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I am from a culture where people say they follow Islam, but they keep saying strange things to me which don't seem to fit in with what I am reading in the Quran.

For example, one of the things people in this culture say is, if someone has a child with a disability, that child has a disability because the parents have sinned, and that disability in that child will be a punishment for the parents for the sin which they have committed in the past.

I then point the following verse out to the people who have such beliefs:

http://quran.com/6/164

Say, "Is it other than Allah I should desire as a lord while He is the Lord of all things? And every soul earns not [blame] except against itself, and no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. Then to your Lord is your return, and He will inform you concerning that over which you used to differ."

They then say to me "don't be stupid", you don't understand. So am I the one who is right or are they right? i.e. do children have to suffer because of a disability, inorder to punish parents for a sin they may have committed in the past?

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Good Question, The sin is not transfered from one person to others. Second, In reality we have seen a lot of disabled people has awsome reputations and life style even better than normal people like Stephen Hawking but he got disabled after born. A lot of example can be found. Third, again in reality we can find people who was bad, wrost parents however they are famouse and good people. Last, if you find prophet Noah story from Quaran, his son had not accept father and went sin path. Can we conclude that it was because prophet Noah's Sin which GOD choosen prophet from among best people. God bless you.

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Any kind of a disability is a trial for the person having that inability and the people around him. It is God who decides through which trial a person should undergo and He does it according to His wisdom and knowledge.

The matter of punishments primarily relates to the hereafter though God may censure people in this very world so that they may mend their ways. For example, it may be in the form of natural disasters etc. It is better to call them warnings instead of punishments.

So, when a child is born with a disability the primarily reason is God's decision about the nature of trial the parents and the child will undergo. It may not have any cause-and-effect relationship with the sins of parents.

The verse you have quoted also deals with the Hereafter i.e. when people will be rewarded in the Hereafter they will get what they have earned.

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The child with the disability has the disability as a test not as a punishment. It may be to test the sabr of the parents or of the child itself. But remember, every sacrifice we make, every trouble we go through will get its reward from Allah (swt). Having that disability may not even be a bad thing because we may sometimes want something not knowing that it will in someway do us harm.

"And Allah is the best of planners" - Al Qur'an

You are right, every person will only be punished for their own sins and will not be questioned about the sin of others on the day of Judgement.

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There are two parts to this question.

  • Can the 'choices' (sins, virtues) we make in this world, affect other's fate?

For example, the sins of the parents affecting children? The answer is that it's possible. There is the story in Quraan of Moses (puh) who met a man - often described as Khizar - and he kills a lad.

As for the lad, his parents were people of faith, and we feared lest he should plague them with transgression and disbelief, and we desired that their Lord should grant them another in his place, a son more upright and more tender hearted. (18:80)

The boy's choices could have plagued his parents, and his life was taken. His parents were inflicted a tragedy greater than the tragedy of a crippled child, i.e. death of a child.

  • The second part of the question is whether its a punishment?

The boy's life was taken, possibly the best thing for him as otherwise he would've only earned a place among the transgressors. More than likely, it's no punishment for the boy.

The parents' place among the faithful was secured and their Sabr over the tragedy might have raised their ranks. Doesn't appear to be a punishment for the parents either.

This is a good example of a win-win situation for all parties. Apparently, for us readers, great pain and suffering has been inflicted but in reality it was mercy.

This is not to say that every suffering is not punishment; it may or may not be. As is sometimes posited, exactly how one reacts to infliction determines whether they are going through trials or punishment.

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