Earthquake: Misfortune, Injustice, or the Will of God?

Earthquake: Misfortune, Injustice, or the Will of God?

From Bam to Lisbon

On December 26, 2003, a powerful earthquake struck southeastern Iran, killing more than forty-one thousand people, injuring sixteen thousand, leaving seventy thousand homeless, and destroying more than 60 percent of all structures in the city of Bam. The ancient quarter of Arg-e-Bam, including a two-thousand-year-old citadel, built entirely of mud bricks, clay, straw, and trunks of palm trees, was also severely damaged. Bam was founded during the Sassanian period (224-637 C.E.) and its attractions to visitors, in addition to the citadel, were a Zoroastrian fire temple and other remains of the time when the city was a commercial center on the famous Silk Road.

The day after the devastation, local people told reporters that on Friday, December 26, a light quake awakened them at 4:00 a.m. Some got frightened enough to go to the street, but they soon returned to their beds. Then at 5:27 a.m. an earthquake that registered 6.6 on the Richter scale caused the collapse of roofs and ceilings, made largely of bricks to keep the house cool in the summer, and buried the sleeping residents under tons of rubble. The location of the earthquake was in a region where major faults had been previously mapped, about sixty miles south of towns where two other earthquakes had occurred, on June 11 and July 28, 1981, causing forty-five hundred deaths.

Iranians at home and abroad responded to the news of the quake with an outpouring of sympathy and with efforts to raise funds for survivors and also for the reconstruction of the city. In the words of one observer, Ahmad Reza Shahri, the spontaneity of people’s behavior was reminiscent of their solidarity in the early days of the 1979 revolution or at the time of Iran’s 1997 victory in the football match with Australia.

Three days after the quake, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, visited Bam, expressed sympathy for the victims, and urged government officials to help the survivors and expedite reconstruction efforts. Then he added that “this disaster reveals emtahan-e elahi [God’s testing]. It is in such hardships that we can grow and strengthen our faith.” Khamenei’s use of the expression emtahan-e elahi was not original. His predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Iranian theocracy, used the same phrase in a statement addressed to the general public following one of the 1981 quakes:

The devastating earthquake that caused so many deaths and so much destruction has made us all sorry and grieving. Yet, we must view the occurrence of such disasters as God’s way of testing our resolve. All of us, including the survivors of the quake, need to prove that in the face of misfortune we c...