Talking Death (and Life) With a Sheikh

In her new book, If the Oceans Were Ink, Carla Power describes a year spent discussing the Quran with a sheikh. Here they talk about damnation and salvation.

Amit Dave/Reuters

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.

If nothing is certain, I asked, then “how can you prove that God actually exists?”

“You can’t, not one hundred percent, offer a proof of God,” said Akram. “Just as you can’t offer one hundred percent proof that He doesn’t exist.”

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For Akram, the signs were all there. That we were here talking about it at all was proof. So were sunsets and skin cells, gnats and Niagara Falls. “Allah has created enough signs for all the arguments,” he said. Believers are meant to be readers of these signs: the Angel Gabriel’s first word to Muhammad had been “Read.”

“If Allah had wanted to make all people Muslim, he could have,” explained the Sheikh. “But instead, he sent guidance. He wants people to think.”

“I do think,” I began. “But it seems to me that believing still requires a leap.”

“You know, in the English language, when people say they ‘believe,’ it means ‘I doubt.’ Like if I ask you if you’re coming to see me, and you say, ‘Oh, I believe so,’ it means you are doubtful. But belief in Islam is not like that. Belief in Islam means that you are certain it must be true.”

“Exactly. A leap.”

Less a leap, more a dawning sense of certainty, said the Sheikh. “Coming to belief is a bit like understanding a mother’s love,” he said. “It grows. She is kind to you, so you believe five percent. Then as you grow, she keeps on showing her love. Feeding you, teaching you, and so on. So it grows to ten percent, and the more you notice, the more you believe.”

“Well, have you ever had any doubts?” I asked again.

“I don’t remember ever having any doubts. I really have no doubt that the world is created by God. In fact, it’s not a matter of proof. It’s just that people don’t want to see.”

Two teenage girls clattered into the restaurant. In the distance, the sound of an ambulance. A motorcycle tore down the road. The Sheikh’s focus didn’t falter.

“I’ll give you an example. Everyone knows that death is coming. So why don’t people mention it? All you have to do is think! It’s certain. But people don’t. Because if people think, they can’t enjoy life. If I am told by a doctor that after ten days I am going to die, do you think I have time to go to the party and enjoy the roses?”

“Well, lots of people think that the certainty of death is precisely the reason to smell the roses,” I said.

But the carpe diem attitude denies reality, said the Sheikh. “In this society, old people, sick people, they’ve all been put aside. People only see young faces, shining faces. Look at how they portray the movie stars. They don’t advertise what happens to that person after their twenties! You only see them when they’re young.”

Western culture doesn’t give life’s full arc its due, he argued: “Everybody says, ‘If you want to understand something properly, look at all the different aspects of it, put them together, and then you can understand.’ In the West, people only know one part of life.”

“Which is?”

“You see youth shining, but you never include death. Okay, so maybe not everyone will believe in the Day Hereafter, but at least death should be mentioned properly! It should be seen by the people: people should know what death means! Old age, sickness—these should be part of society! People who are poor, they should be part of society!”

I nodded. “It’s a relief when a culture can admit to death.”

I told him how, when my father died, I had gone to Pakistan for a few months. Officially, the trip was meant to get me started as a journalist, but really I went to grieve. I chose Pakistan because I’d wanted to mourn in a part of the world where my family had once been happy, but I also wanted to be where death was viewed as part of life, not as a fluke or a failure of medical science.

Many people mourn every day in America, but it is often a lonely place to do so. There’s a heavy pressure to heal, to get back in shape to pursue happiness. Death is forced underground, or into encounter sessions with grief counselors or priests. Death felt too irrevocable, too unfixable, for the land of the people who tend to look on the bright side, home of the self-helped and self-made.

In Pakistan, death was allowed out of the closet. Because I was looking for it, I found it everywhere. In grisly newspaper headlines about tribal wars and honor killings. At the cocktail party, where a socialite told me how her fiancé had gone out for cigarettes and never returned, killed in a car crash. At the Lahore Museum, in a statue of Buddha, rendered so skinny that the stone carver had seemed to place the bones outside the flesh. At night, I found myself telling a casual dinner companion about my father’s death—and even as I did so, I knew that such talk from a near-stranger was as irrelevant, intimate, and unappetizing as finding a hair in your soup. Yet my date was polite, dipped his bread into yogurt, nodded, chewed, swallowed: “Ah, yes. My own father was killed in a tribal war when I was six. Luckily, my uncle raised me.” And then he craned his neck to find the waiter, as though being an orphan was as minor an inconvenience as a dish without salt.

When I pressed the Sheikh about whether he’d hoped I would convert over the course of our lessons, his answer, as ever, came back to death. I was free to make up my own mind, he said, but he wanted to tell me of what lay ahead. “When I stand on the Day of Judgment, and I am asked whether I warned the people about the Fires of Hell, I want to be able to say that I had. Those who are my friends, like you, I should certainly try to save them.” After all, would I not do the same for him? “If there was something in this country that would put me in prison, or cause me pain, wouldn’t you warn me?”

Excerpted from If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Koran by Carla Power. Copyright © 2015 by Henry Holt and Company. Reprinted by permission.

Carla Power writes for Time and her writing has also appeared in Newsweek, Vogue, Glamour, The New York Times Magazine, and Foreign Policy. Her work has won her an Overseas Press Club award and a Women in Media award.