Different types of calamities

مَا أَصَابَ مِن مُّصِيبَةٍ إِلَّا بِإِذْنِ اللَّهِ

Mā asāba min musībatin illā bi-idhni-llāh

No affliction comes about except by Allah’s permission

(Sūrat al-Taghābun, No 64, Āyat 11)

This verse comes after two verses that describe believers and disbelievers. It talks of afflictions as a point of reflection for both groups. Those who believe should understand that true faith and perfection cannot be attained except through the challenges of afflictions. For the disbelievers it is a reminder that it happens with the permission of Allah ‘azza wajall.

Everything in this world is in the ultimate control of Allah subhānahu wata‘ālā , and nothing happens without His permission. Allāmah Tabātabā’ī in al-Mīzān explains that permission here is not verbal permission. It is a takwīnī permission, referring to the existence of that which He has created. There is a system of cause and effect in this world and Allah has removed barriers that would stop the cause from causing the effect. For example, fire (a cause) can burn (effect) a piece of cloth. But there should be no barrier such as wetness etc. that would prevent the effect from taking place. Thus, ensuring there is no water on the cloth, with the knowledge that no water will make the cloth burn, is permission for the fire to do its work. It is authorizing the necessary potential of the fire, i.e., to burn.

It is generally assumed that permission is something given to a being with reason. It is believed that understanding the permission is necessary. So, it is common to say, for example, ‘I gave permission for my child to go out’. But no-one would say ‘I gave permission to water to make the floor wet’. But letting it happen is giving permission to it to do its work. This is the type of permission mentioned in this verse. The Quran mentions this type of permission in other places also. It says: The good land—its vegetation comes out by the permission of its Lord (Q 7:58) and It gives its fruit every season by the permission of its Lord (Q 14:25). No action of a doer nor any effect of a cause can take place without Allah (swt) letting it happen.

Such a permission is not legislative. That means these types of afflictions are not what Allah has not commanded should happen. In fact, some afflictions due to human actions such as oppression have been forbidden by Allah. That is why such actions should be countered. To be patient in the face of such calamities and accept them passively has been condemned. There must be resistance and efforts to overcome the cause that brings them about. The ones for which patience is recommended are those in which the human being himself does not have a role to play.

Verses of Quran about afflictions must be put together to gain a complete picture about them. The following verses show different aspects of the causes of afflictions:

  1. Pre-destined – No affliction visits the land or yourselves, but it is in a Book before We bring it about—that is indeed easy for Allah (Q 57:22).
  2. Caused by the human being – Whatever affliction that may visit you is because of what your hands have earned, and He excuses many [an offence of yours] (Q 42:30)

Thus, there are some afflictions caused by circumstances beyond the control of human being while others are caused by the human beings themselves. The reckoning for these two afflictions is quite different. The chosen ones of Allah (swt) despite their high status and perfection, faced the former type of affliction. It has its own philosophy behind it and is part of what the world offers the servants of God in their sojourn here.

When Imam Ali Zaynul ‘Ābidīn (a) was brought to Damascus in chains after the tragedy of Karbala, Yazīd recited the verse: Whatever affliction that may visit you is because of what your hands have earned, and He excuses many [an offence of yours] (Q 42:30), implying that the tragedy was a result of their deeds. The Imam told him that that verse was not revealed for them. What was revealed for them, he told Yazīd, was: No affliction visits the land or yourselves, but it is in a Book before We bring it about—that is indeed easy for Allah (Q 57:22), that it was part of what was in the Book of Allah.

Let this verse be a reminder that Allah allows certain afflictions to happen. He does not prevent them from happening, even though in exceptional circumstances such as miracles He does.

Sources: Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh