Ask Sadia: Evil & Suffering

Screenshot 2020-04-20 at 10.00.29

Dear Mia,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

The presence of evil and suffering in the world does not ‘disprove’ God at all. Firstly, our ideas of ‘good’ and ‘evil’: from an atheistic standpoint, such ideas have no objective value, and all we really care about is survival and reproduction. However, the Islamic view maintains that our notions of good and evil have been prescribed for us and, to a large extent, have also been imbued in us from God. It is, in our view, foolish to morally criticise the very originator of morality. What is good is good because God has deemed it to be so; what is evil, the same principle applies.

In fact, the presence of evil and suffering does much to fortify the Islamic worldview. For starters, we do not believe that this world is all there is. This world is only a prequel, so to speak, to the world of the afterlife. And here, we will face difficulties and we will encounter evil.

In the Qur’an, God tells us that He created this world to test us – to see which of us do much evil, and which of us do much good.

Much of the human being’s capacities to do good are actually reliant on the presence of evil and suffering. The job of a doctor, for instance, would be rendered quite pointless if human sickness did not exist. Acts of charity, too, are only meaningful because poverty exists. And God does also tell us that He will ‘test some of us through means of others’.

And the ones who suffer: firstly, if they are destined to go to Heaven, there is a lovely Hadith – a saying of the Prophet (SAW) – that tells us that such a person will be asked, in Heaven, if they had ever suffered in this world. Due to the sheer ongoing joy and comfort that Heaven will facilitate, the person who suffered here will reply, “No”. 

We believe that the life of the Akhirah – what follows this worldly life – is like an entire ocean. And the life of this world – whether in terms of suffering, or in terms of happiness – is ‘but a drop’ upon one’s fingertip.

And, in terms of questions of evil and suffering, we human beings are extremely limited. Limited in knowledge, limited in our abilities to understand things beyond our currently-accessible frames of reference…

But just because we cannot access Divine wisdom, does not mean it does not exist.

One of my favourite Muslim academics, Hamza Tzortis, says the following on the matter:

“This reasoning is typical of toddlers. Many children are scolded by their parents for something they want to do, such as eating too many sweets. The toddlers usually cry or have a tantrum because they think how bad mummy and daddy are, but the child does not realise that the wisdom underlying their objection (in this case, too many sweets are bad for their teeth). Furthermore, this contention misunderstands the definition and nature of God. Since God is transcendent, knowing and wise, then it logically follows that limited human beings cannot fully comprehend the Divine will. To even suggest that we can appreciate the totality of God’s wisdom would mean that we are like God, which denies the fact of His transcendence, or implies that God is limited like a human. This argument has no traction with any believer, because no Muslim believes in a created, limited God. It is not an intellectual cop-out to refer to Divine wisdom, because it is not referring to some mysterious unknown. Rather, it truly understands the nature of God and makes the necessary logical conclusions. As I have pointed out before, God has the picture, and we have just a pixel.”

Although I empathise with their concern and anguish at the suffering inflicted on fellow sentient beings, some atheists suffer from a veiled type of egocentrism. This means they make special effort not to see the world from any perspective other than through their own eyes. However, in doing so, they commit a type of emotional—or spiritual—fallacy. They anthropomorphise God and turn Him into a limited man. They assume that God must see things the way we see things, and therefore He should stop the evil. If He allows it to continue, He must be questioned and rejected.

I would truly recommend that you read the rest of this article (entitled, ‘Is God Merciful? Islam’s Response to Evil and Suffering’) here.

On the topic of murders and genocides, we do not believe at all that people simply ‘get away with’ these things. These yearnings for justice that we human beings tend to have: they will be satisfied, eventually!

From an atheistic, Darwinian perspective, however, these justice-related inclinations are not very meaningful at all. For instance, if a woman were raped and then forced to carry a resulting baby to term, under this perspective, the ultimate objective of reproduction is being met. So what is it, within us, that makes us vehemently object to such things? It is a higher sense of Justice, surely.

Next, on what you were saying about doing ‘good for the sake of God’. Without God, the truth is, people do things in line with their own personal whims and fancies. There is nothing, under atheism, to morally distinguish between the ‘value’ of things that are done out of empathy, or things done out of, say, greed. Why? Because there is no objective morality. So we respond to our own personal instincts, which atheists tend to believe is for the ultimate purpose of self-preservation, survival of the fittest, reproduction.

The Muslim view is that we cannot rely on our own inner instincts and desires for us to behave morally – because some of these instincts will be moral; others will not. There is a clear distinction, but only religion can give this distinction any actual meaning. We believe that our highest connections are not to ourselves and to the matter of our own pleasure and preservation: our highest connection is the one we maintain with our Creator. So even on the days when we don’t ‘feel like’ (i.e. our inner instincts do not push us towards) doing good, we should endeavour to ‘do good’ regardless.

And on what you said about ‘evil [just being objectively] evil’. How does atheism seek to justify this, I ask you?

Religion – Islam, at least – certainly does not detract from our abilities to appreciate this world, nor does it, at all, discourage us from helping others in the ‘here and now’. Quite the opposite, actually: we are constantly encouraged to reflect on the world, on the beauty of God’s creation. We are taught to be grateful, kind, and more. And we are incentivised by our religion to not be self-serving, but to serve the people.

And from these facts – the Islamic instructions that we are to a) reflect upon, explore, and bask in the wonders of God’s creations, and b) that we improve the lives of others, much intellectual and societal beauty did arise. The first hospital that served ill people – wealthy and impoverished alike – for instance, was established in the 8th Century, in Damascus. Many of the developments and discoveries that emerged during the Islamic Golden Age were inspired by these very Qur’anic and Prophetic instructions.

Finally, homophobia and LGBT considerations may be something I touch upon in a future article, Insha-Allah (God-Willing)!

Please do let me know if you have any more questions and/or contentions…




Ask me a question (or tell me what’s on your mind) here

Sadia Ahmed J., 2020


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