By Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
October 29, 2015
When the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck at the heart of Nepal in April this year, leaving over 9,000 dead and injuring over 2,300, orthodox Buddhists and Hindus blamed karma and the ‘sinfulness’ of people for the disaster. Rituals were organised to please the deities, with many focusing on Brahma, who ‘created the world’ and hence ‘can save lives as well’. Orthodox Buddhists sought Avalokiteshvara’s help with the ‘heart mantra’ Om mane padme hum ubiquitously recited.
Clearly, there was a significant chunk of the Nepalese population that was busy pleasing ostensibly infuriated deities, when a lot of that effort could’ve been dedicated to work on minimising the damage through awareness related to earthquake aftermaths. This was despite the fact that neither Buddhism nor Hinduism is monotheistic, unlike the Abrahamic religions, wherein an omnipotent deity takes the credit, or blame, for everything.
When the 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck Afghanistan, India and Pakistan on Monday, reminding many of the horrors of 2005, many Islamic scholars similarly queued up to scorn at the ‘sinfulness’ of the masses and warned against the wrath of Allah. An ‘investigative journalist’ of a top media house in Pakistan asked people to repent because wherever “sins become a norm… earthquakes are the ultimate result”. Ironically, the same tweet went on to ask the media to ‘educate people’ about earthquakes.
Islamic scriptures, much like any other religious text, present an antediluvian view on natural disasters, dubbing them a manifestation of Allah’s anger and punishment for sins. Surah An-Nahl, verse 45, for example reads: “Do then those who devise evil plots feel secure that Allah will not sink them into the earth, or that the torment will not seize them from directions they perceive not?”
The phenomenon and raison d’etre of natural disasters like earthquakes are discussed in many other chapters of the Quran, including Surat Az-Zalzalah (The Chapter of the Earthquake).
Similarly, it isn’t uncommon in the Muslim world for the Islamic clergy to cite hadiths and blame the ‘immodesty of women’ as being directly responsible for earthquakes. Women ‘wearing perfumes’ and being ‘immodestly dressed’ are accused of invoking ‘Allah’s rage’ who in turn shakes the earth to cause destruction as punishment. ‘Adultery’, alcoholism and listening to music are also cited as earthquake-causing acts by numerous Islamic scholars.
“Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes,” said Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi in 2010 following a prediction by the then Iran president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that an earthquake would hit Tehran. “There is no other solution but to take refuge in religion and to adapt our lives to Islam’s moral codes,” was Sedighi’s answer to earthquakes, something that has been echoed my many religious scholars in Pakistan and the Muslim world.
The Jewish Talmud makes similar claims: “Elijah [the prophet] of blessed memory asked R. Nehorai, “Why do earthquakes occur?” He said to him, “On account of the sins of [those who do not separate] heave offerings and tithes [from their produce].” It further reserves special mention for ‘homosexual acts’: “[The earth quakes] on account of the sin of homosexual acts. God said, ‘You made your genitals throb in an unnatural act. By your life, I shall shake the earth on account of [the act of] this person’”.
The New Testament also creates the image of a vengeful deity in Luke 21:11, “…and there will be great earthquakes, and in various places plagues and famines; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.”
While the ‘religiously inclined’ resorted to the millennia old tradition of stroking fear on behalf of the ‘Almighty’, a counternarrative rebuked the ‘mullahs’ for spread misinformation and insulting the victims – most of whom were poor people – by accusing them of being sinners. However, what this counternarrative lacks – albeit understandably so – is the acknowledgement that the outmoded views on the earthquakes perpetuated by the ‘mullahs’ trace their origin in religious scriptures. Islamic clerics blame ‘sins’ or ‘immodest women’ for earthquakes, not because of a myth or commonly misunderstood tradition – unless one deems religious scriptures as such – but simply because that is precisely what is being taught to the clergymen via Islamic text.
This is not to suggest that eradication, or overhaul, of religious scriptures is needed to overcome this spread of ignorance. All that is needed is the establishment of a mechanism wherein whenever science and religion come at loggerheads – as they regularly do – preference needs to be given to the relevant authority.
Everyone who’s a part of the counternarrative that rebuffs religion’s take on natural disasters – and not necessarily by calling out religion – needs to embrace and propagate this simple reality: that the science depicted in all religious scriptures is in accordance with the era and the location wherein the text is proclaimed to have been revealed. In simple words, the only way the counternarrative will successfully replace the religious narrative in the long run is if it is backed with the factual assertion of the scriptures’ datedness.
This is precisely how other religious communities have successfully dealt with the perpetual war between orthodox religion and science, and reformed their viewpoint on religion without necessitating the complete abandonment of the ideology they were born into. The problem that’s plaguing progress in the Muslim world, and preventing ‘reform in Islam’, is the identical adherence to Islamic scriptures, of both the moderate and radical Muslims, as the infallible and eternal word of the deity. Once the inertial resistance to reform and revisit ‘the perfect text’ is overcome, progressive ideals and contemporary ideas will naturally spread in the Muslim world.
There are extremists, conservatives and clergypersons in all religions all over the world vying to propagate primitive ideas that contradict science and modern-day sensibilities. The reason why they’re more prevalent in the Muslims world can’t solely be pinned down to socio-economic conditions, or ramifications of war – wherein religion has played its due part. The disparity in the theological viewpoints between ‘moderates’ of other religious communities and the Muslim world is a major cause fueling the aforementioned inertia against intellectual progress.
Religion, when considered a personal belief-system and not a divine rallying cause, can – and does – help many around the world overcome tragedies like earthquakes. Psychologists around the world have confirmed through multiple researches that the belief in a deity significantly reduces chances of stress and depression and can generate more optimism. What the progressive-minded in the Muslim world need to introduce are ideas and policies that makes religion an individual’s prerogative, which should not in any way be a part of governmental, judicial or societal policymaking.