Theodicy is a term which refers to the problem of the existence of Evil, specifically in relation to God. Some have argued, “how can we believe in a good God, when there is so much suffering and evil?” This article will give an Islamic perspective of Theodicy.
So what is Evil?
Evil is a moral abstract, or concept. It is not a real thing, like a book or chair, but an idea or notion. So Evil can not exist like a banana can exist, it exists in the same way that love, hate, jealousy, charity, kindness etc would exist. So Evil is a concept in the realm of the intangible. But what actually is Evil? Evil is a property of a person’s intentions, not acts. So two people can do the same act, but with different intentions and therefore one person can be good and the other evil.
For example watering a flower, one person may do it so that the people walking nearby can see its lovely colours and smell its fragrance, and this is a good thing. Another person may do the same physical acts but with a different intention, this time so that the thorns grow long and catch people as they walk nearby to hurt them. That would be evil. Essentially Evil is when you are being unjust.
Then what is Good?
Just as Evil, good is also a concept. Good is the concept that the intention behind a person’s acts are for just reasons. Another difference between good and evil is that God has commanded Good and prohibited Evil. Again its critical to differentiate acts from intentions, acts in themselves are neither good nor bad, pressing a button for example. In itself, pressing a button is not seen as good or bad, however once the context and intention or the presser is known, we can decide if the whole act is good or bad. Perhaps the button presser is doing so to give money from his bank account to charity, which is good. Or perhaps the button is a weapon to kill innocent people, which is clearly bad.
Who defines what is good and evil?
When people are trying to decide what to do in a situation, they often refer to following a “moral compass”, as morality is the process of deciding right from wrong, good from evil. So humans on the whole innately know what is right from wrong, and additionally they use their moral compass to realise which religion is correct. When a religion calls to all that is good, and to avoid all that is bad humanity will instinctively incline to it.
Why is there natural “evil”, eg Earth quakes, child cancers ?
Lets imagine there is an earthquake and it kills many people, old, young, women, men, the earthquake does not discriminate. Is this evil?
Based on the definition above, it can not be. It is an act, without any intention, the earth did not decide to shake and kill people, it is a physical process based on universal causality. There was no agent or person controlling the ground to make it give way at a particular time. Consider another example, if I really like ice cream, and I buy an ice cream, and I eat it all quickly. I enjoy it, but I am not satisfied, I want more, the fact the ice cream has now gone, is that evil? If a child dies due to a disease, is that evil? The answer to all of these is no, this is not evil, but rather suffering. Suffering is when people are negatively impacted by events. Evil is when someone acts unjustly towards another. So someone may suffer from an evil person, or they may suffer from hunger, but hunger in its self is not evil. It is simply a lack of food.
So why does God even allow Evil and suffering?
90|4|We created man in distress.
Humans, and animals for that matter have free will, this allows them to interact with their surroundings as they please. They are not completely free however, they are limited by their attributes and their moral compass and any other intellectual systems of thought, such as religion or ethics. So they are responsible for their actions, but some ask why does God allow this? Why does God permit people to do evil?
21|16|We did not create the sky and the earth and what is between them for amusement.
The answer is to do with the purpose of the Universe. If you were expecting the universe to be one of constant pleasure and happiness, then yes, God has not succeeded in creating that for you. However, the claim from Islam is that the universe is not for enjoyment, but rather to see how well man can do, how perfect can they be? Can they reach the highest levels of morality, without being coerced?
23|115|Did you think that We created you in vain, and that to Us you will not be returned?”
So essentially, life is a test. Now if the questions of a test were all easy and we know the answers, how can the examiner determine who has understood the most? If there are no poor people in the world, how can we determine who is going to sacrifice some of their money and belongings so that the poor can eat? Some say, but why doesn’t God help the poor? The question ignores the reason for our very existence. Again, imagine in a test, the teacher could easily answer the questions in our exam, but they remain silent during the test, not out of hate or ignorance, but because there is a purpose for the test
44|38|We did not create the heavens and the earth and what is between them to play.
44|39|We created them only for a specific purpose, but most of them do not know.
44|40|The Day of Sorting Out is the appointed time for them all.
35|45| If God were to punish the people for what they have earned, He would not leave a single living creature on its surface. But He defers them until a stated time. Then, when their time has arrived—God is Observant of His creatures.
What is the Purpose of Suffering?
6|42|We sent messengers to communities before you, and We afflicted them with suffering and hardship, that they may humble themselves.
The communities were challenged, they suffered and the hope was that they would elevate themselves and move on from primitive tribal wars and idolatry etc. If someone put those communities through the same suffering just because they didn’t like the colour of their skin or because they were bored, then that is Evil.
So to conclude, suffering is the discomfort and unpleasant feeling that humanity endures. Evil is the intention of causing suffering for no good purpose.
I feel like this was written by a young person, because by the time you hit 50 the level of undeserved suffering that both human & non-human beings experience can make one suicidal. Allah allows children to be born with genetic diseases with physical & mental painthat only ends in death. The ice cream analogy was puerile & insulting.
Whilst I agree with you that there is much suffering around, the vast majority of life is not. Additionally, if we understand that this life is not the complete reality, then the suffering one faces now, could be the same as that as a baby in the womb, in the big scheme of things, it will pale unto the true reality.
As for the Ice Cream analogy, if you expected this life to be trouble free and without suffering or challenge, then its the expectations that are wrong, not the analogy. My point is that if we frame the universe as just a sandbox for human suffering, then I would agree, that’s evil and problematic.
I agree with Jennifer. I’m 70 and have seen a lot. 10 month old baby boys raped and ruined for life, terrible violence done to innocent people (I lived in the slums of Kingston, Jamaica), the holocaust, the slave trade, people being tortured as I write, 30,000 people dying of starvation each day as we eat too much in the West…all while Allah (SWT) is all good and all powerful and appears to do nothing to fix this sort of thing. How does that work?
I hoped that the article already would explain, but let me try again. If you come form the angle that this life should have no hardships or suffering at all, then obviously you have a point, as plainly there is suffering and evil in our lives. However, I’m saying that this life is not supposed to be pure bliss. It is supposed to be challenging and the way we respond to those challenges is what separates the good people from the bad.
For example, without suffering, how could we know who is charitable? Who is an oppressor? Who is kind?
Ahmed, thank you. You have a point. My problem is with those who suffer and there is no apparent redemption in it at all. I just read of two tourists who were kidnapped in the Philippenes by dudes claiming to be isis and they beheaded them. Just two nice guys, most likely not Muslims. I saw a few days ago the picture of a little baby with its whole body full of terrible psoriasis. What test is that for that baby. That’s the type of thing that really bothers me. The slave trade, the holocaust, the famine in Somalia…I don’t understand but I continue to do wudu and salaat daily and submit to Allah (SWT). Assalam alaykum wa ramutllah…