خدا کا عذاب
Masood N. Khan M.D.

The current pandemic that has engulfed the world, has, as usual, induced people of all faiths to raise the slogan of “GOD’S PUNISHMENT !!” ) خدا کاعذا . Muslims are in forefront. Whenever a calamity happens, may it be an earthquake, a hurricane, a war, a flood or an epidemic, Muslims are quick to declare it a punishment of God – an Azaab in Quranic term. So, in parallel with trying to restore themselves by physical means, they also become deeply engaged in pleasing God with their duas, prayers and recitations of Quran to ward off His punishment.

A sense of fear is almost inseparable from the very perception of God. The fear of His punishment is pasted on the nerves of Muslims from childhood. When a
teacher repeatedly tried to impress upon the kids in the 2nd grade class in an Islamic school, that God should always be feared, an innocent student rose up and asked “why should we fear God, is He a bad guy?”. This plain question threw the teacher frantically searching for words to explain. Seemingly an innocent question from a child, it has lot to reflect upon, for the grown ups. Even the Arabic word “Taqwa” profusely used in Quran, to mean a deep sense of mindfulness of God, has been commonly translated as “Fear of God” without any hesitation and not content with it, in order to magnify the fear, The Quranic word, “Azaab” is translated as “Punishment”. ‘Azaab’, certainly denotes pain and hurt, but it cannot be a punishment awarded by somebody, much less by the most ‘Merciful God’.

For lack of an equivalent word in English, the word ‘Azaab’ has to be explained properly to convey its right meaning.

The meaning of the word “Azaab” is two-dimensional.

First, it is a miserable and painful state of being, and secondly it is consequential to a precedent act or acts. To understand it properly, “Azaab” would mean ‘a painful consequence’ of something that caused it. So the responsibility lies with the one who committed the causative action. It is in this sense, Quran has repeatedly warned human beings about an impending miserable and painful condition they will find themselves in, either in this world or in the Hereafter or in both, as a result of their arrogant and willful ill deeds especially those that cause disorder and harm to God’s creation and the humanity – the acts committed in arrogant rejection of His authority. To suffer the ill consequences of an ill deed is according to God’s plan of creation, Quran calls it “the Sunnat Allah”سنۃ اللہ (Allah’s way), and in the same sense, ‘His Command’ or ‘His Will’. Azaab is like a self-inflicted wound. If somebody intentionally hurts himself, he will suffer the pain according to a system of “cause and effect” that God has put in place. To think that God is inflicting this pain to punish him is wrong. It is wrong because it disregards the primary responsibility of man in putting himself in the harm’s way and suffering the consequences. A famous poet Amjad Hyderabadi, conveys the correct sense of the word Azaab in his following verse (sher):

لذ تیں ختم ہو گیہں امجد
لذ توں کا عذاب باقی ہیے

All the pleasures are over Amjad
The Azaab of the pleasures now remains

In the same connection, the graphic descriptions in Quran of Heaven and Hell, have been presented and explained by many theologians to Muslim masses as literal. These verses in Quran, categorized as “mutashabihat” (allegorical), present similes to help people understand and get some idea. Such verses are not to be taken literally nor to be demystified into any kind of concrete interpretation. Quran has advised against it (Q. 3:7). They are simply meant to give human beings an idea of a state in the Hereafter marked with either bliss and happiness or anguish and pain resulting from the effect of their own good or evil deeds respectively.

Wrong translations of the Quranic words in general, added to a literal understanding of what is allegorical, when in relation to the description of Hellfire, will give a vividly unhealthy imagination of pain and suffering inflicted on human beings. As a sad corollary to such dreaded divine punishment, God is reduced to a majestic tyrant sitting on the throne on the Day of Judgment and throwing people into Hellfire. It is more so, to a critical student of Islam. Many orientalists in the west, have therefore passed a harsh critique on such a perception of God in Islam. Their verdicts of course are factually incorrect and unfairly represent Islam in bad light . However they should provoke Muslims to revise their understanding of the concept of ‘God’s punishment’, wrongly ascribed to Him.

As for the calamities that befall human beings in this world, they are of two kinds; Those that directly result from human action, for example, living in unhygienic conditions and giving rise to an epidemic of cholera, using chemical weapons to kill hundreds of thousands of people using science and technology for destructive purposes and driving while intoxicated and causing accidents that can kill scores of people etc. etc. and secondly those that can be categorized as natural disasters which are beyond human control or human errors. Majority of the adherents of any particular faith, have this tendency to think that natural calamities that befall human beings, are God’s punishment? As if God likes to punish people with such catastrophes to correct their behavior. This is certainly not the message we get from Quran. Such events, Quran says, are an indispensable part of how this universe is created and how the Laws of Nature operate. Human behavior could possibly have an indirect role if at all, in case it has contributed to the causes of any such tragedy or disaster. But, regardless,
such natural catastrophes will continue to happen according to the order of creation for no fault of human beings. Quran draws attention to such painful experiences including those that are directly caused by human action as ‘trials and tribulations’ that human beings are bound to face in this world, but enjoins them to use such experiences as opportunities to introspect, learn, correct and come out a more patient, purer and stronger person distilled by the hardship. (Q2:155-157)

As a caveat to the above discussion, it needs to be brought up that Quran does mention about few instances of ‘Azaab’ that descended upon people when they rejected, ridiculed and hurt (even killed) a Prophet of God who came to them with His message. The extraordinary events came after clear warning by God. Such events, as they have been described in Quran were supernatural and of cosmic dimensions and perhaps happened with such ferocity that clearly confirmed their being out of this world. Such exclusive events, in spite of presenting as a kind of a divine punishment do no change the basic notion that ‘Azaab’ – a state of pain and suffering results primarily from arrogant and willfully destructive human behavior.

In conclusion

  1. Azaab is not a punishment from God but an unpleasant and painful state of being either in this world or in the Hereafter resulting from one’s own ill deeds, where primary responsibility lies with one who committed them. So the translation of the word Azaab as Punishment is linguistically incorrect.
  1. The Quranic verses and some sayings of the prophet, describing Hellfire and Azaab, should not be taken literally. They are figurative and allegorical, meant to give us a sense that Heaven and Hell, Reward and Azaab represent special states of happiness or pain.
  1. Natural catastrophes are an indispensable part of how this universe is created and how the Laws of Nature operate. Human behavior could possibly have an indirect role, if it has contributed to the causes of any disaster. Quran draws our attention to such painful experiences as ‘trials and tribulations’ that human beings are bound to face in this world, but enjoins them to use such experiences as opportunities to become stronger and better persons.