Science and Technology

Making Sense of Natural Disasters: An Islamic Hermeneutics of Malevolent Phenomena in Nature and Its Implication for Sustainable Development

Islam states that both natural phenomena and humanity are created in the best conceivable pattern. Yet the physical world experiences occasional disasters that threaten sustainable development. This study seeks to provide a framework for understanding this phenomenon within the Islamic ethico-religious perspective by focusing on such natural disasters as earthquakes, cyclones, subsidence, and floods. In an attempt to demonstrate this, I highlight the Qur’anic perspective of how natural resources have been overwhelmingly a source of boon and occasionally a source of bane.

Drawing on that perspective, I provide two accounts for a proper understanding of this phenomenon: a macroscopic perspective that dissociates disastrous effects from natural disturbances, and another perspective that, based on moral law, attributes disasters to humanity’s violation of the divine moral law. That is, natural disasters are not disastrous to all creations unless they befall vulnerable communities, and when they are disastrous they are not natural but human-induced. Both perspectives suggest the imperative of the ecosystem and the divine moral law in the course of social and natural development.

Introduction

Natural disasters exact a heavy toll of death and property destruction. Nowadays, the magnitude and frequency of such phenomena appear to be escalating. The number of deaths from natural disasters worldwide per year rose from 23,000 in the 1960s to 143,000 in the 1970s.1 The total number of reported disasters also rose sharply, from 368 in 1992 to 712 in 2001. Within the same period, the number of people affected increased dramatically, from 78,292,000 to 170,478,000.2 The economic cost, in terms of property damage, increased fourteen-fold between the 1950s and the 1990s.3 Some studies put the total economic cost of natural disasters in the early 1990s at more than $100 billion per year, along with other extensive disruption of the economic infrastructure.4

Such catastrophic phenomena have baffled many intellectuals from all walks of life. According to some scholars, nature is red in tooth and claw, a vale of tears and hostility bereft of any overriding moral meaning or purpose of existence. Thomas H. Huxley cautions that we should neither imitate the cosmic process in our societal ethics nor run away from it; rather, we should combat it: “Thus, brought before the tribunal of ethics, the cosmos might well seem to stand condemned. The conscience of man revolted against the moral indifference of nature, and the microcosmic atom should have found the illimitable macrocosm guilty.”5 John Stuart Mill brands nature as an “odious scene of violence and tyranny.”6 George Williams describes it as “a wicked old witch” hostile to human life and values.7

For many of these scholars, such calamities are fundamentally attributable to nature’s innate wickedness and internal defectiveness, while human beings are just passive victims. The best solution, then, is to master nature technologically. The Reader’s Digest Association recognizes natural disasters as “an inevitable part of the natural cycle of destruction and renewal.” Such a disaster, however, “has sometimes altered the course of human history for the better.”8 The “better” course referred to is “quake-proof” building, such as the one in Mexico City that reportedly withstood the 1985 earthquake. Thus, nature is portrayed as a formidable opponent. But with intelligence and enough technological muscle, human beings may change the conditions of existence and rid the world of natural disaster.9

This pessimistic, technocratic view of disaster provides no good image of nature and no good solution to its disturbances. True, our increased knowledge of how Earth functions has helped us enormously; however, it has not protected us from nature’s wrath. For instance, David A. Johnston of the U.S. Geological Survey, along with other scientists, was certain that a major eruption from Mount St. Helens would occur soon, but could not tell exactly when. When it finally erupted some eight weeks later, he was one of its victims.10

A spiritual interpretation provides another perspective: that of natural disasters being a visitation of Providence to punish errant people. But what exactly constitutes an error has never been agreed upon. On November 1, 1755, a disastrous earthquake followed by a tsunami destroyed nearly two thirds of Lisbon, despite its reputation as an extremely pious town. All of those at church were buried within the ruins.11 More recently, on December 26, 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami overwhelmed a flood of tourists in a Thai beach hotel but inflicted a heavier casualty on Aceh, a place regarded by many as the most pious in Southeast Asia. While Muslims were impressed by the survival of Banda Aceh’s Baiturrahman Great Mosque, Buddhists were equally astounded by the survival of several Buddha statues amid collapsed brick walls in Galle, southern Sri Lanka. Other religious icons were not spared. This apparent “indiscriminate” destruction of people and their property is enigmatic to many dissenting voices. How could the artifacts survive while their architects, builders, developers, and occupiers did not? Would not the world be a better place without such disasters? These, among other questions, make it untenable to account for natural disasters from an entirely spiritual framework.

Athird framework seeks to bridge the gap between the technocratic and the spiritual frameworks, one that relies on the interconnectedness between humanity and all other living things. It suggests that a proper recognition of this interconnectedness would help humanity learn from the changed behavior of some animals, whereby we could evacuate vulnerable communities beforehand. Though critical of the modern scientific solution, even this approach attributes disasters to nature. As Chandra Muzaffar states, “natural calamities are as much a part of our existence as human tragedies. They happen. We learn to live with them. And to accept them.”12

These diverse interpretations have enormous implications for the belief or disbelief in God’s existence. For atheists and pessimists, this might not pose a serious problem; on the contrary, it will be seen as evidence of the disenchantment of nature and the purposelessness of existence. As for those who believe in God’s existence and role as creator, they are faced with the conundrum of how to give a coherent account for such devastating natural events within the parameters of their optimistic outlook. In an Islamic context, how do such disasters fit into the Islamic worldview that everything has been created in due proportion and for a certain purpose? Is “chaos” purposive, intelligently designed, and diligently encoded within the cosmos? If so, how could God’s providence be better appreciated?

This study seeks to decipher the phenomenon of natural disasters within the Islamic ethico-religious perspective. To do this, two grounds are provided: One grapples with the “disaster” and the other with the “natural” nature of this phenomenon. On the first ground, based on a macroscopic perspective, I argue that when these phenomena are natural, they cannot be disastrous. On the second ground, associated with “divine moral law,” I assert that when they are disastrous, they cannot be natural; rather, they are human caused or human-exacerbated. Both accounts are grounded in the Islamic worldview provided in the first section and reinforced in the fourth section. The last section provides the implication of this line of reasoning for social and natural development.

I adopt a textual analysis approach based on event observation and decipherment and use statistics to compare the number of natural disaster casualties with that of the world death rate. The scope of the study is restricted to disasters commonly attributed to nature, such as earthquakes and floods. The phrase natural disasters is used only for the sake of convenience; otherwise, it is this very juxtaposition that I seek to disentangle.

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