Not so long ago, at most of the mosques I visit, the 2023 earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria would have elicited an unbending judgment, issued from a subpar minbar. Such calamities, a fungible Imam would casually conclude, are Divine punishment. There’s wisdom in community, in acknowledging that the world doesn’t revolve around us, but only so much wisdom. Mosques these days are largely greatly improved. Still—and duly chastened—at any Jumu’ah, I make it a point to ask what I’m missing. Not because there’s perfect preaching waiting to be found, but because a multivocal tradition is more resilient. The Friday after that terrible tremor killed thousands, I was at the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, where the first sermon ranged across theodicy, destiny, mercy, forbearance, and endurance. The Imam stressing the implications of our uncompromising, unitarian monotheism. I exited convinced I was worse than I’d believed, but in that precious way that empowers rather than enervates. 

A good lesson. A needed lesson. 

Though their eyes glaze over whenever we delve into doctrine, all the same I frequently remind my older students of the need to frequently return to first principles. An action without a driving motivation, after all, will probably be abandoned at the first sign of resistance; that and every directive eventually (should) get back to God. In this case, that nothing happens except that God causes or permits it to be caused. That life includes loss—there is going to be pain, alienation, heartache, actual bone breaks, suffering, distress, ignominy, shame, despair. To deny these or that they might bring about outcomes we cannot immediately imagine meaningful is unfortunate. A hardship can reveal—and indeed may be the only way to reveal to us as we are—weaknesses, shortcomings, flaws in our understandings of self, that we’d not otherwise perceive (or admit). Sometimes we need more signs than we should. The enormity that was the Iraq War, the awfulness of Abu Ghraib, the tragedy of Katrina, did not retire George W. Bush’s party. There had to be a financial earthquake, too. 

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