Natural Disasters or Divine Punishment? (Part 1)
Printed in The Review of Religions, January 1994
Cataclysms of nature that antedate human existence and sometimes still occur in uninhabited lands are not quite the news-grabbing misfortunes causing sudden and unexpected loss of life or suffering or resulting in economic loss. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, lightening, typhoons and hurricanes are the greatest killers. Fewer deaths are caused by aircraft, ferry and train accidents but immense public interest is generated in apportioning it to human blame or some safety measure which did not work.
Six years before the election of the present Supreme Head of the worldwide Ahmadiyya Community in Islam to the office of Khilafat, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad wrote a series of articles in Urdu which were published in 1976 by the “Al-Furqan” magazine, Rabwah (Pakistan). As with so many of his writings this subject remains ageless and highly topical.
With the kind permission of the author, Hazrat Sahibzada Mirza Tahir Ahmad, an English rendering of these articles by Mansoor Ahmad Shah, who accepts personal responsibility for any errors or misrepresentations in his poor translation, is being serialised in the Review of Religions.
Since time immemorial man has often been intrigued by the question whether natural disasters have anything to do with God’s displeasure. There are two apparent schools of thought:
- One school of thought holds that all major calamities and disasters are the results of natural laws. They have nothing to do with the good or evil conduct of man, nor have these disasters anything to do with man’s rejection of the prophets sent by God.
- On the other hand, followers of various religions all over the world have always believed that whenever calamities acquire an extraordinary character, they cease to be a natural phenomenon and instead fall into the realm of the preternatural. Admittedly, not all these religions, credows and cults display the concept of the One, Almighty, Omnipotent God as presented by Islam.
Nevertheless, the followers of such religions generally agree in their own unique way and methodology, that a decree by some wise being manifests itself in such disasters. For some, that being may be the sun-god, or the god of wind, or the deity of mountains, or the goddess of the seas. But even those faiths which associate divine attributes to some figment of the imagination, have continued to regard misfortunes descending from skies or erupting from beneath the earth as being at least supernatural. Though there are certainly differences in the details, religions amongst whom the concept of the Unity of God still prevails, are generally unanimous that natural disasters are a Sign of Divine wrath. Foremost amongst these is Islam, followed by Judaism and then Christianity which simultaneously believe in the unity of God and also Trinity.
As can be seen, this poses an intriguing puzzle. Contemporary man has fathomed deep into previously unknown secrets of nature. He has carried out painstaking research into the cause and effect of these disasters – how, where and why do these calamities occur. He has gradually begun to remove the cloaks of mystery and myth which surround the secrets of the cosmos.
For both the disbelievers and the adherents of various religious dogmas, this issue has now become more important than ever before. It is even more relevant and worthy of serious consideration by the followers of religions because much water has passed under the bridge. The rest of the world which had hitherto been a silent observer of the external natural phenomenon is today armed to the teeth with undeniable facts. Discovered after painstaking research and experimentation, these facts reveal that natural disasters occur as a result of natural causes. There is no divine intervention in such natural incidents. This leaves the adherents of various religions very much square-footed on the platform on which they stood before. They have not been able to produce any evidence to support their viewpoint that disasters are somehow caused by a Supreme Being.
The view that the natural phenomenon we observe in misfortunes of various kinds is undoubtedly linked to an expression of God’s displeasure has begun to be reinforced afresh by the Ahmadiyya Community with great conviction. It is, therefore, incumbent upon the Ahmadiyya Community that its researchers and observers should investigate this issue from all angles. They should not merely define their stand in this regard but should present fresh logical evidence from their own findings in support of their point of view so that they may satisfactorily respond to the higher standards of human reason and intellect prevailing today.
The man who confronts us today is far more advanced in secular knowledge than his predecessor of a thousand or five million years ago. Neither religious tautology nor shouting one’s point of view from the roof tops is ever likely to appeal to modern man. The stage is thus set for a fresh battle between religion and irreligion on this front also. The minor skirmishes todate indicate a woeful defeat of religious forces and a triumphant victory for atheism. Indeed, this victory seems so resounding that having been impressed by the arguments of the atheists, a large section of the Muslim population has jumped on the bandwagon to dismiss out of hand the notion of any divine intervention. Admittedly, when a thunderbolt strikes out of the blue the man in the street voluntarily proclaims it to be some divine calamity. While the visitation hangs like the sword of Damoclese over their heads, for a few days they eagerly climb up minarets to make the call to prayers and may utter a few words seeking for forgiveness or supplicate and turn to Almighty God. Yet despite this tacit admission of a warning from God, no significant change occurs in their lives. The transitory attention paid to God Almighty passes away from their hearts and minds like a traveller – now you see them, now you do not. They never spare a thought to the claim made in the Holy Quran that these divine punishments are not merely related to evil deeds but also to the rejection of God’s chosen prophets. In fact, this Quranic claim goes as far as to state that irrespective of the transgressions committed by man, no punishments afflicts man until such time that God has sent His Messenger or Prophet to such people and that the Messenger or Prophet has warned and admonished the people and invited them to that which is good for them well ahead of time.
The Ahmadiyya Community, which adheres to the aforementioned principle of the Holy Quran, regularly experiences the manifestation of this teaching during its day to day preaching encounters. Ahmadis frequently get an opportunity to exchange views on this subject with their colleagues and friends who are ready to accept the concept of ordinary calamities and classify these as divine punishments. But these friends and colleagues are never prepared to go one stage further and acknowledge that before these terrible misfortunes occurred, God Almighty has indeed sent a Prophet from amongst the followers of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him. He was the Admonisher and Warner of this age.
Ahmadis often have to bear ridicule poured upon them by their colleagues from other faiths. An allegation is made that each misfortune which afflicts the world is enumerated by Ahmadis as evidence of the truthfulness of the claims of the Founder of their Community. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Thus opponents allege, “If there is an earthquake in Chile or tremors in China register high richter scales; the cities of Hazara and Mardan get a foretaste of the doomsday; whether it rains very heavily or there be a drought; whether there be a violent storm or typhoons or hurricanes or it becomes extremely hot and sticky in the droldrums; in short, no matter how the dice falls or which mode of catastrophe occurs, without rhyme or reason, your people are quick to advance these as further evidence of the truth of your Mirza.” How nonsensical and ridiculous is this line of argument which no person on earth can accept today. On hearing this, some Ahmadis have no response other than to distance themselves from it. Some are bewildered and begin to harbour doubts. After all, since time immemorial, the world has suffered many disasters. How than can we as Ahmadis advance such natural disasters as proof of the truth of the Promised Messiah?
One thing leads to another. Our thoughts quickly race to another source of comfort. We begin to search for a tangible cause for why the Holy Quran clearly mentions various natural disasters as Signs of the truth of the Prophets of God. Why is the Holy Quran replete with instances of the destruction of one people after another who had rejected God’s chosen Prophet sent by Him to them? God only saved those who believed. Why, for instance, does the Holy Quran elicit the same argument in support of even the Chief amongst the Prophets, the Holy Prophet of Islam, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him? The Holy Quran warns mankind that if they reject the Chief amongst the Prophets, then the misfortunes afflicted on those who denied earlier prophets of much lower rank in the sight of God than the Holy Prophet, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him would also afflict the disbelievers. Their fate may be even more disastrous than those who denied earlier Prophets. Such punishment would, therefore, prove the truth of this Noble Prophet.
Having considered this concomitant matter, one is no longer confined to Ahmadiyya teachings, but one’s thoughts turn to the broader and loftier underlying principle of divine chastisement. What is this principle? Is it right for any religion to claim that because of the outright rejection of a Prophet of God, world calamities are a sure sign of the punishment of God? In other words, must we wag the finger of God at every disaster?
After these introductory remarks emphasising the significance of this burning issue, I shall now try, as far as possible, to shed some light on the various aspects of this subject in the hope of prompting further contemplation by my fellow brethren in faith.
Ahmadis base their views wholly and solely on the teachings of the Holy Quran and determine all aspects of this subject on the anvil of the Holy Quran. By Ahmadiyya viewpoint I mean that point of view which, according to the Ahmadiyya Community, represents the true Islamic viewpoint, irrespective of whether or not other Muslim sects concur with it. Be that as it may, for the avoidance of doubt in any discourse with a non-believer, the following essential features of the Ahmadiyya viewpoint should always be borne in mind:
- Ahmadis do not for a moment dispute the fact that disasters, misfortunes, and earthquakes etc., occur because of natural causes and that their occurrence is in strict conformity with the laws of nature. According to Ahmadis, the God of religion is also the God of mother nature and the cosmos. The very laws which we define as the laws of nature, operate under God’s perfect attributes within God’s pre-determined parameters. Although detailed and painstaking research has revealed to man many hitherto undiscovered secrets, these researchers are the first to openly admit that they have as yet merely scratched at the surface and that much more yet remains to be learnt. No point can be determined as the first base. Each cause seems to be an effect of another cause. Like Chinese boxes, opening up one leads to yet another box, and thus one effect leads to another cause. Insofar as the reach of human intellect is concerned, this chain of cause and effect is ad infinitum. Who knows where it started from and where it will all end?When we reflect upon the teachings of the Holy Quran, we find that God Almighty is the Beginning (i.e., through Him did all His creation start) and the Culmination (i.e., towards Him will all return). He is the Source and the Refuge. As Muslims, we regularly recite the following in remembrance of God Almighty:To Allah we belong and to Him shall we all return.In reciting this, we are in essence reaffirming the aforementioned concept.In view of these principles, the Ahmadiyya Community does not consider natural laws to be independent of or divorced from religious laws. Both are part and parcel of the laws of God. Therefore, the admission that physical changes are caused by nature, does not in any way contradict the acceptance that all laws of nature operate under God’s powers and control and within His predetermined and pre-ordained laws and that God Almighty is the Source of all that energy and force that is expended or utilized at the time of each natural change or transformations.
- Despite harbouring the belief that misfortunes and calamities are an act of God and at His Will, the Ahmadiyya Community does not believe that each and every accident of nature, disaster, upheaval or change for the worse is a reflection of divine punishment or chastisement. Failing to understand the true import of such a stand, an atheist invariably resorts to criticism and objections. To a degree, his objections are understandable. But if a person concocts his personal views and opinions and tosses them into the lap of a religion, they will be riddled with the contradictions and false assumptions of that person. Religion will be unable to defend itself. Non-religious ideologists will then have a field day in proving the weaknesses in the arguments presented by a religion in defence of such a person’s views. The opponents will claim that any religion which harbours such unscientific and illogical myths and superstitions is totally devoid of the truth and wholly unreliable. Reason dictates that such a religion be dismissed out of hands.This was precisely the difficulty that Christianity has to had face during the Renaissance. The clergy were busy presenting rigid and outmoded views which had no trace of divinely revealed teachings. There inferences were either based on distorted myths in the Holy Bible or hypotheses and misinterpretations based on the Old Testament teachings. When physical observation, scientific discoveries and empirical knowledge disclosed to people, and in particular the people of Europe that their findings clearly contradicted Christian ideology, they naturally concluded that Christianity was false and hocus-pocus. Consequently, they began to abandon Christianity. They either openly rebelled against Christianity or distanced themselves from it – if not so outspokenly, then by action at least. A more liberal and materialistic society began to emerge in Europe. It unshackled itself from the yoke of Christianity. The chasm was now more visible – in every material respect, this society was free from the Church.Muslims, and in particular the Ahmadis, have a moral duty to learn from this experience. In pursuit of their objective of establishing the supremacy of their faith, they must never drop their guard. They must exercise due care and diligence and if their faith has made no claim, they must not accredit it to their religion.One thing is very clear from the teachings of the Holy Quran, the Traditions of the Holy Prophet of Islam, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, and from the writings of the Promised Messiah. It is that Islam does not claim anywhere that all natural disasters and calamities represent decrees of divine punishment.We most certainly come across the claim that at times God Almighty harnessed physical and natural laws to unleash a havoc on those world powers which were not only opposed to religious and spiritual movements, but also had used all their material strength and resources to annihilate the emerging and nascent religions. Whenever religions doctrines clash with atheistic philosophies or pagan and atheist forces stand in open rebellion to nip the emerging religion in the bud, then in such circumstances, according to the Holy Quran, the laws of nature are harnessed to defeat the might of the non- believers. It is at these times that we see the law of God proverbially setting a thief to catch a thief. In other words, for those who reject the existence of an Omnipotent Being and hold themselves unaccountable, for them their mutually-accepted material world is itself appointed as a pit for their annihilation and destruction. In religious parlance, this is termed as their divine punishment. When this happens, there is no inconsistency between the punishment from God and its having been caused by the laws of nature.Take, for instance, the drowning of Pharaoh with all his hosts in the waters of Egypt. Over countless years, the tides unpited their waters into the sea twice a day. God knows how many animals and pre- historic men or for that matter civilized people of ancient Egypt were swept away by the eddies and currents in the rise and fall of tides or how many unknowingly or unwittingly were drowned from a navigational error or a gross misjudgement in the depth of the waters of the Nile.Yet, neither the Holy Quran, nor indeed any other religious scriptures, assigns such fatalities to be divine punishment. The cycle of the laws of nature continues to turn and repeat its course. Neither can any resultant fatality be called a Sign of divine punishment nor does Islam make any such claim.In some cases, however, which we shall examine in greater depth later, natural phenomenon acquires a specific characteristic known in religious terminology as divine chastisement. This phenomenon incorporates such clear and manifest proofs in support thereof that were even an atheist to view it in an unbiased manner, logic and reason alone would compel him to admit that in that specific instance (which religion has termed as divine chastisement) some extraordinary power had played a positive hand in it. It is this uniqueness which distinguishes them from the cataclysms and run of the mill natural disasters and puts them in a world of their own.Let us examine in greater detail the calamity which befell Pharaoh so that my meaning becomes clearer. An instance not mentioned in any other scripture is unique to the revelation of the Holy Quran. It tells us that at the time of his “drowning”, Pharaoh admitted his belief in the God of the children of Israel and supplicated for deliverance. God Almighty responded:So this day We will save thee in thy body (alone) that thou mayest be a Sign to those (who come) after thee. (10:93)This private discourse between a drowning man and his Lord is no more than a claim of the Holy Quran. On the face of it, it can neither be proven beyond reasonable doubt nor investigated by either man today nor for that matter verified by a man of some three and a half millennium years past for who but God alone would know the “dying wish” exchanged between a drowning Pharaoh and his Creator.To an atheist, this exchange is no more than an apparent discourse between Pharaoh and some god. But when we examine it, our minds at once recall the second claim made in the Holy Quran. According to this claim, the drowning of Pharaoh was no mere coincidence but in accord with divine Will. It was a punishment for the rejection of Moses and the Pharaoh’s opposition and rebellion, so much so that just when Pharaoh thought he was about to die, he turned to the God of the children of Israel. Thus, according to the Holy Quran, he said:I believe that there is no God but He in Whom the children of Israel believe, and I am of those who submit to Him. (10:91)This admission points to the fact that at the time of his supplication, Pharaoh wanted to leave absolutely no room for any doubt whatsoever as to which God he referred to and from Whom he sought his dying wish. Pharaoh sought last minute reprieve from the God in which the children of Israel believed. It would appear that at the time that death was staring him in the face, Pharaoh was so overcome by fear that he admitted his total defeat in the most unambiguous terms. Furthermore, he did want to leave any room for doubt that he had any semblance of pride, arrogance or self- grandisment left in him and that he also believed in the God whom the children of Israel worshipped.In view of this exchange as set out in the Holy Quran, there can be no shadow of doubt left in the fact that Pharaoh had any misapprehension about this being a divine punishment instead of a drowning accident. Cast against the Ahmadiyya viewpoint stated herein above, God’s response to the dying plea of Pharaoh represents a matter of signal importance. It is not a hollow claim. In fact, every word of this exchange expressed in God’s response stands as irrefutable proof in support of the Ahmadiyya viewpoint. Although whatever transpired occurred as a result of the operation of the natural laws, this incident has been set apart from thousands of other similar incidents and presented in a unique manner.For the sake of clarity, instead of presenting a mere translation, we shall present a commentary on God’s response. It seems to say to Pharaoh that because you have not believed in protecting your soul, have consistently rejected all the Signs shown to you, and have wasted each and every opportunity by which your soul may be redeemed, so this day there can be no question of saving your soul. Aye! You have the prerogative to ask for your body to be saved. So, this day, We shall grant you your wish by salvaging only your physically body and shall preserve your corpse for all times to come. We shall do this so that you may serve as an example for future generations and so that your corpse may be s source for others to procure salvation for their souls.
This interesting response is not a hollow claim but carries with it proofs of its own arguments. When the Holy Prophet, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, apprised mankind of this dialogue set out in the Holy Quran, some people certainly knew that Pharaoh drowned in the Nile Delta. But neither any previous religious scripture nor any record of history even mentioned that the body of Pharaoh was preserved or that it would serve as an admonishment for future generations. God Almighty caused the Holy Prophet, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, to proclaim that God had promised Pharaoh that his body shall not only be saved but preserved for all times to come so that mankind may learn a lesson therefrom.
During the time of the Holy Prophet, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, no one knew anything about Pharaoh’s corpse. Therefore, if this extraordinary claim were true, no man on earth could make such a claim unless God Almighty foretold him about it. On the other hand, if this claim were self-made and conceded, the claimant would have proven to be false and in the case of the Holy Prophet of Islam, it would have been totally illogical. If at that time the Companions of the Holy Prophet were put on the hot spot and questioned with regard to the aforementioned revelation where Pharaoh’s corpse was or how it had been preserved or how this event served as a warning lesson for mankind, perhaps none could have risen to the challenge and given any satisfactory response without divine guidance. A questioner posing the same question to many a generation thereafter would have failed to find a reasonable response. Neither a Muslim of the first century, nor any Muslim of the second, third, fourth or fifth century was capable of responding to this question, so much so that not till the fourteenth century of Islam did the moon rise during whose advent the means for the victory of Islam were to be made available.
In the fourteenth century of Islam, it took not Muslim but some renowned Christian Egyptologists, to discover and identify the preserved remains of Pharaoh [Merenptah, according to Hazrat Khalifatul Masih II – Ed] who had suffered the humiliating punishment of drowning in his pursuit of Moses on whom be peace. By providing verifiable testimony of the secret exchange of communication, and of the truth of the Holy Quran, the preserved body of Pharaoh today serves as a moral lesson for mankind.
A distinct feature of this historical event was that Pharaoh’s drowning was unique when compared to hundred of thousands of other drownings in the water of ancient Egypt. This single event is called divine punishment whilst countless others are merely classified as accidents and mishaps.
- The third principle of the Ahmadiyya viewpoint is that physical reaction and changes resulting from the operation of natural laws can only be caterogised as divine intervention when they display certain identifide characteristics and satisfy certain conditions. In the absence of such characteristics or a failure to satisfy such conditions, changes, effects or reactions cannot willy-nilly be called divine punishment.
- All such natural disasters and misfortunes of the age, which in religious parlance are termed as punishments or chastisements, must serve some important purpose or objective which we shall examine later. As opposed to this, although routine accidents of nature and even calamities causing some wide scale effect or misfortune, do not manifestly serve the said objective relating to or connected with religion.
- It is evident from the Holy Quran that each different effect or every kind of natural disaster or visitation brought about natural phenomenon or the operation of natural laws has somewhere along the line been employed as a means of divine punishment over the years and may will be used in the future. Likewise, as a result of the corrupt practices which are eroding away the fibre of society or as a consequent of gross transgression, and evils deeds, disorder, growing unrest or even wars may in some specific instances be employed as a means of divine punishment.
In the view of the aforementioned principles, one thing emerges very clearly. There should be no difference on this subject between Islamic philosophy presented by Ahmadiyyat and the views of the atheist, per se. However, the atheistic world places its sole reliance on the cause and effect of the laws of nature. Islam, on the other hand, whilst agreeing with natural phenomenon, has something to add to it. Islam admits that there is no doubt that all disasters and misfortunes are caused by natural laws. Indeed, God’s creation of the universe and the perfect balance maintained therein merits that this is be so. But the matter does not stop there. In pursuance of the noble aims and objective of religions, sometimes these very natural means are employed. We ourselves have been created by God and are subject to His laws. When this is the case, then these laws can also be used to serve as chastisement or a warning lesson through the effect they have on nature. These effects are called divine punishment.
It is also obvious from a study of the Holy Quran that the laws of nature sometimes serve some specific Will of God Almighty and that whenever this happens, the changes brought about by nature lead to a reformation or betterment of a nation or people and they derive some extraordinary benefit therefrom.
Whereas Prophet Noah, on whom be peace, warned his people of the calamity which awaited them, at the same time, he promised them the God-given inheritance of wealth, children and gardens if they returned to God. He attempted to persuade them that instead of displeasing God and make the laws of nature their enemy, they should by pleasing God, make the laws of nature their helper and harness them to their mutual benefit.
In Surah Nuh (Noah), this subject has been very clearly presented. The Islamic philosophy on punishment and reward becomes very clear. The world at large knows that the deluge served as a punishment for the people of Noah but is generally ignorant of the fact presented in the Holy Quran that the rain could also be a divine blessing for the people. In any case, it had been decreed that the land in which the people of Noah resided should have rain in abundance. The matter of whether this rain serves as a source of blessing or punishment was left in the hands of the people of Noah. Prophet Noah, on whom be peace, states:
I said to them: seek forgiveness of your Lord; He is the Great Forgiver. He will send down rain on you in abundance, and will help you with wealth and children, and will bestow gardens on you, and will cause rivers to flow for you. (71:11-13)
Now you see how interestingly has this subject been presented. No criticism can be levelled against it. The clouds which had over a long period of time become laden with water vapours could have descended as a punishment or could have served as a reward. If as a reward, then in the words of the Prophet Noah, and there can be little doubt that this was revelation from on high, it could have rained gradually and stopped, and restarted again. Instead of a deluge, the rain would have run in brooks, streams and rivulets and irrigated the land. The people of Noah would have been greatly enriched and there progenies could have seen radical economic improvement. Alas! They chose the wrong option. Their rejection resulted in such a widespread deluge that it is renowned all over the world.
While on the subject of water, it may not be wholly inappropriate to mention the uses to which water was put during the time of Moses to serve divine objectives. We have already observed how water became a source of divine punishment for Pharaoh and his hosts when the water closed in on them, and despite all their might and prowess, left them utterly helpless. An instance of how water was put to good use also exists during the time of Moses, on whom be peace. The waters which had drowned Pharaoh and his host had earlier transported along its currents a suckling babe in a weak wooden box or basket from a place of grave danger to a safe and secure home. Instead of death, it preserved life.
Each one of these two events saw the phenomenon of nature in motion, but the waters from ancient Egypt which were unable to drown a fledgling and weak infant who was to grow up as a great Messenger of God, swept with it a great and might apponent of this Prophet. There is much to reflect on these incidents for the unbiased mind.