And the Earth Quakes, yet again

Geologists have a convincing explanation: the earth quakes whenever there is a sudden release of energy in its lithosphere. A great deal of seismic activity takes place beneath the mountains but remains unnoticed by everyone except a handful of experts, until the earth quakes. And when it quakes, it takes its toll, sometimes devastating hundreds of thousands of lives. This explanation is self-sufficient, objective, scientific; none of this has anything to do—it seems—with the One Who created the earth, the mountains that stabilize it, and those affected by its shaking.

Yet, despite their pervasive presence, these are relatively new explanations.

They have emerged only in the wake of the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, and have since been adopted as the “official explanations” most people accept, rendering all other explanations “unscientific” and thus somehow flawed. Until the appearance of these scientific explanations, most human beings believed in other reasons, among them, the belief that it was all in the Hands of the Creator, Who manages the affairs of the earth and those who live upon it. Modern science calls such beliefs superstition. This reigning scientific orthodoxy has not only removed the Hand of God from what happens to earth and those who live here, but has also created an unresolvable despair—for, if earthquakes can be explained away in terms of the movement of tectonic plates, and all that happens on earth in terms of randomly occurring processes, then life on this ravaged planet itself becomes a terminus ad quem, without hope, without any salvific future.

Millions of intelligent human beings now believe and live according to this “scientific religion”. Caught in their daily routines, they vaguely know that they are living in an incredibly vast and complex systems, which can only be understood by a small number of scientists who need to be believed, because they know and we do not. This pervasive scientism conceives the earth as a planet some 4.7 billion-year-old, formed when gravity pulled swirling gas and dust in to become the third planet from the Sun. It understands the earth just like its fellow terrestrial planets—containing a central core, a rocky mantle, and a solid crust, all to have cooled off to allow the primal matter to give birth to simple forms of organic life which, in time, became complex through innumerable random chance processes, leading to the evolution of Homo sapiens.

This explanation, in the sense that it provides at least some semblance of a rational account for existence, is deemed to be a satisfactory account, at least until the earth quakes, shattering the house of cards. Events of such jarring force as to breach the carefully-constructed patterns of human life strike out to shake the individual. At such times, many of those who gaze into the void left by the scientistic account realize a hidden spiritual anguish, perhaps as a reaction to the physical carnage or due to a more immediate recognition of the fundamental reality of mortality, which calls out for a more substantive explanation of the basic questions.

This realization, transcending the mundane realm and opening another plane of consciousness, then directs our attention to the presence of a spirit within the ephemeral bodies, a spirit capable of feeling the pain and the anguish at the departure of loved ones, reflective remorse, despair, the fear of the unknown. Once realized, this consciousness leads to an awareness of something higher than the physical needs, the emotional desires, and a survival dependent on hormones and organs. At such times, human beings know with certainty that there is, in them, something inherently indestructible even by the worst quaking of the earth: fitra, their innate nature, which experientially recognizes the Creator Who fashioned them and placed them on this earth that has just quaked, once more.

Once this consciousness appears, it simultaneously opens a small window through which we can, then, revisit the vast and complex processes—not only just beneath the earth, but also in the vast cosmos of which the earth is but one part and, then, the quaking of the earth takes another form, giving rise to a hurricane within, that yields a compelling evidence for the presence of a Wise, Powerful, Majestic, and Merciful Creator Who designed the earth as our abode for a purpose and for a fixed duration.

The teleological argument of the ancients, then, appears with a new meaning, a meaning that is reinforced and supplemented with copious amounts of new data that our ever-more sophisticated instruments have generated, but data that was never before looked at by hearts yearning for solace in the wake of an earthquake. Now, the calamities which are visiting humanity with increasing frequency, do not seem to be the work of “nature,” for in such a state of receptivity we understand that nature itself is dependent on something else and, likewise, we now realize that what was previously called “laws of nature” are, in fact, laws created by the One Who created “nature”—whatever that nebulous word means.

This realization not only shatters the house of cards that scientism has been unceasingly building for the last three hundred years, it also inspires us to seek afresh the real nature of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and tornadoes by refocusing our attention to something beyond the secondary causes which ascribe these processes to the movement of tectonic plates, or to warm and cold currents of water and winds. Now we come face to face with primary questions beginning with a “why”, leaving aside the “how”.

Suffering softens hearts, an ancient proverb tells us, and softened hearts not only yearn for kindness and solace but also become receptive to the nature of things as they really are. The questions, themselves are no longer confined to the cold realm of reason; they now arise from the deep recesses of the heart: Why was this calamity sent to us? Why did the earth quake? Why did the hurricane rage with such ferocity? Why do we suffer?

Of course, each one of us has to find our own answers to these primary questions, for no man can carry the burden of another and no amount of rational persuasion can lead to gnosis of that which is beyond its narrow confines. At moments like this, reductive answers provided by the pseudo religion of science are no longer adequate and one knows with increasing certitude, that the earth has quaked for a reason which is beyond the human understanding; in this humility lies the answer of the question: why does the earth quake?

This is a revised version of “Shadhra 6,”
written on
Shawwāl 5, 1426/November 07, 2005,
first published in
Islam & Science
Vol. 3 (Winter 2005) No. 2
© 2005 by the Center for Islam and Science