If natural catastrosphes are divine punishment for sinners, then it must be accepted that they are inflicting massive collateral damage. If they are intended as warnings to evil-doers, then, I am afraid, these are mostly being delivered to the wrong addresses.
Part – I
The deaths of about 150,000 people across half a dozen countries from the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami have evoked the most generous response in history from peoples and governments, particularly of Western countries. This owes not only to their feeling of compassion, but also to the power of television. The sight of the advancing sea, devouring all in its path, was as spectacular as the images of human suffering, which the sea left in its wake, were heart-wrenching.
Every catastrophe rekindles the debate on the role of God. Not surprisingly, given its nature and magnitude, this tsunami handed a licence to simpletons, obscurantists and bigots to theorise on the connection between human sin and natural calamity. While benefiting from the progress of science and technology, in fact basing their daily lives on them, believers in divine intervention are wont to explain this awesome, yet simple, geological event in terms that are antithetical to the very ABC of science.
The Anglican Dean of Sydney, Phillip Jensen, said that disasters were part of God’s warning that judgement was coming. However, his comments appeared to be so out of tune with the opinion of the Christian mainstream in the West that immediately he had to take refuge in the claim of having been quoted out of context.
Of course, there are the likes of the reverend Jerry Falwell in the US, renowned for their mendacity. He saw the hand of God even in the man-made catastrophe of 9/11. Rev Falwell had observed on that occasion: “The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularise America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen’.”
The reverend knows very well that secularism has given America and Western Europe the stability, harmony and peace that underpin their material progress. One needs only to read a bit of European history or look at the Muslim states of today to see the practical blessings of non-secular polities. Fortunately, Falwell’s views are shared only by a very small section of the American population.
But, in sheer numbers and the quality of comments, Muslims stand in a class of their own when it comes to regarding catastrophes as divine punishment. Only Allah knows what the small-time maulvi is saying in the mosques of Gujranwala and Kohat after the South Asian tsunami, but let us look at the published comments emanating from more sophisticated sources.
An eminent Saudi scholar has said that homosexuality and fornication committed by residents and visitors of affected countries at Christmas time had earned Allah’s wrath. In a television interview Sheik Fawzan Al Fawzan, a professor at the Al Imam University and a member of the Senior Council of Clerics, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body, said that “these great tragedies and collective punishments that are wiping out villages, towns, cities and even entire countries, are Allah’s punishments of the people of these countries, even if they are Muslims”. The professor singled out beach resorts as places of sexual sin.
On the Internet, one Dr Abu Ziyaad of Jordan has quoted chapter and verse from the Islamic scriptures not only to prove that the tsunami is a sure sign of Allah’s anger, but has also described the sins which caused it, bringing such devastation to Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand. “Alongside the fact that these governments are actively fighting Islam and Muslims on a national and international scale, their peoples are also involved in wide-scale shirk. … The whole South Asian region is characterised by shirk (polytheism). In Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, the shirk is in the form of setting up rivals (andaad) to Allah in his (ruboobiyyah) Lordship.”
He continues, “We see the many Buddhist statues and idols that the people have created out of their own hands as illustration of this fact, e.g. the golden statues of Buddha, Hanuman, Ganesh, Gandhi etc, etc. In Indonesia, the shirk is more subtle, and takes the form of setting up laws and constitutions in parliament based on kufr. The shirk of ruling by man-made laws — as opposed to the sharee’ah — is in direct contradiction to the tawheed al uloohiyyah. No matter what the form of shirk, one thing is certain, the punishment of Allaah (swt) for this crime”.
A Daily Times report (January 6) quoting Tarek Fatah, a community leader and television host based in Toronto, says that “the message being repeated ad nauseam in [Saudi and Kuwaiti] mosques and media [is] that the earthquake was a punishment from God for the sins of the people of South and South East Asia.”
“Asia’s earthquake, which hit the beaches of prostitution, tourism, immorality and nudity”, one commentator said on an Islamist website, “is a sign that God is warning mankind from persisting in injustice and immorality before he destroys the ground beneath them”. In mosques across the United States, more or less the same message is going out to the Muslim community. While appeals have been made for generous donations to relief funds, the congregations are also being told that the tsunami was azab-e-Ilahi or the wrath of God for the sins of those who were hit, according to the report.
And, finally, Mohammad Faizeen, manager of the Centre of Islamic Studies in Colombo, has claimed that the tsunami was not only the result of God’s wrath, but that God even signed his name in the tsunami. The proof, according to him, is to be found in satellite pictures taken seconds after the tsunami smashed into Sri Lanka’s coast near the town of Kalutara and as it was receding. “This clearly spells out the name Allah in Arabic.”
Believers often forget that this practice of linking natural disasters and epidemics –indeed, even personal misfortunes including sicknesses — with individual and collective sin is not only baseless but also full of pitfalls. Since no individual, group or nation can ever claim total and permanent immunity from adversity, the attribution of suffering to sin will go in circles sparing none whomsoever.
Conversely, prosperity and success may be (and are) viewed as God’s blessings, and this would mean that the West and the rich and corrupt elite of the Third Word are on the right side of God. Besides being diametrically opposed to scientific knowledge, such beliefs confound common sense, offend our sense of compassion and defy empirical evidence. It is an insult to both victims and survivors, and their relatives, to suggest that their travails were warranted by their sins.
(Published in Daily Times, 13 January 2005)
Part – II
In 1755, a doomsday-like combination of earthquake, tsunami and fire killed 90,000 people, a third of the population, and destroyed 85% of the buildings of Lisbon, capital of Portugal, a bastion of Catholicism. About four centuries earlier, the plague (“Black Death”) that hit the countries of western and central Europe had wiped out between one-fifth and two-fifths of their inhabitants, depopulating entire regions.
In both instances, people were overtaken by the belief that they had been punished for their sins. Flagellant groups arose in northern and central Europe as a result of “Black Death.” Processions of devout Christians roamed the afflicted lands in campaigns of penance. They “would fall to their knees and scourge themselves, gesturing with their free hand to indicate their sin and striking themselves rhythmically to hymns until blood flowed. Sometimes the blood was soaked up in rags and treated as a holy relic.”
Fortunately, when AIDS first hit the headlines in the US in the early 1980s, Americans reacted rationally, setting themselves the goals of finding prevention and cure. But Muslims regarded the deadly epidemic as divine punishment for the West’s alleged moral turpitude, homosexuality in particular. However, the Western countries have brought AIDS under control without a corresponding decrease in promiscuity or “sinfulness.” On the other hand, it is now devastating parts of Africa and Asia.
Contrary to common perceptions, AIDS is by far not the world’s biggest killer, certainly not in the West. In 2003, according to WHO’s World Health Report, it caused 4.9% of mortalities in the world, whereas cardiovascular diseases killed 29.3%, respiratory infections 6.9%, respiratory diseases 6.5% and unintentional injuries 6.2%. Sexually-transmitted infections (excluding AIDS) were responsible for a mere 0.3% of deaths. Of the AIDS-related fatalities worldwide in 1999, a whopping 19% were in Africa, but a mere 1.8% in the Americas and 0.2% in Europe.
It is instructive to look at the geographical distribution of “sin” and natural disasters. From the religio-moralist point of view, a presumption can be made that the rich Western countries are more sinful than poor countries, and within nations the cities are more prone to vice than rural areas.
Over two-thirds of the tsunami’s victims were in Aceh, a stronghold of puritan Islam in Muslim Indonesia, far removed from the “infidel” government and the “dens of corruption and vice” in Jakarta and Bali. Incidentally, unlike the beaches of Phuket (Thailand), Galle (Sri Lanka) and the Maldives, Aceh was a closed military province with barely a foreigner in sight, let alone a “decadent” Western tourist. In India, the tsunami struck the coastal region of Tamil Nadu, devouring poor fishing communities, not the beaches of Goa and Kerala that are the haunt of “sinful” Western fornicators.
While the poor people of Aceh will take a decade to return to their earlier life of bare subsistence, the aid money pouring into the country is a godsend for its ruling elite. The rich and corrupt Indonesian bureaucrats and military officers will be laughing all the way to the ravaged region and thence to the bank!
Let us look at some other statistics. Earthquakes occur in certain areas, where there are geological fault lines in the earth. They are more likely to occur in Iran, Turkey and Japan than, say, in England, Germany or Vietnam. Cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons are an annual feature in Bangladesh, US and the Philippines, but never occur in Pakistan, Chad or Paraguay. In the US, a hurricane will almost always lash Florida but never Arizona.
An earthquake with an intensity of 6.5 on the Richter scale killed 30,000 people in Bam in 2003, whereas an earthquake with a greater intensity of 7.1 had killed only 67 persons in San Francisco in 1989. Surely, from the point of view of religious moralists, being the world’s unofficial gay capital, San Francisco is more “sinful” than Bam, a small, medieval town in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
But far more people died in Bam simply because the houses there were flimsy, made of mud-clay, while the structures in San Francisco are made to withstand tremors. Similarly, thanks to better construction and early warning systems, hurricanes of great ferocity barely kill a dozen in Florida, the favourite abode of the West’s rich and famous, while cyclones with lesser wind velocity kill tens of thousands in Bangladesh.
Not so long ago, epidemics like plague, cholera and smallpox scourged mankind and were regarded as divine punishment for man’s sinfulness. But they have now been virtually wiped out, thanks to better hygiene, nutrition and health care. For the same reasons, infant mortality rates have drastically dropped worldwide in the last few decades. As a result, average life expectancy everywhere has increased significantly. In the US, it has risen from 47 years in 1900 to 77 in 2000. Similarly, it is higher in the developed countries than in the poorer parts of the world. In 1999, life expectancy at birth was about 80 years in Japan, Australia and Canada, but 60 years in both Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Muslims attributed the survival of some mosques in Aceh to divine protection, rather than their sturdier structure. Owing to its distinct architecture, a standing mosque is conspicuous by its presence amid rubble, but one destroyed by a tsunami or an earthquake is indistinguishable from the surrounding rubble. Even a cursory survey will surely reveal that many poorly-constructed mosques were destroyed or damaged by the tsunami, while the solid mansions of a few rich and “sinful” Acehnese survived.
Catholics in the southern Sri Lankan town of Matara reportedly credited a “miracle statue” with keeping the sea at bay for 10 to 15 minutes after the first tsunami wave hit. One would expect a miracle statue to do better than block the waves for a mere 15 minutes! About 4,000 fishermen from 20 Tamil Nadu villages in India survived because they had left that morning to attend an annual Hindu ritual. They attributed their good luck to “the grace of Siva Nataraja.” “All of us owe our lives to him,” said one of them. Surely, anyone who had left his coastal village for any reason whatsoever, even sinful pursuits in a nearby town, would also have survived the tsunami unscathed.
Even the biggest bigot will concede that any natural calamity kills people without discrimination. In fact, among the victims of epidemics, tsunamis, earthquakes, cyclones and floods, owing to their physical vulnerability and the frailty of their houses, children and poor people far outnumber young males and the rich, although the latter are much more likely to sin.
For every sinner who is supposedly targeted by God for his transgressions, there are numerous innocent victims who just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. For every single homosexual, atheistic or adulterous Westerner who got killed in Phuket, one thousand God-fearing Acehnese Muslim villagers – men, women and children – died. If natural catastrosphes are divine punishment for sinners, then it must be accepted that they are inflicting massive collateral damage. If they are intended as warnings to evil-doers, then, I am afraid, these are mostly being delivered to the wrong addresses.
(Published in Daily Times, 20 January 2005)