Question: What are the matters that believers should always keep in mind with regard to the fact that both individual and collective misfortunes and disasters are results of their sins?
Answer: By courtesy of belief, all living and non-living things smile into people’s faces as if they change their color, shape, pattern, nature, and therefore transform and fly into the hearts of believers to become spirit and meaning. Stone and soil, tree and leaf, rose and flower, bird and insect-everything, yes every single thing, whispers something to the souls of believers from the horizon of the heart. Moreover, all the laws ordained in nature, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, turn into a significant message and make feelings and consciousness listen to the most effective sermons that do not have letters or words.
The real reasons for disasters
In fact, the laws in nature take effect, sometimes at individual and other times at social level, in accordance with people’s spiritual life and their relations with God Almighty. Unfortunately, when the reasons for floods, earthquakes, catastrophes, and even the corruption of whole ecosystems cannot be fully understood, they are considered to be natural events, and consequently the message that they are to convey cannot be interpreted properly.
Humans, however, are a conscious and intelligent fruit of the universe. Looking into the connection between the universe and humankind, we can consider two perspectives. From one perspective, humankind has been created in the context of the natural world, and we have developed and attained our present level in relation to nature; from another perspective, the general circumstances of the universe have been shaped to be suitable for them. In the former perspective, the universe is the cause and humans are the effect, and in the latter perspective, people are the cause, while the laws in nature and the universe are the effect. Understood in this way, the laws in nature and human beings are closely interconnected. Thus, an earthquake, for instance, is strongly linked to a tremor in people; yet this can only be seen by the eye of a believer.
In one’s individual and social life, as in the laws in nature, experiences of failure or the occurrence of undesirable events are themselves closely connected to spiritual well-being. Almost all misfortunes begin within one’s inner self; then, being nourished in the earth of the self’s weakness, they gradually develop and appear in existence. Hence, the true cause of disasters is humankind, and it is impossible to make realistic comments on the cause–effect mechanism until this very particular relationship is understood.
In this sense, the first step toward searching out and finding the real cause is to question oneself. To say, “This misfortune occurred because of me; my inconsistencies and my disconnection from God caused these things happen!” and to recognize the connection between the disaster and failure to manage one’s free will, and consequently to seek forgiveness is the attitude of a true believer. Indeed, when an individual sees himself or herself as the source of problems, this manner becomes indirect remorse, penitence, and repentance.
Regarding this issue, the Holy Qur’an states, “Whatever affliction befalls you, it is because of what your hands have earned; and yet, He overlooks many (of the wrongs you do)” (42:30). Therefore, troubles that target believers are penance for them. Nevertheless, some disasters are not the direct results of sins. For instance, the troubles of one who strives to serve on the path of God cause him or her to attain higher levels of righteousness. Thus, when other people are involved, thinking that their sins are the source of disasters is an erroneous belief. Believers, who are enjoined to think well of others, should suppose that other people, through disasters, attain the splendor of God’s closeness. On the other hand, they should think critically about themselves thus: “Drought and famine are occurring; it’s because of me! Things are not going right; it’s because of me! That issue ended up as a fiasco; it’s because of me!”
Do not destroy my nation because of my sins!
As is widely known, during the era of noble Umar’s caliphate, a great famine took place. The famine was so severe that new regulations for the rationing of provisions were instigated and people were supplied with limited food and drink. Noble Umar (may God be pleased with him) said that his standard of living should have been the standard of the poorest person in Medina. When he learned that the majority of the people were eating bread dipped in olive oil, he did the same thing, too. As someone who had always lived in a humble way, the great caliph was very sensitive about obeying the new rules on rationing. As long as the famine continued, he never put a delicious dish such as meat or fish into his mouth; moreover, he thought that the common disaster was his own fault. He offered supplications such as, “O God! Do not destroy the nation of Muhammad by famine because of my own sins!”
Noble Aslam, who never left noble Umar’s side, reports, “If the famine had lasted a little while longer, the Leader of the Believers would have died of his sorrow! I often saw him prostrating. He was always offering supplications and weeping. Sometimes, he was totally drowned in tears. He kept moaning, “Oh, God! I think that the famine and drought are the results of my sins. Please, do not destroy the nation of Muhammad because of me!” and shaking with sadness.
This example above is an expression of perceiving things with the eye of the heart and a sign of being connected to God. It is only those who are detached (from the true path) who, when some bad incident happens, always impute sin to others, and seek different reasons to blame, and accuse others. They never ever say, “This problem happened as a result of my fault.” They do not see events from this perspective. Consequently, they do not feel a need to repent (for their sins), to try hard to compensate their fault, or to plead with God. They cannot find the real culprit since they do not link the incident to themselves. They cannot be saved from the fault of blaming others.
Today, how many people consider themselves responsible even for changes in the laws in nature, run to their prayer rugs, and mourn as in, “Please, O God! Do not destroy the nation of Muhammad because of me”? How many people are in tears of repentance considering themselves as the cause of deprivation from the help and mercy of God. Indeed, the number of real believers in this world is equal to the number of the individuals who believe that some misfortune happening in their country is because of their sins and feel sad to think of their share in Islam’s unsolved problems.
It is narrated that in a time when misfortunes rained down on people, Salim ibn Qasim, a pious person, visited Muhammad ibn Muqatil, a great scholar of the time. He said, “There is a severe storm of disasters; earthquakes are happening one after another, and people are exhausted by poverty. You are our leader; please, for the sake of God, pray for us!” The humble scholar responded, “Indeed, how I wish that I were not the reason for your destruction! I am afraid that the storm rose because of me, the earthquakes never cease because of me, and my sins hinder Glorious Mercy from coming and embracing you.”
Next morning, Salim ibn Qasim once again, ran to Muhammad ibn Muqatil’s door. This time, however, Salim was smiling with great pleasure. He exclaimed, “Last night, in my dream, I saw our master the Messenger of God, the honor of the universe, saying, ‘God the most Glorious, released dreadful disasters and misfortune upon people. Yet, for the sake of Muhammad ibn Muqatil, who despises himself, prays, and begs humbly, God the Almighty turned the disaster away from your country!’”
Do you see how considering oneself responsible becomes great repentance and supplication in God’s view? On the one hand, think about how God’s servant sees himself or herself; on the other hand, look at his or her value in God’s view. Do you understand how judging the self (nafs) to be the cause of disasters and asking for forgiveness with a sense of shame can raise people?
Some people may think, “What sins have we committed so that we should blame ourselves for disasters?” Actually, the thought, “What sins have I committed?” is a major sin in itself; one who think in this way commits a major lapse. A very sinful person will be on the way of forgiveness if he or she asks for pardon with very deep regret, while one who thinks, “What sins have I committed?” will be considered to be falling into the pit of catastrophe due to this question. For, individuals who are aware of their sins always have the chance of purification by repentance, whereas it is inevitable that those who suppose themselves to be pure will be crushed under the full consequences of their overlooked minor sins. Yes, indeed, “What sins have I committed?” expresses a lack of knowledge of what sin is. Nonetheless, for those individuals, not establishing a relationship with God in accordance with God’s blessings on them, not understanding the great value of being Muslim-by preferring it even over the leadership of the world-and not doing their best to obtain the pleasure of God means that they are poor ones who have closed their eyes to the Glorious bestowal, and therefore it is unnecessary to search for any other sin for one who is sunk in ingratitude up to the neck.
On the other hand, some people admit their sins, but they say, “Who am I that there should be changes in the sky, famine should appear, or rain should fall because of me?” Since they do not attribute any value to themselves, they never imagine that they have a share in causing misfortunes and disasters. This way of thinking can be seen as a sign of modesty and poverty from one point of view; however, it can be a temptation to escape from responsibility at the same time. In this manner, it is possible that a person who says “because of me!” for all kinds of disasters, whether major or minor, might become arrogant through a hidden channel under responsibility, since that kind of person assumes that many incidents happening in the universe are linked to him or her. “I am such a sinful person that everyone is afflicted with disaster because of me!” expresses feelings of shame at first; however, if proper limits are not drawn, and if Satan’s tricks are not defeated, this expression can be transformed into a claim that “I am such an important person that events in the heavens and the earth are shaped in relation to me!” Consequently, it is essential to find the middle path and maintain the balance.
Yes, indeed, it is huge heedlessness for those not to consider that there can be their own share in collective disasters; this negligence can be a result of not comprehending how God Almighty values human beings. On the other hand, while saying, “All these events are related to me, I am the reason for things that do not go right,” hidden arrogance can enter one’s heart. There is a danger of veiled arrogance in the thought, “God Almighty pays attention to me; if I am in good shape, He administers events in a good manner; but if I have a bad attitude, he ruins the balance of events,” since one is imagining one’s ego as the ruler of vast realms.
From this angle, every believer, as part of a larger community, should feel the responsibility for every disaster to a certain extent. Also, with regard to responsibility, every believer should always be committed to the following criterion: If I were involved in all the areas that are relevant to Islam and had decision-making power, I would certainly have to assert that “Today, all the troubles in Muslim communities and all that hinders the nation of Muhammad, peace be upon him, is happening because of me.” Yet, I am not a strong agent in all areas; therefore, I am primarily responsible for the hindrances that are somehow relevant to me. I should see every negative occurrence in my area from the “because of me” point of view and approach general disasters with the idea that “I have a share, too.”
The following hadith of our noble master, the Truthful Messenger of God, peace be upon him, draws attention to the criteria by which we should judge ourselves: “Beware. Every one of you is a shepherd and every one is answerable with regard to his flock. The ruler is a shepherd over the people and shall be questioned about his subjects. A man is a guardian over the members of his family and shall be questioned about them. A woman is a guardian over the household of her husband and his children and shall be questioned about them. A servant is a guardian over the property of his master and shall be questioned about it.”
From this perspective, since Umar was the caliph of the noble Messenger of God and Leader of Believers, it is natural that he thought himself responsible for the whole nation. One who leads a country takes on the great responsibility for a whole nation; similarly, the head of an institution or an association is particularly responsible for his or her area. Everyone should believe that his or her own mistakes could result in negative occurrences, especially mistakes connected with their own duty and responsibility; thus, they should be scared of this danger and live carefully.
In this sense, Sultan Alparslan’s example is noteworthy, showing how one should behave in accord with a wide area of responsibility: on the Manzigert plain, when the Muslim soldiers were all anxious, the Sultan came in front of them in his white clothes, which he called his shroud, prostrated to God, and wept, begging, “O my God! Make our army victorious; do not let them be defeated because of my sins.”
Yes, indeed, it is veiled repentance for those individuals to identify their limits, positions, responsibilities and areas of responsibility, to ask forgiveness of God the Almighty after relating the problems in these areas to their own mistakes, and to revive their dormant enthusiasm in order to eradicate their mistakes. This kind of repentance is more sincere since it is not revealed, unlike that spoken aloud; this kind of repentance is more heartfelt than one that everyone testifies to. Hence, those individuals who judge their self as responsible for every disaster burn inside with great agony, but no one sees the fire; and they do not reveal their secrets. All alone, expressing penitence without letting anyone hear, they ask for forgiveness thousands of times, remembering their sins, and continue, “O my God! It is not enough to ask for forgiveness once for my sins, I repent millions of times!” seeking numbers that can express infinity in order to show regret at the fear of having broken with the Almighty Lord.
In fact, if salvation is desired at the level of society, all members of the society should repent together and look for ways of atoning for their own sins. This is because regret for an individual mistake should be felt individually; sorrow for a sin in a family should be felt by every family member; likewise, a nationwide sin requires nationwide repentance. Hence, for the salvation of a society, every individual in the society should be purified from the dirt of rebellion.
It is narrated that Prophet Moses, peace be upon him, performed the ritual prayer for rain with his tribe. Although they prayed for several days, it did not rain. Then he asked of the Wisdom of God, “My Lord! You told us to pray for an end to drought, but You have not made it rain though we begged You with open hands.” God Almighty said, “There is a sinful person among you who has not repented yet!” When Moses asked for the name of that person who was an obstacle to the mercy of God, God Almighty said, “I am the Veiler (Sattar), and I veil the sins of my servants. I do not disclose their mistakes and make them ashamed. Repent together so that this individual will be purified from sins, and thereafter your prayers will be answered.”
In brief, we should think that the troubles that confront us are because of our sins. To avoid these troubles, we should repent for our mistakes, faults, sins, rebellious actions and every time we have overstepped the limits, whether in a major or minor way. In addition, we should keep in mind that although repentance from the heart is enough for sins at an individual level, for the faults of society there is a need for deeper trembling, and a more sincere awakening and social repentance. Yes, we should not forget that success in attaining prosperity and peace in our society depends on the repentance of people who are connected to the destiny of this society in a material and spiritual way, especially the repentance of those who have dedicated themselves to the prosperity of their people.