By Suzy Ismail
In a world preoccupied with material wealth and convenience, the gift of life is often minimized and sometimes forgotten altogether. Modernity encourages us to view “unwanted” life as a burden that will hold us back. For Muslims, however, just as for many in other faith traditions, life must be acknowledged, always and everywhere, as a true blessing.
In the pre-Islamic period, the practice of female infanticide was widespread in much of Arabia, but it was immediately forbidden through Islamic injunctions. Several verses of the Quran were revealed that prohibited this practice to protect the rights of the unborn and of the newborn child: “When the female infant, buried alive, is questioned for what crime was she killed; when the scrolls are laid open; when the World on High is unveiled; when the Blazing Fire is kindled to fierce heat; and when the Garden is brought near; Then shall each soul know what it has put forward. So verily I call” (81: 8-15). Indeed, there are many verses in the Quran that remind us of the sanctity of life. We are told that “Wealth and children are an adornment of this life” (18:46), and we are commanded to “Kill not your children for fear of want: We shall provide sustenance for them as well as for you. Verily the killing of them is a great sin” (17:31).
While the religious injunctions reverberate through faith on a spiritual level, the blessings of life touch us daily on a worldly level, as well. As the mother of three beautiful children, I can truly attest to and appreciate the gift of life. But I also understand how heartbreaking it is to lose it.
I want to share with you the story of how I came to realize life’s fragility and the importance of making the most of our spiritual journeys here on earth. Over thirteen years ago, my husband and I were eager to start our family. We were ecstatic when, a few months shy of our first anniversary, we found out that we were expecting. Very early on, we began playing the “new parent” planning game, picking out names and nursery colors even before our first doctor’s appointment.
A few months into the pregnancy, the doctor scheduled a routine ultrasound. Giddy with excitement, we entered the darkened room and waited in great anticipation to see our child. There on the screen—fuzzy, yet discernible—we could see our baby’s outline. We imagined the features and jokingly guessed who the baby might look like. But the ultrasound technician did not laugh with us. As she solemnly stared at the screen, we followed her gaze. As inexperienced as we were, we could tell that something was not right: our baby had no heartbeat.
After losing my first child, I truly began to understand the meaning of life. When the heartbeat we’d heard so clearly on the Doppler suddenly ceased, our baby’s life ended in the womb, before he or she even had a chance to begin in the outside world.
But strong faith and an unshakeable belief in a just God is a great formula for filling any emotional void. As the Quran states in Verse 156 of Surat Al-Baqara, there are great blessings for those “who, when a misfortune overtakes them, say: ‘Surely we belong to God and to Him shall we return.’” Losing our first baby led to a deeper appreciation of God’s magnificence and the miracle of His creation.
Several months later, we found out we were expecting again. This time, the excitement was tempered with worry. Our first ultrasound came much earlier in the pregnancy, and we eagerly scanned the screen for the telltale beating before glancing at fingers and toes or eyes and nose. And there it was, strong and steady! We breathed a sigh of relief. Our baby was alive.
As the months of this second pregnancy progressed and the baby bump grew larger, we began to hope. Each ultrasound revealed a little more of our child and each kick confirmed that this time we were really going to begin our family. As the due date quickly approached, we felt more confident in choosing baby items and room colors. We even chose the name for our baby girl. Her name would be Jennah, which means Heaven in Arabic.
With just a few weeks left before my scheduled delivery date, I went into labor. As we sped to the hospital and I was wheeled into the darkened ultrasound room, out of habit, my eyes went directly to the heart area on the screen that I knew all too well by now. That tiny heart, which I had sought out so many times in the previous ultrasounds, had stopped beating.
That day, so many years ago, I delivered Jennah, my stillborn daughter; and that day we buried Jennah. We hadn’t known how fitting her name would really be. As the infection that had ended the pregnancy sped through my blood in the days that followed, I recognized just how delicate life really is. Nothing can bring life into perspective as much as loss. And nothing can affirm faith as much as life.
Today, as I look at my three beautiful children, I know that God is good. No, God is great, or in Arabic, Allahu Akbar. And what gives me the greatest solace in times of trial is the verse in the Quran that states: “It may be that you detest something which is good for you; while perhaps you love something even though it is bad for you. God knows, while you do not know” (2:216).
As Muslims, we believe in the power of life to change others, and we believe even more in the power of God. In any disaster, in any calamity, and in the face of any death, we are urged to repeat “inna lilah wa inna ilayhee raji’un”—“To God we belong and to Him we return.” In the end, only He knows what is best for us.
I could share with you so many stories from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran that illustrate the power of God in our lives: the creation of Adam, the patience of Job, the perseverance of Noah, the purity of Joseph, the judiciousness of Solomon, the trials of Jonah, the obedience of Abraham, the wisdom of Moses, the devotion of Jesus, and the inspiration of Mohamed. I could share these stories with you, but they are available to all in the Holy Scriptures.
Instead, I want to share with you the story of an amazing woman whom I met recently at a conference. This woman truly exemplifies the spirit of respecting life. Melinda Weekes had recently returned from a trip to the Sudan, where she was helping to enact a policy of slave redemption. For years and years, a rampant genocide was perpetrated in southern Sudan by the wealthy slave traders of the north. They would pillage and torch the mud huts of the villagers, and then capture the women and children to sell them into slavery.
Heartbroken by what was happening in Sudan, this woman traveled across the world to help free these slaves by buying them back from the traders and returning them to their villages. Upon their return, she helped them rebuild their lives by establishing schools and educating their girls so that they could break free from oppression. Describing the strength of these women in the face of modern-day slavery, Melinda shared story after story of the things she had seen on her trips to Sudan. She spoke of one of the most powerful experiences she had had, when she sat with a woman who had lost her home, her husband, and her children, and had suffered incredible harm at the hands of her slave master. She asked the woman, “How do you survive? How do you manage to continue living?” The woman responded, “When the world pushed me down to my knees, I knew that it was time to pray. I am blessed to still have these old knees that allow me to kneel, blessed to be able to prostrate, blessed to be able to pray. And I am blessed because I have God.”
I ask you today to reflect on women like these, to reflect on their inner strength, and to reflect on your own life as you know it. I ask you to accept life as a gift and to understand that your life belongs to a greater power, to a higher authority that breathed life into your soul at your beginning and decreed that you should live it with good morals, good ethics, and a good heart that can truly make a difference in the lives of those around you.
In the memorable words of Mother Theresa:
Life is an opportunity, benefit from it.
Life is beauty, admire it.
Life is a dream, realize it.
Life is a challenge, meet it.
Life is a duty, complete it.
Life is a game, play it.
Life is a promise, fulfill it.
Life is sorrow, overcome it.
Life is a song, sing it.
Life is a struggle, accept it.
Life is a tragedy, confront it.
Life is an adventure, dare it.
Life is luck, make it.
Life is too precious, do not destroy it.
Life is life, fight for it.
I’d like to end with a prayer, a Muslim ayah (verse 286 from Suratul Baqara) from the Quran:
On no soul doth God place a burden greater than it can bear. It gets every good that it earns, and it suffers every ill that it earns. (Pray:) Our Lord! Condemn us not if we forget or fall into error; Our Lord! Lay not on us a burden like that which Thou didst lay on those before us; Our Lord! Lay not on us a burden greater than we have strength to bear. Blot out our sins, and grant us forgiveness. Have mercy on us. Thou art our Protector; help us against those who stand against faith.
I ask you today once again to respect life, for there is no greater gift. Respect life, yours and the lives around you. For when we lose respect for life, we lose respect for humanity, and when we lose respect for humanity, we lose respect for God’s creation, and when we lose that, we have lost everything.
Suzy Ismail is a Visiting Professor at DeVry University in North Brunswick, New Jersey and is the author of When Muslim Marriage Fails: Divorce Chronicles and Commentaries. This article is adapted from remarks made in the Princeton University Chapel for Respect Life Sunday.
(Reprinted with permission. It originally appeared in Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ.)