THE PROBLEM OF EVIL IN MEDICINE
The problem of evil is arguably the most important philosophical problem that everyone involved in the medical profession confronts. This is because, unlike most other professions, medicine deals with ‘evil’ that hits the physical and psychological self. It is the only profession where suffering, pain and agony of all sorts are what are expected, and their alleviation its goal. James Bryce described it as “the only profession that labours incessantly to destroy the reason for its own existence.”
It is a very deep problem, and is especially pertinent when one witnesses it in those who have ‘not brought their diseases on’, so to speak. It is less difficult to accept ‘evil’ in a chain smoker of 50 years who has developed lung cancer or a man who has been alcohol or heroin dependent for most of his life, than it is to accept it in a child of two who is dying of an inoperable brain tumour.
The witnessing of suffering on an intense scale has led, and still leads, many people of faith to question their belief in God, and some indeed to completely discard any such idea. This has been the case for thousands of years, from the days of Epicurus and Sextus Empiricus, to today.
The former is regarded as the he who first expounded the problem of evil. He is reported to have said the following:
"Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?"
The influence of Epicurus is clear for anyone to see on the works of the great skeptic, David Hume. As one encyclopedia article puts it:
“The stronger form most people know of Epicurus' problem of evil is actually David Hume's formulation of the problem of evil in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion:
"[Gods] power we allow [is] infinite: Whatever he wills is executed: But neither man nor any other animal are happy: Therefore he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite: He is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end: But the course of nature tends not to human or animal felicity: Therefore it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge, there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these. In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men?"”
The atheists of today use the same arguments, and argue, as Andrea Weiberger, chair of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Jacksonville University, does in, ‘The Cambridge Companion to Atheism’:
“The existence of evil is the most fundamental threat to the traditional Western concept of an all-good, all-powerful God. Both natural evil, the suffering that occurs as a result of physical phenomena, and moral evil, the suffering resulting from human action, comprise the problem of evil. If evil cannot be accounted for, then belief in the traditional Western concept of God is absurd.”
The problem of evil shook the belief of some of the most fervent believers in God, such as Voltaire, the man who famously said, “If God did not exist, we would have to invent Him”. This happened to him after his visit to Lisbon after its famous earthquake. He wrote in a letter to one of his friends afterward:
“My dear sir, nature is very cruel. One would find it hard to imagine how the laws of movement cause such frightful disasters in the best of possible worlds. A hundred thousand ants, our fellows, crushed all at once in our ant-hill, and half of them perishing, no doubt in unspeakable agony, beneath the wreckage from which they cannot be drawn. Families ruined all over Europe, the fortune of a hundred businessmen, your compatriots, swallowed up in the ruins of Lisbon. What a wretched gamble is the game of human life! What will the preachers say, especially if the palace of the Inquisition is still standing? I flatter myself that at least the reverend father inquisitors have been crushed like others. That ought to teach men not to persecute each other, for while a few holy scoundrels burn a few fanatics, the earth swallows up one and all.”
And if Voltaire’s faith was shaken by this one disaster, what is one to think of what might happen to the belief of a medical professional in this day and age, who more likely than not, will not be grounded with the solid faith that our elders had, who deals with disasters and deep suffering on a daily, nay, on an hourly basis. Can a medical professional truly turn a blind eye to all the suffering and problems, be it physical or psychosocial, that patients present themselves to us with? I think not. The Roman physician Sextus Empiricus certainly couldn’t, and all the suffering that he witnessed led him to remark:
"Those who affirm positively that God exists cannot avoid falling into an impiety. For if they say that God controls everything, they make Him the author of evil things; if, on the other hand, they say that He controls some things only, or that He controls nothing, they are compelled to make God either grudging or impotent, and to do that is quite obviously an impiety."
It is certainly a very difficult problem, but there are many ways of looking at it, and philosophers and religious men have given a variety of responses to it. But I would like to have a slightly different view of it.
Superficially speaking, the atheists who remark that the presence of so much evil in the world, points to the non-existence of God, are mistaken. But there is an element of truth in what they say – the presence of so much evil in the world at present is definitely due to the lack of the idea of God. The argument from evil can paradoxically be used as an argument for, rather than an argument against, the existence of God.
The ideological hallmark of the 20th century is the collapse of the authority of the Church and the rise of atheism and secularism. The ‘Islamic’ state collapsed officially in 1923, though the factors leading to its demise had been present for centuries before hand. Thus – the 20th century may be regarded as the century of the abandonment of God.
And what we saw in the 20th century was the highest number of catastrophes and deaths in the history of man. The reason for this is not simply because of the growing human population, but because of increasing human brutality and corruption, which is not being held in check by the awareness of God. Martin Gilbert, concluding his, ‘History of the Twentieth Century’ writes:
“The twentieth century has been given many attributes, among them the century of war, the century of the common man – because, Churchill said, “in it the common man has suffered most” – and the century of the refugee. In 1980, the United Nations High Commisioner for Refugees was responsible for the needs and well being of two and a half million refugees within its auspices. By the end of the century that number has raised to twenty-one million. Amid the problems and opportunities of the overpopulated planet, the plight of the refugees was a stark reminded of how harsh life could be. Most, if not all the people reading this book, like the author himself, will never have seen, except on television, the depths of human misery which, with all the marvelous achievements which the twentieth century saw, the opportunities created by wealth and leisure, the challenges of creativity and production, nevertheless scarred every region of the world”.
The number of human beings who have died as a consequence of war (between one nation and another) in the 20th century is about 160,000,000. The number killed by the atrocities of leaders against their own people is over 150,000,000, with Mao Ze-Dong (China, 1958-61 and 1966-69, Tibet 1949-50) (killing 49-78,000,000), Jozef Stalin (USSR, 1932-39) killing 23,000,000 ((the purges plus Ukraine's famine)) and Adolf Hitler (Germany, 1939-1945) 12,000,000 (concentration camps and civilians WWII), all atheists, having the lion’s share of victims. Thus, over 370,000,000 people have been killed directly by man made actions. This is 100,000,000 more than those killed by ‘natural disasters’.
Before discussing this point, it is interesting to note how many atheists, even intelligent ones, use the evils of men, who were also atheists, in justifying their ‘disbelief’. Take for instance Andrea Weiberger, Chair of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Jacksonville University, who writes in ‘The Cambridge Companion to Atheism’:
“Where was God? Where was the intelligent designer of the universe when 1.5 million children were turned into smoke by zealous Nazis? Where was the all powerful, all knowing, wholly good being whose very essence is radically opposed to evil, while millions of children were starved to death by Stalin, had their limbs chopped off with machetes in Rwanda, were turned into amputees by the diamond trade in Sierra Leone, and worked to death, even now, by the child slave trade that, by conservative estimates, enslaves 250 million children worldwide? Without divine justice, all of this suffering is gratuitous. How, then, can a wholly good, all-powerful God be believed to exist?”
It is as if God somehow forced these criminals into their actions, as if He never gave them free will! Such a superficiality of thought was even exhibited by the great Bertrand Russell, whose opinions on the subject strike me as among his weakest:
“It is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists.”
Atheists have a tendency to bring up the subject of natural disasters as pointing in the direction of their ideology. They forget that the number of man made crimes (all of which, without a single exception were committed by disbelievers in God and the pure message of His prophets) victims far exceeds the number of ‘natural disaster victims’, even if we count victims of certain ‘natural disasters’, which were strictly speaking man-made disasters, in that category. 
They forget the fact that, while “natural disasters are often perceived as being “acts of god”, with little causal relationship to human activities, (this) may be true for some natural hazards such as earthquakes and volcanoes…Over the last 50 years, there has been a growing body of evidence pointing to the effect of human behaviour on the global natural environment and on the possibility that certain types of natural disasters, such as floods, may be increasing as a direct consequence of human activity.”
Many of them do not seem to know that earthquakes and volcanoes are but a natural occurrence, that they are a consequence of God’ laws of nature, and without them, the earth would not be what it is. They are actually of great benefit to the earth and humanity as a whole, something that is declared by every geologist in the world. It is fascinating that Christopher Hitchens, a fervent atheist, has that kind of insight into this:
“Natural disasters are actually not violations of the laws of nature, but rather are part of the inevitable fluctuations within them. While it is true that but they have always been used to overawe the gullible with the mightiness of god's disapproval. Early Christians, operating in zones of Asia Minor where earthquakes were and are frequent, would rally crowds when a pagan temple fell down, and urge them to convert while there was still time. The colossal volcanic explosion at Krakatoa in the late nineteenth century provoked an enormous swing toward Islam among the terrified population of Indonesia…After the terrible Asian tsunami of 2005, and after the inundation of New Orleans in 2006, quite serious and learned men such as the archbishop of Canterbury were reduced to the level of stupefied peasants when they publicly agonized over how to interpret god's will in the matter. But if one makes the simple assumption, based on absolutely certain knowledge, that we live on a planet that is still cooling, has a molten core, faults and cracks in its crust, and a turbulent weather system, then there is simply no need for any such anxiety. Everything is already explained. I fail to see why the religious are so reluctant to admit this: it would free them from all the futile questions about why god permits so much suffering. But apparently this annoyance is a small price to pay in order to keep alive the myth of divine intervention.”
The same applies to disease and death. Many of them fail to realize that disease and death from it are natural occurrences too, and are important in keeping the balance of the world. Thus, it makes no sense for an agnostic like Bertrand Russell to say the following:
“I will say further that, if there be a purpose and if this purpose is that of an Omnipotent Creator, then that Creator, so far from being loving and kind, as we are told, must be of a degree of wickedness scarcely conceivable. A man who commits a murder is considered to be a bad man. An Omnipotent Deity, if there be one, murders everybody. A man who willingly afflicted another with cancer would be considered a fiend. But the Creator, if He exists, afflicts many thousands every year with this dreadful disease.”
Everyone has to die sometime, somehow, to keep the world alive. If death did not occur, the world will be a nightmare. As one writer put it:
“As long as we live in the limited space here below, there is no withdrawal from the busy world of earthly affairs. The world is too narrow to allow for the segregation of different generations.Imagine eternal existence in the flesh! Even granting a body continual health, could everlasting happiness be captured in a life within the bonds of earthly space? As generation after generation rises around a person, will they not wish to withdraw from a society of younger minds who view the uses of the world from a different perspective? The purpose of the Creator always extends to the realization of a goal beyond death.”
Death is a necessity, and to regard it, as Russell does here, as ‘murder’ is unacceptable and highly superficial. He fails to realize its importance, and that, as Pierre Corneille, the French playwright put it, “What destroys one man preserves another”.
As for disease, everyone has to die somehow, and disease and degeneration, are the causes of death. In addition, as I attempt to show in this book, there are many signs and portents pointing to God, through the contemplation of disease. For instance, with cancers, the example that Russell cites, Arthur C. Guyton has the following to say, as I explained in my BMJ obituary of him:
“Guyton was a true scientific thinker who taught us not to accept things at face value. This is well illustrated in the following excerpt from the Textbook of Medical Physiology on the pathogenesis of tumours. Most medical textbooks discuss this topic in the same way, referring to facts and figures about oncogenes, tumour suppressor genes, cell cycle, and apoptosis. This is important, but for that extra bit of enlightenment and originality, one must refer to Guyton. What is it that causes the altered genes? When one realises that many trillions of new cells are formed each year in humans, this question probably is better asked in the following form: why is it that all of us do not develop literally millions or billions of mutant cancerous cells?
The answer is the incredible precision with which DNA chromosomal strands are replicated in each cell before mitosis can take place and also because the proofreading process cuts and repairs any abnormal strand before the mitotic process is allowed to proceed. Rather than discuss the failure of the human body to tackle cancers, Guyton twists the question around, demonstrating thankfulness for health.”
One of the greatest surgeons of all time, the wonderful Frederick Treves, immortalized by Anthony Hopkins’ depiction of him in the Oscar winning film, ‘The Elephant Man’, put it brilliantly too:
“The symptoms of disease are marked by purpose, and the purpose is beneficent. The processes of disease aim not at the destruction of life, but at the saving of it.”
In saying what he wrote, Russell seems to forget that many cancers are the consequence of human actions, something that he himself wrote about when talking about the American atrocities in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and elsewhere:
“The testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere has had the consequence of condemning millions of people to death because of bone cancer, blood cancer, genetic and somatic damage. Among the first victims of American testing have been American children. The number so affected is very large although the government of the United States lies about the treasonable consequences of its policy for its own people. Similar things are true of the Soviet government.”
Obesity, alcoholism, smoking – all states or behaviours that are discouraged or prohibited with submission to God; all of these are among the major contributors to cancer. This is just one example among many.
When looked upon as such, as natural, beneficial occurrences, ‘neutral diseases’ (not corruption related ones, such as drug related ones, or sexually-transmitted infections etc), volcanoes and earthquakes, among other things, cannot be regarded as ‘disasters’. They are the ideal way to keep nature’s balance.
As I said above, I must admit, it is sometimes very difficult to accept that notion, that disease and suffering is God’s way of reminding us of His existence and power, particularly when one witnesses the suffering of innocent children with cancers or other intractable diseases, something highlighted frequently by some of our great novelists, and perhaps foremost by the Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, who wrote on the issue extensively in his great novel, ‘The Brothers Karamazov’.
There are many ways I comfort myself with regards to the problem of evil. I sometimes seek refuge in the argument of ‘eternal harmony’, which states that, “Suffering and evil will vanish like a mirage at the end of the world. Just as seeing the individual colors of the rainbow does not indicate to us that all colors taken together produce white, so likewise seeing the individual events of live does not indicate to us that all events taken together produce the whole picture of the universe”. Other times I use the argument that, “"Good" and "evil; are polar concepts— without evil we cannot have known good and evil. Without the possibility to do harm, people could not be conscious of what is good—people would not be people, but something else”. Without knowing darkness, would we have known light? Without sweetness, would we have known what is bitter? Things are known by their opposites, so to speak. And so, without disease, we wouldn’t have known health. Indeed, that is what Charles Horace Mayo, founder of the Mayo Clinic, attested to in a statement he made to the American College of Surgeons at the turn of the century, saying, “Disease at times creates experiments that physiology completely fails to duplicate, and the wise physiologist can obtain clues to the resolution of many problems by studying the sick” and the greatest medical writer of our time, Arthur Clifton Guyton, also stated in the introduction to one of his fine physiology books, saying:
“A small but important part of this text presents not only knowledge that has come from basic experiments in animals, but also knowledge that has come from human experiments, especially unplanned experiments caused by disease. Literally thousands of human experiments proceed each day in the fields of high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, gastrointestinal disturbances, respiratory disease, and so forth. The physiology of these abnormalities is discussed briefly, partly because study of the diseases themselves can be enlightening, but even more because they give important insights into basic physiological concepts”.
To which I add a further quote from Kalarickal Oommen, Professor of Neurology at the University of Oklahoma, that “neurology owes more to its disorders than those disorders owe to neurology”, and the great Samuel Gee, the paedatrician and first man to give a full description of celiac disease:
“Physiology owes more to medicine than medicine to physiology. Nature in disease performs vivisections for us. The greater and better part of what we know concerning the functions of the many organs of the body is derived from pathological observations and not from physiological experiment”.
Sometimes, I use the classic argument of freedom, that it is “freedom which makes us people and not things. Evil is the price paid for free choice.”
Another is the argument of future harmony, “Evil events will produce something better in the future for others (e.g., a "necessary evil" or the ends justify the means.) My suffering will produce a better world for my children and others in history. The world is getting better and better— we are overcoming evil before the final redemption at the end of the world”.
But perhaps the best help for me, especially when I think of child suffering, are the arguments of trust, that, “The suffering of the innocent child is simply beyond human understanding, i.e., it's absurd.” The other is the argument of ‘saving the world from a future evil’, “The child would have grown up to sin (perhaps be a mass murderer). By his death by the hounds, the world is saved from his future evil deeds”. This latter is something alluded to in the Holy Quran, by the story of Moses and the sage, Al-Khidr, which we are told in the following verses:
“So they went on, until, when they met a boy, he slew him. (Moses) said: Hast thou slain an innocent person, not guilty of slaying another? Thou hast indeed done a horrible thing…He said: This is the parting between me and thee. Now I will inform thee of the significance of that with which thou couldst not have patience…And as for the boy, his parents were believers and we feared lest he should involve them in wrongdoing and disbelief” (18:74-80)
I find the following commentary, by Muhammad Ali, extremely useful with regards to these verses:
“The interpretation of the three incidents shows a manifestation of Divine wisdom in what takes place in the everyday life of man. Divine laws, as manifested in nature, are really working towards ultimate good, though sometimes they may appear to the outward eye to be working to the detriment of somebody. The beneficent hand of Allåh that works in nature is always directing humanity to the goal of great good, though that goal must necessarily be reached with apparent loss. Sometimes the loss is only apparent, as in the case of making a hole in the boat; there was no real loss, but the apparent loss served a great purpose and brought much benefit to the owner. The second instance is that in which there is real loss to a person, but it is for the good of humanity at large, for life must be sacrificed for the ultimate good of humanity. The third instance shows that, for the good of humanity, deeds must be done which bring no immediate reward, and that good done by one generation is not devoid of benefit to the next….That the youth himself deserved death is abundantly clear. His inordinacy had now reached an extreme — the circumstances seem to have been known to Khadir, though not to Moses — when it was feared that his innocent parents would be involved in the trouble which must befall him as a result of his wrongdoing. Note that the word used to indicate the youth’s wrongdoing is Tughyån, which means exceeding all limits in wrongdoing”.
But I think the most comforting thought is that I do not really know why it exists, or indeed what is good, and what is evil. This is what Benedict Spinoza attested to when he said, “nothing is intrinsically good or bad, except to the extent that it is subjectively perceived to be by the individual”, a belief reminiscent of that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so" and indeed the Quran, where God tells us, “But it may happen that ye hate a thing which is good for you, and it may happen that ye love a thing which is bad for you. Allah knoweth, ye know not” (2:216). Indeed, there is great comfort in this type of ignorance, where ignorance is bliss for our minds that are limited by the constraints of space and time.
I finally seek refuge in God’s words, and know that He is Perfect, that He is impotent, that He is merciful, that He is the ultimate Good, that He does not accept evil - that whatever it is, that He wills it for a reason that is good.
I hasten to add that the demarcation between neutral and ‘un-neutral’ disasters is becoming increasingly blurred. For example, diseases like malaria and dengue fever, which kill millions, have been linked to ‘global warming’, one of the worst man made disasters. As explained in one encyclopedia article on the ‘Effects of Global Warming’:
“Global warming may extend the favourable zones for vectors conveying infectious disease such as dengue fever and malaria. In poorer countries, this may simply lead to higher incidence of such diseases. In richer countries, where such diseases have been eliminated or kept in check by vaccination, draining swamps and using pesticides, the consequences may be felt more in economic than health terms. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says global warming could lead to a major increase in insect-borne diseases in Britain and Europe, as northern Europe becomes warmer, ticks—which carry encephalitis and lyme disease—and sandflies—which carry visceral leishmaniasis—are likely to move in...The World Health Organisation estimates 150,000 deaths annually "as a result of climate change", of which half in the Asia-Pacific region. In April 2008, it reported that, as a result of increased temperatures, malaria is appearing in the highland areas of Papua New Guinea, where it has always been too cold for disease-spreading mosquitoes.
The WHO discusses this issue extensively on its website:
“Change in world climate would influence the functioning of many ecosystems and their member species. Likewise, there would be impacts on human health. Some of these health impacts would be beneficial. For example, milder winters would reduce the seasonal winter-time peak in deaths that occurs in temperate countries, while in currently hot regions a further increase in temperatures might reduce the viability of disease-transmitting mosquito populations. Overall, however, scientists consider that most of the health impacts of climate change would be adverse.
Climatic changes over recent decades have probably already affected some health outcomes. Indeed, the World Health Organisation estimated, in its "World Health Report 2002", that climate change was estimated to be responsible in 2000 for approximately 2.4% of worldwide diarrhoea, and 6% of malaria in some middle-income countries. However, small changes, against a noisy background of ongoing changes in other causal factors, are hard to identify. Once spotted, causal attribution is strengthened if there are similar observations in different population settings.
The first detectable changes in human health may well be alterations in the geographic range (latitude and altitude) and seasonality of certain infectious diseases – including vector-borne infections such as malaria and dengue fever, and food-borne infections (e.g. salmonellosis) which peak in the warmer months. Warmer average temperatures combined with increased climatic variability would alter the pattern of exposure to thermal extremes and resultant health impacts, in both summer and winter. By contrast, the public health consequences of the disturbance of natural and managed food-producing ecosystems, rising sea-levels and population displacement for reasons of physical hazard, land loss, economic disruption and civil strife, may not become evident for up to several decades.”
So, while malaria is a creation of God, its spread may be immensely facilitated by the actions of man, the sole creator of global warming. So it and other infectious diseases may be regarded as, at least partly, man-made problems.
Even diseases like coronary artery disease (which in any case is mostly man-made, with smoking, obesity and alcohol major contributors) may be linked to global warming; a recent article in the ‘International Herald Tribune’ was entitled, ‘Global Warming could mean more heart problems, doctors warn’ (September 5, 2007). The rising incidence of asthma is attributed by some to global warming; this has been suggested many times by many prominent researchers. An article in the most prominent British medical journal, ‘The Lancet’ entitled ‘Global warming increases asthma’ (7 May 2004) stated this clearly:
“Fossil fuel combustion is partly to blame for increased childhood asthma, according to a report published by Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment. But the resulting air pollution is just part of the problem. Increasing temperatures encourage growth of moulds and fungi, and higher carbon dioxide levels stimulate plants to produce more pollen earlier in the year.
Childhood asthma in the United States rose by 160 per cent between 1980 and 1994. Inner city children are at special risk as diesel particles are particularly effective at delivering pollen to immune cells in the lungs, according to the report, called Inside the Greenhouse.
The report advocates local initiatives, such as tree-planting and improved public transport, to reduce greenhouse gases.”
Global warming is linked to so many natural disasters, from floods to hurricanes. Thus, all these natural disasters may be regarded as man-made, rather than ‘natural disasters’. Regarding the former, we saw many articles published after the recent flood crisis in the United Kingdom on the connection. In an article entitled, ‘Global warming floods threaten 4 million in UK’, Paul Brown, the environment correspondent of ‘The Guardian’ (April 22nd 2004) wrote, “Risks of flooding are growing to "unacceptable levels" because of climate change with up to 4 million Britons facing the prospect of their homes being inundated, according to a report to be published today by the government.” A similar report was made by Charles Clover, the environment editor of the ‘Daily Telegraph’ three years later, in an article entitled, ‘Floods show global warming is here’ (28th of July 2007).
As for the latter, the following extract from a certain website explains the connection:
“The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory performed a simulation to determine if there is a statistical trend in the frequency or strength of tropical cyclones over time. The simulation concluded "the strongest hurricanes in the present climate may be upstaged by even more intense hurricanes over the next century as the earth's climate is warmed by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In an article in Nature, Kerry Emanuel stated that potential hurricane destructiveness, a measure combining hurricane strength, duration, and frequency, "is highly correlated with tropical sea surface temperature, reflecting well-documented climate signals, including multidecadal oscillations in the North Atlantic and North Pacific, and global warming". Emanuel predicted "a substantial increase in hurricane-related losses in the twenty-first century". Similarly, P.J. Webster and others published an article in Science examining the "changes in tropical cyclone number, duration, and intensity" over the past 35 years, the period when satellite data has been available. Their main finding was although the number of cyclones decreased throughout the planet excluding the north Atlantic Ocean, there was a great increase in the number and proportion of very strong cyclones”
There are very few things that can be regarded as ‘natural disasters’, and those are to be regarded, by the believer as tests of a sort or as a reminder of His power and monopoly over nature. This is pointed out by verses like (2:155) which talks about famine and loss of lives, among other things, verse (13:12) which talks about lightning:
“And surely We shall try you with something of fear and hunger, and loss of wealth and lives and crops; but give glad tidings to the steadfast” (2:155)
“It is He Who doth show you the lightning, by way both of fear and of hope” (13:12)
Regarded as such, they cannot be regarded as ‘disasters’ – for disasters, by definition, serve no purpose; they are entirely destructive occurrences, with no constructive purpose whatsoever. Here, in the Quran, ‘disaster’ is linked with reward afterward; it is therefore constructive.
That is why God says to us:
“Whatever of misfortune striketh you, it is what your right hands have earned. And He forgiveth much” (42:30)
“Whatever of good befalleth thee (O man) it is from Allah, and whatever of ill befalleth thee it is from thyself. We have sent thee (Muhammad) as a messenger unto mankind and Allah is sufficient as Witness” (4:79)
For the only true misfortune is that with no benefit whatsoever; hence these verses are absolutely correct and comprehensive. And regarding natural disasters, God says:
“Corruption doth appear on land and sea because of (the evil) which men's hands have done, that He may make them taste a part of that which they have done, in order that they may return” (30:41)
The explanation by Muhammad Asad on this verse is well-worth quoting here for its insight and clear message:
“Thus, the growing corruption and destruction of our natural environment, so awesomely - if as yet only partially - demonstrated in our time, is here predicted as “an outcome of what men’s hands have wrought”, i.e., of that self-destructive - because utterly materialistic - inventiveness and frenzied activity which now threatens mankind with previously unimaginable ecological disasters: an unbridled pollution of land, air and water through industrial and urban waste, a progressive poisoning of plant and marine life, all manner of genetic malformations in men’s own bodies through an ever widening use of drugs and seemingly “beneficial” chemicals, and the gradual extinction of many animal species essential to human well-being. To all this may be added the rapid deterioration and decomposition of man’s social life, the all-round increase in sexual perversion, crime and violence, with, perhaps, nuclear annihilation as the ultimate stage: all of which is, in the last resort, an outcome of man’s oblivion of God and, hence, of all absolute moral values, and their supersession by the belief that material “progress” is the only thing that matters”
It may be safely concluded then that almost all the problems that we have are due to humanity’s faults, their neglect of God, and that only by re-establishing the reign of God will we profit and succeed. And this includes the vast majority of disease.
 For instance, the 25,000,000 victims of AIDS so far, of whom only a small proportion are innocent children who were infected ‘vertically’ or through lactation; the rest being victims of their own sexual promiscuity or IV drug abuse. Also other examples like in June1938, “nationalist Chinese soldiers, under the direction of Chiang Kai-Shek, blew up dikes around the Yellow River to stop Japanese troops from advancing. More than half a million people died in the resulting flood….(Between) 1959-1961, the "Great Leap Famine" cost an estimated 20 to 40 million lives in China as the policies of Mao Zedong resulted in massive social and economic upheaval…(Between) 1932-1933, failures in Soviet central planning and Stalin's decision to withhold food from the Ukraine led to huge loss of life. At least five million Ukrainians were among the seven million victims of that famine”. In addition, “A Soviet famine in 1921 began with a drought that caused massive crop failures. The initial death toll was greatly magnified when Lenin refused to acknowledge the famine and sent no aid. The Soviets later estimated that 5.1 million died”.
 Strictly speaking, the word ‘disaster’ should never be used by one who believes in God. This is because it comes from the Italian word, disastro (“dis-, pejorative pref. (from Latin dis-; see dis-) + astro, star” ), pointing towards its original meaning, “An unpropitious or baleful aspect of a planet or star; malevolent influence of a heavenly body; hence, an ill portent.”