Zelzalahs (Earthquakes) and the Moral (and Amoral) Choices We Make

It is all over the news. What we cannot ignore, overlook, or fail to speak about is the plight of thousands of people right now in Turkey and Syria due to the devastating earthquakes that have killed thousands of people, injured thousands more, and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. What comes to mind is what God reminds us of in the Qur’an:


…We try you with evil and with good, as a test, and unto Us shall you be returned. (Q 21:35)


It is the very logic of our existence that, as God reminds us, we are constantly tested by evil and tested by good. We are constantly tested by what is ugly but also by what is beautiful. We are tested both in health and in sickness. It is in the very fabric of the lives we lead. We are also reminded that, when all is said and done, “you will return to Us.” The very nature of these tests in health and sickness, in well-being and harm, is “so that you will remember” (Q 24:1; 51:49). These tests are signs so that perhaps we will remember that when all is said and done, we will return to the Origin of everything, the Lord of everything, the Maker of everything.


I want to address a serious theological point. It is a point that, unfortunately, so many Muslims are either oblivious about or get completely wrong. I read in the news that a rather well-known figure, an ayatollah, Muqtada al-Sadr, recently said that the earthquake and its victims were a punishment from God. In his opinion, it is a punishment because Muslims failed to do enough about the insults to the Qur'an in Sweden. This view, however, is simply and utterly wrong. It is true that devastating natural disasters, like earthquakes, could occur on God's command to destroy a people whom God wants destroyed. But it is an act of utter arrogance to say that this is such an example. Like the movement of wind, like volcanic eruptions, like so many natural phenomena in our world, earthquakes occur on Earth, but they also occur on every planet that God has created. Volcanoes are not limited to Earth. Like the laws of solar existence and the laws of creation itself, they are woven into the logic of existence. They occur on Earth and in places where no human being, or anything at all, lives. Earth itself, like so much of existence, is a living organism.


Yes, the earth is an example of life without consciousness, but it is nevertheless living and there are laws that regulate the functioning of this living organism, very much like the laws that regulate the functioning of the living human being. A living human being constantly undergoes biological processes that terminate the life of living organisms that live in and on the surface of human beings. Every time we scratch our bodies, there are microscopic, unseeable organisms that perish with this scratch. For us, they are of little concern, because we do not have the consciousness vis-a-vis these living organisms. Our consciousness functions at a different level, and so our consciousness does not respond to what bacteria does on our body. It does not respond to the life and death of billions upon billions of bacteria that cover every part of our bodies. We are only aware of the existence of this bacteria in harm, when, for some reason, they cause our nervous systems to complain of pain and inform our brains that something is wrong. 


Similarly, the Earth goes about its business oblivious to those who exist on its surface. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are the natural phenomena of a living organism. They occur where they occur due to purely physical laws that are encoded into its creation. The Earth itself is hardly conscious of what the earthquake does to thousands of people living on its surface. 


Some may ask, "Could God not have created an Earth that does not experience earthquakes or volcanic eruptions?" But then why stop there? We could extend the question to ask, “Could God not have created planets that do not experience earthquakes or volcanic eruptions? That can sustain life without water? Could God not have created organisms that do not respond to a genetic code that determines so many of their characteristics?” It is like asking, "Well, could God not have created human beings that do not need to eat? And, once they eat, would not need to eject the refuse out of their body? Could God not have created beings that do not need to go to the bathroom, release gas, burp, or scratch?" 


If you believe in God, then you also believe that God could have, but it would not be the life we know. The life we know is a life that demands and responds to a covenant of trust by the Maker of this life. It is a life in which we inherit this covenant and discharge the obligations of this covenant. God could have created a world other than the world we know, but what would that world be like? We have no clue. We can only speculate about a world in which human beings do not experience cold or hate, or a world in which human beings do not need to eat and go to the bathroom. It is the same for a world in which Mother Earth does not need to undergo earthquakes or volcanic eruptions for its very survival. How would that world look? Would it, of necessity, become heaven? Is that what God is describing to us when God speaks of heaven; a very different reality, one that is inaccessible to us by definition? It is like asking, "Why do we see the laws of physics replicated everywhere in which there is creation in this dimension that we live in?"


What are other dimensions of existence like? Do those who exist in other dimensions need to consume some sort of energy or use the bathroom? Do they experience earthquakes, illness, or maladies? All we can say is that for reasons that we simply do not, and will not, understand, planets are like living organisms. In order to live, they need physical laws that dictate their existence. They have a required mandate that they experience things like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. 


Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, then, are naturally occurring. They are not dictated by God to punish anyone because people failed to respond to the burning of the Qur'an in Sweden or anywhere else. Are they God's will? They are God's will to the extent that the natural laws of creation are God's will. But the Earth is oblivious. Just as we are oblivious to whatever occurs on our surface, the Earth hardly notices that hundreds and thousands of people perish because it did what it had to do. 


God is not oblivious, however, and human beings should not be oblivious. Earthquakes are naturally occurring, but human suffering and the extent of human suffering is often a choice. Not the choice of individuals, but the choice of societies. We only need to read the books of the scholars of old that tell us that a certain region of the world is a region of earthquakes. Modern science has developed the tools to replicate what the medieval scholars already knew: that this or that region of the world is prone to natural disasters like earthquakes or volcanic eruptions.


What do we do with this knowledge? We know it is only a matter of time before an earthquake of such and such magnitude occurs. So there is a moral social choice. Do we conserve our resources so that when the calamity comes, we can help? Or do we waste our resources on singing, dancing, and all manner of distractions and satisfaction of the whims of human beings? There is a choice.


What type of buildings do we construct on land that is prone to earthquakes? We know this as “building codes” in the modern age. Have you noticed that in certain societies when earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur, the casualty list is far lesser than it is in other societies? Have you noticed that when natural disasters occur in certain parts of the world, regardless of the scale of the destruction, the human cost is much lower than what we see in Turkey or Syria? The reason for that, quite simply, is human planning. And human planning is part of discharging the ethical and moral covenant and obligation that ties us to our Lord.


The moral and ethical thing is a society that is sufficiently educated to exist integrated between the past and the present. In other words, a society in which those who live in the present benefit from what people had to teach in the past. They learn from the voices of the past that these same areas have been plagued by natural disasters for centuries, and they develop scientific means to verify the testimonies of the past. “This is what the ancients tell us. Let us scientifically verify what the ancients claim.” Upon realizing that these regions are, indeed, prone to earthquakes, they do not simply start constructing on this land, oblivious to the threat. No. Rather, from the material they use to the building codes they draw up, they ensure that there is no corruption, so there is no cheating in the building codes. They ensure that if an earthquake occurs, the buildings in the region will respond to the natural demands of Mother Earth. Mother Earth will do what Mother Earth has to do to live. Our charge, the way we discharge our obligation toward our Lord, is to make sure that when the calamity occurs, the disaster is contained. That tall, hardwired buildings are not simply going to collapse. That we develop procedures and resources to quickly respond to whatever disaster that occurs.


It is simply immoral to take the easy way out by trying to pin naturally occurring events on God by saying, "God is punishing you." As some have pointed out in response to Muqtada al-Sadr, if this was such a vindictive god, why did the earthquake not occur in Sweden? 


Part of being an ethically mature human being is to understand the ethical dynamics that define our relationship to our Maker. Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes naturally occur. They could, in theory, be a punishment from God, but it is indeed an arrogant, impious, and unethical claim to conclude that an earthquake, in this particular situation, is a punishment from God. It is like those who declare who is going to go to heaven and who is going to hell. That is not our business. It is God's business. What is our business is the ethical challenge that it presents to us as a society and as individuals. What is our business are the moral duties and moral lessons that could have contained the destruction had people lived a moral, ethical existence in which they took responsibility for their moral failures and did not pin their moral failures onto God.


I assure you that there are hundreds of thousands of people who will show up in the Hereafter and be asked, quite simply, “Before you authorized to build such a building, did you not know that this region has a history of violent earthquakes? Yes or no?” If God knows the answer is yes, God will ask:


How, then, could you have constructed the building? Mother Earth has a right to live, and it exercises that right every day and every night. Did you know? What did you do with this knowledge? Did you just ignore it and look at the short-term profit? Did you say, “Let us solve the immediate issue of housing and let tomorrow take care of itself?’ And once the disaster occurred, how did you respond? Collectively, as Muslims, you are an Ummah. You are an Ummah in which your leaders spend billions on football, entertainment, expensive yachts, and, indeed, on weapons, on killing innocent people in Yemen, on buying tanks, airplanes, and technology used for genocide and injustice. Billions of dollars are spent catering to the lives of the rich and powerful. Billions are spent catering to luxury in the heart of Mecca and in the high rises of Dubai.


Now that God allows for this test to occur—this naturally occurring test—how do we respond? Do we take care of one another? Do we rush to minimize the suffering and the pain? Or do we continue existing, oblivious and uncaring? But even more, if our rulers are corrupt, what is our excuse? Do we hold these rulers accountable for their corruption? Do we condemn these rulers for their immorality in our hearts? If nothing else, do we care? Do we care that these are the rulers that will spend millions upon millions of dollars on entertainers, parties, and all matters of frivolity and nonsense? Do we feel any moral outrage in our heart? What standard of morality do we hold not just for our rulers, but for our religious leaders, imams, and teachers too? It is all an integrated, interwoven whole.


Do you celebrate those who point the finger at moral corruption and say, "This is wrong"? Do you celebrate, support, and honor these people? Do you promote these people? Or do you promote and celebrate those who have no moral conscience and who do not object, protest, point the finger at, or talk about the corruption of rulers? Who do not talk about the immorality of wasting billions of dollars on nonsense? It is an interwoven whole.


Who are the people that represent you? Is it the moral voices of the Ummah or the amoral voices of the Ummah? Who are you? Do you prove your own amorality by supporting the voices of the amoral, those without moral conscience, those who continue praising and being praised by the very rulers who waste millions of dollars on pretty women, pretty cars, pretty yachts, and pretty buildings? Do you support those religious leaders who do not utter a peep, and ignore the religious leaders who testify to truth and justice? Then, when a calamity befalls you, do you then finally wake up and see how you have been amoral and unethical, or do you blame God and say, "Well, this is God's destiny, so what can we do?"


Natural calamities are naturally occurring. They occur because they must occur. But how we respond to them is a matter of choice and volition, and anytime choice and volition are involved, ethics are involved. When there is no choice or volition, we cannot speak of ethics, but anything that involves a choice, of necessity, involves morality. The devastation of these earthquakes is, indeed, a test not just to the Muslim Ummah, but to humanity and how humanity chooses to react. Do we react racially? Do we help to a lesser extent because these people are from a different race? Do we react with religious bigotry? Does their religion dictate whether we help more or less? How do we react, and what lessons do we learn?


Take the infamous and morally decrepit Charlie Hebdo magazine in France. These are the folks who published the pornographic cartoons mocking, insulting, and degrading the Prophet. Their morality allowed them to gloat over the destruction that has befallen Muslims. They published cartoons that celebrate the destruction, saying, in effect, "Wonderful! We did not need to send tanks to do what we wanted to do. We are happy that an earthquake did it." As moral and ethical human beings, how do we respond to the immorality, racism, and bigotry of people like those at Charlie Hebdo and the French government that honors and protects them? Do we continue doing business with France as usual? Do we continue thinking, "Well, everyone has the right to be racist and a bigot"? Do we react the same way when the racism is directed at Jews and the issue is one of antisemitism? 


It is truly a test to humanity, but there is another level to this test. Upon being confronted with the human—not natural—calamity of a brother murdering his brother, of Cain murdering Abel, God sent a bird to teach the criminal brother how to honor and protect the dignity of his deceased brethren (Q 5:31). Someone sent me a story about a video that emerged in the midst of this ugliness. A dog emerged from the rubble, and in its mouth was the cell phone of its owner. Upon realizing that its owner was not emerging from the rubble, the dog sat and, according to the witness, wept. I have seen dogs weep. I have seen them weep when their owners are ill or dead. I have seen them abstain from eating when they are worried or sad about their owners, and I have seen them abstain from eating to the point of dying. Amid this ugliness, the beauty of a dog testifies. The beauty of encoded morality and principles. The dog does not have volition, but the dog responds to the morality encoded within, so that its instinct responds to the moral choices made by its Maker. Its Maker, through this dog, teaches us an amazing lesson about loyalty.


In Arabic, when one person wants to insult another, they call them a kalb (dog). I disabused myself of this notion long ago. I am honored to be a kalb. I consider it no insult to be called a dog. Indeed, I welcome it, because what is encoded within a dog is truly beautiful. Yet, there are still Muslims who believe that beautiful creatures that provide lessons in beauty and goodness, like dogs, are haram. They see them as najasa, as something to be avoided. Listen to the lessons that God teaches us through the good (al-khayr) and the bad (al-sharr) (Q 21:35).


God is constantly educating human beings, using natural processes to communicate, to educate, and, ultimately, to hold accountable. Pray for the victims of the earthquake, but do not limit yourself to prayer. Give everything you can give. Help in every way you can. Care, so that when your turn comes, perhaps God will reciprocate the goodness, and you will find those who care about what happens to you in turn. 


Speaking of never-ending ugliness, ugliness that is not the choice of Mother Earth, ugliness that is the direct result of human folly and immorality. Again and again, in every jumu'a, I read a tally of the number of Palestinians murdered by Israelis. Sharif Hassan Rabah, 22, is the 43rd Palestinian killed since the beginning of this year—and we are just in February. Like so many others, he was shot in the chest. Israeli soldiers said they feared he was carrying a knife to stab them, but once he was shot, they did not allow ambulances to come to his aid until he died. They did not allow anyone to come close to him to verify whether he was armed. Witnesses say he made no move toward the soldiers, and he was simply minding his own business when he was shot. As with all the Palestinians killed, the Israelis have had no investigation and there are no consequences to the impunity.


Before this fellow was murdered, in a 15-minute raid by Israeli forces against a Palestinian neighborhood in Jericho, five unarmed Palestinians were shot dead. Incident after incident. Do we find the United States saying, “This is unconscionable. It is undeniable that Palestinians are living under an occupation?” It is undeniable that the Geneva conventions say that Israeli actions are a violation of international law and human rights law. It is undeniable that an occupied people living under an occupation have a right to resist. But it is also undeniable that whether or not they resist, the Israelis systematically oppress and murder them. It is undeniable that Israelis have grown so accustomed to oppressing Palestinians that even the most moral human beings, those who are otherwise moral, find that their moral sensors dull when it comes to the immorality of Israel. They no longer care, and they are no longer able to see violations of international law or human rights law. It is undeniable that this has become a problem of racism, a problem of one race consistently and systematically oppressing another. It is also undeniable that, under international law, this is exactly what apartheid is. It is undeniable that what Israel has vis-a-vis the Palestinians is a regime of apartheid. 


But what does our government do? Our government sends the chief of the CIA to meet with Israelis and the Palestinian Authority—the same Palestinian Authority that has suppressed and oppressed Palestinians for the sake of Israel. The Palestinian Authority has a miserable human rights record, not against Israelis, but against Palestinians. Instead of telling the occupier, "What you are doing is wrong," instead of saying that the occupied have rights to self-determination, dignity, and existence, the chief of the CIA warns of the practical danger of a third intifada. It is like telling the oppressor, "The only problem I have with your oppression is that you might push the victim to protest more."


It caught my eye that the city of Barcelona, Spain, has taken the morally courageous position to cut ties with Israel. This is because Barcelona has decided that Israel is indeed an apartheid state. I will testify until I take my last breath: I do not just think of the betrayals of the Emiratis, the Saudis, and the Egyptians. My problem is not primarily the governments that have no honor, no integrity, no morality, and no ethics. My problem is with the average Muslim who sees all of this, who looks around and sees lone Muslim voices speaking out against the apartheid and the immorality, who then sees other Muslim voices that only care about their relations with the wealthy elite in the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt—Muslims who do what they are told and never speak about the apartheid—and who, having looked around, having seen that they can follow this religious leader or that religious leader, sadly, makes the immoral choice to follow the religious leaders who have chosen immorality over morality, who have chosen this world over the next, who have chosen luxury and power and money. That is my problem with the average Muslim.


We then sit and wonder, "Why is God not helping us? Why is our status as Muslim so horrible? Why is the news about Muslims so bad all the time?" Brothers and sisters, the answer is because of us. It is because of us and our moral choices.


For the millionth time, I will say to any of you whom God has blessed with wealth: your immorality is astounding. Your immorality is of historic proportions. I cannot even bear to think about what your accountability will be in the Hereafter because you, like the average Muslim, look around and see your moral choices. With your money, you can choose to support the voice that speaks out bravely testifying to the truth. You can choose to support the voice that protests the apartheid, the voice that talks with reason, rationality, and morality as to this religion. Or, you can choose to support those who are morally bland, without backbone or principle, those who are closer to Satan than God. 


You make a choice with your money, and your accountability before God in the Hereafter is something that I cannot even bear to think about. May God truly have mercy on your soul.


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