The Problem of Evil – P1: Responsibility

A black and white photo of a man sitting on a ruined windowsill, looking deep in thought.

It’s a question everyone asks at some point: if there is a God, why do bad things happen? It can also be phrased in other ways, like “Why does God allow evil?” or “Why is there evil if God is merciful?”. It’s something that philosophers and thinkers have grappled with for centuries.

Every religion has its answers to this question. In this article, I don’t claim to have the definitive answer of the problem of evil. Rather, these are my thoughts on how we can approach the problem of evil from an Islamic point of view, gathered from various sources. Hopefully at the end of these articles, we’ll be able to arrive at a better understanding of why bad things happen, the wisdom behind it all, and how to respond to it.

But first: God

Before we continue there’s a few things you need to know how Muslims understand God.

For starters, we believe that God is one and has absolute knowledge and control over everything. We believe that God is merciful. In fact, every chapter of the Quran except one opens with the words “Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Raheem”, which roughly translates to “In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.” The two names of God that appear most frequently in the Quran are Ar-Rahman (The Most Compassionate) and Ar-Rahim (The Most Merciful).

God’s mercy is far beyond our human concept of mercy, since God’s attributes are divine and perfect. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said that God’s mercy is greater than what a mother has for her child. Similarly, we also understand that among God’s attributes is His absolute justice. And, finally, that God doesn’t do anything without a purpose.

Responsibility

So if God exists, why do bad things happen? The go-to answer that people often hear is that it’s all part of God’s plan. While this is true, it sometimes leaves a lot of people dissatisfied, and understandably so. As humans, we’re eager; we want to know the reason behind everything that happens in the world, even if it’s beyond our reach. And so while that answer is true, there are other wisdoms we can look into to understand why God allows bad things to happen.

A large part of understanding the problem of evil is understanding free will and destiny. This might seem like a separate topic on its own, but the two are actually connected. The question that often comes up in the discussion of free will and destiny is this: “If everything is pre-destined, how can we have free will?” I’ll answer with one word: responsibility.

God’s knowledge of everything that is meant to occur doesn’t excuse us from having the responsibility to act on our free will.

To highlight this, we need to go way back to the story of Adam and Satan. A lengthy lecture by Noman Ali Khan covers this topic in depth, as well as its relation to free will and destiny, but I’ll cover the basics below.

Adam and Satan

Like the other 3 monotheistic faiths, Islam states that humans are a unique creation, descended from the first human, Adam (as a side-note, the implications this has on the theory of evolution are fascinating from an Islamic perspective, but I’ll cover that in another article, God willing). Adam and his wife Hawa (Eve in Biblical tradition) were created by God and lived in Paradise. However, Iblis—the original name of Satan (Lucifer in Biblical tradition)—tempted them to disobey God’s command and eat from the forbidden tree. However, when they were brought before God for their sin, they responded in opposite ways.

In the Quran we see that Adam says,

“Our Lord!  We have wronged ourselves.  If you do not forgive us and do not bestow upon us Your Mercy, we shall certainly be of the losers.” (7:23)

On the other hand, Satan’s response is this:

“My Lord, since You made me go astray, I swear that I shall beautify for them (evils) on the earth, and shall lead all of them astray…” (15:39)

Why is this important?

God already knew that this would happen: He knew even before He created Adam that Adam—and, by extension, every one of us—would sin. He knew that all of this would happen. And yet, when faced with their sins, Adam and Satan respond in different ways.

Adam takes responsibility for his actions. Satan does not.

Adam admits to his own wrongdoing. Satan blames God.

It’s also worth noting that in Islamic tradition, Satan was not a fallen angel, but was instead another creation of God called a jinn (if you’ve watched Aladdin, that’s where the word “genie” comes from). Muslims believe that angels, unlike humans and jinn, have no free will and obey God’s commands perfectly.

So how does this affect us?

When we take responsibility for our actions and admit to our own shortcomings and faults, we are acting like Adam—who was forgiven for his mistake.

But when we place the blame on God, or on others, and act arrogantly, we act like Satan—who was cursed by God.

Problems with the world

Just take a cursory glance at the news, or even just a walk down a dingy downtown avenue, and you’ll see that all is not well in the world. War is rampant, famine is widespread, the effects of climate change are mounting, and people are lost, displaced and oppressed. Only 1% of the people in the world control half of the world’s wealth, and a mere 62 people are as wealthy as half of the world’s population.

So where is God’s justice? Why does God allow these innocent people to starve and be killed?

An anonymous author once wrote, “Sometimes I would like to ask God why He allows poverty, famine and injustice in the world, when He could do something about it…but I’m afraid He may ask me the same question.”

Mankind has a collective responsibility for the well-being of each other and the planet. We can’t expect God to suddenly descend from heaven and suddenly fix all the problems that we created. He knows, instead, that we have the potential to fix these problems ourselves. This is reflected in the Quran when God tells the angels, before creating Adam:

“I am going to place a khalifa on earth.” They asked ˹God˺, “Will You place in it someone who will spread corruption there and shed blood while we glorify Your praises and proclaim Your holiness?” God responded, “I know what you do not know.” (2:30)

The word “khalifa” roughly means “successive human authority”, and carries with it the implications of a steward, vicegerent or representative. It’s telling that the angels are concerned that God’s creation will spread corruption and bloodshed. But even more telling is God’s response: “I know what you do not know.”

What is it that God is referring to? One commentary states that He knows the potential that mankind has to do good. The act of doing good for people and for the planet is a choice that we all make. The more influence, power and money we have, the bigger our responsibility is. Unfortunately, most people choose to forget that responsibility.

The majority of problems in the world occur from a small group of corrupt people with big influence, big money or big weapons—and small hearts. From their choice to do wrong, they bring about corruption in the world.

Corruption has spread on land and sea as a result of what people’s hands have done, so that Allah may cause them to taste ˹the consequences of˺ some of their deeds and perhaps they might return ˹to the Right Path˺. (30:41)

In summary, we’ve seen that the problem of evil comes down to a problem with people, not with God. We all have the responsibility to act correctly, to do what is right, and the actions we choose to do have consequences on ourselves and on others.

However, this is only one part of the equation. As I mentioned above, Muslims believe that God is just. Therefore, we believe that everyone is held accountable for their actions and will have them repaid, either in this life or, more severely, in the next life.

The concept of the Hereafter is also key to fully understanding why evil occurs in the world. It’s also key to understanding why things happen that are beyond our control—why healthy people suddenly become sick, why accidents happen, and so on.

We’ll explore all of that in Part 2.

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