Less than a year ago, it was the Tsunami. Last month it was Katrina & Rits. And now we have this earthquake in Kashmir. More than forty thousand people have perished and at least three million are homeless.
Disasters put pressure on everyone, but especially on people of faith. As we pray for those who have died and help those who continue to suffer, questions remain.
We ask: why are we experiencing such catastrophes of historic proportions? Why now? Is this a punishment? Or is it a test?
God has told us through His scriptures that He has punished certain people for their sins. God speaks based on His Perfect knowledge. That has inspired a number of preachers among us to focus on the sins of other people as a cause of these disasters. Some believers however, have focused on their own individual sins as well as on collective sins.
I would like to be counted among this later group.
I beg for God's Mercy. I seek His forgiveness for myself and for my neighbors.
God has told us "He had decreed Mercy for Himself". Kataba ala nafsihir Rehma. (Quran 6:12)
But while God is Merciful, we still need to ask ourselves whether we are being as merciful as He is.
Faith is about interconnectedness. Not just between an individual and God, but also between others and ourselves.
Here in the United States, Hurricane Katrina brought forth this question of interconnectedness in a rather ugly way. We saw tens of thousands of urban poor unable to leave New Orleans. Amid this disaster, our government, supposed to be the most resourceful government in the world, was nowhere to be found for several days.
A similar scenario was evident during last January's Asian tsunami. While tourists were getting the royal rescue treatment, poor locals waited for days for governments to show up. The same pattern is being repeated now in this latest earthquake.
Governments today are the most important product of our civilization. Why does this most powerful of institutions regularly fails to care for its poorest citizens? How and when did they become so inhumane? How can governments become more sensitive? Where is the mercy?
Thankfully, some of this mercy was found between neighbors, who helped each other survive during these disasters.
Five days before any government or international aid arrived in the city worst hit by the tsunami, Banda Aceh, a Newsweek reporter observed that religious organizations were the first helping hands in Indonesia.
The first to respond in the southern tips of India was a local mosque, which fed and housed the mostly Hindu and Christian survivors in and around their mosque for three days before the government showed up. They performed funeral rites for almost half of all dead in the Indian casualties of the tsunami. They buried Christians with Crosses at their gravesides and Hindus in the traditional rite of burning. In Hurricane Katrina, it was the churches that were the first to help. In Houston, people of all faiths took turns feeding evacuees housed in that city. The initially absent government now wants to pay back the churches for the costs they are incurring for helping the survivors.
Just last night, I read about how the standing minarets of mosques in the earthquake-hit parts of Pakistan are being used as the only mediums of communication to guide relief work. This is critical at a time when parents and neighbors are still digging with their bare hands and shovels to respond to the cries of children who remain buried alive.
Having said that I do recognize civil society cannot be a replacement of a government. What governments can eventually do cannot be done by neighbors and religious communities. My observation of civil society, especially the faith community's response, is not meant to be the self-serving.
However, because governments are failing as first responders, civil society must prepare for a higher level of this burden. We must educate ourselves, our congregations and our institutions of the burden ahead of us and develop plans for dealing with it.
And we have plenty in all faith traditions to rely upon:
There is a small chapter at the end of Quran called Small Kindnesses. In it, God describes the person who has lost the interconnectedness with others, and in turn has lost his faith. God says:
"Have you ever seen a human being who contradicts the faith in God and His Judgment?
That is the person who pushes the orphan aside and does not promote feeding the poor.
Woe, then, unto those who pray,
but their hearts and minds are remote from the essence of their prayers,
those who appear to pray,
but refuse to share necessities of life with others. (Quran 107)
Connecting with God and serving His Creation are, therefore, twin pillars of faith as we all know.
Just days before Hurricane Katrina showed us the human face of poverty in New Orleans, the US Census Bureau issued the latest poverty statistics. Another million Americans were added this year to the 36 million who already live under poverty in our neighborhoods. Two million of those who are incarcerated today are mostly the poor and the weak of our society.
And yet our poverty is not the absolute poverty found in other parts of the world.
According to the UNICEF, 210,000 children die each week due to poverty. And they "die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death."
That is just under 11 million children under five years of age, each year.
While the final cost of Katrina relief is widely expected to top 100 billion dollars, the victims of the Tsunami, the recent earthquake, famine in Africa and wars are likely to continue to be forced down further into poverty.
If our sins are responsible for what we are facing, then it must be the sin of misusing our wealth, the sin of living selfishly, abusing God's bounty and the sin of ignoring more than 1.2 billion people in the world who currently live at less than a dollar a day.
Scientists tell us of the doubling of hurricane activity, of the greenhouse effect and of human beings tinkering too much with the balance of the universe.
In a 1987 pastoral letter entitled, On Social Concern, the late Pope John Paul II emphasized the need to extend existing teachings about caring for the poor to a much broader level.
He wrote, "a consistent theme of Catholic social teaching is the option or love of preference for the poor. Today, this preference has to be expressed in worldwide dimensions, embracing the immense numbers of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without medical care, and those without hope."
Today, more than ever, people of faith must implement the tradition of interconnectedness on a much broader level. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, reminds us that we cannot be good people of faith if our neighbor goes hungry while we eat our fill. In today's global village, the neighborhood has expanded, as the late Pope John Paul II pointed out.
We have the duty to do more to alleviate poverty worldwide. It is no longer a dream, but a duty.
While slavery is over, we have made countries our slaves through the World lending system. Smaller governments in the world are crumbling under debt. How many of our congregants know about it?
Poverty is the moral issue of our times.
Faith groups can emerge as voices of conscience. We must insist that hunger and poverty CAN be eliminated. Poverty, oppression, and violence are as connected as mercy, love, and selfless service.
Disasters can act as accelerators of change. They are bringing people closer. Can they take us to a higher level of faith by transforming our current attitudes towards the poor and the oppressed?
As citizens of the leading country of the current civilization, it is our religious duty to develop consciousness about this, which can render us better citizens in the global village we live in today.
Our well-being depends on the well-being of every other human being on the planet. We as a nation must commit to simple living and sharing the resources of this planet with all six billion other human beings equally.
While the struggle to change our world and ourselves may be long and painful, it will make us better-interconnected human beings, more deserving of God's Mercy. His true servants, insha Allah.
Thank you and God bless you.
(This is an edited version of the speech the author gave on October 11th 2005 at Islamic Foundation North, in an Iftar dinner of Muslims and Catholics organized by the Council of Islamic Organization of Greater Chicago (CIOGC). Cardinal George also spoke at the event.)
"SETAF HISTORY 0004" by TSgt. Marv Krause. United States Air Force - Official Photograph - U.S. Army Africa historical image archive, U.S. Army Africa Official Image Archive. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SETAF_HISTORY_0004.JPEG#mediaviewer/File:SETAF_HISTORY_0004.JPEG