Talking death (and life) with a sheikh

Carla Power writes: During my year studying the Quran with Sheikh Akram Nadwi, an Islamic scholar born in India and based in Oxford, England, our conversations ranged from Jesus to jihad, from sex to the fires of hell. Trying to map where my secular feminist worldview met his conservative Islamic one, and where our two worldviews diverged, we found death both divided and united us. When my father passed away in Mexico, the sheikh comforted me by reciting a poem by a famous Pakistani poet about losing a parent. And when my mother and his died within days of one another — mine in St. Louis, his in rural Uttar Pradesh — we grieved together, too, finding common ground in Jewish and Muslim traditions.

But his view of death and mine also divided us. The Sheikh’s fear and awe of God meant he kept the specter of death close, the way other men carry their keys. No matter how much he respected me, he was certain of one thing: if I didn’t accept Muhammad as a prophet, I would face the fires of hell. As a Muslim, he saw this as certain. As my friend, he hoped I would come to Islam, and step back from the threat of hell-fire.

The tea arrived, and prayer time was in an hour, so I decided to seize the moment. “Sheikh, so what do you think is going to happen to me? Do you think I can be a good person but still not submit? Am I still going to hell?”

Never had a fire-and-brimstone message been delivered more gently.

“The thing basically is,” the Sheikh said evenly, “in the way of the Quran, people have no salvation until they believe there is no one to worship except Allah. If people are good without that, there could be some reward for them in this world, but it’s not real salvation.”

His kindness prevented him from saying “you,” or from mentioning the manacles and flames. He smiled and observed that it was difficult to accept when one has been on the wrong path. “The problem actually is, Carla, we don’t want it, but it’s always better for people to correct themselves before it is too late. Even people who correct themselves one hour before death, it’s fine.” He continued, “Belief in God — every good starts from that. Then after that, people can get better and better. The basic level is to believe properly.”

We sat for a second in silence.

“And you’ve never had any doubts?” I ventured.

“Sometimes, I really feel very frightened.” The Sheikh hesitated. “For myself. There is no guarantee that you will die a believer. It could be that someone who thinks they are a believer is actually an unbeliever. Everything depends on God. Nothing is certain.”

This uncertainty, not of God but of himself, felt reassuringly familiar. Secularists often assume that the faithful have the comfort of certainty. But the Sheikh’s humility wouldn’t allow him to trust in his own piety. Every time he prays, he adds a prayer asking God, once again, to let him die a believer. [Continue reading…]

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