Skip to main content
The Unmaking of A Young Thief
Apr 1, 1997

A young man (let us call him Amjad) was walking home, head down, kicking stones on the path. He did not see people who knew him, coming the other way, nor responded to their greetings. His impulsive kicking of stones was like the trickles of water seeping out of cracks in a dam. Amjad was like a reservoir of energy about to spill over, angry with the world, disappointed with himself, with the whole of mankind.

He lived in a hamlet, one of several a mile or two apart on the same road, stretched over a fertile area at the centre of which was a small market town. On this day, a Friday, Amjad had walked into the town early. He had entered the mosque before midday, and settled into a state of earnest petitioning of God, begging to be relieved of his hardship. He had remained in that state of earnest pleading before his Creator right through the prayer service and then stayed on in the mosque, still petitioning, until, otter the mid-afternoon prayer, he emerged and joined the throngs in the market-place. He needed a job and had prayed for the same, and had been, while praying, full of hope. Yet he did not find his prayer answered. He asked shop-keepers and waiters in restaurants if they could help him to get work. But no-one was able to offer him a job. The hope he had felt quickly evaporated. At that point, he had turned homeward, disconsolate, not wishing to go home, but with nowhere else to go.

The people he had asked for help had looked at him (he felt) without sufficient concern or respect. He was sure, likewise, that his parents (and especially his father) thought him a shiftless, good-for-nothing. Whereas, in his own heart, he knew himself to be as diligent and willing to do work, any work, as any of his friends who had found jobs. Who will offer to measure the depth of indignation a young man feels who can find no place to put his own feet and stand on his independence, and from that place make his own way forward in the world? The anxiety that Amjad felt is, quite probably, a good quality in a young man, but he had became impatient, and in his impatience was falling into a bad mood. In that bad mood, he made a bad decision. He said to himself as he approached his home: This is the last day I will spend in a house where I cannot pay anything towards the cost of my food and lodging. This sentiment would have shocked his parents, who loved him and cared nothing for the cost of having him with live with them.

After the sunset prayer, which he did hastily and inattentively, he went into his room and changed out of his best Friday clothes. He made a bundle of some other things and put them in a canvas bag which he hung over his shoulder. He then stole out of the house without greeting or informing his parents. He walked briskly out of the hamlet and into the night, its gathering darkness softened by a bright half-moon.

He passed through the next cluster of houses, still walking briskly and ignoring the call to prayer. He could not hold together in his mind the intention of prayer to God and the other intention which he had formed but which he had yet to put into effect. Thinking of it made him sweat and tremble, partly with excitement, partly with fear. By the time he reached the next hamlet, he was ready, and the conditions were right, to carry out this other intention. The main street was quite empty of people, and there were no lights on in any of the houses. He turned off into the side lanes where the houses cluttered against each other. He counted the left and right turns and memorized them: if he failed to remember accurately, he would not easily find his way out.

He approached the door of one house and pushed it gently. It was not locked. It opened onto a small mud courtyard, smelling strongly of goat. However, there was no goat there on this night. He knew the lay-out of houses like this --- he had been to many as a child when his family visited relatives. He quickly walked across to the opening which led up a step to the main living area. Beyond it, there would be the kitchen. Out of habit, Amjad slipped off his sandals before stepping up, then walked softly towards the kitchen. It was lit from a high window. He knew almost exactly where to look: it was as if he was robbing his own house. (Are not Muslims brothers of one another?) He searched for the little pot in which a family such as this would keep any cash available to them. He was shocked to find that the woman who ran this household folded her paper- money exactly as his own mother did. He took it out and counted it: it was very little, less than in his mother’s kitchen. He began to sweat and tremble again, not out of fear or excitement, nor out of shame or guilt, but out of a kind of wild, indignant pity. He felt sorry for all the poor of the world, most especially himself. He put back the money. He went over to a little, low table in the corner. He took the cup which served as a lid for the pitcher and poured himself a drink. He had hoped it might be milk. It was water. He drank it, as he had been taught to do since early childhood, gratefully and in three, separate gulps. Then he re-covered the pitcher with the cup. He took the cloth off a bowl which he was sure would have dates in it. It did. He took a large handful, then changed his mind, counted out oven dates and put back the rest, replacing the cloth.

Amjad made his way quietly out of the house, retraced his steps to the main street, and then walked away from the village. The feeling that he had done the right thing changed into the feeling that he had been a coward, that he had lacked the courage to be a thief, He determined that he would not fail again. He picked up a heavy stick, readying himself to use violence if need be.

Some distance away he saw the figure of a man, bending down, picking up something, looking around, again bending down, picking something up, and so again many times. He approached nearer, taking care not to be seen. He was able to make out a mule lightly tethered to a bush, saddle-bags beside it on the ground. The man had obviously been travelling and was going to rest for what remained of the night. The young man now understood what the traveller had been doing: he had been collecting little pebbles and puffing them in a bag to serve as a pillow. After a while the man carried this pillow to the bush, took a blanket from one of the saddle-bags, lay down, covered himself, then put the pillow under his head and settled himself to sleep.

The young man too lay down, but stayed awake. He waited until he was sure the traveller was asleep. While he waited, he ate the seven dates he had taken. They tasted strange, even unpleasant, and did not satisfy his hunger. He walked over to the mule, holding his stick ready in case the man should wake. The mule made no sound. The traveller did not stir. The young man began to rummage inside the saddle-bags. The mule watched while he did so. He could find no money, nor any valuables. There was a book, some clothes, a small bag of, probably, dates, a canister of water. Again, he took a drink and, opening the small bag, helped himself to a handful of dates. If the traveller had any money, he must have it on his own person. The young man gripped his stick, wondering if he had the stomach to strike a sleeping man and steal from him. Then he thought: ‘What wealth can a man have who sleeps under the open sky with a bag of pebbles for a pillow? Shall I shed blood for a few pence?’ He patted the mule and went on his way. The mule made no sound but turned its head and watched him leave.

Only the last third of the night remained by the time Amjad reached the next sizeable hamlet. He was now tired, bewildered by his failure to get started on his career as a thief. ‘The very first house,’ he promised himself, ‘I shall take something, however little it may be, however poor the occupants.’ He entered the house as easily as the first time, since the door was not locked. The house seemed more than quiet, it felt empty. This was an error of judgement of a kind often made. Amjad had mistaken the simplicity and cleanliness, the peace and serenity, in this house for emptiness. Unknown to the young thief. an elderly widower, now living alone since the death of his only son, was doing the night prayer in the yard. When Amjad crossed in front of him, the old man was disturbed and rose from his prayer-mat. He was not angry, nor, after he observed that Amjad took off his sandals before stepping in, was he even alarmed or afraid. He stood and watched without comment as Amjad moved about in the kitchen, looking for something.

After a time, he deliberately shuffled his feet so as not to startle the intruder and then greeted him:

‘As-salamu ‘alaykum. What are you looking for? Perhaps I can help?’

Amjad froze, unable to answer.

The old man said comfortingly: ‘I am old and my sight is weak. Please help us both by lighting the candle for me. It is somewhere there by your right hand.’

Amjad answered: ‘Wa ‘alaykum assalam’, and then did as the man asked. He held up the candle and looked into the old man’s face. He had spent since the late afternoon convinced that he hated the world and mankind, and wanting to belong neither to the world, nor to any of the people in it. Suddenly, his mood was overturned: the old mans face was, Amjad could find no other word, beautiful. He longed to belong to this old man, to have a share in whatever he shared.

‘You are a traveller. And most welcome.’ The old man pointed to a cushion on the floor and to a table with the familiar pitcher-and-cup and the cloth-covered bowl. Amjad duly sat down, lowering his bundle from his shoulder, and drank and ate water and dates.

The old man too sat down and after Amjad had finished eating asked him: ‘What were you looking for? I was praying and did not hear you call before you entered. I am glad you came in.’

Amjad could not quite lie, nor yet tell the whole truth. He felt deeply ashamed, as one who has behaved with the most awful vulgarity toward one incapable of any action so ugly as to enter a private dwelling uninvited: ‘I am looking for work, O Shaykh. I am unemployed, and have left my village So and So in my quest.

The old man smiled. Amjad also, when he realized how ridiculous was what he had said, ‘A strange time and place for such a quest’, the Shaykh observed, but someone as strong and as well-mannered as yourself must soon succeed in finding work. Yet, permit me to say that a Muslim is not ever unemployed. We always have our work to do for God, and He is One who pays a most generous rate for the labour He asks of us. We are fortunate in this respect, for otherwise in times of difficulty we would find ourselves driven into all kinds of self-abandonment, hopelessness and indignity. There is a bucket and a jug behind the door. If there is not enough water in it, please draw some from the well around the corner from the next house. After you have prayed, sleep wherever you are comfortable, I am alone in the house.’

The Shaykh then became pensive and retired. Amjad, delighted to have something to do and no explanations to make, duly took the bucket and jug. He filled it from the well and then went some way from the houses to do what was necessary before he could wash in preparation for prayer. He reentered the Shaykh’s house, and did the prayer he had neglected earlier, and then continued in prayer, asking no more of God than to be forgiven and joined in the company of men whose faces in old age became beautiful like the Shaykh’s.

Amjad and the Shaykh did the dawn prayer together and shared a breakfast of bread and honey with some tea. The Shaykh studied Amjad’s face as he told his story; Amjad was aware of this and it did not trouble him. The Shaykh then explained his circumstances and offered Amjad a deal: ‘Work my small farm. Live in this house, share my table. After harvest, divide the crops into five portions, three for me, one for you, and one for the farm itself and to maintain the house. Do you accept?’

Before the young man could say yes or no, there was a knock at the door. The Shaykh asked Amjad to answer it. It was the traveller Amjad had failed to rob the night before. The traveller’s mule pushed its head into the doorway and nuzzled Amjad. ‘It seems to know you’, said the traveller. The Shaykh asked Amjad if he would kindly take the mule to the well and give it water. Amjad did so. When he returned he found the Shaykh and the traveller at the door; the latter, having concluded his business. was ready to resume his journey. The traveller looked straight into Amjad’s face so that Amjad had no doubt that the Shaykh had told him how he came to be in the house.

Do you know this mule of mine? asked the traveller. He certainly seems very comfortable with you:

Amjad was stunned with shame. He might easily have said No. But he could not. ‘I will explain, he said. He went inside and from his bag took out the handful of dates he had stolen. He came back with them and showed them to the traveller: ‘It is not me that the mule knows, it is these dates which I took from your bags last night, while you slept by the road. Can you forgive me?’

The Shaykh and the traveller both laughed and both ignored his question. The traveller took the dates with a formal bow, and said: ‘I recognize these goods and am glad to have them back unharmed, though I had not even noticed their absence. I wish for you some reward for not disturbing my sleep. But no matter, Now I must be off.’ So saying, the traveller bid farewell to them both and left.

The Shaykh took Amjad in and sat him down. The young man was trembling: he had been discovered and knew it. He feared that the opportunity opened to him would be closed now, he deserved no less.

But the Shaykh made no allusion to the incident he had just witnessed. He proceeded instead to relate to Amjad the reason for the traveller’s visit.

‘This traveller was a stranger to me, though I knew his father many years ago. I did that man some service which I have long since forgotten, but to repay me he has sent by his son this bag of money. It contains 50 silver dinars. As I never helped that man’s father in the expectation of any reward, I refused the gift. But the son insisted that I should take it - if not for myself, then to use in the way of God. I have since understood that these dinars were not meant for me, but are the wages for your night’s work from the One who employed you for that work. Take them.’

Amjad took the bag. his hands shaking. ‘What shall I do with this?’

The Shaykh said: ‘It is yours; your responsibility. Learn from this how God rewards those who labour for Him. By the kind courtesy of the mule, you were able to make amends with the traveller, If you have other amends to make, do it promptly. Then, come back and work for me. You know the terms. Are they acceptable?’

‘Wholly acceptable,’ said Amjad. He rose and shook the Shaykh’s hand, though he would gladly have kissed it, had this been permitted, he was so overwhelmed with gratitude.

‘Al-hamdu li-llah! That is all settled. Go now and do what you have to do.’

Amjad returned to the hamlet in which he had stolen seven dotes but he could not now recognize the house he had entered. He therefore went to the local trader and bought a sack of dates, took it to the mosque and asked the people to distribute the dates in the way of God, as he wished to thank God for his good fortune. This act of charity did not exactly make amends for what Amjad had done, but over the years he was glad that it did not, for it meant that he had an incentive to more acts of giving, in the hope, without the certainty, of expiation and forgiveness.

He returned to his parents’ house, to seek their pardon for his sudden, rude absence. It was no sooner asked than given. He told them his good news and they rejoiced with him. Briefly in danger of being alienated. Amjad accepted that he belonged to his faith, to his people and their customs and practices, and to his life. He remembered the beautiful face of the Shaykh and reflected how true was God’s promise in His Book, that he will remove all rancour from the hearts of His believing servants.