Every time death and destruction result after the ‘normal’ weather pattern is disrupted and hurricanes, typhoons and storms occur or vigorous seismic activity takes place that results in earthquakes and tsunamis, our clerics and even many professionals and intelligentsia describe them as proof of God Almighty inflicting punishment and pain on humanity gone astray. Once upon a time, epidemics such as the plague and smallpox were considered scourges of God who wanted to chastise human beings. Simultaneously, all religions have throughout history emphasised God’s bounty, love and His capacity to forgive and repair. Empirically, however, neither claim can be verified on a consistent and reliable basis. If both attributes exist in God and He allegedly acts whimsically then we are in no position to find any distinct purpose or method in His actions or inactions. Under such circumstances, people subsume their fears and insecurities under blind faith and seek refuge in religious dogmas.
Another theory is sometimes set forth by religious people who simultaneously want to be considered rational. It states that God created the universe, endowed human beings with intelligence to decipher His laws and will (through religious scriptures) and then let human beings take charge of the universe. However, at the end of time we shall be held accountable for our actions. Such a theory precludes the notion of an intervening God who can in miraculous ways intervene in the lives of human beings. Not surprisingly, mainstream religious people are not attracted to it. They prefer instead a belief in an intervening, anthropomorphist God whose miracles to help and heal, and by that token his power to order natural disasters and disease, becomes an unfathomable mystery.
I remember in 2005 when a major earthquake hit Azad Kashmir and northern Pakistan and several hundred lives were lost, the reaction of the pious was that the Almighty was expressing His displeasure at Muslims who were not living their lives in accordance with Islam. When I and some other columnists pointed out that among the dead were a large number of children who were just at that moment when the earthquake struck in a madrassa reading the Quran, that line of argument on divine wrath receded, and instead emphasis shifted on showing how the fundamentalists have been best at delivering help to the people in distress.
Given such a mindset, the superstorm Sandy that swept the Caribbean and large swathes of the eastern coast of North America is being interpreted by some facebook pundits as Allah’s way of punishing the Americans. Thus, for example, one individual opined:
“Do you remember this? They created a movie about 2012. And this is somewhat happening to them now. In One Click USA can become history (sic)! Natural disasters are torment for disbelievers, warning for sinners and trial for believers. Allah swt takes revenge from those who cross all the limits set by Allah swt and warn those who are indulging in His disobedience. Recent acts of blasphemy were sufficient to invoke any natural disaster because blasphemy and its support invites the wrath of Allah swt as mentioned in the Holy Quran: “Truly! We will suffice you against the scoffers.” (Al-Hijr 15:95) May Allah help all Muslim brothers and sisters and peace loving human beings in affected areas who are not supporters of wrong policies, blasphemous activities and oppression of the ruling class against innocent Muslims and humanity.”
As happens in such situations, a dispassionate review of the reality is not attempted. For example, it is worth considering that because of the excellent precautionary measures undertaken by the US federal and state governments, the loss of life has been kept to the minimum, although the span of the storm was 1,000 kilometres and affected nine states and 60 million people. No doubt, the loss of property has been to the tune of several billions but the loss of life has been not as bad as it could have been in the wake of such a huge disaster. Some 175 people lost their lives as per the last CNN report (in the US, Canada and the Caribbean).
Imagine a superstorm of the same intensity hitting the poorer parts of the world. The loss of life could have been on a much larger scale, perhaps in the thousands if not more. Almost invariably, the poor and weak would be the main victims in such situations. Even without dramatic natural disasters, hunger and starvation are endemic to large parts of Africa and South Asia. I have great difficulty in intellectual and moral terms in even considering that God is punishing them. It makes no sense to me that while the rich and powerful and the corrupt usually fare better when natural disasters take place, the poor and weak bear the brunt of God’s anger.
No doubt, nature’s power remains overwhelming and we may never be able to master it completely. However, evidence down the ages shows that we can with the help of science and technology limit the damage or even eradicate some natural calamities. The eradication of smallpox completely and of plague largely are cases in point. Most scientists have been warning for years that the overuse of nature and the destruction of finite natural resources are causing global warming and environmental degradation. The fallout from them can mean greater calamities in the future. Also, the frantic race to excel in outer space instead of studying the secrets deep inside the earth has meant that the technology to predict earthquakes and other such disasters is still not developed satisfactorily. So, indeed we human beings are responsible for many of the ills that affect our lives. However, through better knowledge and technology we can tame nature to a great extent. Blind faith has never been and can never be a substitute for rational inquiry and explanation.
The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His latest publication is The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org