“Never did We send a Prophet to any town, but We seized the people thereof with adversity and suffering, that they might become humble. Then We changed their evil condition into good until they grew in affluence and number and said, ‘Suffering and happiness betided our fathers also.’ Then We seized them suddenly, while they perceived not (1).”
Are all disasters natural, or can they be Divine punishment?
As the world and societies progress, we see that nature has its own agenda. In the last fifty years, there has been a significant increase in the number of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, hurricanes, and worldwide pandemics such as the present coronavirus. As a result of such catastrophes, man has questioned whether natural disasters have anything to do with God’s displeasure. There are two apparent schools of thought. One holds that all major calamities and disasters are the results of natural laws, and they have nothing to do with the good or evil conduct of humans. On the other hand, followers of various religions believe that whenever calamities acquire an extraordinary character, they cease to be a natural phenomenon and instead fall into the realm of punishment (2). But is it right for any religion to claim that because of the outright rejection of a Prophet of God, world calamities are a sure sign of the punishment of God? In other words, are religionists correct to wag the finger of Divine punishment at every disaster?
For both the disbelievers and the adherents of various religious dogmas, this issue has now become more critical than ever before. With the increase in natural disasters, the world is beginning to wonder if these are some form of punishment from the Divine. However, according to Islamic belief, physical reactions and changes resulting from the operation of natural laws can only be categorized as Divine intervention when they display certain identified characteristics and satisfy certain conditions. On the other hand, if these criteria do not exist, then the catastrophic event cannot be de ned as a form of Divine intervention and can only be construed as a random natural disaster. In studying the Holy Qur’an, we see a pattern that where the laws of nature sometimes serve the Will of God, the changes brought about by nature lead to reformation or betterment of a nation or people to whom it was directed (3).
At the outset, it is essential to state that natural disasters or misfortunes always occur in strict conformity with the laws of nature. The God of religion is also the God of mother nature and the cosmos. Therefore, according to the Holy Qur’an, Divine punishment always conforms with the laws of nature to reward or punish man. Regarding the punishment of man, the Holy Qur’an has mentioned various categories of Divine punishments (4).
How to distinguish between a natural disaster and Divine punishment
The foremost feature to distinguish a Divine punishment from a natural disaster is that Divine punishment is foretold before it is executed. Indeed, not only is it foretold, but the precise nature of the punishment is described in great detail.
In every case where a Divine punishment occurs, the Prophet of that people is instructed to warn his people. For example, the Prophet Noah (as) did warn his people of the ensuing flood, but they did not take heed. As a result, those that did not take shelter in the Ark that Noah (as) built were drowned.
The second sign, which distinguishes Divine punishments from natural disasters, is that the chastisement does not destroy believers along with the unbelievers. Believers are invariably saved, and the non-believers exterminated. The Holy Qur’an does mention Divine punishments afflicted on some nations, whereas a result, the believers had to also endure some suffering along with the unbelievers. However, such punishments were an exception to the rule and may have served other Divine plan (5). For example, the plague at the time of Moses (as) and also at the time of the Promised Messiah (as) killed many non-believers, but their respective followers were miraculously saved. The third distinctive feature is that after the Divine punishment has taken place, the beliefs which had predominated among the non-believers are erased, and the new ideology (that was communicated through the Divinely appointed Messenger) which had been weak and dormant, emerges victorious and rapidly ascends. For example, the religion of Moses and the Israelites rapidly emerged as did Islam after the Holy Prophet’s (sa) time. No one can possibly dispute that throughout history wherever any prophet or reformer called his people towards guidance, that Prophet or reformer initially had hardly any worldly means through which he could defeat his adversaries.
The fourth hallmark which distinguishes Divine chastisement from a natural disaster of that age is referred to in the following verse of the Holy Qur’an:
“We showed them no sign, but it was greater than its (preceding) sister (sign), and we seized them with punishment, that they might turn (away from their wickedness to us)” (6).
In other words, a gradation and arrangement prevail in Divine punishment. If a graph is drawn in the severity of Divine punishment, barring some minor ups and downs, the scale of severity of misfortunes would always incline to the more severe as time progresses, the longer the disbelievers refuse to take heed. If a people do not accept the ideology of a prophet at that age, and destruction becomes the writing on the wall for them, then the final affliction of Divine chastisement is in the severest and most decisive form. Such organized severity does not exist in ordinary disasters (7).
The fifth distinction is that ordinary disasters are not influenced by the condition of man’s heart. If feelings of regret, remorse, and repentance over past sins begin to emerge, and attitudes among the people begin to incline towards seeking forgiveness, then Divine punishment is averted. Referring to this distinctive feature, the Holy Qur’an states:
“Allah would not punish them while they sought forgiveness” (8).
In the history of past prophets, the event during the time of the Prophet Younus (Jonah) (as) represents an excellent example of this principle that in spite of having been forewarned of Divine punishment, when the people begin to seek forgiveness, the Divine punishment was averted. The final distinction of Divine punishments is that the chastisement does not happen until the chosen Prophet leaves the territory scheduled for destruction. For instance, addressing the Holy Prophet (sa), the Holy Qur’an states:
“But Allah would not punish them while thou wast among them” (9).
It is obvious that misfortunes wait for none. Therefore, those misfortunes that wait for the righteous people to leave the site and only commence once they have left are termed, in religious speech, “Divine punishments.” There are also some kinds of disasters against which no physical means of survival can be adopted. Because prophets are told in advance of such a disaster, God instructs the prophets and his righteous people to adopt certain preventative measures. Even then, the opponents, who are capable of adopting all measures available to them, find themselves unable to escape the disaster. Yet the Prophet and his companions are protected by some unknown forces.
An example of this in the history of the past prophets can be found during the time of Moses (as) when the children of Israel were instructed to adopt a solitary preventative measure, i.e., a prohibition of leavened bread. Apart from this, no other measure mentioned in ancient history was taken. In contrast, the followers of Pharaoh were at full liberty to take all known remedies to prevent an epidemic. But when some blood-related diseases began to spread amongst the people of Pharaoh, the followers of Moses (as) were not infected.
Only Pharaoh’s people largely fell victim to the epidemic while the followers of Moses (as) dwelt amongst them. Similarly, during the time of the Promised Messiah (as), another plague spread throughout the Indian subcontinent, killing millions of people.
However, the followers of the Promised Messiah (as) were saved, and in fact, they often helped bury the bodies of those that had passed away from infection by the plague.
Forms of Divine Punishment
Throughout the Holy Qur’an, numerous catastrophes have been mentioned, and the manner in which Divine punishment was meted out. The following are a few types of punishment, illustrating the point that Divine punishment does a ict those who have exceeded all bounds:
1. Continuous rain: downpour resulting in the water level rising so much so that habitations become submerged underwater:
In Surah an-Nuh, the Islamic philosophy on punishment and reward becomes very clear. The world at large knows that the deluge served as a punishment for the people of Noah (as) but is generally ignorant of the fact presented in the Holy Qur’an that the rain could also be a Divine blessing for the people. It had been decreed that the land in which the people of Noah (as) resided should have rain in abundance. The matter of whether this rain would serve as a source of blessing or punishment was left in the hands of the people of Noah (as).
In the Holy Qur’an, we read, “The people of Noah rejected the truth before them; they rejected Our servant and said: A madman spurned by our gods. He called on his Lord: I am overcome; do Thou avenge me. Thereupon, We opened the gates of heaven (the skies) with water pouring down; and We caused the earth to burst forth with springs, so the two waters met for a purpose, which had been predetermined” (10).
2. Raging Windstorms:
The blowing of fierce winds, so much so that dwellings become as ghost-towns and corpses lie over the land like uprooted trees:
“The tribe of ‘Ad also rejected the truth. How terrible then was My chastisement and My warning! We sent against them a furious wind, for a long period of time of unending ill-luck, which tore people away as though they were trunks of uprooted and hollow palm trees” (11).
“Then the promised chastisement seized them (the people of the Lot) at sunrise. We turned the city upside down, and We rained upon them stones of clay” (12).
“This wind will destroy everything by the command of its Lord in its path. And they became such by the morning that there was nothing left to be seen except their dwellings (i.e., all the people were buried under the sand). Thus, do We requite the guilty people” (13)?
“Yet they (the Saba) turned away (from the truth). So, We sent them a devastating flood, And We gave them, in exchange for their excellent gardens, two gardens bearing bitter fruit and tamarisk and a few lote trees” (14).
“But they (the tribe of Thamud) rejected him (and made false allegations against him) and hamstrung her (the she-camel which they had been told to leave alone). So, their Lord destroyed them completely because of their sin and made their destruction (overtake all of them) alike” (15).
“Say, tell me, if (all) your water was to disappear (in the depths of the earth), who then will bring you (pure) flowing water?” (16).
“Allah sets forth (for you) the parable of a city which enjoyed peace and security; its provisions came to it in plenty from every quarter; but it denied the favors of Allah, so Allah (enveloped) it in hunger and fear (which clothed it like) a garment because of what they used to do” (17).
9. Swarms of Birds:
“Then He sent swarms of birds upon their corpses, which beat (their flesh) against hard lumps of clay, and thus made them like broken straw eaten up” (18).
“Then We sent upon them the storm and the locusts, and the lice and the frogs, and the blood (these were separate) clear signs” (19).
“(Remember the time) when thy Lord proclaimed that He would surely set in authority over them, till the Day of Resurrection, those who would a afflict them with grievous torment. Thy Lord is quick in exacting retribution, and surely He is (also) Most Forgiving, Merciful” (20).
12. Nuclear warfare:
Even though nuclear warfare (and wars in general) is not considered a natural disaster, atrocities committed by man may also serve as a form of Divine punishment. While we know that the nuclear bomb had not existed during the time of the Holy Prophet (sa), the Holy Qur’an predicted this the deadliest of punishments as well:
“(We shall say unto them), Now move on towards that which you treated as a lie. Move on towards a shadow that has three aspects. Neither affording a shade nor protecting from any flame, like (huge) castles, as if they were (like) very strong ropes to tie up (large) ships. Woe on that day unto those who reject the truth” (21).
Likewise, the fear of fire that hangs as a threat in the following verse seems to relate to the contemporary age:
“Woe to every backbiter, slanderer, who amasses wealth and counts it time after time. He thinks that his wealth will make him immortal. Nay! (Most certainly it shall not be as he thinks) he shall surely cast into the hutama. And what should make thee what the hutama is? It is Allah’s kindled fire which shall reach into the deep recesses of the heart. It will be closed in on them (so that the severity of its heat should be felt even more) in extended columns” (22).
Here, the description of a kindled fire which reaches the hearts alludes to nuclear radiation, which affects internal organs. Certainly, the column-like nature of an atomic bomb after detonation is also aptly described in this verse as well.
Throughout time, natural disasters have always taken place, and they will continue to occur. It is sometimes the case that such disasters humble people as well as bring them closer to God. However, not all-natural disasters are a form of Divine punishment, which has its own set of criteria, as explained above. Divine punishment serves a very speci c purpose and is sent to those people who have been given ample warning, yet they have refused to change their ways.
Historically, we see that when people have moved far away from God, it is only then God intervenes. At that time, He appoints His vicegerent to guide them back to the right path. Those who choose to reject the message and continue in their evil ways may then be punished or altogether destroyed. They are then replaced by people who are humble and pious. As the Qur’anic verse indicates:
“We seized the people thereof with adversity and suffering, that they might become humble” (23).
This article appears in the Summer 2020 issue.
1. The Holy Qur’an (7:95-96)
2. Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, “Natural Disasters or Divine Punishment?” Review of Religions, December 1993
3. Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, “Natural Disasters or Divine Punishment?” Review of Religions, February 1994
4. Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, “Natural Disasters or Divine Punishment?” Review of Religions, February 1994
5. Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, “Natural Disasters or Divine Punishment?” Review of Religions, February 1994
6. The Holy Qur’an, (43: 49)
7. Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, “Natural Disasters or Divine Punishment?” Review of Religions, February 1994
8. The Holy Qur’an, (8: 34)
9. The Holy Qur’an (8: 34)
10. The Holy Qur’an (54:10- 13)
11. The Holy Qur’an (54: 19-21)
12. The Holy Qur’an (15: 74-75)
13. The Holy Qur’an (46: 26)
14. The Holy Qur’an (34: 17)
15. The Holy Qur’an (91: 15)
16. The Holy Qur’an (67: 31)
17. The Holy Qur’an (16:113)
18. The Holy Qur’an (105:4-6)
19. The Holy Qur’an (7:134)
20. The Holy Qur’an (7:168)
21. The Holy Qur’an (77:29-35)
22. The Holy Qur’an (104:2-10)
23. The Holy Qur’an (7:95-96)
Last modified: January 2022