New Islamic Directions

By Imam Zaid Shakir

Remembering 9/11

Posted in notes by Imam Zaid Shakir on 2011-09-11

I remember well the fateful day of September 11, 2001. I was locked in Jami’ al-Khayr at the far western end of the Damascene neighborhood of Muhajireen. Most masjids in Syria are locked between the prayers, with the exception of the evening and night prayer. However, the Imam allowed me to remain locked inside of the masjid to study between the prayers. I was locked in, but that meant everyone else was locked out. A student’s dream!

The tranquility of my retreat was interrupted by panicked banging on the metal frame of one of mosque’s doors. Three or four neighborhood children had run up to deliver an urgent message in exited and panicked voices. Between the confused clamoring I could make out the following, “Sayyid Zaid, America has been bombed! They blew up the Trade Center, the Pentagon, the White House and Congress!” Who, I asked? “We don’t know! You have to come out and find out what is going on!” I asked them to go get the Imam and have him unlock the doors so I could go home to investigate this strange news.

The Imam’s residence was adjacent to the mosque so he was summoned in short order. He was unaware of the breaking story, but quickly unlocked the doors so I could return home to find out what was occurring. Arriving home I was faced with a challenge. The house had a television with a satellite hook-up. However, I had never watched the television. After an hour or so looking for a neighbor knowledgeable enough to give me a crash course on manipulating the controls directing the satellite dish, an image being broadcast by CNN appeared on the screen.

There was a picture of the World Trade Center Towers, one of them belching smoke, beneath a banner that read, “America Under Attack.” The name, “Osama Bin Ladin,” keep popping up periodically and the guest commentator was the American novelist, Tom Clancy. In an apparent reference to his 1994 novel, Debt of Honor, which described a group of terrorists crashing a Boeing 747 into the United States Capitol building, Clancy was being asked by the CNN correspondent, “Tom, is this a case of life imitating art?”

I immediately contacted the other American students and we hastily arranged a meeting where we discussed what we could do to assist our respective communities back in the States. We developed an action plan that was amazingly mature and prescient in that it actually outlined many of the measures that major Muslim organizations in America would subsequently adopt. We agreed on one thing: Dawah (calling to Islam) in America was finished.

To our collective surprise we were all proven wrong by subsequent events. We were receiving calls from all over the country of an unprecedented interest in Islam. Sales of Qur’ans and Islamic literature were off the charts. People living in the vicinity of mosques were volunteering to protect them.  A friend of mine in Texas emailed me to let me know that an open house at his mosque in Richardson, Texas, drew 3,000 people, which the organizers had to handle in two shifts of 1,500 people each.

One of the most heart-warming stories from those early days after the attacks was from the same friend in Texas. He related that one well-meaning old lady left a voice message on the answering machine of the mosque offering to escort Muslim women to the store. She feared their hijabs would make them visible targets for vengeful, violent reprisals. She concluded her message by saying, “I’m too old to help carry groceries, but if anyone tries to bother you I’ll hit them over the head with my cane.” Her message represents our noblest traits.

However, the tragic events of that day brought out the worst in other people. In Dallas, Texas, a few miles from the Richardson Mosque, a white supremacist, Mark Stroman, murdered a Muslim convenience store worker and a Hindu he thought was a Muslim. He nearly took the life of a third victim, who he shot point blank in the face with a shotgun. There were other violent attacks, many of them directed at Sikhs, whose turbans and beards led to them being mistaken for Muslims.

Perhaps the most far-reaching development occurring in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks has been a campaign to systematically distort Islamic teachings to create a climate of deep hatred towards Muslims. The result of this effort and the subsequent institutionalizing of anti-Muslim hatred in American society and politics are chilling, and the fallout is global.  The details fill our daily newspapers.

The growing climate of hate has another unfortunate consequence.  Some western Muslims are losing confidence in the ability of Islam to make any meaningful contribution to their societies in light of post 9/11 realities. This is unfortunate, because, now, perhaps more than ever, the world is in desperate need of critical aspects of the message of Islam.

One of the most relevant features of Islam in this regard, one that many contemporary Muslims fail to adequately appreciate, is its anti-utopian nature. Islam does not promise that the believers’ actions will usher in a millennial era of good and harmony. That is the job of Jesus, upon his return to the earth, Muslims are taught. We do our best to make a difference in the world, to work for justice and peace. However, at the end of the day there are no vanguard parties or messianic movements charged with the responsibility of undertaking the work of the Messiah.

This feature of Islam helps to ensure that there will never be a Muslim Stalin, Mao, Hitler or Pol Pot, based on its teachings. In the Islamic worldview, there are no classless states to be ushered into being; hence, there are no reactionary classes to be eliminated. There is no idea of a pure race, a Volk, hence, there are no potentially polluting impure races to be done away with. Contrary to the proclamations of many anti-Muslim ideologues, there is no doctrine of world domination. Furthermore, there is no progressive, triumphalist march through history for the Muslim community. There are victories and there are defeats, there are periods of strength and there are periods of weakness. God emphasizes this in the Qur’an, “If some injury has afflicted you, know that a similar injury has afflicted your opponents. These vicissitudes we alternate among humans… (3:140).”

Even when we are blessed with victory, we are told that our success comes from God, not from our own devices,  - “Victory only comes from God, The Mighty, The Wise (3:126).” Hence, the goal for Muslims is not winning at all costs. Our goal is to obey God at all times.  At the end of the day, there is only the individual believer and the Lord. For us, the quality of that relationship outweighs all else in this world, for, in the stark terms of the Qur’an, “Thus, each of them will come before God on the Day of Resurrection, alone (19:95).” The one who achieves Paradise on that day is the true victor. Hence, we do not find meaning in victory, we find meaning in salvation.

When our relationship with God is sound we begin to realize the essential power of God and our inherent weakness. That realization allows us to trust that God will use us as agents of good and positive transformation in the world. There is no need for us to violently impose ourselves on the world. Nothing illustrates this better than one of the most powerful stories emerging from the tragedy of 9/11.

Mark Stroman, the white supremacist mentioned earlier in this essay was executed this past July (2011). He died having renounced his racist views. One of the last things he said was the following: “Hate is going on in this world and it has to stop. Hate causes a lifetime of pain.” Stroman’s transformation was inspired by the compassion shown by Rais Bhuyian, the Muslim he shot in the face. Bhuyian survived after many operations and the loss of one eye. He still carries 35 shotgun pellets in his face. However, none of this prevented him from forgiving Stroman and from waging a valiant campaign to save him from execution. Stroman was so moved by Rais’ act of grace that he renounced his hatred of Muslims.

The example set for us by both Rais and Stroman, at the end of his life, is our best hope as we attempt to move beyond the pain, strife and hatred unleashed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Trusting in the power and promise of God we will be able to do just that.

“Good and evil are not equal. Repulse [evil] with what is best. Unexpectedly, you will see the one between who he and you there was enmity become like an intimate friend (Qur’an 41:34)”

Note: A version of this article first appeared in EMEL Magazine,


By Syed Hassan on September 11, 2011 at 11:08am

As always, very insightful, mA. I wanted to share a column that appeared in my college newspaper at WVU written by a brother in our community. Writings such as this need to spread to as many hearts and minds as possible!

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By novid shaid on September 26, 2011 at 2:03pm

masha Allah Imam Zaid, poignant and full of wisdom, jazak Allah for sharing

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Masha Allah how beautiful Rais Bhuyian is, he has shown the true character of a muslim, it brings tears to eyes. May Allah bless him and you for sharing this with us.

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