Author’s note: This story is a sequel to “Pieces of a Dream”, picking up immediately where that story left off. If you haven’t read “Pieces of a Dream” then please go back and read that story first, otherwise parts of this story will not make sense.
October 2008 – San Francisco, California
With a last, longing look to the east, Louis turned and walked home.
The front door was unlocked. A chill ran down his spine as he imagined a conspiracy whereby his apartment had been burglarized at the same time as Kadija’s. Or maybe the burglars had discovered his address and come here for retribution. He entered the apartment cautiously and silently.
Everything was in place. The apartment had not been disturbed. He must have forgotten to lock the door in his rush to help Kadija last night. Louis my friend, you are losing it, he thought.
He was exhausted after being up all night, but there was something he wanted to do before he slept. He took the Quran he had purchased off the bookshelf, then sat in his solitary armchair and opened the book. He’d already read the opening chapter – the one called Al-Fatihah – at the bookstore, so he skipped to chapter two, The Cow, and began to read.
Alif Lam Mim.
This is the Book about which there is no doubt, a guidance for those conscious of Allah –
Who believe in the unseen, establish prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them,
And who believe in what has been revealed to you, [O Muhammad], and what was revealed before you, and of the Hereafter they are certain [in faith].
Those are upon [right] guidance from their Lord, and it is those who are the successful.
Indeed, those who disbelieve – it is all the same for them whether you warn them or do not warn them – they will not believe.
Allah has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing, and over their vision is a veil. And for them is a great punishment.
The last verse echoed in Louis’ head like a gong. Something about it reminded him of men he had seen in Iraq. There were certain soldiers who lost themselves in war until violence became their only language. On the other end of the spectrum were men who couldn’t stomach the violence, and couldn’t live with what they’d done. Sometimes both types killed themselves.
What was this book? What was it supposed to be? He looked at the cover. The Holy Quran, it said. No author.
Louis’ parents had not been particularly religious. They inherited Lutheranism along with their Swedish roots, and attended church on Sundays all through Louis’ childhood, but Louis had perceived it to be a social outlet more than anything else. He stopped attending services when he was fifteen, and though he felt vaguely guilty, he felt no desire to return. His mother had been disappointed, but after a year of complaints she stopped pressuring him to return.
Later, of course, his parents retired to Florida and his mother converted to the Southern Baptist church, and became a fanatic. All his poor father wanted to do was watch football, visit the chess club on Saturdays and do a little daytrading. Whenever Louis spoke to his father these days, the man complained that mom was constantly haranguing him about his “layabout” ways and pressuring him to get baptized.
Louis had always wanted to believe in something. Every man needed a cause. The modern world stripped men of their manhood. You went to work in an office, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. You sat in a cubicle and punched a keyboard. You came home and vegged out in front of the TV, or washed the dishes. How did any of that utilize a man’s hunting instincts, his protective drive, his body built for speed and power? How did “civilized” life fulfill a man’s primal need to stand up for something other than himself?
War was not the answer. What a young fool he had been to think otherwise. He’d enlisted partly for the job and salary, but also partly for the excitement. Idiot.
Christianity too was not the answer. Louis could not accept the fundamental premise of Christianity: the blood sacrifice. The idea that God had sacrificed his own son on a cross to save humanity made no sense. Why would an all-powerful God need to employ such a circuitous, paganistic stratagem? If God wanted to forgive humanity, why not do so directly? And if one son, why not two, or three, and a few daughters as well? In that case, Louis’ Norse ancestors might as well have continued worshiping Odin, Thor, Loki and the rest.
In Iraq he’d seen soldiers write Bible verses on their rifles, or paint crosses on artillery shells. Louis had kept his mouth shut because when you went in to clear a building you didn’t need to wonder if the guy behind you was holding a grudge, or thinking you were a godless traitor. Privately, he found it disgusting. He hadn’t gone to Iraq to fight a crusade, and he didn’t think of the Iraqis as pagans. In fact, he’d been impressed by the religiosity of the translators he worked with.
He resumed reading slowly, letting each verse sink in.
At some point, as he turned one page after another, he began to perceive that this book was unlike anything he had read before. This was not a third-person account of the doings of the Prophet Muhammad. It was not the “inspired” writings of his disciples, or the scribblings of a scribe generations down the line. This was God, speaking to human beings. How could such a thing be? Why wouldn’t everyone know it, or believe it? Why wouldn’t it change the world?
How can you disbelieve in Allah when you were lifeless and He brought you to life; then He will cause you to die, then He will bring you [back] to life, and then to Him you will be returned?
Louis had indeed been lifeless. He had been a sleepwalker. But this morning, standing atop the hill, he had felt alive for the first time in years.
He felt a prickling sensation on his arms and saw that the hairs were standing up, as if the room were electrified. He felt glued to the chair, unable to move.
They say, ” Allah has taken a son.” Exalted is He! Rather, to Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and the earth. All are devoutly obedient to Him,
Originator of the heavens and the earth. When He decrees a matter, He only says to it, “Be,” and it is.
“I knew that,” Louis whispered. “I never believed that God had a son.”
The apartment was cold. Louis had not turned on the heater. He’d thought he would read only a few lines then go to bed, and the cold helped him sleep at night. But as he sat reading and the clock ticked in the chilled apartment, he did not rise to turn on the heat. He read and read, turning one page after another, unaware of the passage of time. The words struck like lightning bolts. At some point he realized that he was shivering. His teeth chattered and tremors ran through his limbs.
Those who do not know say, “Why does Allah not speak to us or there come to us a sign?” Thus spoke those before them like their words. Their hearts resemble each other. We have shown clearly the signs to a people who are certain [in faith].
Louis felt something on his cheek. He rubbed it and discovered that a tear had run from his bruised eye. It occurred to him that he had not scratched his scars since he sat down. Normally that thought alone would be enough to activate the scars and set his side on fire, but he felt nothing.
Our Lord, and make us Muslims [in submission] to You and from our descendants a Muslim nation [in submission] to You. And show us our rites and accept our repentance. Indeed, You are the Accepting of repentance, the Merciful.
Louis’ calf muscles trembled and he had to steady the book on his lap so he could read. What was wrong with him? He continued reading, but the book kept hitting him with truth after truth, until he couldn’t take it anymore. He felt like his chest was caving in under the weight.
He closed the book. His body shook with cold, and he was hungry. He would eat later. He put the book on the shelf and stumbled stiffly to his futon, moving like a mummy. He pulled the heavy cover over himself, covering even his head. He hugged the pillow to himself tightly and fell asleep.
Louis ran through a hilly green land, trying to escape a roaring sound that seemed to pursue him like a living thing. His breath came hard and rough in his lungs. Was this Iraq? Was that the sound of chopper rotors? But he couldn’t remember re-upping, and this place was too green and hilly to be Iraq.
The roar was closer now, and he looked for someplace to hide. He saw a hill topped with a thicket of trees, and he ran toward it, scrabbling his way up the slope on all fours. He reached the top and dashed into the clump of sheltering trees, but the roar was so close that it vibrated his teeth. There was no escaping.
He woke with a start, sitting up in bed, arms reaching for a rifle and finding nothing. The apartment was dark and frigid. His mouth felt full of cotton and his eye ached where he’d been struck yesterday. His wounded shoulder seemed to throb rhythmically, and he realized that the pain was keeping time with his heartbeat.
You were lifeless and He brought you back to life. He went to the bookshelf and picked up the Quran. He did not intend to sit and read again – his stomach was rumbling with hunger. He only wanted to see if he had imagined the power of the book. Maybe it was merely his deep weariness that had gotten to him, or an after-effect from the anesthesia. Maybe this was an ordinary book.
God, give me a sign, he thought. I need a way forward. I can’t go back to what I had.
He opened the book randomly and read:
Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and earth, and the alternation of the night and the day, and the [great] ships which sail through the sea with that which benefits people, and what Allah has sent down from the heavens of rain, giving life thereby to the earth after its lifelessness and dispersing therein every [kind of] moving creature, and [His] directing of the winds and the clouds controlled between the heaven and the earth are signs for a people who use reason.
There it was again. Life after lifelessness. Signs.
Discomfited, almost frightened, he put the book back on the shelf and went into the kitchen to heat a frozen meal. He had not imagined the strange power of the book.
I’m not ready for this, he thought.
As he was eating, his cell phone rang. It was Kadija.
“I’m sorry if I’m disturbing you,” she said. “I want to thank you again for what you did for me. We don’t know each other that well and I fear I took advantage of your kindness.”
“No, it’s alright,” Louis said.
“Is everything alright? You sound strange.”
“Yeah, yeah. It’s nothing, just…”
“Well, I read the Quran for a long time today.”
The line was silent. “You still there?” Louis said.
“Yes,” Kadija said. “Listen, I think it’s great that you’re reading the Quran, but I don’t want you to do it for me. It needs to be for you. For your relationship with God.”
“Yeah, I know,” Louis said.
“Okay. Alhamdulillah. What did you think of what you read?”
“I think…” Louis exhaled in a rush. “I think it’s a lot. I was reading chapter two, The Cow. It uhh… it hit me like a hammer. I don’t know if I can handle it. It’s heavy, heavy stuff.”
“Yes, you’re right, Kadija said. “It’s a powerful book. But you can handle it. Did you get to the end of Al-Baqarah, or The Cow as you said?”
“No. I had to put it down.”
“Read the last verse. It might help.”
“Okay. Hey, let me ask you something. What does it mean when God talks about bringing the dead back to life? It says, ‘How can you disbelieve when you were dead and God brought you back to life?’”
“It could mean many things,” Kadija said. “It could refer to your birth, when you came into existence after non-existence, or not existing on a level that you can recall. It might refer to your sleep and waking. On a spiritual level, I would say it’s about being guided to faith. The Prophet Muhammad – peace be upon him – said that the one who remembers his Lord – meaning Allah – and the one who does not remember his Lord are like the living and the dead. A person who has no God-consciousness is walking dead, from an Islamic perspective.”
“Listen, I have to go, but thanks again for helping me. And read that last verse.”
After he hung up, Louis took the Quran off the bookshelf once more. He thumbed through the pages until he found the last verse of The Cow.
“Allah does not charge a soul except [with that within] its capacity. It will have [the consequence of] what [good] it has gained, and it will bear [the consequence of] what [evil] it has earned. “Our Lord, do not impose blame upon us if we have forgotten or erred. Our Lord, and lay not upon us a burden like that which You laid upon those before us. Our Lord, and burden us not with that which we have no ability to bear. And pardon us; and forgive us; and have mercy upon us. You are our protector, so give us victory over the disbelieving people.”
I’m not ready for this, Louis thought again. He’d only been looking for a way forward. A little guidance, a little help. A way to get unstuck.
He could not become Muslim for so many reasons. His mother would flay him alive. Everyone he knew would think he’d gone off the deep end. His parents, his sister, Bernie his dispatcher, the few guys from his old unit who he stayed in touch with. And then there was the deepest reason of all, the one he could not discuss.
On the other hand, there was Kadija.
But Kadija said that Louis mustn’t do this for her, and she was right. This is between me and God. I can’t factor anyone else in.
Louis finished his meal, then set his alarm and returned to sleep. He had to be up at 4am for work.
Please continue to Part 2: Losing It
For a guide to all of Wael’s stories in chronological order, check out this handy Story Index.