Madrassa-e-Yusufiye

He re-read the paragraphs that he had scribbled down one last time.

Arabic had never been his particular strength. At least, not in the way that English was. Sadly, to Max’s thinking, this was despite the fact that he had just missed being born in a nation that had Arabic as its mother tongue; despite the fact that he had almost all the happiest memories of his childhood and upbringing in a country that wholly belonged to a culture that is, and a people who still are, out and out Arab; despite the fact that his neighbourhood friends and their families with whom he mingled and lived in those wonderful growing-up years were all Arabs or Arab expatriates living in the United Arab Emirates.

There were Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians and even Somalis, he remembered. All of them Arabs who, with their innate sense of hospitality and brotherhood, made him feel for the land where he grew up as if it were his second home: his home away from home; who made him feel that the faces that sat around him now rocking in the now-violent, now-gentle motion of the train on its rails represented the poorer half of humanity: poorer for all the warmth and hospitality that was, to the Arabs he had known, second nature.

But this was India, Max reminded himself, and these were Indians. And the UAE was already fading into the dim mists of his memory.

A memory that was reality until around eight years ago when he had to return home to do his graduation in Mechanical Engineering.

At that campus atop a hill. Above that town by the Arabian Sea…

The train rolled on through the night.

Max was on assignment to Hyderabad where he was to attend a conference on interest-free banking in his capacity as the Executive Editor of the periodical that he worked for at Bangalore. His interest in the practicability of Islamic Economics and Banking as a potent, humane alternative to the exploitative system of international finance was deep and of many years standing.

Indeed, it had prompted him, as a sensitive nineteen-year-old witness to what he felt within was the unbearable poverty of rural India, to embark on an exciting adventure through the slums of the village that he hailed from. It had brought him into contact with the richest, the most affluent in his society on the one hand while on the other, it had him talking and sitting with the hapless, poverty-stricken villagers who formed a great majority in the village that was his home.

Between these two classes whose combined existence formed the very symbols of an unjust, predatory economic philosophy, he had proposed the bridge of Zakat: the Islamic instrument that, to his mind, would reduce the wide chasm between the two…

For a nineteen-year-old who had just returned from his eighteen years in the elegant, oil rich cities of the Persian Gulf, and who suddenly found himself in the poverty of an Indian village, that must have been an act of great daring, Max considered in retrospect.

Those first years when he got back to India from the Middle East had been difficult years, he remembered. ‘But with difficulty there comes ease,’ as the Qur’an would tell him repeatedly throughout the decade that had passed since then.

A decade at the end of which, today, he would recall all those years, wherein he had learned much after his return, with an aching fondness that he knew he would not have gained if he had continued to spend a lifetime in the luxurious, deceptive embrace of the Middle East…

The Middle East, the Arabs: that was what the words he had scribbled down reminded him of.

After all, he had been attempting to translate into English, one of the greatest prose works in Arabic ever written in modern times. It didn’t matter to him too much that he was attempting the assignment given to him by an Islamic publishing company in India – that of translating the late Syed Qutb’s monumental ‘In the Shade of the Qur’an’ – in the rocking coach of a train that was on its way to Hyderabad. In a coach whose dim lights did little justice to the effort that he was making in converting the Arabic of the original into an English of agreeable standard. The English edition would go into the international market – the company authorities had reminded him. So the English had to be good, if not the best.

To the other passengers in the coach, the man sitting by the window presented a peculiar image not too often seen in train compartments in India. They had surely seen others who sat reading, fully absorbed in the book in their hands, while the train carried them along on to their destinations. There were even people who occasionally wrote a few things while on journey. But this man seemed an exception for, he was obviously involved in writing one language while almost simultaneously reading from another book that was in a different language.

A language that seemed very like Arabic in script from a distance.

Perhaps, not all the six passengers traveling in his coach had noticed as much, but the man who sat opposite Max, beside the other window, had indeed seen it for he asked in some surprise, ‘That is surely Arabic that you are copying from?’

Max looked up from his bent position as he sat squatting – as only an Indian can – on the smooth cushion of the common coach seating… The passenger adjacent to him too had heard the question and looked on in interest as Max put down the pen into the middle of the notebook, which he then closed and kept beside him.

‘Yes, it is Arabic.’ Max answered, but then as an afterthought, he added, ‘And I am not copying, I am translating.’

Max observed his questioner closely for the first time since he got into the train at the Bangalore City railway station. Of course, that was the starting point of the train’s journey but the man was already at his place by the window when Max had entered past the two policemen who stood outside in the compartment corridor.

Max had sat down opposite him by the other window but apart from a smile that was exchanged between the two, there had been precious little conversation until that time.

‘Oh, but that sounds interesting,’ replied the man in some amazement. The other passenger besides Max nodded as if in agreement.

‘I have always wanted to study Arabic in some depth, you know,’ he went on. ‘But I never had the chance.’

There seemed to be an air of genuine regret about the man, as he sighed and looked away momentarily out of the window as the night sped by. His face surely displayed the signs of his youth: the yet unwrinkled features, excepting, of course, for those that appeared momentarily on his forehead when he raised the skin covering it in a gesture of surprise or alarm, the smooth texture of his skin and the jet black beard now grown carelessly but which, Max was certain, had seen better days.

The only thing that perhaps revealed the experiences befitting a more aged man was the streak of silver that ran through his hair at regular intervals. In fact, Max could only take him as one who was ahead of his own age by maybe a couple of years.

The man looked back away from the window at Max and then asked again, ‘Do you mind if I read something of your translation?’

Max smiled at him, unsure of the man’s persuasion or ideology, but he found himself consenting to the man’s request.

‘No, not at all! Please go ahead.’

Max opened out his notebook again and handed it out to the man. The man produced his left hand from underneath the red blanket that he was using to cover himself up from the cold breath of the night blowing in through the open window. As he moved forward to take the book, Max was not very sure whether he had not heard a faint clanging of metal that came from the man’s direction. But the greater noise of the murderous train wheels on their rails drowned his efforts to ascertain the exact source of the sound.

‘Thank you,’ the man said as he sat back again with the book still held in his left hand. He raised the open page of the book a little towards his face and Max observed his eyes as they scanned the lines of the paragraphs that he had translated from the preface of Syed Qutb’s work. The man’s eyes seemed to sparkle with new life as he went over Max’s wordings in English:

“Living in the shade of the Qur’an I came to know of the beauty of the mutual relationship that exists between the universe created by Allah and the way of human life that He had dictated. Next, I saw the bitter consequences that came upon man when he strayed from these laws of nature.”

“(I also saw) the great discrepancy between the misuse to which nature was being subjected and the natural laws that were prescribed by the Lord of the Universe in His great mercy. I asked myself: which accursed devil was it who was now dragging mankind into the vortex of this hell?” 

The train was slowing down. It was approaching a station. It eventually dragged to a halt beside the platform.

Railway platforms thronged with life, Max had noticed long ago.

A world in themselves: he saw.

There were the tea vendors, the coffee vendors, the fruit vendors: all competing for the attention of the passengers by their window seats; all indifferent to those who would not respond to their pleas to buy; like the one who sat opposite Max, lost in the words in the book in his left hand.

The vendors passed him by, screaming their products at other passengers. But the man had not noticed.

He read on:

Living in the shade of the Qur’an I realized the greatness of the existence of the Universe. The greatness of the inner reality, as it were. The greatness of immense possibilities. This universe is not just the visible universe in itself; it includes the invisible universe as well. Not just the here, and now; but also the then, and there. Human life extends into this eternity and this unknowable possibility.”

“Death, then, is not the end of the journey; it is but a halting place on the way. Man’s belongings are not merely those that he has attained here on earth. For, that is but a small portion of the sum total of his possessions. What is unattainable here will surely never go unattained there. For, there can be neither injustice nor unlawfulness there. Indeed, the brief interval that is spent on the face of this earth is but the preparation for a journey to a world that is alive, eternal, truthful and caring. The real world wherein the soul of the believer turns towards its Creator and comes into communion with Him…”

The shrill blaring of the train’s horn again. Its minutes at this station were up. It had to move along; carry on to its destination.

Was it the glint off a tear that Max noticed in the man’s eyes? But he blinked again and then the glint was gone.

His eyes moved left to right again.

What peace can there be for man, what contentment, what blessing can there ever be without first comprehending within his heart this clear and comprehensive vision?” 

“Living under the shade of the Qur’an, I beheld in my sight a greatness in man; a greatness which I never did perceive before. For, after all, is he not but a part of the Divine spirit itself? Indeed, it is this breath of the Divine spirit that made him the representative of God on this earth. Made all that is on the earth subservient to him…” 

The greatness and nobility that was conferred upon him through the investiture of the Divine spirit thus became the sacred bond of his destiny, the writing of the pledge, as it were. His nation, his country and his people all came to be represented in the creed of true belief.” 

The man closed the book. He then placed it on his lap.

Both motions with his left hand.

‘God, doesn’t he have a right hand?’ Max wondered.

His eyes searched the area where his right hand would have been, but it was covered with the all-enveloping woolen blanket. He did, however, see the fingers of the man’s right hand peeping out from the blanket’s end as it rested on the window’s ledge.

The train was moving slowly again: away from the small station and its lights.

Away from its pleas.

Away into the night.

The man shifted his position. Was that the metallic clang again?

Max picked up his ears, but again the grinding of the wheels, again the metallic banging of its linkages. He still couldn’t be sure.

‘You write very well.’ The man remarked as he placed his left hand onto the book, took it up and handed it back to Max.

‘Thank you. But translations have to be faithful to the original.’ Max took back his notebook from the man’s left hand.

‘What did you tell me your name was?’ The man asked while he searched his left pocket for something and then presently brought it out.

It was a cigarette.

‘I am afraid I haven’t told you that so far,’ Max replied, a gentle smile playing upon his lips.

The passenger next to Max had been smoking since a while, much to Max’s irritation, and the stranger in the blanket leaned forward with his cigarette. The other man obliged and handed him his own lighted one. His cigarette lighted, the man in the blanket leaned back again, puffing away in some satisfaction.

‘Oh, please excuse my memory but what is your name?’

‘Maximus. But people call me Max.’

‘Interesting name, Max.’

‘Yes, like many things. But only if you will look into it.’

‘So true.’

‘And you are called…?’

‘Oh, that doesn’t really matter, Max.’

‘How is that?’

‘You’ll see by the time I get off at the next station. In any case I see that you have been translating Syed Qutb’s In the shade of the Qur’an. Is that right?’ the man asked quite casually.

‘Why, yes. Have you read it elsewhere?’ Max was taken aback for a moment. He hadn’t expected the man to know that.

‘Well, not exactly. I have read it in parts. But I have heard a lot about it.’ The man pulled at the cigarette in his left hand. ‘I know that he wrote it in prison and that much of it reflects the emotions that he lived through while in prison.’

Max was delighted. The man seemed not just to be a Muslim but even a committed Muslim at that.

‘Yes,’ he agreed, ‘Syed Qutb’s commentary on the Qur’an does chart a new course in the field of Qur’anic exegesis. His work brings with it an originality and force of expression unheard of in many others of the same kind.’

‘Exactly! Prison does a lot of things to a man, doesn’t it?’ The man seemed to reflect. ‘To many it brings ruin and misery. But to some it brings out the best in them; it is for these people a period of meditation, a time to build upon their inner strength and will power. After a lifetime of advocating something, prison offers them the chance to test the strength of their convictions, doesn’t it? It is, for them, the moment of truth.’  The man exhaled smoke into the night outside the window.

‘Very true in the case of Qutb.’ Max agreed fully for he knew that the ordeal of imprisonment has been a common, almost universal experience for Muslim thinkers and activists in the modern world. For many of them, it has meant not just suffering, but also the opportunity to reflect upon past struggles, to review theories and strategies, to deepen and sharpen their insight, to plan and reorganize.

‘I once read one Muslim scholar call prison the ‘Josephian school’, or the Madrassa-i-Yusufiye in Arabic if you please, referring thereby to both his own experiences of jail in Kemalist Turkey and the imprisonment of the prophet Joseph by the Pharoah.’ The man was looking out into the night as he made this almost off-hand remark. But to Max it was as if he had discovered a world of new meaning.

‘The Josephian school!’ thought Max. ‘What a great way of putting it!’

‘You know,’ Max joined in earnest, ‘the whole imprisonment, trial and, ultimately, the execution of Syed Qutb revolved around what he wrote in his treatises on Islam and its applicability in solving the problems of today’s world. I never quite got used to knowing that; the tragedy of it, that is…’ Max voiced his inner most feelings.

‘Yes, Max. I have heard that too,’ the stranger in the blanket pulled at his cigarette for the last time since it had now burnt itself out to a small butt.

‘We learned at school,’ he continued, ‘that the history of mankind began when he learned to write. But man became the human species when he learned to speak, to say what he thought. And then came others who forbade him to speak, thinking up the infamous ‘verbal delict,’ offences of the word, and returned him to the obscurity whence he had emerged.’

The man finished as he threw the glowing butt of his cigarette out through the window into the dark stream of darkness as it rushed by.

A gentle throw from his left hand that send the glowing speck against the night tracing a trajectory into a passing field.

‘The verbal delict,’ thought Max. ‘How precise can you get?’

‘But the Egyptian regime under Jamal Abdel Nasser never quite managed to suppress the influence of Qutb’s ideas, you know. Their impact has been permanent.’ Max was thinking out loud now.

‘No force on this earth can suppress the power of ideas, Max. Strong regimes do not condemn people for the spoken word, or for that matter the written word. It is the weak ones, which are afraid, and resort to violence in an attempt to prolong their existence.’ There was a tinge of seriousness in the stranger’s voice now.

Max nodded in agreement. He knew that prohibitions and force sometimes amount to nothing when persuading people is in question. The Qur’an itself makes this point in one of its most sublime and at the same time its most concise of sentences: La ikraha fil din – there is no compulsion in religion. If this is interpreted a little more widely, it simply means that in the matter of beliefs, in what people think, there can be no coercion.

What was that the Wayfarer once reminded him on this topic not so long ago? Max struggled to remember. But amidst that jerking and pulling and rolling of the train, Max did remember the Wayfarer’s words: ‘Those in power should be very careful about how they deal with a man who cares nothing for sensual pleasures, nothing for riches, nothing for comfort or praise or for promotion, but is simply determined to do what he believes to be right. He is a dangerous and uncomfortable enemy, because his body which they can always conquer, gives them so little purchase on his soul.’ How the Wayfarer had, thus, added to his own deepening insight into the nature of consciousness wherein death shall be no more; wherein ‘death, thou shalt die.’

‘But how does the public conscience accept these blatant violations of human rights so calmly and with such seeming indifference?’ Max asked, more to himself than to the man in front of him.

‘It doesn’t Max, at least some of the time. But as a general rule, it often regards political prisoners as guilty for its own selfish reasons. It is a kind of defence mechanism. People cannot come to terms with the fact that they are living in a society where they do not have the protection of law and order. They are faced with the question of how it is that they can remain silent. Is it because it is easier for them to believe that the convicted person is guilty, that in any case he must have broken the law, because if not why would he be imprisoned and convicted? For if an innocent man is convicted in disregard of the law, then the person reflecting on this does not feel safe any longer and people instinctively reject this in self-defense. The harsher the sentence, the more easily this conclusion is reached and accepted. In the absence of evidence, a severe sentence is itself evidence of guilt.’ The man’s argument was more than convincing.

The train was approaching a bend in its track. While the bend was a gentle one it was, however, located on an incline, causing the train to tilt slightly as it moved over it. Max felt himself sliding over to the right and had to hold himself on to his seat to avoid moving over. He saw the situation to be the same with the other passengers in the middle of the compartment. As for the man opposite, Max was surprised to see the fingers of his right hand grip the horizontal window grills while the hand underneath the red blanket remained immovable. Instead, he saw the man hold firm on to his seat with his left hand. While Max watched in some amazement, the incline on which the train moved eased out and presently they were again in normal alignment. The whole episode had taken only a minute, but it was enough to raise even further Max’s curiosity regarding the man’s right hand. Of course, he could still not get himself to ask.

‘Yea. You are right,’ Max continued with the discussion, hiding his surprise. ‘The man in the street would reason that if he wasn’t guilty, he’d have got two or three years, not fifteen. Without clear and explicit proof of guilt, a lenient sentence of itself arouses suspicions, and indicates that even the authorities are unsure of themselves. In the case of a harsh sentence, that kind of doubt is dispelled. So the innocent man receives twice the sentence.’

‘That’s an old trick, Max.’ The man in the blanket covering quipped. ‘The Nazis used it too; not in the length of sentence but in the cruel harshness of punishment in concentration camps. ‘Surely they wouldn’t be so harsh with them if they weren’t traitors’ – this is probably how the average German rationalized things.’

‘Strange thing, this Law,’ Max sighed.

‘And stranger still how people can be programmed to believe in all that is opposed to reality, in evil as against the good, in wrong as against the right,’ the man in the blanket filled in slowly where Max had left off, his gaze still fixed on the night outside the window, his hair blown back by the wind against his face.

The man might not have known it but the Wayfarer had once told Max that what he had referred to was exactly what the Demon had planned for humanity all along: to reverse the moral order, the moral basis of true Law so that ultimately it is the innocent who end up the culprit and the real culprit, the innocent. On the other extreme of, or as opposed to, this condition stood the real underpinning of Law and through it an offender seems to us to be a free man who is acting according to his own laws, while the righteous man is a slave to rules. Behaviour according to this code that does not derive from the soul appears repugnant to us. In that choice, our sympathy goes out spontaneously to the free man. Most people do wrong in their own interest, in the cause of power, wealth, glory, love or whatever it may be. But there is also evil for its own sake, evil that is its own end. And therein was a manifestation of the Demon himself: inheritor of Hell.

‘I have a colleague of mine who is in jail.’ The man remarked without notice.

‘Oh,’ Max looked up. ‘Has he been there long?’

‘No. Not really,’ the man looked at Max with a blank stare. ‘And his imprisonment will be over soon, you know.’

‘That’s good to hear,’ Max offered, not quite sure of the difference in the tone of the man’s voice.

‘Yea. He’s on the death row. He will be executed next week…’ the man’s voice was as cold as ice.

‘Good Lord,’ Max gasped in disbelief. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he stuttered.

‘No, it’s alright,’ the man looked away. ‘It’s just that our discussion just reminded me of him. He had killed a man, see? A member of a gang whom he saw beat up his father in the town square like a dog. So he couldn’t stand the sight of it, see? He had to do something and he ended up inadvertently killing one member of the gang…’

Several minutes ticked away with nothing but silence between the two: each in contemplation over the nature of law when it did, and didn’t, reach resonance with the particular moral fabric of the human being. All was silent in the cabin except for the monotonous music of the train wheels and the occasional whistle of the train as it sped through the night. The other passengers had almost all gone off to sleep: some dozed in the sitting position with their heads hanging onto their sides, resting even, on the shoulder of the other man next to them who, if he was not asleep himself, would have been sorely irritated by it.

‘It’s one thing to study the mind of the criminal when you do your degree in Law, Max. But it is quite another to know of it from close at hand.’ The man opposite Max went on.

‘You have studied Law?’ The question from Max was spontaneous.

‘More than that. I have been a practicing lawyer, Max.’ The answer was conspicuous by the absence of any underlying emotion. It was a blank reply stripped of all complexities.

‘One would have thought as much,’ Max confirmed.

The man did not seem to have heard him. Instead, he continued with his own train of thought. ‘One thing I learned from my colleague is the way in which he coped with his predicament in prison. He often wondered particularly during the first few days after the verdict, whether he would have the courage to withstand what lay ahead. The days went by and he did not notice in himself any lessening of the will to live, but more and more frequently he caught himself thinking that he was fairly old and that death before his execution could not be far off. That thought brought him relief. He kept it to himself like some great secret…’

There was a sudden jerk as the brakes came on ahead at the train’s engine bogey. The man in the red blanket lurched forward slightly at the jerking motion. The distinctive clanging of metal accompanied his movement: Max noted again of a sudden. All the compartments slowed down immediately one behind the other and fell in line with a gentle forward motion. Surely, another stop, another station was approaching. Two of the other passengers in the cabin got up in a hurry, made sure that it was the right station, unruffled their wrinkled shirts. They then picked up their luggage and made their way into the corridor outside the entrance to the cabin.

‘You seem to know your friend’s experiences very well.’ Max told the man.

‘Yes. I can relate to him easily. Like I was saying, Max, I was his colleague. Until today, that is. But now they have separated us.’

A faint outline of a frown had crept up on Max’s face. ‘What? Where was he your colleague until today?’ He managed two questions.

‘At the Josephine school, Max. I was his co-prisoner. A prisoner of conscience, as they would say. For, I was no murderer, I had just spoken out for the Muslim community. I had said the right word at the wrong time, Max…’

The train had ground to a halt outside the station: full of life, of passengers waiting to get in, others trying to get out, the hawkers with their wares, children running around.

A world outside a world.

The man pulled aside the red woolen blanket and wiped his face almost indifferent to the gaping one belonging to the man sitting opposite to him. In the process, his blanket fell off his right hand and there it was again. The metallic clanging with its source now uncovered: Max stared in stunned silence at the metal hand cuffs that had locked his right hand to the lowest iron grill on the window all the while they had been talking.

The two policemen whom Max had noticed standing outside the cabin when he entered, now walked in. While one stood at the entrance, the other came over to the man and unlocked the metal cuff that had arrested his free movement. ‘Come, its time to go,’ the policeman almost whispered as he pulled up his prisoner.

The prisoner’s eyes were on Max’s.

‘They are transferring me to another prison. But we will see each other again, won’t we?’ he asked in a moment that prevailed before the policemen compelled him to move.

Max struggled to find his voice again. ‘But, but….how have you been sentenced..?’ He managed to ask, his eyes glazed for want of a blink of their lids.

‘Maybe a few months, maybe a few years, maybe for life even….who knows?’ The man smiled looking over his shoulder at Max as the policemen escorted him outside the cabin.

Max was standing up now, unable to fully comprehend what had unwound before his startled eyes.

His ears.

His soul.

‘We have to graduate, Max,’ the man’s voice echoed in his ears then as it would echo and re-echo over the many days that followed.

‘We have to move along to meet our moment of truth. We have to graduate from the Josephian school some day to know it all, Max.

‘To live each day as it comes.’

‘Day by day.’

The train pulled away from the station, having unloaded its burden while taking on yet another. It then gained momentum, and sped away into the fading night.