The problem of evil in Islam. Does it Exist?

Bismillah___Ramadan_Day_7_by_devilmaycryubAssalamu alaykum (Peace be upon you).

Today I’m posting an old article that I wrote and even forgot about, but I believe is still pertinent in dealing with the intellectual issues faced by muslims in their day to day discussions and even when giving da’wah. It only returned to mind during a webinar hosted by Imran Hussein and Hamza Tzortzis where the one of the guests raised the problem of evil. Since I have a blog now which I didn’t have then, I didn’t see a good reason why I shouldn’t upload this here. And so here it is. If what I present is of the truth and beneficial to you, then I seek only the reward of my Lord. If I am wrong, may Allah(SWT) forgive me for this is what I was able to produce through my intellectual efforts and Allah(SWT) is the All-Aware, the All-Knowing.

The problem of evil is considered a classical argument against the existence of God and is studied in the subject of philosophy of religion in both muslim and non-muslim majority countries. During the course of this discussion, all philosophical terms, unless stated otherwise, are defined according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The argument can, then, be synthesized in the following manner:

 

  • If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
  • If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
  • If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
  • If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
  • Evil exists.
  • If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn’t know when evil exists, or doesn’t have the desire to eliminate all evil.
  • Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

 

The objective here is demonstrate that the premises used for this argument do not apply to the God of Islam, Allah(SWT). Thus, two essential terms need to be defined for this discussion according to the religion of Islam. Firstly moral perfection, and secondly evil.

The term morality comes from the Latin word moralitas meaning “manner, character, and proper behavior” and can be used either

  1. descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or,
    1. some other group, such as a religion, or
    2. accepted by an individual for her own behavior or
  2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

Morality is intimately tied with the notions of good and evil, which in Islam do not exist as absolutes in a vacuum. They are relative to individuals or groups and describe the perception of a state or event, as per said individuals or groups. To exemplify this notion, imagine any event which is not pleasing to you either by causing you pain or loss in some form or another. The only significance the word evil would have in this situation, according to Islam, would be that it describes the way you perceive the event, nothing more. The ultimate good is defined as that which one will always perceive as pleasant, never ceasing in pleasantry nor leading to a future unpleasant event or state. The antithesis of this is ultimate evil.

A notion which muslims have acquired over time from their christian brethren in humanity, is the idea that God is omni-beneficent or all good, however this is not a notion carried by the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) or even by the Qur’an, as shall be seen further along  in this discussion. All good or evil faced in one’s life is from Allah(SWT) be it by natural catastrophes or harm brought about by one’s personal actions or the actions of others.

The following is an excerpt from a hadith that is reported by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adabul-Mufrad, and by Imam Ahmad in his Musnad 3/424, where Muhammad (SAW), on the day of Uhud, said the following:

“O Allah, I ask You to grant me permanent bliss that neither changes nor vanishes. O Allah, You Alone we seek for help at hardships. You Alone we resort to for security on a day of terror. O Allah, to You Alone I resort to protect us from the evil of that which You have given us and from the evil of that which You have withheld from us. O Allah, make us love Al-3emaan and make it adorn our hearts! Make Al-Kufr, rebellion  and disobedience detestable to us. Let us be among those who are rightly guided. O Allah, make us live as Muslims and cause us to die as Muslims; and make us join with the righteous but not with the disgraced and misled. (…)”

None of the names included in the Qur’an to describe Allah include All-Merciful or All-Good but rather Most or Excessively Merciful and Compassionate. One may attempt to retort that given their feelings about the events which unfold in the universe, that they or some other human being or creature could have potentially been more merciful. Such a statement would be to ignore that, according to Islam, all manifestations of mercy in the Universe we inhabit are manifestations of the mercy of Allah(SWT), including those intense desires one may feel towards another creature. In Islamic thought, mercy is not generated by the creatures themselves. This can be seen in the following two hadith:

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger as saying: “There are one hundred (parts of) mercy for Allah and He has sent down out of these one part of mercy upon the jinn and human beings and the insects and it is because of this (one part) that they love one another, show kindness to one another and even the beast treats its young one with affection, and Allah has reserved ninety-nine parts of mercy with which He would treat His servants on the Day of Resurrection. ” (Sahih Muslim: Book 37 Kitab Al-Tauba, Number 6631)

Salman reported that Allah’s Messenger said: “Verily, Allah created, on the same very day when He created the heavens and the earth, one hundred parts of mercy. Every part of mercy is coextensive with the space between the heavens and the earth and He out of this mercy endowed one part to the earth and it is because of this that the mother shows affection to her child and even the beasts and birds show kindness to one another and when there would be the Day of Resurrection, Allah would make full (use of Mercy).” (Sahih Muslim: Book 37 Kitab Al-Tauba, Number 6634)

Even Iblees or any shaytan (human or otherwise) are merely creatures which ultimately serve the purpose of manifesting the evil, i.e. events or states perceived as unpleasant by sentient creatures, which Allah has decreed to be manifest. Allah is, according to Islamic thought, the source of all things and nothing has any real power of their own.

All that is necessary in order to demonstrate that this argument is inapplicable in relation to God according to Islam,  Allah(SWT), is to show that at least one of the premises fail. In this case, the flaws appear connected to the notion of moral perfection and evil. There is no possible means for one to derive what code of conduct Allah needs to have for Him to exist since he is not restricted to bringing about events which are perceived as good relative to any creature in such a way as to be considered “morally perfect”. Therefore, it can be said that the term “morally perfect” in premise 1 has no meaningful significance and the conclusion does not follow.

Assalamu Alaykum wa Rahmatullahi wa Barakatuhu, may Allah(SWT) protect us and may He grant us Understanding.

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One thought on “The problem of evil in Islam. Does it Exist?

  1. I’ve heard scholars posit another kind of good-evil relation in islam; one based solely on correct attribution. Examples include 18:79-82, 26:78-82 and 72:10. In each case there’s an interesting grammatical inflection when attributing the subject (God) to an action that’s perceived as good or evil. The good to God and the evil to…

    On the face of it, applying this to hadiths like the one quoted above from Al-Bukhari and the Musnad; “…O Allah, to You Alone I resort to protect us from the evil of that which You have given us and from the evil of that which You have withheld from us…” would seem problematic.

    Have you come across this issue and how it’s resolved?

    Like

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