The world is anything but serene and still. We are all vulnerable to natural threats, both internal and external. Meteor showers, asteroids are only a few of the factors likely to pose threats to the world from space. As for the seemingly solid earth, the planet's interior has an inner core of molten elements. It surely would not be an exaggeration to call this part of the earth, which remains invisible to our eyes, "a flaming core". There also exists an atmosphere surrounding the earth, which is a "shield" against external threats. Yet, no part of the earth is immune against the effects of atmospheric forces like thunderstorms, storms, or hurricanes.
Natural hazards may strike at any time. They can cause considerable loss of life and property. Generally referred to as "natural" disasters, earthquakes, lightning, flash floods, global wildfires, acid rain, and tidal waves have different intensities and effects. What is common to all these disasters is that in just moments they can reduce a city, with all its inhabitants, to ruin. What is most important, no human being has the power to combat or prevent any of these hazards.
Heavy destruction is the legacy of catastrophes all over the planet. Yet, a disaster always affects only a particular region of the earth, thanks to nature's delicate balance which is a creation of Allah. A significant protection exists on earth for all living things as well as for human beings. The possibility of a devastating natural disaster always lurks in spite of this protection. Allah creates these disasters to show us how insecure our habitation can sometimes be. These outbursts of nature are reminders to all mankind that we have no control whatsoever over the planet. Likewise, each disaster serves the purpose of reminding us of our inherent weakness. These are surely warnings to those that can contemplate the significance of such events and draw lessons from the experience of others.
What other lessons should man learn from natural disasters?
The world is specially created for man. The reason why man is created is evident as the verse suggests:
"He it is who created the heavens and the earth in six Days, and His Throne was over the waters, that He might try you, which of you is best in conduct." (Surah Hud: 7)
The "setting" for this "test" is quite elaborate, however, and each event is a component of this sophisticated setting. Furthermore, none of these natural phenomena occur randomly; all have a scientific explanation. For instance, the earth's gravitational force explains why we do not drift off into space; rain falls when water vapour reaches a certain level of saturation. The same kind of causation is also valid for death, accidents or disease. Numerous causes can be cited for why a man dies, becomes sick, or has an accident. Yet, what really matters is not the number of these reasons but the "reliability" of the system these causes and their consequences rest upon. One particular aspect of this system is important; each incident proceeds in a way such that the human mind can entirely understand it. Allah warns man by means of natural disasters. An earthquake, for instance, kills thousands of women, children and young people and leaves many more injured. Those who are heedless of the warnings of Allah are prone to explain such incidents as "natural" phenomena and little understand that Allah creates these for specific purposes. Let us think for a moment: what would happen if only those who are guilty before Allah died in an earthquake? In such a case, the appropriate basis for the "test" of humankind would not be established. That is why Allah creates each phenomenon in a "natural" setting. Only those who are aware of the existence of Allah and have a deep comprehension of His creation understand the divine rationale behind this "natural" appearance.
In the verse, "Every soul shall taste death: and We test you by evil and by good by way of trial. To Us must you return," (Surat al-Anbiya: 35) , Allah states that He tests man through good as well as bad events.
That many people are affected by a disaster is the riddle of this test. One should always keep in mind that Allah is the All-Knowing Judge and "the Decision between them at judgement will be in perfect justi ce." (Surat az-Zumar: 75).
All events happening to a person in this life are a part of the test. Those who are truly believers comprehend the essence of this riddle. Whenever a misfortune befalls them, they turn to Allah alone and repent. They are servants of Allah and are aware of the promise of Allah:
Be sure We shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods and lives and the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere, who say, when afflicted with calamity: "To Allah we belong, and to Him is our return". They are those on whom (descend) blessings from Allah, and mercy, and they are the ones that receive guidance. (Surat al-Baqarah: 155- 157)
As is stated in the verse, all people, believers and disbelievers, are tested in many ways: sometimes by natural disaster, at other times by something happening in our daily lives, a disease or an accident that befalls us. Such misfortunes strike individuals as well as societies and cause material loss along with spiritual suffering. A wealthy man may become bankrupt, a girl with good looks may receive a severe injury on the face, or a city may be reduced to rubble by an earthquake. These incidents are all clear demonstrations of how, at any moment, events can alter our lives.
People should be able to draw lessons from these events. No doubt, Allah does not create anything without a purpose; each disaster is a reminder for human beings whose purpose is to save humans from the perversity they are in. In the Qur'an, Allah says that without His leave, nothing can occur on earth:
No kind of calamity can occur, except by the leave of Allah: and if anyone believes in Allah, (Allah) guides his heart (aright): for Allah knows all things. (Surat at-Taghabun: 11)
Nor can a soul die except by Allah's leave, the term being fixed as by writing. If any desires a reward in this life, We shall give it to him; and if any desires a reward in the hereafter, We shall give it to him. And swiftly shall We reward those that (serve Us with) gratitude. (Surah Ali-'Imran: 145)
Another lesson one draws from disasters is that man, assuming himself to be mighty on earth, realises that he is simply weak and actually does not have the strength to cope with disasters, which happen in a moment by the will of Allah. Man can provide no help either to himself or to anyone else. Surely Allah is Omnipotent. This is stated in the following verse:
If Allah touch you with affliction, none can remove it but He; if He touch you with happiness, He has power over all things. (Surat al-An'am: 17)
In this chapter, a comprehensive account of types of disasters affecting the earth will be given. The purpose is to remind people that this world is not a place for which to feel blind affection. These incidents indicate how desperately we need Allah's guidance and help. This desperation is a clear statement that people are impotent before Allah. As is said in the verse; "and nor have you, besides Allah, any protector or helper." (Surat al-'Ankabut: 22)
Earthquakes are the most devastating natural forces on earth. The worst loss of life occurs during earthquakes. Research reveals that every two minutes somewhere the surface of the earth cracks. According to statistics, the earth shakes hundreds of thousands of times a year. Twenty of them are powerful earthquakes which convulse the land. Yet since they often do not hit densely populated areas, they kill few people, if any, and cause little economic loss. Only five of these earthquakes reduce buildings to heaps of rubble.
This information shows that people do not frequently encounter earthquakes. No doubt, this is Allah's special protection against disasters for humankind.
In our day, only a city or a province becomes subject to damaging earthquakes. Yet, by the will of Allah, an earthquake affecting the whole planet could happen at any time. This type of shaking of the ground could end life on earth. The structure of the earth is quite vulnerable to quakes; a sudden movement or rupture of large masses of rock within the earth's crust or upper mantle would make catastrophe inescapable.
An earthquake has no relation with the type of soil that amplifies the effects of seismic waves travelling through it. An earthquake may still occur even when the natural conditions for an earthquake do not exist. By the will of Allah, an earthquake may happen at any time. Yet, Allah specially creates insecurity and instability in some parts of the land. This is to remind people that, at any time, an unexpected incident may place their lives in jeopardy. In the Qur'an, Allah warns people against a possible calamity:
Do those who plot evil actions feel secure that Allah will not cause the earth to swallow them up or that a punishment will not come upon them from where they least expect? Or that He will not seize them on their travels, something they are powerless to prevent? Or that He will not seize them little by little? For your Lord is All-Compassionate, Most Merciful. (Surat an-Nahl: 45-47)
These earthquakes shaking the earth for only seconds can last for hours, even days. While recovering from a devastating disaster, people can suffer another. This is surely easy for Allah. However, by His mercy, Allah protects man and with such disasters reminds him, now and then, that he has no control whatsoever over his life.
At this point, it could be beneficial to remember a major earthquake, which took place in the 20 th century.
Technology Defeated: Kobe
Today's advanced level of science and technology inspires man with the feeling that he has control over nature. Yet, those who are overwhelmed by such a notion may soon feel disappointment. Technology is a tool provided by Allah for the service of man and is entirely under His control. Various events show that even the most advanced technology is impotent to rule nature.
For instance, despite the "earthquake-resistant technology" developed by Japanese scientists, Kobe fell victim to widespread subsidence caused by twenty seconds of intense shock waves during the 1995 quake. The world's most earthquake-resistant structures built to withstand an intense jolt simply collapsed during a momentary 6.9 magnitude quake. During the previous three decades, the Japanese government had invested one billion dollars in academic research to develop warning systems for earthquakes. Yet, these efforts yielded no conclusive results at all. As the millennium draws to a close, scientists are still unable to devise systems to issue warnings that could reduce the destructive effects of dangerous seismic events. Kobe was a recent example, among many others, demonstrating how vulnerable to unexpected patterns of seismic hits a modern industrialised city is.
The public was reassured that modern technology developed to predict major earthquakes would save them from complete destruction. Yet, after the disaster which reduced Kobe to heaps of rubble, it became apparent that no technology had been available to alert people to the danger. It also became apparent that the so-called "quake-resistant structures" had no resistance at all to the earthquake whose epicentre was 15 miles south-west of downtown Kobe.
Kobe, Japan's second most densely populated industrialised city and most important port after Tokyo. At 5:46 am on the 17th January 1995, twenty seconds of intense shock waves caused appalling damage. Only twenty seconds and everything people had toiled their whole lives to possess was destroyed.
The region affected by the earthquake included the populous cities of Kobe and Osaka. That is why appalling damage occurred, leaving 5,200 people dead and another 300,000 injured. The total damage was put at 200 billion dollars. 3
There are certainly lessons to be drawn from such a disaster. City-dwellers, used to leading comfortable lives, were suddenly confronted with many hardships after the disaster. In a state of shock, they were unable to figure out what to do with their lives,- let alone make plans for the future.
Typhoons, Hurricanes, Tornadoes...
Typhoons, hurricanes, and tornadoes are natural disasters that people frequently experience. These disasters and their aftermaths claim thousands of lives every year. These are very strong winds, which can cause great damage to cities, killing and injuring residents, hurling thousands of trees, huts, telephone poles, cars, and even buildings miles away.
Great typhoons in particular can cause giant sea waves to raise suddenly from the seabed. In this phenomenon, powerful storms send waves speeding at hundreds of miles per hour across the ocean against seacoasts. In such cases, water rises onto the land and heavy rains cause serious floods in delta regions.
In February 1988, a hurricane caused extensive damage when it struck Florida. The hurricane demolished buildings and hurled automobiles onto buildings. Automobiles and households scattered by the hurricane.
A tornado big enough to sweep away homes and reduce a whole city to rubble. In February 1988, after a hurricane's passing in Florida, a heap of powerboats.
The transformation of winds that are generally experienced as mild breezes into powerful storms capable of moving buildings no doubt forces us to look for the great power making such events happen. The same rationale discussed in the section on earthquakes is also true for typhoons, hurricanes and tornadoes: if Allah willed it so, man would very frequently be confronted by such natural disasters. While recovering from disaster, human beings could suffer another. In the Qur'an, Allah reminds man that winds are under His control:
Do you feel secure against Him Who is in heaven causing the earth to swallow you up when suddenly it rocks from side to side? Or do you feel secure against Him Who is in heaven releasing against you a sudden squall of stones, so that you will know how true My warning was? Those before them also denied but then how great was My denial! (Surat al-Mulk: 16-18)
However, Allah protects man against hazards. He only occasionally sends against them violent storms. This is surely to give man a warning. The intention is to remind people that their ultimate purpose in life is to be servants of Allah, that they are but impotent against Allah's might and that they will be judged on the day of judgement.
As well as the vibration or shaking of the ground caused by sudden movement or rupture of large masses of rock within the earth's crust or upper mantle, volcanic eruptions are another spectacular form of natural disaster. There are about 1,500 active volcanoes around the world today; 550 4 of them exist on land while the remainder are under the oceans. These volcanoes can erupt at any time in extremely destructive ways that no-one can anticipate in advance. When they erupt, they can kill the residents of nearby cities in addition to destroying crops and covering farmland with ash.
A volcano erupting.
The bus in the
middle of the sea
of lava reminds
one of the Pompeii disaster.
Some catastrophic eruptions that took place in this century as well as earlier in history made indelible impressions on the human mind. These eruptions wiped many cities off the map and killed numerous communities.
There are certainly lessons to be drawn from the volcanic eruptions witnessed in history. Mount Vesuvius in Italy, for instance, buried Pompeii , a city whose residents led a life of total debauchery, under a storm of hot lava. It is striking that 20,000 inhabitants of this prosperous city were asphyxiated mostly by the pyroclastic flows that swept through it on the 24 th August 79 CE.
In our own day, however, the dormancy of volcanoes can often end abruptly and they can explode at unexpected times shooting steam and ash thousands of feet into the air. In the meantime, pyroclastic flows sweep through areas causing irrecoverable damage to whatever they encounter. Another adverse effect of eruptions is the harmful clouds of gases and ash carried by winds into populated areas. These terrifying winds, sometimes about 90 miles per hour, set everything on fire and engulf cities like sun-extinguishing canopies.
One of history's worst disasters occurred in 1883 when Krakatau, in the East Indies, erupted explosively, generating a sound-wave heard 3,000 miles away and creating tsunamis up to 125 feet high. The waves razed 165 coastal villages and killed 36,000 people. 5
Filling the entire horizon in June 1991, searing clouds of ash-laden gas – a lethal pyroclastic surge – spew from Mount Pinatubo in one of the 20th century's most violently explosive eruptions.
Residents around Mount Pinatubo protect themselves with umbrellas against ash-rain. 7
Volcanoes are memorable not only for their tragically high death tolls but also because they erupt in extremely destructive ways that cannot be predicted. The eruption of Nevado Del Ruiz is an example. This was an eruption of minor intensity. In comparison, its intensity was only 3% of the eruption of Mount St Helens. After being dormant for 150 years, Nevado Del Ruiz erupted in 1985 melting the snow and ice on its summit. So devastating was the lahar, or river of mud, that flowed down the volcano's slopes and into the Lagunille River valley, that some 20,000 residents in Armero, Colombia perished, entombed in hot mud as they slept. This event was the worst volcanic disaster since Mount Pelee annihilated St Pierre in 1902. Mount Pelee claimed 30,000 lives when it sent a nuee ardente, or pyroclastic flow, into the town of St Pierre.
Allah demonstrates how suddenly man can meet his death by means of such disasters and thereby calls on him to ponder the purpose of his existence on earth. These incidents send a "warning". What is expected in return from man, who can conceive of his Almighty Creator, is not to indulge distractedly in the affairs of a short life of 50-60 years and neglect the eternal life, the hereafter. We should keep in mind that death will come upon all men one day and that everybody will be judged in the presence of Allah:
One day the earth will be changed to a different earth, and so will be the heavens, and (men) will be marshalled forth, before Allah, the One, the Irresistable. (Surah Ibrahim: 48)