Natural Hazards and Disasters
The world is anything but serene and still. We are all vulnerable to natural threats, both internal and external. Meteor showers, asteroids are only a few of the factors likely to pose threats to the world from space. As for the seemingly solid earth, the planet's interior has an inner core of molten elements. It surely would not be an exaggeration to call this part of the earth, which remains invisible to our eyes, "a flaming core". There also exists an atmosphere surrounding the earth, which is a "shield" against external threats. Yet, no part of the earth is immune against the effects of atmospheric forces like thunderstorms, storms, or hurricanes.
Natural hazards may strike at any time. They can cause considerable loss of life and property. Generally referred to as "natural" disasters, earthquakes, lightning, flash floods, global wildfires, acid rain, and tidal waves have different intensities and effects. What is common to all these disasters is that in just moments they can reduce a city, with all its inhabitants, to ruin. What is most important, no human being has the power to combat or prevent any of these hazards.
Heavy destruction is the legacy of catastrophes all over the planet. Yet, a disaster always affects only a particular region of the earth, thanks to nature's delicate balance which is a creation of Allah. A significant protection exists on earth for all living things as well as for human beings. The possibility of a devastating natural disaster always lurks in spite of this protection. Allah creates these disasters to show us how insecure our habitation can sometimes be. These outbursts of nature are reminders to all mankind that we have no control whatsoever over the planet. Likewise, each disaster serves the purpose of reminding us of our inherent weakness. These are surely warnings to those that can contemplate the significance of such events and draw lessons from the experience of others.
What other lessons should man learn from natural disasters?
The world is specially created for man. The reason why man is created is evident as the verse suggests:
"He it is who created the heavens and the earth in six Days, and His Throne was over the waters, that He might try you, which of you is best in conduct." (Surah Hud: 7)
The "setting" for this "test" is quite elaborate, however, and each event is a component of this sophisticated setting. Furthermore, none of these natural phenomena occur randomly; all have a scientific explanation. For instance, the earth's gravitational force explains why we do not drift off into space; rain falls when water vapour reaches a certain level of saturation. The same kind of causation is also valid for death, accidents or disease. Numerous causes can be cited for why a man dies, becomes sick, or has an accident. Yet, what really matters is not the number of these reasons but the "reliability" of the system these causes and their consequences rest upon. One particular aspect of this system is important; each incident proceeds in a way such that the human mind can entirely understand it. Allah warns man by means of natural disasters. An earthquake, for instance, kills thousands of women, children and young people and leaves many more injured. Those who are heedless of the warnings of Allah are prone to explain such incidents as "natural" phenomena and little understand that Allah creates these for specific purposes. Let us think for a moment: what would happen if only those who are guilty before Allah died in an earthquake? In such a case, the appropriate basis for the "test" of humankind would not be established. That is why Allah creates each phenomenon in a "natural" setting. Only those who are aware of the existence of Allah and have a deep comprehension of His creation understand the divine rationale behind this "natural" appearance.
In the verse, "Every soul shall taste death: and We test you by evil and by good by way of trial. To Us must you return," (Surat al-Anbiya: 35), Allah states that He tests man through good as well as bad events.
That many people are affected by a disaster is the riddle of this test. One should always keep in mind that Allah is the All-Knowing Judge and "the Decision between them at judgement will be in perfect justice." (Surat az-Zumar: 75).
All events happening to a person in this life are a part of the test. Those who are truly believers comprehend the essence of this riddle. Whenever a misfortune befalls them, they turn to Allah alone and repent. They are servants of Allah and are aware of the promise of Allah:
Be sure We shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods and lives and the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere, who say, when afflicted with calamity: "To Allah we belong, and to Him is our return". They are those on whom (descend) blessings from Allah, and mercy, and they are the ones that receive guidance. (Surat al-Baqarah: 155- 157)
As is stated in the verse, all people, believers and disbelievers, are tested in many ways: sometimes by natural disaster, at other times by something happening in our daily lives, a disease or an accident that befalls us. Such misfortunes strike individuals as well as societies and cause material loss along with spiritual suffering. A wealthy man may become bankrupt, a girl with good looks may receive a severe injury on the face, or a city may be reduced to rubble by an earthquake. These incidents are all clear demonstrations of how, at any moment, events can alter our lives.
People should be able to draw lessons from these events. No doubt, Allah does not create anything without a purpose; each disaster is a reminder for human beings whose purpose is to save humans from the perversity they are in. In the Qur'an, Allah says that without His leave, nothing can occur on earth:
No kind of calamity can occur, except by the leave of Allah: and if anyone believes in Allah, (Allah) guides his heart (aright): for Allah knows all things. (Surat at-Taghabun: 11)
Nor can a soul die except by Allah's leave, the term being fixed as by writing. If any desires a reward in this life, We shall give it to him; and if any desires a reward in the hereafter, We shall give it to him. And swiftly shall We reward those that (serve Us with) gratitude. (Surah Ali-'Imran: 145)
Another lesson one draws from disasters is that man, assuming himself to be mighty on earth, realises that he is simply weak and actually does not have the strength to cope with disasters, which happen in a moment by the will of Allah. Man can provide no help either to himself or to anyone else. Surely Allah is Omnipotent. This is stated in the following verse:
If Allah touch you with affliction, none can remove it but He; if He touch you with happiness, He has power over all things. (Surat al-An'am: 17)
In this chapter, a comprehensive account of types of disasters affecting the earth will be given. The purpose is to remind people that this world is not a place for which to feel blind affection. These incidents indicate how desperately we need Allah's guidance and help. This desperation is a clear statement that people are impotent before Allah. As is said in the verse; "and nor have you, besides Allah, any protector or helper." (Surat al-'Ankabut: 22)
Earthquakes are the most devastating natural forces on earth. The worst loss of life occurs during earthquakes. Research reveals that every two minutes somewhere the surface of the earth cracks. According to statistics, the earth shakes hundreds of thousands of times a year. Twenty of them are powerful earthquakes which convulse the land. Yet since they often do not hit densely populated areas, they kill few people, if any, and cause little economic loss. Only five of these earthquakes reduce buildings to heaps of rubble.
This information shows that people do not frequently encounter earthquakes. No doubt, this is Allah's special protection against disasters for humankind.
In our day, only a city or a province becomes subject to damaging earthquakes. Yet, by the will of Allah, an earthquake affecting the whole planet could happen at any time. This type of shaking of the ground could end life on earth. The structure of the earth is quite vulnerable to quakes; a sudden movement or rupture of large masses of rock within the earth's crust or upper mantle would make catastrophe inescapable.
An earthquake has no relation with the type of soil that amplifies the effects of seismic waves travelling through it. An earthquake may still occur even when the natural conditions for an earthquake do not exist. By the will of Allah, an earthquake may happen at any time. Yet, Allah specially creates insecurity and instability in some parts of the land. This is to remind people that, at any time, an unexpected incident may place their lives in jeopardy. In the Qur'an, Allah warns people against a possible calamity:
Do those who plot evil actions feel secure that Allah will not cause the earth to swallow them up or that a punishment will not come upon them from where they least expect? Or that He will not seize them on their travels, something they are powerless to prevent? Or that He will not seize them little by little? For your Lord is All-Compassionate, Most Merciful. (Surat an-Nahl: 45-47)
These earthquakes shaking the earth for only seconds can last for hours, even days. While recovering from a devastating disaster, people can suffer another. This is surely easy for Allah. However, by His mercy, Allah protects man and with such disasters reminds him, now and then, that he has no control whatsoever over his life.
At this point, it could be beneficial to remember a major earthquake, which took place in the 20th century.
Technology Defeated: Kobe
Today's advanced level of science and technology inspires man with the feeling that he has control over nature. Yet, those who are overwhelmed by such a notion may soon feel disappointment. Technology is a tool provided by Allah for the service of man and is entirely under His control. Various events show that even the most advanced technology is impotent to rule nature.
For instance, despite the "earthquake-resistant technology" developed by Japanese scientists, Kobe fell victim to widespread subsidence caused by twenty seconds of intense shock waves during the 1995 quake. The world's most earthquake-resistant structures built to withstand an intense jolt simply collapsed during a momentary 6.9 magnitude quake. During the previous three decades, the Japanese government had invested one billion dollars in academic research to develop warning systems for earthquakes. Yet, these efforts yielded no conclusive results at all. As the millennium draws to a close, scientists are still unable to devise systems to issue warnings that could reduce the destructive effects of dangerous seismic events. Kobe was a recent example, among many others, demonstrating how vulnerable to unexpected patterns of seismic hits a modern industrialised city is.
The public was reassured that modern technology developed to predict major earthquakes would save them from complete destruction. Yet, after the disaster which reduced Kobe to heaps of rubble, it became apparent that no technology had been available to alert people to the danger. It also became apparent that the so-called "quake-resistant structures" had no resistance at all to the earthquake whose epicentre was 15 miles south-west of downtown Kobe.
There are certainly lessons to be drawn from such a disaster. City-dwellers, used to leading comfortable lives, were suddenly confronted with many hardships after the disaster. In a state of shock, they were unable to figure out what to do with their lives,- let alone make plans for the future.
Typhoons, Hurricanes, Tornadoes...
Typhoons, hurricanes, and tornadoes are natural disasters that people frequently experience. These disasters and their aftermaths claim thousands of lives every year. These are very strong winds, which can cause great damage to cities, killing and injuring residents, hurling thousands of trees, huts, telephone poles, cars, and even buildings miles away.
Great typhoons in particular can cause giant sea waves to raise suddenly from the seabed. In this phenomenon, powerful storms send waves speeding at hundreds of miles per hour across the ocean against seacoasts. In such cases, water rises onto the land and heavy rains cause serious floods in delta regions.
The transformation of winds that are generally experienced as mild breezes into powerful storms capable of moving buildings no doubt forces us to look for the great power making such events happen. The same rationale discussed in the section on earthquakes is also true for typhoons, hurricanes and tornadoes: if Allah willed it so, man would very frequently be confronted by such natural disasters. While recovering from disaster, human beings could suffer another. In the Qur'an, Allah reminds man that winds are under His control:
Do you feel secure against Him Who is in heaven causing the earth to swallow you up when suddenly it rocks from side to side? Or do you feel secure against Him Who is in heaven releasing against you a sudden squall of stones, so that you will know how true My warning was? Those before them also denied but then how great was My denial! (Surat al-Mulk: 16-18)
However, Allah protects man against hazards. He only occasionally sends against them violent storms. This is surely to give man a warning. The intention is to remind people that their ultimate purpose in life is to be servants of Allah, that they are but impotent against Allah's might and that they will be judged on the day of judgement.
As well as the vibration or shaking of the ground caused by sudden movement or rupture of large masses of rock within the earth's crust or upper mantle, volcanic eruptions are another spectacular form of natural disaster. There are about 1,500 active volcanoes around the world today; 5504 of them exist on land while the remainder are under the oceans. These volcanoes can erupt at any time in extremely destructive ways that no-one can anticipate in advance. When they erupt, they can kill the residents of nearby cities in addition to destroying crops and covering farmland with ash.
Some catastrophic eruptions that took place in this century as well as earlier in history made indelible impressions on the human mind. These eruptions wiped many cities off the map and killed numerous communities.
There are certainly lessons to be drawn from the volcanic eruptions witnessed in history. Mount Vesuvius in Italy, for instance, buried Pompeii, a city whose residents led a life of total debauchery, under a storm of hot lava. It is striking that 20,000 inhabitants of this prosperous city were asphyxiated mostly by the pyroclastic flows that swept through it on the 24th August 79 CE.
In our own day, however, the dormancy of volcanoes can often end abruptly and they can explode at unexpected times shooting steam and ash thousands of feet into the air. In the meantime, pyroclastic flows sweep through areas causing irrecoverable damage to whatever they encounter. Another adverse effect of eruptions is the harmful clouds of gases and ash carried by winds into populated areas. These terrifying winds, sometimes about 90 miles per hour, set everything on fire and engulf cities like sun-extinguishing canopies.
Volcanoes are memorable not only for their tragically high death tolls but also because they erupt in extremely destructive ways that cannot be predicted. The eruption of Nevado Del Ruiz is an example. This was an eruption of minor intensity. In comparison, its intensity was only 3% of the eruption of Mount St Helens. After being dormant for 150 years, Nevado Del Ruiz erupted in 1985 melting the snow and ice on its summit. So devastating was the lahar, or river of mud, that flowed down the volcano's slopes and into the Lagunille River valley, that some 20,000 residents in Armero, Colombia perished, entombed in hot mud as they slept. This event was the worst volcanic disaster since Mount Pelee annihilated St Pierre in 1902. Mount Pelee claimed 30,000 lives when it sent a nuee ardente, or pyroclastic flow, into the town of St Pierre.6
Allah demonstrates how suddenly man can meet his death by means of such disasters and thereby calls on him to ponder the purpose of his existence on earth. These incidents send a "warning". What is expected in return from man, who can conceive of his Almighty Creator, is not to indulge distractedly in the affairs of a short life of 50-60 years and neglect the eternal life, the hereafter. We should keep in mind that death will come upon all men one day and that everybody will be judged in the presence of Allah:
One day the earth will be changed to a different earth, and so will be the heavens, and (men) will be marshalled forth, before Allah, the One, the Irresistable. (Surah Ibrahim: 48)
Seismic sea waves or tidal waves are caused by a sudden uplift or subsidence of the sea floor or by volcanic eruptions. Some tsunamis can be as destructive as atom bombs.
Allah surely creates all these disasters as "warnings" to mankind. He is exalted in power and He has power over all things. Allah testifies to this in the verse: "He has power to send calamities on you, from above and below." (Surat al-An'am: 65) That there are so many serious physical threats around the world no doubt underlines one important reality. With disasters, in only a matter of seconds Allah may take back whatever He has granted man. Catastrophes may strike anywhere at any time. This is a clear demonstration that no place exists on earth that can guarantee man's security. Allah says this in the following verse:
Do the people of the towns feel secure against the coming of Our wrath by night while they are asleep? Or else, do they feel secure against its coming in broad daylight while they play about (carefree)? Do they then feel secure against the plan of Allah But no-one can, (unwisely), feel secure from the plan of Allah, except those (doomed) to ruin! (Surat al-A'raf: 97-99)
Water, granted to man as a favour, may in times turn out a disaster by the will of Allah. It is incomprehensible that man witnesses one or two floods every year and still disregards the possibility of experiencing such a calamity himself.
A Lesson from History: The Titanic
History abounds with cases of people relying on technological breakthroughs and totally disregarding the might of Allah. That is exactly why many disasters have gone down in history as painful lessons for everyone. Each one of these events is important in the sense that it reminds man that neither wealth nor power, science nor technology has any power to resist the will of Allah.
Numerous examples of such incidents can be given. The best known is the famous Titanic, a huge ocean liner 55 meters in height and 275 meters in length, which sank nearly ninety years ago. The Titanic, intended to be an "assault on nature", was a grand project that employed a team of engineers and as many as five thousand people. Almost everybody was absolutely convinced that this ship would never sink. The ocean liner was a masterpiece of technology with many engineering advances that pushed back the limits of its day. Yet those who relied on the technical prowess of the ship did not take into consideration one important fact stated in the verse "The command of Allah is a decree that is made absolute" (Surat al-Ahzab 38) and that everyone will sooner or later meet his fate. Eventually, a minor failure led to the sinking of the ship and advanced technology could not save the Titanic from her bitter end.
From what the survivors of Titanic related, the majority of her passengers gathered on the deck to pray when they realised the ship was about to sink. In many sections of the Qur'an, this tendency of human behaviour is repeated. In times of serious trouble and danger, man sincerely prays and seeks the help of his Creator. However, when delivered from danger, they immediately turn away in ungratefulness:
Your Lord is He that made the ship go smoothly for you through the sea, in order that you may seek of his bounty. For He is unto you most Merciful. When distress seizes you at sea, those that you call upon – beside Him – leave you in the lurch! But when He brings you back safe to land, you turn away (from Him). Most ungrateful is man! Do you then feel secure that He will not cause you to be swallowed up beneath the earth when you are on land, or that He will not send against you a violent tornado (with showers of stones) so that you shall find no-one to carry out your affairs for you? Or do you feel secure that He will not send you back a second time to sea and send against you a heavy gale to drown you because of your ingratitude, so that you find no helper therein against Us? (Surat al-Isra: 66- 69)
One might never have experienced such a disaster, yet one should always remember that, at any time, one may find life stripped to its fundamentals. Accordingly, man should always occupy himself with the remembrance of Allah since "the power is wholly Allah's." (Surat al-Baqarah: 165) On the other hand, once a catastrophe strikes, one might not have the opportunity to change his ungrateful attitude towards Allah and seek to repent to Him. Death may be very sudden:
Do they see nothing in the government of the heavens and the earth and all that Allah has created? (Do they not see) that it may well be that their terms are nigh drawing to an end? In what message after this will they then believe? (Surat al-A'raf: 185)
By the Mercy of Allah
Each one of them We seized for his crime: against some of them We sent a violent tornado (with showers of stones); some were caught by a (mighty) blast; some We caused the earth to swallow up; and some We drowned (in the waters): It was not Allah who injured (or oppressed) them; They injured (and oppressed) their own souls. (Surat al-'Ankabut: 40)
What has been discussed so far is intended to remind those who forget their purpose in creation of an important fact: everything on earth owes its existence to Allah, the Creator who has created the entire material universe. In other words, everything's existence is consequent upon the exercise of the will of Allah. Therefore, nothing has a being separate and apart from Allah. The Qur'an tells us that nothing is beyond Allah's control: "Allah has full power and control over His affair; but most of mankind know it not." (Surah Yusuf: 21)
Nevertheless, as Allah makes clear in the second part of the verse, the majority of people are not aware of this. They assume, during the course of their lives, that no misfortune whatsoever will befall them, never thinking that they too are vulnerable to any of those devastating disasters. We feel that "others" experience such terrifying incidents and that "we" will always live in safety. News about disasters, accidents or epidemics surely makes us feel sympathy for the sufferers. We indeed share their sorrow; however, as disasters recede into memory, we become less concerned and such an attitude proves to be a passing interest for us. Once we immerse ourselves in the flow of daily life or face personal problems, we quickly develop a sense of apathy and remain indifferent to those who have been through disaster.
Nevertheless, the notion that every day of one's life will be the same is a flawed one. This is evident from the warnings of Allah. Certainly, those people who were exposed to various disasters did not know that a natural hazard would throw their life into complete disarray. They certainly started that day as an ordinary one, thinking that it would be the same as the preceding ones. However, it turned out to be totally different. Most probably, it never occurred to them that, on that particular day there would be a drastic change in their lives, which would transform life into a dangerous struggle. On such occasions, lives are reduced to their simplest truths. Surely, this is how Allah reminds man that security in this world is a sham.
A majority of people pay no heed to this, however. They forget that life is short and temporary and disregard that they will be judged in the presence of Allah. In this state of heedlessness, they spend their lives in pursuit of vain desires instead of living for the good pleasure of Allah.
Viewed from this standpoint, troubles are a mercy of Allah. Allah demonstrates the true nature of this world and encourages man to be prepared for the next life. That is why what is said to be a misfortune is in fact an opportunity offered by Allah. These misfortunes are given to people so that they may seek to repent and amend their conduct. The lessons that should be drawn from disasters are related in one of the verses:
See they not that they are tried every year once or twice? Yet they turn not in repentance, and they take no heed. (Surat at-Tawbah: 126)
1. A. Maton, J. Hopkins, S. Johnson, D. LaHart, M.Quon Warner, J.D. Wright, Human Biology and Health, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, p.59.
2. J.A.C. Brown, Medical and Health Encyclopaedia, Remzi Publishing, Istanbul, p.250.
3. H.J. de Blij, M.H. Glantz, S.L. Harris, Restless Earth, The National Geographic Society, 1997, p.8.
4. Ibid., p.8.
5. Ibid., p. 64.
6. Ibid., p.18-19.
7. Ibid., p.64.
8. The Guinness Book of Amazing Nature, p.60.
9. H.J. de Blij, M.H. Glantz, S.L. Harris, Restless Earth, The National Geographic Society, 1997, p.105.
10. National Geographic, July 1988, p.29.