So far I haven't heard of any imams preaching a similar message about the victims of the tsunami. And I suspect I won't-primarily because many, if not most, of the victims are Muslims. I feel confident of this because I've noticed the tendency of imams--and I suspect preachers of all faiths--to cite the wrath of God when they're talking about other people's flaws. For example, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Jerry Falwell suggested that God allowed the attacks as a warning to the nation because of its "moral decay" and said Americans should have an attitude of repentance before God. He specifically listed the ACLU, abortionists, feminists, gays, and the People For the American way as sharing in the blame.
This attitude deeply angers me. To say that terrorist attacks are a "warning," or that a hurricane in Florida is "revenge" for the U.S. invasion of Iraq or "punishment" for the sinners of Florida is simply callous.
I want to ask the imams: Is it the "wrath of God" only when non-Muslims are victimized? I don't get satisfactory answers to questions like this during a typical sermon. And I disagree with them (and clergy of other faith of this ilk) because their approach strips us of compassion for the suffering of other human beings-which is completely contrary to the principles of Islam.
Perhaps these imams say such things because of verses found in the Qur'an: "Yet if the people of those communities had but attained to faith and been conscious of Us, We would indeed have opened up for them blessings out of heavens and earth: but they gave the lie to the truth, and so We took them to task through what they [themselves] were doing" (7:96).
But these verses come at the end of a long passage about various ancient Prophets, including Noah, Lot, and Jethro, and their experiences with their people-including the disasters that befell them. They are not "feel good" verses. And they really don't have anything to do with natural disasters. The passage speaks about the end result of a community living in opposition to eternal moral truths.
No doubt, both the Bible and the Qur'an are full of stories documenting how the rebelliousness of a people caused their destruction. We should heed the lessons of those stories, but we should never let ourselves become heartless. Just because God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for their iniquities does not mean we should have no compassion for the victims of a Florida hurricane-or of an Asian tsunami.
We are all sinners. If we have no heart for others' suffering, then we should not expect others to have heart if God sends a natural disaster our way. A natural disaster is always a tragedy, and we must always feel pain for the suffering of others.
Wherever there is suffering in the world, Muslims are commanded to help relieve it: "True piety does not consist in turning your faces toward the east or the west-but truly pious is he who believes in God, and the Last Day, and the angels, and revelation, and the prophets; and spends his substance-however much he himself may cherish it-upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggars, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage; and is constant in prayer, and pays the alms-tax; and [truly pious are] they who keep their promises whenever they promise, and are patient in misfortune and hardship and in time of peril: it is they who are conscious of God" (2:177).
The Prophet Muhammad was reported to have said that one is not a believer who goes to sleep full while his neighbor goes hungry. Let me emphasize: He did not specify the faith of that neighbor.
We do not know the reason for the tsunami. Is it punishment from God? Is it a sign of the coming of the Day of Judgment? Is it a test for those who were blessed with not being in the tidal wave's path, to see how they will respond? It really does not matter. What matters now is that 100,000 people have perished, and tens or even hundreds of thousands may yet die from disease. We have to help them. Period.
Something else came to mind when I thought about the tsunami: Judgment Day. That is not because the Last Day is "God's punishment," but because the Last Day will come as suddenly as the tsunami did. On that day, the question of the suffering of the innocent-one that has plagued us throughout human history-will be answered for us by God.
And that Day of Judgment--the day we will all stand before God and answer for our actions on this earth--can come any time. Thus, I have to be ready, and the best preparation is to conduct my life in pious obedience to God. And this includes extending a helping hand to those who suffer--whoever they are and wherever they may be.