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According to Lawrence Wright's book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Osama bin Laden quoted the Qur'an in reference to the attack on the World Trade Center:

"Wherever you are, death will find you, even in the looming tower."

In the original context, Surah 4, Ayah 78, the text reads:

Wherever you are, death will overtake you, though you are in lofty towers, and if a benefit comes to them, they say: This is from Allah; and if a misfortune befalls them, they say: This is from you. Say: All is from Allah, but what is the matter with these people that they do not make approach to understanding what is told (them)?—Qur'an Translation by Mohammad Habib Shakir

Presumably this was not intended to refer to skyscrapers on Manhattan. So what was the original meaning of the passage?


Please take this question on this day as an attempt to build understanding between our cultures. The passage reminds me very much of a story we have about Jesus:

There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”—Luke 13:1-5 (ESV)

It seems like both passages talk of understanding human tragedy from God's point of view, rather than our own limited conceptions. Does this seem a profitable parallel?

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This verse is misquoted in this case. I actually laughed because the classical commentaries on Qur'an have explained this verse centuries before and I can see how the people who committed the heinous act of terror have misquoted this verse to suit their purpose and justify their actions. I will provide the historical context of this verse and also the message from this verse.

In pre-islamic period, the people of Makkah were polytheistic and there was also a lot of oppression, slavery and much injustice in the society. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) started preaching Islam to the people of Makkah and asked people to worship only Allah, be just with people and warned them of the consequences in the hereafter of associating partners with Allah. He started alone and as time progressed, there were people who found the truth of his call and joined him. But they were just few. The polytheists of Makkah hated them, oppressed them and tried to kill them. The muslims wanted to fight them back. However, Allah ordered the muslims to be patient with them, forgive them and call them to islam since fighting was not legislated. Then the muslims, migrated to Madinah since it was too dangerous for them to stay at Makkah. In Madinah, muslims got power, support and strength. Then, it was commanded to fight the oppressors, and idolators of Makkah. You should notice that the muslims were very patient at the beginning, however the people of Makkah didn't change their ways. When the fighting was commanded, some of the muslims were weary and also fearful in facing the idolators at the battle. As in the verse before in Qur'an, Allah mentions them:

But then when fighting was ordained for them, at once a party of them feared men as they fear Allah or with [even] greater fear. They say: "Our Lord! Why have You ordained for us fighting Would that You had granted us respite for a short period' [An-Nisa:77]

That is, some of them asked Allah to delay the fighting because they feared death and loss. Hence, in order to encourage them to fight, Allah reveals in the same verse:

Say, The enjoyment of this world is little, and the Hereafter is better for he who fears Allah.

That is, everything in this world is little compared to the reward in the hereafter if one fights in the cause of Allah. And this was fighting against oppression and injustice. And since some of those muslims feared death, Allah revealed in next verse:

Wherever you may be, death will overtake you, even if you should be within towers of lofty construction.

Now, this verse - It shows the reality of death. Those muslims feared their death in battle and preferred to remain at their homes. To them Allah said even if you are in your homes, and even if you make big lofty towers and hide inside it, you cannot prevent death. This is the reality of death i.e. we find ourselves healthy and happy and enjoying our lives and death suddenly overtakes us. So, Allah tells them that the matter of death is in the complete control of Allah and death will take them at the time decreed by Allah. Fighting in the cause of Allah doesn't hasten it or locking yourself in lofty towers will not prevent it or delay it. No one can escape death. Everyone has an appointed time, and a limited term of life.

In the famous commentary of Ibn Katheer, he mentions the incident of commander of the muslims in several battles, in context of this verse. Khalid bin Al-Walid, the commander of muslims, wanted to always die in a battle. However, he did not. Because, it was not in his control. He died a natural death. In the illness that preceded his death, Khalid bin Al-Walid said, while in his bed, "I participated in so and so number of battles, and every part of my body sustained an injury due to a stab or a shot. Yet here I am, I die in my bed! Let not the eyes of the cowards ever taste sleep.''

Those muslims weren't able to understand this. That is why Allah tells them in the same verse:

But if good comes to them, they say, "This is from Allah "; and if evil befalls them, they say, "This is from you." Say, "All [things] are from Allah ." So what is [the matter] with those people that they can hardly understand any statement?

That is both good and bad things that happen to them is from Allah and it is his control.

This verse has, in reality, nothing to do with towers, or skyscrappers or anything of that sort. The word " بُرُوجٍ" translated as fortresses has been given too much unnecessary importance and cause. It was just meant to convey the message about reality of death which I explained above. It has no other significance.

Source: Tafsir Ibn Kathir

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Remarkable! So not only is the passage taken out of context, but the tower/fortress in question was actually the stronghold of Muslims (metaphorically speaking). Thank you for the historical context and exegesis. +1 –  Jon Ericson Sep 11 '12 at 19:09
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To begin, the book quotes the translation of this ayah as "the looming tower." This is a misaccurate translation; I suggest Saheeh International (a collaboration of English writing scholars, Arabic and Islamic scholars), which suggests the translation of:

Wherever you may be, death will overtake you, even if you should be within towers of lofty construction. (Surah Nisaa, verse 78)

The key I want to bring attention to here is that the Arabic mentions: بُرُوجٍ مُّشَيَّدَةٍ, which is singular; you could almost translate it as "even if you were within a tower of lofty construction." It does not indicate a specific tower.


With the translation out of the way, we can dive into the meaning. First, the Qur'an describes itself as:

[image/translation pending]

Parts of the Qur'an explain and clarify other parts. When we look at this ayah, the apparent meaning is the reality of death: that everything and everyone will die. This correlates very nicely with other parts of the Qur'an:

enter image description here

Translation: Every soul will taste death, and you will only be given your [full] compensation on the Day of Resurrection [...] (Surah Al-e-Imran, verse 185)

And:

enter image description here

Translation: [...] Everything will be destroyed (perish) except His Face. [...] (Surah Al-Qasas, verse 28)

And:

enter image description here

Translation: And We did not grant to any man before you eternity [on earth]; so if you die - would they be eternal? (Surah Al-Anbiyaa, verse 34)

When you take these verses together, they paint a very clear picture: that no soul will live together, and that everyone will die.


A final side-note about Al-Qa'eda: across the board, they are considered as a deviant group of Islam. Their actions and beliefs need to be addressed with skepticism; they do not represent Muslims in general, and certainly not the majority of us.

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Very helpful. It sounds like my guess wasn't too far off. Reading the book it became very clear that Al-Qa'eda was not at all representative of Islam. I hope my religion (Christianity) will not be identified with the most extreme, fringe groups either. –  Jon Ericson Sep 11 '12 at 19:19
    
I don't think "BuRUJ" is singular. It's singular form is "BuRJ" without the "U" (Arabic letter Waw). –  banging Jul 26 '13 at 17:20
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I just want to add that this verse is timeless and does not need context to be appreciated.

It simply means you cannot hide from death.

4:78 Wherever you may be, death will find you, even if you are in fortified towers. If any good befalls them, they say, "This is from God," and if any bad befalls them, they say, "This is from you!" Say, "All is from God;" what is wrong with these people, they barely understand anything said!

Source: Reformist Translation

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I'm not familiar with that translation, but it sounds interesting. Can you provide a link? –  Jon Ericson Jul 30 '13 at 14:23
    
Absolutely. You may find the PDF online here > deenresearchcenter.com/… or if you prefer a printed version, check Amazon! –  banging Jul 30 '13 at 15:00
    
Other great translation include "The Qur'an - A Monotheist Translation" > free-minds.org/sites/default/files/quran.pdf Printed copies also available on Amazon. –  banging Jul 30 '13 at 15:01
    
One more (but this time it's not a literary translation) can be found here >> drshabbir.com/pages/Free-Library.html –  banging Jul 30 '13 at 15:03
    
For best results, consult more than one translation ;) –  banging Jul 30 '13 at 15:03
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