Misreading the Signs of God

by Mohamad K. Yusuff

The Noble Qur’an addresses man about Allah’s Creations:

The purpose of this article is to briefly comment on natural disasters ("acts of God") afflicting mankind and the questionable explanation put forth by preachers and mullahs on these events. It is my view that many of these honest men of faith do not truly understand such natural phenomena (signs of Allah) and the overall Qur’anic Message.

Many parts of the world (at one time or another) have experienced a variety of natural disasters: from earthquakes in Turkey, Greece and Taiwan (as occurred recently); to hurricanes (associated floods) and typhoons, in the Caribbean, Latin America, the U.S and Hong Kong; to tsunamis in Japan, China and Bangladesh. Other calamities such as landslides, avalanches, drought, famine, disease, volcanoes, among others, have also afflicted man over the years, and in centuries past.

Based on scientific knowledge and observation and empirical evidence, these natural disasters befall man for a variety of reasons. Usually they occur when myriad of complex phenomena (generally referred to as the "laws of nature," or more precisely, the "laws of Allah"), come together -- resulting in such events as earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and landslides, etc. There is always a cause and effect relationship surrounding these natural catastrophes. That these disasters are generally outside the physical control of man cannot be disputed. Some scientists, however, hold the view that man has contributed to some, including famine and disease (through wars); and drought and forest fires (global warming -- through depletion of the ozone layer by burning fossil fuel) -- all of which being natural consequences of man’s disrespect for, and abuse of, nature.

Overall, man has the technical knowledge and expertise to study and benefit from the secrets of these natural phenomena. Studying and interpreting the "signs" of God can be achieved through application of the scientific method, by tracking complex atmospheric conditions (using radar and satellite data and computer modeling) to uncover the birth of ocean storms, and by also studying global seismic and geologic activities to monitor tectonic ruptures, among other scientific techniques. This type of detailed scientific study and vigilance allow man to devise plausible strategies to minimize the overall impact of these deadly "acts of God," through an early-warning system (however short) to the general population on the imminence of killer storms, hurricanes, typhoons, or cyclones. Earthquake forecasting, however, is much more challenging and difficult to predict.

And so, while it is true that in most cases man is helpless to deter and defend against such natural disasters, he is still duty bound (under Islam’s ethical standards) to be scrupulously prudent and mindful, as to where he lives, and how he constructs domestic housing and commercial and industrial infrastructure. The lack of due diligence and scientific vigilance can have disastrous consequences for people, who fail to correctly read the "Signs" of Allah. For, despite all precaution and prudence, in the final analysis, man is still impotent and is truly at mercy of nature, or from the Muslim perspective, his fate rests in the hands of God.

Now, regarding the recent natural disasters (earthquake in Turkey and hurricanes and floods in the U.S), many Muslim preachers and local mullahs (with good intention but poor judgment) have attempted to explain these catastrophes in a simplistic fashion. Some of these "men of the cloth" hastily proclaim these disasters to be God’s retribution on man on account of man’s ingratitude to his Creator. Similar sentiments have been expressed in connection with the AIDS epidemic. We view such pronouncements as illogical and irrational. Simply put, these men of religion are mistaken; they have totally misread the physical forces (of Allah) governing these natural disasters. In fact, a legitimate question can be raised as to the adequacy of their scientific knowledge and training in comprehending these "acts of God" that have afflicted mankind from time immemorial.

And this brings us to the topic of the recent earthquake in Turkey, where thousands have died (over 20,000 according to one estimate); hundreds of thousands injured; and a much greater number left homeless and dispossessed. But, right in the midst of all this gruesome destruction, a masjid (and a high rise building) were left standing in one area. The picture of this solitary mosque was shown throughout the world. Some preachers and mullahs consider this a miracle from Allah. Indeed, when a masjid is left standing amidst widespread rubble and destruction, the temptation to put the "miracle" stamp on the event is ever present. A more potent and relevant question to ask is: why? Why was the mosque still standing amongst such massive devastation?

Was this really a "miracle" as asserted by the mullahs and preachers? As a general proposition, Muslims believe that nothing happens without Allah’s leave. This universal principle has been clearly enunciated in the Qur’an. Sorting out the cause and effect relationships on the nature of earthquakes will certainly resolve the "miracle" status of the mosque. The masjid survived on account of "good construction" by the noble people, who built it in the first instance. It is undisputed that few things in the epicenter of an earthquake will survive or remain undamaged. However, in Islam, the "best-practice" doctrine is an unwritten principle that is wajib on all who provide service to people, either through public service or private enterprise. This means that a Muslim is required (obligated) to perform his best in all endeavors and undertakings, including building mosques for worship, apartment buildings for domestic living, and industrial construction for economic development. To suggest that Allah intervened and saved this particular masjid, forces one to also suggest that Allah caused the deaths of thousands of people, who lived in cheaply constructed buildings, most of which were demolished in the earthquake. Why would Allah save a building and allow thousands to die? Does Allah cause death and destruction on people selectively? Obviously, such a simplistic explanation is totally unacceptable and far from the truth. The reprieve of the mosque was simply a unique case of excellent workmanship in the building trades, and not a case of divine intervention, as suggested by errant mullahs and local preachers.

We have to point out that other mosques in Turkey were destroyed during the quake. In fact, international observers on the scene (and government officials) concluded that over ninety percent of the apartment buildings constructed during the 1990’s were destroyed while only twenty five percent of the buildings built prior to the 1990’s were demolished. The reason for such excessive destruction and death can be placed at the feet of government officials and greedy building contractors, due to gross negligence, lack of accountability, and violation of the public trust. Using cheap building materials, ignoring established engineering standards, and careless governmental control and oversight were factors that contributed to the massive destruction in Turkey. Similar questions and concerns (of negligence) are being raised in the most recent Taiwan earthquake.

Clearly, this is a case where man has failed his fellow man (by not honoring his fiduciary duty to safeguard the public trust), as evidenced by his abject failure to adhere to the "best-practice" doctrine required by Islam.

We now refer all people of faith (including the venerable mullahs and local preachers alike) to the noble Qur’an, and we invite them to ponder and reflect on the following statements of Allah (s.w.t):

Finally, we trust that all men and women of understanding (people who think), upon reflecting on these pregnant verses, will be convinced that a believer is obligated to scientifically study and understand Allah’s Signs. At the same time, the lay Muslim must be aware of the errant messages of the uninformed career preachers, who often tell us truth in little things to betray us in deeds of greatest consequences.

Posted September 28, 1999. This article was printed in the August-September 1999 issue of the Voice of Islam newsletter. (This newsletter is published by the Islamic Society of the Washington Area).