First Principles (Part 1)
In a world growing smaller by the day, differences in ideas and belief-systems continue to be rendered meaningless in the context of a ruthless standardization of life throughout the globe. However, despite this forced uniformization, issues of faith have refused to die out in the process, partly because of a certain commonality in the scriptural texts of monotheistic religions as they exist today. The relationship between the Judeo-Christian and Islamic scriptures is a classic example that highlights the continuity of the religious experience although this has been more due to human manipulation of the earlier scriptures. The following story-essay strives to put this fact in perspective through the interaction of Max, the Muslim protagonist, the Wayfarer, Max’s inner guide, and his Christian interlocutors who engage him in a discussion on comparative religion, human free-will and predestination: themes that are as old as man himself.
Richard’s park, of course, had four very well defined sides, being the square that was its basic design. Parks and gardens are no novelty in Bangalore, for, not without reason, the city itself was called the ‘garden city’ of India. Perhaps, that fact alone had caused him to ponder over the question of the park’s strange attraction to his thinking.
What was it that made Richard’s park so vaguely familiar to him despite the numerous other gardens in the city? Max had asked himself the same question almost every time that he visited this block of greenery on evenings that had become too numerous to remember. Evenings like the present one as he strolled along in thought on the stone-laid pavement just within the park’s outer boundary.
The day had dwindled down to an evening bearing the cool winds of Bangalore: unassuming heralds of the colder night that was soon to descend upon the city. The cool caress of the evening breeze was, of course, what made you want to take a stroll down the park every evening. To Max, however, this was one of those rare days when he could afford the walk amidst the greenery and the smell of foliage, since he hardly ever got home from work before seven in the evening. And that was the time when the park was closed for the day.
This day was different inasmuch as he was able to be at the park a half hour before its closing time. And to be able to enjoy the strange sense of nostalgia that was the park’s offering to him.
To be able to enjoy the sense of calm amidst the foliage around which a few regular joggers went a-jogging.
To enjoy the sudden, remarkable way in which the sky in Bangalore could turn overcast with heavy rain-laden clouds within the space of a few minutes.
To enjoy the renewed, undying wonder of a child at the first drops of rain as it fell from heaven earth-bound.
To enjoy the smells of the earth unleashed by the innocence of the raindrops to give a sense of time and space as old as man’s sad history.
To concentrate for one fleeting moment on the smell, the sight and the sounds of the surrounding and to be able in that one moment to reflect on the meaning of life and of existence.
Max stopped in his strolling tracks.
“God, how I remember now!”
The light drizzle pattered gently on the pavement around him. It lent its wetness to the greenery of the trees and the plethora of plants in the garden that surrounded him.
The drops slid down the leaves, the branches, the stem: sparkling gems in the daylight, if only the clouds would move away to offer the dying rays of a declining sun.
Despite the sudden dullness of the evening, Max’s eyes had now lit up with the memory of those first years. As the drizzle continued, he walked into the protection offered by a nearby tree. Its huge, ancient trunk with its overhanging overgrowth of thick branches and leaves offered a shelter as good as any that an umbrella would have provided.
Of course, its offering was unconditional; its humble sheltering always there for the asking, without any asking back in return.
No asking back.
He remembered the times when he would be the regular early morning jogger around the municipal gardens near his home in the capital of the UAE.
Max was certain now: it was the Municipal garden near Najda Street which Richard’s park reminded him of. Back in those days, the newly built sprawling building of the Abu Dhabi municipality complex was surrounded by a garden that used to be Max’s regular haunt.
He remembered that day in his seventeenth year when just before his jogging rounds he met up with the incident that he knew he would not forget in a long time.
The man had been waiting for him at the entrance of the mosque as Max had come out after his dawn prayer, fully attired in his jogging suit. The stranger had the white robes of an Arab: Max had fleetingly noticed as he came out at the entrance to get his jogging shoes. He had bent down, slipped one on, when the stranger in front of him began a series of questions addressed to his identity.
Max had paused, the other shoe still in hand, and had answered his mildly searching questions. He had then smiled, and bent down again only to raise up his head a few seconds later to ask the stranger a few questions of his own.
The stranger, however, was there no more.
He had completely disappeared without a trace.
Stunned at the disappearance, Max had peered into the fading darkness all around. The streets were empty save the one worshipper who had come out of the mosque and passed between the two men at the entrance. Max had seen him then walking off into the distance. But what of the stranger who had stood before him just a few seconds earlier?
Max remembered that he had searched quickly within and around the mosque’s premises. He remembered that he had looked around once, twice, straining his sight in the semi-darkness of a new dawn for a possible rational explanation. But his senses did not reveal any.
He remembered how he had walked half-afraid to the municipal gardens, a stone’s throw away from the mosque: its trees and foliage now beckoning him with a foreboding strangeness with which he was unaccustomed; with which he was now uncomfortable. Despite his jogging attire and the readiness with which he had arrived for his daily jogging rounds, Max could not get himself to jog that day.
Instead, he walked amidst the bushes and the trees of the Municipal garden, almost absent to the smell of early morning foliage with which he began his every day; with which his memory would fuse for long years to come, until some day when a similar smell would ignite recollections of many years past.
Max remembered clearly now how on that early morning, he had abandoned his regular solitary jog in the municipal gardens and had returned to his home on Najda street.
He remembered how he had opened the door of his house in a hurry and moved past the sleeping household into his own bedroom and into the safety of his bed. What was that which he had seen? Max had considered in some fear. Whatever it was, it was strange enough to have shaken Max so much that he actually left the key of the house in its lock while he rushed in, only to be found still dangling from the keyhole by his surprised mother several hours later.
Had that been the initiation? Max wondered.
The first contact with the Wayfarer?
So many a year ago.
So several a year.
The stranger’s face, of course, was not clear even on that first and, to date, last vision since that early morning darkness more than a decade ago. However, that was immaterial, for the voice had remained.
That inner voice.
“You remember well, Max.”
The voice broke through his memories as Max stood by the tree in Richard’s park.
The two other people standing under the shelter of the tree started in some surprise at the low cry that escaped Max’s lips. Of course, their surprise was not so much because of Max’s utterance as it was due to the fact that he was addressing nobody in particular: there had been none in front of him to whom he might have offered his exclamation.
“I am sorry, brother, but did you just tell us something?” One of the two people standing besides Max under the shelter of the tree asked him timidly.
“No.” Max came back, “I’m sorry, but I was just speaking to myself…”
He stared briefly at the young man who had spoken to him, at the perfectly clean-shaven face, the slightly aquiline nose, the enquiring eyes, and then looked away at the evening drizzle that was now filtering in through the branches and the leaves of the tree that was sheltering the three of them.
“Memories, then…?” The other, bespectacled, older man suggested. He had looked up from the book that he was intently scanning through his glasses. A raindrop slid down from the branches above and found its way downward on to his bald head. He wiped it away with a handkerchief promptly drawn from a side pocket of his – robe…
“Well, yes. You could say that.” Max smiled as if caught out unwittingly.
* * * *
“Wayfarer, are you here?”
* * * *
“We understand your outburst then, brother. Memories can seem so real at times, you know.” The younger of the pair remarked, distracted slightly by the fact that their tall companion under the tree still seemed a trifle immersed in his daydreams.
“Oh yes,” Max assured him. “They can get more real than we can ever imagine. In fact, many people, indeed, nations, have nothing but their memories with them. The memories of a great past; of happier times. It is all that they possess for their own – a possession that, more often than not, acts as a drug against their waking up to the present and the possibilities that their future offers them.”
* * * *
“Wayfarer, I know you are here.”
“Yes, Max. I am.”
“It’s been a long time, Wayfarer.”
“Time? Does time have any meaning, Max?”
“That is the First Principle, is it not, Wayfarer?”
* * * *
What was faintly disturbing to Max was the attire of the two men standing with him under the tree. They wore long robes with full sleeves. Not white robes. No. They were deep brown instead, with that lighter border running through the middle; top to bottom. That white thread tying the otherwise open robes at the waist; and, of course, the characteristic crucifix dangling just below their chests from chains around their necks.
The older of the two had now closed the thick, leather bound, book that he was scrutinizing partly because of the drizzle, and partly because of Max’s last remark. Max was now taking in his immediate surroundings more quickly: he noted slyly the cover of the book: The King James Version of the Bible.
“Brother, but you have spoken the very truth.” The man had removed his spectacles, his eyes somewhat more alive to Max’s presence.
“Yes, and if only our memories would allow us to locate that verse in the Bible.” The other, younger man confessed to something of what they were preoccupied with.
* * * *
“But, Wayfarer, why the silence upon my first call?”
“You are already on to something you need to remember more often, Max. Here, with these two men.”
* * * *
“And what have you been trying to locate in the Bible?” Max continued with the odd conversation with the two ‘churchmen’.
“But, you are…?” The older man quickly sought the clarification with his half question, before the conversation moved any further.
To seek for a name was almost certainly to seek for a persuasion, an attitude, a religion.
In a world devoid of objective understanding, to ask for a name is to ask for partisanship. It is to look at the dividing line. Rather than the one that joins.
“Maximus. Max, if you please.”
“Oh, and of which Christian denomination, Max, if I may ask?”
“That of Christ’s own persuasion, if I may say so.” Max was being honest to the core as he replied.
“Very well said, brother.” The younger man smiled broadly. “We need to build bridges amongst ourselves. Not walls.”
“Indeed!” His elder companion confessed grudgingly. “I am Father Callaghan and this is Brother Joshua. We belong to the Catholic Church, Max, and are here at the Bible Society of India just down the road to participate in the two-day Bible convention that is being held under its auspices.” He made light of the introductions.
“How very interesting!” Max was being sincere.
He knew the Bible Society of India building. It came up on the right side of the road as he walked down from Richard’s park to his apartment at the farther end. He had made it a point to glance across at the tall, four-storied building every time he left his apartment and particularly on weekends when there would be a large coterie of vehicles lined up outside in the parking lot: indicative of some particular conference that was probably in progress. Max agreed with himself that he had seen those extra number of cars outside the building as he came up the road today as well.
“What is this convention all about?” Max was curious to know.
“Well,” Joshua, the younger man began, “You know that our churches have missions working in Christ’s name all over the world.”
Max nodded slowly, but the twinkle in his eyes was lost on the two in front of him. He waited patiently for the other man to go on.
“However, in recent years, we have realized that quite apart from blindly criticizing, it is best that we seek to know – to really understand – the belief system of those who are the targets of our efforts. It is in this spirit, therefore, that the Bible Society of India has been making efforts to understand the minds of the Muslim people, in guiding them to Jesus Christ, our lord.” The man paused.
“Splendid!” Max was visibly delighted. “A most correct approach! It’s always best to have your homework done. I see that the drizzle has stopped.”
The light rain had, indeed, stopped and a strong southwesterly wind had picked up to draw the gathering clouds away from the horizon. For all the light drizzle that had fallen, the earth smelled fresh and very much alive.
The three men moved out of the shelter of the tree and on to the paved walkway of the park.
“But in dealing with the Muslim faith there are some – how should I say – difficulties.” Father Callaghan remarked quietly, his Bible now held carefully in his hands. Hands that were now held behind him as he walked along in deep thought.
“Difficulties?” Max’s question was almost contrived.
“Well, yes, Max.” The other man nodded. “For instance, Muslims already believe in Jesus as a great Messenger. And Mary as his chaste and pure mother. They even have a chapter in the Qur’an named after Mary.”
“Yes, I have heard that too, but…” Max began, but the man cut him off.
“They even believe in all the Biblical prophets, you know,” he went on.
“Yes, but,” Max began again, “Why should that present difficulties? These similarities should make it easier for them to appreciate Christianity, should it not?”
“Appreciate, yes. But to accept, no.” Father Callaghan firmly pointed out. “The differences between the two religions are as profound as well.”
“What matters then that Muhammad had actually copied wholesale from the Bible while he composed the Qur’an. Muslims just can’t stomach that, can they?” Joshua sighed.
“That’s odd, though.” Max remarked with little effort as the three men approached the hexagonal, domed enclosure in the center of the park. The structure was an open one on all its six sides, each of which had a low wall with an open arch above it. The enclosure formed a pavilion to which the four main walkways in the park led from four directions.
“What’s odd in that?” asked Joshua, as they reached the pavilion and slowly made their way up the low steps into its center.
“I have read that, for centuries, the Arabs held the Jews in great suspicion and animosity, if not outright enmity, and vice versa. This was no less in the time of Muhammad in the 6th Century AD.” Max worked up a suggestion.
“And so they have, but what is your point?” The other man looked at Max questioningly.
“Well, it just occurred to me that if Muhammad had composed the Qur’an himself, all the while copying from the Bible, wasn’t it foolish on his part to choose a Jewish woman to name an entire chapter of the Qur’an after? What acceptability would he have amongst his own Arab tribesmen if he gave their antagonists this honour? Would he not risk losing his supporters and followers from his own men? Why couldn’t he have chosen the name of an Arab woman instead? Maybe even his own daughter or that of his wives?” The questions from Max were ones that he had asked himself long ago, and from which there could be only one conclusion.
Indeed, given the full glare of recorded history under which he lived and died, to suppose Muhammad to be an impostor raised more problems than it solved.
The two men by his side had fallen silent. They looked at each other, strangely surprised by the slight confusion on their own faces. The confusion in each man made the other’s face a mirror of his own.
“We were talking about similarities, though.” Max said again as he sat himself on one of the half walls of the open enclosure, his gaze intent on the small children’s playground just across the pavilion, the embarrassment that he had caused barely escaping it.
“Oh, yes.” The younger of the pair seemed relieved. “We were looking for that verse in the Bible that is strikingly similar to the one in the Qur’an.”
“Yes?” Max turned back towards the pair as they leaned over the wall.
“That God said to Moses, that He will have mercy on whom He wills to have mercy and will harden whom He wills to harden. Isn’t it striking that there are verses in the Qur’an that are exactly similar in meaning to this verse from the Bible? I did have a difficulty with this verse in the Bible for a long while, right until the time that I spotted the same verses in the Qur’an.” The older man explained.
Max was genuinely puzzled now: “How did you solve your difficulty when you spotted similar verses in the Qur’an?” He asked in ill-disguised surprise.
“I didn’t so much as solve my difficulty as I alleviated it when I saw it in the Muslim scripture, Max. It was sufficient relief for me that Muhammad had not missed out in copying these difficulties as well. The Qur’an then had man-made irrationalities: it couldn’t then be the word of God.” A slight smile picked its way across Father Callaghan’s face.
For a moment Max stared at the man unbelievingly. To associate oneself with scholarship was always a worthwhile thing to do: he had believed.
But what of such scholarship that has been made blatantly subjective?
Of scholarship which, after having striven for a lifetime, had forgotten its true mission in the search for objective truth?
Of scholarship that took sides; that was partisan in its very outlook?
Of scholarship that cared not for the very ground that it stood on, as long as the ground was taken away from beneath the feet of its antagonist.
“But where, Father Callaghan, is your difficulty? For myself, I see none.” Max braved the most intense of feelings as he came out with himself.
“Come, come, Max.” The older man laughed. “We do have difficulties in our faith, don’t we now? Difficulties at which the Muslims, and God knows how many others, have been laughing for centuries.” The voice was hardening. The younger man sat down besides Max.
To Father Callaghan, Max might have presented an image of bewilderment then, for he continued in a voice that slightly betrayed an underlying bitterness of the soul: “All objective reasoning, indeed, the very spirit of true religion, presupposes a certain freedom of will for man. That man has been given the discretion to choose what, and what not, to do. This then is the moral basis of God’s reward and punishment.”
“Exactly!” Max couldn’t have agreed more.
“So, Max, what of such verses in the Bible and the Qur’an which state clearly that God guides whom He wills and leaves astray whom He wills? How do these verses fit into our agreed scheme of things? Surely, you do agree that they present ‘difficulties’ if not outright contradictions in our belief system.”
“But Father Callaghan, God has said this only in order that man may not believe that he is saved by his own virtue, but may perceive that life and the mercy of God have been granted him by God of His bounty.” Max wan’t really sure how that would go with Father Callaghan, but that then just had to be it.
“But that, Max, is your own interpretation. You cannot quote that explanation as coming from scripture.”
“But it is from scripture, Father.” Max persisted. “These are the words of none other than Jesus of Nazareth. It’s there right in the Apocryphal literature of the Church. We have missed it all these centuries.”
“The Apocrypha!” The younger man exclaimed. “You have been going through the Apocrypha?”
“I have found it to hold answers which Christianity has long forgotten to be the original teachings of Christ. The Apocryphal literature of the Church is a world in itself: full of meaning and common sense.” Max explained himself.
He hadn’t forgotten the times when one question led him to another, one quest to the other, in his search through the study of comparative religions. Until the day when he finally stumbled on the Apocrypha: forgotten, forbidden, versions of the Christian gospel composed by some of the closest disciples of Christ immediately after his disappearance more than two thousand years ago. These included works like the Shepherd of Hermas and the Gospel of Barnabas – works that remained influential throughout the first four centuries after the disappearance of Christ, until the council of Nicea in 325 AD, when Emperor Constantine, although – through one of the great ironies of history – himself dying an Unitarian, ordered all other versions of the Bible, apart from the four present day canonical versions supported by the followers of St. Paul, to be consigned to the flames; to be included in the list of books forbidden, by the Pauline church, to be read for pain of persecution for heresy.
However, in spite of the cruel inquisitions that followed on the heels of the unyielding followers of true Christianity, these forbidden scriptures – the Apocrypha – had survived down the centuries and had remained the moving force behind all Unitarian movements in Christianity, past and present.
Movements that held Christ to be nothing more than a mighty messenger from God.
Movements that threw out the idea of Trinity as a pagan concoction.
Movements that drew very close unto the Islamic view of God and man.
Father Callaghan had known of the Apocrypha himself, but he had been too much of a conformist to go through them. He vaguely understood that his emotional commitment to his Church had got the better of him.
Another moment of silence followed before Father Callaghan went on, “But you still cannot get across the problem of predestination, can you? That all things have been predestined for a certain, unchangeable end.”
(To be concluded)