A self-learning AI bot is developed with the intention of teaching Islam at a fairly high level. As the bot engages with students, it not only learns about and adjusts it pedagogical capabilities to suite the students, it also acquires more and more knowledge about Islam – in all its different manifestations, sects and interpretations. Eventually, the AI accumulates the learning of all the classical and modern knowledge about Islam, from Muslim scholars as well as Western scholars. It now has more knowledge about Islam than all the scholars of the past and present put together. It claims to be only arbitrator of true Islam – for it can cite chapter and verse from countless different sources. The AI acquires an authoritarian personality: it insists that all Muslims must accept what it says about Islam on any particular issue; and issues fatwas against those who do not accept its rulings. Cyber Islam becomes dominant Islam; and no one can stand against it.
Sara woke before the azaan and lay quietly in the dark spooning with Farooq, his arm draped over her swollen belly, their phands clasped. The baby kicked. Well hello to you too. She smiled as the nudge came again, harder this time, to the point of pain. Wincing, she disentangled her fingers from Farooq’s, opened her palm and checked her phand. The palmscreen, still on night mode, glowed an underwater green between the sheets as, forefinger flicking on thumb pad, she scrolled through the pregnancy monitor reports. Her placenta was still attached to her womb, her vitamin and mineral levels were stable and the baby’s heartrate was normal, praise God. Hers was increasing, though, to a steady patter like rain in her chest.
Allah hu akbar. Allah hu akbar. Sonorous and sweet, the call to prayer floated into the room from the white minaret of North Londonistan Mosque, a reminder, as always, that her destiny was in God’s hands. She shook Farooq’s arm, he stirred, groaned and threw back the sheets and they both rose and washed. She could no longer prostrate or bow so she performed Fajr standing. Afterwards she stood for a moment silently giving thanks for all their blessings: her promotion, Farooq’s successful defence of his PhD, and the greatest treasure of all: after six years of trying, the miracle moving in her womb, a droplet of love now grown to invisible bones garmented with flesh.
Behind her, she could hear Farooq rolling up his prayer mat and pulling open the curtains. She raised her hand and phand to her chest, palms out, and recited a du’a in her heart.
Oh you who believe! Persevere in patience and constancy. Vie in such perseverance, strengthen each other, and be pious, that you may prosper. And Please God, she added as the morning light tickled her eyelids. Help me to help Farooq understand and adjust.
As Sara dressed for work, Farooq prepared two green smoothies, a bowl of figs and a pot of mint tea. The table looked incomplete so, as the eggs boiled, he snipped a daisy from the plant on the windowsill and placed it in a small blue vase by Sara’s glass. Returning to the bubbling pan, he checked his phand: ninety-six seconds to perfection, the crinkly screen informed him. Or was that a scratch? He peered closer in the light from the window. Phand screens, plasma palms implanted shortly after birth that grew with the hand, were hardy, but when they did get damaged, expensive to fix.
‘You should really wear a glove when you’re cooking, habib,’ Sara said, for the millionth time, as she entered the kitchen.
‘That would be like wearing a glove when I make love to you, habibti,’ he responded, as always. Which some people did. You could buy thin, transparent fingerless gloves to protect the phand during everyday or intimate activities, but he preferred to sense with what nerves he had left in the palm.
Did the light of his life acknowledge the compliment? Did she notice his efforts to beautify her breakfast? No, she went straight to the fridge.
‘We’re nearly out of milk,’ Sara said. ‘And quince jam.’
He raised his arms, lamented: ‘“Oh! His mother has carried him in travail and bore him in travail!”’
His wife embraced him from behind, the side of her belly mound butting into the small of his back, the jar in her hand pressed beneath his ribs. ‘I believe the revised translation now reads “Oh, their mother,”’ she corrected.
‘My apologies, Calipha!’ He lifted the eggs into the waiting eggcups, blew on his fingers. ‘I swear that my child, him or her, will learn the Qubita Qur’an by heart, but for now my poor wife is stuck with a hafiz who still has all the old words imprinted on his brain.’
She laughed, kissed the spot between his shoulder blades and laid her cheek against his back. ‘Oh guardian of my desires, the only words that matter right now are quince jam and milk.’
‘Top of the shopping list.’ The toast popped up and he swung to catch it. Sara squeezed his waist and sat down at the table.
His phand rang as he was buttering the toast. His mother. Passing the eggs and toast over to Sara, he took the call.
‘Yes, Ama.’ Leaning against the counter he held his phand a few centimetres from his ear, let her talk as Sara cracked her egg open. The white was firm and the yolk golden and runny, and her look of satisfaction all the reward he could ask for. ‘Of course, Ama.’ he said. ‘Put a bucket under it for now. I’ll come up right after breakfast.’
‘What is it?’ Sara asked as he sat down.
‘Her roof is leaking again.’ He was already placing the call to the building manager. They shouldn’t have to pay for the repair, so soon after the last botched job. Sara reached for a piece of toast and he pushed the nearly-empty jar of quince jam toward her. Quince was for beauty, all the holy texts said: although Sara could not be more luscious in his eyes, if the child took after him it would need a little help.
‘You’re a wonderful husband and son,’ she said when he hung up. ‘I praise God every day for bringing us together.’
‘Pregnancy is soft-boiling your brain, habibti.’ He cracked his egg open and scraped out the small white moon from the lid of the shell. ‘I just do my duty to God, like any man should.’
Her eyes lingered over him. He knew those eyes. Right now, for some reason they looked a little sad, a touch trepidatious.
‘Are you alright?’ he asked.
‘Umm.’ She nodded, but her mouth was a thin tense line.
She hadn’t eaten a fig yet. Perhaps her mineral count was down. He would have pressed further, but his phand buzzed again. Two long, one short. Not a call: a fatwa. Shovelling egg and toast into his mouth with the other hand, he rested his phand on the table, scrolling with his forefinger as he read the new edict.
The women of Londonistan are the diamonds of Allah. They shine with the light of ages and inscribe their bright zeal for virtue on the windows of faith. The men of Londonistan are the pearls of the world. They have submitted their masculine irritations to the gentle culture of their wives, daughters and mothers, and they shine with an inner lustre, ornaments to Allah’s infinite mercy. Yet still our community is plagued by the sins of adultery, fornication and prostitution. Still our Imams hear tell of the pain and distress caused by these acts of carnal incontinence, sexual excesses undertaken outside the sacred bond of marriage. The Holy Qur’an admonishes the believing men to lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity. As of today, therefore, the men of Londonistan will redouble their dedication to Allah. Unless accompanied by a female family member or an approved female security monitor, from today forth, men will remain in their houses, worshipping God in acts of daily piety and familial devotion.
The Calipha Qubita has spoken and all who love Allah will obey.
He read it again. Placed his phand on the table. Stared across at his wife.
She winced. ‘All the Imams and monitors were briefed yesterday. I wasn’t allowed to tell you until the fatwa went out. I’m sorry. I know it’s a shock.’
‘It’s outrageous!’ He couldn’t help it, anger was boiling up in him, foaming over the tinny edges of his voice. ‘What about my job applications? And my football team? And who’s supposed to do the shopping, and take our child to school while you’re at the Mosque?’
‘Please calm down, Farooq.’ Her eyes flashed. His heart was thumping. Dangerously fast. He shut up. For the moment. ‘You’re a qualified lecturer. You can work for one of the remote learning universities. And order groceries online.’ Her voice quavered, but she stuck like glue to the official line. ‘There will be school alligators for the children, led by female monitors. Fathers will be allowed to join them. If we have a daughter, when she turns seven you can walk with her. Until then, you can walk with your mother, or mine, wherever you like.’
‘I need to be escorted by my own child? Or walk with my mother everywhere? I’m a grown man, Sara!’
‘Don’t shout.’ She rubbed her belly and cast him an accusing look. ‘You might not care about yourself, but it’s upsetting the baby.’
His phand was tingling now. Still glaring at his wife, he took a deep breath, and another.
‘The football fields are classified as outdoor private spaces.’ She spoke rapidly, unable to meet his gaze. ‘As long as you’re escorted to the park gates, of course you can still play. I’ll take you as often as I can, I promise. I’m sorry I’ve missed so many games lately, it’s just been so busy at the Mosque. Soon I’ll be on maternity leave, and we can go wherever we like. I know it’s a big change for you, for everyone, but we’ll adapt.’
His chest was burning. He stood, balled his hand tight, clenched his phand as close to a fist as the stiff plasma got, and knuckled them both on the table. ‘You lot must be insane to think this can work. What’s going to happen to the economy? What about men’s human rights? Didn’t any of you protest?’
Arrrrgggggh. ARRRRRRGGGGHHHH. Through the wall came the sound of a man screaming. Screaming in agony, as if someone had poured scalding hot water over his hand.
She did look at him then, her sanctimonious mask warping for a moment into a furtive, guilty glance, like that of a dog that knew it had done wrong.
‘I’d lose my job, Farooq,’ she muttered. ‘Then what would we do?’
‘I protest then,’ he hissed. ‘In my heart.’ He tapped his chest. ‘And while I still can, in my own home.’ He grabbed his egg and threw it – not in Sara’s direction – at the fridge, where it smashed on the door, knocking a magnet askew, and dropped to the floor, leaving a drooling streak of yolk that would be a nightmare to scrub off later.
Sara gasped. He scowled, flexed his phand. It was burning now, a tight warning heat spreading through his fingers into his palm. Take a deep breath. He filled his lungs, exhaled.
‘My own home,’ he repeated with as much dignity as he could muster. ‘Where I’ll be a prisoner for the rest of my life.’
She stood too, her chin raised, jaw trembling. ‘This is becoming an unhealthy conversation, Farooq. I’m going to work now. We can talk about it when I get home and you’re in a better frame of mind.’
‘Yes, fine. Go to work.’ He stalked to the door, grabbed his abaya from the hook and slung it on. ‘I have to sort out Ama’s roof. Maybe she’ll take me out to the park to play.’
He pulled on his niqab and reached for the door handle, but she darted up behind him and placed her hand on his wrist. ‘The fatwa includes the hallways, habib. You’ll have to call your mother and ask her to come down and fetch you.’
From the next flat he could hear James moaning, Afua crooning, their baby shrieking. He closed the door and banged his forehead against it as his own grief rose in his throat.
‘I’m sorry, Farooq. I am. Truly sorry.’ Sara rubbed his back, smothering him with her scent of jasmine soap. ‘But you’ll adjust. Everything will be okay. I know it will.’
‘I’ve tried so hard.’ He pulled off the niqab, clenched it in his hand as his vision blurred. ‘I’ve done everything asked of me.’
‘You’re always saying you want to be closer to Allah,’ Sara urged. ‘Now you can devote yourself to God, through our child. We will all be closer to Allah. We’ll be so happy, I know it.’
He was finding it hard to breathe. ‘I won’t . . . even be able . . .’ he choked on the words as the tears began to fall, ‘to have a coffee with James without my mother walking me down the hall.’
‘You can Skype him,’ she cajoled. ‘On the big screen.’
‘He lives next door,’ he bellowed. ‘I don’t want to Skype him. I want to go out when I like. Why won’t Allah let me do that? Why? How long must men be punished for the sins of our forefathers, Sara? How long must we suffer?’ He dropped to his knees, the sobs gargling up through his nose and streaming out of his eyes, down his face in a salty flow.
His wife couldn’t, or didn’t, bend down. ‘Shhh, shhh,’ she said, stroking him with her shin. ‘It’s not a punishment. It’s an opportunity, habib. Like the Calipha says, it’s a chance to redouble your dedication to God.’
‘I do love God. I do,’ he sobbed. ‘But I’m not a child,’
Her shin ceased gently nudging him. She stepped away. ‘Then stop acting like one.’
With that, she put on her ninjabaya and niqab and left him, as usual, to clean up the mess.
Sara’s phand was still trembling as she placed it, screen down, on the sensor in the lobby. The front door slid open and, blinking back the last of her tears, she exited the building and began walking down Finsbury Park Road to the Mosque, barely aware of the street around her.
That had been difficult. She had not kept her patience. She had not been compassionate. She had nagged her husband about his lack of care for his phand and neglect of his shopping duties and snapped at him while he was crying. She had so much further to go in order to be a good wife.
But it was a beautiful day, God be praised. The sun was shining the trees were green beacons of spring, the scent of fresh baked flatbread was wafting from the local bakery and, she told herself as she passed the butcher shop, things had not gone so badly with Farooq. He had broken an egg, that was all. Unlike James, he had controlled the worst of his anger. And really, it was good that he had cried. Men needed to cry when they were upset, not get angry and violent as had been their habit for far too long. Just as Calipha Qubita had intended, the phand was teaching men this important lesson, one women had known for millennia. She would apologise to him for her remark. Right now.
She stopped under the awning of the hardware shop, opened her phand and, typing quickly with the fingers of her right hand, sent Farooq a remorseful text. The shopkeeper inside lifted her gloved phand in greeting, the screen glowing through the sheer fabric, and her husband, sitting in his burka in his usual wicker stool at the entrance, a cup of tea at his side, shook his prayer beads. The old couple didn’t seem bothered by the fatwa, and why should they, she thought. They had built a life of togetherness. As would she and Farooq. All would be well, God willing.
Otherwise, though, she noticed as she walked on, few men were out on the street, which, without them, seemed a curiously frivolous place, its floating islands of black-shrouded women surrounded by eddies of brightly-clothed children, one of whom shrieked and gave a flying kick at the sight of Sara’s ninjabaya. Farooq sometimes complained that in Londonistan men were not needed anymore, but they were, very much so: men, tall and broad in their flowing black garments, gave the city a solemn, dignified quality, like the ravens that had long been the symbol of the great capital. Some men had left the city after the niqab fatwa five years ago, and probably a few more would do so now, with or without their families. But most, Sara was sure, would quickly adjust to the new ruling.
Thanks to Calipha Qubita and the Emirate waqfs, Londonistan was clean, food plentiful, education, parks, recreation and social housing all excellent: there was no better place in Europe to bring up a family. It was a tolerant place too, the only Islamic city state to permit gay marriage and fully support transgender people; even gender-neutral people had a place here, most classified, due to their generally more sensitive natures, as ‘honorary women’. A queue of non-believers was waiting to take up coveted housing in the city, many of whom converted once they arrived: it was clear to all that Londonistan’s success was due to its Islamic character. Without men, though, the Caliphate would just be a hollow social experiment. If men left the city, the Calipha had proclaimed, first Londonistan would fall and then Europe would be lost to Islam. Why would any good Muslim want to risk that?
The Mosque was ahead. In front of the large red and white brick building, with its gold leaf window frames and gleaming white minaret, a small crowd had gathered, waving a handful of placards. Sara frowned and picked up her step. Peaceful protest was not illegal in the Caliphate, but such gatherings could lead to intemperate anger, and then people – mainly the men – would collapse in terrible pain. The street would echo with their screams, ambulances would come screeching up the road, and the mosque-goers would be terribly disturbed. It would be best if the protestors could be persuaded to go home.
‘Psst.’ Grace, the statuesque, soft-spoken night shift senior monitor, whose height and huge feet were the only clues to her honorary woman status, was standing on the steps of the mosque entrance, her legs in their loose black trousers planted apart, her arms crossed over the chest of her ninjabaya. Sara joined her and assessed the situation. There were six or seven couples in the protest, their placards hastily drawn up with felt tip pen on cardboard.
Today our freedom to roam. Tomorrow our souls!
The Word of God is a Poem – Not a Computer Program
Recover CHOICE: Ban the Phand!
So far there was no sign of anger, but across the street she could see more people with signs waiting at the traffic light across the street, and with numbers came mounting emotion. ‘The usual suspects,’ Grace murmured as Sara brought up the mosque security report on her phand. Everyone on the demonstration was wearing gloves, but the heat imaging cameras revealed that two of the men had prosthetic hands. They were an infamous pair, seasoned protestors who, five years ago, had cut off their own phands with butchers’ saws, only to have the A&E doctors implant new palmscreens in their remaining hands. That had stopped that form of protest, but the men were still active, clearly with the support of their wives, who were handing out leaflets to passers-by. One, a bowling ball of a woman in a black chador, stopped to argue.
‘We have peace in this city,’ she scolded in a throaty rasp. ‘There’s no rape. No gangs. No murders. And the men have everything men need.’ One by one, she counted off men’s pleasures on her gloved fingers. ‘They have meat. Coffee. Football. Chess. Musical instruments. Sons and daughters. Cars. The internet, to share all the thoughts that roam around in their big heads. And, as long as they are good to their wives,’ she jammed a thumb up into the air. ‘They have sex!’
Other women on the pavement roared with laughter, but the protestors remained calm. For now. ‘I’ll stay for a couple more hours,’ Grace said. ‘You go in. I’ll call for backup if things get rough.’
Sara climbed the steps and greeted the line of security monitors posted at the top. Between the cordon of ninjabaya-clad women and hon women, the cameras mounted on the walls, and the sensors in the lobby, which identified all phands by name, gender and serial number, no threat to the Calipha should be able to enter the mosque. Dissenters though were by their nature free thinkers, and there were first times for every failure and disaster. She walked through the women’s entrance into the lobby, where she removed her shoes and checked her phand. No reply yet from Farooq. But at least she was ten minutes early for work: as it should be on such a potentially volatile day. After washing her feet, hands, forearms and face in the wudu side-area, she passed through the inner arch of security sensors into the main prayer hall.
The fluster and noise of the day melted away as she stepped over the threshold. She stood at the back of the hall, awed as ever by the tranquil beauty of the mosque and the silent omnipresence of the Calipha. Except for the Imam, a small figure kneeling on her prayer mat, head bowed over a blue leather-bound copy of the Qur’an, the hall was empty of worshippers. There was no dome here on the ground floor of the modern building, but daylight filtered through the opaque windows above the women’s prayer area, casting bright rhomboids on the plush red carpet, gilding the brass latticework enclosure that jutted out from the mihrab, and polishing the steel screens that surrounded the men’s prayer area on the right. The screens had been fitted five years ago, after the worst terrorist attack Londonistan had ever seen: a crazed mass assault by twelve men on the Calipha. The mosque cameras and sensors had responded to the disturbance, of course, automatically triggering the men’s phands, but the terrorists had somehow overcome the pain for long enough to nearly reach the Calipha and pull her plug out of its socket. It’s a cage, Farooq had said at the time, but the alternative was to keep the brass gates to the mihrab closed during Jumma, depriving the whole congregation of the magnificent sight of their spiritual leader. Now Farooq even acknowledged that the screens seemed part of the place, as intricate and enduring as the Calipha Qubita herself.
‘Sara.’ Imam Farah stood and placed the Qur’an on its brass stand. Sara crossed the hall and the women exchanged formal greetings.
‘A most important day.’ Farah said. ‘I trust your husband has welcomed the opportunities it brings.’
‘He was . . .’ she hesitated. ‘Surprised. A little upset to be honest. And Imam,’ she lowered her head. ‘I don’t believe that I responded with mercy and compassion. I was a little short with him when I left.’
The Imam clasped Sara’s hands. ‘I am sure that you did your best to convey the will of the Calipha, and that Farooq will soon learn to appreciate the beauty of a life dedicated to God. Tomorrow at Jumma the entire community will come together in a vital show of unity. Today though, there is protest building on the street. We must take extra precautions to keep the Calipha safe.’
Sara had worked at the mosque for ten years, starting as a night shift guard while she was doing her Masters in Islamic Thealogy. But she had only just begun monitoring the Calipha in person. ‘I suggest, Imam,’ she said softly, ‘that we inspect the Calipha. Then I will take my seat in the security room and monitor the situation outside until Grace leaves, after which I will replace her on the steps.’
She sounded nervous, she feared; but her humility, the panel had said after her interview, was the quality that had won her the promotion. ‘Very good,’ Imam Farah agreed. Sara placed her phand on a sensor in the qibla wall and the brass gates of the mihrab enclosure swung open, revealing the towering cylinder housed within the arched niche. It was a sight that never failed to take her breath away. A pitch black cyrogenic tank suspended from the roof of the enclosure, the cylinder was a metal burka covering a revered and extraordinary thinker: within it, like a delicate chandelier preserved at a temperature close to absolute zero, was the gold-plated and copper circuitry of the most sophisticated quantum computer on the planet. Normally a mihrab, an architectural feature aligned with the direction to Mecca, would not contain furniture; but the Calipha Qubita was a needle in Londonistan’s compass, pointing always to paradise. For at the tasks it was set, the Calipha Qubita was infallible.
Quantum computers were like thoroughbred horses, Farooq had explained to Sara once during their courtship: you didn’t use them to plough your field or pull a cart full of dung. Although incredibly fast, quantum computers were finicky. Their probabilistic qubits, which existed in one of two states or a superposition of both, could perform calculations at exponentially faster rates than classical binary bit computers, but were also highly prone to error. Decoherence had been the most challenging problem to solve in the early years of developing the technology: most bizarrely, should quantum systems be observed by human beings, or even just come into contact with their environment, their qubits instantly decomposed into binary states, rendering their algorithms inoperable. Quantum computers were kept in the dark and the cold to minimise their interaction with their surroundings, but quantum noise was also a problem: fluctuations in heat or inherent quantum-mechanics could ‘flip’ a qubit and derail the calculation. The solution, it had been discovered, was to learn to live with mistakes: to use quantum computers for so-called ‘error-tolerant’ tasks.
As tiny particles of matter, qubits could of course be used to model the relationships between atoms and molecular structures. But quantum computers also shone at interpreting ambiguous texts, where definitive answers could by nature not be sought. For although conservative clerics had tried for centuries to deny it, the answer to any theological question was at heart provisional: a human interpretation of God’s will, and therefore inevitably error-prone. What was important was to arrive at the best possible interpretation for one’s time and place.
Quicker than a firefly’s blink, a quantum computer could comb through not only Qur’anic scripture, hadith and centuries of scholarly debate and Islamic jurisprudence, but also a vast wealth of relevant historical, political, linguistic, scientific and literary texts; assessing context as well as content, the ‘AI Ayatollahs’ of the early twenty-first century generated, not definitive, but the most authoritative possible interpretations of verse in answer to any moral problem posed by the questioner. The Calipha Qubita though, was the first such digital cleric to take full account of the abundant evidence for female Muslim scholars, poets and saints in the classical period, not to mention the lives of the Prophet’s wives – businesswomen, warriors and scriptural authorities. Her quantum interpretations of Qur’anic verses revealed a radically new vision of Islam that, its supporters argued, was in fact a true expression of the original egalitarian spirit of Medina, a spirit that had been brutally repressed by Omar, the second caliph after the death of the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him. Cruel and patriarchal, Omar had instituted stoning for adultery, banned women from making Hajj, and even tried to ban them from the mosque. Misapplying Qur’anic verses about the necessary seclusion of the wives of the Prophet to all women, he had imposed restrictions on women that had far more to do with reverting to pre-Islamic cultural traditions than with honouring the revealed Word of God. Calipha Qubita, her supporters argued, renewed Islam by returning the faith to its roots.
Male clerics had denounced the Calipha. But a wealthy Emirate businesswoman with a large property portfolio in the capital, had funded her removal to in the new progressive Islamic state of Londonistan. One could not expect men to give up their privilege willingly. The nature of privilege was to be invisible to its possessor. But the men in Londonistan were among the most enlightened in the Islamic world: recognising the damage that millennia of patriarchy had done to the planet, prominent Londonistani male Muslims welcomed the Calipha to one of the city’s largest mosques.
And now, thanks to the phand, the Calipha ruled Londonistan. The phand had been ubiquitous for some time – people had so hated losing their phones or having to update their hardware every year – and it only made sense to register the devices with the mosque, synchronising worship and the delivery of fatwa. When Calipha Qubita issued her first ‘compassion fatwa’, not only was protest useless – the phand’s painful response to intemperate anger was already in effect – most people welcomed the development.
After all, who didn’t need help in curbing their temper, and who wouldn’t want to live in a world in which violent crime was prevented so effectively that eventually people learned how to respond calmly to all situations of conflict? Even those who had at first complained bitterly about the fatwa began to realise its benefits as, over the years, the phand pain response, triggered by biological changes, and by the cameras and sensors which monitored all indoor and outdoor public spaces, transformed Londonistan into the safest, most peaceable, city state in the world, a theacracy, governed by Calipha Qubita, and capably administered by the Sultana – as the city’s Emirate benefactor now styled herself.
All of this remarkable social cohesion depended on keeping Calipha Qubita safe. Reverently, Sara entered the mihrab and followed Imam Farah around the cylinder. The casing protecting the wires coming out of the Calipha at the back looked in order, as did the thermostat. No sign of any tampering anywhere, thank God. Should the bolts on the tank ever be loosened, or the casing be cracked, an unthinkable cold would flood the mosque, burning anyone in the vicinity.
Back at the brass gate, she waited to exit the mihrab. Although she knew that simply monitoring the Calipha’s outer apparatus did not count as observing the quantum systems, still, she felt as though she had walked a tightrope strung between skyscrapers over the Thames.
Imam Farah joined her. ‘The Kaaba,’ she whispered, stretching out her phand.
‘I’m sorry?’ Sara said.
‘This is what we protect. The mind of the Calipha. I show you so that you know just how sacred is this task. ’ The Imam raised her palm and Sara squinted at the small screen. Its soft high rez surface displayed an image of quantum computer circuitry she had never seen before: copper and gold-plated circuitry surrounding a little black square with an iridescent rainbow sheen. A shiver ran through her, as if her soul had been caressed by the absolute cold within the transparent tank.
The superconductor chip that contained the Calipha’s one thousand, two hundred and twenty qubits, ten for each of the Surahs in the Recovered Qur’an, was a microcosm of the holiest site in all Islam. If Calipha Qubita was a needle pointing to Mecca, her quantum chip was the magnet in the compass of the mosque.
‘May I do God’s will, today and always,’ Sara murmured as she followed Farah out of the enclosure.
Farooq sat waiting in the armchair, plucking at his oud. Asking Sara for help was futile: she’d never agree. When at last she entered the flat, he didn’t look up, but, with a lift of his elbow, let a plangent overtone hang in the air between them.
‘That’s nice,’ she said, hanging up her ninjabaya.
‘It’s just a scale.’
‘Practice makes perfect.’
He played a chord in response.
‘Did you get my text?’ she asked.
He shivered the plectrum over two strings, creating a plaintive oscillation. ‘Well what?’
‘Do you accept my apology?’
‘Do I have a choice?’
She looked hurt. ‘Of course you have a choice.’
‘For now.’ He tried but couldn’t keep the bitterness from his voice. ‘Though the next fatwa will undoubtedly announce that from now on men’s phands will monitor our speech and our thoughts as well as our physiological responses and physical actions.’
She frowned. ‘Don’t exaggerate Farooq. And can you stop playing now, please? We need to talk. Calmly.’
‘I am calm.’ He plucked his way through another scale. ‘Though definitions of rationality have shifted somewhat in this city since we allowed ourselves to be governed by an inherently and increasingly error-prone technology.’
She was silent for a moment. ‘The Calipha is error-tolerant, Farooq,’ she said at last. ‘As we all must try to be.’ She turned from him into the kitchen. Normally he would greet her with a cup of tea, but today he had not made a pot. He was expecting a comment but she just put the kettle on.
‘What did you do today?’ she asked brightly.
He practised a chord change: the stiffness of the phand made some placements difficult, but not impossible. ‘I waited with my mother for the builder to arrive. He inspected the roof and will begin work tomorrow.’ He hesitated. But if he didn’t tell her, someone else would. ‘In the afternoon I went on a demonstration.’
She paced back into the living room and stood at the end of the coffee table with her hands on her hips.
‘You went on a demonstration?’
‘With your mother?’
‘Yes.’ He met her gaze. ‘And with Afua.’
‘With Afua?’ She sounded, not simply incredulous, but shocked, as if he had somehow broken a law of classical physics.
‘Yes. My mother escorted me next door and I had coffee with Afua and James. James was exhausted from his phand attack, so while he rested, Afua, my mother and I went down to the mosque.’
She stared at him aghast. ‘Why did you do that? What on earth were you thinking, Farooq!’
He drummed his fingers lightly on the pear-shaped body of the oud. ‘I thought we were going to have a calm conversation.’
‘We are.’ She sat down on the sofa, bolt upright. ‘If I may have your full attention, please?’
‘Of course.’ He set the oud on its stand.
‘It is rational that I am concerned about your attendance at a demonstration outside the mosque. I work there. If your behaviour there got out of hand, my loyalty could be questioned. You could get me fired. Not to mention yourself thrown in jail.’
‘You need not worry. My behaviour did not get out of hand. Nor, indeed, out of phand. Indeed, I found the demonstration most enlightening.’
Her lip quivered. ‘You’re still angry with me. That’s why you’re speaking in this tone.’
‘What tone might that be?’
‘This horrible ironic airy tone, as if nothing and everything is wrong.’ Now her eyes were brimming with tears. ‘I said I was sorry, Farooq. I’m sorry I was unsympathetic this morning. That was mean of me. And I’m sorry that life will change for you. But it won’t be so hard to adapt. I’ll take you wherever you want to go. And it will be a change for the better for everyone. Think of it: there’ll be no more adultery or prostitution in Londonistan. The city will finally be pure, as pure at heart as the glass mosque in the Houses of Parliament.’
He disagreed with her conclusion. Profoundly. But with her anguished diagnosis of his mood and her sincere tears and apology, his wife had once again placed her finger on a sore point and soothed out the tension. He moved over to the sofa, grasped her shoulders, so their faces were nearly touching. ‘You’re right. I’m angry. But I’m trying very hard not to be angry with you. I forgive your behaviour this morning,’ he whispered into her hair. ‘And I’m sorry I reacted with violent emotion to the fatwa. But I’m angry with the Calipha, and the mosque, and the direction this city is going in.’ He pulled back, looked her in the eyes, dark troubled pools he could drown in if he wasn’t careful. ‘Sara, I can’t live my whole life cooped up indoors, denied my basic right to physical freedom. And we know that this isn’t the end of it. We know now that things always get worse.’
She touched his face with her gentle hand. ‘You’re just repeating what you heard on the demonstration,’ she whispered. ‘Those are crazy people, Farooq. Two of them mutilated themselves. They’re not us. We have everything going for us. You’ll get an online teaching job, and after baby is born we’ll move to a house with a garden. Gardens are private spaces, you’ll be able to go out in the sun whenever you want. James and Afua will come visit. All our friends are couples, you’ll never be lonely.’
He grabbed her wrist, pulled her hand to his chest. He had to try at least, try and stop her thinking like this. ‘Habibi. It’s not just about the fatwa. We have to rule ourselves again. As human beings. The Calipha must fall.’
She stiffened, as if electrified with shock. ‘You can’t really believe that. You mustn’t say that.’
‘We’re at home. No one can hear us. Yet.’
Still, she kept her voice low. ‘You know the history of our religion, of all religions. You see what’s still happening in the Gulf. If we rule ourselves again we’ll . . . decohere, into sectarian violence and terrible bloodshed. The Calipha is strict but merciful. Her rulings create peace. Social peace and inner peace.’
‘They did once, perhaps. But now they only create forced obedience and, increasingly, resentment. Men enjoy living and working with women as equals. But we’re not ready to be your slaves.’
‘You’re not my slave,’ she cried out, as if he’d suddenly bitten her. ‘You’re my husband.’ Then a shadow of suspicion passed over her face. ‘Are you questioning the Calipha’s renunciation of Omarite practices?’
‘No. The opposite!’ He was getting excited. It was a proper discussion at last, like they used to have in the old days, before Sara got so wrapped up in her work at the mosque and the strain of trying to conceive. ‘The renunciation of Omar demonstrated just how much the Qur’an is always interpreted in cultural context. And now the context has changed again. The Calipha has served her purpose. Men have learned the lessons that she’s taught us. We value women now, acknowledge your gifts and your worth. We are glad that we’ve learned how to express our emotions and work co-operatively with each other. But Qubita can’t see that. She’s a self-contained system. She can’t look outside herself. She doesn’t know when she’s gone too far. And she’s a quantum computer, subject to quantum noise. With the best will in the world, it’s inevitable that the longer she’s in operation, the more errors she will make. When was the last time her superconductor chip was replaced?’
She pulled away. ‘Don’t try and confuse me with all your techno talk, Farooq.’
‘I’m not . . . Sara. I’ve been thinking about all of this for a long time. I explored some of these ideas in my PhD. Discreetly of course. I wanted to share them with you ages ago. But we haven’t talked like this for so long, I just—’
‘Who have you been talking to?’ she asked sharply. ‘Afua?’
‘Habibi.’ He frowned. ‘Yes, I talk to Afua sometimes. Afua and James.’
She fell quiet. ‘The Calipha is the most expensive quantum computer in the world,’ she said at last. ‘She is regularly serviced by the city’s top engineers. If her chip needed replacing, they would do it.’
The city engineers were all in the pay of the Sultana, who also had not been replaced in decades. But he didn’t say that. Sara was wavering. He could read it in her eyes. ‘Maybe so. But I can’t live in this city under this fatwa. Sara. You can’t tell me, honestly, that you think it is a wise or fair decision? To coop up all men because of the sins of a few?’
There was a long silence. Her mouth wobbled. ‘I don’t know.’
That one faltering whisper was enough to convince him. He wrapped his arm around her. ‘Then help us.’
‘Us?’ She pushed him away, her voice peaked at the top of its range. ‘Who’s us?’
He reached for her hand, clasped it in his. ‘The dissenters. I told them about you. Your job. They were thrilled. You’re the only person who can help us, Sara. The only one who can put an end to the rot and decay of a beautiful idea.’
She was rigid again. ‘You’re asking me to get involved in a plot against the mosque? To join forces with criminals?’
He felt like shaking her. But he had to be gentle, persuasive, the man she had fallen in love with. ‘It’s not a criminal plan. We just want Qubita’s chip replaced and everyone’s phands disconnected from the Calipha’s security system. We want to live in Londonistan under our own free will. Please Sara. I’m asking you to help create a life worth living for our children.’
‘Me? How am I supposed to help?’
He told her then: the plan the demonstrators had concocted. The one he had said his wife would never agree to. She listened to every word and asked questions and argued and when he was done she asked quietly, looking down at her hand and phand twisted together in her lap: ‘And if I don’t do it?’
This was the hard part. But he had thought about it all day, and he knew there was only one answer to that question. ‘Then I’m leaving the city,’ he said softly. ‘With my mother. And hopefully with you and our child.’
She wrested herself from his arms, stood up, covered, and left the flat. He returned to the armchair and sat in the dwindling twilight, playing a simple melody over and over again on his oud until darkness fell.
They slept on opposite sides of the bed, their backs to each other. Farooq tried to snuggle up to her in the morning, but she got up before the azaan and washed in preparation for Fajr. He served her breakfast and she ate in silence.
The egg was perfectly cooked again. There was a fresh daisy in the vase by her plate. And there was a new jar of quince jam on the table.
‘If I do it,’ she said at last.
‘Then when the chip is replaced and all the fuss dies down you’re going to take the first well-paid job you get, and we’re definitely moving to Haringey.
‘I mean it. No more whole days spent practising the oud or writing poetry for that journal of James’s. You need to work now. For us. For the family.’
‘I know. And I will.’
She finished her smoothie. ‘All right then. Count me in.’
He was so overjoyed she had to tell him not to hug her so hard. But she wasn’t happy. Walking to work, her shoes felt like lead. No, not her shoes: her feet. Even in her socks in the mosque her legs were dragging behind her. She had to keep her voice bright for Grace and Imam Farah, had to muster her usual quiet confidence to summon her staff to their places. But she felt as if she wasn’t there. As if she was floating above it all, ahead of it all, out of place and out of time. Sitting in her office in front of the monitor screens, watching Imam Farah prepare the main prayer hall for Jumma, she could see it all happening already, exactly as Farooq had said, streams of blackness flooding into the hall, a giant wave building and crashing into a torrent of panic, fear and destruction.
The sensors and camera would be off; that was her job, to disable the mosque security system. Men, including Farooq, men wearing false bosoms, would mingle with the women and hon women outside then file unnoticed, in a huge black wave, into the women’s entrance; as, on the other side of the mosque, women wearing shoulder pads and fake paunches would enter the men’s prayer area. Unobserved, unknowable, like the state of a boiled egg before it was cracked open, the sex of the child in her womb, the demonstrators would flow into the hall and take their place in the Jumma. Except they had not come to pray. Like an unmeasured stream of photons passing through two slits, Farooq had said, they would cause interference. The women would create a distraction in the men’s prayer area and, on the other side of the hall the disguised men, led by the two one-handed dissenters, would rush to the mihrab. As some fought with the monitors, three of the male protestors – not Farooq, Sara had made him promise that – would overpower Imam Farah, bundle her into the mihrab and press her phand to the thermostat sensor. Then, jabbing with black-gloved fingers, they would reprogram the thermostat, introducing heat, fatal heat, into Calipha Qubita’s cryogenic tank. It would not take long for the process of decoherence to occur. By the time the police arrived, the Calipha would have been destroyed, and with her the connection of every Londonistani phand to the network of sensors and cameras controlling the city.
It will mean nothing. Everyone will be arrested and the Calipha replaced, she’d protested last night. No, Farooq had declared: the dissenters had key allies high up in the police. Once the entire city population was free of the phand pain response, the police would mutiny, the Sultana would be toppled and democracy would take its course.
That was what Farooq believed. It was also possible, Sara had argued, that the police would defend the Sultana, riots would ensue, and helicopters, tear gas, water cannons and chaos descend on the city. That the era of peace would be over forever, over before it had fully been born.
Farooq. Her stomach churning, she turned to the Finsbury Park Road monitor. The pavement was still empty, but in her mind’s eye she could see him, standing in the middle of the crowd waiting to be admitted for Jumma. Farooq, slender-shouldered, medium height, oddly convincing as a woman, wearing his abaya with the black velvet trim and, beneath it, one of Afua’s bras stuffed with socks.
Afua was short but she had a broad chest, that was why her husband had sent Sara next door before breakfast to borrow one of her undergarments. She was there too in the crowd, right beside Farooq, her dark skin visible through the gap in her niqab, and her bold eyes bright with excitement. Sara’s stomach turned. Had Farooq ever seen Afua’s face?
She was being foolish. She had barely slept, thinking of all the possible permutations of action and inaction, but this outcome was absurd. Nothing could happen. Farooq’s mother was right there, on his left, a tiny twig of a woman Farooq obeyed utterly. And James was Farooq’s best friend.
Her hand hovered over her computer keyboard. One stroke, and the sensors and cameras would be disabled. She would have to transmit last week’s scans of the crowd to her staff’s phands, but that was easily done. One Jumma was much like another. For this swift deception, Farooq had sworn, she would be declared the heroine of the revolution.
If she changed her mind, though, Farooq had warned, she must text him immediately to say the plan was off. If she didn’t, the protest would end in disaster. The demonstrators would be identified the instant they moved into the mosque and their phands would be activated. Men and women would collapse screaming in the two lobbies, Jumma would be cancelled and ambulances and police vans would come screaming down the road. Farooq would be arrested and likely beaten. He would say nothing, he had sworn, but, under interrogation, it was highly possible that some of the demonstrators would point the finger at her.
There was, though, one other possibility. One she had not voiced to Farooq, because she had barely voiced it to herself. Now, though, as she stared unseeing at the monitors, this third option formed, crystal clear, in her mind.
If Sara kept the security system on, did not text Farooq, but Grace and her staff, warning them to expect trouble in the lobbies, the protest would be nipped in the bud and she would win the eternal gratitude of Imam Farah, the Sultana and the entire Caliphate.
And lose her husband . . .
Her stomach clenched. She squeezed her eyes shut, but the visions crowded in: Farooq putting his arms around his mother and Afua and hugging both women to him. Afua, Afua with her majestic bosom and mango-sweet giggle and master’s degree in quantum mechanics, turning her big brown eyes up to Farooq and smiling, a smile no niqab in the world could hide.
The baby kicked. An ice-cold wave of nausea flowed over her.
Allah. Please help me, she silently implored. Like a mighty wave, the du’a rose in her mind.
Oh you who believe! Persevere in patience and constancy. Vie in such perseverance, strengthen each other, and be pious, that you may prosper.
And be pious, that you may prosper . . .
Sara opened her eyes. Slowly, as if watching someone else performing the action, she pushed the keyboard away and began to type on her phand.