In the face of unspeakable tragedy and loss of innocent human life, whether because of terrorism on 9/11 or the natural disaster unfolding on a massive scale in Japan, human beings are compelled to ask: Why? Why me? Why them? How do we cope? Where is God in all of this? The answers to these questions are not easy. One of the fundamental teachings of the Qur’an is that God has power over all things. An immediate response of a believer to tragic events should be in reference to this ultimate reality. God, of all things, is aware. No matter how incomprehensible, nothing happens without a higher purpose.
Belief in the absolute unity of God, as omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, Agent Supreme, has led many down the path of a theology of predestination. A surface reading of certain passages of the Qur’an lends credibility to such a conclusion: “No calamity befalls on earth, or within your souls, that is not already inscribed in a book before we bring it to pass, and this is easy for God.” The reason follows: “So that you may not excessively grieve over that which escapes you, nor rejoice in that which you are granted, for God loves not every arrogant boaster.”
These verses of the Qur’an say more than what first meets the eye. Although apparently leaning towards predestination, they open a window into something more. On the one hand, events are out of our control in some ultimate cosmic sense. On the other hand, we choose how to deal with them, and so are free to adopt a range of attitudes, including grief, arrogance, and contentment.
Equanimity in the Face of Blessing & Bereavement
Most significantly, the Qur’an exhorts human beings to assume a posture of equanimity—the attitude should be constant (within human limits—“as much as you can” according to other verses) whether we have been afflicted and bereft, or gifted and enriched. It is an attitude of “islam” or submission to God’s will, and a realization that both situations are, in fact, fleeting. Our individual existences are infinitesimally brief moments, blips, in the movement of time. In this perspective, we err gravely if we assume that enrichment is God’s blessing and bereavement is God’s punishment.
The Qur’an tells us: “As for when man is tried by his Lord, who showers him with (worldly) blessings, he says ‘my Lord has blessed me.’ And as for when he is tested with poverty, he cries ‘my Lord has forsaken me.’ Nay! But you are not generous to the orphan, nor do you encourage the feeding of the needy. You greedily devour that which God has caused you to inherit, and hoard wealth with intense devotion.”
This is a Test
So the two conditions come together, fashioning the perfect test: the rich need the poor as much as the poor need the other; the materially impoverished, while tried through poverty, are needed to test those who have been enriched as trustees of God’s bountiful resources. “Verily,” says the Qur’an, “We have made everything in the world as an adornment for it, to test which of them is best in conduct.”
To add a twist to the story, other places in the Qur’an also indicate that our condition in this world may, in fact, be a sign of God’s pleasure or displeasure here on earth. And that our actions actually do matter, and have consequences. Is this a contradiction? For believers, a contradiction would be impossible. So reconciliation is called for, and one is at hand. The key is recognizing that one can never know whether one’s material condition is the result of God’s test, or of recompense for one’s deeds and good intentions. One simply has to accept one’s lot, not knowing where one stands. This is perhaps a reason why, according to Islamic theology, “[T]he heart of a believer should remain balanced between fear and hope.” One does their best in every given circumstance, fearing that they have fallen short, but hoping for God’s reward, and for God’s love. In the words of the Qur’an: “God loves the doers of beautiful acts” or “agents of excellence”, inspired in all they do by virtue, not malice.
Taking a legendary story from the Islamic tradition that every Muslim child learns while growing up… One of the heroes of Islam, Ali, was once dueling with the enemy. Ultimately overpowered, the adversary spat on Ali’s face as a final and desperate act of defiance. Instead of striking him down, Ali immediately sheathed his sword and walked away. When asked for what reason the opponent was spared, Ali replied that initially he was engaged in a battle for truth and justice, in an attempt to spread God’s mercy, but had he struck his opponent down at that moment of defiance, it would have been out of spite, which is something for which he would “fear” the reckoning upon meeting his Lord.
Such themes are not uncommon in popular culture. Many of us are familiar with the epic saga of Star Wars, where Yoda, Jedi Master, cautions young Anakin Skywalker: “Fear leads to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” To speak in direct reference to the 9/11 attacks, one can follow this precise trajectory of emotions in the collective American response. Fear-anger-hate-suffering. Yoda apparently missed one important element, however—the element of grief. But perhaps, grief and fear stem from, and are aspects of, one single sensation—the sense of profound loss.
To Hope or Not to Hope
We experienced and suffered unfathomable loss on 9/11/2001. The immediate and direct victims of the tragedy are gone. The question of whether to fear or to hope is relevant to those who have been left behind—those who have lost loved ones, been displaced, called to respond, or watch from afar. Fear lies in hate and revenge, hope lies in forgiveness and understanding. Fear lies in selfishness and greed, hope lies in charity and sacrifice. Fear lies in perpetuating indifference and dehumanization, and hope lies in the pursuit of beauty and embracing our common humanity. Fear lies in feeding our anger and despair, hope lies in thirsting for a better world.
It is in this light that I propose we see the topic of “hope in the face of tragedy and loss of innocent life.” Tragedy and loss come in different ways. To some it happens suddenly through random accidents or unspeakable acts of violence. We are all confronted by events that are beyond our control.
The earthquake and tsunami in Japan on March 11, 2011 are compelling, recent reminders of this reality. But they are not the last. No matter how the final reminder comes to any one of us, by sudden calamity, illness, or the natural process of aging, we are all dying.
What matters is what we do in the time we have. According to one Prophetic tradition, we are told to plant the seed for a tree even if you know that the world will end tomorrow. In other words, it is not the end product of the tree, but your act of planting it, that is sacred. The teachings of Islam, as I have understood them, seek to direct our ethical conduct in the here and now, with the imperative to place our trust in a higher power for what lies beyond. Hope lies here. Plant your tree.