THE CALL TO PRAYER
The Bolton mosque is a great hulk of unprepossessing yellow brick to the unprepossessing north of the town. I went up to the door and was surprised to find the foyer full of racks of shoes. It wasn't the presence of shoes that surprised, but the shoes themselves - Nike trainers, scuffed Clark's slip-ons, brown brogues. I had rather expected rows of plush red Persian slippers and the odd pair of sagacious sandals. I took my Marks and Spencer's off and entered.
Beyond the shoe room was a foyer containing lots of noticeboards and a man arguing in Arabic or Farsi on the payphone. There was a fire insurance certificate (which is always comforting) next to a print-out of a star map with an interesting list of this week's events in the heavens and a sign saying "plesse remove socks before entering the prayer room". In the corridor beyond two old men were sitting on the floor studying squiggly texts and rocking back and forth. Further on the prayer-room itself — superb rugs, plain walls and a window-cleaner busy attacking the glass with a rubber squeegee. There was a vague smell of incense and coriander. I stood and waited for something to happen. It happened in the form of a brown youth with a Reebok T-shirt and a doily on his head. I didn't know what to say, of course, so I tried "I'd, er, like to know about Islam", and stupidly added "If this is, er, the right place?"
"I'll go and see - wait here."
He returned with a small and beautiful boy who sported another Reebok clothing product, a quite glorious white turban which draped down behind his head, and the general looks of an angel come down to earth. I was ushered past the rocking men, up above to meet the imam.
Mohamed Ayyoob Ashrafi's room was long and thin. At the far end was with a bed with a floral duvet cover. Along one wall, a rack of gloriously-bound books with Arabic titles, a desk with a very new PC, a little anodised dust-bin lined with a Tesco bag and two boxes of Vicks Vapour Rub.
Mohamed Ayyoob Ashrafi himself had an appropriately long and white chin-beard, a high white hat and sat cross-legged on the floor, with the bed behind him, a little bookrest carrying a numinous text in front and a plump rug beneath him. He motioned for me to join him on the rug.
The Imam presented me with a copy of a guide to Islam in English, the Bahar-e-Shariat (part one, price 35 rupees, "comprehensible and lucid in style"). The angel and his friend explained that the he did not speak English (though he spoke five other languages), and was very learned indeed. So we proceeded by way of far-from-simultaneous translation.
"What" I asked "Do you have to do to be a good Muslim?"
While the translations went back and forth, I kept on glancing at my Bahar-e-Shariat: "Every inmate of paradise will have two exclusively pretty 'Hoors' (heavenly nymphs) as his wives. The plump and beautiful legs of these hoors will be visible even from beneath the seventy layers of the raiment that these damsels will be wearing. Their beauty will transpire from their attires in the same manner as red wine transpires from a white tumbler."
"You have to believe in Allah, the only God, and in Mohammed (his name be praised) his prophet. To pray five times a day and to go on the Hajj." The non-English speaking imam pointed out the appropriate passages in my Bahar-e-Shariat.
"Do I have a soul?" I asked.
"Even an ordinary person in Paradise will have 80 thousand servants and 72 thousand wives." "The diet of one person in paradise will be equal to that of one hundred persons of this world. Every one will be strong enough to satisfy one hundred wives sexually."
"Yes you have a soul, all living things have souls, but the soul of man is the highest and best."
"Do I have free will?"
"Even a dust-bin kept in the corner of Paradise is more valuable than any valuable in this world." "The people of Paradise will never need to urinate or to excrete. Perfumed sweat will keep emanating from their bodies."
"Free-will is complex. You have freedom to move your hands, your body as you wish, but what is in your heart is in part the will of Allah."
"Where is God to be found?"
"Kafirs (infidels) in Hell will have to drink boiling oil-water, after which his bowels and intestines inside stomach will be break into pieces. The consumed water will then come out of stomach like curry and will flow down to feet"
"God created the world and all that there is, including you. He is present everywhere. He is in this room now. He is inside you now."
"Is Islam the best religion?"
"The skins of their bodies will become thick up to 42 yards. Their tongues will be hanging out of mouths up to a length of two miles. The passerby will walk trampling upon these tongues."
"Islam is the best religion, it is the religion everyone should choose. If you wish, you can become a Muslim here and now. Would you like that?"
And so I was saved. Saved by the mussein, whose call to prayer over the speaker system meant that my companions had to leave for the salaah.
I declined their kind offer, and when they asked me for my 'phone number, I deliberately wrote it down wrongly. On the way home I called into the White Bear, ordered a balm cake and a pint of Theakston's. I ate and drank, and considered what you would actually do with 80,000 servants, would you be allowed to put them in the dust-bin? I wondered if the beautiful boy might actually have been an angel, and I never realised the irony.
(Moulana Syed Mohd. Noor Uddin Nizami's translation of the Bahar-e-Shariat is published by Anjuman-e-Raza-e-Mustafa, Dayadra-Bharuch, Gujrat, India.)