The Islamic position concerning life’s trials and tribulations is one that is extremely empowering. Calamities, disasters, and tragedies — all forms of suffering and hardship—are viewed as divinely-sent tests. This life is not meant to be one giant party, rather, we have been created with a noble purpose — to worship God. Tests are an inevitable part of this purpose. These tests serve as a reminder of our greater purpose, as a means of purification, and, ultimately, as a way to draw closer to God. Tests are actually seen as a sign of God’s love. In fact, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said,
“When God loves a servant, He tests him.”
Why would God test those He loves? Trials and tribulations are an avenue to achieving Divine mercy; a means to entering the eternal bliss of paradise. God clearly states this in the Qur’an, saying,
“Do you suppose that you will enter the Garden without first having suffered like those before you? They were afflicted by misfortune and hardship, and they were so shaken that even [their] messenger and the believers with him cried, ‘When will God’s help arrive?’ Truly, God’s help is near.”
The beauty of this is that God has empowered us with all the necessary means to overcome these trials. Indeed,
“God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear.”
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 we may not be able to understand the wisdom behind something, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. For instance, in some cases, sickness results in the buildup of immunity; earthquakes relieve pent up pressures within the earth; and volcanoes spew out minerals resulting in rich fertile soil for agriculture. There is an ancient wisdom that states, “Out of the snake’s poison comes the antidote”. How else can one appreciate ease without having first experienced hardship? 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.”
Sceptics may focus on the negative aspects, claiming that evil and suffering do not serve a greater purpose. Muslims, on the other hand, believe that trials and tribulations are an inevitable part of establishing their ultimate purpose. The Qur’an emphasizes this concept, stating,
“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 Almighty, The All-Forgiving.”
In some religions, a person’s good status in the world is seen as an indication that God is pleased with him or her. For instance, if a person has a good job or a nice house the inference made is that God loves him or her. However, in Islam, health, wealth, poverty, sickness, etc., are not signs of success or failure: they are a means of testing the individual to determine his or her response to a particular situation.
There is no denying the amount of evil and suffering that exists in the world, and we should all be concerned with how we can make the human experience more peaceful. Some argue that the existence of all of this evil and suffering undermines God’s existence. However, putting emotions aside, is this a convincing argument?
The argument can be summarised in the following way:
“It is unbelievable that a good, all-powerful God exists with all the evil and suffering in the world.”
In its logical form:
- A good, all-powerful God exists
- Evil and suffering exist
- Therefore a good, all-powerful God doesn’t exist
A basic lesson in logic will make one realise that this argument is not deductive. The conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow from the previous two statements. Rather, the conclusion is probably true; essentially, it is a probabilistic argument. The problem of evil argument is a very weak one due to it being based on two major false assumptions.
- God is only good and all-powerful
- God has not given us any reasons to why He has permitted evil and suffering
GOD IS ONLY GOOD AND ALL-POWERFUL?
The problem of evil argument misrepresents the Islamic concept of God. God is not just good and all-powerful; rather, He has many names and attributes, all of which are understood holistically. For example, one of His names is The-Wise. Since the very nature of God is wise, it follows that whatever He wills is in line with wisdom. If something has wisdom behind it, there’s a purpose for it. In response, sceptics typically reply in the following way:
“Why does he have to test us in such evil ways?”
This response misrepresents the Islamic position and commits the fallacy of arguing from ignorance. The point here is that just because the wisdom cannot be understood, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. This reasoning is typical of toddlers. Many toddlers get told off by their parents for something they want to do. For example, wanting to drink an enticing brown-gold liquid, also known as whisky. The toddlers may cry or have a tantrum because they are thinking how bad Mummy and Daddy are for not letting them drink it. They don’t yet realise the wisdom behind them not being allowed to consume it.
The Qur’an uses profound stories and narratives to instil this understanding in the reader’s mind. Take for instance the story of Moses and Al-Khidr:
“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-Khidr tore it open. [Moses] said, ‘Have you torn it open to drown its people? You have certainly done a grave thing.’ [Al-Khidr] 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-Khidr 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-Khidr] 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-Khidr restored it. [Moses] said, ‘If you wished, you could have taken for it a payment.’ [Al-Khidr] 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.’”
Commenting on the above verses, the classical scholar of Qur’anic exegesis, Ibn Kathir, explained that Al-Khidr was the one to whom God had given knowledge of these realities, and He had not given it to Moses. With reference to the statement:
“Indeed, with me you will never be able to have patience,”
Ibn Kathir writes that this means,
“You will not be able to accompany me when you see me doing things that go against your law, because I have knowledge from Allah that He has not taught you, and you have knowledge from Allah that He has not taught me.”
In essence, God’s wisdom and knowledge are unbounded and complete, whereas we as human beings have its particulars: in other words, limited wisdom and knowledge. Hence, Ibn Kathir explains that the verse:
“And how can you have patience about a thing which you know not,”
“For I know that you will denounce me justifiably, but I have knowledge of Allah’s wisdom and the hidden interests which I can see but you cannot.”
The view that everything that happens is in line with a Divine wisdom is empowering and positive. This is because God’s wisdom does not contradict other aspects of His nature, such as His perfection and goodness. Therefore, all evil and suffering is ultimately part of a greater Divine plan. This evokes positive psychological responses from believers, because in the end, all evil and suffering serves a purpose that is both wise and good. The 14th century classical scholar Ibn Taymiyya summarises this point, saying,
“If God – exalted is He – is the Creator of everything, He creates good and evil on account of the wise purpose that He has; in that by virtue of which His action is good and perfect.”
HAS GOD NOT GIVEN US REASONS?
A sufficient response to the second assumption is to provide a strong argument that God has justified reasons to permit suffering and evil in the world. The intellectual richness of Islamic Theology provides us with many reasons, some of which include:
- The primary purpose of the human being is not to enjoy a transitory sense of happiness, but to achieve a deep internal peace through knowing and worshipping God. This fulfilment of the Divine Purpose will result in everlasting bliss and happiness. If this is our primary purpose, other aspects of the human experience are secondary. God states: “I did not create either jinn or man except to worship Me.”
- As already mentioned, God created us for a test; an inevitable part of this is being tested with suffering and evil. The Qur’an mentions, “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 Almighty, the All-Forgiving”.
- Having hardship and suffering enables us to realise and know God’s attributes such as ‘The Victorious’ and ‘The Healer’. For example, without the pain and suffering of illness, we would not appreciate the attribute of God being ‘The Healer’. Knowing God is a greater good, and worth the experience of suffering or pain—as it will mean the fulfilment of our primary purpose.
- Suffering allows 2nd order good. 1st order good is physical pleasure and happiness, and 1st order evil is physical pain and sadness. 2nd order good is elevated goodness, such as courage. Courage is appreciated in the presence of cowardice.
- God has given us free will, and free will includes choosing evil acts. This explain personal evil, which is evil or suffering committed by a human being. One can argue the following: why doesn’t God give us the choice to do good or evil but always ensures that we choose good?
The problem here is that good and evil would lose their meanings if God were to always ensure we chose good. Take the following example into consideration: someone always points a loaded gun to your head and asks you to give charity. You obviously give the charity, but does it have any moral value? It doesn’t.
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 that 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.
REFERENCES Narrated by Tirmidhi.
 Qur’an 2:214
 Qur’an 2:286
 Islamic Theology vs. the Problem of Evil, by Abdal Hakim Murad.
 Qur’an 67:2
 Qur’an 18:65-82
 Tafsir Ibn Kathir
 Minhaj As-Sunnah 3:142/2:25
 Qur’an 51:56-57
 Qur’an 67:2