I think one of the greatest contradictions in my life is that I am the person in my family who has moved the furthest away, both geographically and ideologically, yet I’m the one who has become a sort of tradition bearer, taking an active historical, cultural and linguistic interest in my family and my home. However, the two ends of this seeming contradiction might not be as far apart as one might think.
One of my favourite books is Brigh an Orain: A Story in Every Song, about the life, tales and music of a Cape Breton storyteller named Lauchie MacLellan. A few decades ago some astute people began to realize the Gaelic language was in decline so they began visiting the old Gaelic storytellers to make recordings and take notes before what those people had to say was lost forever. John Shaw was fortunate enough to spend long hours with Lauchie MacLellan, and Brigh an Orain is the result. The book is special to me not just because it contains valuable information about the history, culture and language of the Gaels who settled in Cape Breton, but also because it was a birthday gift from my mother (who never was very good at picking the right gift but really nailed it this time).
One of the tales in the book is called Between the Stirrup and the Ground. According to MacLellan, the tale tells of “how little we know concerning God’s mercy and goodness.” It’s a very short tale about a very bad man. The man is a murderer, a robber, an all-around nasty guy. One day he’s riding his horse when suddenly the horse rears up and throws him off. In the split second before his head smashes on the ground he opens his heart to God and begs for His forgiveness, and says that he’s sorry for everything he’s done. Later two men are sitting around talking about the story of the man on the horse. One of them scoffs at the man’s last-second plea for mercy, saying that surely he must have gone to Hell anyway. Suddenly a voice emanates from somewhere in the trees behind them, saying, “a soul can be granted forgiveness between the stirrup and the ground.”
Lauchie MacLellan was not the first to tell such a story. The line ‘between the stirrup and the ground, mercy I sought, mercy I found’ appears in a Graham Greene novel. In fact, the epitaph is well known in some circles, particularly among Christian thinkers fond of debating such ‘deathbed conversions’. A similar story appears in Islamic traditions. A hadith reported by Abu Sa’id Sa’d b. Malik b. Sinan al-Khudri, about a murderer who dies before he can fully repent, bears some similarity to the story told by MacLellan. In this particular hadith, the murderer was on his way to a town he had been directed to by a monk after killing a hundred people. He died when he was halfway there and was argued over by the angels of mercy and punishment. The argument was settled when it was agreed that he was slightly closer to the town he had been heading for (where he was expecting to turn over a new leaf). According to one version of the hadith, the man was actually closer to the side of punishment but Allah ordered the earth to stretch so as to put him closer to mercy, and the man was granted forgiveness. Another hadith narrated by Abdul Rahman bin Jubair describes an old man who came to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and asked him if there was any repentance for someone who had committed just about every sin there is, both major and minor. The Prophet told him he could see all his bad deeds turned into good ones if he turned to Islam and spent the rest of his life doing good deeds and staying away from evil.
The theme of forgiveness is a recurring one in the Qur’an. In Surah Al-Furqan:68-70 we are told that “(The true servants of Allah are those) who do not call upon another god with Allah, who do not slay the soul Allah has forbidden, save by right, and do not commit adultery. And whosoever does that shall meet the price of sin. His chastisement will be doubled on the Day of Reckoning and he will abide therein for ever – save him who repented, believed and did righteous deeds, such are those whose evil deeds will Allah change into good ones. Allah indeed is very Forgiving, very compassionate.” (Al-Furqan:68-70)
Between the Stirrup and the Ground is one of the shortest tales in MacLellan’s book, but to me it’s by far the most powerful because it touches upon something I’ve been agonizing over since my conversion to Islam. The day I ‘officially’ converted to Islam was mostly a happy one. I did it at the Centre for Islamic Development in Halifax. There were lots of smiles and hugs from the guys who were there, and I was beaming—until one of them said to me that I should be happy that I’m going to Heaven even though everyone else in my family will go to Hell. I objected to that, but of course I was new, and to many Muslims the faith of the new guy is important but not his opinions. That’s because someone new to the religion is expected to believe and accept everything they’re told by other Muslims. Now, if I were the kind of person who believed and accepted everything I was told, I’d be a Presbyterian right now. It’s in my nature to question things, to investigate, to search for the truth, and that’s what led me to Islam in the first place. But upon passing through the gates of Islam I was now expected to not question any of the wisdom passed down by the various Islamic scholars. And one of the things that is accepted as true by many Muslims, if not most, is that all non-believers are doomed to Hell. Only those who convert to Islam can be saved.
Such an idea was troubling to me right from the start, until one day when I talked about it with my friend Kak Suria. She told me her husband likes to think that maybe, just maybe, when a good non-Muslim dies, God opens that person’s heart to Islam in the last flash of an instant before death. Now that’s an absolutely beautiful idea. I’m sure some people would object to it, and I’m sure they could provide plenty of ‘proof’ from the Qur’an, ahadith and the works of various scholars to show that such an idea is ridiculous. However, it’s important to note here that I’m not saying such a thing will definitely happen. I have absolutely no idea. I don’t know at all whether any non-Muslims will convert to Islam in the last nano-second before they leave this world. Nor do I have any idea what criteria would be used to determine just who is and isn’t deserving of such forgiveness. But that’s my point: nobody knows. Nobody can say with any certainty whether a person is going to Hell or not. All I know is that when I read Lauchie MacLellan’s story, I feel a sense of hope, the same sense of hope I feel when I read about God’s forgiveness in Islamic sources. I don’t know for sure where I’m going, but it comforts me to know that maybe there isn’t such a huge gap between where I come from and where I am now.