Misfortune: Why do tragedies take place?
By: Ali Adam
When calamity strikes, after the initial shock there usually comes a time for contemplation and examination. During this time questions such as, “Why did this have to happen to me?” commonly arise. In addition, latent religious beliefs are brought to the fore in an attempt to cope with such calamities. These beliefs are then examined in order to attempt to explain that which has occurred. A coherent explanation is, however, often seen as remote, particularly as emotions are often charged and rationality tends to lose out at times of trial and tribulation. In taking a step back it is possible to identify the essence of the problem. The problem arises out of a broader issue and that is the attempt to reconcile the occurrence of pain and suffering with the seemingly contradictory assertion that there exists a just, good and wise God. For surely such a God would intervene and prevent such things from happening? Whilst many books has been written on this, in the short space of this article, I shall limit the discussion to misfortune (ibtila’).
As Muslims, we believe in the existence of Allah (SWT) and that He is Just: these are the first two fundamentals of the religion of Islam. This being the case, how do we reconcile the misfortune that befalls us with our view of the justice of Allah (SWT)? Since all acts emanating from Allah (SWT) are just and cannot be questioned: “He (Allah) will not be questioned about his actions and they (His servants) will be questioned.” , we must re-examine our view of the nature and reality of such misfortune.
The Absolute Dominion of Allah (SWT)
Allah (SWT) as Creator and Sustainer of everything has absolute dominion (mulk) over everything: “To Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth and what is between them; He creates whatever he wishes.” Given this fact, Allah (SWT) has the absolute right to act howsoever He wishes with regard to His creation because: “Any action of Allah (SWT) in this world is considered to be an action towards something which is from Him and belongs to Him, and no-one has any right or priority in relation to Allah.”
The Justice of Allah (SWT)
Allah’s absolute dominion and right of action over His creation does not entail that He should act unjustly towards it. On the contrary: “Allah is Just and does not act unjustly to anyone and does not do anything which goes against wisdom. So every act of creation, every provision of sustenance, every giving or withholding occurs from Allah (SWT) for good reasons even if we do not know or understand these reasons.”
The Qur’an in many verses refutes the idea that Allah (SWT) is unjust to His servants: “Whoever acts righteously it is for his own self and whoever acts ill it is against his own self and your Lord is not unjust to His servants.”
Imam Ali (AS) when asked about justice said, “Justice is that you do not accuse Allah.” This means that one cannot accuse Allah (SWT) of lack of wisdom in His acts, commands and prohibitions. An inkling of the way Allah’s justice works can be glimpsed from the story of Moses and Khidr in the Qur’an and from the following hadith about Moses:
“It is said that the Prophet Moses asked Allah to show him something of His justice that on the face of it seemed problematic. Allah ordered him to go to a well in the desert and wait to see what would happen. While he was waiting, a horseman came to drink at the well and as he was doing so, his money bag fell out onto the ground without him knowing. Then a child came and took the bag and left. Then a blind man came to make the ritual ablution at the well. The horseman returned and accused the blind man of stealing and it ended up with the horseman killing the blind man. When the horseman left, Allah revealed to Moses that the horseman had once stolen some property belonging to the father of the child and Allah wanted to return the property to the rightful heir who was the child. As for the blind man, he was the murderer of the father of the horseman and as the heir, the horseman carried out the retribution.”
The Issue of Misfortunes
There is no doubt that things exist in the world which are harmful to humanity. When such things afflict a person they are perceived as misfortunes.
One approach, popular amongst philosophers, has been to deny the reality of such misfortunes; they are merely the absence of good events. In certain cases this appears to be the case. Poverty and ignorance are actually states in which something else is lacking. Poverty is the lack of wealth and ignorance is the lack of knowledge. One does not say of a poor man that he owns something called poverty and when he becomes rich, he has lost that thing. Rather, we would say that he lacks wealth and that when he becomes rich he has gained something. Hence, scholars have reiterated that such misfortunes are non-entities.
As for other types of misfortune such as floods, earthquakes, wild beasts and poisonous creatures, they are only relatively unfortunate or are regarded as such because they lead to the lack of something else such as loss of life, limb or property.
Often the first type of misfortune is the cause of the second. For example, ignorance of the rules of basic hygiene leads to the spread of disease and microbes which, in turn, lead to illness and loss of life. It is one of the duties of humanity to use his God-given intellect to ensure that the effects of these are minimised. In the case of ignorance, for example, this would be by providing a suitable education system and in the case of poverty by providing a just social and economic system. Even the effects of earthquakes can be minimized by buildings built using technology to withstand them. If a comparison is made between Japan and Turkey, both of which are subject to earthquakes, we see that Japan has put this technology into practice and has succeeded in minimizing deaths from earthquakes. Turkey on the other hand, although having laws about the standards of buildings to be built, suffered greatly in recent earthquakes because corruption had made people ignore these laws and cut corners when erecting buildings.
Misfortune as Divine Retribution
The Qur’an brings forth many examples of this type of calamity. When people have been warned continuously by Allah’s messengers for going against divine laws or committing crimes, eventually Allah (SWT) punishes them in this world by destroying them.
Misfortune as a Test
“And We shall surely try you with something of fear and hunger and loss of property and lives and fruits; and give glad tidings to the patient ones, those who say when calamity strikes them: To Allah we belong and to Him we shall return.”
“He who created death and life to try you – which of you is best in deeds; and He is the Mighty, the Forgiving.”
This world is the place of trial and testing. Just as gold is assayed and purified by fire to burn off all impurities, so the human nafs is tried in the fire of calamity and misfortune so that it may be purified, educated and reach its full potential and perfection. Imam Ali (AS) talks about this principle when he scolds one of his governors for attending the banquets of the rich people in Basrah. Imam Ali (AS) himself made do with two slices of bread as his ration, saying, “Perhaps in Yamamah or in the Hijaz there is a person who doesn’t have a hope of eating bread.” People were astounded by this, and said, “Ali ibn Abi Talib must eat more than this.” They could not understand how Imam Ali could be like this, given his strength in battle. In response, Imam Ali (AS) presented an example from nature to show that hardship brings about great benefits: “The tree of the desert is the hardest of wood, whereas the green well-watered trees of the orchards have the thinnest of skins. The plants of the desert make the best firewood, and are the slowest to burn out.”
Drowning in ease and luxury, far from difficulties, brings about weakness and the stagnation of the human spirit whereas, if the challenge is successfully met, difficulty spurs on the human spirit and hones it to act and progress towards perfection.
Misfortune as a Sign of Allah’s Love
When Allah (SWT) wishes to show kindness and love to one of His servants, He makes him susceptible to misfortune. In a hadith of Imam al-Sadiq (AS) it is stated that, “When Allah loves one of His servants He immerses him in calamity to the utmost.” This is to aid His servant on the road to perfection and also because Allah knows that when one of the believers is tested with calamity, he will turn even more towards Allah and abase himself in front of Allah begging for His mercy.
The lack of misfortune is a sign of being far from Allah’s kindness as in the following hadith: “Once the Messenger of Allah (SAW) was invited to the house of one of the Muslims. When he arrived, he noticed a hen laying an egg on one of the walls surrounding the house. The egg either did not fall or it fell but did not break. The Messenger of Allah (SAW) was astonished at this. The man whose house it was said, ‘Are you astonished, O Messenger of Allah, for I swear by Allah who has chosen you as a Prophet, I have never been struck by any affliction.’ The Messenger of Allah (SAW) rose at once and left the house saying, “He who does not see calamity is far from Allah’s grace.”
1 The Holy Qur’an: The Prophets (21):23.
2 The Holy Qur’an: The Table Spread (5):17.
3 Divine Justice; Murtada Mutahhari; al-Dar al-Islamiyyah; Beirut; p.57.
4 Islamic Questions; Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Shirazi; Dar al-‘Ulum; Beirut 1994; p.10.
5 The Holy Qur’an: Verses Explained (41): 46.
6 Exposition of Nahj al-Balaghah; Sayyid Muhammad Shirazi; vol.4. p. 481-2.
7 Islamic Questions; Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Shirazi; Dar al-‘Ulum; Beirut 1994; p.10.
8 The Holy Qur’an: The Heifer (2):155-156.
9 The Holy Qur’an: The Dominion (67): 2.
10 Nahj al-Balaghah: Letter 45.
11 Divine Justice; Murtada Mutahhari; al-Dar al-Islamiyyah; Beirut; p.194.