Usman had no such support. A life full of disenchantments had left him doubting Divine existence. He turned to reading to help restore it. But the deeper he delved, the more alienated he felt. As his scholastic horizons broadened, so did his misgivings, and very soon he was well on the path to atheism.
However, family was still dear to him, and religion was dear to them. For appearances sake, at least, he must be a Muslim, and a good one at that. Hence, his five trips daily to and from the mosque.
He hated hypocrisy, and yet, here he was committing it to the best of his abilities. The guilt never went away. Even as he ascended towards the mosque, hearing the chants of the men praying inside, his ears were filled with a voice from an age long past. He heard the voice of Plato inside him:
Is God willing to prevent evil but not able?
Then he is not Omniscient.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then why is there evil in the world?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
Such thoughts were in his head as he entered. Greeting those around him with a curt nod, he proceeded to stand in line with them and bowed his head in prayer. Those about him chanting earnestly, fervently, blissful in their unshakeable faith. Him, in conformity, silently moving his lips to match their chants, all the while bearing the humiliation within him of not being strong enough to stand up for who he was.
They prostrated, he prostrated, they stood up, he stood up. Blindly following their lead as his mind travelled upon foreign lands, bringing him music and memories from the past to keep him occupied as he went through the motions of the ritual that held no meaning for him.
He had tried often to get out of the obligation to go to the mosque. Feigning piety was so much less humiliating within the confines of one’s house. He would say he was going to pray, enter his bedroom, lock it, and simply read a book for the appropriate duration, then come out and continue on his day. A lie did not seem to him as bad as what he was doing now. His outward participation in prayers coupled with his inner atheism seemed to him to disrespect both him and the religion. And he bore no ill-will to the religion, he merely did not believe in it.
But his mother was not to be persuaded on this point. She immediately launched into the recitation of the Holy verse where a Muslim is promised twenty seven times the reward in the afterlife for each prayer prayed in the mosque as opposed to at home. Her maternal instinct was as strong as ever, and she wasn’t about to allow her only son to miss out on such easy winnings through what she perceived as nothing but laziness.
And so it was decided for him. His day would be punctuated by five painful breaks, where he must leave whatever he is doing, brace himself for his mental self disgust, and join the congregation in prayers. His only consolation was seeing the silent pride and joy in his parents’ faces when he returned from the mosque. Yet he never felt he had earned their pride.
Twenty seven times the just reward
Will I earn, if turban shod
I traipse to the mosque everyday
But only if, (and a big if) there is a God
Was it too much to ask to have some irrefutable evidence? Why must there always be an air of mystery about it? If everything owed its existence to Him, why was He not identifiable everywhere? Why must one go through books and books of allegory and mythology and receive only hints of His existence, while dictating one’s whole life to the rules of an Invisible, and to all rational appearances, Imaginary being?
Could one not have some proof?
And so that night, during the prayers, Usman raged at God. It felt weird to be directing your anger towards an entity which you are not even sure exists. But thinking along the lines of Pascal’s wager, Usman felt it was worth a shot anyway. And so he raged. His mind raving away at the injustice of man’s treatment at the hand of God, the unnecessary secrecy, the tyrannical, dictatorial, overbearing rule-setting, the complete absence of valid justification for most of the said rules, barring an arbitrary, “because it pleases God.”
“No!” Usman screamed at God inside his head, “This will not do. You cannot very well expect me to continue denying myself every pleasure and experience in life just on the off chance that you exist. Because, as of now, it remains just an off chance, seeing as you are so against giving me any clear cut proof. So if you really are out there, show yourself. If you won’t then you may keep your rulebook and I shall go and have my fill of pork and ham, thank you very much.”
Careful not to make any sudden movements, he strained his eyes to the farthest corner to get a better view of whoever it was without actually moving his head. He was supposed to be deep in prayers and gazing at one’s surroundings in the midst of prayers is generally proof of one’s lack of devotion and concentration. Strain as he might, he could not get a proper look, but whatever was visible seemed extremely out of place and strange to his eyes. He was sure he was looking at a lady.
When the prayer ended, Usman glanced down the row to the end, but could not see anything out of the ordinary. The same men who were always there, sat there still, swaying in unison to the rhythmic chants. Usman stood and walked away from the mosque, perplexed.
At home, he sat down with great relish to read Nietzsche, whose tirade against organized religion rang true to Usman’s cynical mind. He read and re-read with glee the words, “God is dead.”
“Indeed, he might as well be,” Usman smirked to himself.
As this thought crossed his mind, he became aware of a shadow outside his window. Barely perceptible, it was nevertheless there, and was most definitely humanoid in its form. Curious as to who stood outside his window at this time of the night, Usman drew open the curtains and peered outside. The lawn his window overlooked stood empty. Moreover, no source of light existed to throw a shadow on his window. Usman shuddered, unsure whether he shuddered from the cold or because the vision of the woman from the mosque was coming back to him. Was he experiencing the supernatural? He had heard stories aplenty but they seemed old wives’ folk tales to him rather than true accounts. He knew only too well the villager’s love of exaggeration and leaps of imagination to make a good story.
Yet, be that as it may, the fact remained that he had experienced some curious occurrences this night.
He decided to go to bed. It had been a rough day and his mind was playing tricks on him. He would think about the events tomorrow, after a good night’s sleep and with a fresh mind. He went to the toilet, changed into his nightclothes, bade his parents a good night, and trudged tiredly towards his bed.
He stopped short.
There on his neatly made bed, lay a copy of the Quran.
He shook his head. This was clearly his mom’s “subtle hint” that he should read it more often. However making his bed five minutes before he was going to sleep seemed a little unnecessary on her part. He reached down to pick up the Quran, and then paused, frowning. The Holy Book seemed heavy, much too heavy for its size. Indeed he found he could not lift it with one hand. With considerable effort, he lifted it with both hands, and placed it on the table. He turned back to the bed, the impression of the book’s outline remained.
He crawled into bed, pulled the blanket over him, and slept disturbedly through the night.
He awoke abruptly just before dawn, the assigned time for the morning prayers. His mind went over the events of last night but seemed no closer to fathoming them now than it was then. Bleary eyed he climbed the stairs to the mosque, nodding to the men, who were used to him by now. As he entered the mosque, a terrible dread descended upon him. A sense of foreboding. A warning. It had no rationality behind it, he could not understand it or pin it down. He only felt it, and felt it more deeply than anything he had experienced in life. And in his mind he heard, clearer than his own thoughts, louder than his own voice could possible get, the voice of a female speaking in a crystal clear voice.
Should he tell his father? Breaking his prayer would be a drastic step indeed, but these circumstances were hardly ordinary.
This was supernatural without a doubt. Even he could no longer refuse to admit that. But why him?
Straining himself to some level of coherence, Usman pleaded silently for forgiveness.
This, then, was how divinity looked.
The tortoise would win the race and yet
Many a soul lay doomed beside
Ensnared by the hare’s deceitful net