Suffering and the Problem of Evil

Suffering and the Problem of Evil

Introduction

The scholars of ʿaqīda and kalām have gone to great lengths in developing arguments to convincingly and objectively prove the ontological existence of God. Whether cosmological, teleological or otherwise, there are countless books, articles and lectures that deal with God’s existence. The aim of this paper is not to elucidate these arguments, but to tackle the challenges that spring from the problem of evil.

Suffering and the Existence of God

To conclude from the problem of suffering and evil that God does not exist is a logical fallacy. The argument can be demonstrated by the following syllogism:

  • God is good.
  • The world suffers from evil.
  • Therefore, God does not exist.

Needless to say, premises (1) and (2) do not add up to (3). To offer a comparison, it is the epistemic equivalent of saying:

  • Humans can speak.
  • Babies cannot speak.
  • Therefore, humans do not exist.

As is obvious to the sound mind, this is absurd – laughable, even. That babies are mute does not mean humans do not exist; their existence is evident through other proofs – namely, the five senses. Rather, a more proper question would be this: why can babies not speak? Similarly, the existence of evil does not point to the nonexistence of God. It does, however, give rise to even more (this time, relevant) questions: Why is there evil in the world? Why does God make innocent people and animals suffer? Is God evil?

In order to answer these, it is an imperative to take a closer look at a particular aspect of formal logic that deals with the relationships between occurrences and their explanations (or causes).

The Four Causes of Aristotle

Alexander the Great’s teacher, Aristotle, had played a big part in systematically codifying common sense. Later, this formally became known as logic. When applied correctly, these codes and rules prevent the human mind from erring when processing thought. For example, if an argument ‘makes sense’ to someone, is that enough to conclude that it is, in fact, sound? What can the human mind conclude without any outside help? For what things must it rely on an external source?

Imagine a lady painting her hands with henna. Man can quite easily comprehend that the dye is composed of crushed leaves and other liquids. A designer can appreciate the aesthetics of the shapes and patterns drawn. However, can anyone conclude by his/herself as to why the lady put on henna? Is it for a relative’s wedding? Is it Eid? This is something the human mind cannot conclude itself. That is not to say it cannot be understood per se; it just requires the lady herself to specify the cause.

Let us break this down. According to Aristotle, every compound idea (murakkab) comprises of four causes:

  • The material cause (ʿilla māddiyya): In this case, the henna dye.
  • The formal cause (ʿilla ṣūriyya): Here, applying the henna onto the hands.
  • The efficient cause (ʿilla fāʿiliyya): This is the lady herself.
  • The final cause (ʿilla ghāʾiyya): This is the motive that drove her to put on henna. It remains unknown until clarified.[1]

The first three of these causes can be recognised without any external aid. The fourth cause, however, requires the elaboration of the one doing the act in question. For example, the lady in the above scenario clarifies herself that her intent was to act upon the Prophetic advice of putting on henna.[2]

This can also be applied to the concept of suffering. The real question is: why does Allāh create evil and suffering in the world? Since this is asking for ‘the final cause’, it is not something mortals can conclude on their own. This does not mean it cannot be understood, but it requires a closer look at Divine Scripture.

What Causes Are Stipulated in Scripture?

In light of the Qurʾān and Sunna, the causes of suffering can be said to be three: optimisation, consequences of wrongdoings and blessings in disguise.

Optimisation

Allāh mentions in the Qurʾān:

وَلَنَبۡلُوَنَّكُم بِشَيۡءٖ مِّنَ ٱلۡخَوۡفِ وَٱلۡجُوعِ وَنَقۡصٖ مِّنَ ٱلۡأَمۡوَٰلِ وَٱلۡأَنفُسِ وَٱلثَّمَرَٰتِۗ وَبَشِّرِ ٱلصَّٰبِرِينَ ١٥٥ ٱلَّذِينَ إِذَآ أَصَٰبَتۡهُم مُّصِيبَةٞ قَالُوٓاْ إِنَّا لِلَّهِ وَإِنَّآ إِلَيۡهِ رَٰجِعُونَ ١٥٦ أُوْلَٰٓئِكَ عَلَيۡهِمۡ صَلَوَٰتٞ مِّن رَّبِّهِمۡ وَرَحۡمَةٞۖ وَأُوْلَٰٓئِكَ هُمُ ٱلۡمُهۡتَدُونَ ١٥٧

“Surely, We will test you with a bit of fear and hunger, and loss in wealth and lives and fruits. And give good tidings to the patient, who, when suffering visits them, say, ‘we certainly belong to Allāh, and to Him to we are bound to return.’ Those are the ones upon whom there are blessings from their Lord and mercy; and they are the ones who are on the right path.”[3]

It is evident from the above that among the divine causes of suffering is to facilitate in developing quintessential traits of a successful believer, such as patience. This is known as optimisation. Such traits are not inherently present in every human being; rather, they must be developed physically by encountering situations that require their use – similar to swimming, which can only be truly learnt when in actual water.

Consequence of Wrongdoings

Allāh mentions in the Qurʾān:

إِنَّ رَبَّكَ لَبِٱلۡمِرۡصَادِ ١٤ فَأَمَّا ٱلۡإِنسَٰنُ إِذَا مَا ٱبۡتَلَىٰهُ رَبُّهُۥ فَأَكۡرَمَهُۥ وَنَعَّمَهُۥ فَيَقُولُ رَبِّيٓ أَكۡرَمَنِ ١٥ وَأَمَّآ إِذَا مَا ٱبۡتَلَىٰهُ فَقَدَرَ عَلَيۡهِ رِزۡقَهُۥ فَيَقُولُ رَبِّيٓ أَهَٰنَنِ ١٦ كَلَّاۖ بَل لَّا تُكۡرِمُونَ ٱلۡيَتِيمَ ١٧ وَلَا تَحَٰٓضُّونَ عَلَىٰ طَعَامِ ٱلۡمِسۡكِينِ ١٨ وَتَأۡكُلُونَ ٱلتُّرَاثَ أَكۡلٗا لَّمّٗا ١٩ وَتُحِبُّونَ ٱلۡمَالَ حُبّٗا جَمّٗا ٢٠

“Surely, your Lord is ever on the watch. As for man, when his Lord tests him, and thus gives him honour and bounties, he says, ‘my Lord has honoured me.’ But when He tests him, and thus straitens his provision for him, he says, ‘my Lord has disgraced me.’ No! But you do not honour the orphan. Nor do you encourage one another to feed the needy. And you devour the inheritance with a sweeping gulp. And you love wealth, and excessive love.”[4]

The above passage shows how sometimes man can think of his trials as if God is disgracing him for no crime of his own. Little does he ponder his misdoings to realise their spiritual (and even physical) repercussions. In another part of the Qurʾān, this is discussed in clearer terms. Allāh says:

ظَهَرَ ٱلۡفَسَادُ فِي ٱلۡبَرِّ وَٱلۡبَحۡرِ بِمَا كَسَبَتۡ أَيۡدِي ٱلنَّاسِ لِيُذِيقَهُم بَعۡضَ ٱلَّذِي عَمِلُواْ لَعَلَّهُمۡ يَرۡجِعُونَ ٤١

“Calamities have appeared on land and sea because of what the hands of the people have earned, so that He makes them taste some of what they did, in order that they may return (to the right way).”[5]

Here, we learn another concept: to face the repercussions to what man creates for himself. Invading a country with the intent of collateral damage will inevitably lead to a retaliation. Greed from ruling elites who impose unfair taxes upon the working class citizens is bound to cause poverty on the other side of the scale. Stripping other countries of their riches will not, in turn, make them any wealthier. Targeting a particular racial caste and enslaving them with iron shackles will not (and did not) lead to social equality. In fact, merely reflecting over the evils of the world will reveal to the intelligent person just how apt the above verse is.

From the verse, it is also clear that even behind ‘suffering’ there lies a noble cause – namely, to give one the opportunity to turn back to Allāh . In other words, tests from Allāh are blessings in disguise.

Blessing in Disguise

In books like Riyāḍ al-Ṣāliḥīn, scholars have gathered numerous ḥadīths that shed even more light onto the concept of suffering. In one ḥadīth, for example, the Prophet said:

«ما يصيب المسلم من نصب ولا وصب ولا هم ولا حزن ولا أذى ولا غم، حتى الشوكة يشاكها إلا كفر الله بها من خطاياه»

“No fatigue, nor disease, nor sadness, nor hurt, nor distress befalls a Muslim, even if it be the prick of a thorn, except that Allāh expiates some of his sins through it.”[6]

In fact, the Prophet even taught us that the most severely tested of people are actually the Prophets, then those who are closest in similarity to them. The stronger one is in his faith, the stronger he will be tested.[7] In another, we learn that the Prophet used to suffer from fevers twice as strong as a normal one.[8] As Allāh says:

وَعَسَىٰٓ أَن تَكۡرَهُواْ شَيۡ‍ٔٗا وَهُوَ خَيۡرٞ لَّكُمۡۖ وَعَسَىٰٓ أَن تُحِبُّواْ شَيۡ‍ٔٗا وَهُوَ شَرّٞ لَّكُمۡۚ وَٱللَّهُ يَعۡلَمُ وَأَنتُمۡ لَا تَعۡلَمُونَ ٢١٦

“It could be that you dislike something, when it is good for you; and it could be that you like something, when it is bad for you. Allāh knows and you do not know.”[9]

Sometimes, a smaller calamity occurs to prevent a bigger one. The Qurʾān teaches that the Pharaoh was massacring the male children of the Israelites. Mūsā’s mother placed him into the river/ocean in order to protect him from being killed.[10]

Why Do Children Suffer?

There are some forms of suffering that can seem to be void of any wisdom. For example, why do children suffer from bone cancer and other such illnesses? This has been answered by the Ashʿarī theologian of the 13th Century AH (19th Century CE) Shaykh Ibrāhīm al-Bājūrī  ؒ (d. 1276 AH) in his famous commentary to Jawharat al-Tawḥīd. In it, he writes, ‘The wisdom for the suffering of children is the obtaining of reward by their parents.’[11] This is understood from the following ḥadīth, wherein the Prophet said:

«ما يزال البلاء بالمؤمن والمؤمنة في نفسه وولده وماله حتى يلقى الله وما عليه خطيئة»

“Trials will not cease to afflict the believing man and woman in their self, children and wealth, until they meet Allāh free from sin.”[12]

This is aside from the fact that Muslim children who die will be in Paradise, under the guardianship of the great Prophet Ibrāhīm. The Prophet said:

«ذراري المسلمين في الجنة، يكفلهم إبراهيم»

“Muslim children are in Janna; Ibrāhīm is taking care of them.”[13]

To end, the problem of evil is just another embodiment of the following sentence of the Qurʾān:

وَإِن تَعُدُّواْ نِعۡمَتَ ٱللَّهِ لَا تُحۡصُوهَآۗ

“If you tried to number Allāh’s blessings, you could never count them.”[14]


[1] See Muḥammad ʿImād al-Dīn al-Shērkōtī, Al-Mirʾāt (Karachi: Maktabat al-Bushrā, 1435/2014), p. 11; John C. Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford: Lion Books, 2009), p. 42.

[2] Al-Nasāʾī: (5104).

[3] [Al-Baqara: 2/155-157].

[4] [Al-Fajr: 89/14-20].

[5] [Al-Rūm: 31/41].

[6] Al-Bukhārī (5641); Muslim (2572) and (2573).

[7] Al-Tirmidhī (2398); Ibn Mājah (4023).

[8] Al-Bukhārī (5648); Muslim (2571).

[9] [Al-Baqara: 2/216].

[10] See [al-Qaṣaṣ: 28/3-7].

[11] Ibrāhīm b. Muḥammad al-Bājūrī, Tuḥfat al-Murīd ʿalā Jawharat al-Tawḥīd (Damascus: Maktaba Dār al-Daqqāq, 1433/2002) ed. ʿAbd al-Salām Shannār, p. 258.

[12] Al-Tirmidhī (2399). Credit to Shaykh ʿAbd al-Salām Shannār for linking the answer to the ḥadīth.

[13] Aḥmad (8324).

[14] [Ibrāhīm: 14/34].

2 thoughts on “Suffering and the Problem of Evil

  1. Adam Syed Hafeez

    Are there any resources besides al-mirqaat that I can use to go over some of the Mantiq terminology you mentioned above? I can read the al-Mirqaat but I need a translation or teacher to explain so I fully grasp it

    1. Assuming you are familiar with Arabic, I personally found the works of Imām al-Ghazālī ؒ of immense benefit – in particular, his treatise Al-Qisṭās al-Mustaqīm (The Just Balance). Remember, it is the concepts that are important, not so much the terminologies. Once you gain rudimentary knowledge on the subject, you can appreciate its application in real matters by reading his Al-Iqtiṣād fī ’l-Iʿtiqād (Moderation in Belief). These two works will, bi idhnillāh, suffice in being an intellectually convinced and confident Muslim.

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