The Muslim Response to Why Evil Exists Despite a Merciful and All-Powerful God

This is an issue, often referred to as ‘The Problem of Evil’, that I have been thinking about over the past year or so. A number of responses have been written on the topic by Muslims and it is definetly worth a read. Before I share links to those responses, I have the following important points to make on the subject based on my own research:

  • God never promised a perfect world. He never said that this world will not contain injustice, problems, etc. In fact, he explicitly says the opposite. We are told from the very beginning of Adam’s creation that we are a species that will shed blood. Humanity in general is spoken about in a very negative light in the Quran. That utopian perfection is in the afterlife in Paradise not this world. Was never meant to be. So those who say if God is all Powerful and Merciful and Just, then why doesn’t He intervene, we say because He never claimed that He would in every occasion.
  • Many of the injustices and evils we have, we brought onto oursleves. This is part of the consequences of having free will. Skeptics want God to intervene after every wrong choice we make? Then what’s the point of free will to begin with? We have to bear the consequences of our choices. Hence: “That is for what your hands have put forth and because Allah is not ever unjust to [His] servants” (Quran 3:182).
  • We need to remember that this life is merely a test to see which one of us is best in deed (Quran 67:2). Part of the tests include dealing with horrific situations and this is why the believers are constantly told to be patient and hope for reward, because there is an ultimate day coming to settle it all in the most just of ways.
  • Just because Allah allows certain evils to exist does not mean that He likes it or approves of it. He allows the consequences of our actions to go into effect and this will be used as evidence against us on the Day of Judgement. In Surah al-Kahf, it states regarding the wrongdoers, “If He were to seize them ˹immediately˺ for what they commit, He would have certainly hastened their punishment. But they have an appointed time, from which they will find no refuge” (Quran 18:58). This shows us that Allah is aware of what the wrongdoers are doing yet allows them to continue in their behavior because they have an oppointed deadline from which they cannot escape and will eventually be held responsible for their actions. In another verse of the Quran, we are told, “We only extend it for them so that they may increase in sin, and for them is a humiliating punishment” (Quran 3:178).
  • As for why things were chosen to be done with these rules and not others, then we can simply say “He is not questioned about what He does, but they will be questioned” (Quran 21:23).

Ust. Samir Hussein also made some good points in his post on Facebook:

One of the theological issues that I have never really had a personal problem with in my journey of becoming a Muslim, and then studying Islam, was the problem of evil and ethical controversies in Islam. And Allah alone is due praise and thanks for this. My personal issue was a bit more complicated, it had to do with the epistemic rationale for believing in God, but I cleared that up over the course of a decade of reading & study.

I really don’t understand why people have trouble understanding why Allah and evil coexist, and why it is so difficult for them to accept some of the more ethically controversial (in the modern world) aspects of Islam. In my mutakallim mind, once you understand the epistemic justification for why we believe Allah to be true along with a proper understanding Allah’s omnipotence, then ethical controversies in the context of the Qur’an and Sunnah are a mere footnote. All 3 schools of Sunni theology agreed that once sacred text comes into play, the intellect must submit.

If the Creator, All-Powerful and All-Wise decides for something to happen, or for something to be good or bad, then there is no need for discussion on it. Your ethical concern is diminished because of your lowly status as slave and creation, and your opinion – subject to cultural and social pressures and the limits of the human mind, is not even significant in the first place. You might have questions, but perhaps those are best left for the afterlife when the answers are available. True submission is not just the physical one of sujud, but also the rational one of ethical priorities.

But as I have interacted with students, I understand this may be difficult for many to grasp. Not everyone possesses or is able to to develop the robotic mutakallim mindset that prioritizes sacred text, reason and empirical data over emotions and feelings. I’m not saying Muslims shouldn’t learn theology and the epistemic grounding for their beliefs, but that people differ in their personalities, psychologies, learning opportunities and emotional priorities.

For these Muslims, there is increasingly more literature available online on ethical concerns in Islamic theology, and Islamic ethics is a new academic field with some very promising developments incoming. I would even venture to say the field of Islamic ethics is one of the most important developments in Islamic studies since the Qawa’id ul-Fiqh and Maqasid al-Shariah. Also, given current political and social trends, it seems that the next few generations will witness ethical upheavals and changes of their own. I wouldn’t be surprised if coming generations see a world in which Islamic ethics make more sense than ever before.

Until then however, besides learning theology and solidifying the rational and epistemic roots of Islamic belief, what I recommend for people whose psychology and personality grant more epistemic weight to their emotions and feelings, is worship and tasawwuf. Don’t dismiss theology, but your theological medication is better when spiritual: building a better relationship with the Creator.

Learn to love Allah and trust in Him and His words. This means not just fulfilling obligations, but going beyond into recommended acts. Sin may be a greater poison for you than scientism. It also means attuning the heart to worship, developing khushu, doing dhikr and prioritizing witnessing Allah’s presence in one’s acts of worship instead of just mechanically doing them. Engage in more tawbah, and spend more time with the righteous. Even the mutakallim needs this, so the one who doesn’t have that knowledge or faculty of reason needs it even more.

As for some more reading on the topic from an Islamic perspective, I suggest the following:

The Problem of Evil: A Multifaceted Islamic Solution

Why Do People Suffer? God’s Existence & the Problem of Evil

Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering

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