Survivor’s Guilt


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J. Samia Mair

J. Samia Mair is the author of five children’s books, the most recent Zak and His Good Intentions (2014). She is a Staff Writer for SISTERS Magazine and Discover, The magazine for curious Muslim kids and has published in magazines, books, anthologies, scientific journals, and elsewhere.

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By J. Samia Mair

It was the first time my mother was attending a sisters’ Halaqah. Although she was not openly hostile to my reversion to Islam, she was not particularly thrilled either.

I don’t remember the topic of discussion on that day, but I will never forget my mother’s question at the end: “What does that mean for me as a Christian?” The Imam replied: “It means you are going to the Hellfire.”

I am not sure, if the world stopped for anyone else in the room, but I braced myself, waiting for my mother to react. Surprisingly, she responded with a pleasant ‘oh’. The Imam explained that it was his duty to tell her the truth about the Kuffar, and he elaborated on the unpleasant fate of all non-Muslims in the life-to-come.

I thought: “Are all my relatives going to the Hellfire?” I remembered my grandmother, who grew up in a small town, far removed from the teachings of Islam. She never complained about her life. She helped her neighbours and brought much joy to everybody. I thought about all her life and started feeling ‘survivor’s guilt’.

Survivor’s guilt has been defined as “a deep feeling of guilt experienced by those, who have survived some catastrophe that took the lives of others; derives in part from a feeling that they did not do enough to save the perished ones and in part from feelings of being unworthy.” That is basically how I felt. I could not understand, why I had been blessed with the light of Islam, but so many others had not.

I did not want to accept the Imam’s verdict on my mother’s fate and decided to find out other opinions about the topic. I found different responses from warnings of eternal suffering to promises of Paradise. An eleventh century scholar wrote that to be considered a Kafir, you need to be exposed to Islam and reject it. I felt like the Grim Reaper, bringing death to my family and friends by having exposed them to the Deen.

Eventually, I came across one of the clearest discussions by Shaikh Hamza Yusuf. Basing his discussion on some of the greatest Islamic scholars, he describes different types of disbelievers mentioned in the Quran, touching upon the difference between idolaters and disbelievers. Yusuf explains why only some disbelievers will remain in the Fire forever.

The operative phrase here is “those who have no excuse for their disbelief.” Imam Al-Ghazali indicates that those, who were truly unaware, may spend some time in the Hellfire, but they will eventually be showered in divine grace. The Quran refers to disbelief accompanied by certain characteristics that indicate the vile nature of those who knowingly and willfully reject the message. (Shaykh Hamza Yusuf in “Who are the Disbelievers?” Seasons 2008 (Spring), Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 31-50)

I believe the Imam’s assessment of my mother’s destiny is not as certain as he had made us believe. I still worry about her and other non-Muslims. I cannot entirely shake off the feeling that if I were a better Muslim, they might revert as well.

Over the years, strong feelings of survivor’s guilt have subsided under the immense gratitude I feel for being brought to Islam. Instead of wondering why I am so blessed, I try to be a better Muslim and make Dua that those, whom I love, will also receive the same blessing.

May you and your loved ones all live in Islam and die in faith, and may you all meet Allah (swt) with a sound heart. Ameen.

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