Volume 30, Number 1

Heaven Can’t Wait

Richard Harkness

The day was baked and cloudless after the noontime call to prayer. Samir was relieved he had gotten past the checkpoint without incident. A soldier glared but made no move. Praise Allah! The reed-thin boy, looking even younger than his 14 years, had worried that his excitement might give him away. A pronounced limp due to a birth defect had made him a familiar figure in his guise as a peddler of razor blades. He was coached on the words to say if questioned. Now the guards rarely paid him much attention. Dry runs, his handlers called these trips. But this time it was for real. The teenager knew with certainty born of religious faith that he, a good Muslim, would be in Paradise on this day. When he had asked his handlers if martyrs ever came back to describe what Paradise was like, one answered this way: Too many questions means too little faith. The other, this way: The martyrs would not tell you of the wonders of Paradise because then you would not need faith. And without a strong faith, Allah would not allow you into Paradise. The martyrs would not chance keeping you out of Paradise, don't you see? This made sense to Samir and had left him with feelings of shame. 

Samir had faithfully practiced salat, praying five times a day. Last night, as a shahid, he laid out his prayer rug, its woven mihrab pointing toward Mecca to the east. Despite his excitement on the final night of his earthly life, he must have fallen asleep because he dreamed that two of his allotted 72 dark-eyed houris descended from Paradise to his bed. Each took a hand and spirited him upward past fluffy white clouds and twinkling stars to an otherworldly festive place filled with heavy-hanging fruits and splashing fountains, as described in the ninth sura of the Qur'an. When he awoke this morning, he found himself shamefully stimulated. Quickly he intoned a prayer, apologizing to Allah for these sinful feelings. Then he was elated, thinking of what was to come, wondering how actual Paradise would match that of his imagination. His younger brother slumbered beside him in bed. Samir got up, hearing his mother preparing breakfast before she left for work. She struggled to make ends meet, he knew, and was grateful that Samir's imam had gotten him a peddler's job that would add a bit extra to the household funds. He had been nine when he last saw his beloved father. In his misted memory, his father's absence had something to do with the infidels, the evil invaders from the West.

As he stood over the toilet urinating, he was startled to see a spider suddenly appear, descending on its thread, wriggling within inches of his bared penis. He reflexively swiped at the strand and saw the splotch of gray land on the floor. When he stepped that way, it scurried into hiding. No matter. The spider looked harmless enough, and he knew it would eat unsuspecting flies and other insects caught in its netlike trap. He brushed at the sticky strands he felt entangling him but could not spot the web.

Samir gave his mother what would be their final hug, squeezing her extra hard and turning his face away to hide budding tears, knowing he must not betray his holy mission. When he left the house, he lied to her about where he was going and now felt the same bite of conscience as then, though he had been told that such deceptions were permitted in the service of God. Soon she would understand. He imagined looking down from Heaven on his sad, but proud, mother. His act of martyrdom would assure a place in Paradise for her and his brother, as well as an earthly pension, as was common knowledge. And the mother of a martyr received special privileges for the rest of her earthly life.

As he approached the open-air sandwich shop, the sounds of kids kicking a soccer ball in a nearby field caught his attention. A twinge of resentment squeezed him. The kids in his neighborhood shunned him in such games, as if they feared his defect might be transferred to them. All those nights he lay in bed praying for Allah to heal his foot, and always the mornings would greet him with the same sorrowful reality. Why had Allah laid this burden on him? Why else but to test his faith? If his faith were stronger, he had thought, Allah would hear his pleas.

At first, he had balked when his imam began leading him along the path of a shahid, one willing to die for jihad. Then he realized this must be how Allah chose to strengthen his lagging faith. At the mosque one day, the imam had singled him out as he prayed, startling him by approaching from behind and touching his shoulder. Soon he basked in the extra attention, and his resistance began to peel away. They would sit privately together while the imam read aloud and interpreted passages from the Qur'an, Samir's will entangled in the mesh of sing-song words, his inner compass bending to that of his master. As the fateful day neared, the imam declared: "My prized student, you were a sinful earthly pebble taken by Allah and polished into a jewel of spiritual faith. As Allah, the All-Merciful, the Perfect, healed your spirit, do you not now have faith that He will also heal your bodily impediment? That soon you will frolicking in Paradise? You who will be with God while I must abide here in the sinful earthly realm until my natural time comes. How I envy you!"

In his farewell video, Samir had displayed a calm resolve (After all, if Paradise waited, it wasn't really death, was it? If Paradise waited, why hang around Earth?). He pictured the coming scenes in his hometown: mosque loudspeakers praising his martyrdom, celebration in the streets, an announcement in the local newspaper of his wedding to an houri in Paradise. His handlers would place a poster with his photo on the wall of martyrs, joining that of his friend Ahmad. His heart swelled with pride in the knowledge that his selfless act would inspire others to follow his glorious path.

Here and now, Samir beseeched Allah, the All-Merciful, the Perfect, to deflect any wary eyes among the infidels milling about near the sandwich shop. Some of these people might be Muslims, he was told, but the imam declared this was not his worry. Allah would sort it out: If he's a good Muslim, he goes to Heaven, and if he's a bad Muslim, he goes to Hell. These were the words of Osama bin Laden himself, the imam affirmed proudly, waving his index finger in mimicry of the one he quoted. But Samir's overriding concern was that his bomb might not go off, and he would be captured and treated roughly and locked away in jail. He'd heard this had happened to other would-be martyrs. He shuddered to imagine what fate might await him there. His hope, of course, was to be killed, for dying by any means in righteous jihad counted as martyrdom, and martyrdom was the quick ticket to Paradise. The imams and mullahs guaranteed this based on their interpretation of passages quoted from the Qur'an and Hadith. He didn't understand all that, but he trusted their words because they were God's chosen vessels. Imprisonment, on the other hand, would rob him of his rightful shortcut to Paradise. He wondered how Allah could allow such mistakes to happen, then quickly brushed away these faithless thoughts. Allah, in His wisdom, worked in ways he could not fathom.

During the past few moments, as Samir positioned himself within the crowd, the voices of women and children and sounds of the market seemed tinny and far away. A sudden ringing in his ears welled up. Things seemed to go in slow motion. Maybe these were signs he had already begun to ascend, a foreshadow of Paradise. He looked down, halfway expecting to see part of his body fading away. He had a fleeting sensation of being pulled between two worlds, this one and the next. An errant thought struck: There is no way back now. A memorized passage from the Qur'an sustained him: God giveth you life, then causeth you to die: then will he assemble you on the day of resurrection: there is no doubt of it. He remembered his imam's words: As the seed holds the blossom, Paradise awaits those who are submissive to Allah. His heart thumping, he moved his hand to his midriff over the heavy vest stuffed with explosives and shrapnel-nails, an image coming to him of a faithful pack animal submissively bearing its yoke for the glory of God. The approach of Death sired from the mist that long-ago day: He saw the glisten in his father's eyes when he pulled Samir close and squeezed him so hard it hurt. It hurt far worse to realize later that it had been their final hug. Only death could have prevented him from returning to his family. Surely, his father also had been a martyr. That would explain his absence: He had been in Heaven eagerly awaiting the arrival of his son. Samir could wish for nothing more fitting to believe.

In the group of people bustling closely around him were a few children. He knew these innocent souls would be welcomed into Heaven, but why take them away from their families? He would linger until they moved away. His handlers promised it would be painless, over instantly. They had shown him a video of a young boy frolicking in Paradise and beckoning other children to join him. This happy boy was a martyr, they said. Samir closed his eyes. He imagined himself in Paradise...his body made whole...running into the outstretched arms of Allah and the Prophet Mohammed (Peace be on him). He was a heartbeat away from seeing the face of God, the Unknowable. Allah is the only God and Mohammad is his prophet. Truly, he was on the Straight Path. Truly, he was God's vessel now. Surely Allah would not be offended if he, a dutiful servant, prayed that his bomb would go off properly. The ringing in his ears crescendoed. He could seize no moment greater than this. Not in this world. Allahu akbar! he shouted. An observer would have seen the boy flash the bassamat al-farah (smile of joy) as he pressed the detonator that would launch him into the eternal bliss of the afterlife, riding the searing lick of red-orange flame and billowing plume of black smoke skyward, leaving as his legacy bits of incinerated flesh and bone strewn about in the dress-rehearsal world.

Samir's final errant thought flashed an instant before the blast: How could his handlers have gotten a video showing martyrs in Heaven?

* * *

A Danish editorialist would write of Samir's fate: 

"The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless."

—Jean-Jacques Rousseau

This boy would have no way of understanding that Reality is governed by the immutable laws of physics, which do not bend to wishes and beliefs. That day, these natural laws were at work, just as they were eons before people and their imaginings appeared on the earth and just as they would be eons after people and their imaginings disappeared from the earth. Beyond his ken lay an inescapable truth: Fantasy triumphs over Reality only in the imagination. The sound from the explosion, traveling at a speed set by these natural laws, took a millisecond longer to reach his ears than it took the blast to butcher his body. The boy never heard the concussive crack! of Reality that permanently erased from existence his young life and his brain filled with impossible imaginings.