Does God punish sinners with disasters?
The tragic accident in a coal mine in Soma, western Turkey, which killed 301 workers deep underground, has led to various discussions in Turkey. Most of these have been on practical issues such as lack of safety, poor technology, and “the culture of negligence,” as I call it. (Why, for example, do most Turkish drivers find bizarre ways to avoid fastening their seatbelts? It is the culture of negligence.)
Yet there are also some who tried to carry the discussion to a theological level. One conservative writer argued in his column that the disaster might have been punishment from God for the gross violations of law and ethics in Turkey. The argument was picked up on Twitter by some conservatives, who were, apparently, angry at the corruption and authoritarianism they see in the government.
Those conservatives in question were maybe right in their outrage at certain misdeeds in Turkey, but I believe they were wrong to interpret the Soma disaster as a divine punishment for those sins. And since the broader issue of whether God really punishes sinners by earthly disasters is relevant for the whole Muslim world, let me elaborate a bit on why.
First of all, if we assume that God is punishing sinners with horrible accidents in mines, earthquakes, floods or any other disaster, we are depicting a God who is not very just. Because in all such tragedies, lots of innocent people, including children, die or suffer. But justice is one of the fundamental attributes of God, according to both Islam and other monotheistic religions. How could we then envision that justness when we suggest that 301 poor workers in Soma, and their families, paid for the misdeeds of their rulers?
Second, when we interpret any disaster as divine punishment for earthly misdeeds, we also define what that misdeed is, claiming that God sees things in the way we do. We, in other words, impose our subjective interpretation of events into the mind of God.
No wonder quite opposite interpretations emerge from opposing religious groups. When the United States was hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2006, for example, al-Qaeda claimed that God gave America the punishment it deserves for “attacking Muslims.” But according to Ovadia Yosef, an ultra-orthodox rabbi from Israel, America was rather punished by God for supporting Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip – in other words, for supporting a retreat from maximalist Zionism.
As a believer myself, I think that the more realistic and humble stance for any religion would be to accept that we cannot claim to know the mind of God by extrapolating from our narrow views on current events. Yes, our scriptures tell us that God used disasters in history to punish certain groups – such as the people of Sodom and Gomorra – but these miraculous events cannot be used as a pretext for interpreting every disaster as a divine punishment for something we don’t like.
In fact, an objective analysis would rather show us that disasters really happen due to natural causes, as explained by geology or meteorology, or human error. And the same disasters make no distinction between the religious and the non-religious, or between the pious and the sinners. Because, as the Quran already states, God does not “impose blame on the people for their wrongdoing ... on earth.” Rather, “He defers them for a specified term.” (Surah Nahl, 61)