Islamic response to the problem of evil and suffering
We’ve all heard it numerous times: ‘Why do bad things happen to us or to the people we love?’ After all, we have all been affected in some way by the harsh realities of life. Every one of us have encountered some form of grief, whether it be a personal experience or hearing of someone else’s suffering. The stories are endless.
Human suffering is widespread and real and so is evil as a force in the world. So how do we deal with it?
The way some people deal with it is by getting angry with God or denying that a loving God can exist with so much evil in the world. The problem with this reaction is that the evil and suffering that affects us continues to cause us pain and nothing changes after we blame God or deny God exists. So how do we really deal with it?
Islam has an answer that can help us deal with our pain in a way that is emotionally satisfying.
The Qur’an uses profound stories and narratives to change our paradigm about evil and suffering. Take, for instance, the story of the Prophet Moses and a man he meets on his travels, known as Khidr.:
“So the two turned back, retraced their footsteps, and found one of Our servants— a man to whom We had granted Our mercy and whom We had given knowledge of Our own.
Moses said to him [Khidr], ‘May I follow you so that you can teach me some of the right guidance you have been taught?’
The man [Khidr] said, ‘You will not be able to bear with me patiently. How could you be patient in matters beyond your knowledge?’
Moses said, ‘God willing, you will find me patient. I will not disobey you in any way.’
The man [Khidr] said, ‘If you follow me then, do not query anything I do before I mention it to you myself.’ They travelled on.
Later, when they got into a boat, and the man made a hole in it, Moses said, ‘How could you make a hole in it? Do you want to drown its passengers? What a strange thing to do!’
He [Khidr] replied, ‘Did I not tell you that you would never be able to bear with me patiently?’
Moses said, ‘Forgive me for forgetting. Do not make it too hard for me to follow you.’ And so they travelled on.
Then, when they met a young boy and the man killed him, Moses said, ‘How could you kill an innocent person? He has not killed anyone! What a terrible thing to do!’
He [Khidr] replied, ‘Did I not tell you that you would never be able to bear with me patiently?’
Moses said, ‘From now on, if I query anything you do, banish me from your company— you have put up with enough from me.’
And so they travelled on. Then, when they came to a town and asked the inhabitants for food but were refused hospitality, they saw a wall there that was on the point of falling down and the man repaired it.
Moses said, ‘But if you had wished you could have taken payment for doing that.’
He [Khidr] said, ‘This is where you and I part company. I will tell you the meaning of the things you could not bear with patiently: the boat belonged to some needy people who made their living from the sea and I damaged it because I knew that coming after them was a king who was seizing every [serviceable] boat by force. The young boy had parents who were people of faith, and so, fearing he would trouble them through wickedness and disbelief, we wished that their Lord should give them another child—purer and more compassionate—in his place. The wall belonged to two young orphans in the town and there was buried treasure beneath it belonging to them. Their father had been a righteous man, so your Lord intended them to reach maturity and then dig up their treasure as a mercy from your Lord. I did not do [these things] of my own accord: these are the explanations for those things you could not bear with patience.’” 
This story also provides key lessons and spiritual insights. The first lesson is that in order to understand God’s will, one has to be humble. The spiritual status of Moses is very high according to the Qur’an, he is the most mentioned person in the Quran yet he approached Khidr with humility. Moses knew that Khidr had been given divinely inspired knowledge that God had not given to him. Moses humbly asked to learn from him, yet Khidr responded by questioning his ability to be patient; nevertheless, Moses insisted and wanted to learn.
The second lesson is that patience is required to emotionally and psychologically deal with the suffering and evil in the world. Khidr knew that Moses would not be able to be patient with him, as he was going to do things that Moses thought were evil. Moses tried to be patient but always questioned the man’s actions and expressed his anger at the perceived evil. However, at the end of the story, Khidr explained the divine wisdom behind his actions after exclaiming that Moses was not able to be patient.
Another lesson is that God’s wisdom is unbounded and complete, whereas we have limited wisdom and knowledge. Another way of putting it is that God has the totality of wisdom and knowledge; we just have its particulars, he has the picture we just have a pixel. We see things from the perspective of our fragmentary viewpoint. The verse “How could you be patient in matters beyond your knowledge?” means that there is a Divine wisdom that we cannot access. Khidr had knowledge of God’s wisdom and the hidden interests which Moses couldn’t see.
There are so many examples in our lives where we admit to our intellectual inferiority. We rationally submit to realities that we cannot understand on a regular basis. For example, when we visit the doctor we assume that the doctor is an authority. We trust the doctor’s diagnosis on this basis. We even take the medicine the doctor prescribes without any second thought.
God is The-Wise, and His names and attributes are perfect, it follows that there is wisdom behind everything that He does—even if we do not know or understand that wisdom. Many of us do not understand how diseases work, but just because we do not understand something does not undermine its existence.
The story of Moses and Khidr also deals with an ancient argument against God. The argument goes like this: if God is all powerful and all good then there should be no evil in the world. Since he is all powerful, God would end all evil in the world, but evil does exist so either God is not all good because he lets evil stay or he is not all powerful as he can’t stop evil.
This argument puts the idea of an all good all powerful God in a difficult position. However, these two qualities are not the only qualities God has, he is also the wise and all knowing, has access to wisdom that we don’t have as the story above shows. The argument above only works if God is only all powerful and all good, but this is simply not true as God is also all wise and all knowing, so the problem above no longer exists.
Our purpose is worship
The primary purpose of life in Islam is not to enjoy a transitory sense of happiness; rather, it is to achieve a deep internal peace through knowing and worshipping God. Worship is a comprehensive term in Islam, anything good that we do for the sake of God is worship, whether that is reflecting about creation, giving charity, fasting, smiling, searching for medical cures or even thinking good thoughts about God and excusing people’s mistakes, all these are considered worship if they are done for the sake of God.
This fulfilment of the Divine purpose will result in everlasting bliss and true happiness. So, if this is our primary purpose, other aspects of human experience are secondary.
Consider someone who has never experienced any suffering or pain, but experiences pleasure all the time. This person, by virtue of his state of ease, has forgotten God and therefore failed to do what he was been created to do. Compare this person with someone whose experiences of hardship and pain have led him to God, and fulfilled his purpose in life. From the perspective of the Islamic spiritual tradition, the one whose suffering has led him to God is better than the one who has never suffered and whose pleasures have led him away from God.
Life is a test
God also created us for a test, and part of this test is to experience trials with suffering and evil. Passing the test facilitates our permanent abode of eternal bliss in paradise. The Qur’an explains that God 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 The-Almighty, The-Forgiving.”
On a basic level, the atheist misunderstands the purpose of our existence on Earth. The world is supposed to be an arena of trials and tribulations in order to test our conduct and for us to cultivate virtue. For example, how can we cultivate patience if we do not experience things that test our patience? How can we become courageous if there are no dangers to be confronted? How can we be compassionate if no one is in need of it? Life being a test answers these questions. We need them to ensure our moral and spiritual growth. We are not here to be in a constant state of pleasure; that is the purpose of paradise.
So why is life a test? Since God is perfectly good, He wants every single one of us to believe and as a result to experience eternal bliss with Him in paradise. God makes it clear that He prefers belief for us all: “And He does not approve for His servants disbelief.”
This clearly shows that God does not want anyone to go to hell. However, if He were to enforce that and send everyone to paradise, then a gross violation of justice would take place; God would be treating Hitler and Jesus as the same. A mechanism is needed to ensure that people who enter paradise do so based on merit. This explains why life is a test. Life is just a mechanism to see who among us are truly deserving of eternal happiness. As such, life is filled with obstacles, which act as tests of our conduct. In this regard, Islam is empowering because it sees suffering, evil, harm, pain and problems as a test.
The beauty of the Islamic tradition is that God, who knows us better than we know ourselves, has already empowered us and tells us that we have what it takes to overcome these trials. “God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear.”
However, if we cannot overcome these trials after having tried our best, God’s mercy and justice will ensure that we are recompensed in some way, either in this life or the eternal life that awaits us.
Detachment from the world
According to the Islamic tradition, God has created us so that we may worship and draw near to Him. A fundamental principle concerning this is that we must detach ourselves from the temporary nature of the world. This world is the place of limitations, suffering, loss, desires, ego, excessiveness and evil. Suffering shows us how truly low this worldly life is, thereby facilitating our detachment from it. Thus we are able to draw closer to God.
The Prophet Muhammad said, “Love of this World is the root of all evil.” The greatest evil according to Islam is denying and associating partners with God; therefore detachment from the world is necessary to reach the ultimate spiritual goal of nearness to God, and subsequently paradise.
The Qur’an makes it very clear that this world is a deceiving enjoyment: “Know that the life of this world is but amusement and diversion and adornment and boasting to one another and competition in increase of wealth and children—like the example of a rain whose [resulting] plant growth pleases the tillers; then it dries and you see it turned yellow; then it becomes [scattered] debris.”
The ‘problem’ of evil and suffering is not a problem for the believer, as evil and suffering are understood as functions of God’s profound wisdom, perfection and goodness. The spiritual teachings of Islam create a sense of hope, patience and tranquility. The logical implications of atheism is that one is plunged into a hopeless state and does not have any answers to why evil and suffering exist. This ignorance is mostly due to an egocentrism that makes them fail in their ability to see things from another perspective.
References A passage from Surah Al-Kahf (Chapter 18) of the Quran – verses 65-82.