THE QUR’AN AND NATURAL CALAMITIES - Future Islam
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THE QUR’AN AND NATURAL CALAMITIES

By Dr Dildar Ahmed

Introduction
Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc., may cause terribly disastrous consequences for life- human, animal and plant.  They may also result into a large-scale destruction of property and, more importantly, lifelong human distress due to medical and psychological reasons.

The issue of natural calamities and human sufferings is one of the most baffling subjects of science and religion as well as of various other fields of study like psychology and social sciences, etc. Every time a calamity occurs, it gives rise to questions of not only immediate practical importance but also having epistemological and philosophical significance.  The people, quite reasonably, want to know the real cause of the death and destruction occurring at the occasions of natural calamities. What is the real cause of the loss? Is it a result of God’s fury or man’s folly? Have the natural calamities something to do with the moral behaviour of the victims?  Or, they are the outcome of administrative negligence on the part of the rulers. In this article, the issue of the natural calamities has been briefly discussed, focusing on some of the related questions. The doctrine of God’s wrath has been examined from the Qur’anic point of view.

Classification

To understand and rationalize natural calamities (occurrences inflicting widespread destruction and distress)1 on the basis of religion or any other system of knowledge, it is necessary to differentiate between the disasters that occur due to natural events and the misfortunes that are wrought by the people themselves by acting contrary to the Divine moral values. Without having an appropriate classification, we will not be able to establish correct cause and effect relationship with reference to a certain calamity.  And, if the cause of an effect is not correctly identified, there is a chance that any remedial action taken will not produce desired results. The question is whether the incidents, like earthquakes, causing destruction are caused by physical process that takes place in nature or are a consequence of a human moral behaviour. On the basis of their origin and causes, the calamities, thus, can be mainly divided into natural, social and accidental2.

  1. Natural calamities may further be divided into physical and biological calamities. Earthquakes, floods, cyclones and hurricanes, etc., are examples of physical phenomena which may cause devastation. Widespread diseases, epidemics and pandemics, etc., are the examples of biological calamities.
  2. Social Calamities are those which are caused by corruption, injustices, moral disintegration, economic exploitation and political oppression, etc.
  3. Accidental Calamities are caused by some accident, such as rail, road, sea and air mishaps.

 Wrath of God Theory

By one estimate, there are 19 major world religions, which are subdivided into some 270 large groups3. Epistemologically, the exact religious response to natural calamities may vary from religion to religion as each religion looks at these happenings with its specific perspective.  Therefore, a generalized picture cannot be presented. However, many people, particularly a section of religious clergy from all backgrounds, generally regard natural hazards as an expression of God’s displeasure. They believe that earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and floods, etc., are indications of the ‘wrath of God’, to borrow their words4.

For the Muslims, Christians, and Jews it is also very common to correlate the physical disasters with the calamities that befell the opponents of the previous Prophets (AS) mentioned in the Qur’an and the Bible. They, thus, regard these natural catastrophes as a chastisement or punishment for the affected people from God.

The Qur’anic View

The Qur’an, however, does not seem to support the ‘wrath of God theory’. A little reflection on the Qur’anic passages relating stories of the past Prophets will show that God almighty has never chastised a people unless He had first sent a Messenger to them who would convey onto them the message of truth and warned them of their evildoings. It is only after the people had opposed and willfully rejected their Prophet, Divine chastisement befell them as a natural consequence of their doings and not as an arbitrary act of God. The Qur’an has pointed out this Divine law of chastisement or retribution at a number of places. For example, in surah Bani Israel (17:15), God almighty says:

“And, We would never chastise [any community for the wrong they may do] ere We have sent an apostle [to them].”5

The law is further explained in surah al-Qasas (28:59) where it is declared:

“Yet, withal, thy Sustainer would never destroy a community without having [first] raised in its midst an apostle who would convey unto them Our messages; and never would We destroy a community unless its people are wont to do wrong [to one another].”6

The second aspect of the Divine law of chastisement is that it has always differentiated between the believers and the opponents of God’s Prophets. It has always befallen the opponents of the Prophets and not a single example from the Holy Qur’an can be quoted where a believer would have fallen prey to such a chastisement.  This fact has been described in the Qur’an at a number of places. For example, in surah Hud (11:94), God almighty, after narrating the story of the Prophet Shu‘ayb (AS), declared:

“And so, when Our judgment came to pass, by Our grace We saved Shu‘ayb and those who shared his faith, whereas the blast [of Our punishment] overtook those who had been bent on evildoing: and then they lay lifeless, in their very homes, on the ground.”7

Thus, according to the Qur’an, God’s chastisement befell a people when they turned against their Prophet and willfully rejected the message of truth, and, secondly, it befell only the opponents of the Prophet without harming the believers.

On the basis of the Qur’an it is, thus, not correct to regard ordinary natural disasters as the acts of chastisement or punishment from God.

According to the Qur’an, God has created the universe with truth, purpose and meaning. All the phenomena and changes are controlled and governed by his absolute Will. However, God, being all-Powerful and all-Knowing, does not take arbitrary decisions. He simply does not need to do so. To think of Him behaving in an anthropomorphic manner is actually equivalent to demeaning Him.   The wrath of God theory presents Him as God of fear who acts like a despotic monarch. This is against the Qur’anic concept of all-Merciful, all-Wise, and all-Knowing Creator and Sustainer of the universe.  His Will operates in the universe through laws of nature that He has ingrained in it. The laws of nature, according to the Qur’an, are the Divine laws- Sunnah, or methodology, of God in the words of the Qur’an8.

Disasters and calamities, however, should definitely have a lesson in them for every wise person. They must remind us of the temporariness and fragility of our existence in this world. And, every such incident should certainly strengthen our faith in God and remind us of our duty to our fellow human beings.

Nevertheless, we must also understand the real cause of death and destruction at the occasion of natural cataclysms. We must know that it is not the earthquakes, for instance, that cause loss of lives. The earthquakes only shake the earth’s surface. They themselves are not a disaster, calamity or catastrophe. They are but natural and physical phenomena caused by natural geological process ingrained by God with a purpose. It is, for example, this process that gives the earth’s crust its peculiar appearance, and makes and shapes earth’s topography, the mountains, oceans, rivers, etc. However, when the people fail to fulfill the demands of the laws of nature, they may fall victim to the otherwise positive and beneficial natural changes. For instance, if we construct buildings in a region prone to earthquakes without following an appropriate building code, an earthquake may cause fatalities. Therefore, administrative negligence of the authorities may result in a calamity for innocent people.

Social Calamities

God almighty has endowed human beings with free will within a certain domain. In that domain, they are accountable for their deeds. Substandard collective socio-politico-economic behaviour of a community may cause what is here termed as social calamities.  When a community stops living according to the Divine moral values like justice, equality, rule of law, truth, love, care and sacrifice, and indulge in injustices, corruption, exploitation, dishonesty, and indecency etc., backwardness in all spheres of human living, lack, or poor standards, of basic human needs, overspread of crimes, etc. will ultimately appear as a consequence. This is explained in the Holy Qur’an at a number of places. In surah al-Rum (30:41), it is said:

“Corruption has appeared on land and in the sea as an outcome of what men’s hands have wrought: and so He will let them taste [the evil of] some of their doings, so that they might return [to the right path].”9

Here the word corruption, Qur’anic fasaad, includes, as the context shows, all types of social and environmental pollution.

The October 8 earthquake was not something that is unforeseen.   The geologists already knew that the affected region was prone to earthquakes of high magnitude. But, our ruling aristocracy failed to do its duty. It failed to devise and strictly implement a building code that ensured construction of earthquake-resistant buildings. It failed to provide safety measures in the areas. Moreover, it failed to educate, organize, and empower the people so that they could face the calamity in a better manner. Had the government and its institutions been prepared technologically as well as administratively to cope with such a catastrophe the degree of the devastation would have been far less.

Notes and References

  1. Calamity comes from the Latin “calamitus” and appears to have an etymological relationship to “calamus“, straw or reed. In this sense, it would refer to damaged crops. It in English means damage, disaster, adversity, catastrophe, tragedy, misfortune, cataclysm, devastation, etc. “Encarta explains the word as “a disastrous situation or event (often used ironically)”. From www.etymonline.com one can find more about the word: “c.1425, from M. Fr. calamite, from Latin calamitatem (nom. calamitus) `damage, disaster, adversity,’ origin obscure. Latin writers associated it with calamus `straw,’ but it is perhaps from a lost root preserved in incolumis `uninjured.'” In Encarta the origin shows as: “Latin calamitas `disaster, defeat.’ Originally used in English with the meaning `adversity.'” For calamitaswww.perseus.tufts.edu offers meanings such as “loss, misfortune, mishap, injury, calamity, disaster, ruin, and adversity.”Calamity is “any great misfortune or cause of misery,” describes ARTFL Project’s Webster Dictionary, 1913. The word is “generally applied to events or disasters which produce extensive evil, either to communities or individuals.” On the origin, the dictionary cites Bacon: “The word calamity was first derived from calamus when the corn could not get out of the stalk.”” (www.thehindubusinessline.com).
  2. This is how I would like to classify calamities so that I can explain them on the basis of the teachings of the Qur’an which I have understood.
  1. This is according to David Barrett et al, editors of the “World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions – AD 30 to 2200”.
  2. On the internet, numerous news reports and writings are available which regard the natural calamities as the wrath of God/gods and/or His/theirs curse or punishment.
  3. Translation by Muhammad Asad except his Moreover at the beginning has been replaced by And. See The Message of The Qur’an, (Dar al-Andalus, Gibraltar, 1984).
  4. Translation by Muhammad Asad.
  5. Translation by Muhammad Asad.
  6. See, for example, 33:62, 35:43, and 48:23.
  7. Translation by Muhammad Asad, who has written a useful note Explaining the meaning of the verse.  “Thus, the growing corruption and destruction of our natural environment, so awesomely- if as yet only partially- demonstrated in our time , is here predicted as “an outcome of what men’s hands have wrought”, i.e., of that self-destructive – because utterly materialistic – inventiveness and frenzied activity which now threatens mankind with previously unimaginable ecological disasters: an unbridled pollution of land, air and water through industrial and urban waste, a progressive poisoning of plant and marine life, all manner of genetic malformations in men’s own bodies through an ever-widening use of drugs and seemingly “beneficial” chemicals, and the gradual extinction of many animal species essential to human well-being. To all this may be added the rapid deterioration and decomposition of man’s social life, the all-round increase in sexual perversion, crime and violence, with perhaps, nuclear annihilation as the ultimate stage: all of which is, in the last resort, an outcome of man’s oblivion of God and, hence, of all absolute values, and their supersession by the belief that material “progress” is the only thing that matters.”
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