Religious zealots waste no time declaring natural disasters to be divine punishment. They cite different divine motivations – invariably, causes that matter to them personally.
Justifying Hurricane Katrina, a Rabbi in Israel cited the Gaza evacuation; God is punishing America for pressuring Israel to withdraw, he said. An Imam in Kuwait cited the Iraqi Invasion, God is Punishing America for its injustices in the Middle East, he said. An Evangelist in America cited liberal attitudes, God is punishing America for its immorality, he said.
But a just God – and Muslims know one of God’s 99 Names is “The Just” – does not punish thousands of innocent human beings for the bad acts of a few.
The Quran, Islam’s revealed text, describes God’s ultimate justice: “No soul earns (sin) but against itself, and none bears the burden of another” (6:164). It tells us that on Judgment Day, when everyone will be shown their past deeds, “then, whoever has done an atom’s weight of good shall see it, and whoever has done an atom’s weight of evil shall (also) see it” (99:6-8).
Like many people of faith, I strive to reconcile the pain and suffering caused by natural disasters with what I believe God to have: justice and love for humanity. We all know that no one will live forever; death is written upon us all. But are there lessons to be learned from the recent calamities and their cumbersome repercussions?
Digging deep into my own Islamic faith, I find answers, ones that provide hope and inspiration, rather than reflect anger and indiscriminate vengeance.
It began with a few riveting TV images: Americans wading through chest-deep water, sifting through rubble, carrying children to safety; Pakistanis transporting wounded villagers, excavating bodies from mounds of debris, rushing about with packets of aid.
I watched a woman from Kashmir agonize over her lost child and it immediately brought recollections of an emotional Hurricane Katrina survivor I had watched only a few days back recount her own loss. The two women looked different and dressed differently but their faces grimaced in much the same way. They spoke in different tongues, but wept in the same language.
As I sat there watching, I could not help but think of how identical we all were, and how petty the differences that dominate and distract our lives really were.
I wondered about the irony of the situation, how two monstrous natural disasters had struck in succession in two parts of the world that represent stark opposite cultures, at a time when talk of a ‘clash of civilizations’ dominates the news.
As it so happened, these natural disasters tore through more than just levees and layers of earth. They ripped through the layers of political and cultural differences that distort our perception of each other, unearthing a common humanity that lies buried underneath.
Wonders happen when our common humanity becomes the focus.
Muslims worldwide raised a total of over a billion dollars for victims of Hurricane Katrina. In the Middle East, there was an outpouring of sympathy and prayers for those who have been killed, injured, or displaced in Louisiana and Texas. Across the United States, churches and other houses of worship joined with mosques to raise funds and rush aid to the earthquake zone.
In both parts of the word, people who viewed each other with suspicion were moved to reciprocate prayers and generosity, demonstrating that the so-called “clash of civilizations” is not inevitable or necessary.
There are hidden blessings that come packaged with agonizing tribulation.
There would be no light if there were no darkness. There would be no joy if there were no pain. There would be no comfort if there were no fear. “Surely with difficulty is ease. With difficulty is surely ease,” says the Quran (94:5).
And with disaster is surely hope.
Sometimes, it takes the earth literally shaking under our feet to remind us of our common humanity.
But how soon will we forget?
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