I've heard this question many, many times over the years. Nice to see a well-written essay on it
-from Imam Suahib's blog
Why does God allow bad things to happen?
By Imam Mustafa ‘Umar
Importance of the Question
Since you live in the 21st century, it is very probable that you have at least come across, if not been influenced by, what is known as “the problem of evil”. You might have heard it at school or work after someone was murdered: “How could God allow this to happen?!” You see it in articles and blog posts after the bombardment of an entire village: “What kind of God would allow these things to happen?!”
You will even find it in intellectual circles and philosophy books: “If there really were a perfectly good, all-knowing, all-powerful God, then there would be no evil and suffering in the world.”
This so-called problem is one of the most common arguments that skeptics use to deny the existence of God. They assume that they have found an Achilles heel in the religions that believe in God. The common picture we have in our minds is of the skeptic atheist calmly presenting a logical, intellectual, and scientific argument while the religiously-inclined defendant becomes emotionally charged and tries to beat around the bush. However, the strength of this argument does not, in any way, have to do with logic or rationale but rather is emotionally charged to the core and attempts to hijack any sensitive event it can find. Nor is it a new question. In fact, we find the angels asking something similar even before man was created: “When your Lord told the angels, ‘I am putting a deputy on earth,’ they said, ‘How can you put someone there who will cause damage and bloodshed, when we celebrate Your praise and proclaim Your holiness?’ but he said, ‘I know what you know not.’” Qur’an 2:30 In other words, God was asked, “Why would you allow this human, who will do bad things, to exist? Why not create someone who won’t do anything bad, like us?” The answer was, “I understand the wisdom in what I am doing, and you don’t.”
Exploding the Myth
That, in a nutshell, is the answer to the so-called problem. There is no logical contradiction between God being Infinitely Good, Infinitely Powerful, and allowing bad things to happen. The idea that the evil and suffering in the world present an unanswerable challenge to believers is finally being admitted by more open-minded researchers. Stump and Murray make the following confession in their book, Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions: “The logical problem of evil has been severely criticized in recent years and is regarded in the contemporary literature on the subject as largely discredited. In brief, the problem with this argument is that it assumes something false. Specifically, it assumes that a good being would prevent every evil it can under any circumstances…Thus, at best, the logical problem of evil shows us that if God exists, the only evil that exists is evil for which there is some good reason.”
The rhetorical questions now change to inquisitive questions. Rather than blurting out, “How could God do that?! What kind of God does these things?!” the question now is “Why is the world this way and what wisdom lies in that?”
Life is a Test
The secret to understanding the issue is so simple that it often eludes us. Life is a test. Man has been given a limited free will to do good or bad. Look at the following statement of the Prophet: “The life of a believer is truly amazing. Everything that happens to him is good. This is only true for a believer and none else. If something pleasant happens to him, he is thankful and that is good for him. If something bad afflicts him, he is patient and that is also good for him.” (Muslim) Affliction is part of the test of life. If God were to interfere and prevent every bad thing from happening to each individual, it would be like taking the test away from a student. Saying that the bad that exists in the world is necessary does not mean that it is justified or praiseworthy. Believers are always commanded to enjoin the good and forbid the evil, which is another test in itself.
Wisdom is behind the scenes
Skeptics tend to focus on the negative aspects of things and claim that evil and suffering are ugly facts of life while believers try to see the bigger picture and find an explanation for the existence of such things. It is like someone who observes two people fighting and judges that both of them are in the wrong without thinking that one of them may be defending himself or standing up for justice. Evil is, to an extent, relative. A juicy hamburger may be a good thing for someone who’s hungry, but it’s definitely a bad thing for the cow that was slaughtered.
God said: “Fighting is ordained for you, though you dislike it. You may dislike something although it is good for you, or like something although it is bad for you: God knows and you do not.” Qur’an 2:216
Being able to see the big picture often affects how we perceive what is good and bad. Someone with little foresight may claim that the injection of a vaccine into a patient, which contains traces of disease, is a bad thing while the injection of heroin, which leads to euphoria, is a good thing. Not being able to understand that the vaccine will help develop immunity to that disease or that taking heroin will develop into a drug addiction is due to a lack of medical knowledge and experience. The following principle is demonstrated in the Qur’an with the meeting between Moses and a man who was given direct knowledge from God about the unseen. Moses wanted to follow him and learn from him, but the man warned him, “You will not be able to bear with me patiently. How could you be patient in matters beyond your knowledge?” But Moses convinced him to let him tag along. Here is the rest of
“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!’…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!’…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 wished you could have taken payment for doing that.’ He 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.’” (Qur’an 18:71-82). It was the lack of knowledge and foresight that led Moses to object to what the man did. Likewise, we find ourselves, as limited humans, in similar situations. However, we do have enough insight to see some of the wisdoms behind the general occurrences of bad things.
What good reasons could there be for evil?
1. Suffering and affliction often help return us to the obedience of God. God said: “We sent messengers before you [Prophet] to many communities and afflicted their people with suffering and hardships, so that they might learn humility. If only they had learned humility when suffering came from Us! But no, their hearts became hard…” (Qur’an 6:42-43) There is a lesson in the conversion of the famous rock star, Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam. He related the story himself: “After a year of financial success and high living, I became very ill. I contracted T.B. (tuberculosis) and had to be hospitalized. It was then that I started to think; what is going to happen to me? Am I just a body? Is my goal in life merely to satisfy this body? I realized this calamity was a blessing given to me by God and a chance to open my eyes, to learn ‘Why I am here, why I am in bed.’ I started looking for some of the answers.”
2. It differentiates between the good and bad people.
“Do people think they will be left alone after saying, ‘We believe’ without being put to the test? We tested those who went before them: God will certainly mark out which ones are truthful and which are lying.” (Qur’an 29:2-3) Upon analysis, we realize that the Prophets, who are the highest in rank in the sight of God, faced the most difficult tests of all people. Clearly, merit must be earned.
3. Affliction is necessary to experience its opposite feelings of joy and achievement.
God said: “After hardship comes ease. Indeed, after hardship comes ease.” (Qur’an 94:5-6)
The appreciation of ease and comfort could only exist and be appreciated if the feelings of hardship also existed and were known or experienced. In Chinese Philosophy, the concept of yin and yang is employed to explain this phenomenon. Each part is necessary to understand the unity of the whole. They are in equilibrium: if one disappears, the other must disappear as well, leaving emptiness.
It should be patently clear that the inability to see the wisdom behind something should not be a cause of criticizing that thing. Of course, the final word on all of this is that God knows best.
Imam Mustafa ‘Umar
Imam Mustafa ‘Umar is a recent graduate from the Islamic University in France and studied in al-Nadwa as well as Egypt. He currently resides in Irvine California where he teaches and writes. He recently completed a large book on the traditions of the Prophet [May God's peace and blessings be upon him].