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.