Years ago, in the dusky Maghrib light, I sat upon my prayer mat and let myself feel the loss of shifting friendships and the empty space of my own widening perspectives.
In that quiet stillness it seemed as if the time for meeting ‘soulmates’ had passed and that easy, meaningful rapport was bound to a tether now too short to reach me. The sadness of that moment moved me to raise my hands and ask for help – to beseech our Creator for the magic of good girlfriends. For fun friendships, enlightening conversations, sacred remembrances and everyday adventures. I asked for the pleasure of seeing and the luxury of being seen. A few months later, we met. A prayer answered.
In the shade of this blessed and beautiful connection I write you, in the evening a few days before your 40th birthday, underneath yet another dusky sky. A letter which has been percolating through me for months, but like the espresso in your dirty chai, needed just enough time and pressure to become.
Forty is a number that also percolates – through our experiences, stories and traditions. A number both familiar and mysterious. Forty weeks of nurturing for us as we grow in the womb. Forty days and forty nights of shelter for Prophet Nuh on his ark, forty days of darkness for Prophet Yunus, under the sea, in the belly of a whale. Forty days of fasting for Prophet Musa before receiving the Ten Commandments and, also for him, forty years of wandering with his people in an unforgiving desert. The Prophet Muhammad told us that to memorise and preserve forty hadith is reason enough to be given a high station. And of course, the forty we never forget is also that of our Beloved Messenger – the age at which he received the first revelation and learned who he truly was.
All to say, forty is a big one. Perhaps the most important one. A dividing line between exploration and dedication, between simply knowing things and knowing how to use the things you know. I think they call that responsibility. I think they call that wisdom. And I’m absolutely certain that neither is easy.
I know we sometimes wish that we’d met much earlier in our lives, fixating upon all the things we could have done and all the joy we could have had – or more to the point, all the trouble we could have caused. But as tempting as that thought is, I know we couldn’t have had the same friendship because we weren’t the same people.
The alchemy would have been off, and in place of the gold we have now would be something decidedly less precious and lustrous. I’d like to believe that part of the reason we met when we did was so that we could enter this phase of our lives together. This profound and somewhat unexpected coming-of-age.
I want to share with you two things to remember as you enter this new decade. I know you already know these things but I will share them anyways because I also knew these things when I turned forty, in a general way, but being reminded of them specifically at that time brought clarity, peace and strength. Like so much of our own story, it’s a matter of timing.
The first is that as much as we celebrate the initial revelation, the beginning of Islam and the age of prophecy as blessings without end – which they undoubtedly are – we should also remind ourselves that with this unveiling came a period of intense hardship for our Prophet and those who loved him. Of course, we aren’t anywhere near the calibre of the Prophet but his example is always there for us and in each of his phases of life, we find guidance for our own.
So in this way we learn that at forty, not only are we capable of receiving deeply transformative knowledge which will shake us to our core, but that we are also capable of truly acting upon it – in ways we simply did not have the capacity to do so before.
The mistake is to think that this stage will be effortless, that on some level, we should have it all ‘figured it out’ by now. But that is completely unfounded and there’s no good reason to believe that now is the time to coast. That being said, the one thing we do have figured out after four decades is perseverance, and I’d say our Prophetic example highlights that now is the time to unleash it.
The second thing is the fact that forty is the only age mentioned specifically in the Qur’an – because of course, our Creator knows that we need real, targeted help for our mid-life moments, dare I say ‘crisis’?
I read this verse many times but when it appeared before me just before my 40th birthday, I realised it has everything we need to help centre and guide us in this new age:
“We have commanded people to honour their parents. Their mothers bore them in hardship and delivered them in hardship. Their bearing and weaning took a full thirty months. In time, when the child reaches their prime at the age of forty, they pray:
‘Lord, help me to be truly grateful for Your favours to me and to my parents; help me to do good work that pleases You; make my offspring good. I turn to You; I am one of those who devote themselves to You.” (Qur’an 46:15)
There you have it: Forty means you’ve come into your time, into your prime. Everything that has passed before has brought you to this age of strength, one where the burden of responsibility shifts and the care of both the old and the young and the duty of both the work and the worship fall to you.
No matter what you want or dream forty to be, know that if you are actively cultivating gratitude, striving to do work that has meaning in this world and a spiritual alignment with the next, consciously caring for the people who raised you and the ones you are raising, know that your efforts will be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams.
And though it is simple to say, it is difficult to implement. Primarily because it means thinking beyond yourself at a time when all you want to do is think about yourself. Trust me, I know. Yet, I also know that we were made for this, our lives contain countless blessings, privileges, people who love us and whom we love and, of course, each other.
May your day rise brightly, your year unfold beautifully and your life be blessed eternally.
Illustration by: Aiysha Malik