This article is the transcription of a lecture delivered by His Eminence Allama Shaykh Yasser Al-Habib
Atheists often challenge believers with this question: "If God exists and is just and merciful, then why do we see these huge disasters' happening in the world such as earthquakes, floods and storms which kill thousands of innocent victims – including children who are not to blame for anything – which turn the lives of survivors into hell because of the loss of their possessions or because they become handicapped? What have those innocent people done wrong and why do they face this evil. Is God evil?"
Through this argumentative question atheists try to make believers doubt God's existence in spite of the fact that this question is inherently devoid of any scientific parameters and stems from an imbalanced view of natural occurrences.
Attributing evil to these occurrences is only linked to some of their effects upon the life of a group of individuals when they are struck by certain losses. This is just part of the many effects of these occurrences some of which are positive, useful or beneficial to human life so is it fair to generalise about the negative effects of these occurrences and mislead others into thinking that they are "purely evil"?
Let us look at the matter with greater objectivity and consider a few examples. When there is a severe flood of one of the great rivers in Africa, for example, the villages surrounding the river are submerged under water, people die, houses and possessions are destroyed, and families are made homeless. Here the inhabitants of these villages think that the flood was evil from their point of view and wish that it had not happened.
But at the same time, because of the flood, fresh water reaches distant villages the inhabitants of which are dying of hunger and poverty, barren earth is watered, plants grow, agricultural yield increases, the hungry are fed, people's income increases, buying and selling increases, wealth suddenly falls upon the landowners, homes prosper and families are happy. Here the inhabitants of this village consider the flood to be "good" for them and thank God for its occurrence.
When there is an extremely violent wind, some of the coasts are hit. Coastal villages are harmed, individuals die, houses are destroyed and so on…According to the people of these villages the storm is "evil". However, at the same time this violent wind is what moves sailing ships on the ocean saving those on board from being drowned and it is this same violent wind which forms the clouds the water of which later falls as rain on various lands, watering the earth.
It is this same violent wind which turns windmill bringing wealth and sustenance to their owners. It is this same violent wind which maintains the temperature of planet earth, keeping it level and preventing it from rising through layers of cloud which it pushes up towards the sky and which help repair the ozone layer. It is this very thing which causes fruit and flowers to be pollinated. It is this very thing which disperses smoke and poisonous gases emitted by factories concentrated in industrial cities and their surroundings, cleaning up the air and saving mankind from cancerous illnesses, lung disease and birth defects resulting from parents' inhaling toxic fumes…and so on. Here, this wind is good for all those people.
When there is a severe earthquake in a region people on that side die and their possessions are destroyed and so on…Here this earthquake is "evil" from their point of view but at the same time, this earthquake is what prevents the level of the earth's crust from sinking to such a level that the sea covers hundreds and maybe thousands of villages something which leads to loss of life given that the sea level throughout the world is rising every day.
Earthquakes lift the hard layers under the earth through subterranean volcanoes which balances out the rise in sea level. Through this human life is saved on the face of the earth. Earthquakes restore the chemical order of the planet. The earth needs to pass through the earthquake system to balance the chemical components of gases and other elements essential to the presence of life on the face of this planet. Essentially, earthquakes are what made these continents upon which we live today and they continue to form islands in the oceans through what lava volcanoes spit out which solidifies and becomes crust.
Similarly, these earthquakes are themselves are what lead to minerals and precious metals such as gold and silver being forced out to the surface of the earth which leads to mankind's prosperity and the turning of the wheel of economic growth internationally. Here these earthquakes are "good" for these people.
So we cannot pass judgement on these natural occurrences and say that they are "pure evil" as a result of a narrow view of some of their negative effects on some people because if we were to take a broader view of their effects we would find a lot of good and positive benefits on many levels. In fact, we would understand that they are necessary to ensure that life remains on our planet.
The matter is all relative. What is "evil" for some people as a result of these occurrences is at the same time "good" for other people. It is not fair for man to look at these occurrences selfishly. This would be like the proverbial man who passes along a street and sees a digger digging up the ground, making a cloud of dust and rubble in the air as well as stopping traffic in the street and sees the consequences of that by way of loud noise which affects local residents. He describes what is happening as bad and harmful work without realising that what the digger is doing is preparing for the construction of a great school or large hospital in which the sick will be treated and people's lives will be saved.
The matter is relative. Even light which we consider to be one of the greatest benefits there is – for without it we would not be able to see anything and we would not even have any life at all – is considered by the bat to be "bad" for it because it leads to loss of vision preventing it from moving about and it is forced to hide in caves waiting for darkness to fall which is "good" for it. So it is not right for us to pass summary judgement on natural phenomena just as we cannot generalise about them, clinging to one of their negative effects while ignoring some of the great positive effects hidden in them.
This is the first thing. As for the second thing, many natural disasters which occur today are man made because of his destruction of planet earth's natural order. Carrying out nuclear tests, waging lots of wars, not putting a stop to smoke emissions and interference in natural systems are what have led to the catastrophes which we witness today and which threaten life on our planet, [catastrophes] such as global warming, the dissipation of the ozone layer, the melting of the polar ice caps, rising sea levels and scarcity of drinking water etc.
All of these contribute to the lack of natural stability which suddenly generates one of those disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes. Why do we blame God for that when we ought to blame ourselves and curb our appetites which lust after money and riches at the expense of the survival of life on earth.
There remains a question which needs an answer. This question says, "Fine…We accept that natural and environmental phenomena in addition to causing some negative effects also cause great positive effects but what have those innocent people who fall victim to these disasters and die or are injured or become disabled done to deserve it? What has the child done to deserve to die under the rubble? The answer to this question can be summed up in the following points:
The innocent are not to blame at all. We find that what may be considered to be an "evil" thing which happened to them is in fact "good" for them if we think about it carefully as Allah Almighty said: "…but it may happen that ye hate a thing which is good for you" (Al-Baqara (The Heifer): verse 216).
The person who dies in an earthquake for example goes straight to Heaven and he realises that the reason for his immediate passage there is this calamity he had faced in this trial and that had it not been for it, he may have been granted the opportunity to live on and to deviate from Allah's Path and after that to face punishment and torment…This person, when he sees the eternal heavenly blessing thanks Almighty Allah a million times for making him face that trial and that earthquake thus allowing him to receive all that blessing.
It is true that the child who dies under rubble suffers during the moments before his death. However, when he passes to the afterlife and realises that had he been granted the opportunity to live on and grow up, he may have decided not to believe in God Almighty or to stray from His Path. This child realises at this point that his death at this early age was a blessing or bounty bestowed by God Almighty upon him.
As we said, it is not right that we should look at things narrow-mindedly. We have to look to the end result achieved by that innocent through dying in a natural disaster. Is this end result not millions of times greater than being exposed to Hellfire and eternity in it?
On many occasions as reported on the authority of the Imams of Ahl al-Bayt (Peace be upon Them), the catastrophe which befalls a human being is equivalent to a pardon for his sins and correction to his course.
This disobedient, errant human (in God's sight) who when a natural disaster befalls him which results in his being unable to walk, for example, reflects upon himself, returns to the Path, seeks forgiveness and repairs his relationship with God Almighty and with people so he does not oppress anyone or take away anyone's right.
This is better than the person's remaining disobedient so that he ultimately dies in that state, facing eternal punishment, just as it is better than the person's continuing to oppress others without his being struck by anything in the world which straightens him out and makes him back away from oppression and going astray.
Natural disasters when they occur serve to wake people up from their apathy and make them understand that there is no other recourse for mankind than to turn back to Allah. This is a benefit which outweighs the loss of some of man's limbs or possessions. Everything in the world pales in comparison because it is nothing but a temporary stage through which man lives for a period of normally no more than a hundred years.
When a doctor treats a cancer patient he will in many instances be forced to cut off his leg, for example. We cannot describe this act as evil or harmful because the doctor focuses on what takes priority and is more important than preserving this leg and that is preserving the life of the person himself because if the leg were to remain attached, the cancer would spread to the rest of the body which would lead to the loss of this person's life.
This is the way it is with Almighty Allah. When a natural disaster occurs, what it brings about by way of some people's losing limbs or possessions is in fact a means of protecting what comes first and is more important in their lives in this world and in the hereafter.
If we were to study history, we would find that when natural disasters strike mankind they play a part in creating an outlet for their potential and for an increase in their productivity. The survivors are themselves the ones who, after disaster strikes, strengthen their resolve towards progress and success.
It is for this reason that we find that many human renaissances came only after disasters or wars given the fact that those disasters change a stagnant way of life and plant the seeds of competition and stimulation in people's souls, making them freer to launch into life's domains and to advance in them.
So often we find that the greatest and most ingenious scientists were among those who had experienced direct loss by way of loss of loved ones or of their limbs or of their possessions at the time when disasters struck. They then think seriously about advancing mankind by protecting them from disasters and wars and this is a very positive goal.
Life without problems or disasters is nothing but stagnant life which pushes a person towards anonymity and resignation and does not push him towards progress because necessity is the mother of invention. This is why we find that responsible parents hand their children over to the real world along with all its problems so that they can learn to face life and to progress in life.
This is why they bring up good and productive children. As for parents who spoil their children and do their utmost to keep them far away from the thick of life's problems, they hand over to society children who are spoiled nobodies who cause trouble and are not bothered about anything else other than frequenting public houses and brothels and have no goal in life whatsoever.
If we were to study history as well, we would find that many of man's systems set up to run this world in accordance with justice and equality are only set up after disasters and wars for they are like alarm bells which make people respect each other and they set up relations and new systems to govern them built on a foundation of justice, equality and human rights. Disasters make them think again about the meaning of living together and the necessity of mankind's supporting each other, side by side, compensating for the loss of lives and possessions.