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Saturday, February 26, 2005

Making sense of misfortune

By Dr Mahjabeen Islam

I lost two brothers ages 14 and 15 to a car accident when I was 12, and within 5 years, overwhelmed with his grief my father had a sudden death on a tennis court. Without a tsunami our family was reduced from five to two, with all the males gone. Needless to say this pain that rains from the sky has been an enigma to me and deaths of any kind make me relive by grief.
The condolers sounded trite, for all they had to say was that it was God's will and that we should be patient. Sure enough thought I, His will it may be, though that really did nothing to alleviate my suffering. And where, pray, may I buy this commodity called "patience"?
Those earlier years were arduous for it was hard to make sense of so much tragedy. Years of despondent reflection and reading anything that spoke of death, fate, predestination or the afterlife have finally given me a modicum of acceptance and, I think, understanding.
Many news stories and articles try to talk about the religious perspective of the recent tsunami and one writer for the Friday feature in a Pakistani English newspaper gave a completely secular interpretation of it all being due to tectonic shifts.
"Indeed We have created Man into toil and struggle," (Al-Balad 90:4) says the Qur'aan and perhaps scarred by my losses I agree entirely. Life is really one overrated proposition. By Muslim belief in the Hereafter is greatly superior to this life and according to one Hadith when we get there we will wish that we had asked for all reward in the afterlife rather than this ephemeral one which will also seem a total of us having lived a couple of days.
I have always felt that it is really not the death of the one that dies, but the one that lives on. The dearly departed are released from the toil of this life for a serenity that we cannot imagine. In published data about NDEs or near death experiences in which people have had cardiac arrests but were resuscitated, the next world is reported to be one of incredible peace and pleasure. The refrain in all these NDE reports is that the subject did not want to return to this world but was told that their time had not yet come so they had to. What gives credibility to these reports is the amazing concordance in all of them describing a tunnel with a light at the end of it, seeing predeceased relatives and experiencing an enveloping tranquillity.
The suffering of the survivors is usually intense and seemingly endless. The multifarious struggles: financial, logistic, emotional and spiritual. And the invariable "why me" question, for which no answers come then.
"Do they not then earnestly seek to understand the Qur'aan or are their hearts locked up?" (Surah Muhammad 47:24) is only one of the many verses in the Qur'aan that exhort us to think and reflect on nature and events. "Not a leaf falls without His knowledge," (Surah An'am 6:59) and other verses like: "No calamity befalls on the earth or in yourselves but is inscribed in the Book of Decrees (Al-Lauh Al-Mahfuz), before We bring it into existence. Verily, that is easy for Allah," (Surah Al-Hadid 57:22) are evidence against events happening randomly or due to tectonic shifts or weather related phenomena.
A Muslim's belief is complete only after his acknowledgment of God, all the prophets, the angels, the books, the Day of Judgment and "qadaa wa qadar" or fate and predestination. Belief in fate and predestination does not in any way release us from responsibility of our actions. The fact that God has full knowledge of all that will be does not reduce us to a robot-like state. Shaykh Fadlallah Haeri explains well in his book "Decree and Destiny" that there was the advent of the Jabbariyya who believed that all was determined by God and Man was powerless, and the Qaddarriya who believed that nothing was predetermined and man was able to control his destiny. Shaykh Haeri states that the reality actually lies somewhere between those two extremes.
"And know that your possessions and your progeny are but a trial, and it is with Allah that lies your highest reward" (Surah Anfaal, 8:28). This verse speaks of how man will be tested and the Qur'aan speaks also of punishment in this world as well as the next. I spent many years trying to figure out how one could tell whether an unfortunate incident was a test or a punishment. At the inception with the moral compass given to us at the time of the Primordial Oath, we are able to distinguish right from wrong and thus tell whether our record has been good, bad or ugly.
In less clear situations, it was Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani's book "Futuhul Ghayb" or Revelations of the Unseen that gave me my answer. He says that it is a punishment if the person complains all the time and is bitter, a test if the person tolerates it with patience and for spiritual elevation if the misfortune is borne with cheerfulness.
On August 19, 1999 a powerful earthquake killed 6000 people in Turkey. The day prior to it the Turkish government had passed a law that would jail any person caught teaching their children the Qur'aan within their home. True to the refrain in the Qur'aan, the revelation in the Qur'aan is only for those who reflect. In the town of Golcuk buildings that were constructed recently were destroyed but a mosque and its minaret built a century earlier stand unscathed. The building next to it is also standing for had it fallen it would have likely damaged the mosque. It is easy to give bland scientific explanations for natural disasters. And yet if one was to reflect and realise that there is nothing that occurs without a reason, a whole lot could be learned from life and events. And we would be a step closer to our Maker, knowing whom, or gnosis, should be our raison d'etre.
In the recent tsunami, the province of Aceh in Indonesia was essentially wiped out. And yet in many affected areas in Indonesia dozens of mosques stand untouched amidst the rubble around them. Secular interpretations say that mosques were better constructed and so escaped damage. However, according to an article by a non-Muslim journalist, in the town of Sigli a mosque made of wood stands whilst surrounding structures have been destroyed.
Whilst rebellious incidents such as the legislation in Turkey just prior to the earthquake have not been reported from Indonesia, it seems to be a matter of whether or not one is able to appreciate the concept of cause and effect that is mentioned in the Qur'aan. Our bad deeds as cause and ravaging disasters as effect, with the House of God bearing silent sombre testimony to His ire. On the happier side a great test for the survivors who lost entire families with an unscathed mosque as though saying that He tests us with our money and our children and those that bear with patience and fortitude earn a great station of closeness with Him and lasting bliss in the Hereafter.

Mahjabeen Islam is a physician practicing in Toledo Ohio.

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