Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Post-quake Existential Questions in Syria and Turkey

This thought-provoking article examines religious texts and historical incidents to shed light on the existential questions that arise in times of crisis.

Post-quake Syria and Turkey
A man walks past collapsed buildings in Antakya, southern Turkey on February 20, 2023. Yasin AKGUL / AFP

Hussein Ali Al-Zoubi

The latest earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria gave rise to many existential questions. Significant events, such as wars and natural disasters, bring forth major questions that challenge society’s faith, doctrine and scriptures.

Since the earthquake, the Middle East has had its eyes on astrologists more than ever. In particular, following the predictions of Dutch researcher Frank Hoogerbeets, for which he relied on planetary motion.

This behavioural trend might align with Ibn Khaldoun’s theory regarding societies’ response to crises. Hundreds of years ago, Ibn Khaldoun argued that when wars or catastrophes befall societies, they lean towards astrology.

The Day of Judgement

Many survivors of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria likened moments of this crisis to the Day of Judgement. Naturally, this characterisation is deeply connected to the perception of Judgement Day in the Syrian and Turkish collective subconscious, whether it originated from religious scriptures or TV and cinema. But how is the earthquake linked to Judgement Day or the end of the world?

For most of the disaster area’s inhabitants, several and successive earthquakes are “signs of the coming of Judgement Day,” that is, indications of the approaching end of the world. The Hadith says, “The Hour (Last Day) will not be established until (religious) knowledge will be taken away, earthquakes will be very frequent, time will pass quickly, afflictions will appear, murders will increase….”

In this context, Islamic scholar ibn al-Uthaymin says, “The Hour will not come until earthquakes become frequent, and there are two kinds; tangible quakes that shake the earth, destroying cities and homes, and moral quakes that shake faith, belief, ethics and behaviour, until people come to doubt their beliefs, morals, and sane sages, and they will be confused once again. The Hadith could mean both (kinds of earthquakes), but the former is more probable.”

Islamic preacher Shahhat al-Azazi, a scholar of the Egyptian Ministry of Awqaf or Religious Endowments, agreed with ibn al-Uthaymin. Ahmed Karima, a professor of Islamic law and comparative jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, argued the same. According to him, the recent earthquakes are a sign of the Hour.

However, the proposition is met with many questions about similar, possibly more severe, historical incidents. In his book, Ashrat al-Sa’a, Muhammad bin Rasul al-Husseini says, “During the caliphate of al-Mutawakkil in Hijri year 232(H), an enormous earthquake hit Damascus. It reached Antakia and destroyed it. It reached al-Jazira and burned it, and it reached Mosul as well. In 242(H), a great earthquake hit Tunisia, Khorasan, Nishapur, Tabaristan, and Isfahan. Mountains were shattered, and land cracks would fit grown men. There were ten years between the two earthquakes. In 245(H), earthquakes engulfed the world, destroying cities, castles, and barrages. A mountain from Antakia fell into the sea.”

In his book, Al-Isha’a Li Ashrat Al-Sa’a, al-Barzanji said, “During al-Muʿtaḍid’s caliphate in 280(H), a great earthquake struck Debal and wrecked the country; those who were found under the rubble amounted to 150,000. In 450, a massive earthquake hit Ramla and destroyed the land until water overflowed from wells. It reaped the lives of 25,000 of its residents. The tides fell back a day’s walk, so people went down to collect fish, but the tides returned and drowned them.”

Al-Barzanji’s accounts clearly indicate that the region also experienced earthquakes and a tsunami. According to his statements, which did not trigger or lead to the Day of Judgement, these incidents were far more severe than the events of 6 February 2023. Al-Barzanji did not tackle people’s questions and beliefs related to the earthquakes.

Other history books, however, did address these questions but in relation to a different kind of disaster: the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols, who committed a great massacre. At the time, people thought that the fall of Baghdad was a sign of the Hour and that “the Awaited Mahdi will appear very soon to lead the Muslim armies to victory over the Mongols, and Christ will descend, and the Hour will come,” which was not the case.

Punishment and Reward

Northern Syria has already been afflicted by the Syrian Crisis for over ten years. After the earthquake, the area has focussed on questions without clear answers that revolve around a single sentiment; “Why us? We have been exposed to all forms of suffering for a decade.” This question, indeed, has no clear answer. Yet, many –religious scholars in particular – have placed the matter within the punishment and reward equation, aligned with the concepts of adversity and grants.

These scholars rely on religious scriptures that support both sides of the equation in terms of reward on the one hand and punishment on the other. The latter provoked frustration as was reflected on social media. Some mentioned the scriptures and one quote by the Rashid Caliph, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, in particular: “I swear to Allah, every Ummah that sinned repeatedly, Allah punished them with earthquakes, winds, and rains that drowned them.”

It is worth noting that Umar’s era saw a different kind of crisis; the Plague of Amwas. It claimed 25,000 to 30,000 lives, including some of the Prophet’s closest companions.

On the other side of the equation is the reward. Proponents of this hypothesis attributed what happened to a divine punishment meant to cleanse, atone and test faith. They also relied on religious scriptures, such as the Hadith quoted by Prophet Mohammad’s companion Abu Hurayra: “He whom Allah deems good, He makes him suffer from some affliction.”

Al-Bukhari, an Islamic scholar, conveyed the Hadith, “O Messenger of Allah! Which of the people is tried most severely?” Prophet Mohhamad said, “The Prophets, then those nearest to them, then those nearest to them.” Another Hadith states, “When Allah loves a people, He tests them. Whoever accepts that wins His pleasure, but whoever is discontent with that earns His wrath.”

In this context, the Hadith’s notion of the “chain of transmission,” whether substantiated or fictitious and the concept of punishment and reward became topics of debate. Did the children who died in the disaster deserve punishment? Is corruption in the area less than in other places in Syria? Or in other countries?

This matter may bring to mind Voltaire’s Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, addressing Christian clerics who made similar arguments to justify the great earthquake that hit Lisbon in 1755:

Say ye, o’er that yet quivering mass of flesh:
“God is avenged: the wage of sin is death”?
What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?

Fate is Good and Bad

The duality of punishment versus reward has strongly dominated the debate surrounding the latest earthquake. This dichotomy, however, does not contradict the concept of accepting divine fate, good or bad. Supporters of this concept propose that God only does good and that what may seem a crisis may bring good through divine wisdom.

To prove their point, they infer the Quran’s story of the Prophet Moses and al-Khidr. The latter committed three acts that angered Moses. He seemingly sank a ship, killed a young boy and rebuilt a wall for people who denied them hospitality. Eventually, al-Khidr reveals the good intentions and wisdom behind his actions to Moses.

Accepting the divine nature of disasters and the problematic, or even existential, questions triggered by the earthquake may be challenging to comprehend for people, as proven by the above story. Moses, who promised al-Khidr not to question his actions until he revealed them to him, could not be patient and gave up. If this was Prophet Moses’ reaction, what reaction would ordinary people have?

Conspiracy Theory

In 2018, MIT studied the impacts of sharing false news during crises and disasters. According to the study, people’s tendency or preference to share news without fact-checking exacerbates false news and rumours circulation on social media. False news spread six times faster than truthful news.

The same applies to perceptions that base their explanation of what happened on “conspiracy theories.” Some social media accounts linked the earthquake to a group of European countries withdrawing their ambassadors from Turkey 20 hours before the earthquake.

Others claimed the earthquake had been triggered by the use of nuclear weapons. They say the USA dropped a small nuclear bomb near the Turkish shores.

Another group accused the USA of using a mysterious weapon manufactured within the HAARP project, which is able to produce artificial earthquakes. Some talked about weapons that emit high-density electromagnetic pulses. They link their assumptions to the USA’s joint military exercises with Cyprus and Greece in the Mediterranean days before the earthquake.

Many of these theories were pioneered by supporters of Turkey. But what about Turkey’s opponents? This camp promotes a scenario in which they assume that Turkey has built hundreds of dams, accumulating huge reservoirs that leaked massive amounts of groundwater, leading to the earthquake. They based their assumption on the Turkish government’s rush to empty reservoirs in the earthquake region for fear of a potential flood engulfing southern Turkey and reaching Syria and Iraq.

Rousseau’s Advocates

As major events pose major questions, they also create a space for other perceptions about life, its relation with religion and clergy, religious views and their role in society. As civilisation’s development confirms, these perceptions are not confined to a particular social group or geographical area. For instance, peace in Europe arrived only after heavy wars. Likewise, the European Renaissance started only once intellectuals faced the taboos imposed by their society, with all its political, religious and social might.

Amid the conspiracy, religious and paranormal interpretations triggered by the earthquake were voices of reason and calls to focus on the facts imposed by the earthquake, such as the massive number of casualties and the impact of construction violations. These voices called for those in charge of construction operations to be held accountable and partially responsible for the disaster.

These voices align with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s opinions based on his research into the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. He did not hold humans responsible for the earthquake but considered them liable for the 250,000 casualties.

According to Rousseau, humans had made the mistake of building multi-storey buildings. The massive number of deaths would have been much less if buildings had been single-storey. Thus, Rousseau ruled out that God had been responsible for what had happened in Lisbon.

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