‘Do you believe in an after-life?’ The question took Olev by surprise, but the more he thought about it, the more he began to understand the rationale behind it. For what was it that he so dreaded about death except what was to come after it? He composed his mind before answering in his typical honest manner. ‘’Yes I do, for it is what lies after death that almost paralyses me with terror, and what I must do now to prepare for it is what I have been seeking all these years.”
Slowly and methodically, Sheikh Hamiduddeen began to explain to his guest, asking him if he believed in a Creator, to which the latter replied in the affirmative. ‘Yes, this is in-born in every human-being; it is instinctive to know that there is a Creator behind the creation,’ the Imam continued. ‘For in the same way that an admirer of a painting seeks to know the artist, one who is left breathless by the vast Cosmos recognizes that there must be a Supreme Crafter behind it. The question is, have all these been constructed for no purpose, have we been created for idle play, or is there a powerful motive behind it? Now I have a concise answer for the question that has plagued you for so long, but I will not give it to you – not yet.’
There was no hint of cruelty in his voice as he said the words to his guest, explaining to him that any answer he might give him would detract from the task he had in store for him, that of reading God’s last revelation to mankind, the Holy Qur’an, to form for himself an independent answer to his all-important question- the reason behind his existence. ‘Any question you have, any…I will be at your disposal,’ he assured him, handing over an old Arabic-English copy of the meaning of the Qur’an. ‘And for as long as you wish, you are my honored guest. I ask God Almighty to guide you in your quest.’
Olev took the book with shaking hands, and in his head a question struck without warning, almost like the whisper of an unseen foe, and his observant host saw his face become pale and ashen. ‘What is it?’ Olev was staring into space, sweating like a man who has labored in a corn-field, and he heard the Imam’s voice again, insistent in its tone. ‘What is it…?!’
‘Something whispered in the depths of my soul, what if I do not find the answers I seek in this book… and then it vanished.’ He looked at the Imam with horror and repeated the question to him. ‘What if I do not?’ Sheikh Hamiduddeen said nothing, opening instead the English translation and pointing with his wrinkled index finger at a verse, motioning for Olev to read it for himself.
“So when you recite the Qur’an, [first] seek refuge in Allah from Satan, the expelled [from His mercy].” (An-Nahl, 16:98)
Even as he read the words, he felt his terror vanish at a stroke, to be replaced by an iron will to study and understand God’s revelation to an unlettered prophet in the scorching desert sands of Arabia. He turned over the first page, applying the brilliant mind that had penned a master-piece novel back in his native Russia to studying the scripture, then to judge for himself whether at the end of his endeavors, he felt extricated from the abyss of his recurrent nightmare. And so he began to recite…
“In the name of Allah , the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful.”
This opening formula he saw at the beginning of every with the exception of one Chapter of the Qur’an, and he began to realize that the Creator of the grand universe was not a Divine Wrath seeking placation, but a Lord abounding in Mercy, the depths of which were fathomless. He read like a man possessed, and he had not gone far before he began to suspect that maybe, just maybe, he had stumbled upon the answers to the questions that any rational man tired of being idly carried along in the waves of a meaningless life must someday ask himself.
For the more he read, the more it dawned on him that no mortal could have penned those words. They were written in a style he had never seen before, spoken in a voice that saw into the very soul of mankind, gentle yet commanding, stern at times yet full of compassion. Its core message, devoid of the mind-bending inexplicable acrobatics of the bible, was an unyielding monotheism, an invitation to worship One God, the Creator of Everything. Of the messiah Isa son of Maryam he read the following:-
“The Messiah, son of Mary, was not but a messenger; [other] messengers have passed on before him. And his mother was a supporter of truth. They both used to eat food. Look how We make clear to them the signs; then look how they are deluded.” (Al-Ma’idah, 5:75)
‘Would I experience the same feeling of awe if I were to read the Quran in its original Arabic?’ he once asked the revered Sheikh. The latter smiled in his usual warm manner. ‘I think you would experience it a hundred-fold. For the Quran is only the Quran when it is in Arabic. Translated into any other language, it becomes just that, a translation. A pale shadow of the splendid original.’ And so under the tutelage of the great scholar, Olev began to delve into the mysteries of Arabic grammar.
He found it tough going, but it was his indefatigable host who encouraged him to strive harder. ‘A straw house with an iron door,’ was how he had likened the learning of the Arabic language and grammar. ‘Difficult to enter, but once inside all is ease.’ The iron-willed Olev persevered, and in three short months, with rapidly increasing fluency, he began to recite the Quran as it had been revealed – in its clear unblemished Arabic, free from all corruption.
The result enchanted him, awakening in his soul an overwhelming feeling of..…he searched in himself the meaning of what he felt. He knew that the utter dread he had experienced when he first held the sacred text, the trepidation of what the Owner of life and death had to say to a sinner of his like – he felt these fears melt away to be replaced by something else, an emotion inside him that almost compelled him to clutch at his chest to prevent it from escaping, like a glow of fire warming a man trapped in a freezing snow-storm. He knew then that it was love, a deep over-whelming spiritual attachment that a lost mortal who begins to see the truth has for the One who guided him to it.
‘My Lord, where are you? Give me a sign; show me that you know of my predicament .’ It was the ardent plea of a man desperate to assure himself that his Creator sees and hears him, that his entreaties are not going unheeded. He wiped away the fountain of his tears and read the next verse of the still-open copy of the mushaf. And when he did, he found the answer to his supplication etched on the faded page.
“And He is the Irresistible, above His slaves, and He is the All-Wise, Well-Acquainted with all things.” (Al-An’am, 6:18)
At a stroke, like a flashing lightning-strike that illuminates all around it in its brilliance, he realized that within the scripture he held in his trembling hands lay the indisputable answer to his decade-long quest…the search for the meaning of life. It’s Author, he now affirmed beyond all doubt, was far from indifferent and aloof when it came to the destiny of the creature He had fashioned with His own Hands. Nay, He was Guardian over him in every waking moment of his life, and when sleep overcame him, nearer to him in knowledge than the very lifeline of his jugular vein. His statement for the reason behind existence was as simple as it was profound:
“And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.” (Adh-Dhariyat, 51:56)
Imagine a man seeing him-self condemned to a horrifying death by an executioner’s axe, envisioning himself tied up and prepared for the inevitable death-blow, a hood slipped over his frantic eyes as he hears the rasping of iron against iron, knowing that the sound of the axe being sharpened is the last thing he is destined to hear. Imagine for such a man to suddenly open his eyes and find himself in a warm bed, unfettered and free, that his vision of only a few moments ago was a nightmare that is no more. Such was the relief Olev felt. That indescribable feeling of horror that had been his constant companion for ten torturous years had vanished, to be replaced by the conviction that the One who held his life and death in His Hands was overwhelmingly Merciful, that even he could dare to hope for mansions in an eternal garden, if only he submitted to his Creator.
“Say, “O My servants who have transgressed against themselves [by sinning], do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful.”” (Az-Zumar, 39:53)
And submit he did. He summoned Sheikh Hamiduddeen and the mosque cleaner as witnesses two days later, and pointing a wobbling index finger towards heaven, took the plunge of faith. ‘I bear witness that there is no God worthy of worship except Allah , and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah .’ He stood under a starless sky that night in prayer, still as a marble statue, his eyes half-closed, his lips moving silently as he recited the sacred verses he had committed to his quick memory, a man in stark contrast to the disheveled unsettled soul that had crossed the mosque courtyard nearly six months ago, a man now in solemn conversation with his Creator, a man completely at peace with himself. The quest was over….
Olev gripped the reins of his mount tighter as he spurred his horse to a gallop across the flat expanse of desert flanked on either side by towering mountains. He looked about him and began to see things clearly for the first time in his life. The canopy of heaven high above him, the earth stretched out under the hooves of the galloping beast, the mountains planted firmly in the earth…he saw in these the unmistakable finger-print of a Grand Creator. He thought about his terrible ordeal in the desert, on the verge of a thirst-crazed death, when out of nowhere it had begun to rain, and again on the brink of despair when he was certain that he had lost his way, it was the sound of the call to prayer that had revived his failing strength.
He looked up towards Heaven and around him again, and with a jerk of the reins brought the beast to a complete standstill. He composed his thoughts now, putting into words the important question that had been playing on his mind. ‘What do I do with my life now?’ His mind went instinctively back to the Qur’an, and from it he drew his answer. ‘I worship my Creator, I believe in Him and work righteous deeds. May God guide me to the right path. Ameen.’ Armed with this resolve, he spurred his horse again to an even faster gallop. And in that mad rush over barren unbroken desert, with a froth of sweat bubbling from the speeding stallion’s heaving white flanks and it’s pounding hooves kicking back a stream of dust and pebbles, Olev felt his heart open up to the beauty of Islam, an ecstatic feeling he was destined never to forget. He began to weep, but they were not the broken tears of a man who sees himself encompassed by an inescapable doom; they were the tears of a man who feels the fetters of Hell falling away from his unbound hands, a man who has finally found the salvation he so desperately craved.
And even though he did not know it then, he was riding, straight as an arrow…towards Makkah.
What has he lost, who loses the whole world and finds his Creator, and what has he gained, who gains the whole world and loses his own soul.
Like a giant carpet, the Arabian desert opened up before him. He stared out at the vastness of the expanse ahead of him, appalled at the very thought of having to cross this endless stretch without the help of an experienced guide. He was a curious spectacle, this dishevelled sixty-year old with his hastily donned Arabian attire, for he was no Arab, despite the flaming white beard that lent him an almost likeable look. Yet, there was something in his eyes that spoke of a far deeper sorrow than the prospect of crossing a hostile desert alone. It was a deep-seated unending fear, one that assaulted him relentlessly and against which he had no control. It tormented him by day and haunted his nights; he had turned to anything and everything for a remedy, and sought every facet of knowledge known to mankind to find an answer that would still the raging inferno that threatened to consume him.
It had all begun in his native Russia, following the publication of his masterpiece novel titled The Fields of War. The reception had been phenomenal, never had anything like it been written before by the hand of man, and the praise that followed was unprecedented. By all accounts, at the age of fifty and with a work of that magnitude to his name, Olev Karenin was assured of immortality in the annals of literature. Wealthy, physically fit and boasting a huge circle of influential friends, he had only to sit back now and enjoy the financial rewards that would inevitably follow. And yet, it was then that the nightmare had begun, and it would engulf the author and turn his life in a completely different course.
For, as he laid back savouring the praise of his work from an adoring public, he began to ask questions. Yes, I have written a book, it is going to be a best-seller, I will be famous and richer than I could ever imagine. And then what? I will become the most famous author in all of Russia, possibly the world. So what? Death will knock on my door and I will be gone. What will become of me…how will all that I have amassed, my wealth, my books, my fame, how will it help me. These were the sort of questions that stabbed incessantly at his intellect, so, over time he knew he could no longer ignore them. He sat down, strangely silent, isolated from the people he had known for half a century, and thought slowly but logically about these questions…questions that had suddenly burst out from their hiding places and stood facing him, demanding real answers.
He turned them over in his mind, a mind that the profession of writing had over the years honed to a formidable brilliance. Yet when he finally raised his head to clear his thoughts, he could only come up with one conclusion. That after fifty years of living and making money and writing, he had done nothing meaningful with his life, he had achieved nothing. The conclusion astonished him, a shock that hit like a hammer blow into his soul. At first, he thought there had been a gap in his thought-process, that the results were simply too horrifying to be true. How could it be that his life was meaningless? Was not his name on the lips of every citizen, was he not the most sought-after author in the motherland? Again, the same question that had closed the door of his happiness struck him…so what? How will it help you after your death? He couldn’t fathom an answer. He buried his face in his hands and began to sob, an anguished cry that drove him to the edge of an overwhelming fear, one from which he knew he could never escape.
It was the death of his brother that heightened this gnawing fear into near-panic, for he had seen what he himself utterly dreaded. He had seen a brother who had never understood why he lived, and much less why he was dying. It was a catastrophe he resolved must never befall him. And so he sat down again, strangely still now, and framed in his mind the all-important question. Why do I exist? What is my purpose on this planet? He turned away from his novels and his writings and threw himself, body and soul to finding the answer. He did it not halfheartedly or out of idle curiosity, but like a man crazed by thirst desperately looking for water, like a dying man seeking salvation.
It was to the respectable field of science that he first turned to find the answers to the questions that were eating away at his sanity, the question of the reason behind man’s existence, what on earth was he supposed to do while alive to guarantee him safe passage when the catastrophe of death took him away. He studied science in predatory detail, using every ounce of his intelligence to deduce a comprehensible meaning. He was astonished at his findings. For all its advancements, the subject offered not an iota of the answer he so desperately needed. It’s shortcoming was plain to see for anyone studying it. It offered not the why behind existence, but the how of matter and it’s behavior. It’s language, so grave and assuring to the uninitiated layman, crumbled to dust when presented with the all-important question. Karenin felt the world around him darken, and it plunged him into despair.
He studied philosophy next, pouring over every book he could lay his hands on, and by the end of his labors, his disappointment was tangible. Every philosopher talked in a language to make himself look smarter than the previous one, yet all their ‘wise’ sayings amounted to nothing. If he could have laughed at their foolishness, he would have. But with every passing day, the certainty of death became more crystal clear, and he still did not know why he was living.
He turned in increasing desperation towards what he had always thought to be the lot of the fool, the recourse of religion. And he felt the first inkling of a joyous release when he discovered that religion did indeed try to make sense of the reason behind existence, and like a drowning man clutched at this straw. He determined to revive the faith of his parents who had been Christians, and began attending church sermons and prayers. He tried to explain away the meaningless rituals that plagued the church vicinity, but his intellect, even under the weight of the worries that burdened him, rose to protest. Three in one…how could they be one. One was All-Conquering, Ever-Living, the other a mortal who ate and drank. With growing uneasiness, he began to observe the actions of the adherents of this faith and could hardly believe his eyes. Watching their daily life, one could not tell between them and a self-professed atheist, for religion played no central part in their lives whatsoever. With infinite complacency, they went about their daily lives like the rest of the godless masses under the guise of Christianity. He went to church one Sunday and observed the gesticulations and words the priests mouthed to their congregation. ‘This is the flesh and blood of the Messiah’ said one, holding a plate of bread and a pitcher of water and proceeded to partake of them. He was the very picture of contentment.
Olev’s false sense of the hope that he had held when he first embarked on Christianity vanished like a candle-flame in a storm. Around him, the darkness grew more intense. The disturbing questions that had occupied his mind became a twisting furious tornado in the deepest crevices of his soul, more violent than any battle ever fought on planet earth. His heart, his soul, his intellect, these were the battlefields that the cruel war in his breast was being waged upon. He felt the first prodding of insanity begin to take hold, and with renewed panic realized he was no closer to finding the truth than when he had first started out. And it was in this desperation that he raised his hands and began to cry out uncontrollably. He knew then that it was the last recourse he had, for after ten years of frantic searching, he had unearthed nothing. ‘God help me, I can do nothing anymore except perish. Help me… help me.’ He repeated the words like a dying man reciting a sacred text. His exhausted mind could register nothing more, only that he was calling onto One Powerful Creator who held his destiny in His Hands. And then his broken spirit could endure no more and he fainted…
”Go south, old man. To the great mosque of Damascus. A venerable old man there will help you. If you are searching for the truth, you might find it there. Go south old man.” He had no recollection of who had said these words, only that in the dark abyss that he was drowning in, they were like a rope thrown to him. And he decided to seize it. He made the torturous journey through rough waters on board a ship first on the Black sea and through the bottle-neck of the Dardanelles where Europe and Asia come so close they almost kiss, and finally into the Mediterranean and the Red sea. Armed with the scantiest of provisions, he had rented a camel and now stood facing the forbidding desert ahead of him.
On the other side, horizons away, lay the great mosque of Damascus and the old man he was to meet. He wanted to turn back, but he knew the demons inside him would never give him any peace, unless confronted with the truth he was seeking. He drew a deep breath to steady his resolve, sensing that the One who had caused his existence would reveal the reason behind it to him. ‘God help me…. I have no one else left,’ He tugged at the reins of his camel and the slow unsteady plod of the beast began, the start of the journey where what was at stake was nothing short of salvation itself. He thought about the consequences of failure and for a moment, the thought threatened to crush him into despair, but he felt the burden lifted from him as if by an invisible force. He straightened his back and gripped the reins tighter, his eyes now more alert and focused, his ears tuned to his surroundings.
And so he rode, a lone man on a single dromedary, on a burning scorching desert under a merciless sun, through swimming light….
(To be continued)
About the Author
Suleiman Athman is an accountant from Kenya and is currently studying his Bachelor's degree with the Islamic Online University. He enjoys writing and in 'Inspiring Guests of HA' he presents a 3-part sequel. May Allah accept from him.