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Indonesian Muslims calling tsunami a warning from God

LAMPAYA, Indonesia—For Hamdani Muhammad Amin, a devout Muslim, the Dec. 26 tsunami was a brutal reminder of the power of God and his own insignificance.

"Before the tsunami, I was quite confident in myself," said Amin, 30, recalling the three beachfront snack stands, the parking lot and the changing room he operated just south of the city of Banda Aceh. "I thought I could earn money without the help of Allah."

In an instant, his livelihood was wiped away, and now he sat cross-legged in a tent that his family shares with three other families in a refugee camp.

"I don't really have faith in myself anymore," he said. "I am surrendering myself to Allah. I hope that Allah gives me good guidance."

Across Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, the devout are saying that the tsunami—which killed at least 85,000 people and left another 131,000 missing in Indonesia and, three weeks later, presumably dead—was a warning to be more observant Muslims.

That sentiment is particularly strong in the province of Aceh, where the tsunami did most of its damage. The Achenese generally are considered the most devout Muslims in the country.

Aceh is the only Indonesian province where Islamic law is enforced. The province is known as Indonesia's "verandah on Mecca," in part because of its location at the westernmost tip of the Indonesian archipelago, closest to the Middle Eastern holy city.

Few here think the push toward greater devotion is likely to fuel the more extremist brands of Islam that see a holy war against the West as the calling for every young Muslim man. Aceh, including its Free Aceh Movement guerrillas, has shown little sympathy for that movement. Richard Baker, an Indonesia specialist at the East-West Center in Hawaii, calls the rebels "a genuine nationalist movement."

Instead, the tsunami is more likely to push the devout toward greater piety.

At Friday prayers last week in Lamno, a city 45 miles down the coast from the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, a religious leader told the faithful that the tsunami might be a lesson from God.

"We are aware that many sins are committed in our community," he said, according to one attendee, who paraphrased his message. "Perhaps this is a warning to those who survive to learn from this terrible event and to start to obey God's law."

Juliani Sabki, 18, a student at an Islamic boarding school in Lamno, responded to the tsunami by trying to be more focused during his prayers. His school is closed, because it's being used as a refugee camp.

"The tsunami is a trial from God to increase our devoutness," he said.

At Amin's refugee camp in Lampaya, a few miles south of Banda Aceh, he and his wife joined about 50 other refugees Tuesday for early afternoon prayers at a makeshift mosque.

The small mosque was set up under a canopy on a concrete slab in the middle of the camp, a sea of tents pitched amid coconut palms and mango and clove trees in somebody's orchard. Before entering the mosque, the women covered themselves with white, hooded garments, some with intricate lacework, covering their heads but not their faces.

"I'm traumatized," Amin's 24-year-old wife, Nur Bayani Yahya, said after the prayers, one of five times a day that Muslims are supposed to pray. In their tent, she dispensed with her shawl, revealing a bright red batik shirt, though her head and neck remained covered with a tan hood. "I pray to God not to send this disaster again."

Religious leaders stress that while the tsunami may be a warning to the people, it shouldn't be seen as punishment from an angry God.

God may have taken the lives of promiscuous people to prevent the spread of promiscuity, said Makmun, a high school teacher in Banda Aceh who's studied the Quran, Islam's holy book. Others may have died to keep them from worse suffering in the future, he added.

"This tragedy is a way that God used to remind people to live a better life," Makmun said. "It's actually God's way to show his love."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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