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Natural Disasters or Divine Punishment?

Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad
The Review of Religions, January 1994

[ Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V ]

It has been explained in Part I published in last month’s issue of the Review, that according to the Holy Quran, the laws of nature can be deployed, under Divine Will, to reward or punish man. Regarding the latter, we observe that the Holy Quran has mentioned the following categories of divine punishments.

II. Types of Divine Punishment

  1. RainContinuous downpour resulting in the water level rising so much so that habitations become submerged under water:

    The people of Noah rejected the Truth before them; they rejected Our servant and said: A madman spurned by our gods. He called on his Lord: I am overcome; do Thou avenge me. Thereupon, We opened the gates of heaven (the skies) with water pouring down; and We caused the earth to burst forth with springs, so the two waters met for a purpose, which had been pre-determined. [54:10- 13]

  2. Raging WindsThe blowing of evil winds of fury, so much so, that dwellings become as ghost-towns and corpses lies over the land like uprooted trees:

    `The tribe of `Ad also rejected the Truth. How terrible then was My chastisement and My warning! We sent against them a furious wind, for a long period of time of un-ending ill-luck, which tore people away as though they were trunks of uprooted and hollow palm trees.’ [54:19-21]

  3. EruptionsThundering explosions leading to stones being pelted from the skies. For instance, the condition of a habitation close to a sudden volcanic eruption is mentioned as a chastisement in the following verse of the Holy Quran:

    `Then the promised chastisement seized them (the people of the Lot) at sunrise. We turned the city upside down and We rained upon them stones of clay.’ [15:74-75]

  4. SandstormsContinuing storms that deposit sand and subsoil over a habitation so that all that remains of its is its remnants:

    `This wind will destroy everything by the command of its Lord in its path. And they became such by the morning that there was nothing left to be seen except their dwellings (i.e. all the people were buried under sand). Thus do We requite the guilty people.’ [46:26]

  5. FloodsRecurring sudden floods decreed for a place wherein the rich and fertile territory is turned to a barren and hostile land where nothing else grows apart from tamarisk and mild and bitter fruit and lote trees:

    `Yet they (the Saba) turned away (from the truth). So We sent them a devastating flood, And We gave them, in exchange for their excellent gardens, two gardens bearing bitter fruit and tamarisk and a few lote trees.’ [34:17]

  6. EarthquakesGeological faults in the structure of the earth, which bury habitations under their rubble:

    But they (the tribe of Thamud) rejected him (and made false allegations against him) and hamstrung her (the she-camel which they had been told to leave alone). So their Lord destroyed them completely because of their sin and made their destruction (overtake all of them) alike. [91:15]

  7. DroughtSevere drought, which dries up water in the soil to an extent that draws its level down so low that man is unable to obtain it:

    `Say, “Tell me, if (all) your water were to disappear (in the depths of the earth), who then will bring you (pure) flowing water?”‘ [67:31]

  8. Famine:Famines, which grip nations with extreme fear and deep anxiety:

    `Allah sets forth (for you) the parable of a city which enjoyed peace and security; its provisions came to it in plenty from every quarter; but it denied the favours of Allah, so Allah (enveloped) it in hunger and fear (which clothed it like) a garment because of what they used to do.’ [16:113]

  9. Wars:The destruction of nations through wars, which carry in their aftermath an unending series of hardships and suffering. Here, the word al-dharra probably encompasses all such loss, misfortune and adversity arising from major wars – e.g. restrictions on freedom, destruction of the economic infrastructure, chaos and social disorder.

    Never did We send a Prophet to any town but We seized the people thereof with adversity and suffering, that they might become humble. [7:95]

  10. Birds:Swarms of birds descending upon people as divine punishment:

    `Then He sent upon their corpses swarms of birds, which beat (their flesh) against hard lumps of clay, and thus made them like broken straw eaten up.’ [105:4-6]

  11. Bursting of dams:Bursting of dams and their emptying of reservoirs upon habitations:

    Thy Lord then let fall on them the whip(*) of punishment. Surely thy Lord is on the watch. [89:14-15]

    (*)Here, the word sauta also includes a place where water has collected (Aqrab Al-Muwarid). If the connotation of a lake or pond is derived, it would mean that He turned its entire contents upside down on them.

  12. Pestilence:Climatic changes, of aridness or humidity, leading to a teeming of life forms which subsequently become a source of pestilence, causing disease and epidemics – locusts, frogs, head-lice, scorpions, mosquitoes, vermin, bacteria and germs that cause blood disease such as cholera or others affecting the circulation of blood.

    Then We sent upon them the storm and the locusts, and the lice and the frogs, and the blood (these were separate) clear signs. [7:134]

  13. Subservience:Subjugation by another nation leading to various forms of trial and punishment, not because of the act of belief but because of various deeds by the conquered people, e.g. the prophecy in the Holy Quran about Jews that till the Day of Judgement, other conquering nations would subject them to various ordeals:

    (Remember the time) when thy Lord proclaimed that He would surely set in authority over them, till the Day of Resurrection, those who would afflict them with grievous torment. Thy Lord is quick in exacting retribution, and surely He is (also) Most Forgiving, Merciful. [7:168]

It is most odd that all the various kinds of divine punishments mentioned above relate to three out of four natural elements and yet there is no mention of the fourth element. All the foregoing divine punishments related to the earth, or water or air or those creatures that live in water or air or on the earth, but there is no mention of the fourth element, i.e. fire. We know that holy and pious people have been subjected to ordeal by fire as is obvious from the narrative about Abraham and the subject matter of chapter Al-Buraj [Ch. 85], but as far as punishment of a people by fire is concerned, we find no mention of it having occurred in the past. As far as the prophecies of the Holy Quran are concerned, it is manifestly clear that it has decreed that people in the future would be subjected to chastisement by fire because of their continuous rejection of the Holy Prophet of Islam (may peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). Thus there is an indication or brief reference to this in the Holy Quran:

`(We shall say unto them), Now move on towards that which you treated as a lie. Move on towards a shadow that has three aspects. Neither affording a shade, nor protecting from any flame, like (huge) castles, as if they were (like) very strong ropes to tie up (large) ships. Woe on that day unto those who reject the truth.’ [77:29-35]

The image depicted by these verses is reminiscent of present day wars of conflagration. This is that age when the awesome shadow of war is cast over the distinct employment of forces vis-a-vis land, air and sea and each of them rains down fire. The verse translated above as “it throws up such high sparks that they are like huge castles”, is a very fitting image of the ballistic missiles used as weapons in this age.

Likewise, the fear of fire that hangs as a threat in the following verse seems to relate to the contemporary age:

`Woe to every backbiter, slanderer, who amasses wealth and counts it time after time. He thinks that his wealth will make him immortal. Nay! (Most certainly it shall not be as he thinks) he shall surely cast into the HOTAMA. And what should make thee what the HOTAMA is? It is Allah’s kindled fire which shall reach into the deep recesses of the heart. It will be closed in on them (so that the severity of its heat should be felt even more) in extended columns.’ [104:2-10]

The reference is to no specific person but to a nation because no matter how mean and miserly a wealthy person be, he can never think that his wealth has won him immortality. On the other hand, when economically wealthy nations acquire economic prosperity, they always live under the misapprehension that this superiority is theirs forever more. The warning given to them is of chastisement by fire.

The nuclear weapons of this age are a true reflection of this description. The elongation of the nuclei before the blast resulting in an atomic explosion, and the meaning of HOTAMA (broken atoms or the smallest conceivable particles), both, point us in this direction. In any case, the chastisement proclaimed here, undoubtedly relates to this world. It seems to signify the destruction of an arrogant and punch-drunk materialistic people who dream of an everlasting life without accountability.

If the above mentioned prophecies of a chastisement by fire are connected to the preceding subject matter, it becomes obvious that all four elements – the earth, the water, air and fire – can be employed under divine command as punishments and that the same elements can be employed as a bounty. Therefore, the subjection of natural laws to the purpose of afflicting punishment is certainly not very amazing. All benefit and harm are undoubtedly inter- related to their natural elements.

One may very well say that in every age some changes keep taking place as a result of which earth, water, air or fire may cause some benefit or some harm. Sometimes they lead to adversity, scarcity, hardship and loss and sometimes a life of ease and abundance. Then why should this be sometimes treated as an extraordinary visitation or divine intervention and at other times as unusual happenings. These things have been occurring since time immemorial. In fact, this a new issue. In response to this question, modern man has not discovered anything new that did not strike man of the remote past. We learn from the Holy Quran that the same objection was raised against past Prophets when:

Never did We send a Prophet to any town but We seized the people thereof with adversity and suffering, that they might become humble. Then We changed (their evil condition) into good until they grew (in affluence and number) and said, `Suffering and happiness betided our fathers (also).’ (So if it befalls us, it matters not) Then We seized them suddenly, while they perceived not. [7:95-96]

Just to merely assert that this is not anything new but a centuries- old objection is not really a convincing argument till such time that we are able to supplement it with some distinctive mark by which one may determine one event as a divine intervention and another as an ordinary run-of-the-mill accident. We should be able to satisfy the heart and mind that, despite both belonging to the same natural cause, they each belong to a distinct category. Till then, of course, this subject should remain incomplete.

In the first part of this serial, we referred to an aspect of the drowning of the Pharaoh that set it apart from countless other drownings of a like nature. More specifically, we refer, of course, to the fulfillment of the Quranic prophecy that the corpse of the Pharaoh would survive the vicissitude of time, and after thousands of years it serves as a warning lesson for mankind. The Holy Quran had presented a powerful argument as proof of this being a divine punishment (see Part I).

However, the matter does not end there. It needs to be remembered that the Holy Quran always presents such clear evidence in support of its arguments as would satisfy any unbiased mind.

Although, from one point of view, the system of divine punishment is essentially linked to natural laws, yet from some other angles, this system enjoys a quite separate status and in that lays its distinguishing feature. On this aspect, we shall, God-willing, shed further light in the next part of this serial. Subject to God-given ability, we shall also explore the responsibilities that impose themselves upon a community of believers when a people are being afflicted by divine punishment or a prophecy of some divine punishment hangs over such people. What should be our code of conduct in such circumstances? This part of the subject is extremely important for the spiritual training of Jamaat Ahmadiyya in this day and age. It behoves not that some Ahmadis should out of ignorance follow a course that is inconsistent with the noble practice and traditions of past Prophets or which is in any way below the dignity of a true believer. May Allah preserve us from this. Amen.