Are Natural Disasters a Punishment from Allah? 

In the aftermath of two devastating 7.8 earthquakes in Syria and Turkey that killed and looted scores of innocent civilians, “Shmuel Eliyahu, who serves as the chief Rabbi of Safed in northern Israel and is a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council, claimed that God was punishing countries affected by the disaster because of their alleged mistreatment of the Jewish people,” reported Middle East Eye. 

On Feb. 9, Eliyahu wrote for the Olam Katan newspaper stating, “they said poetry because they understood that there is divine justice here intended to pay the Egyptians who drowned the children of the people of Israel in light, that all the wicked in the world will see and be afraid.” 

He further wrote, “[God] is judging all the nations around us who wanted many times to invade our land and throw us into the sea. Syria abused its Jewish residents for hundreds of years in the bloodshed of Damascus and others, invaded Israel three times to destroy and kill and lose, shot for years at the farmers who lived at the foot of the Golan Heights, abused captives, and [hung] Eli Cohen the 14th.”  

What Does Islam Say About Why Natural Disasters Occur?

Before going in-depth about what Islamic theology says about natural disasters and the wrath of God, declaring such atrocities as purely God’s form of punishment on His people deliberately takes away from the empathy and support that is critically needed for those who have been affected. 

It must be understood that whether God has sent natural disasters as a punishment or not is a question that no human can answer. The only being that can give a correct answer to this theological question is the Creator of all creations, and as a result, we are no one with the authority to speculate on why God has used some of these natural disasters (i.e. earthquakes, floods, etc.), to punish an entire nation. 

“Natural disasters, can also be seen as a reminder and a test for human beings to reflect on their relationship with God and their role as stewards of the Earth,” said Khanan Chaudhry, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). “Ultimately, the exact nature and purpose of natural disasters are known only to God. As human beings, our responsibility is to respond to disasters with compassion, generosity, and solidarity.” 

A well-known tradition within Islam is the great flood during the leadership of Prophet Nuh (Noah); this tradition is also found within Jewish and Christian traditions where all three great books, the Holy Qur’an, Torah, and Bible, state that Noah was a pure, just, and righteous man. 

During the time of Prophet Nuh’s prophethood, and similarly to what we see in the lives of other great prophets, the nation that he ruled over had heavily deviated from the belief in the oneness of God. Yet, with his power of eloquent speaking, and just and humble nature, the Prophet was able to enlighten the people with his message. This is why, in the Holy Qur’an, God revealed in Chapter 23, verse 23, which states,

“and We had certainly sent Noah to his people, and he said, “O my people, worship Allah; you have no deity other than Him; then will you not fear Him (23:23)?'” 

While many became enlightened by Prophet Nuh’s message, some went against him. The Prophet’s enemies tried to convince him that the rich and poor could not co-exist in the same belief system. When the message of the Prophet continued to fall upon deaf ears, he then turned towards God. He was instructed by Him that Prophet Nuh should construct an ark, and God instituted His judgment in the form of a flood upon all the disbelievers. 

“And construct the ship under Our observation and Our inspiration and do not address Me concerning those who have wronged; indeed, they are to be [drowned] (11:37).” 

When Prophet Nuh was constructing his ark, the disbelievers mocked and laughed at him because this vessel was being created away from any form of a water source. However, as believers know, God is the best of planners, and whatever He designates or creates is divinely perfect. 

“[So it was], until when Our command came and then overflowed, We said, “Load upon the ship of each [creature] two mates and your family, except those about whom the word has preceded, and [include] whoever has believed.” But none had believed with him, except a few (11:40).” 

After the believers had embarked on Prophet Nuh’s ark with the animals, waves as tall as mountains erupted from beneath the ocean, submerging the grounds of the Earth in water. It was only at God’s command that the floods stopped, and the Earth was cleansed from the disbelievers who worshiped idols. 

“And it was said, “O Earth, swallow your water, and O sky withhold your rain.” And the water subsided, and the matter was accomplished, and the ship came to rest on the [mountain of] Judiyy. And it was said, “Away with the wrongdoing people (11:44).” 

In a simple explanation, the occurrence of natural disasters has to do with the environmental system, “the natural phenomena” as some scholars say, God has created which cause these events of nature to occur. It’s only when the lives of innocent people are involved that the natural disaster is immediately called an “adhaab,” or punishment. Everything God has created is perfect because it comes directly from an unflawed source. When it brings us bounties, it’s perfect. When it harms us, it’s evil. If the earthquakes had occurred on barren land, there would never exist such urgent calls of emergency because it’s not directly impact anyone. 

Within philosophy in Shi’ism, this concept is widely known as “Sharr e Nisbi,” which means that while evil may exist in natural disasters, evil exists in relation to something else, but by itself, it is not evil. For example, humans may not think much of it when a knife swiftly cuts into fruit that can be consumed. However, when that knife is used to harm someone, it immediately becomes evil. As a result, when God creates something, it is not inherently evil, but when two things that are not supposed to be present simultaneously collide, that is where “evil” occurs. 

Natural Disasters Are Meant to Be A Test

Yet the question remains of why natural disasters occur where people live. Maulana Syed Muhammad Rizvi, a Shia Islamic Scholar from Canada, explains the answer to this question in two dimensions. “One way of explaining that is that this is a way of ‘ibtila.’ Where Allah tests the people,” Rizvi said. He further uses evidence from the Holy Qur’an where he quotes Surah Baqara (The Cow), verses 155-157: 

“And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient, who, when disaster strikes them, say, “Indeed we belong to Allah, and to Him, we will return.” Those are the ones upon whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy. And it is those who are the [rightly] guided (2:155-157).” 

In Surah Mulk (The Sovereignty), God states, “I have created you in order to test you.” 

The uniqueness of God’s power is such that while those thousands of miles away from an affected area may not be tested through natural disasters, He still tests them in different ways. Whether it’s through wealth, power, or human beings, even. as intellect, knowledge, and time grow, so do God’s tests. The biggest test then becomes this: can those with the most resources and influence come together to collectively provide aid to those who have been directly impacted by a catastrophe? 

“While some Islamic scholars have interpreted natural disasters as a punishment or a sign of God’s wrath, this is not a universally held view. Islamic teachings emphasize the importance of recognizing God’s mercy and compassion alongside His justice and power, and encourage believers to respond to disasters with compassion, generosity, and solidarity,” Chaudhry said.

In light of the Holy Qur’an, we see additional verses that corroborate the claim that not all calamities are a sign of God’s wrath. In Chapter 64, Loss, Deprivation, and Regression, God says,

“no disaster strikes except by permission of Allah. And whoever believes in Allah – He will guide his heart. And Allah is knowing of all things (64:11).” 

When the verses of the Holy Qur’an about natural disasters or tests come together, there is one central theme that is evident: God doesn’t unleash these tests due to waves of oppression rather, the test is put into place because of the deliberate actions performed by disbelievers. 

In Surah Ash-Shura (The Consultation), God states,

“and whatever strikes you of disaster – it is for what your hands have earned; but He pardons much (42:30).” 

In Surah Ar-Rum (The Romans), God states,

“corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea by [reason of] what the hands of people have earned so He may let them taste part of [the consequence of] what they have done that perhaps they will return [to righteousness] (30:41).” 

It is easy for people to speculate, in times of calamities, why God is carrying out certain acts, but Islam allows highlights that the Creator wants His creation to have full trust and faith in His plans because He is the best of planners. This world is temporary, and the tests are grave, but the biggest God takes is making sure the Muslim community does not remain silent when others are oppressed and in need of immediate help.