Twenty Years in September


My Reflections on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11

I woke up. Everything was spinning. The fading blue sky was spinning over my head as the sun had just begun to set in September 1991.

Where am I?

I was sleeping in the backseat of my friend’s Jeep Cherokee going north on I-45 from Galveston, TX. We had lost a tire and were spinning out of control. I peered up at the driver’s seat and saw my friend calmly trying to control the car. I looked at the passenger seat and saw my other friend, equally calm. Their demeanor was chilling because it was a calm that is only brought about by shock. Approximately 3 seconds had passed since I opened my eyes. In the fourth second I looked over the side of the open Jeep. You see, it was a late 80’s Jeep Cherokee and that Jeep is a wide open vehicle. No windows. No roof. It was a recipe for death.

It was a beautiful day —well, almost evening— as the daylight was slowly waning. It was probably 7:00pm. I’m sure if I searched some records, I would find out the exact date and time. I’ve never wanted to revisit it, until now.

THUD!

Thank God. We landed in the emergency lane and just hit the freeway wall, I thought to myself. I looked over, in what was probably the seventh second, and there was no emergency lane. We were perpendicular to the wall blocking northbound traffic. I saw the headlights of the oncoming car, the bulbs of that dark green Toyota Camry glowing dull in the daylight. There was simply no chance of survival. I had reached the end of my life, and it was one great adventure of a life, though I had no time to realize that in those few seconds before impact. In the eighth second I raised my right index finger to the sky and declared in Arabic, “I bear witness that there exists no deity other than God, and that Muhammad is His Messenger.”

CRASH!

I did not feel myself flying in the air, but felt the earth move out from under me. I did not yell or scream. I did not utter a sound. Instead, I felt the wooooooah! one is unwittingly compelled to exclaim when riding a roller-coaster due to the enormous gravitational force. I do recall that the breeze was pleasant and the sky cloudy and a beautiful pale pastel shade of indigo.

In the 11th second I hit the concrete landing on the right side of my hip destroying my pelvis, seriously damaging my femur at the acetabulum —a word that always stuck with me because it just sounded so utterly hilarious— and bludgeoning my organs. The internal bleeding was substantial. I hit the concrete so hard that I bounced back up into the air and was headed face first for a second impact into the asphalt concrete. I raised my arms to shield my face as had become instinct from years of training in martial arts —something I highly recommend every parent bequeath their children with— and landed on my elbows instead of my face thereby shattering my bones. To this day I have metal in my arm. The X-ray looks like something out of the Uncanny X-Men. Once at the airport, when the security wand repeatedly squealed when passed over my forearm, the puzzled TSA agent asked me, “Yo! You Wolverine, dawg?”

Where was I?

I rolled onto my back. Ah! There was that beautiful pale blue Texas sky again with its cotton-ball clouds. I survived. I don’t know how, or why, but I survived and I wondered if it was only to then get run over by an 18-wheeler. I never lost consciousness, or sense, so I picked myself up and rose to my knees —the doctors never understood how I did that since I wasn’t supposed to be able to move— and began to talk to God. It was a private conversation. I soon fell to my back and wouldn’t rise up again on my own until many months later. I wasn’t to get run over by a truck. Against all odds and the laws of physics, I wasn’t to die that day. I never even lost consciousness until I was put under for surgery to fix up the damage done. As a kid I always wanted to be a Rock star —truth be told, I still do — and that was the closest I had ever gotten as I would make the 10 o’clock news that night.

Both of my friends, in spite of wearing their seat-belts, likewise, flew out of the Jeep, but both broke their necks upon hitting the ground. Every mosque in Houston, TX prayed for the three of us even though my friends were not Muslim. Why wouldn’t they? I’m proud that they did. Miraculously, all three of us not only survived, but fully recovered and flourished. In spite of the doctors telling me that I may not walk again, after much physical therapy I was walking again a year later. It was an amazing testimony to the power of prayer from complete strangers, many of whom —praying ardently in those mosques around Houston — I would never meet.

Having stared death in the eye — and it wasn’t the last time I would, but those are many a story that shan’t be told here — I wasn’t about to chance meeting my Maker unprepared. Thenceforth, I immersed myself in my faith for the next 10 years traveling many lands far and wide in search for the Truth. Again, those are valuable stories saved for a later date.

10 years later…

I woke up. Everything was spinning. The blurry ceiling fan spun with a slight wobble over my head as the sun was at its peak in September 2001. There was a forceful rapping upon my door.

Shibli, hurry downstairs! Something is happening!

Hearing such alarm in my otherwise notoriously stoic father was enough to jolt me out of the bed. I rushed downstairs and saw my Dad sitting on the couch with jaw hanging, mouth agape, staring at the big screen TV. In his life, my father has seen it all. In his youth, he and his friend, armed with shotguns on a motorcycle, had rescued dozens of families from a blood thirsty crowd during an anti-Muslim massacre he lived through in his early 20′s. Aside from the carnage he witnessed there, he had seen it all. Seeing him in such shock terrified me because I knew that whatever it was, it was serious.

I saw buildings emitting billows of smoke and nervous chatter that I was still too sleepy to make out. I distinctly remember the words “truck bomb”. I quickly realized it was the World Trade Center in New York and it was in flames. As we watched and listened to every “expert” offer as many contradictory assessments of what was happening as possible, suddenly, without warning, my father and I watched a jumbo jet —what we would later learn was United Airlines Flight 175— fly into the tower and vanish into a great waft of orange smoke incandescent in a way that one would think of hell.

Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!

My father’s exclamations rose in volume and intensity with each utterance. I know why my father was alarmed. This wasn’t a catastrophe that affected us immediately. We were in Texas. This was happening in New York. Yet, I knew why my father was alarmed and I dreaded the same.

Please God. Please. Don’t let this be an act committed by Muslims. For if it was, Your Wrath will descend upon us all.

Seeming to be reaching from cracks in the earth unleashing the denizens of hell, thick ashen smoke rose up as the towers collapsed. I saw images of people hurling themselves out of the building’s windows. Perhaps, they thought that in the building they had no chance and that if they jumped out, though remote, there might be a chance. Perhaps, they just thought it was a quicker and easier death. Perhaps, they didn’t think at all and some primordial instinct of flight emerged after eons of human evolution. As I saw them flying, I remembered how I had felt 10 years before as I flew through the air with an unflinching certainty of my own death. I remembered being calm and accepting of my fate with only God on my mind. For some reason —perhaps imagined, perhaps not— I saw that same calm in them as they fell through the air likes flowers dropped from a height. In spite of the agony of that day, and the agony that would follow, maybe they were at peace. They had more bravery and fortitude of spirit than the ones who flew the planes in the World Trade Center towers, and even more than those who would politicize them post-mortem to rouse fear and division amongst Americans. Muslims were stabbed and shot in the streets of America. Sikhs, following a religion completely unrelated to Islam, were slain simply because they “looked” Muslim.

I immediately set off to the birthplace of Osama bin Ladin, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to learn from those whom Osama bin Ladin had claimed were his mentors. I was surprised to find that they all hated him and had been active in refuting him for years. The man was a fraud. My relatives who had fought against the Soviets from the Afghan province of Paktia, where Bin Ladin supposedly participated in great feats against the Soviets, would testify that they had never even heard of him until his name became a staple of the Western media many, many years after the Soviets had withdrawn from Afghanistan. I remember asking Shaykh Salman al-`Awdah, a scholar for whom — to this day — I have found no equal anywhere in the world, what the Muslims were to do as our lands were invaded. It was a question I had been hearing much discussion of in those times. Shaykh Salman told me that our obligation was to excel in our character and vocations, and contribute to society so that the world would know us as healers and builders and not destroyers. I saw in Osama bin Ladin’s birthplace, like nowhere else in the world, what kind of lie he and his ideology amounted to. I brought that home with me. I remember laying in bed in my hotel room — in a hotel allegedly once owned by Osama bin Ladin — writing up an apology to my beloved fellow Americans for the hapless events of 9/11. I stared at a blank page for hours. I typed a few lines. I backspaced. Nothing came out. These are the words I wanted to say then, but it took me 10 years to find them.

I am sorry, America. I am sorry that I couldn’t stop what happened. I am sorry that the murderers claimed to share my religion in some twisted and perverted way as they reveled in bars drinking liquor not long before the attacks they perpetrated. I am truly sorry. However, I will not allow anyone to blame me for it. I empathize and suffer with you, my beloved country. Yet please know this: If it was in my power, I would stop my fellow Muslim from causing even the slightest injustice against you, regardless of your race or religion, to the utmost of my ability. This is the teaching of the Prophet Muhammad ( صلى الله عليه وسلم).

قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: انصر أخاك ظالما أو مظلوما. قالوا: يا رسول الله، هذا ننصره مظلوما، فكيف ننصره ظالما؟ قال: تأخذ فوق يديه

“The Prophet ( صلى الله عليه وسلم) said, ‘Help your brother when he is the oppressor and when he is oppressed.’ His Companions replied, ‘O Messenger of God, we do understand helping him when he is oppressed, but how can we possibly help him when he is the oppressor? The Prophet replied, ‘Seize him by his hands!’”1

I will do as my Prophet has taught me and do everything I can to protect you, but I will not allow you to oppress me and blame me for a deed that was not mine.

Those flying angels, flying out of the World Trade Center and to the next world, deserved more than to be used for the opportunistic political gain of fear mongers. They deserve more than bumper stickers emblazoned with over-marketed slogans of “Never forget” and “Support our troops”. Those slogans are meaningless without action. Let us truly “never forget” and love one another, for the murders of 9/11 were the illegitimate child of hate bred with fear.

I leave you with what God teaches us in the Qur’an:

“Evil and good can never be equated. Push back with that which is best. You will find that the one between whom and yourself was enmity will have become as a confidante and friend.” (Qur’an, 41:34)

Fight fire with fire and the world will burn. Fight hate with love and the world can be turned. Let’s “support our troops”. Let the next ones who fly through the air be our troops flying home far, far away from war. They’ve done their duty to their country. Now let’s do ours to mankind.

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  1. Sahih al-Bukhari, narrated by Anas bin Malik []

33 Comments

  1. mini says:

    beautiful brother ! May you be successful in your journey, if there are people like you ,still there then inshaallah islam will regain its lost respect.. inshallah

  2. Yasmin says:

    Mashallah, I can’t find the words to describe how beautiful this post is! The first section about your own experience brought me to tears!

  3. Engie Salama says:

    beautifully insightful <3

  4. Allahu Akbar. That was utterly beautiful. Love it!

  5. Hened says:

    God bless you in every moment of your life.

  6. Basmah says:

    This was beautiful, masha’Allah. Thank you for so articulately explaining the sentiments of many of us Muslim Americans. May Allah have mercy on every soul, ameen.

  7. Nadine says:

    Allahu Akbar. Mashallah, this is such an inspirational story. Its about time someone stepped up and represented Islam in such a positive way. We are tired of being stereo-typed of being oppressed and being oppressors and other things as such. May Allah (SWT) be pleased with you and with the rest of the Muslims, Insha’allah. May you journey be a wonderous and may you inspire and motivate many more Muslims (including myself)to be as faithful and as strong as you.

  8. Knox says:

    i have read a number of articles today, around 9/11, palestine and many other varying, but equally involving issues. your post, i read for the most part with a hand over my mouth, a breath half-taken and forgotten.
    alhamdulillah that day you survived. you have a beautiful soul, masha’Allah, and i love the sentiments you express. especially:
    “I am sorry, America. I am sorry that I couldn’t stop what happened. I am sorry that the murderers claimed to share my religion in some twisted and perverted way as they reveled in bars drinking liquor not long before the attacks they perpetrated. I am truly sorry. However, I will not allow anyone blame me for it. I empathize and suffer with you, my beloved country. Yet please know this: If it was in my power, I would stop my fellow Muslim from causing even the slightest injustice against, regardless of your race or religion, to the utmost of my ability.”

    just beautiful. Allah keep you.

  9. Yuzaidi says:

    Beautiful.

  10. Amethyst says:

    Thank you, so much.

  11. Jamil Zaman says:

    Oh my dear little bro. How little you knew of what happened afterwards when the doctors were putting you back together and even then you were clinging to life, but of course nobody told you that. Reading this article brought the type of flashbacks you only see in movies. Remembering picking up the phone when the hospital called and finding myself screaming at them because they wouldn’t tell me if you were dead or alive and afterwards watching your seemingly lifeless body on a gurney in the ER. The extent of damage to all three of you was indescribable, the driver’s scalp was peeled back so far that nobody could see his face, at one point his relatives could not be contacted and the doctor asked me for help as he was not expected to survive the night. I could only get a hold of one of his friend’s parents and told them he would probably die that night and they hung up on me, seems they didn’t like him. These were of course things you would not have known and most likely similar to the things that the victims of 9/11 families were going through. What a beautiful parallel, to try to take one’s own harrowing experience and reflect upon it in order to empathize with the victims is the only way to truly understand the significance of this day. Truly a new perspective for me, I can put myself back to that day in 1991 and truly empathize with the victim’s families on 9/11/2001 even if only by a fraction.

    • Shibli Zaman says:

      My beloved older brother, Jamil, may Allah always preserve you. I’ve always known that the event was a turning point in all of our lives and in many ways defined who we are today and the bonds of love we share as a family.

      If I am anything it is only from the blessed rain drops that trickled down from the great towering trees —my parents and older brothers— who always guarded me from the elements and weathered the storms and strong winds above with steadfastness as I grew beneath as the shrubbery below.

  12. amad says:

    salam Shibli… didn’t know about the accident, I guess it was before I arrived in Houston… subhanAllah, what a story. jazakallah khair for sharing it with us.

    I agree with you that Sh. Salman is quite amazing, esp. when you consider his circumstances and thought evolution.

  13. Tricia says:

    Shibli, you have outdone yourself with this amazing piece. Consider publishing in a forum more non-Muslims will read.

  14. Haleh says:

    Masha’Allah such a captivating story written so eloquently with insight. May Allah bless you and your family.

  15. shakib says:

    your life’s journey is mashallah one that is touching and inspiring but taking the collective guilt for a criminal act upon your own shoulder whose post-mortem is shrouded with controversy if not questionable seem to be unwarrented. comedian and blogger aman ali puts it more succintly when he compared taking responsibility for 9/11 as a muslim to blaming the whites for all bad country music. the absence of any guilt from the mainstream media at the loss of unnecessary lives in the aftermath of 9/11 in illegal occupation and continued drone attack shows how the media and liberal press (eg new york times) constructed and sustained the artificial demagogues of islamic threat in the public mind to turn it into a fodder for retribution. if i have to mourn for something today, i will mourn for the truth that died on that fatal day.

    • Shibli Zaman says:

      Shakib, 3,000 innocent lives lost are worth more than a proverbial and rhetorical “Truth”. For, if you have no concrete evidence then the statement is only rhetorical.

      Don’t mourn something you are unsure of. Mourn what you are sure of and that is the fact that 3,000 innocent lives were taken that day in cold blood. Thank you.

  16. Zoheb says:

    Beautiful post mashallah.
    Every American should read this.

  17. Azka says:

    Masha-Allah! may Allah give all of us a heart like yours and a sabr like yours and not make us amonst those who speak ill without the slightest reckoning! Amen!

  18. Khadijah says:

    Best piece ever! Masha Allah Tabarak Allah!

  19. Khadijah says:

    SubhanAllah… amazing piece and reflections. You’re a blessing to this community

  20. reshma says:

    nice work!

  21. Holly says:

    SubhanaAllah! I have the notifications for the blog on my phone and woke up to read this.

    This post literally had me crying, gasping and smiling….such a beautiful read, JazakAllah Khayer for sharing!

  22. Abdul-Razzaq Iyer says:

    Salaam Alaikum,

    This is an amazing article. May Allah protect you and bless you in this world and the next.

    Wasalaam

    AR

    • Shibli Zaman says:

      wa `alaykum al-salam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu,

      Dear brother Abdul-Razzaq, it has been quite some time since I have seen the Noor of your face which, by God, always reminds me of your own inspiring story.

      Thank you for your gracious prayers and I pray the same for you and your dear family. God bless you.

  23. Sister says:

    Allahu Akbar!MAshallah akhi..Barak Allahu feek and Alhamdulillah for such a wonderful and inspiring story.. MAY ALLAH REWARD YOU AKHI INSHALLAH…did the letter ever get to the people?

  24. Shibli Zaman says:

    I want to express my utmost gratitude to all of you who so graciously left such heart-warming comments. It means more to me than you know that my words met such receptive and awakened hearts. I pray that together we can shape a better world, insha’ Allah.

  25. Shibli Zaman says:

    I think it is very important to respond to certain sentiments regarding 9/11 I have seen oft-repeated by Muslims on various mediums of communication on the net that I, personally, find disconcerting.

    1) “Don’t apologize!”

    Why not? The word “apologize” comes from the Greek ἀπολογία. The Greek ἀπολογοῦμαι means “I speak in one’s defense”. Yet, Muslims have understood a reverse meaning as if to apologize is an admission of guilt. It is not. Furthermore, my choice of words should be clear. I said I was sorry. I feel sorrow for the loss I shared with my fellow Americans on that day. I thought I made clear that I will not allow anyone to misappropriate blame upon me for a crime I, and just about all Muslims, are far removed from. Nonetheless, I do feel shame, sadness and sorrow at the fact that these brigands chose to do this heinous crime in the name of my beautiful religion. What does make one look guilty is when they get overly defensive. What a Muslim does is express mercy and compassion. The Prophet Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم) said:

    من لا يرحم لا يُرحم
    “Whomsoever does not express mercy shall not be shown mercy.”

    2) “We don’t even know WHO committed 9/11!”

    There are too many 9/11 conspiracy theories for me to keep up with. Allah tells us in the Qur’an:

    يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آَمَنُوا إِنْ جَاءَكُمْ فَاسِقٌ بِنَبَأٍ فَتَبَيَّنُوا
    “If a dubious source comes to you with a report then verify it..”

    We Muslims are, also, a people who only trust sound witness, as the student of the Prophet’s Companions,`Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak, said:

    الإسناد من الدين، ولولا الإسناد لقال من شاء ما شاء
    “Verifying the chain of transmission is part of this religion. If it weren’t for that, anyone would say whatever they wanted.”

    Frankly, the mainstream media and the conspiracy theorists are equally questionable to me. As Muslims, we must go with the obvious and preponderent evidences and not suspicion. Allah says in the Qur’an:

    إَنَّ الظَّنَّ لاَ يُغْنِي مِنَ الْحَقِّ شَيْئاً
    “Verily, suspicion can not stand up to Truth.”

    Also:

    يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اجْتَنِبُوا كَثِيراً مِّنَ الظَّنِّ إِنَّ بَعْضَ الظَّنِّ إِثْمٌ
    “O believers, turn away from too much suspicion as some suspicion is sinful.”

    The word for “suspicion” used here is “al-Ẓann” which is generally understood as “conjecture”. In Uṣul al-Fiqh (the principles of Islamic legal jurisprudence) this word is used, albeit differently as “theory”, in regards to al-Ẓann al-Rajiḥ (“The preponderent theory”) of which Qiyas is a part, and al-Ẓann al-Marjuḥ (“Non-preponderent theory”). For the sake of argument, both the “official” story of 9/11 vs. the conspiracy theories, are both conjecture (al-Ẓann). However, what demarcates one from the other is that the “official” would be “Rajiḥ” (preponderant), whereas, the conspiracy theories rely largely upon circumstancial evidence (i.e. “How could the passports have survived?!”, etc) making them “Marjuḥ” (non-preponderant and inferior). While some of the conspiracy theories are compelling, they remain largely based upon circumstance and not evidence that would be admissible in an Islamic —or any other— legal court.

    So we Muslims must own up to the fact that there is a high probability and likelihood that —even in the scenario where Muslims are the least involved wherein the CIA steered Muslims with extremist and fanatical sentiments into committing this act— the perpetrators of this crime were of Muslim background. Should we accept collective blame for this? Absolutely not. Should we express remorse at our inability to stop them —even if such was impossible— and openly tell the American people that we are sorry that people claiming to be of our beautiful religion of Islam attacked them? Absolutey. That is mercy. It is compassion. It is what softens the hearts and eases the rage misdirected towards Islam and Muslims. God Almighty is the Omnipotent Knower of all things.

    • SD says:

      Mashallah, a very brilliantly and beautifully written piece with all the right ingredients to put a wandering mind to rest. May you keep writing more and more enlightening pieces and we benefit from your elaborated research and knowledge. Allah swt bless you for your efforts,Amen.

  26. AZ says:

    Shibli,
    Thank you for being an inspiration to us all. All I ask of you is to continue what you are doing and encourage the community of people following this website to live by example. We can make a difference in our own, as well as others, if we defeat our biggest enemy of all; apathy.

  27. ms says:

    I agree with you Brother Shibli that we as Muslims should make sure our NonMuslim friends, colleagues, and people in general know that we do not support such behaviour. However, I have noticed that many people do not take the time to understand why such horrible things happen. We are so busy with our daily lives, we do not stop to reflect upon causes of such horrible outcomes. The cause was continuous occupation of other countries, and all that goes with it, leading to certain groups of people finding some loophole to do such a terrible act. But, What about terrible acts continuously being done to this day in those other countries? Families torn apart due to unnecessary occupation of the land… We have to ask ourselves, why do these things happen and wake up to reality..we have to filter thru the different reports, news, to get to the truth. It is everyone’s responsibility to dig out the truth. We can not just concentrate on one horrific event when there are many horrific events happening around the world. They are people too. They have had loved ones died unnecessarily as well. I know of factual reports where there are kids without arms and legs due to American retaliation of 9/11 and many more such scenes…Everyone, no matter what religion they are need to put differences aside and feel for their fellow human beings (just as you have tried to put forth in this article) who are truely suffering on a daily basis. The three major religions say the same thing of protecting life, being good to your neighbors…if we only followed our religion, practiced our religion, there would be no one going hungry, everyone would have the basic needs met. No one would die unnecessarily.

  28. X says:

    Salaam, brother Shibli. I know my comment is kind of late, but I do hope you will have the patience and goodwill to respond to this ‘stupid’ question.

    How could you say that if a people’s land is invaded they should just strive to excel in their character and vocation? Why should they not defend themselves? Could you answer from the viewpoint of Islamic Law please? May God preserve you.

    • Shibli Zaman says:

      Wa `alaykum al-salam. Thank you so much for your comment and I am glad you asked this. Shaykh Salman’s answer was in the context of the standard consensus in Islamic Law in regards to Muslim lands being invaded: Defense of the land invaded becomes an obligation upon every single able bodied male in that land with some exceptions. Muslims in the rest of the world are to only get involved if the people of that land are not defending themselves adequately. In Islamic legal terms, it is Farḍ `Ayn upon the residents of that land and Farḍ Kifāyah upon the rest of the Muslim world. So, as there are significant resistance forces in the Muslim lands invaded, the rest of us should focus on improving ourselves as Muslims and productive members of society as a whole. God knows best.

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