Why Does God Allow Suffering?
Throughout history this question has plagued humanity. The general stance is that if there was a perfectly good, all-knowing, all-powerful God, then there would be no evil or suffering in the world – death, disease, old age, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and starvation would not feature in life’s equation.
When addressing the question it becomes apparent that the above statement takes on board the following premises:
1. A good God that is all powerful exists
2. Evil exists
Therefore a good God that is all powerful does not exist. However, the above conclusion assumes some further hidden premises that are not directly mentioned. For instance, it assumes that:
1. If God is omnipotent(all powerful), then He can create any world He wants –
For example, a world where all human beings always do the right thing and do not fall into evil or suffering. However, this would mean that God would deprive us of the freedom to choose and compulsion is not a characteristic that God imposes on humans.
2. If God is good, then He prefers a world without evil.
The above two hidden premises assume a very Christian type of God (i.e. one that is just good and omnipotent) and secondly that God doesn’t have any reason to permit evil and suffering in the world.
Attributes of God
Muslims do not believe that God is just good and omnipotent. “Sometimes we see the manifestation of the divine beauty, grace and forgiveness and sometimes we see manifestations of the divine rigour and wrath. This is one of the big differences between the Islamic understanding and for instance the Christian understanding. Christians will say God is love and will then have trouble explaining evil in the world. Muslims say Allah is the most beneficent, most merciful, the all loving and these attributes do predominate. And at the end, when good and evil are differentiated we will see the mercy predominates over the wrath. But Allah is also the overwhelming, the avenger, the judge – Muslims believe that the world is the endlessly subtle interaction of ninety nine names, that includes names of rigour as well as names of beauty”.1
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said:
“How amazing is the case of the believer; there is good for him in everything, and this characteristic is exclusively for him alone. If he experiences something pleasant, he is thankful, and that is good for him; and if he comes across some adversity, he is patient, and that is good for him.”
Why God may permit evil and suffering in the world
Sceptics may focus on the negative aspect of things, claiming evil and suffering have no purpose to serve whatsoever.
Muslims believe that God created us for a test. In a verse in the Qur’an, Allah says: “The one who created death and life, so that He may put you to test, to find out which of you is best in deeds; He is the all-mighty, the all-forgiving.”2
In some religions, a person’s good status in the world is seen as an indication that God is pleased with them. So for instance, if someone has a good job or a nice house the inference made is that God loves them. However, in Islam, health, wealth, poverty, sickness etc are not signs of success or failure; rather they are a means of testing the individual to determine their response to a particular situation. But even when faced with hardships in life, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “No calamity befalls a Muslim, but that Allah expiates some of his sins because of it, even though it were the prick from a thorn.”
Generally speaking, any evil or suffering experienced in life is the exception and not the rule. Illness is relatively short-lived in comparison to good health as are earthquakes in comparison to the age of the earth. Moreover, just because our intellectual capacity is limited and we can’t evaluate what the wisdom is, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. For instance, in some cases, sickness results in the build up of immunity, earthquakes relieve pent up pressures within the earth, volcanoes spew out minerals resulting in rich fertile soil for agriculture. There is an ancient wisdom that states “Out of the snakes poison comes the antidote”.3 How else can one appreciate goodness without having experienced hardship to use as a comparator? Would it be possible to appreciate good health if illness did not occur?
“It is said that evil in the world is like the shaded spaces in a painting; if you come close to it you’ll see these as defects, but if you draw back to a distance you will discover the shaded areas are necessary in fulfilling an aesthetic function within the artwork.”3
The story of Khidr (in the Qur’an chapter 18 verses 64-82) is an eloquent account of how God’s wisdom, whether understood or not has positive benefits for humanity.
…(Moses) said, “That is what we were seeking.” So they returned, following their footprints. And they found a servant from among Our servants to whom we had given mercy from us and had taught him from Us a (certain) knowledge. Moses said to him, “May I follow you on (the condition) that you teach me from what you have been taught of sound judgement?” He said, “Indeed, with me you will never be able to have patience. And how can you have patience for what you do not encompass in knowledge?” (Moses) said, “You will find me, if Allah wills, patient, and I will not disobey you in (any) order.” He said, “Then if you follow me, do not ask me about anything until I make to you about it mention.” So they set out, until when they had embarked on the ship, Al-Khidhr tore it open. (Moses) said, “Have you torn it open to drown its people? You have certainly done a grave thing.” (Al-Khidhr) said, “Did I not say that with me you would never be able to have patience?” (Moses) said, “Do not blame me for what I forgot and do not cover me in my matter with difficulty.” So they set out, until when they met a boy, Al-Khidhr killed him. (Moses) said, “Have you killed a pure soul for other than (having killed) a soul? You have certainly done a deplorable thing.” (Al-Khidhr) said, “Did I not tell you that with me you would never be able to have patience?” (Moses)
said, “If I should ask you about anything after this, then do not keep me as a companion. You have obtained from me an excuse.”
So they set out, until when they came to the people of a town, they asked its people for food, but they refused to offer them hospitality. And they found therein a wall about to collapse, so Al-Khidhr restored it. (Moses) said, “If you wished, you could have taken for it a payment.” (Al-Khidhr) said, “This is parting between me and you. I will inform you of the interpretation of that about which you could not have patience. As for the ship, it belonged to poor people working at sea. So I intended to cause defect in it as there was after them a king who seized every (good) ship by force. And as for the boy, his parents were believers, and we feared that he would overburden them by transgression and disbelief. So we intended that their Lord should substitute for them one better than him in purity and nearer to mercy. And as for the wall, it belonged to two orphan boys in the city, and there was beneath it a treasure for them, and their father had been righteous. So your Lord intended that they reach maturity and extract their treasure, as a mercy from your Lord. And I did it not of my own accord. That is the interpretation of that about which you could not have patience.”
Perceived evil or suffering also allows second order good. For instance if there weren’t any starving people how could we show our generosity? Similarly following the tsunami, humanity was as its very best and showed generosity and support by sending in medical assistance, food, money etc. Therefore a negative event enabled the positive to be manifested. On the subject of the tsunami, for those who lost their lives, although this may seem unjust it is because we are judging negative and positive based on this world, and neglecting the hereafter. It is possible that a person may get rewarded by something far greater than the adversity they experienced in this world.
Afflictions can also help individuals return to the obedience of God. In many cases, the returning to Allah and having full reliance on Him opens up doors that one could never have imagined. An interesting story is that of the musician Cat Stevens. “Stevens had gone swimming at the house of Jerry Moss, his American record boss, at Malibu Beach, and after a half-hour could barely stay afloat in the perilous currents of the Pacific Ocean. He attempted to swim to land, but the sea was too strong. He realised he was going to drown and he called out to God. Miraculously the tide swiftly turned, a sudden wave lifted him and he swam easily back to shore.
His inner faith revealed itself further when his elder brother David gave him a copy of the Qur’an. It provided the key to the answers he had been looking for: It was the timeless nature of the message, he said, the words all seemed strangely familiar yet so unlike anything I had ever read before. Privately, Stevens started applying Islam’s spiritual values to his own life: he began praying directly to God and gradually cut down drinking, clubs and parties. He retreated from the music business and finally embraced Islam in 1977, changing his name to Yusuf Islam.”4
Existence of gratuitous/pure evil?
The Muslim believes that evil exists, but not gratuitous or pure evil as this is based on human subjectivity. The proponent of the problem of evil faces a dilemma as God is required as a rational basis for objective good and evil. Without God these terms are relative as there is no conceptual anchor, (apart from God Himself) which overcomes the issue of human subjectivity. So it could be argued that:
1. If God did not exist, then objective moral values would not exist
2. Evil exists
Therefore objective moral values exist, therefore God exists.
In the absence of God, there are only two possible alternatives – social pressures and evolution. However, both these alternatives claim that our morality is dependent on biological and social changes. Therefore morality cannot be binding. Therefore without God there is no objective basis for morality. So in response to the atheist, the Muslim or theist may ask:
“How can the atheist formulate an argument against the existence of God when God is required as an objective basis for the formulation of the argument in the first place?”
A number of responses to the perceived problem of evil have been discussed herein. Ultimately the absence of any evil or suffering would point towards absolute perfection – but this is something which is reserved for God alone. Life on earth cannot ever be a flawless paradise – this state can only be earned by those who pass the test of this worldly existence.
1. Islamic Theology vs. the Problem of Evil – By Abdal Hakim Murad
2. Qur’an – chapter 67 verse 2
3. Dialogue with an Atheist – Dr Mostafa Mahmoud
4. Biography of Yusuf Islam www.yusufislam.com/biography/