Exile: Living History

A cave.

‘Good Lord! A cave in a hill. In this…in this..desert!’

Max felt himself turning around in alarm, staring incredulously at the landscape around him: this hot, humid terrain that he suddenly found himself in.

‘Where has my room gone? My apartment? Richard’s park? The buildings of the city? The greenery? Bangalore?’ His voice was desperate. ‘Where in God’s name is this? Where am I?’

The night air is warm. Still. A partial, ghostly light and a great distance render the other surrounding hillocks wavery and swaying before his staring, unbelieving eyes. The moon hangs low above his head radiating from itself a pale unearthly whiteness that merges, without transition, into what should be the horizon, and is like a herald, a summons, to what is unfathomable, unknowable.

‘Wayfarer, are you here?’

‘Yes, Max.’

‘Oh, thank God for your presence, Wayfarer!’

‘For ever and ever, Max.’

‘Where are we, Wayfarer? I do not understand this setting.’

‘That is because you do not belong to it, Max.’

‘What?’ The ill-disguised desperation was growing. ‘Just tell me where the hell I am, okay? I might have lost my mind, for all I know.’ The voice was breaking up as Max felt himself staring helplessly again at the desolate, lifeless, sandy valley that he found himself in.

‘No, you have not, Max. Its just that you have lost track of your times.’

‘Great, Wayfarer.’ The voice was a shout that was sucked up instantly into the dry desert air. Without an echo. A trace. ‘So, tell me, what time is it now?’

‘Its thirteen years before the Hijrah, Max.’

‘Thirteen years before the what?’ Max’s voice was another shout: one that strangely did not seem to disturb the stillness around him.

‘The Hijrah, Max. Muhammad’s exile from Makkah, the land of his birth.’ The Wayfarer’s voice was composed.

‘Now I have heard everything, Wayfarer. And pray tell me where I am.’

‘A few miles out of Makkah, Max.’

Makkah!’ Max felt himself whirling around again trying to help his stunned vision take in the surroundings once more. The hills in the distance. The sandy valley. The hot and sultry night air. The barren, shimmering desert. The hill in front. With that cave in it. That cave.

‘Tell me this isn’t a dream, Wayfarer.’

‘I can’t do that, Max.’

‘What?’

‘Yes, Max. It is a dream. Your dream.’

‘But, but, its all so real.’

‘But you don’t even see yourself, Max.’

It then occurred to Max’s startled senses that the Wayfarer was, indeed, right. He tried to look down upon his body, his hands, his feet. But there were none. It was all just his sight and hearing.

‘Good God!’

* * * *

The man tossed himself to the right, shifting his position on the bed as he slept fitfully. His lips parted as if in an effort to utter some inner word, but failed. Then they joined together again in a grimace; his eyes shut to the cold Bangalore night outside his apartment building. Max had been asleep only a while.

* * * *

‘What day is it, Wayfarer?’

‘The day of the Revelation, Max. The very first day in the cave of Hira.’

‘The cave!’ Max turned his vision towards the cave at a height now. ‘The cave on mount Hira!’

‘He’s in there, isn’t he?’ Was that his own heart pounding somewhere within? Max could not be certain.

This is impossible.

This is history.

Max knew well, through several readings of the biography of Muhammad, that it was in the fortieth year of the prophet’s life that on one night, in the month of Ramadan, six hundred and ten years after the disappearance of Christ, Muhammad met with that extraordinary event in the cave on mount Hira. An event that was, forever, destined to alter the course of human history. 

‘Yes, Max. He’s in there with Gabriel. Blind yourself now.’

Max did not have another chance at asking a question, for it seemed to him then that the whole vision before him: the cave, the hill, the desert around and the whole valley; all vibrated and trembled in the upheaval of an instant before what seemed like a bright beam of light poured forth from the cave. A scintillating whiteness which then covered his entire view with a blinding power that must have erased everything else that was present in its path. Sparing nothing: not even his own memory…

* * * *

The man woke up with a start: a jerking movement that caught the breath halfway up his throat and arrested the scream from coming out. Instead, Max ended up gasping for breath as he pushed himself up – coughing all the while – into a sitting position on the bed. Despite the coolness of the night outside, he was sweating profusely.

‘What was that all about?’ he thought to himself as he felt the perspiration on his neck. The pounding of his heart came upto his ears yet again.

Some cave in a desert.

The cave.

‘Yes. The beginning of the Revelation.’ He remembered now.

His sleep interrupted, Max pulled himself out of his bed and cursing the interruption, fumbled for the door of the bedroom in the darkness. He then stumbled across the modest furnishing of the living room as he made his way towards the refrigerator in the kitchen. He needed a drink of water. Desperately.

And, of course, he needed to sleep quickly. For, he was to conduct a crucial interview at nine in the morning the next day. That was important. He just had to sleep.

His thirst quenched, he found his way back to his bed only to collapse onto it exhausted. It had been a hard day’s work completed. And a good night’s sleep left incomplete. But before long, however, he was floating once more into that familiar sensation….

* * * *

Another cave.

‘Another day, Max.’

‘Yes, Wayfarer.’ Max was calmer now but the burning sun above him was merciless, its heat unrelenting. It was another desert scene again and as real as the first. ‘But what time is it?’

‘Thirteen years hence, Max.’

‘Thirteen years? My God, it’s the year of the Hijrah then!’ Of course, he now strangely knew that he was dreaming in his sleep, but the surroundings, the sensation of it all was incredibly real.

As real as this mountain ledge he found himself on now.

As real as the sheer drop of maybe a hundred feet or more that he now saw, or sensed, below him.

As real as this other cave that faced him now with its yawning darkness within.

As real as the two rock doves that sat cooing and fluttering their wings at the entrance to the cave.

And, yes, O God, as real as that silken spider web that was spun across the entrance in all its intricate perfection. Its revelation. For the world to see. And to turn away.

As real as the one sitting in its center, dangling effortlessly by its string in the mountain wind.

‘Wayfarer, this is the cave on mount Thawr!’ The excitement was too much for Max. Would that he got just a glimpse of the Messenger and his companion who were surely huddled inside…

* * * *

The clock in the living room struck one in the morning, its chime resounding through the living hall. Its jarring note was, however, lost upon the hearing of the man sleeping in the bedroom.

But then he moved, fidgeted and called out, “Thawr,” before the overpowering sense of an age, long lost, held him in its grip again.

Max slept on through the night.

* * * *

Thirteen years had elapsed since Muhammad received that first revelation in the cave on mount Hira. Thirteen difficult, trying years that saw him and his devoted band of followers moving from disaster to disaster, from one persecution to the other, from one sacrifice to the next. But they had not wavered in the least despite their tribulations. They had held their ground for the freedom to believe in God, and to act in His, and only His, holy name. To believe in Him as is fitting for His status and not as one amongst a vast galaxy of innumerable gods. Gods that included one’s own lusts and fancies; one’s own choices: the god of one’s own interests.

The struggle had finally come from that to this: Max knew.

From those events to these.

From Hira to Thawr

From prophethood to exile.

Like in so many instances in the past, Max was suddenly confronting a personal revelation. ‘Was it an accident of fate that there had to be two caves in the life of Muhammad whence he set out for accomplishing two respective pattern of events: two events that have shaken the world as no others in history?’ Max wondered.

Of course! The caves were symbolic of the inner world from where must definitely proceed the first reformation before any attempt was made to change the outer. If Muhammad had received the first revelation at the cave of Hira, it was a revelation that called for the transformation of the heart of man; for the concrete realization of the uncontestable existence of the Maker of man; for the humanization of man’s relation with his own kind for the sake of God. The revelation had to come from within, rather than without. For, otherwise, all revolution and transformation for the better would be hypocritical. Hollow.

Yes. It had to come from the hollow of the heart; from within. Like the hollow of the cave; from within its confines.

But its field of action, its battlefield, its canvas, would be the world outside. Outside the cave.

Muhammad’s period of reflection and acceptance at Hira over, he now beheld a retreat in the cave of Thawr from the heart of which he was now to proceed with determination once, and for all, to, forever, cast the mould for the transformation of man and his life in the image of God.

If it was the mantle of prophethood that was forced upon his trembling, reluctant self in the cave of Hira, here, at Thawr, he was now being forced into another unwilling act: a forced self-exile from the land of his birth, childhood and maturity. An act at the beginning of which, a few days earlier on the outskirts of Makkah, halting his camel, Muhammad had turned around and, looking back upon the town, said: ‘Of all God’s earth, thou art the dearest place unto me and the dearest unto God, and had not my people driven me out from thee, I would not have left thee.’

Max knew that exile was a strangely compelling subject to think about but a terrible one to experience. Oddly to him, he was now alive to the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home. Somehow, in that instant; in that world of dreams and history, Max knew that the essential sadness of exile can never, ever, be surmounted.

‘The acacia tree, Max. It has started to grow.’ The Wayfarer’s voice interrupted his visions within the vision.

‘Acacia tree?’ It was then that Max’s sight rested upon the sapling that had sprouted forth from the barren ground at the entrance of the cave. ‘Of course, the miracle of the acacia tree.’ Max realized with a thrilling sense of time and space which he thought he was never capable of. Until that moment.

And how the tree grew before his startled senses. He recalled then that it would grow to almost the height of a man and would serve to make the entrance to the cave obscure and seem undisturbed. To the world that would soon come hunting for the two inside: the pair of fugitives one amongst whom would look upon his fretting, anxious companion and say: ‘Grieve not, for verily God is with us. What thinkest thou of two when God is their third?’

* * * *

The doors of the bedroom window had been left open for the cool, air outside to make its nightly visits. However, the cat that now perched on the windowsill might have been an unwelcome visitor for anybody else. But not for the man struggling in the bed before its perplexed eyes.

‘Get away inside. They are coming, they are coming… Get away, please!’

The surprised cat jumped onto the bed, by the man who would stroke it and play with it every other day when he was here. It purred gently, placing its soft paws on the struggling shoulder of Max. The clock in the living room struck three. The cat jumped again, startled out of its curiosity.

* * * *

They could now hear the voices as a group of men – perhaps five or six in number – made their way up the mountain ridge from below. Max’s senses froze. There he was. Lost in time and space as the men hunting the fugitives came up the ridge and filed past his presence towards the entrance of the cave. There he was. Witness to history. Powerless to change it.

Max, the mute spectator.

Max, the man with his heart in his mouth.

* * * *

Tears rolled down the twitching cheeks. Real tears from eyes closed shut to outer realities. From an unreal world in time and in history. The sleeping man wept for his dream.

* * * *

They could now hear the sound of steps, which drew nearer and then stopped: the men were standing outside the cave. They spoke decisively, all in agreement that there was no need to enter the cave, since no one could possibly be there, what with the unbroken spider’s web, the rock dove now nestled with its eggs in the hollow of a rock at the cave entrance where, a man entering would surely have sought a foot-hold, and the undisturbed acacia tree covering the mouth of the cave. No. Surely nobody could have crept past these three without disturbing them. The men then turned back the way they had come.

The web of a spider, the eggs of a dove and the outstretched branches of a tree: three humble miracles of everyday life that turned back the power of an arrogant world; of the tides of history, as it were.

‘And the rest, as they say,’ thought Max, unable to describe the emotions playing within him, ‘is, indeed, history.’

Thus, had commenced, the Hijrah, or the forced exile of Muhammad from his native land. To a land that would, thereafter, be celebrated down the ages as the Medinat-un-Nabi, or the ‘City of the Prophet’. In short, Medina.

A momentous event that was, undoubtedly: one that gave the community of succeeding generations of Muslims, in diverse lands and climes, a practical demonstration of that core instrument of Islamic policy in their search for the kingdom of God in this world. A demonstration of the instrumentality of the Hijrah as an agent for pro-active, revolutionary, change.

But Max knew that, like all other major injunctions of the Qur’an such as the testimony of faith or the shahaadah, prayer or salaah, fasting or sawm, the compulsory poor-due or zakah, and the annual pilgrimage to Makkah called the Hajj, the injunctions of Hijrah like that of Jihad also, had a dual implication. Implications relevant to man’s spiritual and physical life. Indeed, herein lay the beauty and the universality of Islam, as Max understood it.

It then meant that if Muhammad’s physical exile from Makkah was the tangible manifestation of the Hijrah, then the spiritual, intangible manifestation of this divine calling may best be articulated in the manner of the declaration of the prophet Lot, who, in the undying words of the Qur’an, cried so long ago: ‘I’m, indeed, a migrant towards my Lord: for He is Exalted in Might, and Wise.’

 ‘How is one a migrant towards his Lord, Wayfarer?’ Max had once asked while he was growing up.

‘You become a migrant, a muhaajir, towards your Lord, Max,’ the Wayfarer had answered him then, ‘when you shun, in your life, that which He has prohibited you. When you take up in earnest all that He has commanded you to do. When you begin to love for His sake and to hate for His sake. When you do nothing for your own sake. For your own interests. When you annihilate the god – the ilaah – of your own desires to replace them with those of the Maker Himself.’

* * * *

The man, in his sleep, was breathing more easily now unlike an hour ago when his breathing had become heavy and loud. But the rapid eye movements beneath his closed eyelids were far from over. REM, the scientists called them: the rapid eye movements of the dream state, which no probing of modern science could fathom yet. The mystery of the dream state: Sign of God. A potent, rational indicator to the possibility of the Resurrection after death, even as one awoke into life from a period of dreams. The only problem with the Resurrection though, was that one could not wake back to life if what one was experiencing was a nightmare.

The nightmare of hell.

Unlike the times one had a nightmare in one’s sleep, where one could always jump out of it with a scream or a start, you could not do that with the Maker’s Hell. You had to live with it.

With your sins.

And their consequences.

There now appeared a perceptible calm on Max’s face, which, in his waking hours, would have surely given him cause to wonder greatly. The loyal cat at his feet stared, its glowing eyes fixed on the changing contours of its master’s countenance, and might have wondered instead. The clock in the living room struck four.

* * * *

The sound of a galloping horse in swift pursuit through the sand.

Max’s sights now came down upon the man on his horse, straining under the burning sun to reach his would-be victims who were there right up ahead of him. Muhammad on his Qaswa and Abu Bakr, his companion, on his camel. Two men on their dromedaries pushing on with their hijrah to Medina. Two men now with a reward equaling a fortune on their heads. A reward which Suraqah ibn Malik ibn Ju’sham wanted to make sure would be his. His quarry was in sight and he couldn’t fail now. But he did just that. Because, for the third time that day his horse buckled under him and fell headlong into the sand. Not once. Not twice. But thrice.

This was history again: Max remembered. For, here was the man who had left Makkah tracking the fugitives, studying their hardly decipherable trail along a less frequented southerly route. A route which then turned eastwards along the coast and then up north towards Medinah. He had tracked them for days, sifting their tracks and sorting them out from the rest, excruciatingly, persistently. And now when his targets were in sight, he had fallen headlong with his horse yet again.

But then, in that moment frozen in time, an ominous stir over the summit of the high sand hill in front of Max attracted his attention. When he looked more carefully, he could see that the movement was not at the summit but from within the dune crest itself: the crest was moving, ever so slightly, and then it seemed to trickle down the slope towards Suraqah like the crest of a slowly breaking wave. A deep redness creeped up the sky from behind the sand dune and under this redness its contours lost their sharpness and became blurred, and a reddish twilight began to spread rapidly over the desert. Suraqah was then caught in a cloud of sand which whirled against his face and around a bewildered Max, and all at once the wind began to roar from all directions, cutting across the valley with powerful blasts as it filled the hot desert air with swirling sand dust which, like some reddish fog, blotted out the sun and the day.

‘Good Lord! This is a sandstorm in the desert.’ Max could hardly believe his senses.

From his vantage viewpoint behind a fumbling Suraqah, Max could see the man calling out to the riders ahead of him: ‘I am Suraqah ibn Ju’sham. Wait for me so that I can speak to you. By Allah, I will not harm you.’

‘What do you want with us?’ A voice called back through the sandy haze. Was it Abu Bakr? The voice of the first caliph of Islam?

Max knew that Suraqah, the hunter, had changed suddenly at the sight of the ominous portents which now confronted his memory: that he should have fallen thrice from his horse was unthinkable and now this sudden sandstorm. Muhammad must be destined for greater things and he, Suraqah, wanted a part in that destiny.

‘Write a document for me which will be a warrant of security.’

The document was written then and there and handed over to Suraqah who kept the piece of leather on which it was written for many years to come. ‘Howbeit Suraqah,’ Muhammad had then prophesied, ‘when the bracelets of the Chosroes shall adorn your hands?’ And, indeed, that event did take place. When Persia was conquered, the bracelets, belt and crown of Chosroes were brought to Umar, the then caliph of the Islamic empire. He summoned Suraqah ibn Malik and put the royal insignia on him. Although Suraqah offered Muhammad provisions for his journey to Madinah, they were not accepted.

‘Conceal our presence.’ This was the only favour that Suraqah was asked.

Max watched in astonishment as the two men continued on their journey, northward bound. To the home of this Hijrah, this exile: Medinat-un-Nabi. A journey that would, till the end of time, divide history as ‘after hijrah’ and ‘before hijrah’: an official directive adopted seventeen years after the event at the decree of Umar bin al Khattab, the second caliph, in consultation with, among others, Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad.

‘He who forsakes his home in the cause of God  finds in the earth many a refuge wide and spacious.’ Yes. Of that Qur’anic remark Max was sure of, at least in the case of those two men who were now lost to his vision: men who would soon find their sanctuary and refuge at Medina, only to come back a decade later to capture, in a bloodless manner, the town that had persecuted and hounded them for thirteen long years.

It was an act that would, for posterity, stand as a guide for the Muslims who would be persecuted in their homelands; who would be persecuted for their beliefs and for their insistence to live their lives fully as believers in God. Watching a page from history unfold itself before him, Max suddenly remembered that in more recent times, it was Usman Dan Fodio who had analysed the obligation to emigrate in his work, Bayan Wujub al-hijrah ala al ibad. Dan Fodio himself had fled persecution to launch a successful Jihad in Africa. Indeed, while Jihad in the sense of an unrelenting struggle and effort in the cause of God encompassed within its ambit the act of Hijra also, Jihad in the sense of armed struggle against the enemies of Islam has almost always followed in the path of a successful Hijrah.

The Hijrah transforms a believer from a mere believer to a Mujaahid, the one who struggles for his, or her, faith. It is for this reason that the Qur’an has used in many places the words Iman, Hijrah and Jihad together: “Those who believe (aamanu), and migrate (haajaru), and struggle (jaahadu) in the cause of Allah, as well as those who give (them) asylum and aid, these are (all) truly the Believers: for them is the forgiveness of sins and a provision most generous.”: This was how God had put it in the chapter entitled The spoils of war or Al-Anfaal.

Interestingly however Max also remembered God as having told Muhammad in the Qur’an that ‘as for those who believed but came not into exile, you owe no duty of protection to them until they come into exile.’

In this strange flurry of Qur’anic instructions that now poured into Max’s vision within the vision, with all their relevance, Max now recalled that other injunction of the Qur’an – the one in many such statements which warned the believers that a half-baked faith was not what God demanded of them.

‘O you who believe! Enter into Islam in full and do not follow in the footsteps of the Satan. For, he is to you an avowed enemy.’

No. It had to be total surrender before their Maker. A complete submission before which no law save the law of God, no way of life except the one shown by the Messenger, would be acceptable from them.

How many times had the Qur’an insisted on one single definition as constituting three different forms of disobedience and, that too, in a single chapter:

‘And whoever does not rule with what God has revealed, they, indeed, are the disbelievers (kaafiroon).’

‘And whoever does not rule with what God has revealed, they, indeed, are the transgressors (faasiqoon).’

‘And whoever does not rule with what God has revealed, they, indeed, are the wrong doers (daalimoon).’

Three separate expressions given the same and single definition. All within the text of the same chapter. The chapter called the Table spread or Al Ma’aida. The fifth in the Qur’an.

And to top it all, the reminder: ‘Then is it to the rule of Jahiliyyah (of the Days of Ignorance) that you seek to return? And who, better than God, can promulgate laws for a people who are firm in faith?’

This, then, has been the criterion for devoted Muslims down the centuries. Muslims who have searched, and still search, for ways and means to circumvent any situation wherein the freedom to practice their faith would be questioned or taken away from them. And when it came to pure, unadulterated Islam, faith meant not just an issue of personal belief or rituals. It was much more than that: it meant the active adoption of every guideline in the Qur’an in the various manifestations of human life: be it the personal, social, economic, political, juridical or even the educational. This has been the challenge, especially for those Muslims who have lived, and continue to exist, as minorities in non-Muslim majority areas of the world, and in history. There have been, as there still are, times wherein such Muslim communities have compromised the demands of their faith.

The demand of the Hijrah.

Of sacrifice and migration in the way of God.

The sandstorm in the desert had abated just as quickly as it had come up. However, as the skies cleared above him, Max could no longer see Suraqah, nor could he see the two men on their dromedaries apart from what looked like specks in the distant horizon towards Madinah. Two men on their way to their tryst with destiny. Now, in front of him, there appeared again that all-enveloping glare that came forth from the direction of Madinah even as he calmly watched it grow. Steadily. Until finally nothing was left in his sight save that numbing whiteness and the loss of memory and of time…

* * * *

Max was fully awake in bed by the time the sun shone in through the open window of his bedroom. He was now also aware of that dull throbbing in his temple that he remembered right from the point of his waking.

He had a headache.

‘And right when you had that interview with the chairman of the Institute of Objective Studies,’ The IOS was an Islamic intellectual organization in New Delhi, working on, among other things, policy studies for the Muslim Ummah in India. The chairman was on a rare visit to Bangalore and Max didn’t want to miss out on this appointment.

Despite his aching head.

And despite some dim confusion in his mind because of which he had the recurring impression of having got, and then lost, something recently. But was it while he slept or was it earlier? The previous day, perhaps? Max wasn’t sure.

Did he dream something?

He couldn’t remember, try as he might.

Why then was his face wet with what seemed to be recent tears?

Still disturbed, and as he rushed out of his house after the basics of washing, brushing, dressing and a shower, his eyes fell upon a page of the open Qur’an that he had kept aside on the dining table the previous day. He had read casually but it oddly struck him as being strange, as if he was reading it for the first time. It was a passage from the fourth chapter and it went:

‘When the angels take the souls of those who die in sin against their souls, (the angels) ask: ‘In what (plight) where ye?’ They reply: ‘We were weak and oppressed in the earth.’ Then the angels ask: ‘Was not the earth of God vast enough for you to move yourselves away (from evil)?’ Such men will find their abode in Hell – what an evil refuge. Except the feeble among men, and the women, and the children, who are unable to devise a plan and are not shown a way. As for such, it maybe that God will pardon them. God is ever Clement, Forgiving. Whoever migrates for the cause of God will find much refuge and abundance in the earth, and whoever forsakes his home, a fugitive to God and His messenger, and death overtakes him, his reward is then obligatory on God. God is ever Forgiving, Merciful’

“Yea,” said Max, trying to recollect what he had lost even as he closed, and locked, the door of his house. “Just try telling that to our Indian Muslims of today. Or are they Muslim Indians? Heck, what does any one care if they are the Red Indians!”

“Come to think of it, they will end up like the Red Indians pretty soon, granted the way things are going on in this country now!”

As he rushed past the stairs of the second storey of his apartment building, he greeted the elderly man who was his Muslim neighbour and then, suddenly, intuitively, and without notice, he quipped: “What date is it today?”

“February 22nd.”

“And in the Hijri calendar?”

“Well, it’s the 1st of Muharram, 1425 AH. Happy New Year, Max!”

The neighbour laughed innocently at the blank look on his face.