Disclaimer: I read the Quran in the light of science, philosophy, ethics, and public policy. This is not a theological discussion, however some rational thinking is shaped by the Quran.
Imagine someone unfamiliar to Islam, opens a copy of the Quran and reads it from the very beginning. The first two names of Allah he or she will learn are the most merciful and the most compassionate. As if Allah wants us to know that the first and foremost names are these two names out of his 99 names. Many times, I wondered why His other names like all knowing and the all powerful were not mentioned first.
The honest answer is that I do not know. However, thinking about this, I had made some observations. In the Arabic language, every word has its three root letters. The Arabic words for merciful and compassionate, both have the same root letters, which are r-h-m. In Arabic r-h-m means the womb of a mother. My first observation is, as a human being, that our first contact with the world is in the womb of our mother, the only place on earth where we have been completely wrapped up by her love, compassion and mercy. Secondly, our role on earth is to be Allah’s representatives. We are given the responsibility for the stewardship of the earth and our environment. Allah states how we should be, interestingly, Allah again says in the Quran that,
“We have sent you (O Prophet) only as a mercy for the whole world.” (Quran 21: 107).
The COVID 19 pandemic has revealed a very inconvenient truth. It appears that while we were confined to our houses, our cars were off the roads and our machines and factories were low in productions, our air had become cleaner, our environment became greener, and our rivers had become happier for animals such as dolphins. Our total lock downs were a welcome respite for our environment as they were getting space to breathe. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) report, in 2020 alone, there were around 5.8% less emission of CO2, forming the highest single reduction since the second world war. In 2009, due to the global financial crisis, there was another similar event of reduced emissions, though at a much smaller scale. Our economic calamities appear to be a blessing for our environment. How long will we be able to sustain this anti-environmental economic growth model? As we are settling back into our normal lives, it is the time to think about whether we should be the same on the other side of the tunnel, and should business continue as usual.
As a Muslim, we should ask ourselves, “Am I a mercy to me, to my family, to humanity and to the environment?” If not, then I’ve failed the mission of my prophet (s) and the very purpose of my being. We must know one thing, that all our mothers know very well; being a mercy is not a painless journey. Motherhood comes through the beginning of labour pain. Often, we confuse the concepts of pain and harm. We all go through medical procedures and sometimes they are painful, otherwise, it would be harmful. This is very easy to understand but not so easy to practice when it comes to our lifestyle choices, when we bargain for our comfort and debate our public policies. For example, a few years back, the Australian government had wanted to ban poker machines. It is harmful for society. Finally, they had failed to do this, for as a society we were not ready to take the pain of losing the economic activities associated with the poker industry. The same goes with the tobacco industry. There was a study made in Australia that for every dollar spent on food, around 58 cents of it was unnecessary in terms of food value. This is the part that we cherish most in our lifestyle. Just simply imagine all these mouth-watering chocolates. Any rectification threatens us with an enormous short-term pain in the economic system. We cannot do it overnight. However, we must start thinking about how we can be a mercy to me and my environment. Before the COVID 19 had started, Australia had been an unprecedented bush fire calamity which was preceded by another severe drought experienced in the country.
“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] (Quran 30: 41)”.
Our colloquial interpretation of this verse is that natural calamities are the direct result of our sins. We should get back to Allah in repentance. This type of claim is meaningless for our secular public policy debate. But the question remains about what the word ‘sin’ means here. It is always lost in translation. The Quran did not use the word sin, however it is a direct result of our irresponsible activities, us being not merciful towards our environment. Every natural calamity has its physical causes, which is mostly a consequence of the overuse of our environment. Until we change our behavior towards the sustainable use of our natural resources, this problem will continue to grow. We must find out where the mercy line is between the sustainable use, overuse, and abuse of our natural resources in our environment.
In my non-theological understanding, as mentioned in the Quran, any natural calamity is not a divine punishment per se, but a severe warning as well as an opportunity for progress and improvement. If we realise our sin, i.e., the consequences of our irresponsible activities in time and repair them before it is too late, and we get back to our roles as a mercy giver to the earth and to the environment, the calamity will turn into a blessing for us. Otherwise, the damage left will be permanent on us and our environment. We Muslims alone, are not able to do this. It requires our collective human efforts. However, we Muslims have the privilege of divine guidance, as well as the responsibility to spread the divine message of mercy and compassion, to help achieve a better and sustainable common future for us all.