Lessons From the Qur’an as the Bombs Fell on Tehran
Alireza Doostdar on Blessing, Punishment, and Witnessing War
The first time I memorized a chapter from the Qur’an, the sky was raining bombs. I must have been around six and my family lived in Gisha, a neighborhood in north-central Tehran that Saddam Hussein’s warplanes had attacked at least once, sending many residents to flee as they waited out the bombings. I remember visiting one residential complex reduced to rubble only several blocks away. Our neighbors said the victims included children at a friend’s birthday party, children around my age. In our own home, my mother, father, younger siblings and I slept with our heads beneath the dining table to give us some protection should the ceiling come down before we had the chance to take shelter.
As the bombs fell and the anti-aircraft batteries roared at the sky, my mom would clutch me close and dig her fingernails into my arms. Dream and reality mixed in vivid combinations. One night I saw that the bombs were falling on the Tehran zoo, the grizzly bears roaring and clawing at the approaching flames.
I received my Qur’an lesson on a night like this. We were visiting a family friend, a gangling urologist living with his wife and toddler in an adjacent neighborhood. I knew him as Uncle Ali, but my mom and dad called him Ali Maxi, a college nickname making fun of his “maximum” height. Soon after we had finished dinner, the lights went out and the sirens shrieked in anticipation of an attack. Ali Maxi’s mother, a kindly older lady in a thin spotted white veil, gathered the terrified children around her. She instructed us to put our right hands on our hearts and recite wal-‘Asr:
Bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim. Wal-‘asr. Inna l-insana lafi-khusr. Illa l-ladhina amanu wa ‘amilu s-salihat. Wa tawasaw bil-haqqi wa tawasaw bis-sabr.
In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. By time: Indeed humankind is in loss. Except those who have believed and done righteous deeds. And advised each other to truth and advised each other to patience.
I whispered and felt my heart race on the palm of my hand.
Some years later, I saw the sky rain bodies. It was the summer of 1988 and my brothers and I were staying with my aunt in Gisha as my parents applied for Canadian visas in Damascus (there was no Canadian embassy in Tehran). Television showed aerial shots of pale, naked bodies floating on the waters of the Persian Gulf. There were dozens of them, scattered, broken, forsaken. They had fallen out of the sky when the American missile cruiser USS Vincennes shot down their plane, Iran Air Flight 655, en route to Dubai. My mother had called my aunt from Syria just as the news came out. She said she had dreamt of a room strewn with body parts, the walls splattered with blood. She wanted to make sure we were okay. She did not know about the naked bodies in the water.
Truth is, we were not okay. My youngest brother, four years old at the time, had a terrible case of diarrhea and dehydration. We had been visiting my aunt’s orchard in a mountain village outside of Tehran a few days earlier, and my brother ingested too many sweet juicy apricots. “A box full,” my aunt would say. Back in Tehran, a doctor friend of the family checked on him and prescribed medicine. My brother had grown pale, thin, lethargic, nothing like his usual happy chubby self. I stood outside on the patio, the sun hot in my hair, my face hot against the wall, hot tears streaming down my eyes. I thought my brother would die. Those pale naked bodies that rained down on the Persian Gulf. I prayed to God he wouldn’t die.
“Do they not look at the sky above them? How we have built it and made it beautiful and free of all faults?” Thus does the Qur’an draw attention to the firmament. See it. Marvel at its perfection. Understand the divine power and wisdom behind it.
In verse after verse, the Qur’an describes the sky—its awesome expanse, the things it contains, those it hides or reveals, those it pours down to earth. The sky is a sign for contemplation: Abraham pondered the celestial objects within it, their rising and setting, before realizing that God was the only one who would not disappear. It is a site for cataclysmic ruptures at the end of time, the hour when “the stars are effaced, when the sky is rent asunder, when the mountains are scattered like dust,” when humans rise from the dead to face their reckoning. Above all, it is an origin for bounties and chastisements.
From the sky, God delivered nourishments to Mary, and feasts to Jesus and his apostles. He sends rain to give life to the dead earth, bringing forth “close-growing grain, dates in thick clusters, and gardens of vines, and the olive tree, and the pomegranate, all so alike and yet so different.” But from the same sky, God sends punishments to evildoers, like the sinners among Noah’s people, overtaken by the rains and drowned to the last man, until the word was spoken for the sky to cease and the earth to swallow up its waters.
Consider the sky above you, God says repeatedly, and see what I have in store for you.
Recently I’ve been reading accounts of battlefield miracles experienced by Iranian soldiers in the 1980-88 war with Iraq. There are hundreds of such stories, perhaps thousands. Most are accounts of “invisible assistance” from God for gaining the upper hand in sticky situations. There was the case of the war volunteer who shot down an Iraqi warplane using a Soviet 57-millimeter anti-aircraft gun he had never operated. There was the artilleryman whose aim God improved after he made his ablutions for prayer, allowing him to take out an Iraqi anti-aircraft cannon. There were the apparently demoralized soldiers whose fighting spirits God renewed after one of them prayed for help.
And there were dozens of other fighters who received life saving aid in moments of despair: replenished supplies, reloaded ammunition, sustenance for the thirsty and besieged, healing for the maimed. The stories impart a clear lesson, but some of the authors see fit to spell it out anyway: purify yourself for your Lord, seek his assistance, and he will deliver, even if he must rain it down from the sky above.
Perhaps the most memorable example of divine aid came in the form of sand and wind. In April 1980, almost six months after leftist Muslim students took over the American embassy in Tehran and detained the embassy staff, US President Jimmy Carter ordered a covert operation to infiltrate Iran for a daring rescue. Dubbed Operation Eagle Claw, the mission spectacularly failed in the Tabas Desert after multiple equipment malfunctions and a collision between a helicopter and a transport plane that destroyed both aircraft and killed eight American soldiers.
The debacle was partly caused by blasts of sand. First, one of the eight helicopters in the mission flew into an intense dust storm and was forced to return. Then, on the ground in Tabas, two aircraft were disoriented and crashed into one another after one of their rotors churned up a sand cloud. Ayatollah Khomeini later recalled the role of wind and sand in the event, calling them God’s agents:
Was it anything other than that there is an invisible hand at work? Shouldn’t those who pay no attention to the spiritual world and have no faith in the unseen wake up? Who downed Mr. Carter’s helicopters that wanted to come to Iran? Did we down them? The sands downed them. The sands were God’s agents. The wind is God’s agent. Let them learn from their experience.
Khomeini compared the sandstorms that thwarted the American military with the “screaming violent wind” that God unleashed upon the ancient tribe of ‘Ad as punishment for rejecting his messenger. According to the Qur’an, the storms pummeled the ‘Ad for seven nights and eight days, so that by the end of it, they all fell as so many “hollow trunks of palm trees.” Tabas showed that God had not abandoned his tradition of miraculous vengeance on earth.
One of my favorite Islamic prayers is a supplication praising the angels who carry the rain down to earth. It comes from a compendium attributed to the Prophet Muhammad’s great grandson Ali ibn al-Husayn, known as Zayn al-Abidin (the adornment of the worshippers) and al-Sajjad (the one who constantly prostrates himself in prayer). Venerated by Shi‘a Muslims as the fourth Imam, al-Sajjad was one of a small group of men who survived the Battle of Karbala, a confrontation in which an army loyal to the Umayyad Caliph Yazid massacred the Prophet’s grandson Husayn ibn Ali (al-Sajjad’s father) and a band of companions who refused to pledge allegiance to the tyrant. After Karbala, al-Sajjad is reported to have stood with his sister Zaynab bint Ali in speaking truth to power in Yazid’s court in Damascus. Later, he was released from captivity and allowed to return to Medina, where he lived out his years in worship and ascetic seclusion.
The prayer in praise of the angels begins by naming the carriers of God’s Throne: Seraphiel, “the owner of the trumpet,” fixed in his gaze, Michael, “possessor of standing,” obedient to God, Gabriel, “entrusted with revelation,” distinguished and brought nigh to the Lord. The Imam goes on to mention other angels, extolling their perseverance, their humility, their unending glorification of God, their lament as they look upon the people of hell. Then he turns to my favorite passage, the rain-keepers. Here is William Chittick’s translation:
The keepers of the rain,
the drivers of the clouds,
him at whose driving’s sound is heard the rolling of thunder,
and when the reverberating clouds swim before his driving,
bolts of lighting flash;
the escorts of snow and hail,
the descenders with the drops of rain when they fall,
the watchers over the treasuries of the winds,
those charged with the mountains lest they disappear,
those whom Thou hast taught the weights of the waters,
and the measures contained by torrents and masses of rain.
I can’t shake this image of angels descending with drops of rain. They bring down water for sustenance and plenty, but also for flooding and chastisement. I sometimes imagine angels as God’s robots, unthinking cogs in the universe’s awesome beautiful terrible machine. Are there angels assigned to bombs? To falling naked bodies?
A picture is seared in my mind from January 8 of this year. It is a single red shoe with a bow, most likely belonging to a toddler. It sits on a bed of stones next to some ash and broken sticks, with a hair clip and something resembling a silver pendant (or perhaps it’s another hair clip?) only inches away. The shoe is a bit dirty with soot and dust. Its bow is partially singed black. The strap is clasped, three tiny bright stones (or maybe they are plastic) on the metal buckle. There is no foot. It should have been a right foot. Did the shoe fall out of a suitcase when the plane burst open? Was its owner riding on that plane? Did the little girl’s body disappear like the clothes on those pale naked people in the water?
My mind can’t help but fixate on the soldier operating the anti-aircraft gun, the one who brought down this shoe and the rest of Ukraine International Airlines flight 752. What prayer did he utter before firing his two missiles? Had he made his ablutions beforehand? Did God improve his aim?
I remember Imam Sajjad’s prayer and try to imagine the angel who escorted the shoe on its way down from the sky. The line after the one about the measures of the torrents reads:
The angels who are Thy messengers to the people of the earth,
with the disliked affliction that comes down,
and the beloved ease.
The disliked affliction, the beloved ease.