May 22, 2011

The Playground of the Prophets

And there was God in a furl of cloud and mist nodding his head at the tasks ahead when he saw Abraham in the distance trying to light a fire. He called Abraham over. Abraham came with his sweeping robes, the baby Ishmael in the crook of his arm. He greeted God by lowering his head and waited for God to speak first.
            “What are you doing, Abraham?”
            “Oh my Lord, I was trying to please you, but I can’t get the fire lit.”
God looked at him curiously. “The fire lit?”
“Remember, my Lord? You told me to-“
            “No, no, Abraham, you got it all wrong. It was nothing like that. You misunderstood. I was just testing you, to see if you would obey me. A God that loves his creation would not ask anyone, not even his enemy, to sacrifice his child. Do you know what people would say if you told them that a voice had told you to put your infant on a stake? They would laugh at you, and I would not like that to happen. You are Abraham, the Preacher, the first to believe in the One God. You chastised your own father for believing in the moon and the stars. You were the first to destroy the idols people believed in. You are Abraham the Idol Smasher.”
            “Thank you, Lord. I will be on my way.”
            “Just one moment, Abraham. I meant to ask you this question long ago. That whole thing with Hagar and the baby, looking for water in the desert. I never understood that; why she was there on her own.”
            Abraham blushed and lowered his head.
            “Was it Sara who made you do that?”
            Abraham stood silent.
            “Was she jealous and told you to leave your second wife?”
            “I fear that I might say the wrong thing, my Lord.”
            “You are not one for gossiping, Abraham. I will accept that you have learned a lesson from that. Every year three million people come to the holy house in Mecca to see this place where Hagar had wandered by herself looking for water for Ishmael, and to walk in her footsteps seven times between the two hills.”
            Abraham said nothing.
            “You are excused, Abraham.”
            Abraham greeted Him and turned to leave. Just then the mist cleared and God spotted Jesus with Mary Magdalene talking to people in the street. God watched for a minute. He had an immense love for this Messenger with the long hair. Jesus was the Quiet One, the Mystic. His disposition and good deeds said more about who he was than words could explain. When he saw God watching him, Jesus bowed his head in respect.
“What are you doing out at this hour, my beloved. It is the Sabbath.”
“Mary and I are trying to clean up the streets of Nazareth. But first we have somewhere to go.”
“The last time I saw you, you were heading for a field of shacks. Any luck with the people there?”
“Not much, my Lord. The people are angry. They want toilets they can sit on in privacy. And many people didn’t vote. They think I’m crazy to come and live in amongst them.”
“They have food to eat?”
“Oh yes. Your people manage, my Lord. By staff or by crook.”
Out of nowhere a man appeared and asked God permission to speak. God told him to go ahead.
“My Lord,” the man started, “did you know that the woman with Jesus is a prostitute?”
“Who are you?” God asked.
“I’m a born-again Christian. I was a scoundrel before, but I’ve been saved. I follow the true way.”
“The true way?” God asked. “Explain.”
“I believe in You as the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.”
“But isn’t that the rumor started in the year 325 when the Emperor Constantine came up with a new doctrine to appease the Romans, that God was three in one; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost?”
“I think it is, my Lord. He was under pressure, they say.”
“That is the problem with my flock. They don’t know who I am.”  
            “But Jesus is with a prostitute,” the man persisted. “Surely that is not allowed?”
            “How do you know she is a prostitute?” God asked. “Were you there?”
            The man lowered his eyes. “No, my Lord, but I have heard about her.”
            “Now listen to me, forget about that whole saying about people in glass houses throwing stones; it’s overdone. You are still a scoundrel, and not one of my followers. A follower doesn’t spend time in idle gossip. When you have four witnesses who actually witnessed the act, you can speak.”
            The man retreated in shame. There was a clip-clopping of hooves coming towards them. It was God’s last Messenger, Muhamad in white robes and a black cloak galloping up on his white horse Burak. Muhamad got off his horse and prostrated himself before God.
            “Peace and greetings, my Lord.”
            “Peace be upon you, Muhamad. It looks like you are on a mission.”
            “I’m looking for Moses, my Lord. We’re supposed to go to the oasis where a crowd of people are waiting to hear the answer as to how many times a day they should pray. Fifty times a day is too much, Moses says. He said I should ask Almighty God to reduce the number.”
            God listened. He had a special fondness for this last prophet who had been an orphan and now cared about orphans in the same way.
            “Perhaps you are right, Muhamad. The world is getting busier. People have many things to do. I will reduce the number to five.”
            Moses arrived with a stone tablet on which the Ten Commandments had been burnt in stone.
            “My Lord,” Moses said to God, “it is none of my business and not for me to say, but five times a day is still too much. I know the Arabs. They will not stick to the plan.”
            Hearing this, Muhamad blushed deeply. He loved Moses; he was a good leader, but sometimes Moses forgot that he was speaking to God.
“It is all right, Moses,” Muhamad said. “I will deliver the message to the Muslims. They will obey.”
“And the ones who don’t obey – what will you do?” Moses asked
“I will be with them until they see the value in prayer.”
            Jesus who had been silent during the whole discourse asked if he could be excused. He and Mary Magdalene had to visit the house of a blind man who had lost his wife, and wanted to see how he could help.
            “And you, Moses?” Muhamad asked. “Are you not coming with me?”
            Moses leaned on the staff that he had used to separate the Red Sea. “Something came up, not today, brother,” Moses said. “I have a line of people spanning the desert waiting for me to lead them out of Egypt. I just wanted to make sure you asked Almighty God about the prayers.”
            “What about the people waiting for us at the oasis? They are expecting you.”
            “You will handle it, Muhamad. You are the unlettered prophet. The words will come to you.” Moses turned slightly so God wouldn’t hear what he had to say. “Ask God one more time to reduce the number of prayers.”
            “I heard that Moses,” God said. “Have you forgotten that I see and hear everything?”
            “I have not forgotten anything, my Lord.”
            God smiled benevolently. “You see, Muhamad, this is my thinking on the matter of prayer. If a man or a woman takes a few minutes five times a day to reflect on his deeds and keep in contact with me, he is less likely to commit sin. A man who comes from the church or the mosque is not thinking of wrongdoing; he would not have gone otherwise. And the prayers are not for my benefit. I don’t need prayers. The prayers are for you, to keep me in mind. A man who knows the difference between right and wrong will know that temptation can lead you along the wrong path. Talking to me regularly every day keeps you safe.”
            “Does this apply to women too, my Lord,” Muhamad asked.
            “Prayer is incumbent upon everyone, but a woman need not pray when she has her monthly bleed, or has given birth. All of you are exempt from prayer if you are sick and unable to do it.”
            Adam came upon the scene, looking terribly guilty about something. “My Lord, a terrible thing has happened.”
Adam couldn’t look directly at God. “Eve ate a piece of the apple you asked us not to touch and she is terribly sick.”
            God nodded his head sadly. “I asked you one thing not to do, and you did it. I gave you everything, all that you desired. I told you the punishment for doing such a thing.”  
            Adam prostrated himself before God. “Forgive us, Lord.”
            “Us? You ate of the apple too?”
            Adam remained with his head on the ground.
            “You have disobeyed me, Adam. You and Eve will be banished to earth. You will spend your life there amongst the wicked, the greedy and the arrogant until you are ready to be brought back to me. Now get up. You are in the presence of Moses and Muhamad. They have been involved in spreading goodwill and helping the poor and the destitute while you have abused my generosity.”
            Just then a cold wind touched Adam’s cheek, and he shivered. There was a derisive laugh, loud and vainglorious. An angel with huge wings appeared.
            “Hah! I told you I would get you to eat the apple.”
            “I did not eat of the apple because of you, Satan.”
            “Oh yes, you did. I made Eve enchant you. I have won.”
            “Behave yourself, Iblis,” God roared. And bow before your prophet, Adam, and apologize.”
            “I will not,” Iblis said. “I refuse to lower my head to a man who was born after me.”
            Moses, the lawman, could not bear such disrespect and could not contain himself. “Prostrate yourself before your Lord.”
            “You do not have to defend me, Moses. I know Iblis. He is lonely and lost and a necessary evil to show up the weakness in man. Now again I tell you, Satan, acknowledge your prophet or I will destroy you. You are a fallen angel. You can be annihilated with a whisper of breath.”
            With that Satan spread out his wings with such force that Muhamad fell up against Moses who caught him in his arms. “I promise I will mislead man until the end of time,” and with that he was gone.
            For a moment no one spoke. God noticed the dust rise up in the distance. “Go now to your daily prayers. Then talk to the people about what I have told you. There’re a few hundred of them coming this way.”
            “They are anxious for your ruling, my Lord. Five times a day then is the absolute minimum?”
            “Five times, my beloved prophet. And you, Adam, go back to Eve and tell her the news. Take off that ridiculous leaf. Your time here is over. You will leave paradise.”
            Moses stepped forward. “Can I leave now, my Lord, before the people arrive?”
“Yes. And I hear Jonah is in the area. Don’t ask him to go with you to the Sea of Galilee. And don’t talk about it. He’s got water issues now.”
Moses stifled a laugh. “Thank you, my Lord. We’ll be on our way.”
“Go then. Hurry and perform your ablutions. I need a few quiet moments to gather myself. In one part of the world there are people starving due to man’s selfishness, and in another part of the world there are nations rising up against each other. Just in the past few days I have had to deal with a mountainous water attack that wiped out part of the land. Still, people do not heed the signs. They see only with their eyes.”
            Later that evening, after prayers, the lanterns were lit and the camels were resting beside their masters who waited anxiously for the prophet Muhamad to deliver the news. But before the prophet could utter a word a woman, chased by a man, ran up to the prophet and kneeled before him, crying, clutching her infant to her chest. The prophet enquired what was wrong. Before she could lift herself up and speak, she was interrupted.
            “My sister is evil! Her husband has died in the Battle of Uhud and I found her with a man in the house!’ He was so livid his face was red and the spit flew from his mouth.
            “What was the man doing in the house? Perhaps he was an uncle.”
            “He was there to perform zinnah. I arrived at the house in time.” He went on and on. The prophet listened, waiting for him to run out of steam. He turned to the woman almost clutching at his feet.
            “What is your side of the story?”
            The woman looked up at him with tears in her eyes. “Rasululah, my brother is speaking the truth. There was a man in the house. He was waiting for my brother to come home. I lost my husband six months ago. The man offered me a home and offered to be the father of my child. We were waiting for my brother to discuss the marriage with him.”
            The prophet turned to the brother who looked back at him in astonishment.
            “Where is this man?” the prophet asked.
            “He is in the crowd, afraid of my brother.”
            “No one will touch him. Bring him here.”
            The man stepped forward from the crowd and addressed the prophet with the utmost respect. He waited for the prophet to speak.
            “It is true you want to marry this woman?”
            “Yes, Rasululah. I have a child also who needs a mother. And we are both poor. We can struggle together.”
            “Yes. That will keep you busy for a good many years. You know how to treat a woman?”
            “I do not know very much. My wife died when she gave birth.”
            “You cannot hit a woman, no matter how angry you are. And a woman can make you angry. You cannot force yourself on her when she is bleeding or has just given birth. A woman is not a possession. She is entitled to keep her name and keep her own property.” The prophet looked at the brother. “Speak to your sister and give her your blessing. He is a good man.”
            The onlookers watched in astonishment. They had never witnessed such kindness to a woman. One of the men in the crowd asked if this was by the Will of the Prophet.
            “It is by the Will of God. I am but God’s Messenger.”
            The prophet blessed the couple and performed the nikkah. The man took the baby from her and walked up to his sister who was also holding a baby, and carried both infants in his arms.
            The women in the crowd clapped. The prophet looked at them kindly. “Kindness does not need applause. Be kind to all, but be especially kind to those you don’t know.”
            Suddenly there was a sound in the distance such as they had never heard before. It was an animal sound, a roar. There were no wild animals in the Arabian steppes, and as they strained their ears to determine the sounds more accurately, a lion came charging towards them. An old bearded man with robes and a long line of animals behind him, waved his staff and the lion stopped. The procession came closer.
            Muhamad recognized the man with the staff. “It is Noah,” he said to the people. “He has a message from God.”
            “There is another message from God?” someone asked.
            “There are messages all day long,” Noah said, “I am here to warn the people of impending danger if they care to listen. You have ignored the word of God and worshipped false idols. You have ignored the messages and warnings of past prophets. There will be forty days of rain and darkness; the waters will rise to the highest of mountains. Life on earth will be destroyed. Those of you who want to put evil behind you and are interested in salvation can decide now if you want to live with the light of the Lord, or drown with the disbelievers.”
            There was grumbling in the crowd. Muhamad watched sadly as no one came forward to join the long line. He noticed as well the behavior of the animals; two of each, a male and a female, quiet and docile, from a pair of pigeons to grizzly bears.
            Noah picked up his staff. He was familiar with the nature of people. That they were even gathered at the oasis to listen to the injunction on the matter of prayer was a mystery to him.
            “My animals need water, Muhamad. Is it all right for them to drink of what you have here?”
            “My brother, the water is here for anyone who is thirsty. It is the bounty of God.”
            God, who could choose to be visible or invisible, marveled at the good behavior of his prophets. Behind some of the scraggly palm trees God spied Iblis watching the goings on. Iblis was a troublemaker and a misleader. God could see some of the people hesitate, not knowing which way to go, and smiled.  
            God left Iblis to his vices and decided to see which way the wind would blow. Iblis appeared suddenly in the midst of the crowd with a rumbling of wings. The people jumped back in fright. Ibllis told them not to listen to the words of two old men, that he was much more powerful, and showed them the length and breadth of his wings. The people screamed. Some threw themselves down in fear, ready to follow Iblis.
            Against the prayers and invocations of Noah, Iblis continued to guffaw and brag. From nowhere, a swirling wind landed suddenly upon them and snatched Iblis up and threw him to the end of the earth.
            “Who’s your God now?” God asked.
            Noah shook his head at the ambivalence of the people; he was ready to go. The animals rested, having drunk their fill were also anxious to get to the ark before the rains came. The birds were particularly restless as they smelled the rains coming and twittered back and forth.
            “Salaam, Muhamad. I have to go now. Take your leave from here and take cover.”
            “I have to stay with the people, Noah.”
            When Noah was gone, women, men and children crowded around the prophet for the truth. 
            “The truth is that God is angry with all of you. Will you not then listen to the warnings of God? I am but a deliverer. You want the truth and then you discard it. You will listen to the voice of Satan rather than take the guidance of God. Are you even interested in what God has to say about prayer?”
            The voices were weak and unconvincing. “We are, Rasululah.”
            The prophet was about to deliver the injunction on prayer when a young girl and several women came chasing down the hill. The young girl was the prettiest of all of them and easily outran the others.
            “Raslulah!” the young girl shouted above the shouts of the others, “help me!” The prophet turned red. His wives were a lively lot and did not always choose the right time for their squabbles.
            “What is it, Ayesha?” he asked lovingly, aware of the people looking on.
            “She is lazy to help with the mending of your clothes, Rasululah,” one of the wives said. “She wants to play all day.”
            The prophet smiled at the wife who had spoken. “All right, you were young too once. I will speak to her.” He turned to Ayesha and said something only she could hear. Ayesha pouted, but followed the women back to the house.   
Finally there was silence and the prophet delivered the news on the matter of prayers having to be performed five times a day. There were those who received the news joyfully, and promised to abide by God’s wishes, and those who said there was not enough time in the day to do so many prayers. The prophet tried to appease his followers by joining them and leading the prayers. They watched his ablutions, washing the hands and feet three times, and rinsing the mouth and washing the face.
            There was a break in the meeting after prayers, and a man came forward, lurching on his feet. The prophet asked him if he was drunk. The man wanted to say no, but his behavior showed otherwise. He was standing in line at the water hole waiting his turn to perform ablution. Others asked if the man was allowed to come into the mosque in such a condition. The prophet said no, but the man was in line to perform his ablutions and to perform his prayers; perhaps God would listen and grant the man freedom from his disease. No one should stop such a thing.
            A little boy, prompted by his mother ran up and touched the prophet on the hand. The prophet smiled at him and picked him up. The prophet had children, but only daughters. He had lost his only son. It was believed by some that it was the Will of God that the last prophet could not leave behind a male heir. Prophets are chosen for the pureness of spirit, and only by God.
            The little boy put his finger on the prophet’s hand in an effort to remind him that he was still there and wanted to ask him something. The prophet allowed himself to be interrupted. The boy said that his father wanted to ask the prophet a question, but was too shy to ask.
            The prophet hailed to the man in the crowd to come forward. “What is it, my brother?”
            “I have heard, Rasululah, that King Solomon has had many wives. Is it allowed for a man to have more than one?”
            The prophet Muhamad stood silent for a moment, contemplating the man. “How many camels do you have?”
            “I have no camels, Rasululah.”
            “How many goats?”
            “I don’t have goats.”
            “How many sheep?”
            “Nothing, my prophet; not even one.”
            The prophet looked at him, contemplating his answer. “How do you propose to feed your family?”
            “God will provide,” the man said.
            There was a rumble over their heads. Muhamad trembled. He was easily disturbed and tuned in to atmospheric divination. “Do you think it is easy to have more than one woman in the house? It is hard enough with just one, even for a prophet. Every so often I myself have to run away from my wives and do my contemplations in a cave. How will you manage?”
            The man continued. “My wife’s sister lost her husband in the Battle of Uhud, Rasululah. I fear that she may do the wrong thing to feed her family. My wife has agreed to share me if God agrees.”
            The prophet nodded his head. “If your wife agrees, and you are able to feed both women and children, and not favor one wife over the other, it is allowed by God’s grace. But be warned. It is hard for a man to be fair. It is permitted by God, but not recommended. Don’t cross the line.”
            The man bowed before the prophet in thankfulness. “And more than two wives, Rasululah?”
            “You don’t have sandals on your feet, stranger, don’t take on more than you can handle. This is not an idle revelation. No more than four wives in total. And there has to be agreement in the house.”
            “But, Rasululah…with the highest respect, you have more than four wives.”
            “You are not a prophet. Do as I recommend, not as I do. Trust me, you don’t want this job.”
The prophet finally got down to delivering God’s verdict on the number of prayers to be performed. There was grumbling and jubilation in equal measure amongst the crowd. Mustafa, the holy prophet’s favorite companion, came walking up. “There is a man waiting in your house, Rasululah. Ayesha asked me to come and get you. You look tired. You should have a rest.”
“How can I rest, Mustafa? Do you know what the man wants?”
“He is not making much sense. From what I can gather, he has traveled for days without water and food. He is looking for someone.”
Muhamad arrived at his house. He found his wives in the kitchen with the strange man sitting in front of the hearth. A single plate with five dates stood on the table. Muhamad picked up the plate and offered the dates to the man. The wives looked at one another. It was obvious from the sparseness of the kitchen that there was no food in the house.
“You have come to see me about something?” Muhamad asked.
“I am looking for someone. People say that his house is next to the mosque, and this is the only house next to a mosque I could find. This man I am told is strange in that he disappears for days or weeks at a time and comes back with messages from God.”
“I am that man,” Muhamad said, wondering at the trembling of the man’s hands. “Why are you looking for me?”
“You are that man?” the man asked in wonder, blinking his eyes several times.
“I am that man. How can I help you, my friend?”
 The man didn’t know how to start. His robe was without dust despite his travels, but he was incoherent and nervous. “I have a message for you,” the man started. “But I am not able to describe the sender.”
“What do you mean?”
“He had wings.”
“Wings? Have you come to this house in a drunken state?”
“No, no, please believe that I am telling the truth. He was tall, frightening, and whichever way I turned to escape him, he was in front of me. When he stretched, his wings reached to the sky. He could speak in several languages and changed his voice all the time. He said I must find you and tell you that all your good work is for nothing. He has power over the people. You will not succeed. When the mountains crumble and the sea washes over the earth he will believe it then, but that that day will never arrive. He said you must give this message to God. I blinked my eyes, and he was gone.”
Muhamad closed his eyes and sat for a long time in silence. “You have met Iblis. You must not be afraid. To avoid Satan, you must do as I say. Five times a day you must call on God – when the sun rises, when the sun is overhead in the middle of the sky, when the sun throws long shadows in the afternoon, when the sun sets, and finally, when it is completely dark. This is the only way. Satan’s wings will be clipped. He will not seek to be in your presence. Prayer is your lifeline – your conduit to God. Tell everyone you meet what I’ve told you, and add that they should pass this message on to everyone they know.”

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