On killing people, cont.

In one of his enchanting letters of travel, the English convert to Islam, Marmaduke Pickthall (1875–1936), defends the Oriental practice of casually killing people. He tells the tale of a bag of lentils, purchased in the market at Damascus by his host, Rashid, and left unattended just inside the door of a modest lodging. In a corner, on a heap of cushions, Marmaduke is trying to sleep off the midday heat.

A gentleman of eccentric dress and turban — which is to say, a gypsy — notices the bag and steps inside to take it. While he looks about for other spoil, Marmaduke stirs, and asks the man what is his business. The gypsy flees, disappearing into the city crowds.

Rashid returns, and Marmaduke tells him what happened.

“What?” Rashid exclaims. “The man stole our bag of lentils, and you watched him do it? And you had a good revolver at hand, and did not use it?”

“Why should I shoot a man for such a trifle?”

The debate between them continues on the stools of a coffee vendor across the street. All the idlers gathered there agree with Rashid. The thief should have been shot. Marmaduke, then young and still fairly English, insists that it was “just a bag of lentils.” He stands corrected: that is not the point. The man did something wicked. What if, encouraged by his escape, he goes on to steal a bag of lentils from a poor man who owns nothing else? One must be practical about these things. What kind of world will we live in, if thieves are not shot on the spot?

The “Franks” (Europeans) are criticized for their habit of encouraging both the good and the wicked, indifferently. They are condemned for their lack of religion.

Finally, an old bearded gentleman, venerated for his learning and wisdom, sums up the case. He is gentle and indulgent with this foolish young Englishman, but feels he must speak plainly.

“The Franks have lost belief in Allah and the life to come. They deem this fleeting life the only one vouchsafed to man, and death the worst catastrophe that can befall him. When they kill a man they think they have destroyed him quite. But when we kill a man, we know it is not the end. Both killed and killer will be judged by the One who knows the secrets of men’s hearts. The man who is killed is not deprived of hope.”

It was worse than that for the Franks, in the old man’s estimation:

“For us, death is an incident in life; for them, it is the end of the story. They have no idea of sacrifice. They can only imagine killing a man out of hatred.”

He goes on to explain how, for instance, it is necessary sometimes for a ruler to kill all his brothers and closest friends, lest later they conspire against him and disturb the peace. He doesn’t want to kill them: they are after all the beloved companions of his childhood and youth. His sympathies are entirely with them. But he mustn’t be sentimental. He kills them all for the public good, and they, if they are at all manly, meet their deaths with fortitude and understanding.

I would not go so far. Perhaps I am too soft. But in recent discussions about the death penalty, I take this Mussulman argument to heart. We must shake off the atheist notion — now prevalent even in Rome — that death is simply The End. For truly, we shall all die, and when we do we will learn that it is more like The Beginning.