In the aftermath of a disaster of the magnitude of the recent earthquakes in the Middle East, it is all too normal to feel paralyzed and helpless, both physically and mentally. Many of us might know people from these regions. Some of us may have lived there for a time. Suddenly, the familiar and comforting memories of a place have been reduced to rubble. In a matter of minutes, millions of lives have been irrevocably transformed. Entire families have been lost. Tens of thousands have already perished. How can we find Allah’s mercy in the midst of such devastation? One might ask if searching for mercy is even a responsible thing to do under these circumstances—potentially playing down the enormity of such tragedies.
As with all matters in our deen, the answers to such questions should be sought in the balanced guidance of the Qur’an and the Prophetic Sunnah. Allah, in His awe-inspiring power, sends such calamities for a reason—and one can find solace in pondering those reasons. But before such reflection, we should also recognize the Prophetic imperative to act immediately in the wake of great tragedies, no matter who is afflicted by them. The Prophet, in a hadith in Bukhari and Muslim, even praised people who took care of animals suffering from hunger or thirst. And as every believer knows:
“Whoever saves a life, it is as though they have saved all humanity.” [ Qur’an, 5:32 ]
1. Donate to relief efforts now!
The first imperative for anyone reading this who has not already done so is to send funds to these regions that are in such desperate need. The Prophet ﷺ urged that when we see something objectionable, we should seek to change it with our hands. If we cannot, we should do so with our tongues by speaking out about it. We can take from this hadith that we should be actively responding to such natural disasters by donating to the relief efforts—changing with one’s hand—and/or actively encouraging people to donate to help save lives that are being lost by the minute.
2. Pray for those suffering
After the time-sensitive issue of donation, one should recognize that the believer can always turn to Allah in prayer. This is something available to all believers. The Prophet ﷺ said that a righteous prayer will always be answered in some form. It will either be answered immediately as prayed for, or it will be saved for the person in the next life, so long as the person does not show impatience to his Lord by complaining that a prayer remains unanswered. In essence, Allah answers all prayers, but we may not perceive it. Indeed, our ability to pray to Him is sufficient a blessing for us to continue to pray for the alleviation of the suffering of those afflicted by the earthquake.
3. Reflect on Allah’s mercy and might
Those caught up in disaster will experience great suffering. However, we can learn from these people what it means to be patient. In video after video on social media in recent days, we witness people saying “Alhamdulillah” despite immense suffering. In one video, a man who had just lost 12 members of his family is seen crying while repeatedly saying: “Alhamdulillah ‘ala kulli hal”—praise be to God under all circumstances.
This man exemplified the Prophetic response to the death of all but one of his children within his lifetime. As reported in Bukhari and Muslim, after the death of his infant son Ibrahim, the Prophet ﷺ wept and expressed deep sorrow, manifesting his merciful character, while only uttering words that would please his Lord.
In another case from the present day, a young boy recorded himself stuck under the rubble, not knowing if he had any chance of survival, in which he simply said “Alhamdulillah” and calmly repeated the shahadah to himself in preparation to meet his Lord.
Such events can thus bring out the best in us and remind us that even in calamity, one can remain focused on the prize—Allah’s pleasure with our actions.
Ultimately, we can recognize that calamities are part of the creation that He creates and sustains in every moment around us. No earth will quake without His permission, just as no leaf will fall without His knowledge [ Qur’an, 6:59 ].
4. Suffering in this world is not in vain
Some may ask what wisdom there is in Allah’s allowing suffering on such a scale. Such questions are essentially a misunderstanding of our role and purpose as believers before our Lord. But we must address them with gentleness in such moments, particularly in the West, where declining belief in God has rendered such events incomprehensible to the average person. The unbeliever may ask what kind of deity would allow this to happen, but to adapt Shakespeare: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth (and better explanations of suffering) than are dreamt of in atheistic philosophy.”
As the Prophet ﷺ said in a hadith reported in Sahih Muslim, the suffering of this world is forgotten by the denizens of Paradise. And the indulgences of this life are wiped out for the denizens of the Fire. May Allah save us from the latter and make us of the former! The suffering of this life is but a test, and the Prophet reminds us in a hadith narrated by Bukhari and Muslim that someone who dies under the falling debris of a building—the main cause of deaths in earthquakes—is a martyr before Allah. This means that our deceased brothers and sisters in Turkey and Syria will, insha’Allah, be spared any suffering in the next life—the eternal abode. Those who have survived but have lost small children are also promised otherworldly rewards in the next life, as noted in authentic hadiths.
The Prophet ﷺ also noted, in a hadith deemed authentic by some scholars and weak by others, that his ummah has the special status of being shown mercy by Allah through tribulation in this life. As he ﷺ put it,
“My ummah is an ummah shown mercy [by Allah]. Its adhaab is not in the Hereafter. Its adhaab is in this world: trials, earthquakes and being killed.”
It is worth noting that the Arabic word adhaab can mean both “punishment” and “suffering.” The appropriate translation will depend on the context, since in English, punishment is meted out for those who are deserving of it, whereas suffering can take place without it necessarily being deserved. In the context of an earthquake, humans will often not be able to differentiate between different types of adhaab, something that is an imperceivable, metaphysical reality. We should, however, hope for Allah’s reward and fear His punishment, as the Qur’an exhorts [ Qur’an, 17:57].
For some, worldly suffering may be a punishment for their sins, or their heedlessness of their duties to Allah. Experiencing such punishment is a way in which Allah may be seeking to draw someone closer to Him, by helping them recognize that there is no refuge from Allah’s wrath except in His mercy [Qur’an, 9:118]. For others, it may simply be a way in which Allah tests those whom He loves because He wishes for their spiritual growth and purification, as the Prophet ﷺ has noted. Ultimately, it is not for us to say whether it is one way or another in any particular case. We should have the humility before Allah to accept that His decree is wise, even if we are not able to understand it in every instance.
5. Take the reminder and turn to Allah
Allah is the Most Just and the Most Wise. He did not create the world without purpose. Rather, His wisdom pervades all His actions. When a calamity befalls the believer, they turn to Allah and ask for forgiveness, for such misfortunes are but a reminder of our need for Him.
“O you who believe, you are the ones in desperate need of Allah, and Allah is the only One Who is self-sufficient, free of need, worthy of all praise” [ Qur’an, 35:15 ]
The Prophet ﷺ would take events in the natural world, such as eclipses, as opportunities to draw closer to Allah in awe, recognizing His power and might.
The calamities with which Allah will periodically test us are therefore an opportunity to turn to Allah in repentance. For those who suffer through them, they are opportunities to show patience; for those who observe from a distance, they are an opportunity for us to do what we can to help. Allah and His Prophet call us to action:
“Believers, respond to God and His Messenger when he calls you to that which gives you life. Know that God comes between a man and his heart, and that you will be gathered to Him.” [ Qur’an, 8:24 ]
Ultimately, with the right perspective, we will be able to behave in a way that is beneficial to our suffering brothers and sisters and pleasing to our Lord. Calamities are thus opportunities for people to come forth and serve in a way that will raise their rank in the next life. When we realize this, we should recognize that the best way to respond to tragedy is by saying “Alhamdulillah ‘ala kulli hal,” and then getting to work by offering help.