Why does Allah allow suffering and evil? What is evil?
Sheikh al-‘Alawi has said, “All the universe is Light, and the only thing that darkens it is the manifestation of the self in it.” Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shaghouri, who met Sheikh al-‘Alawi, and related this to me, used to teach that the notions that affect our hearts come from one of four quarters. Notions of tawhid or the absolute Oneness of the Divine come from the All-merciful Himself; those of doing good come from the presence of the angels; those of lusts and desires come from the ego; and those of doubts in eternal truths come from the Devil.
Now, all of these are ultimately from the first of them, as “Allah is the Creator of everything” (Qur’an 13:16), and the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) has said, “Verily the hearts of mankind, all of them, are between two fingers of the All-merciful like one single heart, which He turns whither He wills (Muslim (14), 4.2045: 2654. S). Imam Ghazali understood the ‘hand’ of Allah in this hadith as His omnipotence, through which the promptings of angels and devils, to do good or evil, move hearts like ‘two fingers.’ He says, “Allah accomplishes what He does [within hearts] by controlling angels and devils, both being under the power of His omnipotence in turning hearts over, just as your two fingers, for example, are wholly under your control in turning objects over” (Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din (4), 3.24).
From this, we may know that the question “Why does Allah allow suffering?” is itself created by Allah, though put into human hearts as an accusation against God by the Devil, the open foe of mankind, who has sworn to Allah, “Verily I will mislead all of them together, except for Your servants among them whom You have made wholly sincere” (Qur’an 15:39—40). That is, such promptings that appear in the heart are from the quarter of the infernal, but we are responsible for our own choices, since sincerity entails free choice. So perhaps the more telling answer to this question lies not in words, but in the ikhlas or sincerity towards the Divine that alone can avail against the Enemy who has put doubts into people’s hearts, as a test from Allah.
The problem of suffering has been known in European philosophy since the time of Leibniz, who titled a book after it, as theodicy, from the Greek words theos (God) and dik¢ (justice). The reader will find few other philosophical references below, however, despite the many Christian and Jewish philosophers who have treated the problem, among them Augustine, Maimonides, Aquinas, Spinoza, Hume, Mill, and a good number in the twentieth century. There is no comparable body of literature in the Taoist, Buddhist, or Hindu traditions, probably because most of their followers believe in reincarnation and the inexorable law of karman, which places the blame of suffering squarely on the sufferer for his own misdeeds in this or previous lives. Nor has it received much attention in Islam, because, I believe, Allah has anticipated the doubts of man in advance by answering them in the Qur’an and prophetic sunna. I have hence left unexplored the answers of philosophers and academics, to let the Divine speak for itself; and have elucidated revelation on the question as it has been understood by my mentor Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman and other traditional scholars, together with my ordinary common sense about the lessons of life. Someone has asked me the above question, and I confine myself herein to what a human being needs to know about it.
The force of the question, if we parse it logically, contains several premises:
(1) God is almighty.
(2) God is just and good.
(3) Someone just and good would not allow suffering and evil if he could prevent them, yet both exist in the world.
(4) Therefore God is either not almighty, or else not just and good.
The conclusion is invalid not only because the premises are subtly flawed in ways we shall see below, and countered by many examples we shall provide, but also because the whole answer lies in the absolute perfection of Allah. The above inference presumes that mere words can explain the divine wisdom in suffering, while it can only be intuited by the light of Allah reflected in the heart. That is, while ordinary answers can be articulated by saying something, the answer to “Why does Allah allow suffering and evil,” I apprehend, can only be intuited directly, by being something. The way our sheikh taught to change one’s being was by three stages: knowledge (‘ilm), practice (‘amal), and the resultant spiritual state (hal). Words can only help impart knowledge, urge that it be practiced, and allude to or denote the resultant state–while this specific answer can only come about by traversing these three stages with one’s existential choices. But by our verbally elucidating the aspects of them that are plain and ready to hand, perhaps Allah will help the reader travel the rest of the way and discover the answer within his own heart. We will take them in the order they normally occur.
The requisite knowledge to understand the question at hand is the knowledge of Allah, who opens His revelation by saying, “In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate.” According to Ibn al-‘Arabi, this first verse is the predicate of a subject omitted in ellipse, as is frequent in the Qur’an, and its full meaning is “(The origin and appearance of the world are but) In [i.e. ‘in virtue of, because of’] the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate” (al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya (7), 1.102).
These opening words convey the mysterious secret of all created being: that its reality lies in the larger context in which it is articulated and has its existence. The Most Merciful (al-Rahman) denotes the penetration of the divine mercy into everything in the cosmos, this world and the next, by bringing it out of the privation of non-being into the perfection of temporal being. It is a mighty mercy, and the ontological basis of our servanthood.
The Most Compassionate (al-Rahim) is an intensive form of the previous name that denotes a qualitative leap in the magnitude of this mercy through a theophany to be fully manifest only in the next world, beyond death, for the sentient beings (‘alamin) Allah loves, of mankind, jinn, angels, and any others. Its infinitude in degree is matched by its infinitude in time, or rather timelessness, extending as it does to eternity.
How do they, though finite themselves, win unto infinitude? By being transformed and refined by a process of uplifting their possibilities through the pure grace and mercy of the Divine, signified by the Qur’anic verse immediately following the first: al-Hamdu li Llahi Rabbi l-‘alamin, “All praise is Allah’s, Lord of the worlds of beings.” The word Rabb, very imperfectly rendered here as “Lord,” was originally a masdar or verbal noun in the ancient Arabic language that denoted educating, raising, or uplifting, in the specific sense of taking something at the imperfect level it first was, then bringing it by degrees to the desired level of perfection; also connoting the love, tenderness, and solicitude with which this normally occurs. This verbal noun, like others in the Arabic tongue, came lexically to be applied to its doer by way of hyperbole, in view of the unceasingness and intensity with which the doer, Allah, does it–much as in English the word “justice,” for example, denoting a particular course of legal procedure, came to be applied to the magistrate whose profession it was to effect it.
The Rabb al-‘alamin or “Lord of the worlds of beings” in this sense, uplifts His servants by directing their wills and lives to the larger contexts in which they are imbedded; away from attachment to things, or considering themselves things, or believing that things bring about happiness, to the meaning of things. What are things for?
Our sheikh held that existent things were precious (‘aziza) to Allah Most High, and were the manifestation of His attributes, and especially of His divine mercy and compassion, as the opening verse of the Qur’an indicates. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “When Allah created creation, He inscribed in His writ that He has made binding on Himself, it being reposited nigh to Him upon the very Throne: ‘Verily My mercy surpasses My wrath’” (Bukhari (2), 9.147: 7404. S). So there is divine mercy and there is divine wrath, the former being of Allah’s infinite beauty (jamal), the latter of His limitless majesty (jalal) and justice. He says, “My chastisement I but smite with whom I will, while My mercy encompasses everything: I shall inscribe it for those who show godfearingness, and pay the alms, and who in Our revealed signs are wholehearted believers” (Qur’an 7:156). That is, His mercy is prescribed for those willing to listen and follow.
Suffering and evil we experience. But their significance lies not in making charges against God, but rather in liberation from them by attaining to limitless felicity with Him. It is to be attained not merely by Iman or ‘knowing about Allah,’ but by the ‘amal or ‘practice’ appropriate to His divine autonomy, majesty, and beauty; namely servanthood (‘ubudiyya). For where there is true knowledge of the Master, there is love; and where there is love, there is devoted service.
The significance of existent things, of our lives and our deaths, lies in the universe of actions they make possible. It is probably no coincidence that the great themes of English literature, particularly since the rise of atheism among intellectuals in the later nineteenth-century, have tended to coalesce into virtually a single theme: the alienation of man before his own meaninglessness. This is something unimaginable for a servant of Allah, except pathologically, in those far from God. For a servant is only meaningless outside of the context in which he exists, what he at bottom is, namely, his Master’s, “who has created death and life to try you, as to which of you shall prove better in works” (Qur’an 67:1—2). The most tremendous of personal realities each of us faces, life and death themselves, are a test for something beyond them. The question of theodicy cannot be answered until we understand what.
The larger picture tells a great deal. Stand for a moment in your mind’s eye in the hallway of an institutional building, looking into one of the rooms from its open door. It is presently occupied by a group of young adults each sitting at a school desk, writing on a sheaf of papers, occasionally glancing up at the wall clock, but not looking or talking to one another. They are writing as fast as they are able. Yet this is but a superficial impression, incomprehensible to someone who has never heard of students sitting an examination. The reality of it lies in the larger setting around it. We are at a college of medicine, at a university, at the end of the semester. The reality of this in turn lies in the role of universities in general, the profession of practicing medicine in the larger societal and historical context in which the college has its being, and in a world economy that has focused the salaried energies of many human beings upon the enterprise on which the students in the room are embarked.
Just now, one of them curls the fingers of her left hand around her right wrist and works it back and forth for a moment before she continues writing. She has writer’s cramp, but knows it will be gone after the examination, like the coffee she has been drinking to excess for the previous week, the late hours she spent up studying with her classmates last night, and the stress hormones still coursing in her veins. What sense can possibly be made of the pains she is taking, until we understand that she intends to become a physician?
Now, people are of two categories with respect to the meaning of this scenario, and indeed of anything: those who realize its significance, and those who do not. “Say: ‘Are those who know and those who do not know equal?’” (Qur’an 39:9). On the one hand, the kafir, lexically denoting both a denier or ‘unbeliever,’ and not tangentially, an ingrate, literally “one who is covered over”–by his own selfishness, benightedness, and thinghood–regards things as primary, the very substrate of reality, the permanence of the world. Conversely, actions are ephemeral for him, in themselves vanishing, except as a means to more things, be they immaterial, such as fame, prestige, or power–or material, such as wealth, clothes, or property. For the kafir, where any aspiration exists beyond merely maximizing happiness and pleasure and avoiding sorrow and pain, the meaning of life is often no more than “to amount to something.” As a bumper sticker I once saw read: “He who has the most toys when he dies wins.”
For the mu’min or believer, on the other hand, someone who has lifted his gaze to the horizons of infinity, the opposite view obtains: actions, specifically those which are for God alone, are what is permanent of this world, while things are ephemeral. “Every single thing is perishing,” its Creator declares, “except His face” (Qur’an 28:88)–face being an Arabic metaphor for what is most distinctive of someone, the person himself; here, the Being of Allah, and by extension what is done purely and solely for Him and none besides.
The cosmos, in macrocosm and microcosm, the infinity of sapience and sentience, of human experience within and without–exists to convey and denote the oneness (tawhid) of the Divine. “We shall show them Our signs, in the horizons and in themselves, until it is plain to them that it [this revelation] is the Truth” (Qur’an 41:53). The meaning of things thus lies outside of things, just as the meaning of a symbol lies in what it signifies, portends, and implies.
What a life lived in servanthood to Allah discloses to the servant is his own larger context. The more he ascends in closeness to the Divine, the farther his horizons recede. Something comes to abide in a servant’s heart, left there by directing his will towards Allah in work after work, year after year, until he has become Allah’s, and Allah, in a sense, his. This relation is probably as unique for each of the awliya as the uniqueness of Allah Himself. It discloses to each, in his own measure, the wisdom and mercy of Allah in the interface between servant and world. The way of those close to Allah lies not merely in realizing that the world is ordered by the theophany of Allah’s names, but in seeing therein the divine perfection. “Say: ‘Are the blind and the sighted equal?’” (Qur’an 6:50).
Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman taught that the divine names vie over existent things to manifest their implications in them. Consider the example of a young man from a good family, who falls in with bad company and drifts into their way of seeing and doing things, under the influence of the name al-Khafid, the Lowerer, and finally al-Mudhill, the Abaser, until the day comes when he can sink no lower and disgusts even himself. The name al-Tawwab or ‘Relenter’ deploys, he remembers how he was, sees what he has become, and finds himself ashamed before his Maker, to whom he repents. The days and weeks see him improve, under the implications of al-Rafi‘, He Who Raises. He seeks better company, unplugs from bad old ways, and passes into the sphere of al-Wadud, the Solicitous and Tender, to al-Karim, the All-generous, and so forth. The interactions of the names and their determinations are complex and interpenetrative. The name al-Musawwir, for example, the Bestower of Forms, the Fashioner, the Ingrainer, the Organizer, manifests its implications in all existents; while al-Warith, the Inheritor, remains after the implications of the former have been lifted from any particular existent and it has been annihilated, effaced, and dispersed. The name al-Muqaddim, the Advancer, makes one existent precede another, in works, in rank, or in time of appearance; while al-Mu’akhkhir, the Delayer, the Demoter, postpones existents and events until after others, or keeps them back, or lowers them. The name al-Wahhab, the Liberal, the Bountiful, the Giver, dispenses His bounties perpetually, freely, universally, and for nothing in return; while al-Mani‘, the Preventer, stops, denies, checks, and prevents attacks. The name al-Nafi‘, the Benefiter, promotes, helps, and does good to whomsoever He wills; while al-Darr, the Afflicter, damages, harms, and mars whomever He wills. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said: “Verily, Allah has ninety-nine names. Whoever comprehends all of them shall enter paradise” (Tirmidhi (19), 5.532: 3508. S). The believer, the saint, the ‘arif or knower of Allah directly and experientially–all know Allah in His manifestations and determinations, each according to his own illumination and consciousness of the Divine.
They are patent in the wondrous balance in the natural world between species, whose interests are inextricably intertwined by feeding, parasitism, symbiosis, and most dramatically perhaps, predation. On Isle Royale, for example, a forty-five-mile-long wilderness sanctuary separated by fourteen miles of open water of Lake Superior from the coast of Ontario, there were no moose until 1908, when a number of them swam across the channel to escape wolves on the mainland. By 1915, their numbers had increased to two hundred. The population, unhindered by natural enemies, kept steadily increasing until 1930, when they had eaten up so much of the vegetation on the island that they were starving in droves, emaciated and diseased. The eight hundred or so moose continued, miserably famished and ill, until the winter of 1948—49, when a pack of some twenty timber wolves came across the ice and began to prey on the herd. They were soon reduced to some six hundred, or thirty moose to each wolf, which is the natural balance between the two species in the wild. The outward ferocity of the wolves bringing down the individual moose and eating them, the inevitable fear and blood and suffering of the prey at the fangs of the predator, proved to be a divine mercy resulting in the recovery of the species as a whole on the isle. Within a few years, the herd was better fed and healthier than any time in the previous half century it had lived there (The Seven Mysteries of Life (13), 474—75).
The particular significance here for theodicy is that the perfection of this world and the next lies in the totality of the myriad interpenetrative and interconnected modes, factors, and implications of these names. For each particular existent’s “perfection” is only over others, which to that extent must be subject to some privation, whether experienced as pain, evil, or suffering. A “good job” for example, only exists in contradistinction to the less rewarding ways in which other people have to earn a living.
Moreover, a certain complementarity imbues the very terms in which the perfection of particulars is construed. Thus triumph has no meaning without the possibility of ruin, or friendship without the possibility of enmity, peace without war, health without disease, safety without peril, might without abasement, or life without death. So privation and evil exist in order to elucidate their opposite, human felicity and perfection; not as any “absolute standard” to measure the Divine, which rather in its entirety measures them. Servanthood means that one accepts that they pertain to man, not to God. Imam Juwayni, Ghazali’s sheikh in tenets of faith, expressed this by saying, “There is neither good nor evil in the actions of Allah Most Blessed and Exalted in respect to His divinity, for all actions are equal in respect to Him; while their levels but differ in respect to created servants (al-‘Aqida al-Nizamiyya (11), 35—36).
This supreme sovereignty of Allah is ultimately the reason why theodicy, if earnestly discussed by divines of other faiths, has far less relevance for Muslims. The ethos of Islam or ‘submission to Allah’ does not reduce the order of created being, with all its complexity, to pleasure or pain, joy or suffering, good or evil, for these refer to created individuals. It instead acknowledges that the universe is a larger context, a theater, an examination room, for human actions to mirror the degrees, shades, and nuances of the Creator’s love or wrath. The theophany of Allah’s love is in human tawfiq or ‘divinely given success’ in obeying Him. The theophany of His wrath is in human khidhlan or the ‘divine abandonment’ of a servant to his own pride and folly. There is no mystery as to which is which, because Allah has sent us messengers to make it plain, given us eyes and ears with which to apprehend their message, an intellect with which to understand it, and a life and death in which to realize it. Acting upon what one thus knows brings about an illuminatory hal or state in which the wisdom of suffering and privation is taken for granted, because the resultant qurb or nearness has transmuted the experience of them into tawfiq rather than khidhlan.
A great part of man’s tawfiq is wisdom, of which Allah has said, “He gives wisdom to whomever He wills, and whoever is given wisdom has been given tremendous good” (Qur’an 2:269). In its common acceptation, wisdom is associated with a farsighted comprehension of matters that resist the comprehension of the less farsighted. The scholars of Islam have defined it as “putting a thing in its true place,” while Ghazali has called it simply “that which was brought by the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace).” Certainly recognizing the wisdom of Allah in everything is a part of these definitions, and in it lies the key to answering the question “Why does Allah allow suffering and evil?”
Were we to ask such a question about a human being, it would be an inquiry about a motive, what moved him to allow such and such. But Allah is not moved by anything, for the very good reason that He is already perfect, not admitting of any increase in perfection such that seeking it should move Him to do something. Sanusi mentions in his celebrated creed that Allah’s utter dissimilarity to created things obviates His “having motives, whether in actions or rulings” (al-Sanusiyya (1), 25). So “Why?” is logically meaningless as an inquiry into Allah’s motives, though it is meaningful as an inquiry about such aspects of His divine wisdom that our own wisdom can comprehend. But if we do not comprehend, what then?
Wisdom also means accepting God as God and man as man. No man can encompass more than an infinitesimal part of the knowledge of the whole, which alone would furnish a measure of its perfection and justice. Sir Walter Scott relates that Emperor Napoleon once felt that, as a world conqueror, it would not prove difficult for him to master a team of spirited horses attached to a coach, though he was normally driven by a coachman. He mounted the seat and took the whip, with Empress Josephine and others below as passengers, and took off driving the carriage, which he overturned, suffering a severe and dangerous fall. His sole observation afterwards was, “I believe every man should confine himself to his own trade” (Life of Napoleon (16), 9.238). As for theodicy, the only being capable of judging the perfection of God in creating everything is God. Man is but a part, and can know but part. Our very experience in life teaches us “Never call anything a misfortune until you have seen the end of it.” Here a Muslim says, “Allah suffices us, and is the best to rely on” (Qur’an 3:173). These were never intended as mere words, but also a hal, born of nearness to Allah that has bequeathed entire trust in His wisdom.
If all these conclusions seem like so many heresies in the present day, it is only because of the grip on modern minds of the “humanistic fallacy,” first advanced by the Greek sophist Protagoras, who said: “Man is the measure of all things: of those that are, that they are; and of those that are not, that they are not” (History of Philosophy (3), 1.87). If in revealed truth God is the measure of man, in humanism as it has come to be understood in our times, man is the measure of all knowledge, values, and even God. To this fundamental error, raised by the modern day from an ancient sophistry to a world ethos, revelation replies: “It may haply be that you dislike something, and it is good for you; or haply be that you like something, and it is bad for you: And Allah knows, while you know not” (Qur’an 2:216).
Theodicy fails not only because of the humanistic fallacy of making an infinite Divine analogous to the limitarily human, but also because its crucial premise “Someone just and good would not allow suffering and evil if he could prevent them,” is contradicted by many examples of Allah’s wisdom, justice, and goodness in creation that entail suffering and evil, of which the following are only those most plain after a little reflection.
The Next World
The value of one over infinity approaches zero. So too, the time one spends in this world pales to insignificance before eternity, where, in the next world, each of us will realize that in this one, “you bode but little” (Qur’an 23:113). Allah has placed the story of each particular human being, the creative theophany of the Rahman or Most Merciful, in the larger context of forever, the special theophany of the Rahim or All-compassionate to those who were His true servants in this world. The eternity of the afterlife furnishes the true measure and context of the transitory sufferings of this life, which are ephemeral in comparison.
Rumi alludes to this “global answer” to suffering in his parable of the sapling in the midst of the leafless winter, shivering and muttering to itself about the misery of the biting wind and cold, unable to think why God should do such a thing to it. The answer finally comes in the form of the warm and verdant springtime. In the trajectory of a believer’s life and afterlife, when springtime comes it lasts forever.
The Gulf Between the Here and the Hereafter
The significance of joys and sufferings in this world will dwindle to nothing before the next not only quantitatively, because of its eternity, but qualitatively because of its nature. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:
The person who had the most pleasing life in this world, of any of the people of hell, will be summoned on Resurrection Day and utterly plunged into the hellfire, then asked, “O human being, have you ever beheld any good at all; have you ever felt a single joy?” and he will say, “No by God, my Lord.” And the most miserable sufferer in this world, of any of the people of paradise, will be summoned and utterly plunged into paradise, then asked, “O human being, have you ever seen any bad at all; have you ever experienced a single misery?” and he will say, “No by God, my Lord: I have never seen any bad or suffered a single misery” (Muslim(14), 4.2162: 2807. S).
They are not lying, but what their testimony means is that nothing in this world can even be called “joy” or “misery” compared with the next.
Joy and Suffering as Signs
Obversely, the joys and sufferings of this world, if they pale in the face of eternity, are tremendously evocative in human hearts of the realities of paradise and hell. Abu ‘Ali al-Rudhabari used to say, “What He has made manifest of His blessings indicates what He yet conceals of His generosity.” The experience of those with ma‘rifa in this world is but a foretaste of the incommensurability of the beatific vision of God in the next. For its part, disease is a harrowing ordeal, especially psychologically, since most of us tend to identify closely with our bodies. Yet through its pain and travail we come to understand how little we could bear endless suffering, teaching us to implore Allah to spare us from the hellfire, thus serving as a means of our deliverance. As Ibn ‘Ata Illah has said, “Whenever He loosens your tongue with a petition, know that He wants to give to you” (Hikam (8), 37: 102).
Central to worship is supplicating the Worshipped. “Say, ‘My Lord would not even concern Himself with you were it not for your supplication’” (Qur’an 25:77). Unlike friends, relatives, and virtually everyone else, Allah loves to be asked and dislikes not to be. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Truly, supplication is what worship is,” then he recited, “And your Lord says, ‘Call on Me and I will answer you: Verily those too haughty to worship Me shall inevitably enter hell, utterly humiliated’” [40:60] (Ahmad (9), 4.271: 18.386. S). Moreover, as Poor Richard said, “Danger is sauce for prayers”: if not for the problems, fears, inadequacies, and pain man faces, he would remain turned away from the door of the Divine generosity, and miss an enormous share of worship that benefits him in this world and the next.
Triumph over Suffering
Though well able to do so, Allah did not create all mankind in paradise to begin with, but rather willed to consummate their perfect and endless bliss with the knowledge that by His grace, they have triumphed over all suffering, limitation, and evil for all time. “Allah solemnly promises believers, men and women, luxuriant groves of paradise beneath which rivers flow, abiding therein; and surpassing fine dwellings in lush groves of Eden: And the merest of the supreme pleasure of Allah is far yet greater. That is the mighty triumph” (Qur’an 9:72). He could have created all souls on a beach as clams, contentedly filter-feeding from an endless peaceful sea. But to do so would be without any challenge, suffering, purification, or struggle, or any of the other realities that befit the distinctive humanness which Allah has made our special endowment.
Much of the suffering and evil in this world comes of man’s inhumanity to man, which Allah does not accept, but punishes, sometimes in this world and sometimes in the next. Man has no excuse for this, having been sent messengers teaching us decency and goodness. But man’s gift of being able to decide and choose for himself how he may treat his fellow man, for good or for evil, is his freedom, a perfection which Allah in His wisdom has bestowed on each of us.
The Exaltedness of Human Choice
Allah has raised the stakes of human existence at once to the highest possible worth and the direst possible peril by the fact of Judgement Day, with its eternal consequences. Though man’s life and works are finite, their consequences are infinite because man’s determination, once he has made up his mind, is how he intends to act forever if he is able. The hardened atheist who dismisses God as a mindless superstition does not intend to ever believe and change, so when he dies, he is requited in the measure of his intention, forever, out of Allah’s justice. The believer who loves Allah and acts accordingly does not intend to ever change, so when he dies, he too is requited in the measure of his intention, forever, out of Allah’s mercy.
Eternal hellfire is a harrowing chastisement; but forewarned is forearmed, and after revelation, it is only what its denizens have chosen for themselves: “Read your record: your own self suffices today as a reckoner against you” (Qur’an 17:14). The existential threat of a fire has stopped many an iniquitous wrong in this world from being inflicted upon others, though I have never heard of an intellectual discussion of ethics that did. Hell is a peril, but one that is a mercy for whoever makes sensible choices. Like the endless happiness of paradise, its effect is to exalt the worth of every moment of human life in this abode, out of Allah’s wisdom.
Fear and Hope
Abu ‘Ali al-Rudhabari said, “The most beneficial of certitude is that which exalts the Real in your eyes, makes everything beside Him dwindle in them, and instills fear and hope in your heart.” Sheikh ‘Abd al-Wakil used to say that fear and hope were the two wings of the believer, without which he could not ascend. Both evoke supplication, and Allah loves to be asked. Fear and hope, moreover, are obligatory. Imam Taqi al-Din al-Subki says:
The spiritual station (maqam) of every man is commensurate with his hal (state), and his hal with his knowledge of the Divine (ma‘rifa). People vary immensely in this, no one being more perfect therein than the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), while people after him are each according to their own station, some possessed of much, some of little. Fear is obligatory: Allah Most High says, “Fear you Me, if you be true believers” [Qur’an 3:175], and He Most High says, “So let none of you fear men, but fear you Me” [5:44]. And hope is obligatory, because it is the opposite of despair, and despair is haram: Allah Most High says, “Verily none despairs of the relief sent by Allah but people of the unbelievers” [12:87], and He Most High says, “And who despairs of the mercy of his Lord but those utterly lost? [15:56]” (Fatawa al-Subki (18), 2.556).
In the Sufi path, fear and hope must be realized by the traveller from the first. The possibilities of both suffering and liberation therefrom are integral to the ascending stages of the dhikr, in which fear (khawf) and hope (raja) are transmuted first, respectively, into awe (hayba) and intimate love (uns), then rigor (jalal) and beauty (jamal), and then extinction and finally subsistence in the Majestic (al-Jalil) and the Beauteous (al-Jamil) Himself. Fear and hope, in these successive stages, remain the two wings of the traveller, for those most in love with the Beloved remain the most fearful of offending Him and being expelled from His presence. As Abu Madyan said, “Presence with Him is paradise, and absence from Him is hell.” The possibility of punishment and suffering remains a spur on the way of spiritual attainment, even at its highest degrees, until the traveller has both feet in paradise, and can see for himself the triumph of the transformations Allah has thereby wrought in him.
Punishment for Sin
Much of the suffering man experiences is requital for disobedience. Allah says, “Whatever misfortune befalls you is for what your very hands have earned, and He pardons much” (Qur’an 42:30)–which is the general rule, to which some of the headings discussed above and below contain exceptions. Scholars affirm that every ruling of Sacred Law has been revealed for our benefit, not Allah’s. The effects of right and wrong are far more crucial in the next world, but as the above verse makes plain, they are also at least sometimes punished in this. For those Allah loves, the punishment turns them back to the path of tawfiq and obedience. For those with whom Allah is wroth, disobedience is punished by their committing other acts of disobedience. As the early mystic Muzayyin said, “One sin following another is punishment for the first, and one good deed after another is reward for the first.”
A sin that often brings unlooked-for misfortune in this world is revealing sins to others. Allah has commanded us to conceal all sins, except when that would lead to someone being harmed. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) has said, “Whoever conceals the faults of a Muslim, Allah shall conceal his faults in this world and the next” (Muslim (14), 4.2074: 2699. S). This includes one’s own. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said: “All of my Umma shall be forgiven, except those who commit iniquities openly. Verily, open indecency includes a man committing an act by night, and then in the morning when Allah has concealed what he did, saying, “O So-and-so, last night I did such and such.” He passed the night, his Lord having concealed what he did, and morning came, and he pulled aside the veil of Allah” (Bukhari (2), 8.24: 6069. S). In Islam, to mention a sin is itself a sin. How many a person has been unable to resist telling a friend or a spouse of the wickedness they did in their previous life, and Allah punished them with disgust and contempt in the other’s heart that could never quite be forgotten! There is no baraka in the haram
There are other sins palpably punished in this world before the next, such as pride, ill-treatment of parents, or oppressing others. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Beware the prayer of the wronged, for there is no veil between it and Allah” (Bukhari (2), 3.169—70: 2448. S). Negligence too of our stewardship of the natural order is punished by a world in which we cannot eat, drink, or breathe without imbibing our own befoulment. “Corruption has appeared on land and sea through what people’s hands have earned, to let them taste something of what they have done, that haply they may repent” (Qur’an 30:41).
The Example of the Patient
The innocent are sometimes tried with suffering in order to manifest their spiritual rank or inspire others by their example. The prophets, for example (upon whom be blessings and peace), were exemplars to mankind, and their suffering was greater than anyone else’s–not to punish or purify them, for they were already without blemish, but in order to teach mankind patience and fortitude. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was asked, “Who amongst mankind is greatest in affliction?” and he replied: “The prophets, then those most like them, then those next most like them. A man is tried in the measure of his religion: if his religion is firm, his trial is great; while if there is flimsiness in his religion, he is tried according to his religion. Tribulation remains with the servant until it leaves him walking on the earth without a single error” (Tirmidhi (19), 4.601—2: 2398. S). Yet this is probably an elucidation of the exception, which is tribulation in the lives of the righteous, rather than the general case, which is their being preserved from it–for it is a sunna to ask Allah to be free of affliction. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) told Abu Bakr, “Ask Allah for well-being (mu‘afah), for no one was ever given anything, after certitude, that was better than well-being” (Ahmad (9), 1.3: 5. S).
The Example of Others
Man lives in a group, thinks and speaks in words and symbols bequeathed him by a group, and benefits from a larger polity of mankind both latitudinally, from the community of individuals and nations found today, and longitudinally, from the successive generations who have gone before, and left behind them the riches of culture and civilization down to our own times. All of us are educated not only by our own lives, but those of others, be they individuals, groups, or entire peoples. The refining and educating of Rabb al-‘Alamin, ‘Uplifter of the Worlds,’ comprehends both individuals and collectivities. Allah teaches us by the object lesson of previous civilizations whom He warned by sending them guidance, and who scoffed, and who met with destruction, that as great as we may feel ourselves–whether as a nation, as makers of war, as a community of scientific explanation, as a civilization–“Who is mightier than we in power?” (Qur’an 41:15) were the famous last words of everyone who said them. “Or can they not have beheld that Allah who created them is mightier than they in power?” (41:15). Humility before omnipotence is mere realism, yet “man was ever the most disputatious of all things” (18:54), and without the object lesson of previous peoples, most would never understand it. There is no injustice in this, for “when Allah sends down a chastisement upon a people, the chastisement strikes whoever is among them; then they are raised up each according to his own works” (Bukhari (2), 9.71: 8108. S). The example of others whose pride and folly brought about their destruction is a powerful lesson not to follow their path, and hence a felicity and mercy for those willing to learn.
The Divine Bounty
The sufferings experienced by good people in this world are from the bounty of Allah, who benefits them thereby. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “No Muslim suffers weakness, illness, worry, sorrow, vexation, or gloom–even the thorn that pricks him–without Allah thereby expiating some of his misdeeds (Bukhari (2), 7.148—49: 5642. S). He once said of a Muslim’s satisfaction with destiny in good times and bad, “A believer is like budding grain: wherever the wind blows, it sways; and when the wind stops, it re-straightens: he bends with affliction. And a wicked man is like a sturdy cedar, standing aloft until Allah breaks it asunder whenever He wills (ibid., 5644. S). The messenger of Allah also said, “Whomever Allah wants good for He afflicts somewhat” (ibid., 5645. S)–that is, because “Allah loves those who are truly patient” (Qur’an 3:146). For these reasons, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) observed: “How wondrous is the matter of the believer, for all that happens to him is good: if good befalls him he shows gratitude, and it is best for him; and if ill befalls him he shows patience, and it is best for him” (Muslim (14), 4.2295: 2999. S).
This bounty is often as manifest in groups as in individuals. In the natural world, consciousness of pain, if unpleasant to bear at an individual level, is evolutionarily beneficial and adaptive for individuals to possess in teaching them what to avoid. If the individual suffers to death, it prospers the species as a whole through natural selection. In the succession of nations and civilizations, there is a cultural selection of usages, institutions, and inventions–writing, for example–that are more beneficial and useful in at least some ways than prior ones. “And as for what benefits people, it remains in the earth” (Qur’an 13:17). When the innocent are abused and suffer, laws come into being. When maladies afflict them, new medicines are developed. Of the species which interact with their environment in complex ways, nature offers few examples that cannot experience pain. It is simply too advantageous.
Hardiness Through Variance
Hardiness increases through difference and adversity. Sidi ‘Ali al-Jamal, the sheikh of Mawlay al-‘Arabi al-Darqawi, says in his book:
Realize too that the wisdom [hikma, here the cause that makes something work the way it does] that underlies all beings, also underlies man, namely variations. Allah has made the well-being and preservation of man through variations; and Allah has made the detriment and destruction of man through his remaining in one condition rather than another. So too with all being; it and man are the same: thus it is in material things, and thus it is in immaterial things. For Allah Most High is wise and beautiful, and everything He has created is of unsurpassed wisdom and limitless beauty. Everything He has created for you, in yourself or in all being, you are utterly in need of; while He has said, “Yet still they are at odds” [Qur’an 11:118]. Variation is thus the means of the survival of man and the survival of all beings; and lack of variation the means of the destruction of man and of all beings. For this reason you can see that man, like all beings, as long as he varies his food, his words, what he hears, sees, or smells, his walk or his sitting, his moving his hand or letting it rest, his moving his groin or letting it rest–then he is increasing in health, both physically and spiritually. And as long as he remains statically fixed on one thing, without its opposite, corruption imbues him to the degree he remains fixated. So much so, that if he persists long enough in his fixity and remains with it, he atrophies and finally perishes. Whenever he says, “This is fitting,” or “This is unfitting,” he is ignorant of the wisdom of God, both in himself and others. This wisdom sums up the health of bodies, health of souls, and health of all beings. And so too it is with increase: there is not any except through variation. Or lessening: there is not any except through lack of variation–whether in all beings, or in man (Ma‘ani al-insan (10), 181-81).
Stasis is not natural to human beings. Without sleep as well as wakefulness, hunger as well as satiation, pain as well as relief, poverty as well as riches, sadness as well as joy, man would not thrive in this world.
Stimulus for Spiritual Growth
The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Patience is a surpassing light” (Muslim (14), 1.203: 223), and some Sufis, such as the Malamatiyya or ‘followers of the path of blame,’ have considered patience with psychic pain, particularly that of the derision, censure, and scorn of others, a means of pruning away spiritual insincerity. The sheikhs of this school, Hamdun of Nishapur and others, noticed that the heart pays an inordinate amount of attention to what others think, and that love of others’ regard is often a reason for insincerity with Allah. They found that breaking the ordinary habits of the mind, and the resultant helplessness and dismay at being left without anyone or anything to help–except God–was a means for opening up a door between the soul and the Divine. Mawlay al-‘Arabi al-Darqawi methodically used this to precipitate the realization in his disciples that there was no recourse from Allah except to Him. When disciples took him as their sheikh, he had them give away everything they owned and then go door-to-door begging, particularly in neighborhoods where they were well known and would be certain to meet with insult and humiliation. It was very effective in breaking egos, and Darqawi filled North Africa with awliya and ‘arifin. Ibn ‘Ata Illah says, “Nothing pleads more for you than utter need; nor is anything swifter in bringing divine gifts than humiliation and want” (Hikam (8), 43: 129). I personally experienced something of the baraka of this when I moved to Jordan in 1980. I had been working at sea fishing for some years, and was big and I thought tough–until several years of chronic liver disease, never precisely identified, made me too weak to walk much farther than fifty yards without exhaustion. Few things ever benefited me more than this dark and distressing period, from which I finally realized that Allah alone was in control, and that “truly man has been created weak” (Qur’an 4:28). Abul Hasan al-Shadhili experienced this so often in his own path that he said, “By Allah, I have not seen triumph except in humiliation.” Clearly in the mystic way, the dark night of the soul often precedes the dawn of illumination. Suffering is just part of the story.
Sufferings are a spiritual trial from Allah, who says, “We try you with evil and with good as a test; and unto Us shall you be returned” (Qur’an 21:35). Doubts about the mercy of Allah, despair at fate, the waswasa of the Devil in implanting the very question we are treating here in the heart and obfuscating the answer–all these sufferings are a test from Allah. Sufis say that people are of four categories in their tests:
If one proves patient with the test and lives it out, it means that one is passing it. Allah says: “The patient shall be requited their wage wholly without reckoning” (Qur’an 39:10).
If one benefits from the test by learning, changing, and gaining experience that will obviate similar tests in the future, this is characteristic of the dervish, whose way depends on benefiting from both his good and his evil. He benefits from his good by thanking Allah for it and not turning to look at it; he benefits from his evil by heartbrokenness, repentance, and never returning to it again. He benefits as well from the evil of others by changing it with his tongue, his hand, or by a prayer in his heart; and if unable to change it, he benefits by realizing that it is evil, which is rewarded by Allah as faith in what the prophets (upon whom be peace) have taught. A Sufi is a person who cannot not benefit as long as he is travelling the way.
If one is well pleased with Allah for honoring one with the test, and aspires to succeed in winning His good pleasure, then the test means a spiritual increase, and means that one is of the awliya, and moreover on an exalted footing among them, for Allah’s tests are seldom except in what one holds dearest, and are proportionately harder for those of higher rank. Shibli used to say, “Allah’s raising the spiritual degrees of His servants is commensurate with their distress: had He poured upon the awliya an ant’s weight of what He has poured upon the prophets, they would have melted away and been cut off.”
Finally, if one is bitter about the test and resentful over Allah’s destining it, it means that one is failing, unless one turns one’s back on the Devil and the self, and takes the way of repentance, and returns to one of the other categories.
The Suffering of Others
The sufferings of the innocent, such as from natural disasters, disease, or the inhumanity of others, are temporary, and shall be a source of triumph in the next life, the infinite sphere of Allah’s name al-Rahim, the All-compassionate. Children who die find eternal bliss.
In this world, the sufferings of the innocent are equally a trial for bystanders and onlookers, who are not innocent if they can do something to alleviate them. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “The believer is not someone who spends the night while his neighbor is hungry” (Mustadrak (5), 4.167. S). Scholars of Sacred Law mention that while some duties in Islam are of defined amount, such as the five daily prayers, fasting the month of Ramadan, the hajj once in a lifetime–others are equally obligatory but of undefined amount, such as cooperating with one another in good works, feeding the hungry, helping the distressed, or providing disaster relief. Someone who can help a sufferer by spending his money, his time, his influence, his advice, or if nothing else, his prayers, must. From Allah’s wisdom, this too is of the trial of mankind “with good and evil, as a test” (Qur’an 21:35).
Our Maker has warned man against attaching his heart to this world, on the tongue of His prophets (upon whom be blessings and peace) in the revelations of all previous ages and peoples, and in this one, saying, “Nor is the present life except a divertment and frivolity; and truly the Final Abode is the life unperishing, if they but knew” (Qur’an 29:64). ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar said, “The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) took me by the shoulders and said, ‘Be in this world as though you were a stranger, or a traveller down the road’” (Bukhari (2), 8.110: 6416).
Setting one’s hopes upon something that must vanish is a lack of reality. Like lightbulbs, which manufacturers are capable of making a perfect vacuum in which the filament would never oxidize and hence the lamp never need a replacement, but in which they leave a trace of oxygen so that more bulbs will need to be consumed in the future–this world has purposely been designed by its Creator to fall short of human expectations. This is of the lutf or ‘all-subtle loving-kindness’ of al-Latif, the All-knowing and All-solicitous towards His servants. If the pain, disappointment, and sordidness of this world were less patent, people would forget the infinite beauty of the Beloved and the abode of His limitless largesse. Ibn ‘Ata Illah says, “He knew you would not take mere advice, so He has made you taste of its flavor, to make it easier for you to leave it” (Hikam (8) 62: 230).
Turning to the Creator
Sufferings are often caused by other people, as Allah says, “And We have made some of you a trial for others: Will you prove patient?” (Qur’an 25:20). Allah tries the poor person by seeing the rich person and wondering why he is not like him, tries the ill by seeing the well, tries the lowly by seeing the noble, tries wives with husbands, and husbands with wives, tries parents with children, and children with parents, tries teachers with students who go bad. All of these tests apprise those tested that what they really want is not in the hands of other people to give, but only in Allah’s. Ibn ‘Ata Illah said, “He has only made annoyance appear at their hands so that you might not rest contented with them. He wants to make you tired of everything, so that you may not be distracted from Him by anything” (Hikam (8), 63: 235). This is the point of all our pain and disappointment, whether from ourselves or others: that it be a means to Allah. As Sheikh al-Buzidi said, “Everything you want is found in the Entity of God.”
Gratitude for Blessings
At the personal level, suffering teaches man to thank God for his blessings. Ibn ‘Ata Illah says, “Whoever does not appreciate the value of blessings by having them, will appreciate it by losing them” (Hikam (8), 56: 199), and said, “Whoever is unthankful for blessings has made himself liable to lose them, while whoever shows gratitude for them has fastened them with their true tethers” (ibid., 29: 64). It is related that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) once “asked his family for something to eat with his bread, and they said, ‘We have nothing but vinegar.’ He asked for some and started eating with it, saying, ‘What a splendid sauce vinegar is! What a splendid sauce vinegar is!’” (Muslim (14) 3.1622: 2052. S)–thereby teaching us not only to show tact and graciousness in all circumstances, but also the sunna of exalting even the least blessings. The latter was his inevitable practice, not out of naÃ¯vetÃ© or ignorance of greater blessings, but because every minor blessing, if we think about it for a moment, presupposes in order to be enjoyed a multitude of major blessings such as health, life, security, time, and liberty; as well as freedom from pain, want, oppression, injury, and a thousand other misfortunes. That is, from a more concrete viewpoint, there are really no minor blessings. Without privation we would not count our blessings, which makes privation, for most of us, itself a blessing.
Perfection of Gnosis
By suffering, loss, and privation, Allah perfects the ‘arif’s experiential knowledge of the Divine. For knowing the One entails not only knowing Him in His entity (dhat), but in His names and attributes, in His rulings, which order and hierarchize the relations between existent things, and in His actions, of which the world and all it contains are the most palpable.
The ma‘rifa of the Sufis is at the upper limit of an entire continuum of Iman or faith, and like it, is disparate in degree among those it is given to. Abul Hasan al-Shadhili in his Grand Litany used to pray for “vast gnosis” (ma‘rifa wasi‘a), not to suggest that it was ever anything but vast, but to acknowledge the gulf between human knowledge, however sublime, and Allah’s own perfect knowledge of Himself. Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman too in this sense used to say, with Ibn al-‘Arabi, that “no one knows God but God.” Yet Abul Hasan’s asking for “vast knowledge” also directs others to strive to expand their ma‘rifa higher into this infinite gulf. One of the most telling means of doing so is firmness in beholding the Divine at the moment of trial. Ibn ‘Ajiba spurs mystically inclined readers to use it by saying, “As for him who knows [Allah] in the divine beauty, but not in the divine rigor and majesty, or when given to, but not when withheld from, or in triumph but not in humiliation, in health but not in illness, in well-being but not affliction, in wealth but not poverty, in ease but not hardship–such a person is a liar” (Iqadh al-himam (6), 489).
The last word is perhaps something of a hyperbole, for when Allah tries someone, even a servant who has ma‘rifa, it is the nature of a divine test to push the individual to the very limit of his capacities. Otherwise it would not be a test. In Dr. Marcel Carret’s ministrations to Sheikh al-‘Alawi as he lay in the extremity of dying, for example, when he lost consciousness, the doctor injected him with a stimulant that brought him back from that far perimeter. The sheikh awoke with a reproof on his lips for holding him back from his Beloved. Carret writes:
. . . He opened his eyes, and looked at me reproachfully.
“Why did you do that?” he said. “You should have let me go. There is no point in keeping me back. What is the good?”
“If I am at your side,” I answered, “it is because God willed it so. And if He willed it so, it was in order that I might do my duty by you as your doctor.”
“Very well,” he said. “In sha’ Allah” (if God wills) (A Sufi Saint (12), 31).
At that moment of wrenching separation after closeness, and in an extremity of physical weakness, Sheikh al-‘Alawi’s opacity at beholding the doctor, who was after all merely a means of effecting the divine will, was succeeded by a higher degree of recognition, expanding his knowledge of the Divine. As Ibn ‘Ata Illah says, “My Lord, I realize from the diversity of phenomenal vestiges, and the transformations of successive stages, that what You want of me is to reveal Yourself to me in everything, so that I may not be ignorant of You in anything” (Munajat (8), 82: 11).
Lack of Progress in the Spiritual Path
Spiritual sufferings include those of murids whose suluk has stalled. When early in my tariqa I once complained to Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman about my occasional lows of dispiritedness, he told me, “Allah makes spiritual expansion (bast) and contraction (qabd) alternate in the human heart as night alternates with day, until Allah makes you only with Him.” Longer than such swings are the periods of spiritual dryness that sometimes set in after the beginning of a disciple’s path, as a test from Allah of his genuineness. Anyone can be a servant when it is easy, but who shall be a servant when it is not? True servanthood means tawakkul or reliance on Allah and continuing in one’s servitude come what may. As Ibrahim al-Dasuqi said, “Whomever Allah tries, let him bear it patiently, for He has only tried him in order to exalt him–or be rid of him.”
But when spiritual progress is held up at great length, the disciple may well face a basic obstacle such as pride, or lack of contentment, or ruh-pollution through internalizing the views, goals, or character of those who are spiritually dead. Such obstacles may remain unaddressed for years through “putting a good face on them” and not returning to the sheikh. In such a case, the pain caused by lack of progress is a message from God to the murid that he has an attitude problem, and should return to the basics. A tariqa consists not only of a disciple, but a teacher by whose guidance the disciple accomplishes his journey when he has adab and perseverance. Suffering is a gift from Allah when it brings one back to the way of success; and is often the harbinger of divine increase, as Ibn ‘Ata Illah says: “Intense needs that appear are the feast-days of disciples” (Hikam (8), 52: 174).
Alienation from Allah
Another more common spiritual suffering is alienation from Allah because of sin. The wisdom therein is that one repent and renew one’s closeness to Allah. Ibn ‘Ata Illah says, “How many a sin that brought humiliation and need was better than an act of worship that brought triumph and haughtiness” (ibid., 36: 96). In this sense the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “By Him in whose hand is my soul, if you all did not sin, Allah would do away with you and bring a people who sinned and asked Allah’s forgiveness, and He forgave (Muslim (14), 4.2106: 2749. S). When sin is unfollowed by repentance, the divine wisdom therein is an object lesson to others through the individual’s destruction and perdition, depending on which divine names it manifests, such as the Avenger, the Humiliator, or other.
IN fine, the manifestations of divine wisdom in suffering are many. Most sufferings teach us disattachment from all but Allah. Some, like those of the prophets and saints, inspire us with a sense of the spiritual exaltedness of the sufferer and his fortitude. Some show us the magnitude of the divine blessing of relief after distress. All reveal to those with wisdom the immensity of the divine perfection, beauty, sovereignty, and justice, “yet none remember but those clearest of mind” (Qur’an 2:269). Even a little wisdom shows the nullity of the idea that “someone just and good would not allow suffering and evil if he could prevent them.” To even suggest this shows a profound lack of realism about human nature that could hardly be expected from someone who had lived any length of time in this world and dealt with people, let alone someone who created them.
To summarize everything we have said, the foregoing aspects of divine wisdom are disclosed by an existential attitude (hal) of entire trust in Allah whose mark is husn al-dhann bi Llah, or always thinking the best of Allah. Those who possess it do not make up hypothetical situations and then tax Allah with them, but confine themselves to concrete events they know have happened, and the particulars of which are fully known by them. “Suffering” in general is such a hypostatized, abstract reality, for the suffering of the part may well entail the benefit of the whole, or one of the many other aspects of wisdom we have mentioned.
Let us return for a moment to the syllogism with which we began:
(1) God is almighty.
(2) God is just and good.
(3) Someone just and good would not allow suffering and evil if he could prevent them, yet both exist in the world.
(4) Therefore God is either not almighty, or else not just and good.
From our knowledge of tawhid, the divine oneness and uniqueness, it is plain why the conclusion “Therefore God is either not almighty, or else not just and good” does not follow from these premises; namely, because their key terms just and good are equivocal: they are used in premise (2) as they apply to one order of being, that of the Divine; while in premise (3) are used both as they apply to the Divine, and as they apply to an entirely distinct order of being, that of man–of whom it is usually true that that “someone just and good would not allow suffering and evil if he could prevent them”–yet not always even then, since someone just and good might well choose the “lesser of two evils,” or impose temporary suffering by say, surgery, to effect a cure, or for innumerable other ethically valid reasons. And our twenty or so examples in the previous section have shown how much less the first assertion of premise (3) applies to God.
We have seen that the autonomy of Allah, His supreme perfection in Himself, and the fact that man is not a co-sharer (sharik) in it, entail a number of consequences:
First, Allah’s goodness, justice, mercy, and other attributes are only graspable by us to the degree that our all-too-human understanding can absorb the light of what He has revealed to us about them in the Qur’an and the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). As Abul Hasan al-Shadhili said in his Litany of Light:
I cannot reckon Your praise, You are but as You have praised Yourself: Indeed, You are too majestic even for praises, which are but accidents indicating Your generosity that You have bestowed upon us on the tongue of Your messenger so we may worship You with them in our own measure, not in Yours (Awrad al-Tariqa al-Shadhiliyya (17), 38).
Secondly, Allah’s justice is intrinsically different from human justice. “Morally accountable” means nothing more or less than “answerable to Allah.” It is meaningless to ask whether He is just, because His judgement is what justice is. “He is not answerable for aught that He does, but rather they are answerable” (Qur’an 21:23).
Third, because of the limited and fragmentary nature of our knowledge about the past, present, and future, to say nothing of the details of the cosmos, our own motives, those of others, the parts of others’ lives we see not, and above all eternity–through which alone the consequences of the present will become transparent to comprehension–suffering and evil remain at least to some degree opaque in this life. Their full knowledge, if we are realistic about the limits of our own, must be consigned to their Creator.
Fourth, because Allah is the primary reality, and the particulars imperfectly known to us derive from Him alone, His own perfection entails that from the perspective of omniscience, the world is perfect, while it only seems imperfect, evil, and filled with needless suffering from a human point of view that is limitary and incomplete.
In other words, reality in its entirety, the true concrete, is the infinity of Allah and His limitless perfection. The ‘arifin or those who know Allah directly and experientially, men such as Imam Ghazali, Mawlana Rumi, Sheikh al-‘Alawi, or Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman (Allah be well pleased with them), have traversed the path to Him and realized this perfection by beholding its Source, saying with ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi, “My eye at anything besides Your beauty does not gaze” (Diwan (15), 1.246). Their spiritual vantage-point revealed to them the radical affirmation of everything that is from God, and they have said with one voice, as the Prophet himself (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “All the creation of Allah Mighty and Majestic is goodly” (Ahmad (9), 4.390: 19475. S), or as our sheikh used to express it: “Were any of you to encompass the Unseen in knowledge, he would not choose anything but what is.” For all that is only exists through Allah’s perfected disposal over His own sovereignty: He does what he wills, and rules as He ordains. The obvious question for man is: Why not strive to win His eternal favor and bliss, rather than His eternal wrath and punishment?
Finally, from all this we can understand the nature of evil, and that it is inimical to man, not God. Evil is rebellion against the Divine that is not followed by repentance.
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(13) Murchie, Guy. The Seven Mysteries of Life. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999.
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(16) Scott, Sir Walter. The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte [sic.], Emperor of the French, With a Preliminary View of the French Revolution. 9 vols. Edinburgh: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1827.
(17) al-Shadhili, Abul Hasan, and sheikhs of his tariqa. Awrad al-Tariqa al-Shadhiliyya. Ed. by Nuh Ha Mim Keller. Amman: Dar al-Zahid, 1418/1997.
(18) al-Subki, Taqi al-Din. Fatawa al-Subki. 2 vols. N.p., n.d. Reprint. Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifa, n.d.
(19) al-Tirmidhi, Abu ‘Isa. Sunan al-Tirmidhi. Ed. Muhammad Fu’ad ‘Abd al-Baqi. 5 vols. Cairo n.d. Reprint. Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-‘Arabi, n.d.
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