One stands the risk of being dubbed illiberal and unenlightened, if one sees in the deluge that has drowned one-fifths of the country the hand of Allah. The floods have, among other things, again brought to the fore the gaping ideological split that cuts across Pakistani society, making it deeply fractured and polarised. The flood and the way we choose to look at it raises some fundamental questions that strike at the heart of our very self-definition and our worldview – in fact, our very identity.
Pakistan’s clique of English writers flaunting liberal credentials are clearly irked by those, who insist on seeing the flood as Allah’s handiwork, and emphatically stress on the fact that inanimate nature and its ‘inhumane’ forces act mechanically and indiscriminately.
On the other end of the divide are the ‘punishment theorists’, whose understanding that the floods are Allah’s anger unleashed on a sinful people does not really sit well. It is both arrogant and ignorant to brand everyone with the same iron. There is a certain unease and discomfort for a thinking mind to buy the theory. The problem with the punishment theory arises, when it leads one to indiscriminate judgement rather than self-reflection; and when it deflects emphasis from the actual, material factors and ground realities directly responsible for wreaking a tragedy of these dizzying proportions: that no dams have been built in the country for years, that in a routinely flood-prone country there is no proper flood management system in place, and that we have not been sufficiently alerted to the very real effects of the global climate change.
Both perspectives are reductionist and lop-sided. The liberal view can be blamed for ignoring the normative dimension and failing to appreciate the worth of the realization of one’s powerlessness and the humbling it brings. It ignores the understanding central to the Muslim worldview that everything that happens must be seen as a piece in the divinely-laid scheme of things. Every occurrence fits into the mural of Allah’s plan; that there are no random accidents, no meaningless chaos or anarchy in nature. Nature is Allah’s (swt) manifestation, and its processes are by His design.
The punishment theorists, on the other hand, oversimplify a complex, multi-faceted reality in order to make sense of an inordinate phenomenon.
What is ignored in the process is the insight offered by some basic religious texts that deal with the subject. For one, the Quran talks at great length of natural calamity and cites historical instances of punishment through natural disasters to rebellious peoples. However, it has to be understood that within the framework of Allah’s (swt) absolute justice, punishment becomes justified only when the truth has been clearly established and vindicated, and falsehood exposed for all to see; and when the choice between truth and falsehood has been made in complete earnest by all. This criterion was fulfilled in the lifetimes of prophets. Hence, the utter rejection and hostility after full knowledge of a prophet’s message warranted divine punishment. With the ending of the line of prophethood, this is no longer the case. Hence, it is erroneous to see a natural calamity in this day and age as wholesale, all-out, indiscriminate punishment to its victims of the kind the scriptures talk about.
Natural calamity after the time of prophets functions as a reminder to the mankind of their vulnerability, as opposed to the power of the universal Sovereign and of the transience of life; it serves to revive in the hearts of people that Allah-consciousness, awe and fear so necessary to cut them down to size when they tend to get out of their boots. It functions as a test of faith, of patience and of human capacity to heal, help and alleviate the suffering of the fellow humans.
Another dimension that needs to be brought into focus is that Allah, in His infinite mercy, recompenses every iota of suffering borne by His slaves, and that people of faith, who lose their lives in accidents, disasters and calamities, are blessed with the ranks of martyrdom. Clearly, being struck by a calamity does not make one less fortunate or more deserving of Allah’s wrath. This understanding infuses in the Muslim’s heart compassion towards the sufferers.
A tradition attributed to Aisha (rta) sheds light on the matter with amazing precision. When asked, how natural calamities were to be interpreted, she said: “(It is) A punishment for the disbelievers and a reminder to the believers.” (From the audio “Natural Disasters” by Shaikh Faisal Abdullah)
What this makes clear is that there can be no generalizations and no judgement, for the knowledge of the state of belief in people’s hearts lies with Allah (swt) alone, and whether a calamity becomes a punishment or a test for those affected by it and those witnessing it depends on every individual’s inner state, which is impossible to judge by any outsider. It is our attitude towards a calamity (whether we respond to it with patience and learn from it the right lessons, or whether our hearts remain hard and unyielding) that makes it either a punishment or a reminder for us. If we humble ourselves and acquire the courage and faith to say: “…To Allah we belong and truly, to Him we shall return” (Al-Baqarah 2:156), we will emerge triumphant out of every calamity. Such an indomitable spirit cannot be crushed by any calamity of whatever magnitude.
Out of an instinctive aversion to a ‘not-so-liberal’ worldview, the ‘liberal Fatwa’ on the flood by our dogmatic liberals misses the essential point. It fails to appreciate the value of understanding ourselves as underlings to a Greater Power – an understanding that humbles and imbues us with a sense of responsibility, as we conduct ourselves in life, and a Allah-consciousness that makes us constantly strive to better ourselves; that gives us resilience and stoicism in the face of trial as well as compassion towards fellow human beings; that makes us conscious of our greater purpose and that at the end of the day we all are to stand in the court of the ultimate Sovereign with nothing but ourselves; that “…His Grasp is over all vision… and He is… Well Acquainted with all things.” (Al-Anam 6:103)
“How wonderful is the affair of the believer, for his affairs are all good, and this applies to no one but the believer. If something good happens to him, he is thankful for it and that is good for him. If something bad happens to him, he bears it with patience and that is good for him.” (Muslim)
- The number of people affected by the floods exceeds 20 million.
- 1500 people lost their lives, along with millions of animals and livestock.
- Roughly 160,000 square kilometres of area has been affected by the floods.
- Structural damages are estimated to exceed $4 billion.
- Damages to the wheat crop are estimated to be over $500 million.