It was time for Asr, the afternoon prayer. Through the windows of the mosque, daylight flowed in waves of golden brightness into the hall where everyone sat waiting. They weren’t sitting outside; last night’s rain had splattered its sodden memories all across the courtyard. The carpeted floor shone in scattered spots, highlighted by sunlight streaming through the rafters. Shakeel Hussain walked in; the door creaked and closed behind him. His face glistened with the water from the ablution, droplets still clinging on. People stopped to look at the stranger’s unfamiliar face; Retired Brigadier Yasir Zaidee amongst those who turned their heads to take a look at the newcomer.

Shakeel Hussain had just moved to the neighborhood, and the Brigadier’s eyes lit up when he saw him enter the mosque, and dreams of the whole neighborhood praying five times a day in congregation reignited as another one of them entered the mosque reaffirming their faith. Here was yet another practicing Muslim, who walked in for prayer. Zaidee combed his fingers through his white beard as Shakeel Hussain placed himself in a secluded spot that shone in the sun and sat there quietly waiting for the Imam to begin the proceedings.

Everyone stood up behind the Imam, and formed two lateral rows. Shakeel Hussain stood in the second row, between a man with a mustache on the right and a short bald man on the left. Allah-hoo-Akbar said the Imam, and as everyone tied their hands in a bow around their waist after raising them up to their ears, just like all Sunni Muslims, Shakeel Hussain brought his hands straight down, besides his thighs. The man with the mustache spotted Shakeel Hussain’s straight arms through the corner of his left eye, and stared at them through that corner until everyone bowed down in lead of the Imam. The jamaat then went into the two prostrations marking the end of one of the four rakaats.

Asr was a short prayer, only four repetitions of the process. Short and sweet, that is why it was Shakeel Hussain’s favorite time of prayer. The four times they did stand up, the eyes above the mustache stayed fixated on Shakeel’s straight arms, instead of focusing on the ground where he was supposed to prostrate in front of God.

While everyone walked, homeward bound after the prayer, in the pleasant smell of the rain which the breeze carried, a group of them stayed back outside the mosque and the congregation soon began buzzing like a beehive. At the center, the man with the mustache pranced around, gesturing wildly, regaling the remaining congregation with the tale of the man who kept his arms straight. Amidst the buzzing, questions kept tumbling forward: ‘straight as an arrow you say?’; ‘is he a Shia?’; ‘what’s a Shia doing in a Sunni mosque…?’ ‘…even his Shalwar wasn’t rolled up to the proper length above his ankles.’

The buzzing continued with no end in sight and the Asr melted into Maghrib as the evening began to settle in. When Shakeel Hussain walked back with others who were returning to pray, the beehive collectively scorned him with their silent stares hoping he would notice.

After the three obligatory repetitions of the Maghrib prayer, the members of the beehive along with Brigadier Zaidee decided to forgo their optional prayers to watch Shakeel Hussain pray. They sat in a corner of the courtyard and scrutinized his every move; whispers of criticism passing rampant while the light evening breeze blew through the courtyard of the mosque. Shakeel Hussain finished his prayers, got up and left; they still sat there passing snide comments which threatened to turn into intricate conspiracies.

The moon, a slit in the evening sky that grew darker with every moment of the fleeting dusk; it was the first of the lunar month. Shakeel Hussain walked briskly towards his home at the other side of the block.

It had been a day or two since that incident, and the neighborhood was smitten with gossip about the new “Shia man” who lived at the other side of the block. All the inhabitants, from the quarters for officers’ servants, to the generals’ colony residents and their richer civilian neighbours who had built big houses on the prime locations knew about Shakeel Hussain’s scandalous open armed prayers.

The servants talked to their owners about him, ‘Baji have you heard about the new man at the other side of the block?’ The neighbors kept a suspicious eye on him, parents didn’t let their children play outside his house, ‘Beta make sure you don’t go cycling in front of the Shia man’s house.’. No one knew a thing about him, other than the presumption that he was Shia and that he prayed at the mosque with his arms open. This slight altercation, this insignificant little gesture was far removed from what they considered normal and earned him a label worse than an infidel.

The sun was about to rise, and the sky was getting bluer in anticipation. Men in jogging outfits, some officers who had woken up before duty and some others made their way to the mosque for Fajr, the dawn prayer. They were sitting there, waiting for the prayer to begin when Shakeel Hussain walked in. They all looked at him, then at each other and then at Brig. Zaidee who gave a slight nod. The Imam called the prayer and they all stood up, they were enough to form only one row, and Shakeel Hussain stood somewhere in the middle. The Imam lifted his arms to his ears, and everyone watched as Shakeel Hussain did the same and went into prayer, as he brought them straight down besides his thighs like he’d always done. They then took one synchronized step forward, and made a new row in the area they had deliberately left behind the imam, leaving Shakeel Hussain to pray by himself in the back. He finished his prayer and quietly left, walking briskly again towards home, leaving them behind to silently congratulate one another, beaming in his wake as the sun began to rise behind them.   That evening, when Shakeel Hussain had just finished his prayers, a boy came up beside him and whispered, ‘the Imam wants to see you.’ Shakeel Hussain got up and walked into the hall. The Imam sat with his back towards the intricately carved window shutter that illuminated him in an otherwise dark room. Shakeel Hussain closed the door behind him expecting the Imam to turn around but he spoke, with his back facing him, ‘why are you doing this to yourself?’ The Imam turned and opened his eyes, mechanically rotating the tasbih with his thumb.

‘I do a lot to myself, what is it that you’re referring to Imam sahib?’, replied Shakeel Husain. ‘All this, coming to a Sunni mosque when you are a Shia. People here don’t appreciate it you know, there is an Imambara a mile and a half from here, maybe you should go there…’ ‘I am not a Shia.’Then why is it that you pray with your arms open, like the Shia do?’ ‘I am a Muslim, and I shall pray however I wish; I don’t need to belong to a school of practice or any order to be a Muslim. And I don’t pray for anyone’s appreciation except God’s and I don’t see why I should go anywhere else to pray if this place was built for those who wish to worship God.’ ‘But the people who pray here follow certain rules for prayer, and they would like it, if you want to pray with them that is, that you follow these rules too.’ ‘Why should I? For rules? How meaningless are rules, when the intention of pleasing God is the highest virtue? And if you are stopping me from praying here because I don’t base my prayer upon the same strictures as you, then may you be answerable to God Himself. For no one else has the right to pass judgment other than Him.’

The Imam was speechless for a moment fumbling with syllabic formations. ‘Do as you wish then. But forget not that you were warned,’ and with that turned his back towards him.

It was Friday. It was time for Jumma, the Friday congregational prayers. The whole neighborhood comes to the mosque for the Friday prayers, there were cars parked everywhere and the mosque was overflowing with all the excess people who make it a point to pray at least once a week as a special favour to the divine.

The brigadier dreamed of the mosque being that lively five times a day, every day of the week. The Imam gave his sermon, during which he talked about everything from politics to the latest music and films, and a little bit of what his view of religion was. Then the prayer began, and as soon as the four prostrations were over, the majority of the people flowed back out of the two doors of the mosque through which they had entered. A few stayed back for the optional and recommended prayers, Shakeel Hussain being one of them.

He took a little longer than the rest of them, when he got up he was in a heady little daze, he slowly walked towards the exit. When he got there, he found that his shoes weren’t where he left them, they weren’t misplaced, they were gone. He turned around and the mosque was deserted, without a soul in sight. He took a step out into the shade of the mosque’s outer wall and peered down the road that led to his home. Everything gleamed under the heavy and overpowering mid-day sun. Shakeel Hussain looked up at the sky and took God’s name before stepping out into the heat. His feet were softened from the ablution and cooled from sitting on the chilled marble floor of the mosque. He placed one bare foot followed by the other, slowly upon the burning almost molten asphalt of the road. The road ahead glistened in front of him like an endless desert; like a battlefield gleaming, with martyrdom written all over it in bright swirls of leafy lettering, and Shakeel Hussain walked over it, slowly but steadily, taking every step patiently as if treading upon the supreme veridiction of burning coal.

From a distance, through an archway window in an air-conditioned room on the second floor of the mosque, Retired Brigadier Yasir Zeidee watched Shakeel Hussain slowly soldiering on. The Brigadier’s fingers repeatedly combing the white of his beard. He then looked at a pair of slippers lying innocently in the corner and smiled to himself.

…It was somewhere in Karbala, underneath a desert sun that beat down upon the burning battlefield where that sacred event was taking place. Where the beloved of the Prophet, his grandson Hussain, rode a white horse against the clanging swords and raining arrows that threatened to wipe out a legacy. Amongst wounds of the arrows that had pierced through him, and drops of blood that had fallen on the baked sand of the desert, echoed voices could be heard in the distance urging, ‘Hurry up and finish the job, it’s almost time for prayer…’

The sky was punctuated with the moon, the moon of the tenth. A motorcycle rattled through the neighborhood, through the night tearing apart the silence. Two men rode on it:

‘Do we really have to go through with this?’ said the rider turning around to look at the scarf laden face of the passenger clinging to him. ‘It’s the Brigadier Saab’s orders bhaai, how dare he show his disgusting face at the mosque for Isha prayers when the message was so clear to him at Jumma.’ replied the facescarf to the rider.

The motorcycle made a screeching right turn and then rattled away through the back road of the neighborhood; and then a machine-gun flashed and clamored, and then some more and then stopped as the motorcycle rattled away into ensuing silence, leaving the neighborhood sound asleep.

In the morning, Shakeel Hussain stepped outside to get the paper, and he saw holes peering at him though his gate. He walked up to them to have a closer look, he looked at them, a trail of small holes ripped through his gate, and through his home; holes through which the outside stared into it.

He slowly caressed his hand over the torn fabric of the gate, and looked at the direction in which they were pointing, he was looking at holes of the same size in the wall of his house with cracks leading out of them. He gazed up at the sky, his hand still caressing the holes and gave a slight smile, before he took the paper and walked back indoors.

Asif Akhtar is interested in critical social discourse as well as the expressive facets of reactive art and is one of the schizophrenic narrators of a graphic novel. He blogs at http://e-scape-artist.blogspot.com/, can be found on Facebook and tweets at http://twitter.com/e_scape_artist. Akhtar is currently writing from New York City where he studies politics at the New School for Social Research.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily represent the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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