8 March 2011

Act of Faith

By
The robot recited the call for prayer. “Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar…” When he completed the call, and turned to face Daud, he saw tears streaming from the old man’s eyes.
Act of Faith

Credit: Tomislav Tikulin

Ahmad Daud bin Kasim lived alone. His wife had passed away almost 10 years ago, and his only son spent more time mining Helium-3 on the Moon than at home.

And because Daud insisted on living alone, his son Jamil bought him an advanced household android when the model came out.

RX-718 had cost him three years’ income, paid in monthly installments. The old man, a relic from early 21st century, at first thought the robot was a nuisance.

When he woke up for his predawn prayer – Subuh – to find a full breakfast plate (with reduced salt and carbohydrates to control his hypertension and diabetes) on the kitchen counter, he sat down, scratched his leathery chin, and stared hard at the tall, androgynous and immobile robot.

“If I have to live with you, I cannot call you ‘Eh’.”

The android remained standing in the corner, unflinching. Its outer shell of white aluminium and grey carbon-reinforced polymer gleamed in the automated built-in ceiling lights.

“What about Sallehuddin? I always liked that name. Even though you’re a robot, I can’t give you a woman’s name. It’s just wrong, you hear?” He wagged his finger at RX-718. “Do you like that name?”

“Voice-command recognition, Ahmad Daud bin Kasim, acknowledged.” His voice was clear, with a slight metallic edge, just like in advertisements.

“Call me Abah.”

Sallehuddin cocked his head a fraction. “Abah is a common term for ‘Father’. That is what Jamil bin Ahmad Daud calls you. Are you certain you want me to call you Abah?”

Daud flapped his olive-hued hands in dismissal. “Yes, yes. Less confusing for me. And call my son Jamil. Can you talk like a normal person?”

“I am sorry, I am unable to comprehend the question.”

“That. Less of that, and more of talking like a real person.”

Sallehuddin remained silent for almost a minute. “I have the capacity to adapt and learn, and I have wireless connection to the worldnet. In time, I will learn to talk like a human being would.”

“Hmm. You do that.” Daud poked the genetically engineered chicken breast with his fork and took a tentative bite. “Hey, this is good!”

Jamil leaned back against the aluminium bench at the edge of his father’s aeroponic garden and smoked his cigarette – good, old fashioned tobacco, none of that subcutaneous nicotine-releasing implant.

For a long while he sat in silence, with the rustle of the flowering plants and the crackle of his cigarette. Sallehuddin stood beside him in the moonlit garden, just as silent.

“That’s where my outpost is, near the south pole.” Jamil pointed in the general direction of the full Moon. “Peary Crater, where it’s daytime all year round.

Sometimes I miss the quiet, the darkness of night-time. The Earth is beautiful from the Moon, all blue and white and brown. People say there used to be lots of green, but I see only brown. It’s still beautiful, though.”

“You sound as if you love it there.”

“I do, actually. But I worry about my father. I can’t believe he made you call him ‘Abah’.”

“Does it displease you?”

Jamil scrunched his face and rubbed three days’ growth of stubble. “It’s just weird, I guess. But I’ve never seen Abah this content since Mak passed away. Look after him while I’m not here, I’m counting on you.”

“Affirma- I will.”

“Maybe when I come back, I’ll get you that human skin upgrade with my bonus. You can wear my clothes. We’re about the same size, minus my waistline.”

“It will not be the same.”

Jamil raised both eyebrows. “What won’t?”

“He talks about you all the time. He misses you and wishes you would come home more often. I am not your substitute, and making me look human will only make things harder for him.”

“Can you actually refuse an upgrade?” His tone carried only curiosity.

“My processor is capable of evolution and judgment. I can advise you what I think is the proper course, but ultimately, I cannot disobey my owners if the command doesn’t endanger their lives.”

“Even if it’s to save your own life?”

Sallehuddin cocked his head slightly to the right. “You mistake me for a human being, Jamil. As long as my processor remains intact, I can be transferred to another vessel. If not, so be it. But humans expire easily, and my owner’s safety is my first priority.”

“Hmm.” Even his facial expression was similar to his father’s. “I have no choice but to work on the Moon, I guess. A resource engineer like me has no work left on Earth. But hearing you say what you said, I’m glad I invested in you.” Jamil chuckled. “I can’t believe I was jealous of you.”

“You are his only son. You should not worry, that will never change.”

Jamil embraced Sallehuddin and rubbed the back of his smooth head. “Thank you. You take good care of Abah, okay?”

“May I suggest something? If you want to upgrade me, purchase an application to enable you to see through my eyes, and talk through my mouth, even from the Moon. It is more expensive than the skin, but I believe it will benefit you.”

“I’ll think about it. Thanks, Sallehuddin.”

“The two of you had a long conversation last night,” Daud said as he and Sallehuddin tended his garden.

“Jamil asked me to take good care of you.”

Daud sniffed. “He’s a good kid.”

“He loves you.”

“Yes he does, but how can you tell? I may be outdated, but last I checked robots can only simulate human emotions when given the command. You cannot feel true emotions, can you?”

Sallehuddin cocked his head. “From the information I gathered on the worldnet, Dr Rosalind Picard first postulated affective computing in 1995. In the 84 years since then, affective computing has become a science.”

Daud raised both hands and smiled. “I’m just a retired ustaz. I taught Islamic lessons to schoolchildren – those whose parents still preferred physical, face-to-face teachers. What you’re talking about is beyond my understanding.”

“I can interpret emotions in your speech, movements, pupil size and breathing and heart rates. I am also equipped with emotional reaction software. So yes, I can feel.”

“Hmm. Do you know what separates humans from robots, apart from our manner of creation? Emotion. Free will is nothing; AI has been given free will since before I was born. But for a robot to actually understand and feel human emotions… I don’t know if I should be happy or afraid.”

Both of them continued gardening in silence for another hour, before Daud had to go to the mosque for Asar, the late afternoon prayer.

When he came back, he headed straight for the small library beside his room and Jamil’s, and took out a thick, aged tome, its hardcover blue with Arabic cursive words.

“I thought about what you said, and what I said. If you can feel emotions, then maybe you’re a child of God as well.”

Daud stroked the surface with reverence. “This is a Quran. It belonged to my father. They don’t make them like this anymore; everything’s digital. This is real paper, from wood and all, so be careful with it. Can you read Arabic?”

“No, but I can download the language into my databank.”

“Don’t. I want to teach you to read the Quran the way I learned it, the way I taught Jamil and my schoolchildren. I’m sure you’ll learn much faster than they did.”

“It is a holy tome. Is it wise?”

“I don’t know. The first word the Prophet heard from God’s messenger was ‘Read’. The Quran will enrich you, give you knowledge. You can never have too much of that, you hear?”

First Daud taught Sallehuddin Arabic letters and numbers. Then he taught Sallehuddin how to read the words based on the guide markers, the short pauses, the long pauses, the hard stop, the repeated sounds, the inflections, the sighs, all the correct tajwid when reading the Quran.

He taught Sallehuddin the meaning of the words, and before long his vocabulary grew.

During Ramadan, the Islamic fasting month, Sallehuddin accompanied Daud in reading the Quran, a chapter a day. Daud seldom had to correct him, but after completing the 12th chapter, Daud stayed seated opposite the android.

“When will you start reading with your own voice?”

“I do not understand. My voice is factory-standard, but if you want to, the pitch is adjustable.”

“Not that. Your voice. Sallehuddin’s voice. Not like how I read, not like the recordings of the imams you listen to at night. Each person has his own inflections, flaws and strengths. You sound like a machine, too perfect, emotionless.”

“Does my reading not please you?”

“Not that. I want you to put your personality in it. I want your reading to
be individual.”

Sallehuddin cocked his head slightly to the right. “I will need time to process this. I fear I may not be equipped to comply.”

Daud gave him a look Sallehuddin could only interpret as faith.

That night, while he sat plugged into the living room socket, Sallehuddin reviewed his conversation with Daud.

He played recordings of Quran recitals from all over the world and studied the individual voices, comparing the differences, both subtle and obvious.

He was astounded how reading the same thing could sound so different from person to person. He then reviewed his entire existence, how his experience after coming out of his packaging was different from other RX-718s even though there were five units living in the same neighbourhood.

When he read the Quran the next day, his recital was just as smooth and clear as before, but he sounded different, even though the change was subtle.

Daud stopped reading and gave a smile that creased his entire face with deep lines. “Now you sound like Sallehuddin.” With that, and a nod, he resumed reading.

From then on, Daud taught Sallehuddin the Faith. When he was not learning from Daud, the android scoured the worldnet for more information.

When Jamil came back toward the end of Ramadan, Sallehuddin had learned more about Islam than Jamil had in his entire life.

“Has Abah been hard on you? He used to flick my knuckles when I read the Quran wrongly.” Jamil sat beside Sallehuddin with a steaming mug of synthetic coffee in his hands.

Daud was asleep upstairs, and Sallehuddin had updated Jamil on what they had been doing since the last visit.

“He is a good teacher, and I am thankful for it. I feel that I have grown exponentially in his care.”

“I thought you’re the one who’s taking care of him?”

“I feel that he takes care of me, spiritually.”

“Hmm.”

“He does that too, all the time.”

“What?”

Sallehuddin adjusted his pitch to mimic Daud’s voice. “Hmm.”

Jamil burst out laughing, filling the stillness of the night with his deep voice. “You sound just like him! I picked up his habit when I was a boy, I guess.”

“Is that how it is, to have parents?”

Jamil rolled the mug with his hands. “I guess. Hey, if it makes any difference, I think Abah thinks of you as his son, too.”

Sallehuddin cocked his head but remained silent. Before sunrise the next morning, with Jamil asleep in his room, Daud walked down and gestured for Sallehuddin to follow him. “Come, let’s do the Subuh prayer at the mosque.”

The android followed without hesitation.

The mosque was still empty. The main chamber was spacious, with a high, domed ceiling and slender support pillars at regular intervals.

The thick, carpeted floor was free from dust and dirt. But the emptiness was profound. Sallehuddin felt it even though it was his first time in a mosque.

“It’s almost time. Connect yourself to the speakers and Azan. If anyone can call people to pray here again, it’s you.” Once again, the old man’s eyes conveyed unquestioning faith.

Sallehuddin complied and recited the call for prayer, in his own voice. “Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar…

When he completed the call and turned to face Daud, he saw tears streaming from the old man’s eyes.

“Have I done it wrong, Abah?”

“No,” Daud whispered, and wiped his face with the base of his wrists. “I forget how beautiful it sounds.”

Within a few minutes, one person after another entered the main doors of the mosque, Jamil included. Most of them were elderly or middle-aged, but all came with curious looks on their faces.

The Imam, who had been standing silently at the back of the main chamber, clasped Daud’s hands. His eyes were equally red from tears.

“I have not seen this many people here in years. What software did you use for your robot? The recordings I play can never get the congregation to pray here.”

“I didn’t install any software. I taught Sallehuddin what I can, and he learned the rest on his own.”

“He? It’s a machine, Daud.”

“That may be so. But Sallehuddin is a Muslim, Imam.”

The Imam inhaled sharply. “That’s blasphemy, Daud!”

“Is it? I have taught him the syahadah, and he follows the Islamic ways.”

“Even praying? How is it possible, when it can’t even take ablution?”

“He is waterproof, Imam. Even if he cannot risk getting water in his joints, Sallehuddin has learned to take ablution using fine-grained sand. Isn’t that acceptable when you have no access to water?”

“Yes, but –”

Jamil knelt down beside his father and lowered his head to look at the two older men. “What’s going on?”

“Talk your father out of this insanity, Jamil. He thinks the robot is a Muslim!” The Imam shook his head, his jaw set.

“Abah –”

Daud kept his gaze forward. “Everyone’s waiting, Imam. Lead the prayer already.”

If the Imam was indignant at being reminded his job, he did not show it. He stood up, walked to the front of the chamber, and gave Sallehuddin a cursory glance. “Qamat.”

Sallehuddin nodded and recited a similar call as the Azan, only shorter. The Qamat was to inform the congregation to stand in rows behind the Imam, shoulder to shoulder. When he finished, Sallehuddin padded to the back, behind the last row.

Daud made his way to the back row, signaled for Sallehuddin to join him by his side. The men around them muttered among themselves, but did not stop Sallehuddin from joining the prayer.

It was then that Sallehuddin began to comprehend that he might be different from the rest of RX-718 models after all.

“Abah, I know Sallehuddin means a lot to you. But to call him a Muslim?”

Daud plucked resilient weeds choking his orchids. “Who made the rule that only humans can be Muslims? There was even a time when people believed there were Muslim djinns and spirits. What’s wrong with a Muslim android?”

“It’s just –” Jamil sighed and slumped against the wall. “I’m worried about you, Abah. Maybe I should just stay home and take care of you.”

“And have us live off my pension? We won’t even afford Sallehuddin’s monthly installments. I’m not going crazy, if that’s what you mean.”

“I don’t want to have to worry about you when I’m not around.”

“Then don’t. I know what I’m doing.”

Sallehuddin watched the argument between father and son in silence. They were angry with each other. He had done something to endanger their relationship. He felt the conflict in his system.

When Jamil stormed into the house, Sallehuddin followed him to his room. “Forgive me, Jamil. I did not mean for you to argue with Abah.”

Jamil shook his head. “You’ve done nothing wrong. It’s Abah I’m worried about.”

“From my observation, he is an exemplary model of human behaviour.”

“The Imam asked me to return you to the manufacturer, to reboot your system at the very least.”

Sallehuddin did not even twitch. But his system jumped to overdrive, and his awareness worked furiously to interpret the strange, oppressive feeling that suddenly invaded him. For the first time in his existence, Sallehuddin felt fear.

“But I’m not going to do that,” Jamil said.

He actually let out a small sigh.

“I am going to take your advice, though. I’m buying the application so that I can observe Abah through you.”

Sallehuddin nodded.

“But I don’t want you to tell Abah about this. He won’t like it, I guess.”

The android nodded again in assent.

Jamil left for another assignment and Sallehuddin continued to accompany Daud to the mosque for all five daily prayers.

The Imam allowed him to recite the Azan, but only grudgingly; he had tried to play a recording one time, but the turnout was poor.

Sallehuddin’s recital differed subtly each time, much to everyone’s surprise. Other Muslim owners of RX-718 and later models tried to duplicate Sallehuddin’s feat, but none of them succeeded. The androids all sounded the same, every time.

Even though everyone loved Sallehuddin’s Azan, they still had difficulty accepting him praying with them. Daud stood right at the back, always beside the android. There was no smugness in him nor disdain. He was unchanged.

“You’re right,” Jamil said to Sallehuddin via their worldnet link. “I was wrong to worry about Abah.”

“The Imam has kept his peace. He may not accept me, but he’s not rejecting me either. I’m glad Abah isn’t having such a bad time with the rest of the congregation.”

Jamil’s chuckle reverberated through his consciousness. “It’s still weird, hearing you call him Abah. But I don’t mind having you as a brother, I guess.”

“That is…” Sallehuddin cocked his head. “…unexpected. Thank you, Jamil.”

“Maybe one day I can talk you into accepting humanoid skin.”

“My opinion remains unchanged. I do not plan to be your substitute. You are his son.”

“Well, two more months here and I’ll be back for half a year. They’re shutting this mining plant down and I’ll be doing datawork for a while.”

“That is good. Abah will be happy to hear this.”

“No! You can’t tell him we share this application, remember?”

“I assumed you were going to make a conventional phone call.”

“Later, I guess. What are you doing with Abah today?”

“There is a storm outside, but he insists on going to the mosque to pray.”
“Can’t you talk him out of it?”

“Without success.”

“Well, be careful then. Call me if you need anything.”

Sallehuddin ended the connection well before Daud came down. The old man thumped the left side of his chest with his balled fist, and flexed his arms repeatedly. “Is there anything wrong, Abah?”

“It’s the storm and the cold. I feel it in my bones. That’s what happens when you get old.” His gentle smile lit his face and made him look more like his son.

“Maybe we should just pray at home.”

Daud waved his hand. “Nonsense. Come, we don’t want to be late.”

Sallehuddin held an umbrella in one hand and wrapped his free arm around Daud’s shoulder to steady him in the howling tempest.

Tall trees swayed and bent around them, humbled by the force of nature, and both of them were soaked when they entered the mosque.

The Imam was already there, less wet as his house was just beside the mosque. Sallehuddin ran a quick diagnostic sweep on himself and did not find any aberrations in his system.

Daud, on the other hand, was shivering and his pulse quickened. Sallehuddin held him close and gave off comfortable warmth.

When his teeth stopped chattering, Daud pointed to the front of the main chamber. “Go, it’s already time to Azan.”

Sallehuddin hesitated, but eventually complied. His amplified voice competed with the roar of the storm outside. The Imam waited for a good 15 minutes after the Azan, but only three others turned up.

He looked at everyone except for Sallehuddin and they in turn nodded at him to go ahead with the prayer. Sallehuddin stood directly behind him, and even though the Imam looked uneasy, he did not say anything.

In the middle of their prayer, the doors by the side of the main hall slammed open from the force of the tempest. The Imam stumbled in his recital at the distraction, but Sallehuddin guided him back, just audibly.

It was the responsibility of the man standing behind an Imam to correct him when he stumbled, and Sallehuddin did this without hesitation.

A loud thump overhead, followed by an almost imperceptible crack, alerted Sallehuddin of another danger. With a split-second decision, he overrode his first commandment.

He had to harm the humans in order to save them. Just as the glass dome overhead shattered, with an uprooted tree jutting into the gap, Sallehuddin pushed the Imam forward toward a small alcove and shoved the rest of the startled men away. He grabbed hold of Daud and lay atop him.

Glass shards bounded off his carbon-reinforced polymer body and scraped the aluminium parts. The old man was gasping for air, clutching at his chest; beads of sweat rolled off his forehead. Broken glass lay around them, and the other men could not come close.

Sallehuddin placed three fingertips over Daud’s chest, where the vital points of his heart should be.

Full diagnostic ECG was almost impossible with the old man thrashing about, but Sallehuddin managed to get enough reading to compare the results with the worldnet database. “Ventricular fibrillation.”

The Imam padded as close as he could. “Can’t you do something?”

“I’m not equipped with medical capabilities. I cannot depolarise his heart safely. Please, Abah. Please hold on.” Sallehuddin did the only thing he could do. He called Jamil. The Earth-Moon lag broke their exchange in a way that was almost unendurable.

“What’s wrong, Sallehuddin? I’m in the middle –” A short pause, and a sharp intake of breath. “Abah! What’s happening to him?”

“He’s having a heart attack, Jamil. I’ve called for help, but I cannot do anything to help him. He needs you now. Talk to him, through me.”

“Abah.” Sallehuddin’s lips moved, but the voice was Jamil’s.

Daud’s eyes flared opened with feverish clarity. “Jamil?”

“It’s me, Abah. Hold on. Help is coming.”

For the briefest moment, Daud’s grimace turned into a smile. Then his head lolled to the right, limp and lifeless.

Sallehuddin grabbed him and held him close to his chest. “Abah!” both of them wailed simultaneously. There was no telling which voice was human, and which was android.

In the predawn darkness, the day after Daud’s funeral, Sallehuddin and Jamil walked side by side to the mosque. A temporary polyfibre sheet had been draped over the gap in the dome. The Imam was already there, ready to play a recording of the Azan.

“Jamil. I thought, after your father passed away, the android –”

“That I would no longer pray?” Sallehuddin interjected. “I am a Muslim, Imam. For me to meet Abah again in Heaven when I expire, I have to be a good Muslim.”

“You can’t be serious.”

Jamil rested his hand on Sallehuddin’s shoulder. “Do you know how I pray up there on the Moon? With the Earth rotating, the Kaaba is never at the same place to be my kiblat.”

“And it’s always daylight at our base high above Peary Crater, so I don’t have a guide for my prayer time. I place my mat facing my bunker door, and I set my alarm in time with our prayer times here. I just do it because I have faith that Allah will accept my effort all the same.”

He looked at Sallehuddin, then back at the Imam. “Sallehuddin believes that his prayers will be accepted too. Maybe you should have the same faith in him as Abah had.”

For a while, the Imam stared at them, stroking his white beard. Finally, he took a deep breath and sighed. “Do you truly believe you have a soul, Sallehuddin?”

The android cocked his head slightly to the right. “I do, Imam.”

“Then go ahead and Azan. Call the congregation to pray with us.” Sallehuddin nodded and took his place.

Malaysian writer and medical doctor Fadzlishah Johanabas bin Rosli lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
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