National disasters and when Turkey sent disaster aid relief to UK

Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 17 February 2023

“No disaster befalls in the earth, or in yourselves, but it is in a book before We bring it into existence  — surely that is easy to Allah — so that you may not grieve for what has escaped you, nor exult in what He has given you. And Allah does not love any arrogant boaster, such as are miserly and enjoin miser­liness on people. And whoever turns back, then surely Allah is the Self-Sufficient, the Praised.” — ch. 57, v. 22–24

مَاۤ اَصَابَ مِنۡ مُّصِیۡبَۃٍ فِی الۡاَرۡضِ وَ لَا فِیۡۤ اَنۡفُسِکُمۡ اِلَّا فِیۡ کِتٰبٍ مِّنۡ قَبۡلِ اَنۡ نَّبۡرَاَہَا ؕ اِنَّ ذٰلِکَ عَلَی اللّٰہِ یَسِیۡرٌ ﴿۲۲   لِّکَیۡلَا تَاۡسَوۡا عَلٰی مَا فَاتَکُمۡ وَ لَا تَفۡرَحُوۡا بِمَاۤ اٰتٰىکُمۡ ؕ وَ اللّٰہُ لَا یُحِبُّ کُلَّ مُخۡتَالٍ فَخُوۡرِۣ ﴿ۙ۲۳ الَّذِیۡنَ یَبۡخَلُوۡنَ وَ یَاۡمُرُوۡنَ النَّاسَ بِالۡبُخۡلِ ؕ وَ مَنۡ یَّتَوَلَّ فَاِنَّ اللّٰہَ ہُوَ الۡغَنِیُّ الۡحَمِیۡدُ ﴿۲۴

What is this book which contains the mention of any disaster, personal or national, before that disaster strikes? It is the book of the laws of God which apply to the workings of nature. When man acquires knowledge through his research and dis­coveries he learns some of what is in this book. Human beings have discovered the causes of earthquakes and those causes are at work long before the earthquake strikes, as Allah says here: “it is in a book before We bring it into existence”. But we may also say, with regret, that the book includes the book of building regulations. Those regula­tions, written in documents, specify the standards to which buildings must be built in order to resist earthquakes as far as possible. If that book’s instructions and guidance are violated then, as the book will already have said, disaster is likely to cause greater damage. We learn from the news that one of the reasons for the collapse of some of the buildings in Turkey in the recent earthquake was that they had not been built to the required standards in order for the builders to make more profit.

 These verses tell us of the lesson people should learn from these disasters that afflict us now and then. In life we should not swing between the extremes of nursing a long-lasting sense of deep gloom and disappointment at our losses, on the one hand, and on the other of being euphoric, ecstatic and boastful at our gains and comforts. In both sorrow and celebration we must be moderate. These verses then mention the “arrogant boaster” who is tight and stingy in giving to the deprived people and even tells other people not to give. These are the ones who have not been affected by the disaster, believe that they are secure from such happenings, and think that it is not their concern to spend to help the deprived. In fact, they think that the victims them­selves are to blame, so they tell other people to refrain from helping them.

According to the Quran, Allah answers the prayers of those in distress, whoever they may be. It addresses all mankind as follows: “Say: Who is it that delivers you from the calamities of the land and the sea? (When) you call upon Him, in humility and in secret: If He deliver us from this, we will certainly be of the grateful ones. Say: Allah delivers you from this and from every distress, yet you set up partners (with Him)” (6:63–64). There are other similar verses in the Quran, such as: “And when harm afflicts people, they call upon their Lord, turning to Him, then when He makes them taste of mercy from Him, lo! some of them begin to set up partners with their Lord” (30:33). The people mentioned here as praying in distress to God for relief are, of course, any human beings, even those who worship things other than God, as is indicated here. The Holy Prophet Muhammad himself, shortly after his migration to Madinah, was visited by representatives of his enemies from Makkah who asked him to pray for the ending of a drought that was afflicting them, and he accepted their request and prayed for the drought to end. They were idol-worshippers, and after the drought ended they continued their opposition to him. Although in the current disaster in Turkey and Syria the victims are, of course, our fellow-Muslims, it is the duty of Muslims to assist all victims of disasters, whether they are Muslims or non-Muslims.

This brings me to an episode from the mid-1800s, less than 200 years ago, when it was Turkey which sent aid to the UK for the victims of a disaster here. This was during what is known as the Irish potato famine, a well-known disaster in the history of the UK that began in 1845 and lasted for about seven years. The whole island of Ireland, most of which today is in the Republic of Ireland, was a part of the UK at the time, like Scotland. The details in brief are that potatoes were a staple diet in Ireland, especially of the poor people and particularly in the winter. Small tenant farmers grew potatoes to feed themselves. In 1845 potato crops began to fail due to a crop infection, wiping out almost a half of the potato crop. The British government took a hard, uncaring line towards feeding the affected people. The man placed in charge of the relief programme expressed the fear that helping the poor would make them dependent on government handouts and that the famine was a remedy for over-population. The Protestant land-owners who owned 95% of all the land continued to collect rent from the Catholic tenant farmers and evict those who could not pay. Some Protestant churchmen declared that the crop failures were a punishment sent by God for the Catholic tenants. We may call this a fatwa. A historian, Mike Dash, writes that because of declaration of this kind: “the British public’s initial eagerness to help all too often gave way to indifference and worse”. In all, between one million and one and a half million people in Ireland died in the famine, and one million emigrated abroad to countries such as the USA. As a result, the population of Ireland dropped by 25%.

Some aid was sent to Ireland from other countries. There is a story told in Ireland of how the Sultan of the Ottoman Turkish empire sent aid for Ireland. Its details are not fully clear but research by the historian Mike Dash has recently established that it is a true event. A Belfast newspaper wrote in 1853: “We cannot forget that Mahommedan Turkey has more than once shamed the nations which boast of their Christianity, by the practice of those principles which they (i.e., the Christians) only professed. It was the present Sultan of Turkey who, more generously than any other European potentate, contri­buted to the relief of our famine-stricken countrymen in 1847.” During the famine itself in April 1847 an Irish newspaper published the news that on 31 March the Sultan had sent “one thousand pounds for the relief of Ireland in the grievous famine under which that country is now suffering. This act of regal munificence on the part of his Imperial Highness is without precedent. For the first time a Mahomedan Sovereign, representing multitudinous Islam populations, mani­fests spontaneously a warm sympathy with a Christian nation. May such sympathies, in all the genial charities of a common humanity, be cultivated and henceforth ever be maintained between the followers of the Crescent and the Cross!” (Link for the above two quotations.)

Incidentally, we can see from this quotation how helping others in their distress, and expressing practical sympathy towards them, brings different communities together, even communities who have been one another’s rivals and opponents.

 The Sultan mentioned above was one Abdul Majid the First. He was 24 years of age in 1847 when he heard of the terrible conditions in Ireland. It is said that he learnt about this disaster from his doctor who was from Ireland. But there is story behind his donation of £1000 (or £100,000 in today’s value). Queen Victoria initially decided to make a personal donation of £1000, but the secretary of a relief charity privately protested to the government that this amount was too meagre in comparison with what the Queen could afford. The Queen was then persuaded to increase her donation to £2000. It appears from some historical accounts of the time that the Sultan offered £10,000 (now £1 million) and some ship-loads of provisions, but the British ambassa­dor in Turkey replied that such a large sum coming from a foreign ruler, more than the Queen’s donation which he thought was £1000, would be embarrassing and dis­respect­ful to the Queen. So the Sultan reduced his donation to £1000.

This reduction in the donation at the insistence of the British authorities reminds me of a part of the verses I read at the beginning of this khutba: “And Allah does not love any arrogant boaster, such as are miserly and enjoin miser­liness on people” (57:23–24). Queen Victoria’s personal donation was far less than what she could have afforded. That is miserliness. But then the British ambassador stopping the Sultan of Turkey from donating more than the Queen is to tell others to be miserly as well. Those who are stingy tell others to be stingy as well because if others are generous then the stinginess of the stingy will become all the more obvious.

Now it appears that the Sultan wanted to find some other way of helping more. The historian Mike Dash writes: “there really is good evidence that the Sultan had wanted to give more — and even hints that, when he was persuaded not to, he took private steps of his own to send aid of the most practical kind. Irish accounts dating to the 1850s insist that this aid came in the form of three ships stuffed with food, which succeeded in unloading their precious cargoes on the wharves of Drogheda” (pronounced Dro-huh-duh, this is a port on the east coast of Ireland, 35 miles from Dublin). In 2010 the President of the Republic of Ireland Mary McAleese, while on an official visit to Turkey, expressed gratitude for this sending of ships by the Sultan during the famine. Although there is no fully conclusive evidence that these ships were sent but there are indications that this happened. The lack of evidence might be because the Sultan provided this aid confidentially for diplomatic reasons.

May Allah put it into the hearts of every section of humanity to come to the assistance of any other part of humanity which is suffering disaster, ameen.

(Note: Here is the link to the article by Mike Dash mentioned above.)