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Like many Muslims, Imam Sohaib Sultan was haunted by the news Friday that a terrorist gunman massacred 50 fellow worshippers at prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand. And as he prepared to deliver his weekly sermon, the suffering of his fellow Muslims led him and others to grapple with the singular question, Why?
“Feel that sadness, feel that anger,” the Muslim chaplain at Princeton University said. “But don’t allow it to totally rearrange your theology and your sense of belief and who you are and what you’re about.”
In the past few years, white supremacist gunmen have targeted worshippers of various faiths as they gathered to pray – in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; Charleston, South Carolina; Quebec City, Canada; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
For monotheistic traditions that confess the goodness of an all-powerful God, the experience of such nihilistic violence sometimes evokes a “problem of evil.”
That test can be seen from Christchurch to Charleston, where out of the forge of suffering has come extraordinary acts of virtue, from courage to unconditional love. “Humility with God and deferring to God’s wisdom constitute the highest form of moral good,” says Mohammad Elshinawy, a religious leader at the Yaqeen Institute in Irving, Texas.
Like many Muslims on Friday, as Imam Sohaib Sultan pondered what to say during his sermon at the weekly jummah service that day, he felt a crushing sense of horror at what had happened earlier on the other side of the world.
“It was haunting to go to Friday prayers today, thinking that prayers had already happened where this massacre took place, and just because people wanted to go and worship their Lord,” he says, haltingly. “And it was hard, and, you know, this idea – yes, this idea, you go to pray to God, and then you don’t return.” He pauses. “It’s been a hard day.”
Along with many of his Muslim colleagues, he joined a coalition of advocates and political organizers to speak publicly about the increasing number of attacks against Muslims in the past few years, to convey the worries that so many continue to have about expressing the visible symbols of their faith. And, they note, how the experience of being a small, conspicuous minority in the United States is similar to fellow Muslims in New Zealand, where 50 worshippers were shot and killed by a terrorist espousing a murderous white nationalism.
But the purpose of the khutbah al-jummah, or Friday sermon, is to exhort and instruct fellow believers on the ways of Islam – a wrenching task this day for Imam Sultan, the Muslim chaplain at Princeton University in New Jersey. He, too, was gripped by the news of the suffering of fellow Muslims, and grappling with the singular question, Why?
People were already discussing online how an Afghan man offered the words “Hello, brother” to the armed gunman at the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, before being among the first to be shot and killed. “As he faced a rifle, his last words were peaceful words of unconditional love,” one Twitter user wrote soon afterward.
Imam Sultan used his Friday sermon to bring up the story of a young man who ran out of the mosque searching for his wife as the shooting began inside the mosque, only to find that she had already been shot and killed outside on the sidewalk.
“As someone who loves every single week coming to jummah with my family, that was really hard to read,” he said, fighting back tears during his sermon at the Muslim Student Association. “Take some time out to feel what has happened. Don’t just move on. Allow it to sink in. Allow empathy to grow within your heart and your soul.”
“Feel that sadness, feel that anger,” he continued. “But don’t allow it to totally rearrange your theology and your sense of belief and who you are and what you’re about.... For many of us, my brothers and sisters, I know that in this heavy moment, we ask, where is God?”
“And I say unto you, my brothers and sisters, Allah Ta’alah [God Almighty] is intimately involved in every single moment that happens, whether it is a moment of great blessing or a moment of great sadness, that Allah Ta’alah is there.”
In the past few years, white supremacist gunmen have specifically targeted worshippers as they gathered to pray. In August 2012, a racist shooter killed six at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek as members prepared langar, a communal meal. In June 2015, a teen immersed in white supremacist culture shot and killed nine people at “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In January 2017, a gunman steeped in neo-Nazi ideas walked into a Friday service at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City in Canada and killed six. Last October, an anti-Semitic gunman killed 11 people on the Sabbath at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
And responses to each have included instances of startling and unexpected expressions of faith in the midst of seeming nihilistic hatred – like some of the members of Mother Emanuel, who survived the massacre and then expressed forgiveness for the terrorist. He was subsequently tried and has been sentenced to death.
Simran Jeet Singh, a scholar of religion at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media in New York, also reflected on his communal moments of prayer with his children, as news of the terror attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, came in on Friday. Since his brother and sister-in-law were present during the mass shooting at the temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, he again felt the same sense of horror.
“One of the first things that every Sikh child learns – including my own – is that the same divine light exists in everyone equally,” Dr. Singh wrote in a reflection in the Religious News Service. “If we all share that same light, how can we say that anyone is better than anyone else?”
In the traditions of Abrahamic monotheism, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God is understood to be absolutely sovereign over creation, an all powerful, all knowing, and perfectly loving and good God.
But such a view of God has sometimes led to a “problem of evil,” the question, Why? If God is indeed loving, why do human beings grapple with such horrendous experiences?
These were part of the questions that Mohammad Elshinawy reflected upon Friday when he preached. In Islam, God’s absolute sovereignty over every part of reality means that even the experience of evil can be a part of larger good.
“We spoke about the blessing of shattering these lies that we tell ourselves about the nature of life,” says Mr. Elshinawy, a researcher at the Yaqeen Institute in Irving, Texas, in an interview. “This life was never meant to be a paradise. This life is a passageway to test us for the best of our faith and our conduct, the whole of our best to our creator.”
“So when these things, these horrible events, come to pass they shatter for us that that faulty matrix, that good things only happen to good people and bad things are the punishment for bad people – this is not true.”
And the emphasis on God’s sovereignty in Islam includes the gift of free will to human beings, which makes this life indeed a time to be tested and to grow in virtue – which by definition necessitates vice, or choices that violate God’s commands.
“Evil exists for a purpose; not as a theological riddle,” says Imam Sultan in an interview, discussing the traditions of “theodicy,” or a defense of God’s goodness in light of evil, which have been important to Christianity, especially.
“It is in the face of evil and the suffering that evil causes that human beings face the test of character and virtue,” he continues. “Every virtue that is celebrated across human civilizations is a virtue that is manifested in response to evil and suffering. So, as Muslims we are taught to at once struggle against evil and to also grow in virtue in the face of evil.”
That test can be seen from Christchurch to Charleston, where out of the forge of suffering has come extraordinary acts of virtue, from courage to unconditional love.
“Humility with God and deferring to God’s wisdom constitute the highest form of moral good,” says Mr. Elshinawy, citing his writings on theodicy and the problem of evil. “Resigning oneself to the fact that one can only see pixels while God sees the entire picture is a huge test of intellectual humility.”
“Beholding the grandeur of God, admitting to oneself that you are unlike God, and expecting to have ‘blind spots’ that render some evils mysterious,” is as he sees it “the most basic test of faith in the unseen.”