The Problem of Suffering: Muslim Theological Reflections

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is taken from The Problem of Suffering: Muslim Theological Reflections by Prof. Sherman A. Jackson, 18th September 2010.  Prof. Jackson is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Arabic & Islamic Studies, University of Michigan.

Mu’tazilite:      "Glorified be Allah (s.w.t.) Who is Above committing evil."

Ash’arite:        "No, glorified be Allah (s.w.t.) in Whose Dominion nothing occurs without His Permission."

Mu’tazilite:      "Does Allah (s.w.t.) Will that He be disobeyed?"

Ash’arite:        "Could Allah (s.w.t.) be disobeyed against His Will?"

Mu’tazilite:      "If Allah (s.w.t.) Denies me guidance and decrees my perdition, does Allah (s.w.t.) Commit a good or an evil act?"

Ash’arite:        "If Allah (s.w.t.) Denies you something that belongs to you, then Allah (s.w.t.) Commits an evil act.  But if Allah (s.w.t.) Denies you something that Belongs to Him, then Allah (s.w.t.) simply Singles Out for His Mercy whomever Allah (s.w.t.) Pleases."

The problem of evil, especially human suffering, exercised classical Muslim theologians as much it does Western philosophers, theologians and scientists today.  The issue then was basically the same as it is now: If Allah (s.w.t.) is All-Good and All-Powerful, how do we explain the existence of evil?  The theological school known as Mu'tazilism emphasised Allah’s (s.w.t.) All-Goodness and argued that since Allah (s.w.t.) is All-Good, He cannot be the source of evil.  Rather, it is humans who inflict suffering on other humans, entirely on their own.  In fact, the Mu'tazilites argued, beyond the original Act of Creation, humans are not at all dependent on Allah (s.w.t.) to do what they do but actually create their own acts.  By contrast, the Ash'arite school emphasized Allah’s (s.w.t.) All-Powerfulness and argued that if Allah (s.w.t.) did not control all the affairs of the universe, something other than Allah (s.w.t.) could bring about things that went against His Will.  For them, whatever occurs had to occur because Allah (s.w.t.) Willed it.  Otherwise, Allah (s.w.t.) would be neither All-Powerful, in complete control, nor, ultimately, God.

Both schools sought to absolve Allah (s.w.t.) of responsibility for evil.  The Mu'tazilites did this by placing evil human acts entirely outside His power and wholly in the hands of humans, which left them to explain things like earthquakes, floods and cancer.  The Ash'arites, meanwhile, argued that if Allah (s.w.t.) is truly the All-Powerful Owner of the universe, He must be Able to Do with Creation as He Pleases, and no one can sit in judgment over what Allah (s.w.t.) Does with His own "property."  In fact, the Ash'arites accused the Mu'tazilites of fudging the issue by falsely privileging the human perspective on what actually constitutes good and evil.  They denied that humans were the center of some objective moral universe and pointed out that every moral judgment that humans might make could be matched by an opposite judgment by other humans.  In this context, human suffering might be evil from the perspective of humans.  But this would be no more an objective basis for indicting Allah (s.w.t.) than would be the argument of plants and animals against humans for eating them.

Of course, such arguments did not satisfy everyone.  The founder of the Traditionalist school once asked rhetorically: If Allah (s.w.t.) is wholly unconnected to evil, what role can Allah (s.w.t.) play in lifting it?  The Maturidite school, meanwhile, went even further.  Not only did its founder accept that Allah (s.w.t.) could create evil, he actually turned evil's existence into a proof of Allah’s (s.w.t.) Existence.  According to him, had the universe come into being on its own, it would have produced nothing that jeopardised its integrity or well-being.  Thus, the very existence of evil implies autonomous choice on the part of something that stands outside the system - God.  Yet, while Allah (s.w.t.) can, according to the Maturidites, Create evil and human suffering, Allah (s.w.t.) cannot and does not Create evil that does not ultimately serve a wise purpose.

In all of this, Muslim theologians never isolated a single Attribute of Allah as the sole basis of His Actions.  While Mu'tazilites privileged Allah’s (s.w.t.) All-Goodness, this was tempered by their recognition of Allah’s (s.w.t.) Wisdom, Power, Autonomy, Patience and other Attributes.  Ash'arites appear stoic in privileging Allah’s (s.w.t.) All-Powerfulness, but only if they are seen as negating His Goodness, Mercy, Justice and other Attributes.  In fact, when Ash'arites speak of Allah’s (s.w.t.) Ability to do whatever He Pleases, they are only speaking of what Allah (s.w.t.) can Do.  What Allah (s.w.t.) actually Does will be based not solely on His brute Power but on the total composite of His Attributes.  The same applies to Traditionalists and Maturidites.

This strikes me to be perhaps among the most important differences between classical Muslim and many modern, non-Muslim Western discussions on evil and suffering.  While the latter seem to isolate a single attribute - All-Goodness, All-Loving, All-Powerful - and decide the issue on that basis alone, the former simply emphasise a single attribute but cling to a more complex composite of Divine "Character."  In this light, the mere existence of evil and suffering could not dispose of the God question.  For even if every instance of human suffering could tell us something about the Existence and Nature of Allah (s.w.t.), every instance of human happiness and well-being must tell us something of equal proof-value about the Nature and Existence of a complex, multifaceted Creator.

Muslim theologians summed up this dual reality in the notion of living life between the two poles of hope and fear - hope that the irresistible choices of an All-Powerful God would be ultimately tempered by Mercy, Compassion and Love, and fear that they might not.  Of course, the very notion of fear is a major problem for religious discourse today, as "organised religion" has so notoriously used it to exploit and subjugate believers.  But just because one is paranoid does not mean that one is not being followed.  In the end, we are all afraid, if not of Allah (s.w.t.), death, and eternal damnation then of the earthly Hell of loveless objectification, disrespect and nobodyness, a fear that can subject us to régimes of fantasy and exploitation no less debilitating, and no less blasphemous, than religious tyranny and treachery.

But is theology in the end really a match for the brutalities and disappointments of life - an earthquake, the death of a child, 9/11, the betrayal of a friend, spouse or sibling, the seemingly schizophrenic turning of one's entire society against one?  In these moments, it seems to matter little whether one is a Mu'tazilite, Ash'arite, Maturidite or Traditionalist.  For, while good theological answers may empower one to understand catastrophe, understanding alone is rarely enough to neutralize the pain of loss or regret.  What I need here is solace and reconciliation with the fact of my creatureliness; the courage, honesty and dignity to acknowledge that I am not in control; yet the insight and fullness of soul to see in the enormity of what has happened that I am just as eligible for enormous good as I am for enormous tragedy.  Here my reach is ultimately for something "outside the system," something capable of breaking all the rules, of defying the laws of probability and chance - for me.  This is the beginning of the theological impulse.

Yet, while, the theological impulse, however crude, may be the beginning of my relationship with Allah (s.w.t.), it is only the beginning.  And I must be careful not to mistake the menu for the meal.  Whether I emphasise Allah (s.w.t.) Goodness or Justice, Power or Wisdom, these mental abstractions will only take on concrete meaning for me in the context of my actual relationship with Allah (s.w.t.).  Ultimately, if the real goal of theology is to promote a living relationship with Allah (s.w.t.) and not simply to paint a pretty picture of Him, perhaps the real value of what it has to say about evil and suffering resides not so much in how it mars or enhances idealised images of Allah (s.w.t.) but in how it enriches or impoverishes the human relationship with Allah (s.w.t.).


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