Earthquakes and disaster: making sense of “natural evil”

Making sense of “natural evil” 

Below is an extract from a thought-provoking khutbah delivered by Shaykh Khaled Abou El Fadl, in the wake of a devastating earthquake in Turkey in 2023, when many Muslims found themselves questioning why God allowed this to happen and others insisted the event must be some kind of Divine punishment on the people of that region.

This khutbah offers an interesting and helpful perspective on natural tragedies, the relationship between suffering and punishment, and how Muslim communities can respond. (Full video of original khutbah below).  

“When confronted with suffering, we are reminded by the Qur’an: What comes to mind is what God reminds us of in the Qur’an:

“…We try you with evil and with good, as a test, and unto Us shall you be returned.”  — Qur’an 21:35

It is the very logic of our existence that, as God reminds us, we are constantly tested by evil and tested by good. We are constantly tested by what is ugly but also by what is beautiful. We are tested both in health and in sickness. It is in the very fabric of the lives we lead. We are also reminded that, when all is said and done, “you will return to Us.” The very nature of these tests in health and sickness, in well-being and harm, is “so that you will remember” (Q 24:1; 51:49). These tests are signs so that perhaps we will remember that when all is said and done, we will return to the Origin of everything, the Lord of everything, the Maker of everything.

I want to address a serious theological point […]  It is true that devastating natural disasters, like earthquakes, could occur on God’s command to destroy a people whom God wants destroyed. But it is an act of utter arrogance to say that this [when an earthquake hits] … Like the movement of wind, like volcanic eruptions, like so many natural phenomena in our world, earthquakes occur on Earth, but they also occur on every planet that God has created. Volcanoes are not limited to Earth. Like the laws of solar existence and the laws of creation itself, they are woven into the logic of existence. They occur on Earth and in places where no human being, or anything at all, lives.

Earth itself, like so much of existence, is a living organism.

Yes, the earth is an example of life without consciousness, but it is nevertheless living and there are laws that regulate the functioning of this living organism, very much like the laws that regulate the functioning of the living human being. A living human being constantly undergoes biological processes that terminate the life of living organisms that live in and on the surface of human beings. Every time we scratch our bodies, there are microscopic, unseeable organisms that perish with this scratch. For us, they are of little concern, because we do not have the consciousness vis-a-vis these living organisms. Our consciousness functions at a different level, and so our consciousness does not respond to what bacteria does on our body. It does not respond to the life and death of billions upon billions of bacteria that cover every part of our bodies. We are only aware of the existence of this bacteria in harm, when, for some reason, they cause our nervous systems to complain of pain and inform our brains that something is wrong. 

Similarly, the Earth goes about its business oblivious to those who exist on its surface. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are the natural phenomena of a living organism. They occur where they occur due to purely physical laws that are encoded into its creation. The Earth itself is hardly conscious of what the earthquake does to thousands of people living on its surface. 

Some may ask, “Could God not have created an Earth that does not experience earthquakes or volcanic eruptions?”

But then why stop there? We could extend the question to ask, “Could God not have created planets that do not experience earthquakes or volcanic eruptions? That can sustain life without water? Could God not have created organisms that do not respond to a genetic code that determines so many of their characteristics?” It is like asking, “Well, could God not have created human beings that do not need to eat? And, once they eat, would not need to eject the refuse out of their body? Could God not have created beings that do not need to go to the bathroom, release gas, burp, or scratch?” 

If you believe in God, then you also believe that God could have, but it would not be the life we know. The life we know is a life that demands and responds to a covenant of trust by the Maker of this life. It is a life in which we inherit this covenant and discharge the obligations of this covenant. God could have created a world other than the world we know, but what would that world be like? We have no clue. We can only speculate about a world in which human beings do not experience cold or hate, or a world in which human beings do not need to eat and go to the bathroom. It is the same for a world in which Mother Earth does not need to undergo earthquakes or volcanic eruptions for its very survival. How would that world look? Would it, of necessity, become heaven? Is that what God is describing to us when God speaks of heaven; a very different reality, one that is inaccessible to us by definition? It is like asking, “Why do we see the laws of physics replicated everywhere in which there is creation in this dimension that we live in?”


Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, then, are naturally occurring. They are not dictated by God to punish anyone because people failed to respond to the burning of the Qur’an in Sweden or anywhere else.

Are they God’s will?

They are God’s will to the extent that the natural laws of creation are God’s will. But the Earth is oblivious. Just as we are oblivious to whatever occurs on our surface, the Earth hardly notices that hundreds and thousands of people perish because it did what it had to do. 

God is not oblivious, however, and human beings should not be oblivious. Earthquakes are naturally occurring, but human suffering and the extent of human suffering is often a choice. Not the choice of individuals, but the choice of societies. If we [ …] already knew that a region is prone to natural disasters like earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. What do we do with this knowledge? We know it is only a matter of time before an earthquake of such and such magnitude occurs. So there is a moral social choice. Do we conserve our resources so that when the calamity comes, we can help? Or do we waste our resources on singing, dancing, and all manner of distractions and satisfaction of the whims of human beings?

There is a choice.

What type of buildings do we construct on land that is prone to earthquakes? […] Have you noticed that when natural disasters occur in certain parts of the world, regardless of the scale of the destruction, the human cost is much lower than what we see in Turkey or Syria? The reason for that, quite simply, is human planning. And human planning is part of discharging the ethical and moral covenant and obligation that ties us to our Lord […]

It is simply immoral to take the easy way out by trying to pin naturally occurring events on God by saying, “God is punishing you.”

As some have pointed out […] if this was such a vindictive god, why did the earthquake not occur in [any place other where bad things happen]?  

Part of being an ethically mature human being is to understand the ethical dynamics that define our relationship to our Maker. Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes naturally occur. They could, in theory, be a punishment from God, but it is indeed an arrogant, impious, and unethical claim to conclude that an earthquake, in this particular situation, is a punishment from God. It is like those who declare who is going to go to heaven and who is going to hell. That is not our business. It is God’s business. What is our business is the ethical challenge that it presents to us as a society and as individuals. What is our business are the moral duties and moral lessons that could have contained the destruction had people lived a moral, ethical existence in which they took responsibility for their moral failures and did not pin their moral failures onto God.

I assure you that there are hundreds of thousands of people who will show up in the Hereafter and be asked, quite simply, “Before you authorized to build such a building, did you not know that this region has a history of violent earthquakes? Yes or no?” If God knows the answer is yes, God will ask: How, then, could you have constructed the building? Mother Earth has a right to live, and it exercises that right every day and every night. Did you know? What did you do with this knowledge? Did you just ignore it and look at the short-term profit? Did you say, “Let us solve the immediate issue of housing and let tomorrow take care of itself?’

And once the disaster occurred, how did you respond? 

Collectively, as Muslims, you are an Ummah. You are an Ummah in which your leaders spend billions on football, entertainment, expensive yachts, and, indeed, on weapons, on killing innocent people in Yemen, on buying tanks, airplanes, and technology used for genocide and injustice. Billions of dollars are spent catering to the lives of the rich and powerful. Billions are spent catering to luxury in the heart of Makkah and in the high rises of Dubai.

Now that God allows for this test to occur—this naturally occurring test—how do we respond?

Do we take care of one another?

Do we rush to minimize the suffering and the pain? Or do we continue existing, oblivious and uncaring? But even more, if our rulers are corrupt, what is our excuse? Do we hold these rulers accountable for their corruption? Do we condemn these rulers for their immorality in our hearts? If nothing else, do we care? Do we care that these are the rulers that will spend millions upon millions of dollars on entertainers, parties, and all matters of frivolity and nonsense? Do we feel any moral outrage in our heart? What standard of morality do we hold not just for our rulers, but for our religious leaders, imams, and teachers too? It is all an integrated, interwoven whole.

Do you celebrate those who point the finger at moral corruption and say, “This is wrong?” Do you celebrate, support, and honor these people? Do you promote these people? Or do you promote and celebrate those who have no moral conscience, and who do not object, protest, or talk about the corruption of rulers? Those who do not talk about the immorality of wasting billions of dollars on nonsense? It is an interwoven whole.

Who are the people that represent you?

Is it the moral voices of the Ummah or the amoral voices of the Ummah? Who are you? Do you prove your own amorality by supporting the voices of the amoral, who continue praising and being praised by the very rulers who waste millions of dollars on pretty women, pretty cars, pretty yachts, and pretty buildings? Do you ignore the religious leaders who testify to truth and justice? Then, when a calamity befalls you, do you then […] blame God and say, “Well, this is God’s destiny, so what can we do?”

Natural calamities are naturally occurring. They occur because they must occur. But how we respond to them is a matter of choice and volition, and anytime choice and volition are involved, ethics are involved. When there is no choice or volition, we cannot speak of ethics, but anything that involves a choice, of necessity, involves morality. The devastation of these earthquakes is, indeed, a test not just to the Muslim Ummah, but to humanity and how humanity chooses to react […]

It is truly a test to humanity, but there is another level to this test.

Upon being confronted with the human—not natural—calamity of a brother murdering his brother, of Cain murdering Abel, God sent a bird to teach the criminal brother how to honor and protect the dignity of his deceased brethren (Q 5:31). Someone sent me a story about a video that emerged in the midst of this ugliness. A dog emerged from the rubble, and in its mouth was the cell phone of its owner. Upon realizing that its owner was not emerging from the rubble, the dog sat and, according to the witness, wept. I have seen dogs weep. I have seen them weep when their owners are ill or dead. I have seen them abstain from eating when they are worried or sad about their owners, and I have seen them abstain from eating to the point of dying. Amid this ugliness, the beauty of a dog testifies. The beauty of encoded morality and principles. The dog does not have volition, but the dog responds to the morality encoded within, so that its instinct responds to the moral choices made by its Maker. Its Maker, through this dog, teaches us an amazing lesson about loyalty.

In Arabic, when one person wants to insult another, they call them a kalb (dog). I disabused myself of this notion long ago. I am honored to be a kalb. I consider it no insult to be called a dog. Indeed, I welcome it, because what is encoded within a dog is truly beautiful […] Listen to the lessons that God teaches us through the good (al-khayr) and the bad (al-sharr) (Q 21:35).

God is constantly educating human beings, using natural processes to communicate, to educate, and, ultimately, to hold accountable.

Pray for the victims of the earthquake, but do not limit yourself to prayer. Give everything you can give. Help in every way you can. Care, so that when your turn comes, perhaps God will reciprocate the goodness, and you will find those who care about what happens to you in turn. 

We [cannot choose immorality] then sit and wonder, “Why is God not helping us? Why is our status as Muslim so horrible? Why is the news about Muslims so bad all the time?” Brothers and sisters, the answer is because of us. It is because of us and our moral choices.

Full khutbah with Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl (begins at 8mins)