Friday, January 07, 2005

Tsunami: Where Was Allah?

I was struck by the juxtaposition of two articles this week expressing religious reactions to the tsunami. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote:

The question: "How can you believe in a God who permits suffering on this scale?" is therefore very much around at the moment, and it would be surprising if it weren’t - indeed, it would be wrong if it weren’t. The traditional answers will get us only so far.

The extraordinary fact is that belief has survived such tests again and again - not because it comforts or explains but because believers cannot deny what has been shown or given to them. They have learned to see the world and life in the world as a freely given gift; they have learned to be open to a calling or invitation from outside their own resources, a calling to accept God’s mercy for themselves and make it real for others; they have learned that there is some reality to which they can only relate in amazement and silence.

Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, Sheik Fawzan al-Fawzan, a professor at al-Imam University, had this to say in a television interview:

We know that at these resorts, which unfortunately exist in Islamic and other countries in south Asia, and especially at Christmas, fornication and sexual perversion of all kinds are rampant. The fact that it happened at this particular time is a sign from Allah. It happened at Christmas, when fornicators and corrupt people from all over the world come to commit fornication and sexual perversion. That's when this tragedy took place, striking them all and destroyed everything. It turned the land into wasteland, where only the cries of the ravens are heard. I say this is a great sign and punishment on which Muslims should reflect.
It would be too easy to take these differing views as representative of Christian versus Muslim viewpoints. I'm certainly aware that there is a broad spectrum of views within Christianity itself. Who can forget the post 9/11 judgments of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, blaming feminists, abortionists, homosexuals, and the ACLU for the destruction of the Twin Towers? The theology of Sheik al-Fawzan seems quite akin to the 700 Club. But I'm admittedly uninformed about Muslim traditions and views, and was curious to learn more about what various Muslims were saying and thinking about this. A Google tour of Muslim websites, forums, and blogs turned up an interesting spectrum of views.

Sheik Abu Yusuf Riyadh ul Haq, who has written a book about understanding disasters as "Signs of Allah", says that our human minds are too feeble to even begin to comprehend the will of Allah. He likens our attempts to understand Allah's will to trying to weigh a boulder with a jeweler's scale. He also says that disasters should serve as a reminder of Allah's plan to destroy the earth in the final judgment.

Muslims participating in online discussions at and had a variety of opinions. A few people raised the theory about the tsunami being a punishment for the sexual perversions occurring in beach resorts. (Homosexuality was mentioned, but the focus even from Sheik al-Fawzan was on fornicators in general. Some of the comments were reasonably grounded in an awareness of the sex trade in some of those countries.) But other people dismissed this, noting that there were plenty of more suitable places Allah should have been smoting if that were His object. A number of people saw the tsunami as punishment but of a more general collective sort, in that we all might have deserved this and we should all be praying mightily for forgiveness:

And were Allah to punish men for what they earn, He would not leave on the back of it any creature, but He respites them till an appointed term
Other common themes included that it was a "test" of faith, or that it was a reminder of the impending final judgment:

21. And verily, We will make them taste of the near torment (i.e. the torment in the life of this world,i.e. disasters, calamities) prior to the supreme torment (in the Hereafter), in order that they may (repent and) return (i.e. accept Islam).[Surat 32. As-Sajdah, 32:21]
One blogger summed up these three common themes, saying "it was a test for the righteous, a punishment for the wicked, and a lesson for the survivors". Another said simply "Allah knows. We cannot know. Pray for forgiveness and pray for our brothers and sisters who were struck." Apparently Muslims (like Jews) are commanded to take especial care for widows and orphans, and this theme was raised as well, since people were very aware that the tsunami created many new widows and orphans.

The other thing that struck me was the general tone of the conversations. Everyone was extremely polite and deferential, generally exceedingly cautious not to say anything offensive. (Definitely quite different from our American blogs!)

I came away knowing a tiny bit more about Islam than I did last week, and with the reassurance that Islam has a spectrum of religious views, and shouldn't be judged only by its most vocal or outrageous proponents. Every one of these Muslim themes -- punishment, test of faith, unknowable God, foreshadow of judgment day, let's take care of the survivors -- has been expressed by Christians and Jews as well. Ultimately, these are something we all share, human attempts for grappling with an age-old theological conundrum.

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