Sheikh Bilal opened the tafsir to a marked page.
"We will begin with a question," he said. "It is particularly appropriate to this context. God, in His mercy, tells us that a good deed is recorded as soon as a person decides to perform it, while a bad deed is only recorded after it has been performed. But the world today is more complicated than it once was. So I present you with the following dilemma, posed to me by a young boy of my congregation: when one is playing a video game and his avatar consumes a piece of digital pork, has a sin been committed?"
Alif waited. "You're asking me?" he said when Sheikh Bilal was silent. "You're the alim. How am I supposed to know?"
"I'm interested in your opinion. I know very little about video games. It is my understanding that this boy is very involved in something called World of Battlecraft."
Alif sighed in exasperation. "I don't know. It doesn't matter." The great doors shrieked as though under pressure from a saw. "I really can't concentrate."
"It mattered very much to this young person. I was inclined to tell him that if he was worried, it probably was a sin, or at the very least, would weigh on him as one. For God also tells us that when you perform an action you believe to be a sin, it still counts as a sin even if it is proven to be permissible. Conscience. Conscience is the ultimate measure of man."
"All right, it's a sin," moaned Alif. "I don't care. I don't play Battlecraft. It's for teenagers."
"I'm not looking for any particular answer. Don't feel you must agree. I want to know what you think."
"I think people need a break. It's not like they're out there selling bacon and booze. They want to pretend for a few hours a day that we don't live in this awful hole getting squeezed by the State on one side and pious airheads on the other, all while smiling our shit-eating grins so that the oil companies keep shoveling money into our pockets. Surely God wouldn't mind people pretending life is better, even if it involves fictional pork."
"But isn't that a dangerous precedent? Fictional pork is one thing---one cannot smell it or taste it, and thus the temptation to go out and consume real pork is low. However, if we were to talk about fictional adultery---I know there are many people who do and say all kinds of dirty things online---then it would be another matter. Those are real desires manifesting themselves on the computer screen. Who knows how many adulterous relationships begin on the Internet and end in the bedroom?"
"And even if they don't," the sheikh continued, "who's to say the spiritual damage isn't real nonetheless? When two people form a relationship online, it isn't a fiction based on real life, it's real life based on a fiction. You believe the person you cannot see or touch is perfect, because she chooses to reveal only the things that she knows will please you. Surely that is dangerous indeed."
"You could say the same thing about an arranged marriage," said Alif.
Sheikh Bilal smiled a little ruefully. "Ah. Yes. You have me there."