With the one-two-three-four punch of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Wilma, and the devastating South Asian earthquake – not long after the horrific December 2004 South Asian Tsunami – it is natural for so many people to wonder why these disasters are happening. What do they mean? A frequent question – one with which I do not necessarily agree – is “Where was God?” Many people ask why would God do such a thing.
And there is no shortage of people who offer answers: Some said Katrina was punishment for the sins of New Orleans. Others said she was punishment for supporting the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza strip. Still others said she was punishment for legalized abortion in this country.
Like I said before, it’s funny how God is speaking to so many people nowadays, telling them the full details of the inner workings of His Plan?
If there were some Muslims who felt or said the same thing about Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I wonder what they are saying now, given that the South Asian earthquake killed well over 40,000 people, the overwhelming majority of whom were Muslims…and in the month of Ramadan. Is it God’s punishment? The same goes for the Asian Tsunami. Again, the majority of those killed were Muslims. Was it God’s punishment then?
I, for one, refuse to label any natural disaster or calamity as “God’s punishment.” First of all, none of us have any inkling of the reason why God decreed these natural disasters to happen. Just like Christ said in the Qur’an – after being questioned by God whether he told people to worship him – “You know what is in my own self, and I do not know what is in Your Own Self” (5:116).
Secondly, for which sins are the victims of the natural disasters being punished? What if these sinners – and we all sin against God – had already asked God for forgiveness? Why would God then punish them? Back at the time of the Prophet (pbuh), the pagan Arabs actually asked the Prophet (pbuh) to ask God to “rain down on us a shower of stones form the sky, or send us a grievous penalty” (8:32). Didn’t God respond by saying: “But God was not going to send them a penalty while you are among them; nor was He going to send it while they could ask for pardon” (8:33)?
Let’s take Hurricane Katrina as an example: yes, there were many things that went on in New Orleans with which I do not agree or think is morally acceptable. Many of the same things occur in other cities around the world (including Muslim countries, by the way), however. Why haven’t those cities been “crushed” by God’s Mighty Hand? Yet, think about it, most of the people who partook in the sins of New Orleans most probably fled the Hurricane before she came, and those who were left were the poor and neglected. It was those people who suffered the brunt of “God’s judgment.” Is this right? Is God really that mean and vindictive?
Now, many people rebut my contention by citing the many stories in the Qur’an of cities being destroyed by God for their iniquities. Yes, the people of Noah, Hud, Salih, Jethro, and Lot were all destroyed for their sins. Their stories are important reminders for all believers of all times. Yet, I think it is a stretch to apply those examples to natural disasters today. The Qur’anic paradigm is completely different, and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as the Asian earthquake and tsunami, do not fit that paradigm.
The Qur’an outlines that paradigm: “God sets forth a Parable: a city enjoying security and quiet, abundantly supplied with sustenance from every place: Yet was it ungrateful for the favors of God, so God made it taste of hunger and terror (in extremes) (closing in on it) like a garment (from every side), because of the (evil) which (its people) wrought. And there came to them a Messenger from among themselves, but they falsely rejected him; so the Wrath seized them even in the midst of their iniquities” (16:112-113).
Did this situation occur in New Orleans, Biloxi, or Muzaffarabad? Not really. So, how can someone confidently say that the earthquake was “God’s punishment”? You really can’t. Moreover, God says: “If God were to punish men for their wrong-doing, He would not leave, on the (earth), a single living creature: but He gives them respite for a stated Term: When their Term expires, they would not be able to delay (the punishment) for a single hour, just as they would not be able to anticipate it (for a single hour)” (16:61). Like I said, we are all sinners, and if God were to rightfully take us to task, we would all have been wiped off the earth long ago. But, thank God, we have not been totally wiped off the face of the earth.
You know why? Because God is infinitely merciful; He loves us, and He gives us every benefit of the doubt, every opportunity – almost up to the very last minute and breaths of our lives – to come back to Him and repent for our sins. I know this because, if it were not the case, I would not be here writing this right now.
You know what else is bad, even dangerous, about saying Katrina or the Asian earthquake is “God’s punishment”? It implies that the victims deserve what happened to them. Why else, the logic goes, would they be punished? Punishment implies the commission of a wrong and the rectification of that wrong. And the perpetrator, therefore, deserves what has happened to him or her. I do not think anyone would dare say that the victims of Katrina, Rita, and the South Asian tsunami and earthquake deserve what happened to them. Why, then, say those natural disasters are “God’s punishment”? Could you look one of the children in Pakistan, screaming from pain due to a broken bone, and tell them that what has happened to them is “God’s punishment”? I, for one, could never do so.
So, why did it happen? We will never know. Yet, while I understand there may be some comfort in trying to understand why the earthquake happened, we must not let it waste our time. There are millions upon millions of survivors to feed, clothe, treat, and care for. Taking care of them must be our top priority.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at godfaithpen.com.