K. Ali narrates a story based on personal experience

“They said: Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If You forgive us not, and bestow not upon us Your Mercy, we shall certainly be of the losers.” (Al-Araf 7:23)

I met her in front of a tiny, two-roomed house. Somewhere on the outskirts of God-knows-where, somewhere where there were piles of spoiled fodder and plastic bottles heaped one over the other. She had a strong, pink face, and she smelled of soap. Soap and, for some reason I did not know, musk.

It was quite an accident, our meeting. I was nineteen and driving without an instructor for the first time. My car broke down in the middle of nowhere, and I had to place a call home. My brother was to arrive in about an hour to pick me up; but, meanwhile, the heat was unbearable. I was thirsty, too, and my face showed it. I kicked open the door of the car, clambering outside. The smell and the flies all around nauseated me instantaneously, and I pulled my cap low over my forehead, wishing it could drive them away.

That was when I met her.

She was in the garden, the pretty garden outside her tiny, two-roomed house to my right. I saw her, she saw me, and I instantly looked away. Half a minute later, she came up to me. In her hands was a tray, and in the tray – a glass of water.

“Have a sip, daughter,” she said, holding out the glass.

“No thanks,” I said, a little distastefully. I certainly felt thirsty but not thirsty enough to stoop this low: to accept a drink of water from a ragged woman, when with all the cash in my pocket I could buy a dozen cans of Pepsi. It indeed was a level of degradation I could never even dream of falling to.

“I saw a war when I was younger,” she replied quietly.

“That’s nice,” I replied, turning away. The distaste in my tones had grown stronger now, and I did not attempt to hide it. With temperatures shooting up and a sweltering summer sun beating down on me, the last thing I wanted was to end up listening to the fanatical tales of an old, white-haired woman, who smelled of soap.

Soap and, for a reason I did not know, musk.

She paid no attention to my distaste. Calmly, she continued. “There were lots of people there,” I heard her say. “People pierced by machine guns, people with broken bones, twisted necks, cracked skulls. Those were better days for me, I could serve better things. But you know what, daughter? They wouldn’t have them. They wouldn’t have my alcoholic drinks. They wanted water.”

I looked up, startled. She seemed in a trance now.

“Remember when Allah (swt) created Adam (as)?” she asked. Asked whom? I still wonder, I can’t help wondering – I am sure she did not ask me. “He created him as a superior creature. Then, He asked the angels to bow down before him. All of them did, didn’t they?”

The words rose automatically to my lips: “Satan didn’t.”

“Yes, he didn’t,” she agreed. She walked to her garden and sat down in the middle of it. It was a pretty garden, the only pretty spot for miles around, perhaps. She drank the water she had brought for me, slowly, taking steady sips, before looking at me again. “He didn’t, and he was sinning,” she continued. Her voice was stronger now. “Do you know the story? Do you know, how Adam (as) and Eve (as) were asked to leave Paradise?”

I nodded, throat dry.

She smiled. “Yes, I read about it too, once. Twice, maybe. Maybe more. He lured Adam (as) and Eve (as), that Iblis. He tempted them, and they ate the forbidden fruit. Do you know what this shows? Do you?”

I shook my head. She smiled again. “Yes, you do,” she told me. “We all do. It shows who we are; it shows who he is – who Iblis is. It shows that we are humans – that it is human to err. Part of man’s instinct is an inherent weakness – a weakness that leads him to wither in the face of temptation to sin. And part of Iblis’s instinct is evil – an evil that led him to defiance and pride, an evil that made him mark, in Paradise, the beginnings of his mission to commit misdeeds. And do you know what else it shows? Do you?”

Once more I shook my head, and once more she smiled. “Yes, you do,” she repeated. “We all do. It shows that Allah (swt) is love, and that in His nature, in His light is forgiveness, pure, beautiful and powerful. For when Adam (as) and Eve (as) cried, when they begged, He forgave both His creations. In fact, He taught them how to seek forgiveness from their Lord (swt).”

I was quiet now. She did not notice this, or perhaps she did and ignored it. “We commit so many sins in our lives,” she was saying. I heard her, as if from a distance, a very far-off distance. “And when we are offered God’s blessings in places we least expect to be offered them, we reject them, because we want something better, something larger. We do not want small, we want big – big tempts us, because it is so much more glamorous. Small seems weaker, so much weaker. And He forgives us.”

I saw myself stoop, saw myself reach for the now half empty glass of water. The liquid was clear, cool and sweet – like no other drink of water I have ever tasted – and I drank deeply. I looked up at the woman again, the old, white-haired woman, and she smiled at me. She smelled of soap and, for a reason I now knew, she smelled of musk.

Suddenly, the level of degradation I had never dreamed of falling to was an ascent. The sky was me, and I was the sky.