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III. Natural Disasters or Divine Punishment?

Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad
The Review of Religions, February 1994

Distinguishing Features of Divine Punishments

1) The foremost feature to distinguish a divine punishment from natural disaster is that divine punishment is foretold before it is afflicted. Indeed, not only is it foretold but the precise nature of the punishment is described in great detail.

A very clear example of this can be found during the time of Noah, peace be upon him. He had forewarned his people that they would be destroyed because of their evil ways and their constant rejection of his claims. He forewarned them in the same breath that the means of their destruction would be water, a deluge whose like had never been seen before and that neither man nor animal would be safe from it.

No sooner had the warning gone out, than Noah, on whom be peace, began to build the ark that he had been commanded by God Almighty to build, aboard which true believers were to be saved. Those who rejected him would laugh and ridicule him and his companions. No one could bring himself to believe that the skies would fall and cover the land, so much so, that not an inch of dry territory would be available for man to save himself from the rising deluge. At last came the day, when according to the Holy Quran:

Thereupon, We opened the gates of Heaven with water pouring down. [Al-Qamar: 12]
It rained so heavily as had never been seen before. Noah and those who believed in him boarded the ark and carried with them some provisions for a limited period, and some animals and birds, which had been gathered before. The onlookers kept watching the spectacle unfold before their eyes and kept pouring scorn on him. With the rising water, the ark began to float and homes and high ground began to submerge under the water.

Even at the eleventh hour, the unbelievers would not accept that, apart from those in the ark, all others would drown. Not only that, even Noah's unfortunate son could not bring himself to face the dire reality of what was happening before his very eyes. To this very end, this son continued to dismiss the non-stop rain, which had by then become a flood to be no more than a quirk of nature. (He might have thought that those aboard the ark would drown.) Not for a moment did the thought cross his mind that the water would rise way above the mountains. Thus according to the Holy Quran, mankind's last cry in the wilderness, is that made by the son of Noah:

"I shall soon betake myself to a mountain which will shelter me from the water." [Hud: 44]
But a high wave came between Noah's ark and this son sheltering on a mountain. The water kept rising and the peaks of mountains began to disappear under water. Apart from the floating ark, nothing could be seen above the water level anywhere along the horizon. All territory had been inundated with water.

Barring some differences in details, this event is acknowledged by the world's three great religions, i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam. At least for the followers of these great faiths, this event is a powerful argument and they cannot but accept that while keeping within the laws of nature, rain can sometimes fall as a punishment from God.

Since we have already categorized various types of divine punishments, there is no need to repeat them here. As we are looking at the distinctive features of divine punishments, suffice it to say that the first distinction evident from the Holy Quran is that divine punishment is forewarned in advance and sometimes its nature is also defined.

2) The second hallmark of a punishment from on high is that it is made conditional upon some proviso that by itself cannot be the cause of any act or deed as a result of which some earthly or heavenly visitation should directly manifest itself.

We have the example of this during the prophethood of Salih who was sent unto the tribe of Thamud. One thing is very clear and that is the occurrence of the terrifying blast, whether you call it a volcanic eruption or a thunderbolt from the skies or a blast resulting from a geological movement. In short, no matter how you depict that single blast, it did not have the remotest physical connection with the hamstringing of the she-camel. No one can accept that the blast occurred as a direct result of the she-camel having been hamstrung. We conclude, therefore, that whatever natural phenomenon was chosen as a means of destruction of the people of Salih, it was not a mere coincidence but an extraordinary divine decree. As long as the people of Salih refrained from preventing the she-camel from taking water and tormenting her, God's wish of restraining the forces of nature from manifesting themselves was fully complied with, but when the she-camel was withdrawn from water and hamstrung, the forces of nature were permitted to unleash themselves and show their might.

3) The third sign, which distinguishes divine punishments from natural disasters, is that the chastisement is not allowed to destroy believers along with the unbelievers. Believers are invariably saved and the unbelievers exterminated. The Holy Quran does mention of divine punishments afflicted on some nations as a result of which the believers too had to endure some suffering along with the unbelievers. However, such punishments were an exception to the rule and served other purposes.

It needs to be remembered that the kinds of divine punishments we are currently considering are those which distinguish believers from unbelievers and about which the prophet of that age gives a clear forewarning that the righteous people of God will suffer no misfortune.

Now, this a distinction for which we can find no natural explanation. Why is it that a run of the mill disaster should wipe out a large majority of the people and yet make an exception for a chosen few, passing them by without afflicting any loss on them? It does not end there. Perhaps even more surprising is that part of a nation comprising the most powerful and materially superior host and which is the fittest for survival should be utterly destroyed and a community of poor and aged weaklings commanding no physical resources for survival should be saved from that calamity.

4) The fourth distinctive feature is that after the punishment from on high, the philosophy and way of life, which had hitherto been powerful and superior, is either annihilated or completely erased from the face of the Earth. On the other hand, the new ideology and way of life presented before the divine punishment, had been in a weak and dormant state, so much so, that it seemed as if nothing could breath any life into it. Yet it emerges victorious and rapidly ascends to the pinnacle of its glory. Sometimes, the philosophy, which confronted it disintegrates into dust and the nascent philosophy reigns supreme. At other times the triumphant philosophy stands like a general over the defeated enemy, which lies so disgraced and powerless that it has no choice but to surrender.

The aforementioned features are taken for granted by followers of faiths who accept the authority of religious history recorded in the revealed scriptures, but those who have no connection with religion, or those who are atheists or agnostics, can turn around and say that these four features have all been derived from religious history and since they can place no reliance on the history, such arguments are not authoritative for them, but merely claims. Yet a brief reflection will show that the aforementioned claims carry with them mighty proofs and testimony that no one can possibly deny.

To prove my point, I set out the following additional explanation.

i) No one can possibly dispute that throughout history wherever any prophet or reformer called his people with the permission of God towards his guidance, that prophet or reformer had hardly any worldly means through which he could defeat his adversaries. On the contrary, his opponents enjoyed all material strength, be it numerical, economic or political supremacy or superiority in the weapons of war. Indeed, they were so powerful and strong, from every conceivable angle, that with minor effort on their part, they could have destroyed the claimant and his handful of followers.

There is an easy way of assessing the material weakness of past prophets and reformers from the fact that the history of the world recorded at the time pays little attention to the appearance of such servants of God as if their diminutive significance was no more than a ripple on a wide expanse of water.

Take for instance, the quest for the historical Christ. The importance we attach today to Jesus and his crucifixion is totally different from the significance attached to these events during that period of history. Since we have heard numerous references to these great events from one generation to another, we mistakenly take it for granted that the claims of Jesus (on whom be peace) and his subsequent crucifixion, were events of mammoth proportion for the people of his times. This assumption is certainly incorrect. These events in a small pocket of the great Roman Empire did not for a moment so much as catch the attention of that time that they should consider it worthy of even a brief passing reference or reduce it to a few brief lines. Thus Roman historians for at least another hundred years singularly fail to record any person by the name of Jesus or Christ. It is, as if according to them, the crucifixion was no more and no less than a petty legal process unworthy of inclusion in the annals of an empire.

The external narrative on the history of Jesus (on whom be peace), is largely attributable to the spread of Christianity, which had a snowball effect on that history. Each successive historian compounded the apparent importance of Jesus (on whom be peace). But when placed in its historical context and contrasted with the great Roman Empire, the apparent status of Jesus did not merit any attention in the history of the world during Jesus's ministry. According to the Roman officials of that time, neither Jesus' death nor for that matter his life, represented any milestone that warranted it to be recorded in the history of that time.

Likewise, the claims and mission of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), represent for a Muslim the greatest event of the world's history, but until his triumphant march into Mecca, these events appeared ordinary and commonplace for the people of the time. Indeed, not until the rapid spread of Islam set a commotion in the East and West, were the Romans and Iranian Empires jolted into action. Before that time, they attached little credence to the growing importance of the Holy Founder of Islam.

The Kingdom of Chosroes was in any case very rapidly overrun by Muslim conquest. Therefore we cannot with any certainly claim whether any Iranian historian had recorded any reference to the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, before the fall of Mecca. However, the significance of what is considered the greatest event of world history by Muslims, we can be certain that contemporary Roman historians of that age made no reference to this event in their annals.

In considering the narratives that have come to us from Islamic history about the Iranian Empire, it is quite obvious that the Chosroes of Iran during the time of the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), considered these events to be trivial matters. It is related that the Chosroes of that time had sent a message to the Governor of Yemen that prevailing rumours had it that such a claimant had appeared in Arabia; he was, therefore, to be arrested and brought before the Chosroes. The importance attached to Holy Prophet's status by the Governor of Yemen can be gauged from the fact that he dispatched only two agents, God forbid, to arrest the chief of the physical and spiritual world, the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), and bring him before the Governor. From this we can well-estimate the significance the world attached at the time to the status of the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).

Therefore, it is impossible to deny that at the time when a prophet or reformer makes his call, he is not only powerless, but the world at large considers him to be so weak and insignificant that whether he exists or not is of no consequence. This historical pattern has repeated itself time and again without exception in the case of all the prophets, from Adam to the Holy Prophet, peace be upon them all).

ii) Secondly it is clear that mighty nations, superpowers and great empires, which once regarded the prophet of that age to be lesser than a mere gnat, were ravaged by a disaster (or according to the followers of religions, a divine chastisement) of that era. Their ways of belief and religions vanished into thin air. Their philosophies perished. Nothing remained of these great empires apart from some reference spread over a few pages of history. yet, these very pages of history do not mention of those select few whose glorious victory over these great nations and colossal empires represent the unexplainable mystery of that era. These select few prevailed with such magnanimity that to this day their philosophies survive as living contemporary philosophies. Their religions encompass the entire globe so much so that an overwhelming majority of the world's population today traces the roots of its beliefs to a heavenly prophet or Avatar who was the most powerless person of his time. The question then arises that if the causes of the fall of these mighty empires were some calamities of that time, then surely the primary victims should have been the weakest instead of the most powerful. Where from did disasters of the age acquire this selectivity in distinguishing, at stroke, the weak from the mighty and realize that decency meant that they extend a helping hand to the weakest but be the assassin, so to speak, of the strongest?

iii) The third point in this regard is that out of all those cities and habitations, which were reduced to rubble by earthquakes or were cast in the pit of destruction by non-stop storms, burying them under layers of soil, not a single one was inhabited by a community comprising the followers of a prophet. Instead, their residents were the irreligious people and those who rejected the prophets. The tell-tale remnants of these habitations have preserved to this day the imprint of their false deities and their innovations, perversion and wickedness.

The Holy Quran often reminds mankind of the fact that this has been the end of such habitations. If man travels the length and breadth of the land in search of these great ancient townships, he is bound to discover their remnants buried deep under the dust. Interred therein, lie prostrate those mighty nations which had firmly resolved to erase from the face of the earth the prophet of that age and anything to do with him. Their conspiracy was most pernicious and it was well nigh impossible to find any defence against their might. At times the prophets apparently despaired about the unbelievers and the success of their mission. It was then that God's help came suddenly in the form of a disaster that distinguished clearly between good and evil. Whomsoever God pleased, he saved, but the wicked could find no respite. Referring to these conditions, the Holy Quran states:

Till (on one side) the messengers despaired (of the unbelievers) and (on the other side) they (unbelievers) thought that (in the name of revelation) they were being told a lie, Our help came to them (the messengers), then was saved he whom We pleased. And our chastisement can never be averted from the wicked people. [Yusuf:111]

Whereas in the past, man passed by the remains of great nations, unaware and ignorant of what lay buried therein, today the earth has begun to disclose its secrets and archaeological remains have begun to emerge and to be identified for the world at large to deserve. But at the time when the Holy Quran referred to them, mankind still lived in the dark age of ignorance.

5) The fifth hallmark which distinguishes divine chastisement from a disaster of that age is referred in the following verse of the Holy Quran:

We showed them no sign but it was greater than its (preceding) sister (sign), and we seized them with punishment, that they might turn (away from their wickedness to us). [Al-Zukhruf: 49]
In other words, a gradation and arrangement prevail in divine punishment and until the ultimate triumph of good over evil, the series of punishments worsen and become more severe with the passage of time. If a graph is drawn in the severity of divine punishment, barring some minor ups and downs, the scale of severity of misfortunes would always incline to the more severe as time progresses. If a people do not accept the ideology of a prophet at that age, and destruction becomes the writing on the wall for them, then the final affliction of divine chastisement is in the severest and most decisive form. Such organized severity does not exist in ordinary disasters.

6) The sixth distinction is that ordinary disasters are not influenced by the condition of man's heart. If feelings of regret remorse and repentance over past sins begin to emerge, and attitudes begin to incline towards seeking forgiveness, then divine punishment is averted. Referring to this distinctive feature, the Holy Quran states:

Allah would not punish them while they sought forgiveness. [Al-Anfal: 34]
In the history of past prophets, the event during the time of Yunus (Jonah), on whom be peace, represents an outstanding example of this principle that in spite of having been forewarned of divine punishment,, when the people begin to seek forgiveness, the unchangeable practise of God stands like an unbreachable wall between the people and the divine punishment.

7) Yet another distinction of divine punishments is that the chastisement does not happen until the chosen prophet leaves the territory scheduled for destruction. For instance, addressing the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), the Holy Quran states:

But Allah would not punish them while thou wast among them. [Al-Anfal: 34]
It is obvious that misfortunes wait for none. Therefore, those misfortunes that wait for the holy people to leave the site and only erupt once they have left are termed, in religious speech, `divine punishments'.

When we ask ourselves: How is it that prophets and their followers escaped the web of destruction, the response, is that either the prophet left with his companions or the people of that age had themselves exiled the prophet and his companions from their territory. In either case, the divine punishment was afflicted when the prophet and his companions were not physically present in that territory.

Here, it may be relevant to refer to an objection of opponents against the Promised Messiah - why he camped outside in the gardens when the earthquake erupted [of which he had been forewarned]. The less intelligent opponents mention this in a ridiculing manner and do not pause to think that, consistent with the aforementioned teachings of the Holy Quran, the practise of prophets has always been that following a warning of a disaster, they adopt appropriate measures for their safety and God Almighty himself instructs them to make timely preparation. It has never ever happened that having been forewarned of divine punishment, the prophet should ignore everything and take centre-stage at the site of punishment.

There are some kinds of disasters against which no physical means of survival can be adopted. Despite this, such disasters have no power to destroy God's holy people. Because prophets are told in advance of such a disaster, God instructs them to adopt certain preventative measures, apart from which they adopt no further measures. Even then the opponents, who are capable of adopting all measures available to them, find themselves unable to escape the disaster. Yet the prophet and his companions are protected by some unknown forces.

An example of this in the history of the past prophets can be found during the time of Moses when the children of Israel were instructed to adopt a solitary preventative measure, i.e. a prohibition of leavened bread. Apart from this, no other measures mentioned in the ancient history, was taken. In contrast, the people of Pharaoh were at full liberty to take all known remedies to prevent an epidemic. But when some blood-related diseases began to spread amongst the people of Pharaoh, the followers of Moses were not infected. Only Pharaoh's people largely fell victim to the epidemic while the followers of Moses dwelt amongst them.

During the time of the Promised Messiah, a similar example as this can be found in the coming of plague, of which details will follow in a later article.