By M. Nazir Khan and M. Faisal Abideen
Why does evil exist? This is a question that has haunted every human being. Torture, rape, murder, cruelty, disasters, poverty, disease – it all seems too much and too pointless. Personal tragedies are frequently met with the question, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” Could there really be a loving and all-powerful God who would allow such suffering?
The Age-Old Question
Discussion about the problem of evil seems ubiquitous in human thought. One can find major thinkers in every field of knowledge and in every culture and epoch who have commented on it from the dawn of ancient civilizations to the modern scientific age. Moreover, it is an extremely powerful question, for it relates not to an obscure philosophical dilemma but to a living reality that confronts each and every human being. In the modern era, it has become increasingly more common for people of diverse intellectual backgrounds to cite the problem of evil as their primary reason for rejecting faith in God. Historian and New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, noted that it was not his views on the textual corruption of holy scripture which caused him to lose his faith, but rather it was his acceptance of the problem of evil. Sir David Attenborough, one of the leading figures in documentaries about nature and wildlife, dismissed the notion that beauty in nature points to God, instead citing the example of a disease-causing parasitic worm as evidence against a merciful deity. Even one of the great voices of modern Christianity, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, surmised that the 2004 Tsunami raised doubts about the existence of God stating, “It would be wrong if faith were not upset by the catastrophe.”
Indeed, while atheists generally resign themselves to cutting down arguments in favour of God, the one argument that they feel allows them a confident counterattack is the problem of evil. Philosopher Helen De Cruz conducted a survey of some eight hundred individuals in the field of philosophy, in which respondents were asked to rank the perceived strength of arguments for and against God. The problem of evil was ranked as the strongest argument against God by atheists, theists and agnostics alike.1De Cruz, Helen. Preliminary results of the survey on natural theological arguments. Published online, Academia.edu.
Historically, this question is traced back in its most ancient form to one of the Greek philosophers, Epicurus. Most famously, the argument has been summarized as follows:
If God is willing to prevent evil, but He is not able, then He is not omnipotent.
If He is able, but not willing, then He is malevolent.
If He is both able and willing, then why does evil exist?
If He is neither able nor willing, then why call Him God?
Religious traditions have seemingly struggled to offer a response to the question of evil, even at the highest level of their scholarship as seen above. Such explanations as to why evil exists are called theodicies. Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga have argued that the presence of free-will results in greater good than evil, the greatest good culminating in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Others like philosopher John Hick have argued that humans are still undergoing a process of creation during which suffering is necessary to achieve “soul-making” and acquire the likeness of God. These theodicies have been met with a number of objections and a sense of dissatisfaction amongst many who see them as overly trivial reasons to permit such gratuitous evil. Moreover, such explanations may seem philosophically contrived and too distant from direct scriptural answers. After all, if God has a reason for allowing such suffering, shouldn’t He have told us about it in His Holy book? Finally, many theodicies seem deficient in that they do not demonstrate a very strong and obvious connection between suffering and the core religious tenets. The religion seems to be saying one thing about the purpose of life, and such theodicies seem to be suggesting something else. If suffering is such a key aspect of our existence, shouldn’t religion tie it into the key religious beliefs?
There is however, a spiritual tradition whose answers on this question have hitherto remained relatively unexamined in the philosophical community, and that is Islam. This tradition holds the distinction of seeing itself as a complete way of life with all of its fundamental answers grounded in the original divinely-revealed sources: the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Moreover, the answer that it proposes is not one that is peripherally related to the purpose of life. The fascinating elegance of the answer is that the existence of suffering becomes part of the core theological doctrine about the purpose of life and around which, the entire system of spirituality and theology revolve.
The Spiritual Struggle
The Qur’an first surprises us by making the problem of evil the very first issue addressed in its very first story, which opens as a dialogue between God and the angels. When God announces to the angels that He intends to create humankind on this earth, the angels ask the very same question that haunts human beings: “Would you place therein one who would spread corruption and bloodshed, while we extol Your Praises and exalt Your Glory?” (Qur’an 2:30). It seems incredibly clever of an author to use humankind’s greatest conundrum as the lead-in to the entire moral and spiritual framework to be developed in the book. Indeed, the Qur’anic approach to the problem of evil is what ex-atheist and professor of mathematics, Dr. Jeffrey Lang, found so compelling about the Islamic worldview that he made it the focus of his book, “Even Angels Ask”, discussing his journey from Atheism to Islam.2Lang, Jeffrey. Even Angels Ask : A Journey to Islam in America. 2003. Amana Publications.
So how does the Qur’an approach the problem of evil? While the argument from Epicurus assumes that the existence of evil is absolute and pointless and could never be intended by a moral deity, the Qur’an unequivocally affirms the opposite. Human suffering plays an essential role in our spiritual and moral development and in our journey towards God. “And We will surely test you with some degree of fear, hunger, loss of wealth, lives and provisions, but give glad-tidings to those who persevere. Those who, when disaster strikes them, say, “Indeed we belong to God, and indeed to Him we will return.”(Qur’an 2:155-6). Clearly, from the Qur’anic paradigm human suffering is not incidental nor bereft of divine wisdom, but rather it unveils the most noble of human qualities – the valiant determination and perseverance of those few who stand up to defend the shores of innocence from the crushing tides of darkness. “Rather, those with faith who left their homes striving and struggling in the cause of God, and those who gave shelter and aid – it is they who are true believers. For them is forgiveness and noble provision”(Qur’an 8:74).
According to Islamic theology, life is not meaningless.“Do you think that We created you with no purpose and that you would not return to us?” (Qur’an 23:115). The Qur’an seems to amazingly reach out and grab us directly, questioning the very attitude that underscores that way we live our lives. According to the Qur’an, life with all of its hardship and pain represents an opportunity to develop one’s spiritual connection with God and grow as a human being.“O Human, indeed you are labouring painfully towards your Lord, but you shall surely meet Him”(Qur’an 84:6). The purpose of life is to come closer to God through acts of moral virtue, righteousness, compassion, and spiritual submission. All such good deeds serve to build our relationship with God and are termed worship in Islam, which God states is the reason for which we were created (Qur’an 51:56).
But there’s more.
Climbing a mountain of moral virtue
In one particular passage, the Qur’an indicates that there is subtle connection between the human’s cognitive capacity, the arduous struggle to do good, and the spiritual ascent towards God.
“Verily, We have created the human being in a state of constant toil and hardship. Does he think that no one has power over him? He says, ‘I have squandered much wealth and riches!’ But does he think that no one sees him? Have We not made for him two eyes? And a tongue and two lips? And shown him the two paths? But he attempts not the uphill climb. And what would enable you to comprehend the uphill climb? It is the freeing of a slave. Or feeding on a day of severe hunger the close orphan or the needy person lying in the dust. Then he will become one of those with faith, who urge one another to have patience and urge one another to show compassion and mercy” (Qur’an 90:4-17).
From this passage, we can draw a number of conclusions about the inter-connectedness of three dimensions in Islam: rationality, morality and spirituality. First, the Qur’an informs us that all human beings are brought into a world of constant hardship. One can either seek to escape it and surround themselves with worldly pleasures at the expense of others, or elect to make personal sacrifices to bring about greater moral good and embrace the hardships of life. A human being who chases after material riches and worldly pleasures neglects to use two divinely-endowed faculties – observation and communication. These faculties enable a human being to learn, understand, and reflect on the purpose behind one’s existence. They allow a human being to contemplate the meaninglessness of a life devoted to gratifying one’s personal desires by devouring wealth. To behave in such a manner is to adopt the easier path.
The passage above describes that the ‘uphill climb’ is the harder path. The original Arabic word for an ‘uphill climb’, ‘Aqabah (عَقَبَةَ), not only describes something that is very difficult, it also depicts something strenuous, of great difficulty and hardship and it also depicts something that is like a mountain path ascending higher and higher. Hence, the verse portrays our difficulty and our hardship as ascending a steep mountain. Not only is there difficulty and hardship as we are going through life, but that difficulty and hardship is also part of a spiritual ascent towards God. The classical Qur’anic exegete Imam al-Baghawi writes, “And the mention of [the uphill climb] here is a similitude that God presents for the spiritual struggle against temptations and satan when one strives to do acts of righteousness. He portrays it like a person who undertakes climbing a mountain. God is saying that the human being has not chosen such personal hardship by freeing the slave or feeding [the needy].”
So our spiritual ascent towards God involves a moral struggle to alleviate the suffering of others, which we will adopt if we use our rational faculties. From the foregoing discussion, it is clear that the Qur’an espouses the view that absolute evil does not exist. In fact, the Islamic theologian, Ibn Taymiyyah, defined evil as “that whose non-occurrence is better than its occurrence” – a definition which precludes us from judging as evil anything whose existence facilitates our purpose in life. It reminds us that what is perceived as evil may in fact be dictated by Divine Wisdom for our ultimate benefit, regardless of whether we can fathom such Wisdom or not. In the Islamic paradigm, what is perceived to be evil, is an fact an opportunity for us to develop a closer relationship with God and achieve moral and spiritual growth. But how does performing good deeds deepen our relationship with God? The answer has to do with the unique Islamic concept of the Divine Names and Attributes.
Continue reading part 2: Evil (2) – Opportunities for growth.