The Problem of Evil:
I first encountered the problem of evil in a discussion with some atheists on campus. The problem of evil approximately states that a God that is omnibenevolent (most merciful), omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful) would not allow evil to exist in the world and yet since evil does exist, there is therefore no such God. They argued that if Allah is all-powerful, He can get rid of evil. If He is all-knowing, He is aware that there is evil in the world. And lastly, if He is the most merciful, He cares about us and would get rid of evil in the world or wouldn’t have created it in the first place. They then concluded by saying that since there still is evil (natural or moral) in the world, there is no such God. According to them, even if there was a creator, He would be lacking in any of the three criteria of power, knowledge, or mercy.
Let us think this through:
Now let’s ask ourselves a question: Is this argument applicable to Islam? Are there really any evils that would disprove Allah’s existence? I would say that both natural and moral evils can exist but cannot disprove the existence of Allah. This is because while Allah is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, according to the pillars of Islam He is also wholly just (Aadil). If evil exists in the world, it is always justified.
Context is everything:
We cannot know Allah’s reasons for allowing evils in this world. Even if we guess some, we would still lack the complete picture. Allah is omniscient—He clearly knows more than we do. Therefore, what may seem evil to us may not actually be evil if we knew the entire truth behind it.
Picture a scenario in which a person from before the time of modern medicine is placed into an operating table in a modern operating theatre. This person may take a look at the surgeon’s rather sharp and dangerous tools and assume that the doctor is evil because he is going to cut him open! This patient wouldn’t know that surgery is actually going to cure him of whatever illness ails him. It is only after the surgery is done that he would appreciate what just happened to him.
Similar examples can be found in the Holy Quran as well. The story of Moses and the scholar Khizr, from the Quran is one such example (Khaled, 2009). In this story, Khizr is a man who was blessed with hidden knowledge from Allah. Acting as an agent of Allah, he performed several acts which seemed to be morally evil but in actuality were blessings in disguise. While following him around, Moses was surprised to see Khizr make a hole in a ship owned by poor yet friendly villagers and later in the story, kill a young boy. It was only after he grew impatient with Khizr’s actions that Moses demanded he explain why he did what he did. Khizr then explained that the ship was en route to a kingdom where an evil king would seize every good vessel by force. The minor damage that Khizr had done protected the villagers from losing their sole source of income. Furthermore, the little boy he killed would have become an oppressive tyrant in the near future, his parents were soon going to be blessed with a more virtuous son, and since the boy died a minor’s death, he would not be destined for Hell in the afterlife. Therefore, his death was beneficial to the society, to his parents, and to the boy himself.
However, the average person does not have hidden knowledge provided by Allah nor is the average person an agent of Allah like Hazrat Khizr (as). So what happens when we commit what seems to be an evil act?
I would argue that yes in fact the evil that we have committed may indeed be evil but because Allah is wholly just, He would allow us to commit evil acts as well as good ones. Free will in itself is a greater good that goes hand in hand with moral autonomy. A god that forces us into acting one way and one way only is not a just god—and to some extent is not an omnibenevolent one either. If God was to create a world that had only good in it then we would be biological robots rather than free sentient beings. Without free choice, there would be no sense of individual achievement, no choice for us and no moral decisions to make. Additionally, since moral evil is committed by humans, it is also possible for humans to rectify it. Therefore, it can also be argued that a just god would refuse to interfere to some extent in morally evil circumstances. He would not rob us of the opportunity to seek and employ justice or the opportunity to forgive our human oppressors and move towards developing as a more morally perfect being. Therefore, some evils committed by humans towards other humans or creatures may actually be evil but it would simply be against Allah’s justice to rob us of our free will that allows us to commit both evil and good acts in the world.
A clever person would ask why then are natural evils like hurricanes, wildfires, or earthquakes permitted—where free will has no part in the occurrence of the phenomenon? A typical response would be that such things are a means of punishment by Allah swt. But what we never seem to realize is that while we may find that although some natural laws and natural phenomena conflict with what are our perceived needs, they might be neutral or even beneficial to us. We simply do not know the entire truth and thus without realizing the benefits label these laws or phenomena as entirely natural evil. I would like to argue that many such natural evils have a dual-nature of being beneficial to us in one way, but harmful to us in another. For example, without fire, we would not be able to make metals, cook our food, or use it as an energy source. But the same useful property of fire can also burn us. Similarly, wind is dangerous to us in the form of hurricanes, but it is important for maintaining our planet’s heat balance (Time, 1973). I would go so far as to say that such benefits are worth the risk and in some cases even essential for survival. Life as we know it may not exist and we may actually run into more problems if the properties of such natural laws were different or changed. To conclude, it seems from our perspectives that these examples of natural phenomena may be evil, but in reality they can also be good for us. Hence they can be thought of as somewhat neutral.
Additionally, it would be unjust for God to make a special exception for humans alone—so that fire doesn’t burn us and hurricanes do not harm us. How would it be fair if fires could hurt animals and forests but not humans? If such a scenario was true I’d imagine we would have pretty inflated egos and little humility! Such favouritism would lead to pride—the same quality that led to Shaitan’s downfall for eternity.
This doesn’t mean that we are completely vulnerable to natural evils. Allah swt is just and therefore He has given humans the ability to study, predict and prevent all these natural phenomena. Therefore it is up to us to take action against these natural phenomena in order to protect others and ourselves.
Good and evil are two sides of the same coin. Good cannot exist without evil since they both are complementary opposites. If one disappears then the other does so as well. For instance, curing a patient’s illness is good work; but a doctor or a nurse can do this only if someone is sick in the first place. Therefore, the opportunity to do good stems only from a need for it. This need to do good can exist only when there are such natural evils. Therefore a just god would allow natural evils to exist so that we are not deprived of the freedom to do good and thus make our lives and work meaningful. There must be evil present for good to come into play.
1. Khaled, Amr. “The Story of Musa (Moses) and al-Khidr: Knowledge and Learning.” Silver Lining. 5 Mar. 2009. Web. 27 Nov. 2009. <http://realisticbird.wordpress.com/2009/03/05/the-story-of-musa-moses-and-al-khidr-knowledge-and-learning/>.
2. “Science: The Benefits Of Hurricanes.” TIME magazine: Science. TIME magazine, 24 Sept. 1973. Web. 27 Nov. 2009. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,907967,00.html>.