The condolences sounded trite, for all they said was that it was God’s will and that we should be patient. Sure enough, thought I, His will it may be, though that really did nothing to mitigate my suffering. And where, pray, may I buy this commodity called “patience”?
Those earlier years were arduous for it was hard to make sense of so much tragedy. Years of despondent reflection and reading anything that spoke of death, fate, predestination or the afterlife, have finally given me a modicum of acceptance and, I think, understanding.
As though personal tragedies like mine were not enough, we have to face natural disasters and come to terms with the enormity and intensity of all that they leave in their wake.
International relief agencies bemoan 2005 as a year with an unusually high number of natural disasters. The tsunami in South East Asia caused more than 11 8,000 deaths, Hurricane Katrina killed 1,274, Guatemalan mudslides probably 2,000 and the earthquake in Pakistan resulted in over 100,000 deaths and the toll keeps rising.
For all, victims and witnesses, the questions that surface again and again are “why?”, “why me?” and “why Muslims?” After the tsunami a writer gave a completelysecular interpretation of it all being due to tectonic shifts. The question arises: who causes the tectonic plates to shift in the first place?
“Indeed We have created Man into toil and struggle” (AlBalad 90:4) says the Qur’an and perhaps scarred by my losses, I agree entirely. Life is really one overrated proposition. By Muslim belief the Hereafter is greatly superior to this life. According to one hadith when we get there we will wish that we had asked for all reward in the afterlife rather than this ephemeral one, which will also seem as though it was a mere two days.
I always felt that it is really not the death of the one who dies, but the one who lives on. The dearly departed are released from the toil of this life for a serenity that we cannot imagine. And the survivors are left to struggle with the emotional, financial and logistic ravages wreaked by the death.
In published data about NDEs, or near death experiences, in which people have had cardiac arrests but were resuscitated, the next world is reported to be one of incredible peace and pleasure. The refrain in all these NDE reports is that the subject did not want to return to this world but was told that their time had not yet come so they had to. What gives credibility to these reports is the amazing concordance in all of them describing a tunnel w ith a light at the end of it, seeing predeceased relatives and experiencing an enveloping tranquility.
“Do they not then earnestly seek to understand the Qur’an or are their hearts locked up?” (Qur’an 47:24) is only one of the many verses in the Qur’an that exhort us to think and reflect on nature and events.
“Not a leaf falls without His knowledge” (Qur’an 6:59) and other verses like “No calamity befalls on the earth or in yourselves but is inscribed in the Book of Decrees Al-Lauh Al-Mahfuz), before We bring it into existence. Verily, that is easy for God” (Qur’an 57:22) are evidence against events happening randomly or due to tectonic shifts or weather related phenomena.
A Muslim’s belief is complete only after his acknowledgment of God, all the prophets, the angels, the books, the Day of Judgment and qada ma qadar or fate and predestination. Belief in fate and predestination does not in anyway release us from responsibility of our actions. The fact that God has full knowledge of all that will be does not reduce us to a robot-like state. Sheikh Fadlallah Haeri explains well in his book Decree and Destiny that there was the advent of the Jabbariyya who believed that all was determined by God and Man was powerless, and the Qaddarriya who believed that nothing was predetermined and Man was able to control his destiny. Sheikh Haeri states that the reality actually lies somewhere between those two extremes. At the time of the Covenant of Alasi or the Primordial Oath, in which God asked all souls that would ever be created who their lord was (ualasto birabbakum”), Man was inculcated with the ability to distinguish right from wrong. Islam is also a wholly deeds based religion, with the concept of the scales on the Day of Judgment, good outweighs the bad you go to heaven, the converse and, so sorry, hell for you “and there shall they reside forever” (Qur’an 2:81) but for the grace of God.
Do men think that they will be left alone on saying, “We believe,” and that they will not be tested?” (Qur’an 29:2)
Or do you think that you shall enter the Garden (of bliss) without such (trials) as came to those who passed away before you? They encountered suffering and adversity, and were so shaken in spirit that even the Messenger and those of faith who were with him cried: “When (will come) the help of God?” Ah! Verily, the help of God is (always) near! (Qur’an 2:214)
These verses speak of how Man will be tested and the Qur’an speaks also of punishment in this world as well as the next. “Generations before you We destroyed when they did wrong: their apostles came to them with clear signs, but they would not believe! Thus do We requite those who sin!” (Qur’an 10:13)
I spent many years trying to figure out how one could tell whether an unfortunate incident was a test or a punishment. At the inception with the moral compass given to us at the time of the Primordial Oath, we are able to distinguish right from wrong and thus tell whether our record has been good, bad or ugly.
In less clear situations, it was Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani’s book Futuhul Ghayb or Revelations of the Unseen that gave me my answer. He says that it is a punishment if the person complains all the time and is bitter, a test if the person tolerates it with patience and for spiritual elevation if the misfortune is borne with cheerfulness.
On August 19, 1999, a powerful earthquake killed 6,000 people in Turkey. The day before, the Turkish government passed a law that would jail any person caught teaching their children the Qur’an within their home. In the town of Golcuk, buildings that were constructed recently were destroyed but a mosque and its minaret built a century earlier stand unscathed. The building next to it is also standing, for had it fallen, it would have likely damaged the mosque.
In the recent tsunami, the province of Aceh in Indonesia was essentially wiped out. And yet in many affected areas in Indonesia dozens of mosques stand untouched amidst the rubble around them. Secular interpretations say that mosques were better constructed and so escaped damage. However, according to an article by a non-Muslim journalist, in the town of Sigli, a mosque made of wood stands whilst surrounding structures have been destroyed.
Years of grieving and foraging for answers have finally quelled my inner tumult. With the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and now the earthquake in Pakistan, however, there arose confusion about calamities affecting nations as a whole.
“I think America is being punished for killing Iraqi civilians,” said an indignant non-Muslim patient, soon after Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana and Mississippi. I have wondered myself about “the Gulf coast” and “the Gulf War”; is there really a connection, a message?
It is tempting to break down life into bite size pieces. Imam Sayed Hassan Al-Qazwini of Greater Detroit’s Islamic Center of America quashed that thought. He was urging his congregation to donate to the Katrina relief effort. This time a Muslim drew a connection between American misadventures and the wrath of God in the form of Katrina. “Why did the tsunami come in a largely Muslim area then?” asked Imam Qazwini.
Having been born in Pakistan, the earthquake has rocked me to the core. Perhaps I have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), for I relive the grief of the thousands who lost loved ones. I remember how after my father’s death I would awaken every morning and momentarily feel fine; and then the sleep haze would clear and I would damn myself for not having died in the night.
Incredulous at the extent of the earthquake’s destruction in Pakistan, I battled my grief as well as the distressing questions that resurfaced. Time for professional help, I thought and went to Imam Dr. Muneer Fareed of the Islamic Association of Greater Detroit, who is also professor of Islamic studies at Wayne State University. “Avoid the punishment argument,” he suggested. “Only God knows definitively whether an affliction is a punishment, a test or a virtue in the guise of a calamity.”
People in self-reflection mode started to say that Pakistanis had become very materialistic. Was God’s hand drumming sense into us all?
Dr. Fareed explained: “I prefer the test argument. All of life is a test, including the calamities that befall us. Pakistan is certainly being tested individually and collectively. A nation established in the name of religion has a far greater responsibility than a nation established to preserve ethnicity or nationality. All of the teachings of Islam that speak to humanitarian values apply with greater poignancy to a nation like Pakistan. In addition to the materialism argument, which may well be true, Pakistan needs to reexamine its moral compass, its raison d’etre, for now more than ever, it is being asked to compromise its principles in the national interest or worse still, in the interest of global mavericks bent on molding the world in their own image.”
The Monday after the earthquake in Pakistan, almost every other patient I saw spoke confidently of all these rapidly occurring natural disasters being a sign of the end of times. Seemed a logical enough question to me so I asked the expert again. Dr. Fareed exudes an enviable equanimity. “When the Prophet [may God bless him and give him peace] died, people predicted that those were end times; when the ‘Ali-Mu’awiyya conflict occurred they did the same, and so on. Global end times are irrelevant when compared to the end time of the individual, which is death. We will all probably be dead, and taken to task in the after life long before the physical world ends. Our own salvation is tied, not to global qayamat (reckoning), but to our own individual qayamat. ”
The concept of individual accountability is enshrined in Islam. No parents, sons or saints will be bailing us out then. Imams, shuyukh and leaders of Muslim countries are however doubly burdened on the Day of Judgment: they shall have an individual cognizance, and also remain answerable for the sins of the congregants or citizenry that they misguided.
It is tempting to attribute the earthquake in Turkey to their bold disobedience and quickly couple it as cause and effect. The Qur’an exhorts us to reflect, but to speculate about God’s intentions is an exercise in futility and sickening self-righteousness. No one has a conduit with the Divine to be able to confidently proclaim that this calamity is a test and that one the wrath of God.
And when the despair and depression lift, fortunate are those who are able to feel the closeness to God. Even more blessed are those who are able to see that they were tested with wealth and family just so they could climb the rungs of spiritual ascent. After all, in Sura Anfal and Taghabun (8:28, 64:15) the Qur’an says “know that your possessions and progeny are but a trial.”
Islam is a deeds-based religion and it behooves us to be in a state of dynamic self-evaluation. An inventory of the day’s events and what we racked up, good and bad is a great way to keep the record clean. Like ‘Umar bin Khattab said: “do your own hisab (accounting) before your hisab is done for you.”
And when misfortune strikes, may we be in a state of serene submission; accepting that we have lost worldly loves and possessions only to gain closeness to the Creator.