The Haggadah repeatedly speaks of God’s redeeming Israel with a “strong hand.” Yet this very passage refers to another “hand,” one that chronically threatens an innocent people’s destruction “But the Holy One saves us from their hand.” But alas, God does not always “save us from their hand.” Why? Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1992), the great Modern Orthodox scholar, compared the situation to a tapestry of which we can only view the reverse side. We cannot see the totality of the design that reveals the “divine plan.”* This view evokes the image of God depicted by Isaiah: “I make peace and I make evil” (45:7).* In his modern classic, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold Kushner rejects this and says, for example, that we should not view a plane crash as an act of God. Such things “happen at random, and randomness is another name for chaos, in those corners of the universe where God’s creative light has not yet penetrated.”* Isaiah again: “We hope for light, and lo! there is darkness” (59:9).
A divine plan in which events like the Holocaust ultimately make sense is too horrifying to contemplate; those still unilluminated “corners” of the universe seem to be everywhere. A verse from Psalms helps me struggle with the question of innocent suffering. “The heaven belongs to Adonai, but the earth God gave to humanity” (Psalms 115:16). God formed us in the divine image, with free will, as creators in our own right, with ever expanding spheres of dominion. What we fashion — for good or ill — lies in our hands, not God’s. God inspires the best in us and prays that we act righteously. When we do, God’s prayers are answered.
The writer of the Letter to the Colossians, most likely a disciple of the Apostle Paul, spoke of Jesus as “the image of the invisible God (1:15). Jesus acts in ways that heal and that manifest the divine reign of mercy and justice. In him people experience redemption. Yet he does not ameliorate every suffering person or heal all the world’s ills—and he, too, suffers an ignominious death at the hands of imperial Rome. Death, however, is not the last word. In the claim that God has raised Jesus from the dead, Christians voice their belief that redemption extends beyond the realm of death.
We are meant, like those Hebrews in Egypt who groaned in slavery, to cry out for redemption. Even as we speak of Christ as our redeemer, we know that redemption is incomplete. Our world is captive to powerful forces of evil; each of us is vulnerable to this evil. In writing to the community at Rome, Paul says that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23).
God is all peace (Salaam) and wants people to live in peace with justice. God forbids people to commit oppression, corruption and mischief on earth. God does not make people to suffer, but people suffer because of their own actions. The Qur’an says: “ [Since they have become oblivious of God], corruption has appeared on land and in the sea as an outcome of what men’s hands have wrought: and so He will let them taste [the evil of] some of their doings, so that they might return [to the right path]” (30:41).
God is all powerful in Islam, but God has given free will to people and makes them responsible for their actions. Qur’anic stories of destruction are rooted in grave misdeeds by those people. For example, the destruction of Pharaoh and his armies came about from their own violent action against the Israelites. The same thing happens in the story of the people of Thamud and `Aad, who unfortunately followed the path of injustice and oppression and invited their self-destruction (7:73-79).
The problem that we face behind many of these stories is the notion of God as a rescuer and destroyer. It is God who unleashed a tornado on the wicked people and showered them with stones. It is God who caused the earth to swallow the evil ones. But then the Qur’an says that it was not God who wronged them but they wronged themselves. (29:40.)
There are two approaches to understanding this dichotomy. One is that the destruction stories in the Qur’an have limited application. The destruction came upon those communities in the presence of their prophets. More specifically, the communities or the communities’ leaders persecuted and denied their prophets, and compelled them to pray against them. These prayers were similar to Noah’s: “O my Sustainer! Leave not on earth any of those who deny the truth” (Q.,71:26).
Second, when Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his followers were persecuted, tortured and even driven out of their homes, the angels of destruction came on several occasions to allow them to destroy the Meccans and the people of Ta’if. However, Muhammad refused to do so and prayed for their safety. It is said that Muhammad prayed to God to stop destroying communities because of their sins, and God heard his prayers.
What about modern-day disasters, such as Sandy, Katrina, earthquakes and other calamities? Many Muslim scholars would say these are natural and environmental disasters, not supernatural ones. We are trustees of the Earth and should take care of it and protect it. These natural calamities teach us to preserve the environment and to humble ourselves before God and His creation by helping and standing together with those who have suffered. However there are some Muslims who would say that such disasters are caused by the sins of people.
Most Muslims are straightforward in their belief about God. They believe that God can make things happen with a simple command. Believers are thankful to God in all conditions, whether happiness or suffering. Muslims believe that everything comes from God and there is Khair (blessing-goodness) in what happens to them. A person says Al Hamdu Lillah (praise be to God) whether he/she hears a message of sorrow or happiness. Disasters and calamities teach Muslims how to be responsible – repenting, reaching out and working together to repair the wounds of humanity.
Note: Translation of the Qur’anic verses and many of the Hadith translation with references were taken from Islamicity.com; some translations of and references to the Hadith were taken from ahadith.co.uk.