The Greater Jihad
Copyright © 2017, Emily W
There had been fighting near the bridge as her convoy had passed through. It had been a trap set by the militants. There was shooting and explosions and her vehicle had taken a hit. Her fellow soldiers had poured out of the vehicle for cover. More shooting. Another explosion. More shooting. And…
How much time had passed? Nicole opened her eyes and got up. There was no explosions, no shooting. Was it over? She looked around. Her surrounds were completely unfamiliar. Where was the bridge? The buildings? There were not even any people, either friend or foe. Alertness turned into wariness. What had happened? Had she been captured? Nicole looked down at her weapon placed next to her. She still wore her body armor, all her equipment seemed to be on her. If she had been captured all of these would have been taken from her. She picked up her gun and examined her surroundings.
Immediately around her were palm trees. Palm trees and bushes and plants and flowers. It was green, it was lush, it was beautiful in its own way. Beyond her immediate surroundings there was only desert. Sandy, unending desert. No mountains, no hills. The only feature were the rolling dunes. In a way they looked like the waves of the ocean. The small oasis she was in was like an island in a sea of sand.
There was more than just vegetation in the oasis. Nearby was a well. She approached it. It was very simple, made out of rough cut stones with a bucket attached to a rope sitting on top. Nicole glanced down it and saw water that reflected her image perfectly. A little further ahead there was more. There were a couple of very simple structures. A couple of simple shacks made out of stone with roofs made of dried reeds. There was also a slightly larger building made of the same material. Nicole approached them cautiously, her weapon raised.
She opened the door to one of the shacks. Inside was a crude bed carved of wood with simple cloth blankets on top. A simple chair, table and a couple of shelves with various items were all there was to this simple single room. She checked the other shack which was much the same except there were two beds. Then she checked the larger building. It also consisted of a single room. A very simple green carpet covered the floor. A small rack with a couple of pairs of shoes stood right at the entrance along with a basin of water. Inside were two people. One was a man who was on his knees, his head downcast. The other was a woman in a long black niqab, the kind where even her hands and eyes were covered. The woman turned to look at her but made no movement or showed any reaction to having an armed American soldier at the entrance to the building.
“As salammu ‘alaykum.” The old man said, his head still downcast.
“Wa ‘alaykum as-salaam.” Nicole cautiously returned.
“Welcome guest. Why do we have the pleasure of your company?”
“I’m not sure, I don’t know where I am.”
“So you are lost?”
“No, I am not lost.”
“Of course you are, everyone is lost until they are found.”
“I see. Listen, do you have a phone?”
“No. I am afraid not.”
“Will you be staying with us for a while, or will you be continuing on to where you were going?”
Nicole again looked around at the vast expanse of the desert surrounding this place.
“I may have to stay for a while.”
“Of course, of course. You may stay with us as long as you wish. My name is Abd us Salam and this is my daughter Rawdha. I welcome you to this place. I am the imam of this mosque.”
Nicole looked around the building with its simple green carpet and rough stone walls. There was no decoration, no dome, no minarets.
“This is a mosque?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that.”
“Because it isn’t like any of the mosques I’ve seen in this country.”
“A person’s mosque, like their Islam, reflects who they are.”
“If you wish to stay here a while you may use our guest house. Rawdha will show you where it is.”
The woman concealed in black stepped forward. When she reached Nicole she gently took one of her hands into her own. Nicole could feel the black fabric of the glove in her hand. It was soft, pleasant to the touch.
Rawdha gently guided Nicole back to one of the shacks. She opened the door to it. Nicole looked at the crude setup and hoped that she would only have to stay here a short time.
The black ghost spoke in a soft, feminine voice. “If you need anything let me know.”
The black ghost nodded and left. Nicole stepped inside the shack. Light poured in from gaps in the roof. She felt the bed. The mattress was a canvas bag filled with straw, the blankets were simple wool. She sat down on the bed and tried to think.
How did she arrive at this place? Was she captured? If she was captured why was she just dumped off with her weapon still on her. Had the members of her unit left her here? Why? None of it made sense. Nicole relaxed a little. There was no one else around for miles and the two people who lived here didn’t seem to have weapons or anything at all. She was not in immediate danger. But she needed to figure out where she was and how to get back to her unit.
She walked out of the hut. She pulled out her map and scanned her surroundings one more time. There was no feature, no landmark, nothing. She studied the map for a while until a shadow came across it. She looked up to see Rawdha holding a plate with some food.
“Are you hungry?”
Rawdha put the food down next to the map. She turned to leave when Nicole suddenly blurted out.
“Do you know how I came to be here?”
“No. We did not see you until you opened the door to the mosque.” Nicole regarded the black ghost of a woman in front of her. For some reason she believed her.
“Can you help me find this place on my map?”
“This place is not on your map.”
Nicole looked down at the map in front of her. It had her units operating area mapped out in detail. Had she found herself well away from there?
“Are there any towns or villages nearby?”
Nicole looked out at the vast expanse of sand around her. The yellow ground, the blue sky.
“Does anyone else ever come by here?”
“Occasionally people like you come through here. Sometimes they stay, sometimes they just keep going.”
“Oh…well thank you.”
“You are welcome.”
Rawdha turned and walked back to the mosque. Nicole looked at the plate in front of her. Bread, fruits, some olives. She gradually ate them as she contemplated what she was going to do next. After a while she got up and walked back to the mosque. She looked inside and saw the old man and his granddaughter. They were both bowing and prostrating in Muslim prayer. Nicole watched for a moment and then returned to her hut.
The next several days passed and they were all much the same. Rawdha would occasionally bring her food. Other than that she and her grandfather spent most of their time in the mosque in prayer or meditation. Nicole had explored around the entire oasis and after that was done there was not much left to do. Sometimes she slept. Sometimes she just sat. Gradually she stopped wearing her body armor and then stopped carrying her gun around. What was the point?
The days passed and passed.
Then one day Nicole wandered over to the mosque. She looked inside. Both Abd us Salam and Rawdha were on their knees. Their heads downcast. They didn’t move, they didn’t make any noise. Nicole just watched them…for minutes….and longer. Finally she took off her boots and placed them with the other shoes. She took a couple of steps inside the mosque.
It was not what she usually thought of as a mosque. The ones she had seen in her time in this country were ornate with large domes and towering minarets. They were made of the finest materials. This place was simple stone and simple carpet. It was the poorest place she had ever seen. And yet…
She looked down at the two people meditating in here. They were so focused, clearly lost in their thoughts. How was it that they could reach such a point of devotion in a place as meager as this? Or maybe it was because there was so little in here that they were able to be so focused. No distractions, nothing other than concentrating on their God. Nicole watched them for a moment more and then went back to the entrance and put her boots back on.
When she was outside she found herself wandering to the edge of the oasis. She took a few steps out from the shade of the palm trees until she standing in the sands. She could feel the sun beating down on her. Amazing how much more one could feel the heat without shade, not that it was cool in the shade. If she tried to trek across this desert how long would she last? She probably would be dead well before she found anything. What other option did she have? To wait indefinitely at this oasis in the hopes of being picked up by some friendlies. How long would she have to wait? Would anyone ever come to pick her up?
“Are you planning on leaving soon?”
Nicole turned to find Rawdha standing behind her.
“Not likely. I doubt I would get far before the sun stopped me.”
“It is a great distance to travel. We would allow you to take water from our well for the journey but I doubt you would be able to carry enough.”
“Yeah, I think you are right.” Nicole studied Rawdha for a moment. The girl was completely covered in black, there was no facial expression to gauge her reaction to anything. “Rawdha, why do you wear that. The only man here is your own grandfather. I know you do not have to cover around relatives. So why do you wear it?”
“You think I cover to protect my modesty from male gazes?”
“I thought that was what the veil was for.”
“That is what it is used for, but that doesn’t mean that that is all there is to it. Nicole, I am not worried about lustful looks from men. After all, look.” She waved her across the desert. “There are no men here other than my grandfather as you have pointed out, and he can not see me either because he is blind.”
Nicole though back to how every time she saw Abd us Salam his face had been downcast. She had never actually seen his eyes.
“So why do you wear it.”
“I wear it for myself.”
“For yourself? I don’t understand, why wear something that must be uncomfortable to wear in this climate?”
“When you came here you were wearing armor yes?”
Nicole thought of the body armor and helmet on the table in her room. “Yes.”
“Well, this is my armor.”
Nicole stared at the concealed face in front of her. A gentle breeze picked up. It felt nice and already she felt a little cooler.
A day or two later Nicole was sitting underneath a palm tree. She didn’t have much else to do so she sat. At one point she watched Rawdha leave the mosque for the well. For some reason Nicole found herself standing up. She walked to the entrance of the mosque, and after putting her boots on the rack she gingerly stepped inside. Abd us Salam was kneeling on the floor as he seemed to always be doing. She tried to slowly walk up to in front of him so that she could try to look at his face. She could see the edge of it, but his eyes were closed. It almost looked like he was asleep.
“How can I help you Nicole?”
“How could you tell it was me?”
Abd us Salam looked up at her, his eyes opened to reveal little more than white underneath. “I may not be able to see, but I can perceive much. You have the pace of someone who is curious.”
Nicole didn’t realize it would be possible to walk in such a way as to sound curious but she discarded this doubt. “I…well there isn’t much to do here. I’ve offered to help Rawdha with preparing food but she has told me that I am a guest and she will have none of it. I got tired of sitting outside so I came in here.”
“And what are your intentions with coming in here?”
“I don’t know.”
“It is only by acknowledging that we don’t know something that we can hope to learn anything.”
It sounded like something from a fortune cookie. Still, Nicole remained. She lowered herself down onto the floor in front of the Imam.
“Why do you allow me to stay here.”
“If I did not you would die in the desert.”
“But I could be dangerous.”
“Are you dangerous?”
“No, but how can you know that? It doesn’t bother you that I am an American soldier?”
“No?!” Nicole was sure the old man had to be lying. The presence of American soldiers in this country was often tolerated at best. Surely he was bothered by her being here.
“Correct. I have few things to worry about from an American soldier staying in my home. I have long been aware of the presence of Americans here. Sometimes bad ones amongst them do something that is wrong, sometimes they do foolish things or make mistakes. But I also know that American soldiers have tried to protect the innocents on both sides of this terrible conflict. They do not loot or steal when they take a town. I’m not sure how you will feel about me saying this, and I would likely get into trouble with many of my countrymen but….I think the American soldiers in this country are the ideal model of an Islamic soldier.”
Nicole’s eyes opened wide in surprise. She gladly accepted what was meant as a compliment and it made her more at ease around the Imam.
“No, thank you. When you came to this place, you did not steal anything, you did not harm us. You have been nothing but respectful.”
“Well…it would seem a poor response to such generous hospitality.”
The Imam shook his head. “That is all Rawdha’s doing. I am just an old man who enjoys spending time in a mosque.”
Nicole looked around at the simple carpet, the bare stone walls. She supposed if one couldn’t see than decoration really did not matter all that much. “Why do you like being in here.”
“This place helps me think. When I am in here I know that I am suppose to be thinking about God. It helps to clear out thoughts that would cloud my focus.”
“What are your thoughts about God?”
Nicole took a deep breath. Religion was always a very thorny and difficult topic in her time here.
“I guess you could say that I am unaffiliated.”
The Imam smiled and released a very slight laugh. “I see. Well perhaps if you spend some time in here you may decide on an affiliation.”
Nicole looked around at the bare walls. “Maybe.”
“You don’t seem convinced.”
“Well…I’m not sure how this place is supposed to do that.”
“Well…I think you will find that some time spent in silent contemplation can have quite the effect on your outlook.”
“Oh…well, why not?”
“Why not indeed.”
Nicole move to behind the Imam and sank to her knees. She looked around the room for a minute or two, then her gaze lowered to the floor. At first she only saw the carpet below her. But then as her thoughts drifted she didn’t see the carpet. She only saw what was in her mind…
Nicole must have lost track of time because she found herself jerking into an alert position. She looked around. The Imam was gone. She was alone in the room. What had she been thinking about? She shook her head to try to clear it. Still, something seemed…different. She couldn’t quite figure out what. Numbly she stood up and approached the entrance of the mosque. She put her boots on and returned to her hut. When inside she laid down on the simple bed and stared upwards.
Was there a God? That was quite a question, wasn’t it? She had never seriously thought about. Oh, she always wondered. Who could not wonder about such things. But she had never had seriously thought about it. There was always school, then the army, then war. Always she was going forward with something. She never had the chance to stop and think about it.
What was God? She remember as a kid thinking he was a really big man in the sky in white robes and a beard. This wasn’t based on any religious influence, just how he was depicted on television. But obviously that was not what God was really like.
So if there was a God, what was He like? Were the Jews right? The Christians? The Muslims? All of them? None of them? There was no way of knowing, was there? Everyone had a holy book, everyone had prophets, everyone thought they were right.
How could someone be sure that their religion was right? Or that there was even a God?
Nicole sighed and just stared straight up. Soon she was asleep.
The next day she wordlessly entered the mosque and kneeled behind the Imam and next to Rawdha. Both of them were already in deep meditation and did not react or even seem to notice Nicole coming in. She relaxed her body, let her sight focus on nothing, and her thoughts drifted away…
It was not until twilight that she returned to the world of conscious thought. She looked around at the now much darker room. The Imam was gone but Rawdha was still there only she was seated in front of her.
“Welcome back Nicole.”
“Where was I?”
“Lost in thought. My grandfather said that you were still meditating when he left yesterday and again you have been meditating all day.”
Nicole numbly thought about that. She remembered kneeling down and now she was here after so many hours. Rawdha brought Nicole outside and gave her some food. Afterwards they both retired to separate beds. Nicole tried to sleep and may have for a bit but then she was up and restless and she needed to expend some nervous energy. She stepped outside of the hut and entered the moonlit night of the oasis.
She paused to examine everything. The palm trees, the plants, the buildings. They were all bathed in blue light. Nicole walked to the edge of the oasis and stared up at the star lit sky. The moon hung low in the sky. The sand almost looked like water in this light.
Nicole turned towards the small buildings in the oasis. She thought about the mosque, the small little mosque with the simple carpet. The place where Abd us Salam and Rawdha meditated. The place where Nicole had meditated.
Was there a God? Did God bring her to this place. Her mind couldn’t answer but her heart could. She felt tears streaming down her face. She didn’t know why she was in this place…but she knew that God cared about her.
She spent more time in the the light of the moon before returning to her bed. The next day when she entered the mosque she spoke with the Imam.
“Imam…do you have a copy of the Quran I could read?”
“You wish to read the Quran?”
“I want to learn more about your faith, about Islam.”
“And you feel that reading the Quran will do this?”
“Well…yes, I thought the Quran was the holy book of Islam.”
“The Quran is a recitation of a book in Heaven. But there are many books in Heaven. A person may come close to God by reading one of them or all of them or none of them.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You want to know about my religion, you want to know God?”
“You will find God inside of yourself.”
“You must find that on your own.”
Nicole stared at the blind Imam. Then she walked over to behind him and slipped down to her knees. Soon her thoughts drifted away…
And so it continued like that. Day after day. Her meditation would lead to serene feelings. She would contemplate God. She would question herself, everything. Then one evening after Abd us Salam and Rawdha had gone to bed she got up. She walked over to the mosque. She removed her boots and socks. With the basin of water there she began to clean her feet, her hands, her mouth, her face. She then walked into the middle of the room. Then…she began to pray. She had never prayed in this way before. Bowing and prostrating herself. And yet, she knew how to do it. Just like she knew many things that she didn’t remember learning during her meditation but that she had all the same.
She bowed and prostrated. She could feel herself….becoming Muslim.
The next day she approached Rawdha when she was out of the mosque.
“Last night I prayed…in the mosque.”
“Yes…and I knew how to. How did I know how to?”
“You have learned more in quiet contemplation than you realized.”
“I guess so. Have I learned other things?”
“You will know when you know them. You are becoming what works in your heart. you may call that what ever you like.”
Later that day Nicole made her declaration in front of Abd us Salam and Rawdha that there was no God but God and that Muhammed was a Prophet of God. From that day forward she found herself full of knowledge that she had picked up and not realized. No wonder the Imam had not let her read the Quran. She had it in her head now. When she meditated she could hear the passages of the Quran run through her head. It was almost like poetry.
Eventually she asked Rawdha for an abaya and a head covering, but not the niqab and gloves. When she walked around the oasis covered in black except for her hands and face she almost like some sort of spirit rather than a woman. When she prayed in the abaya and hijab she felt like she was there but not there.
She had no lengthy discussions with the other two about Islam. No discussion was necessary, it resided inside of her.
Finally one day she asked for the gloves and niqab. As she pulled the gloves on she wondered what she would look like…as a black ghost. Then she fastened on the niqab. Soon her eyes were only seeing through the narrow slit, a single hole just like the Prophet’s wives. Then she flipped the black fabric over this. Her vision was dimmed, but it did not matter. She exited her hut.
Abd us Salam and Rawdha were there waiting for her. She approached them.
“You knew it was leading to this the entire time, didn’t you?”
The Imam shrugged. “We knew nothing. We only do what we must do.”
Nicole turned to face the desert expanse. It didn’t seem so bright anymore, so hot anymore. She almost felt like she could see what was beyond it. Hills…a river…her unit.
“I have to go back don’t I?”
“It is not yet time for you to enter Paradise. And you have much work to do.”
“I will remember all of this?”
“Remember…that is such a concrete term. This place will always be with you.”
Nicole narrowed her eyes. Was that the city and bridge off in the distance? Had they always been so close?
“I’m still not entirely sure what I need to do.”
“You will know each time. You carry with you the Soul of Islam. Your sword will be enlightenment. Those who would abuse the faith to commit evil acts must be combated. But where they only wield stubbornness and anger you will wield thoughtfulness and love.”
“Thank you…for everything.”
Nicole began walking out into the sands of the desert.