Do the appointed times of death (ajal) of people who die en masse in natural disasters come to all of them at the same time?

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. . . And He knows all that is on land and in the sea; and not a leaf falls but He knows it; and neither is there a grain in the earth’s deep darkness, nor anything living or dead, but is recorded in His clear Decree. (An’am 6:59)

Death is understood as the cessation and conclusion of physical existence. The appointed time of death, is the end of the lifetime of each being that lived its own life within the conditions and limits given to it uniquely. Each and every being that came into existence has a beginning, a destined life, and a destined end.

In the flow of time and existence, the difference between a beginning and an end is almost impossible to tell. Every thing that is can be likened to a drop of water which, absorbed by the earth, becomes invisible. Or it may be likened to a stream which flows down to a sea and becomes extinct when it mixes with it. This is the destiny of all beings. They all come into life and pass away according to this destiny.

All beginnings imply their ends; all comings in are the first point of all goings out. He that has no beginning has no end, and that One is God, Who is Eternal. It is God Who governs all beings that come into existence within time and He it is Who decrees each individual destiny. He in Himself is free of all increasing and diminishing, of all compounding and decompounding, and of birth and death. He is the One Who creates and administers all times, past, present and future. Nothing is that is not under His sovereignty, disposal and power. Therefore, it is not correct to attribute any occurrences to nature alone, without making reference to God, as if to imply that such occurrences are merely natural, that they just happen without Divine Decree. Things are allowed the right to exist only by an Eternal Will and All Mighty Decree, together with the assignment to each of a particular task or service. All creatures, animate or inanimate, come into existence only to serve as mirrors which display the might, power, knowledge and beauty of the One Creator; then, after the appointed time, they are dismissed from the service and give way to newcomers.

All births and deaths work within this framework in order to take their part in this display and to be tested by means thereof. Coming into existence out of nothing indicates the existence of an Unseen Being, and completion of the service and, after a time, dismissal from it, indicate the eternity and the immortality of that Eternal Being Who is not constrained by past or future. Our seeing, hearing and knowing lead the mind to the One Who sees, hears and know all our actions. Our completion of service and thereafter departing this world likewise lead the mind to the Unseen One Who, in contrast, neither enters the creation as we do, nor departs it never to return as we do: He who created death and life, that He may try which of you is best in deed (Mulk 67:2).

It is of the utmost importance to understand the secret of coming into and being tested in this world and, therefore, to be ready to depart from it at any time.

Let us now return to the question—do the appointed times of death of people who died en masse in natural disasters come to all of them at the same time?

Yes, for those who died so, their appointed time of deaths did come at the same moment. There is no impediment to such an event. The Supreme Being Who possesses and governs the whole creation, Who holds everything under His sovereignty, and Who created everything from the smallest atoms to the largest celestial systems, each with its own destiny, can also destroy each or any number or all of them in an instant. It does not make any difference whether the existent things or beings are in different places, or are of different classes, or have different properties—nor, in respect of His Will, is their number of any significance.

It is possible to say many things to give some notion of the power of the Creator, in order to enable some grasp of what “All Mighty” means, but it is very difficult to give an exact idea or analogy for it.

Every creature needs energy which in its visible form is light. Every creature depends in some way on the sun to exist and does so in harmony with every other and with the best result. The plant forms achieve their colorful diversity and splendor with the sunlight, and flourish and sink back with sunrise and sunset. Similarly, they all thrive in the spring, bloom in the summer, and fade away in the autumn, enjoying the same destiny harmoniously. Everything comes into existence and its existence is sustained within an all encompassing, omniscient and omnipotent Will and Plan. Nothing can exist outside of this Divine Decree: . . . And He knows all that is on land and in the sea; and not a leaf falls but He knows it; and neither is there a grain in the earth’s deep darkness, nor anything living or dead, but is recorded in His clear Decree (An’am 6:59).

If the coming to life, maturing, bearing fruit and dying of the seeds and grains of plant forms are events so solemnly recorded and stored, can humankind, the most perfect being, be left to live and die, as it were, unattended, unnoticed? The Creator and Owner of all earthly and heavenly realms, Whose hearing and seeing of one thing does not prevent His hearing and seeing of every other thing, will surely attach importance to the deeds and manners of humankind, who is the core of the universe and created in the best stature. The Supreme Being will surely bestow upon humankind, the index of the whole universe, the blessings He bestowed upon the whole creation. He will undoubtedly receive humanity into His Presence and so honor him with a special invitation and unique favor.

This invitation may summon people individually or en masse, sometimes in bed, sometimes on a battlefield, and sometimes by means of an accident or disaster. The summons may come at the same moment and in the same way to all people living in one particular place or to different people living in different places and in different ways. Concerning the All Mighty’s dealing with His servants, conditions of time or place or numbers have no relevance. For One Who creates and sends people into this world, Who sustains and cherishes all, Who keeps people in this world as long as He wills and releases them after the completion of their services, it is an easy matter whether He takes souls singly or en masse. The latter is no more odd or difficult to understand than that a single word from an army commander can, at a moment pre arranged by the commander, dismiss a single soldier or the whole army from active service.

Moreover, there is not only one angel commissioned to take the souls of people but many. With the authority, permission and will of their Creator, many angels can meet people and carry out their duties following the Divine Records given to them. In doing so, they approach people, and appear and act to them, in different ways and manners. If particular accidents or disasters are carefully looked at, it will easily be seen that there is indeed a preordination in events, that there is one and only one appointed time of death, at the same instant, for all those who perished in the particular event. One can find many examples of this reported in the media each day and in books. For example, in earthquakes which turned whole towns upside down, in which adults were unable to save themselves with every sort of means available, babies were dug out of the rubble after many days without any mark or injury; again, when many passengers well able to swim drowned after their vehicles skidded into rivers, babies were found alive, floating on the water; in the same way, there are well known reports of children found safe and sound thrown meters away from where the plane in which they were traveling crashed and exploded. We could give many such examples; the point is that each and every such incident, every such death or survival, does not just happen. All events take place in accordance with the Eternal Will and All Mighty Decree of the All Seeing, All Hearing and All Encompassing Creator.

Every being that enters existence, whether alone or en masse with others, and then lives until the time for its death appointed in the Record, is commissioned to comprehend the secrets of its primordial nature (fitra), to explore the unseen beauties beyond nature, to become a mirror and interpreter to the Creator of the whole. And it may be dismissed from this service, as it entered into it, either singly or en masse. Such fore knowing and registering of life, and putting an end to it, is very easy for the Creator. Moreover, God reveals that around each human being there are many angels whose commission is to take souls—in addition to the many other angels with different commissions.

One may ask: Why do some innocent people die in disasters along with others who may have deserved such a fate? Such a question arises from false reasoning and an error in belief. If life were only the life in this world, if this world were the first and the last resort of life, that question might be considered a quite sensible and reasonable one. But if this world is a preparing ground and ante chamber, and the world to come is the fruit and harvest of this one, and a place of rest and felicity, free of toil and hardship, then the question is an aimless one. Given the reality of the life to come, it is not unnatural that good and bad, or righteous and sinner, die together at the same instant in this world. On the contrary, it is quite reasonable and logical for it to be so. For each individual will be resurrected and give an account for what each did, and be chastised or rewarded according to intentions and deeds.

In sum, death and its time mark the end of life and service in this world. That period of life and its end conform to a pre ordained plan which, taking human free will into account, is written and stored in the Record. And the Record comes into force whenever its time is due, according to the will and command of the All Hearing and All Seeing. There is no difference of principle between whether death comes to a person separately or en masse with others.

I suppose that, as in many religious questions, the lack of understanding of the true, limitless knowledge, power and will of the Creator is one of the major reasons for error and doubt. Another reason is a mistaken evaluation of things and events. If, in the face of things and events, one does not eliminate from one’s thoughts the mistaken notion of “coincidence” or “nature,” if one does not devote oneself to contemplation and religious life and distance oneself from worldly concerns, the inner life will be full of unsound and weak belief and become a battleground for satanic misgivings and anxiety.

While the hearts of people are impoverished and unable to sustain themselves, constant exposure to doubts and misgivings of this nature is profoundly damaging to their spiritual being. In the face of such a situation, one should marvel that the young preserve their faith at all, rather than that they are deviated from it.

It may be claimed that we give too much attention to such issues which may seem, to some people, of little immediate significance in this time. But we cannot agree: any issue related to faith is always of the highest importance and worthy of the most serious effort of reflection and study.