Something happened once, something that changed everything: I began to think. It was the best thing that ever happened, it was the worst thing that ever happened. I became more certain than I was ever before, I became more uncertain than I was ever before. I came to know that I could know, but was not sure whether I should know. I conquered a thousand fears and faced a thousand more. Between this confusion and certainty, I asked myself a thousand questions, and a voice within me began to answer...
...why am I? I know I am: I exist. But so does a dog. The dog serves its master. A very useful animal, this. (But whom does the dog’s master serve?)... a tree -- yes, yes, very useful indeed. The dog’s master gets his apples from the tree. Very tasty, and useful too: you know, an apple a day keeps the doctor away. The dog guards my house, and the apples make me grow strong. Strong. Why? For what? What am I supposed to do with my strength, with my prowess. There are so many things I could do: fly aeroplanes, build huge buildings, compose music, build up a business empire, outwit others, conquer nations..., but I want to do more. I want to have power over the elements, over the sun and the moon and the stars... over life and death. “But...”, the voice within me began to speak. And though I would have hushed its whispers, I could not deny the fact to which it was alluding. “Yes, yes”, I sighed, “I know, I die”. Suddenly, tears came to my eyes. I began to cry. “But why?” I cried out. Why indeed? I could have done so many things, I could have defied the stars. By Jove! I could have made a new universe! I could have been God! But alas! I die. Is that it then? Is that my destiny? Billions and billions of stars, billions and billions of processes, billions and billions of years of evolution -- and not a single thing I know of that came even close to matching the beauty, the intelligence and the excellence that I have --, and then, speaking of myself as an individual, out of millions of spermatozoa, one wee, little spermatozoon became -- would you believe -- me. Which one of the other cells could have been another Einstein or an Edison or a Newton or a Marx, I don’t know. Give me time, and I’ll be another Newton, another Einstein, another Marx. Yes, I have said it before, and I shall say it again: Give me time, and I’ll be God. “But...”. Ah! woe betide this “But”! Woe is me due to what follows this “But”: but I fall sick, but I become old, but I have accidents..., and the unkindest but of them all: I die. Am I then just a combination of molecules which by some strange chance developed into a thinking being? If so, then my existence is the greatest tragedy on the face of this earth, then nothing means anything anymore, then nothing exists except darkness:
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe.1
In bygone days, I would have found solace in the words of the philosophers of the West. Ol’ Bertie Russell, for example, used to sound very convincing. But not any more. Conquest of happiness by serving humanity -- Bah! Humbug! Well, its nice to make little sacrifices for others, especially when one is certain of recompense not always in the form of money. (One likes to be applauded by others: “There’s a kindly man”, “You know Mr so and so? He’s really a nice fellow”, “Three cheers for Mr so and so”, and all that. It feels good). But why the hell should I stick my neck out for something which is not even going to be appreciated by anyone? Why should I sacrifice my all -- my life -- for the sake of nobler ideals? For the society? Be like Father Damien2 or Albert Schweitzer? No way man! No way! Stupid fellows, these. A mention in the list of notable people for one and a Nobel peace prize for the other. Bullsh --! Hey fellas, both of them are soil now, vegetables at best. And people talk as if they were somewhere up there, still enjoying all the applause and recognition. What superstitious nonsense! How unscientific! The best defence could be that they got satisfaction from their work. Well, maybe. But you see, gettin’ kisses from lepers and bites from malaria carrying African mosquitoes isn’t really my conception of satisfaction, if you know what I mean. Maybe I get more satisfaction from seducing young, innocent girls than from mosquito bites. What’s wrong with that? You know, love ‘em an’ leave ‘em, James Bond style. Agent 007. Or maybe I get my kicks from killing people. What’s wrong with that? The society? Who cares for the society! As long as I can outwit the society -- may be even make a few small sacrifices (as I explained earlier) to make people think I am a nice guy -- I suppose I can continue to have my fun. In Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather, Michael Corleone’s girlfriend tries to convince him into taking up an honest man’s career. She asks Mike what would happen to a society if everyone thought like he did. Take up an honest career to be kicked in his ars- for the rest of his life by people not even half as competent as he, only to receive a floral wreath and a few words of praise on his funeral? No sir, Ol’ Mike is the intelligent type. He kills a couple of guys and becomes the most powerful Mafia chief in New York. Nice work Mike!
If death is my destiny, then this short span of life is all I have. In this short span, I can, if things go my way, be a god -- but only for a very short time. Nothing, nothing, therefore, is more important than that ephemeral divinity of mine. I know if everyone thought like that, there would be chaos and disorder in the world. The world would be hell. But what care I? I’d be gone by the time disorder affects my life. And if things started going wrong, I could always shed a few tears to invoke the mercy of those soft-headed and soft-hearted Psalm singers who, I think, would not become an endangered species in my lifetime at least. I’d be the meanest, the most ruthless, the most clever person that ever was for as long as possible. And if things didn’t work out, I’d always have the option of committing suicide: no use prolonging misery for a noble cause, no need to `do perseverance’ when an easier alternative exists. In any case, life is meaningless, if death is its destiny. For beyond death is darkness. Nothingness. As far as I am concerned, ultimately everything is meaningless, for anything I achieve ultimately passes into nothingness...
...”Unless...” the voice within me said. “Unless what?” I cried out. “Unless death is not the end, but the beginning. Unless life is not a reward but a trial. Here ye O man, you cannot even conceive of nothingness. Your whole being repels the idea of a meaningless life. I swear by the billions of stars and by the billions of processes that went into making thee, and by the billions of processes which still go into making thee, and by the billions of spermatozoa of which one spermatozoon became thee that thy life is not meaningless. It cannot be. Kneel down, thou fool, and prostrate thyself before the One -- the Lord of the worlds, and know the meaning of life...
...Life is not a reward. Nor is it punishment. It is a trial. `Tis thee know full well, and yet ye ask foolish questions”:
“But the fact is that man is well-aware of himself even though he puts up his excuses.” (75:14-15)
If this world were not a trial, then your existence, O man, would be the greatest tragedy on the face of the earth. A child is born poor and another rich. For a poor man his poverty is a trial of his perseverance. For a rich man his wealth is a trial of his compassion and concern for others. It is because the Hereafter exists as the reward (or punishment) for man’s deeds and attitude that sacrifice for nobler ideals has never been regarded as foolishness by his intuition and greed and selfishness have always been regarded as evil despite the obvious material benefit they afford.
Fear ye then your Lord. And be not afraid of being afraid, for it is fear which conquers fear. And a fear which emanates from love is not bad. Know ye not the parable of the brave man who fell in love with a woman and said to her one day, “I fear that enemies of our love will kill thee. Art thou afraid?”, the woman asked. “Yes”, replied the brave man “I am afraid because I love thee”. Don’t ye O man fear losing that which ye love? Fear then losing the love of thy Lord, for there’s no greater loss than that. In that fear is wisdom. Know ye what wisdom is? Wisdom means to sacrifice a temporary benefit for the sake of a better and permanent one. Know then that this life is neither permanent nor better and that which follows it is not only permanent but also much better than anything you can imagine. And remember God ye cannot be -- neither in this world nor in that one, for ye come from that which gushes forth. Be then ye thy Lord’s servant, for in humility shall ye find thine greatness. For verily the dog, whose master thou art, is more worthy of being thy servant than thou art of thy Master. For ye created neither the dog nor that which it devours. And thy Lord created thee and thy dog and that which ye eat. And thou dost much less for thy Master than thy dog doth for thee. But if ye fear Him, ye can have your salvation. And if you get it, you will find it the greatest reward -- better than anything you can imagine and everlasting:
“Nay [behold], ye prefer the life of this world; but the Hereafter is better and everlasting. And it is this which is in the Books of the earliest [revelations] -- the Books of Abraham and Moses.” (87:16-19)
Ye say, “why am I?” Thou art to serve thy Master.
“And I have created not the jinn and men save that they worship Me.” (51:56)
This is the meaning of life. Learn therefore how ye can serve Him. Read the Book. Read in the name of thy Lord -- the Lord of the worlds, who in His infinite and perpetual mercy made this world a trial that justice be done. Ask him to show ye the right path.
The voice within me had spoken. And it had spoken well. I opened the Book and began to read:
“This is alif laam meem. This is the Book. There is no doubt in it. Guidance to those who fear God.” (2:1-2)
I read and I understood. And I said: I shall do Thy will, my Lord. When I shall be unable to run fast, I shall run slowly. When I shall not be able to run slowly, I shall walk. When I shall not be able to walk, I shall crawl. But move in Thine way, I shall! In my sacrifice shall I be rewarded. In losing shall I gain. In persecution shall I rejoice. In perseverance shall I grow. In humility shall I be great. And in my sacrifices shall values be preserved. And in preservation of values society shall prosper, for end of values means the death of society. Yes, everything -- everything from the greatest of objects and ideas to the smallest of particles -- has meaning now. The billions of processes shall not go waste. Everything is there to help me to move towards my destiny -- which is not soil; it is an everlasting life of bliss where every moment shall be better than the preceding one and my happiness shall be complete and enduring. This is beautiful, this is perfection. So imperfect, yet so perfect. So incomplete, yet so complete. This is me folks -- Man.
I knelt down and prostrated myself in gratitude, and began to pray in fear and in hope:
“Our Lord! call us not to account over our forgetfulness and mistakes; our Lord! Lay not on us a burden like that which Thou didst lay on those before us. Our Lord! lay not on us a burden greater than we have the strength to bear. Blot out our sins; and grant us forgiveness; and have mercy on us. Thou art our Lord! help us against those who stand against faith.” (2:286)
Darkness now was no longer visible. There was light. That of my voice within and that of the Book. Light upon light:
“Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth.” (24:35)
1. Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I.
2. (1840-89), Belgian missionary who, witnessing the sufferings of the lepers confined on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, obtained permission to take charge, and remained there helping the lepers until he himself died of leprosy.
3. (1875-1965), Alsatian medical missionary. After publishing learned works, he resigned a promising European career to found at Lamebréné in French Equatorial Africa a hospital to fight leprosy and sleeping sickness and made it a centre of service to Africans. Nobel peace prize 1952.
4. ”No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.” (Matthew, 17:24)
5. ”Has there not been over man a period of time when he was nothing [worthy of being] mentioned? Verily We created man from a drop of mingled sperm in order to try him, so We gave him the gifts of hearing and seeing. We showed him the way: whether he be grateful or ungrateful [rests on his will].” (76:1)
6. See The Qur’an (21:35)
7. Allusion to Bertrand Russell’s erroneous conception that all religions are bad as they are based on fear.