By Ziauddin Sardar
August 12, 2008
Now I feel equipped to tackle Brian's second question. He raises one of the enduring questions of the human condition when he asks why the idyllic picture I have laid out also includes the trauma of natural disasters which so often overwhelm communities with death and devastation. It seems to me that the power of nature is indeed part of the majesty of God.
But recognising this is neither a fatalistic acceptance that disasters happen nor does it amount to supporting the idea of natural disasters as punishments from God.
First, we have to be clear what we are talking about. Often what we call natural disasters have a large manmade element to them. The human failure to be aware of or respect the laws of nature, or the effects of human greed, environmental degradation and irresponsible activity can hardly be blamed on God when they devastate our lives. The damage caused by flooding is not an act of God when we have built communities on flood plains and concreted over green fields that would allow excess water to run off.
The same is true of droughts. If land is overexploited, trees cut down and no systems maintained to store up resources in good years against the regular occurrence of lean years, who is to be blamed? And as we know, or should know by now, drought and famine are functions of poverty, human injustice and inequity. There is never a total lack of food either in one country or in the world as a whole but there most certainly exists the lack of ability to purchase food in lean times among the poorest and most vulnerable, and it is they who pay the price in suffering.
Second, the awesome power of nature is a reality, but a reality, as I have emphasised, that we are commended to study and seek to understand. Earthquakes happen. Yet many cultures, traditional ones as well as those at the cutting edge of modern science and technology, have mastered techniques to construct buildings that do not collapse in even the strongest earthquakes. Think of the walls of Inca towns built with what we would call rudimentary tools yet still standing long after we have destroyed the culture that made them and with it the knowledge, understanding and respect for nature it included. We have acquired the knowledge base and capacity, for example, to create tsunami warning systems - but not the social and economic justice to ensure all those vulnerable are warned and protected.
Third, I take the idea of respect for the powers of nature, the need to study and attempt to understand them and then to organise our social and economic systems prudently to account for those awesome powers, to be the essence of the concept of khilafa. The whole point about the Qur'an is that it tries to make us use joined up thinking. So the power of nature cannot be considered separately from how we interact with nature. The emphasis the Qur'an places on justice and equity requires us to give equal amounts of care for the environment and for the welfare of each and every human being. These are our non-negotiable duties which permit us to live harmoniously with nature and each other.
However, I have to add one other point, a theme we have already encountered in the Qur'an: the concept of risk. Human beings are not omnipotent but limited, intelligent and perfectible as moral beings but never as omniscient beings - God alone knows all. So, for me, there never will be a time when we fully understand all the powers of nature nor will we ever be able to control those powers completely. There will always be risk, the risk of being taken unawares by the action of natural forces, subject to disaster.
What the Qur'an teaches is that in the face of risk the right action is to ensure the danger is shared as equitably as possible and that we must accept the responsibility and duty of care for those overtaken by disaster and the troubles it brings. This is not a counsel of "just sit back and take it", nor the uncaring vengeance of a wilful, cruel God. It is the corollary, not always easy to accept, of being created with free will and given the liberty to exist and make our own way in an ordered universe of awesome power. It would be so much easier, I accept, to live in a cotton-wool world. We don't and looking for someone or something to blame, as far as I'm concerned, is a complete distraction from the essential business of doing everything we can to make the best possible of the world we inhabit.