The teacher walked into the classroom with a big smile as I and my 20-odd classmates waited to hear our final marks. We had spent the term memorizing 20 pages of the Quran. Every Wednesday, the teacher called students one by one at random, recited a verse from within a 2-page section, and evaluated our ability to continue reciting by heart from that point, with perfect pronunciation of the letters and their accompanying qualities such as elision, nasalization, and vowel elongation. Being a foreigner among native Arab students, I avoided the teacher’s attention by sitting on the periphery of the classroom, out of her line of vision, hoping she would call on me last. It worked, because as she walked in, she looked to the center of the room.
“Because of your hard work and good hearts, I’ve decided to give each of you a full mark!” she exclaimed. The students were delighted, and blessed her for her generosity, but I sat annoyed in my corner seat. That’s not fair, I thought. I knew I wasn’t the best student in class, nor was I the worst. I wasn’t happy with the extra points and would rather have gotten the 80% I deserved. I felt the better students were cheated, and the poorer students were deceived. I felt invisible and, although I had sought it throughout the term, suddenly I was resentful. Why did it bother me when I clearly stood to benefit from the teacher’s blanket decision?
The dissimilarity between two verses in the Quran provided a clue. The first is “And those who were conscious of their Lord will be urged on in crowds towards Paradise until, when they reach it, they shall find its gates wide open, and its keepers will say to them, ‘Peace be upon you! You have done well! So enter to stay forever!’” (39:73) I hope to be of those led into Paradise amongst a crowd, where there will be an air of excitement and joyful anticipation, of mutual congratulations and camaraderie. But perhaps, despite the relief and thrill of the moment, I would feel just one of the masses: overlooked, insignificant and invisible in the crowd.
The second verse sets a different scene: “and every one of them will appear before Him (God) on Resurrection Day alone” (19:95). The prospect of being alone with God, presumably to review my earthly record of thoughts, words and deeds, was my Quran-memorizing-test anxiety multiplied by a million. The immediate reaction is dread, self-doubt, and the desire to be invisible, to get lost in the crowd, to be waved on toward my destiny without being singled out.
Which is better, I wondered: to be in the periphery and benefit from God’s overarching forgiveness and generosity to the crowd? Or to sit in the examination seat in His focused attention and scrutiny as I stutter my way through? Why does it matter as long as I achieve a passing grade?
It matters to me. It matters that I am seen, faults and all. It matters that God would take the time to look me in the eye, address me by name, listen to my voice, acknowledge my struggle, soothe my nerves, and allow me all the time I need to answer the questions on the test. It matters that I am singled out from the crowd, chosen for a brief encounter with God, whose presence I have sought for so long. Even if my mistakes are called out, it doesn’t matter, because it means He was paying attention. It means I wasn’t invisible. It means I mattered, even just a little, to Him.
I pray that the day I meet God will be my best day ever, and that my meeting alone with Him, after a lifetime of focus and practice, will get me the passing mark. And I would not foolishly object if He, in His overarching generosity, said, “Full mark!” despite my mistakes. Afterwards, it would be nice to join my colleagues from Life on Earth for a graduation party, and to walk in crowds toward the open doors of Paradise. It’s where I’ll know how special it is to be singled out from the crowd.