Shahada – a poem by John Claiborne Isbell


أَشْهَدُ أَنْ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا ٱللَّٰهُ
The Shahada

There is no god but God – 

			the very words
I was thinking early that February morning,
the day after I got my diagnosis.
And though those words didn’t actually cure my cancer,
they did shift reality enough 
to let a little divine light
in with the dawn. Nobody I know
gets up as early as I do. I like to believe
the universe is working like a mill wheel
when we’re not watching, and dawn is part of that.
And though my peace of mind may not depend
on the time of day, I am fond of the early morning –
it holds such promise. This universe we inhabit
propels us into the future according to its law.

The sand is like a living thing. Along 
the winding dunes, the windward and the lee
redraw their maps, and over them, as if
a mist, the sand is dancing. Walk awhile –
the sand shifts underfoot, and overhead,
the sun is high. Now, you can ride the sand:
you’ll gaze out at the endless dunes. A soul
might lose itself. Here, every grain you see
is placed just where it is, it is recorded.

Today, we walked the sands. And when we came
to sunset and the evening prayer, we sat
to break our fast. A man whirled on a stage.
We spoke of holy things and not so holy,
of those we’ve lost, of how life has its end.
A soul makes choices in the world: the world
is very large, and we are small in it.
Small as a distant star to light the night.
Small as a grain of sand the wind has caught.

John Claiborne Isbell taught French and German for many years in Indiana and Texas after his Ph.D. at Cambridge University. In 1996, he appeared in Who’s Who in the World. He has a new monograph, An Outline of Romanticism in the West, with Open Book Publishers, where it is available to download for free online. His first book of poetry, Allegro, came out in 2018. 

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