Like millions of other people around the world, the news of Chadwick Boseman’s death was received with shock and deep sadness. An inexplicable sadness – one that I wasn’t prepared for.

In a few short months I (and many others) have witnessed the death of family members and friends as a result of COVID19, the killing of Black people in the USA, the death and devastation in Beirut and this is to say nothing of the continued killing through tyrannical systems of oppression and wars that are still raging despite the general “pause” we are in due to this pandemic.

So why is it that this death hit me differently?

Cynics no doubt would argue that it is to do with the media and the long tentacles of Hollywood that have a grip over us all. I don’t believe this is true. I also don’t believe I am the only one affected, clear evidence of this can be found in the fact that the final tweet from Boseman’s account announcing his death, after a long battle with colon cancer, is the most-liked Tweet of all time (currently it has 7.5 million likes).

“We belong to Allah and to Him we will return.” – Surah Al-Baqara, Verse 156

Chadwick Boseman was at the height of his career, successful and only 43 years old – though often appearing at least a decade younger. Film critic, Peter Bradshaw wrote about the actor’s “beauty, his grace, his style, his presence” making Boseman “the lost prince of American cinema… glorious and inspirational”. His was a career that was bound to become only greater with each new performance. Yet, it is now definitively over.

Perhaps what makes his death seem premature is the fact that he only really lit up our screens relatively recently. In his mid-thirties, Boseman almost gave up acting as he had found no success after a decade of roles in television and on film. This changed when he landed the role of Jackie Robinson in 42. Boseman’s next two roles were also based on iconic Black American men – James Brown in Get On Up and the first Black Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall in Marshall.

We often live our lives with the expectation that one day we will find our purpose, our true calling and only then will our life will really begin. Suddenly things will look different, we will feel differently and all those days, and years, and decades that felt somewhat unsatisfying were simply the pre-curser to our real life. We don’t consider that our time on this earth may come to end before that or that once we get there (whatever or wherever there is) we may not have as much time as we thought we did. It’s easy to look at Boseman’s life through this lens – as a man who, once he was guided to his purpose, had his time cut short.

As Muslims, we believe that this cannot actually be the case. Every soul enters and departs from this world at an appointed time – there are no mistakes nor is anyone’s time cut short. Similarly, there is no time wasted and we must do more to remind ourselves that a perceived lack of worldly success need not be understood as failure. In looking at the life of Chadwick Boseman, we see that though he only attained mainstream success five to seven years ago, his life prior to his big break was the very thing that prepared him for what lay ahead. When we watch him onscreen, we are mesmerized by his ability to authentically inhabit the characters he plays, and Boseman was doing this while he was ill and in between surgeries and chemotherapy. The fact that he was able to work and appear both on-screen and in real life with so much grace while carrying an enormous burden, can only be a result of the cultivation of virtue and strengthening of character that had to have taken place in those early years before he was a star.

The moment that Chadwick Boseman became a star was, without a doubt, his bringing to life the superhero King T’Challa in Black Panther. Rightly celebrated as the first ever Black superhero in the history of American comics, King T’Challa is also celebrated for being courageous enough to confront and learn from the mistakes of his forefathers. The scene in question takes place on the ancestral plane, a purple skied spiritual realm that looks like the African Savannah complete with baobab trees. 

It is perhaps Boseman’s most famous role that embodies the reason we connected to him as an artist – he will be remembered for playing heroes who were complex in their humanness and extraordinary in their journey.

The ‘monomyth’ described in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces outlines the hero myth which we identify with strongly. The classic arc is repeated across time and culture and finds resonance with us because “the adventure of the hero is the adventure of being alive”. These stories have a profound impact on the human being and the proof of this is in the many qasas (stories) of the prophets throughout the Qur’an as well as the science of the seerah (prophetic biography). Each one of us has our own seerah, our own journey and the tales of those who have gone before us in righteousness serve as a confirmation for us on our path.

It would do us well to reflect on an ayat in Surah Hud in which Allah ta’ala tells His Beloved Muhammad (peace be upon him):

We have given you all this news about the Messengers

so We can make your heart firm by means of it.


Here, God the Exalted is telling His Final Messenger that the news of previous Messengers has been sent in order to affirm his heart for the journey he must make in calling people to the Truth.

It goes without saying that there are no greater nor more beautiful stories than those of the Messengers, Prophets and right-acting people preserved in the Sacred Texts, but sometimes in order to access them we have to hear the stories invented by humans first. We have to see parts of our selves, our struggles and our triumphs so that we may realize how desperately we are in need of a guide to take us to The Guide.

In his last released film, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, Boseman plays Norman, the leader of five Black soldiers who dies in Vietnam. Presented on-screen through flashbacks and effulgently covered in an angelic light, another character describes Norman saying “He was our Malcolm and our Martin”. Similarly, Boseman means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but the impact he had on the lives he touched has certainly been felt in these few days after his death.

Today, few young people are reading classical works of literature and fewer still are meaningfully engaging with Sacred Texts. We need myths and stories on our screens to allow us to arrive at profound realizations that may lead us back to our essence and back to the Divine.

Chadwick Boseman will be celebrated for significantly contributing to the body of artistic work which has strived to do exactly that. His death, on the other hand, reminds us all of our own mortality, the impact one individual may have on millions of people and the importance of never presuming to know what exists in the interior life of anyone. He died after a battle with colon cancer, a stomach illness, and as such recognized in the prophetic tradition as being sufficient to allow one to die as a shaheed (martyr). Such is the difficulty and distress of this type of illness. And Allah knows best.

Chadwick Boseman was not just “one of the good ones” – he was one of the great. At this time of sadness and terrible anxiety over our fragile existence in this life we should remember what King T’Challa once said:

“In my culture, death is not the end. It’s more of a stepping off point. You reach out with both hands and Bast and Sekhmet, they lead you into a green veld where you can run forever.”