished by almost 25 years in jail, optimistic about our future and knowledgeable about you, Ebrahim Rasool, a mere activist in a nation of heroes.
On reflecting on Mandela’s resilience, faithfulness and hopefulness, I was drawn to his words – which we recited in hushed tones – at the moment that he was to be sentenced to a lifetime in prison, where he and the other Rivonia Trialists stood between that life sentence and the death penalty. In anticipation of the death penalty, Mandela issued both a challenge to the judge and a statement of his life creed: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society. It is an ideal I hope to live for and to achieve, but if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
With those words, Nelson Mandela distinguished himself from populist leaders who manipulate for short-term achievements, but unable to sacrifice for long-term values; from extremists who are fully capable of dying for their cause, but unable to live it; and from leaders driven by rage and those inspired by the finest human ideals.
Mandela was prepared to die for his ideals, but he was far more intent on realizing and living them.
At that moment in prison, I had my purpose renewed, I refined my goals, and clarified life values from personal ambitions, injury, and motives – I knew what was worth sacrificing and, if needs be, dying for! Then I knew what I wanted to live for! I was helped in that the quality of my conversation with God [SWT] was improving, I was developing a more conscious sense of intentionality, and now I was developing a life purpose in support of values. The power within was less latent and more apparent, and as people outside of prison were mobilizing for my release, spray-painting my name on walls, demanding my freedom, I knew that the barakah was radiating because in a small part my personal story became part of a bigger human and political narrative that could only advance the freedom we yearned for.
Tip 7: Take the plunge: “We will show you the way”
There is a fundamental difference between one’s inner power and one’s ability to control life. Rather than thinking that you can chart each course in your life, predict each choice at intersections on the road, and find the straightest way to a destination, the most important thing is often to pitch up at the departure point, to take the plunge into life! So many make perfect planning of this journey, perfect choices at intersections, perfect companions on the journey, perfect assurances of success the preconditions for living conscious lives, for harnessing their inner power and radiating their blessings to the world. To use a cliché: The perfect should not be the enemy of the good!
This came into perspective when I encountered the Chapter in the Qur’an called The Spider Al Ankabut:
“Those who strive in Our way, We will show them the way.” [Qur’n 29: 69]
There is very little to fear when you have taken the steps of plugging into the Ultimate Power when your reading of the Qur’an is whole and your conversation with Allah [SWT] is about both speaking and listening in ways that worship is a means to higher purposes, and when you have both intentionality and life purpose. When these frame your living, you must not fear your inner power and not withhold your barakah or blessing from the world, especially when your next iteration of the journey is yet unknown and your choices at the intersections of life are unclear. Allah [SWT] will show the way, but you have to take the plunge. The Prophet [SAW] once even advised that fatwas (rulings) from the heart may even become your guide.
Wabisah bin Ma’bad (May Allah be pleased with him) reported:
I went to Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) and he asked me, “Have you come to inquire about piety?” I replied in the affirmative. Then he said, “Ask your heart regarding it. Piety is that which contents the soul and comforts the heart, and sin is that which causes doubts and perturbs the heart, even if people pronounce it lawful and give you verdicts on such matters again and again.” [Ahmad and Ad- Darmi].
But we have to pitch up at the point of choice and decision. We must neither fear our power within nor withhold our barakah!
This article is courtesy of Amb. Ebrahim Rasool, former South Africa’s Ambassador to the United States. He has a long history of involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. He held several leadership positions and received several leadership awards.He has been active in mobilizing Muslims and the broader faith communities toward a deeper understanding of Islam and faith under conditions of oppression and currently under conditions of globalization. He is the founder of the World for All Foundation.