Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Are Disasters Divine Punishment? (2008)

What does (or should) one feel when he/she watches on television gruesome pictures of an earthquake or volcano survivors mourning their loved ones ? Many of us watch such scenes while eating or chatting with family or friends. The philosophers amongst us wonder why these things happen in the first place. The religious-minded would probably say it’s a divine punishment.

I once heard on BBC World (TV) an Indonesian Tsunami survivor say something like, "I believe it’s God’s punishment for people’s wrongdoing." This young man explained (in a program entirely devoted to him) that while he was fighting against the waves and hunger and all sorts of danger at sea for many days, he vowed that if God saved him from this ordeal he would never sin again. It appears that God answered his prayers ; he was saved by a ship’s crew, and later on someone helped him enroll in a university in Malaysia.

I heard and read a lot of comments suggesting that such calamities are indeed divine punishments for people for their sins. To me, that may be just one of four probable reasons. Although I believe, as a Muslim, that God does punish people for their wrongdoing, I just can’t imagine that all the victims (be they dead or survivors) of Tsunami, the recent Burma cyclone or the last earthquake in China committed such sins that the only way God could have punished them was a Tsunami or a cyclone or an earthquake. For one thing, thousands of little children who either died in these catastrophes or became orphans cannot possibly be imagined to have committed such deadly sins. Even for grown-ups, you just can’t tell for sure who was punished from who wasn’t. That’s beyond anybody’s knowledge. (The Hadith ° suggests that a whole population –including the good people– could be destroyed if there were too much evil, and that –on the Day of Judgement– each will be judged according to the intent he/she had at the moment of his/her death.)

So what could be other possible reasons ?

A second reason that has been put forward is kind of morality. “Let that be a lesson to the survivors!” some would say. As I partly agreed with the first reason, I can’t discard this one entirely, either. In fact, many people stop at such dreadful events and start meditating over life. Such meditation could lead to devotion –just as it could lead to unbelief. But what could (or should) be learned from such calamities where thousands of people lost their lives and thousands more were left maimed, orphaned, widowed or homeless; where whole towns and villages were flattened; where paradisiacal landscape turned into desolate places? Well, that’s always horrible. People who are safe and sound, ensconced in their warm armchairs, could moralize as much and as long as they wished –but would they say the same thing (in the same words, in the same tones, with the same strength of conviction) were they in the midst of the disaster?

Not long ago we saw daily TV pictures of mountain-like fires raging across Greece’s finest forests, threatening the lives of many (non-Muslim) people. Before that we saw here in Morocco fellow (Muslim) Moroccans bewailing the death of their loved ones who died in the Earthquakein the Al Hoceima region in the north of the country. Disaster does not strike the people of just one faith. It’s the same pains, the same feelings, but attitudes sometimes vary. I had once heard on the radio the story of a girl from Rwanda who had lost all her family in the genocide. I sympathized with her (through my ears), but that wasn’t as much as I felt when I saw with my own eyes on Moroccan TV a Moroccan man lying in hospital bed and thanking God, he who had lost 16 members of his family in the Al Hoceima earthquake. What would I then say of my own hardships compared to the lot of such a poor man? How could I dare to say that what happened to that man was because of his sins? Would I have the same amount of patience were I to undergo a similar hardship? I experienced the death of (only) my grand-mother nine years ago and then the death of (only) my father a little more than three months ago and felt how painful it was; what about losing all one’s family at once, overnight?

Moralization is best when it comes out like a gentle breeze from within one’s soul, rather than when inflicted by a safe-and-sound preacher.

I remember seeing a program featuring Australia’s tropical forests. The TV cameras moved gracefully among breathtaking trees, beautiful native flowers, exotic birds and animals. I thought there couldn’t be a more tempting place for a holiday. But then suddenly a hellish fire broke out and destroyed all the trees, the flowers, the birds and the animals. I sighed as the voice commenting the scene explained that such fires were sort of commonplace in these forests, and that it was a very natural phenomenon. It was good of the program to give that warning to nature-loving tourists and that lesson to those who easily succumb to beauty. Unfortunately, natural phenomena cannot all be predicted. So many tourists (from all over the world) died in Tsunami. No one –least of all the local people– could have predicted such a catastrophe. And yet people gave free rein to their hindsight. People asked a lot of (existentialist) questions. Some made some kind of change, others continued to live their lives as if nothing had happened. Personally, I do ask questions too. Recently, I read on the Web a question I had asked myself even before the Internet entered this country. Were WWI and WWII divine punishment? That was the question. I wondered why such a thing happened to people who were behind all the incredible technological development, whose fruits we enjoy in our everyday life. Those people made great inventions, worked in coal mines, struggled for human rights, etc, etc. So why were they rewarded with two bloody wars? The curious thing is that during these two wars (and the subsequent Cold War) a phenomenal technological development took place––as if our (civilian) planes today couldn’t have been able to fly as far and fast as they do today; as if our mobile phones, Internet connections, televisions, etc, could have remained topics of science-fiction books, hadn’t there been two devastating (world) wars. The United Nations was born only after those wars. Democracy became widespread only after those wars, where died the children and grand-children of great inventors, engineers, teachers, and patient workers who endured life in coal mines. Would it be superstitious to link that to so-called separation of religion and state (as was the case in France in 1905)? Or would that be explained by people’s increasing immorality? (Some would argue, though, that “real immorality” became even worse in 1968 , more than two decades after the War!) Others would argue that the War(s) had rather come as a result of then big powers’ struggle for supremacy and their rivalry over overseas colonies. Whatever the reasons of this or that calamity, it’s never bad to ask questions about it. What is bad is “to impose” one’s answers. Very often –but not always– it’s people who had been within an inch of death in such disasters who DON’T ask the hardest questions, such as, “Why should there be such a thing in the first place?” I was moved by the story of a German young woman and her mother who happened to be in Sri Lanka during Tsunami. In a program aired on Alarabiya TV, the young woman explained how a Sri Lankan young man had saved her, risking his own life. The young man himself spoke while the two women –who had come back to Sri Lanka to meet him and remember the incident– listened, their heads bowed in thought. This unexpected friendship is an instance of the paradoxically wonderful things that do happen during and in the aftermath of disasters. But the question remains, though: why should there be such a thing in the first place?

In other words, could there be a good side to disaster? Are earthquakes, cyclones, volcanoes, etc., just natural accidents that happen at random and spoil people’s lives? Even if scientists, who started developing serious theories about this only in the 1960’s, proved through empirical evidence that the above-mentioned are essential to the overall equilibrium of the planet Earth, still some would ask, “Why should the Earth need such disasters just to ensure its equilibrium?" Those who would like to settle a score with God would ask, “If God is perfect, then why did He create such an imperfect earth? Why should a population in one part of the globe be callously sacrificed in order to save populations elsewhere?"

I don’t pretend to have answers to these questions. But let’s see things as they are.

The earth may not be perfect, but what would one say of those tourists who wait a whole year and spend a lot of money to get to a place? Why do they choose to go to a particular place rather than another? Do tourists go to heavenly-like places or to Hell-like corners of the globe?

Besides, scientists say, for example, that “most earthquakes cause little or no damage”. They also say that “most volcanic activity is submarine, forming new seafloors”--far away from our cities and villages.

Almighty said, “Corruption doth appear on land and sea because of (the evil) which men's hands have done, that He may make them taste a part of that which they have done, in order that they may return .” (Ar-Rum : 41)

So the “imperfection”, if any, was rather man-made. Scientists say “man-made pollution is largely to blame for global warming”, which, in turn, is responsible for at least some of such disasters as Katrina. Otherwise, why should there be The Kyoto Protocol ?

The poor are now begging the rich to stop polluting the earth (thereby causing floods, cyclones, El NiƱos and other disasters), whereas the rich are begging the poor to accept money in exchange for The Right to Pollute in their own countries.

Recently, I heard the President of Guyana say on the BBC that his government was willing to preserve the forests which cover 80% of the country’s surface area if the international community in general and the UK in particular provided the Guyanan government with the necessary assistance for its economic development. Also the BBC has of late broadcast a special coverage of Brazil’s efforts to manage the preservation of the Amazon area. A UN official was quoted as saying that Brazil was doing its best, but the international community had to do more to help Brazil achieve its ecological goals.

So whether the earth is not perfect or whether it’s Man who made it so imperfect, it’s never too late for Man to try and make it perfect –or as perfect as possible.

In normal times, one would find heavenly-like places all over the world. Otherwise, why should there be tourists ? If many tourists happened to be in South-East Asia during Tsunami it’s because they had been attracted to the beauty of that region.

Even after a place is totally destroyed in a disaster, Man is always there to do something about it. This leads to talk about solidarity, which I consider as the third probable reason, after the idea of divine punishment and the question of morality.

When we speak of solidarity we mean charity, compassion, altruism, volunteering to help for love, not money. When you see Burmese people from all walks of life rushing to help each other ; when you see thousands of Chinese students donating blood and running to the most affected areas to save lives, that is solidarity. Who will ever forget the help that the international community provided (or at least pledged to provide) to the Tsunami victims? Who will ever forget the Stop-the-War campains?

While President Bush said he would launch a “crusade” to find Bin Laden and Alqaeda declared war on Western countries, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent joined forces to save people of different faiths and races.

When you see the international community pleading with (almost begging) the Burmese government to let in international aid workers without delay; when you learn that 200 rescue workers lost their lives as they were trying to help their fellow citizens in China, and many teachers died in the disaster after having saved their students, then you can only feel proud of being a human being. God did not make us angels. He made us fallable human beings, but capable of making the world a better place –by serving one another. God made the earth for us. He gave us life and intelligence ; He gave us both physical and moral strength so that we can improve our living conditions. If we do this for Allah’s sake, then the prize will be paradise, a place that is not only perfect, but also eternal. "It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces to the East and the West ; but righteous is he who believeth in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the Prophets ; and giveth his wealth , for love of Him , to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask , and to set slaves free ; and observeth proper worship and payeth the poor due . And those who keep their treaty when they make one , and the patient in tribulation and adversity and time of stress . Such are they who are sincere . Such are the God fearing" al-Baqara : 177 "And in whose wealth there is a right acknowledged, For the beggar and the destitute ;" Al-Ma'arij: 24-25 "And feed with food the needy wretch , the orphan and the prisoner , for love of Him , ( Saying ) : We feed you , for the sake of Allah only . We wish for no reward nor thanks from you ;" al-Insan : 8-9 Compare that solidarity manifested by people from within and without the places affected by disasters to the looting that sometimes takes place in disaster-hit areas. Compare that solidarity to the rivalries that led to WWI and WWII. Compare the bloodshed of those wars to the spirit that led to the European Union. Definitely, Man is capable of doing good just as he is capable of doing evil. "And a soul and Him who perfected it, And inspired it ( with conscience of ) what is wrong for it and ( what is ) right for it . He is indeed successful who causeth it to grow , And he is indeed a failure who stunteth it ." Ash-Shams: 7-10

And what is more beautiful Man can do than rebuilding shattered lives ? Indeed, I regard reconstruction as the fourth probable reason after those I mentioned above. Destruction is no doubt horrific. But it’s part of life. What we tend to forget is that most destruction is man-made. Natural disasters had no hand in the unbelievable destruction that occurred in the heart of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. Natural disasters have had no hand in the destruction that has taken place in Iraq, for example. We tend to overlook man-made destruction, but when it comes to natural disasters, some of us yell out, "Why does God do this to us ?"

Practical-minded people get down to work at once to mend the destruction, leaving to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Sometimes the destructors themselves rush to reconstruction. The U.S., who helped bring down Hitler’s Reich and Japan’s empire, put in place the Marshall Plan to rebuild postwar Europe and Japan. A thriving Baby boomer generation enjoyed the fruits of that reconstruction, thus turning the page on the horrors of the War their fathers had witnessed. "Unhappiness of some makes the happiness of others,” as the French proverb goes.

Now the Chinese say it will take up to three years to resettle the survivors. This means that a lot of (Chinese) people will have a lot of work, a steady income for at least three years. A lot of companies will thrive during this period and a lot of trade will take place. Some Chinese parents who lost their children in government-run schools are now blaming the government for the disaster, claiming that the schools had been constructed poorly. Now, not only those demolished schools, but the whole (old) infrastructure is going to be much better than it had been before the earthquake. This will give the opportunity to newly graduated engineers to prove their worth, to build their personal lives.

Idem for Burma. Idem for any other disaster-hit place. Destruction is followed by reconstruction. And when souls are "reconstructed", Muslims rebuild their mosques , Christians rebuild their churches, Bhuddists rebuild their temples, agnostics repeat their eternal, indestructible question, "Why did that happen in the first place ?"


° Zaynab bint Jahsh said, "O Messenger of Allaah, will we be destroyed even though there are righteous people among us?" He said, "Yes, if evil becomes widespread." (Reported by al-Bukhaari, 6/381, Muslim, 18/2)

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