A Fiery Message
Issue 89 February 2012
Towering flames and no escape route led to contemplation of the total vulnerability of the human condition, and an exploration of our relationship with the Divine on a daily basis.
2011 saw Japan experience an earthquake and a tsunami, New Zealand suffer an earthquake, and China endure a devasting hailstorm. Flash floods swept through parts of Australia, mudslides wreaked devastation in Brazil, and tornadoes rampaged through Iowa in the US. But for many of us, these countries are far away—surely, nothing could ever happen to us.
And yet, of course, it could. It can happen at any time, anywhere.
Recently my parents came to visit us in South Africa and we went on a walk with my husband and three children. Not an adventurous walk, just a walk. It was a clear day and we meandered through fields of wildflowers down into a secluded wooded valley for a picnic, then we headed up the other side of the escarpment. The young and young-at-heart were starting to get tired as we finally emerged above the tree-line. But all thoughts of complaining were put to one side once we surveyed the awaiting scene. We could see that the valleys around us were filling with smoke and the fumes began to creep into our lungs.
And then we saw fire. It was quickly coming closer and from different directions. Flames twice my father’s height started over the ridge which we needed to cross and, within moments, our escape route was cut off on all sides.
The Qur’an uses the example of a sinking ship to show how people often rush to remember God when affected by severe changes in the natural elements. “It is He Who conveys you on both land and sea so that when some of you are on a boat, running before a fair wind, rejoicing at it, and then a violent squall comes upon them and the waves come at them from every side and they realise there is no way of escape, they call on God, making His religion sincerely theirs: ‘If You rescue us from this, we will truly be among the thankful’.” (10:22). Despite being totally unprepared for this emergency, with approximately 50ml of water left between all of us, I was convinced that God would save us from this unpredictable situation and remained—perhaps irrationally—positive. Yet our teenager began to lose hope, planning her funeral, wondering about the small details. Who would come? How would they know she had died? What would the service be like?
During this unexpected crisis, natural gender differences rose imperceptibly to the fore. It says in the Qur’an (4:34) “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more than the other, and because they support them from their means.” Instinctively, the men in the family took control of the situation. My father took my map and headed towards the flame-filled ridge to see if there was an escape route; my husband took my phone, identified the GPS co-ordinates and made an emergency call to a local contact to check what we should be doing. I was then free to focus on nurturing—calming the children who were distressed about seeing their grandpa walking directly towards the oncoming flames, and staying close to my mother who was unsurprisingly visibly upset about his actions.
It was tempting to blame others: why were there no warnings about this being a danger zone? Why was the walking-map we had been given so inadequate? Why were no emergency escape routes signposted? Why was no-one coming to help us? The Qur’an relates how some people will act this way even on the Day of Judgment: “They will come to each other, questioning and blaming one another.” (37:27)
Yet blame is unhelpful and will not change the situation. Prophet Muhammad taught us all to, “Tie your camel and trust in God”—which could be interpreted to mean that we must first make an effort ourselves to deal with whatever life throws at us. And so we made an effort. My husband received the valuable advice “Run to burnt ground: fire won’t burn the same area twice.” We found a tiny break in the lowest wall of fire. I gave the children instructions to cover their mouths and noses with their jumpers to protect them from inhaling smoke and told them to jump. Without hesitation, they raced across—youngest first—onto the charred soil. We watched with incredulity as my mother in her sixties then negotiated the leap and were relieved that my father joined us not too long afterwards. That decision to move was literally life-saving, because within a few minutes the area where we had all been was engulfed in flames.
Even if we had seen a warning sign, it would have been all too easy to dismiss. When Prophet Noah warned his community that a flood would come, the community mocked him and took no action. When Prophet Lot warned his people against their oppression, they also refused to pay attention, with devastating consequences. “And We turned [the cities of Sodom] upside down and rained down upon them stones of baked clay. Surely, in this are signs for those who perceive.” (Qur’an 15:74-75) Certainly, we would never have envisaged that the lush open spaces we had enjoyed only hours before could be totally obliterated. Yet one of the signs of the Day of Judgment according to some hadith is that great cities will be ruined and it will be as if they had not existed the day before.
As we recovered on smouldering ground, sitting on a rock, our youngest little girl wiped away sooty tears. Our teenager covered her hair with a scarf and began to pray; I joined her. Again, the Qur’an anticipates this reaction: Surah Yunus (Jonah), verse 12 says: “When harm touches man, he calls on Us, lying on his side or sitting down or standing up.” We waited it out, watching the sky grow darker, until all that was left were burnt embers, and then we walked on the still-smoking ground to find the path over the ridge to safety. The Qur’an goes on to say in Surah Yunus: “Then when We remove the harm from him he carries on as if he had never called on Us when the harm first touched him.” A warning to us all not to lurch back into complacency.
Despite the best efforts of ubiquitous Health and Safety people to protect us from any eventuality, this episode was a timely reminder that we have to be prepared to ‘tie our camel’ ourselves. If I ever manage to work the complicated television remote control, I’ll make an effort to watch intrepid adventurer Bear Grylls of Ultimate Survival next time he throws himself off a mountaintop or tramps through a desert—you just never know when those tips might come in useful. It was also a timely reminder that God can give life and take it away at any moment.
My eight year old has taken this lesson rather too much to heart. When I let her know of something planned for the following weekend, she now replies innocently: “But I may be dead by then.” As with everything, a balanced attitude to life—and to death—is surely key. l