‘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.