One day, two men were arrested at the Id Gah mosque in Kashgar and sent away for cultural citizenship education. Onlookers, rather stunned, watched as the men were ushered into the police van, while the accompanying officers scanned around for potential trouble. No one stirred as the officers jumped in the back of the van, next to the men, who were also seated silently. The authorities were expecting a massive uproar from the locals, especially as intelligence had uncovered that these two men were revered as holy men or healers, who lived on the streets and could heal supernaturally. But there was no resistance; no struggles. The locals seemed pacified and the two men just sat there calmly. Just as the van pulled away, a local grocer woman called out: “see you again, insha Allah.”
A police officer who sat opposite the men, as the van drove off, studied their faces carefully. These two men certainly were strange- their physical appearances betrayed a singular mixture of ethnic breeding. The first man with his arched brow and wide forehead haled from Uighur, Krgyzstani and Tajik stock, while the other, with his thin eyes and beardless face except for a few threads of a goatee was of Hui and Han extraction.
The officer whispered to his colleague next to him: “half-breeds…” His colleague nodded and frowned at the men.
Several hours elapsed, with the flat terrain around Kashgar giving way to great slopes and mountains in the distance. The van pulled into an enormous complex, like a gargantuan university college campus, surrounded by check points and neatly-kept terraces.
The men were led inside and presented to an official.
The police officer spoke for them: “they have not uttered a word since we took them.”
The smartly-dressed official greeted the two vagabond-like men with customary friendliness and sympathy. “you two have been selected for citizenship education so that you can become productive members of the state. Your present condition does not help our goal for cohesion and national service. You will learn basic skills and literacy here which will help you to fully integrate into society, and then you will have an opportunity to work for our municipal services in Kashgar. Just think of it- you will gain a job for life with a pension.”
The two men just listened, rather sullenly, expressionless, with dumb and distant looks.
“Well?” asked the official.
The two men spoke for the first time, still remote, still impenetrable: “Insha Allah.”
This response made the officer shudder, as he thought the two men would never talk and the official smiled sympathetically again.
“Okay, take them to their rooms and we will begin their programme.”
The officer marched the two men through the vast corridors of the complex, into an external courtyard, framed with slogans of the authorities: UNITY, COHESION, COMMUNITY, NATION.
The men were led into dormitories, which were inhabited by hundreds of faces like them: Uighur, Tajik, and many others. They walked past male and female faces. And the rather perplexing thing for the officer was that some of the residents seemed to recognize the two strange men, smiling, pleased to seem them, but not uttering a word.
The officer stopped and took a woman aside. “Why are you smiling at these strange men.”
She spoke politely: “Oh for no reason really. They are two strange men for Kashgar. They live in their own worlds. Everyone knows them.”
The officer thanked the woman and continued to lead them on, seeing the pleased looks on the residents as they walked along.
Finally, they arrived at their room: a clean place, with bunk beds and on-suite.
“You two seem to be local celebrities… Hopefully you will learn here and help society better when you leave.”
The two men smiled ever so slightly, once again reticent and disappeared into their rooms. The officer watched them settle through the window in their door and wondered about their silence. While he had been instructing them on the daily timetable and chores, they had just walked on sombrely with him. Not a word from either of them. Not a hint of anger or fear. Just silence and a kind of dumb calmness.
Over the next few days, the official and officer noticed some strange occurrences. The rest of the population seemed pleased to see these men, but no one engaged with them and just kept their distance in a rather respectful way. Neither did the men speak much to each other. They just went through the motions of the day; the lessons, the food breaks with compulsory pork, the exercise routine, the chores, the chanting for the state philosophy. But what they did do was say their prayers in their rooms and meditate. Aside from these things, the men just took part passively.
A few months elapsed like this when the officer and the official met for an evaluation of the two men of Kashgar.
“So much for spiritual leaders,” begun the officer. “These two are just dimwits we are wasting money on. Even the locals think they’re crazy.”
“Hmm,” replied the official. “I was hoping that by transforming their own spiritual leaders, the locals will see the benefit of the programme and show more enthusiasm. But these two are no such thing. They have eaten pork and renounced superstition. They are probably happy to have a clean environment and readily-available food. I agree we have wasted resources on them. But the locals…”
“What about them?” asked the officer.
“The locals, since we have brought them here, have become less enthusiastic with the programme. In fact, we have sent scores of locals back to their towns because their reluctance is affecting the rest.”
“Was that a wise thing to do?”
“No, but we are keeping them under observation,” the official replied.
So, after a sojourn of a few months, the two strange mixed-breeds were summoned back to the official, who looked at both men rather haughtily and said: “we are sending you two back. For verily, you can take the man out of the backwardness, but you can’t take the backwardness out of the man.” He pointed at the exit, and the officers returned the men to the Id Gah mosque in Kashgar.
The two men found themselves shoved out of the van and deposited on the street in a vortex of dust.
The two men sullenly looked at each other. Suddenly, the grocer appeared and watched them. In a flash, the two men stuck their heads over the drain grill and started vomiting and retching vile things into the drain. When they had finished, the men looked relieved, tranquility filled their faces and they looked around as if they had suddenly woken up.
“My dear friends,” shouted the grocer, “I heard from my daughter that you were in the re-education centre. What happened?”
The men looked at each other, flummoxed.
“Really?” They said.
“Yes, don’t you remember?” She said looking at them in amazement. “My daughter was sent there as well. She saw you two. She said she saw you taking part in the programme, eating pork, renouncing the faith. But she also said that she had forgotten her kalima, her hajj and her salah. Until she saw you two. Just seeing you brought it all back, and then she stopped cooperating, so they sent her back because she was becoming a trouble-maker. In fact, she said hundreds were sent back since you two arrived and now they are under observation.” The last bit the grocer whispered, just in case spies were around.
The two strange men of Kashgar listened to her, rather dumbfounded and awestruck. The first, the Uighur-Kygrz mixed-breed said: “well, we were somewhere else and we have just returned.”
The grocer asked, confused: “what do you mean? How can that be?”
The Hui-Han man replied: “we were taken to the malakut world by our lord.”
The grocer gasped in astonishment.
The first went on: “we had been eating in a restaurant with questionable food which may have been contaminated by pork. Then we came to the Eid Gah mosque. Suddenly, the van appeared and that’s all I remember. Next, I remember, we were in the malakut, in a cell made of light, guarded by impressive spirits. Our late pir, Allah bless him, came to us every day and advised us on the importance of eating pure food. Then, we just woke up here. I have a horrible taste in my mouth.”
“So, do I,” said the other.
The grocer smiled: “well it just goes to show, you can take the believer out of the mosque, but you can’t take the mosque out of the believer.”
malakut- Arabic- spiritual world
pir- spiritual leader
This story was inspired by the writings of Shaykh Ibn Al Arabi, may Allah bless him.
This story is also dedicated to the ancient, wondrous Muslim groups in China. May Allah bless all the ethnic groups there and help them to thrive and progress despite the onslaughts of atheism and communism. Ameen