Where was God on September 11th?

New York was grieving. Sorrow covered the horizons. The pain of separation and of missing family members, neighbors, citizens, humans could be felt in every corner of the country. That day was my personal day of “jihad” (“struggle”) - jihad with my pride and my identity as a Muslim. This is the true meaning of jihad - “struggle with one’s own ego and false pride.” I don’t ever recall that I had prayed so earnestly to God to spare attribution of such madness that was unleashed upon New York and Washington to the Muslims. I felt the pain and, perhaps for the first time in my entire life, I felt embarrassed at the thought that it could very well be my fellow Muslims who had committed this horrendous act of terrorism. How could these terrorists invoke God’s mercifulness and compassion when they had, through their evil act, put to shame the entire history of this great religion and its culture of toleration? Had Islam failed to teach them about the sacredness of human life? Hadn’t this God, whom they call the Merciful, the Compassionate Allah, given them the gift of the Revelation that regarded killing of one person “as though he had killed all of humankind”? (The Koran, 5:33). Hadn’t the founder of Islam, Muhammad (pbuh), taught that suicide, in any form and for any reason, was absolutely forbidden?

As I struggled to understand the meaning of the verse: “We shall show them Our signs in the horizons and in themselves, so that it is clear to them that it is the truth. Is it not enough that God is witness over everything?” (The Koran, 41:53), I realized that God was everywhere in the ruins, showing His signs and reminding human beings of the satanic forces “in themselves” to which they can succumb, while falling prey to self-deception that they were doing the bidding of the merciful God. In the days that followed, more and more information about the terrorists became available, including the five-page letter left in a suitcase in a car parked at Logan Airport in Boston. If anything, the fanatical mindset of Muslim extremists became obvious as I read: “If God grants any one of you an opportunity to kill, you should undertake it as an offering on behalf of your parents, for they are owed by you…. If you kill, you should plunder those you kill, for this is a sanctioned sunna (tradition) of the Prophet.” This was not only an attack on innocent people, as I reflected; it was also an attack on Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)!

It is true that Abrahamic religions teach that God is Just and that the implementation of justice is part of God’s purposes for human societies. Muslims, in general, believe that God’s sacred law, the Sharia, provides the scales of justice for Muslim polity. But who are these people who arrogate the right to define the parameters of divine justice, and inflict destruction on human society in the name of the Sharia? I am wondering how can God’s religion become a source of terror and meaningless destruction? Did God send humans on earth to destroy one another in His name? Or, did He send them to live in peace and harmony?

I continued to search for the religious sources of terrorism, if there were any, available to the extremists in the scriptures or in the tradition ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh). As I searched, I became aware that the term jihad, which is commonly used by these terrorists to legitimize their criminality, does not appear in the meaning of “holy war against the infidels” at all. In fact, terrorism, in any form, does not qualify as anything more than a cowardly act and an expression of rejection of God’s blessing of life. To be sure, the term “jihad” in the lexicon of these murderers does not appear in more than a contrived meaning to cover up the horror of their satanic behavior.

But this tone of false religiosity and misappropriation of religious teachings was not limited to these murderers. I was deeply troubled as I surfed the cyberspace and read some of the morally bankrupt comments about the tragedy circulated by self-righteous Muslim preachers and teachers and their lack of outrage in condemning terrorism in uncertain terms.  Almost every other Muslim leader or preacher was trying to provide an answer to: “Why do Muslims hate America?” The question manifested a distorted way of thinking about Islamic ethics of interpersonal relationships.  No attempt was spared to rationalize the horrendous act by justifying it either in political terms as the crisis connected with American foreign policy in the Middle East, or in religious terms as God’s punishment for the arrogance of Americans. Were not these same people arrogant in attributing the event to some far-fetched conspiracy? Such a defensive reflex of their thought was rooted in their lack of understanding of their ethical responsibility in the face of terrorism in the name of Islam. I was amazed at the arrogance of these Muslims, which allowed them to use God’s name and remembrance as a tool to destroy human lives and property. What kind of God do they believe in? I kept on asking over and over again.

I never doubted, even for a moment, that God was “witness over everything.” I was and remain heart-broken as I write my response to “Where was God on September 11?” At one point, the Koran reminded me: “No affliction befalls, except it be by the leave of God. Whosoever believes in God, He will guide his heart.  And God has knowledge of everything” (The Koran, 64:11).  How could I come to terms with this tragedy inflicted by human evil? Did God allow it? How could my heart be guided to God’s work in this tragedy? I looked around myself as I stood up to speak to thousands of students of the University of Virginia who had gathered for the candle-light vigil in the evening of September 11.  For the first time in my twenty-five years at the university I saw students sitting together on the lawn as a “family.” I became aware of the “connectedness” that emerged in the community during these days.  I received scores of phone calls, e-mails and cards of sympathy from Christian and Jewish friends, colleagues, students and the community at large.  It was as if I was in mourning and these were the messages of condolences.  And, indeed I was in mourning for the destruction of human life and for the attack on Islam by the so-called “soldiers of God.” I saw God in newly developing relationships among people.  It was the first time that I felt we had become a community in the university, in the city, and in the country as a whole.  I asked: “Had we become so negligent about one another that God had to remind us through this tragedy that life is meaningful only when you love or care for others?”  I searched through the spiritual wealth of Islam to find something that would speak to my anguish and the realization of my love and care for others.  It was in one of the poems of Jalaluddin Rumi that I discovered the lines that spoke to my pain:

Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place.  It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow.  Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.

So God is everywhere, in ruins and in broken hearts, reminding us of our fragility and our short stay on this earth.  A religious person of any faith lives in search of the Divine presence.  There is always a danger that I might put an exclusive claim that the Divine can be found only in what I believe or do, and hence, derogate and dismiss other humans, as the terrorists did on September 11.  No conscientious Muslim can afford to affirm that claim of exclusive truth at the risk of engendering hatred and demonization of other humans in a world of diverse beliefs, but shared suffering.

Abdul Aziz Sachedina is a Professor in the Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

Reprinted from TAM #6, 2001.  The American Muslim does not claim primary copyright on the source material.  Reprinted in The American Muslim with permission of the author.  If you wish to reprint the entire article, you must obtain permission of the copyright holder.