A preview of Osman Haneef’s debut novel, Blasphemy – The Trial of Danesh Masih, where a Christian boy in Pakistan is accused of blasphemy―a crime punishable by death. (Published by Readomania, April 2020)
‘So, why is Islam the best religion?’ Sir Amjad, the substitute teacher, asked. The seven- and eight-year olds relaxed. They knew the answer because Mrs. Bukhari had taught them the answer. Mureed, a young boy who was keen to impress, raised his hand and was promptly called on.
Mureed stood up and gave the rote-learned answer that had been drilled into each of them. ‘It is because the Prophet was illiterate and uneducated yet the recitations of the Koran are more poetic and more beautiful than even Shakespeare! How could the Prophet, an uneducated man, come up with such beautiful poetry all by himself?’ the eight-year-old asked, clenching his sweaty palms. Once Mureed had finished his explanation, Sir Amjad, with a calm unchanging expression, motioned for the boy to sit down.
‘Now, how can we claim that the only ones who can recite beautiful poetry are educated people? Do we really think a formal education is a necessary prerequisite for writing breath-taking verse? There have been countless “uneducated” poets and philosophers throughout history. But let us assume, for a moment, that one does have to be trained in poetry to write the kind of lyricism found in the Koran. Muhammad had access to the best training in the region―he was raised in a tribe known for its great sense of oratory and rhetoric. So, you see, the argument falls apart on many levels. Is that the only reason we have for believing Islam is the one true religion?’ he asked the students.
The students responded with silent surprise. Some of them thought that perhaps this was a test. Sir Amjad was just checking to see if they remembered the other reasons Mrs. Bukhari taught them. Another student, this time a girl, raised her hand.
‘It’s because if you look at other religions like Hinduism that believe in more than one god, they are unrealistic. I mean how would they all get along? The god of rain would want it to rain but the Sun god would want it to be bright and sunny. What if Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma disagreed about something―how would the world ever work out?’ she added with an accent that betrayed her early schooling in England. He motioned for the girl to sit down. Indeed, this had been amongst the most convincing arguments that Mrs. Bukhari had presented.
‘Well, first, just because there is more than one God, it doesn’t mean that they can’t get along. Second, what about other monotheistic religions? What about other religions that have only one god like Judaism?’ The room was silent. Fear crept into it. Up until now the children had felt secure. They lived. They died. If they were good, they went to heaven, and if they were evil, they went to hell. They all believed they were good. They all believed they were going to heaven. But what was this teacher saying?
‘Anyone has anything else to say?’ The kids looked anxiously around the room. Looking everywhere but towards the front. They were frightened that they might make eye contact and Sir Amjad would call on them to answer when they had none prepared. Sir Amjad smiled. He had become accustomed to the silence. Most students rarely experienced this in Pakistan, where customs and religion were not questioned. These were the children of the elite―answers were given to them. They were not expected to produce them on their own. However, in the corner of the room, a young boy raised his hand, slowly but deliberately.
‘Yes, Mr.?’ Amjad said, uncertain as to the boy’s name.
‘Sikander Ghaznavi, sir,’ the boy said. Sir Amjad motioned to the boy to carry on. ‘Is it because he was honest?’ Sikander asked, hesitantly.
‘Who was honest, boy?’ the teacher asked, intrigued by this unusual development.
‘The Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu walayhi wa-sallam. He was known as being honest before he had the revelation. He had a reputation for being honest long before it. It has been documented. And err…as far as we know, he didn’t have any serious mental health problems—so because he was honest and sane, we believe in his revelation,’ Sikander said, his eyes locked with Amjad’s.
‘Very good,’ Amjad said. The boy sat back down and lowered his gaze to the desk. ‘The only basis for our entire religion is that one man was known as being truthful before the revelation. That is our faith. We take one man at his word.’ Amjad looked over at Sikander, the boy’s gaze was still fixed on his desk.
Sikander awoke from his dream to find bright green eyes staring directly at him. He jumped up in bed, startled, and found a young boy, rake thin, with a light brown complexion, squatting on a chair. The boy’s green shalwar kameez appeared clean but dull, as if it had been washed too many times to retain its original colour. He must have been eleven or twelve years old.
‘What? Who are you?’ Sikander asked in Urdu.
‘I’m Danesh—Mena’s brother, Sikander sahib,’ the boy replied in Urdu. ‘I’m here to wake you up.’
‘Then why didn’t you wake me up? You were just staring at me!’
‘You were going to wake up eventually anyway,’ Danesh said with a cheeky grin. Sikander quickly scanned his bedside table to check for his wallet. Where had he left it?
‘I didn’t take your wallet, Sikander sahib. It’s on the floor next to your bedside table,’ Danesh said.
At first, Sikander thought he might have mentioned the wallet but he realised that he hadn’t. He leaned over the side of his bed and saw the fallen wallet. ‘I hope you didn’t take anything,’ Sikander said, realising that even if the boy had, Sikander had no idea how much money he had brought along. ‘I swear on my life, I did not steal anything,’ Danesh said and pinched his neck.
‘Well, thank you for waking me up. Now, please leave…’ ‘I’m sorry for bothering you, Sikander sahib. I’m just very excited to finally meet you. You’re here earlier than I expected.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Sikander asked. ‘You’re going to save my life,’ Danesh said. ‘What?’
‘I dreamt it,’ Danesh said, his earnest green eyes looked directly at Sikander.
‘You dreamt I was going to save your life?’ Sikander asked.
‘Yes,’ Danesh said. ‘In my dream, I’m drowning in a dark pool and then you pull me out.’
‘Look, maybe I can save us some trouble and simply advise you against going for any midnight swims.’
‘It doesn’t have to be a pool of water. . . It could be. . . um. . .’ Danesh struggled to find the word. ‘. . .a sign. . . It could be another problem that just shows up in my dream. That’s what Pir Piya says.’
The excerpt has been published from Blasphemy by Osman Haneef with the permission of Readomania.