Islam and the Problem of Evil By Timothy Winter – Summarised by Haroon Sidat
In The Name of Allah, The Merciful, The Generous
Dr Winter begins by outlining a number of approaches to the question of theodicy in Islam. Firstly, that patience and virtuous endurance will lead to a reward later on. Secondly, suffering can be seen as the wages of sin. Thirdly, as for those who are innocent, ultimate justice – though not always served in this world – will be served after the eschaton. Fourthly, a Muslim as someone who submits or is resigned to God, will see distress as a form of divine favour. This echoes somewhat the Sufi Weltanschauung if you like. However, there remains the duty to reduce suffering wherever possible. Fifth, trials are a form of discernment and that earthly atonement for misdeeds take place for what would otherwise attract punishment in the next world. Finally, there is the idea of a ‘soul-making theodicy’ where suffering acts as a divine pedagogy, or via purgativa.
However, these explanations are open to challenge. For example, what to say of Prophets who suffer though they are effectively sinless, and, though they are tested, they are all already perfect beings. Before moving on, we are reminded that the suffering of children and animals is best understood with them being gifted paradise and receiving justice respectively, as their indemnity for the tribulations of this world. But what of innocent adult suffering?
Firstly, much comfort can be found that in the fullness of time, human forgetfulness and the intensity of paradisal delights will help expunge the memory of any earthly misery. Recourse to eschatology was a frequent move but that didn’t stop theologians searching for ways to interpret God that allowed His actions to be justified in this-worldly terms. The Mu'tazilites opted for the cosmic justice machine arguing that God created the best of worlds and they thus restricted His freedom in stating that He must be just. Against this choiceless Mu’tazilite deity emerged Ash'arism which contested the limited divine freedom and capacity: it is empirically demonstrable that ours is not the best of all worlds, since, by applying the constraints of the Mu’tazilites, God would not be able to create suffering for those who would eventually end up in hellfire – yet they reasonably exist. Beginning with God’s omnipotence and freedom, Ash‘ārīsm, boldly, denies objective moral facts. Cue Ghazālī, good and evil, for humankind, are relational qualities that vary with which to that they relate, and not of qualities of essences; two people may see a single action as good and bad.
For Ash'arism, all that is created is from God (including evil) but this is an oversimplification and discourtesy. ‘Evil’ is a locution that carries a negative evaluative content so far as it is experience by our human subjectivity, but it is a fallacy to state that evil per se is a divine enactment. To summarise our discussion thus far, ‘divine omnipotence includes the capacity to impose suffering that by human measuring is certainly unjust or unbearable, but this cannot compromise the principle of divine wisdom.’
For the Maturidis, the divine predicate of wisdom led to a beautiful outcome, which was, to a certain extent, humanly knowable. Their claim, as opposed to the Ash'ari's – who insisted that wisdom was in effect a synonym for divine agency – was that suffering served a higher purpose which might be only to known to God. What emerged was a mode of argument that stated that humanly perceived imperfections in the created order are in fact signs of God’s existence. Ghazālī, however, with his distinction of ‘nothing possible is more splendid than the actual’ quietly doubted the nominalism of Ash’ārīsm – of a meaningful wise deity. For him, there was the possibility of seeing everything in creation as perfect; the devout must look on God’s works as showcases of His perfect wisdom, building on the Qur’an’s cosmological arguments.
Finally, for Sunni theologians, God did not inhabit the same moral community as humans: He is not a component of the Cosmos and neither is he comparable to other entities. Put simply, he is not some sort of humanoid. The utility of theodicy lies in its ability to serve as a pedagogic tool, which for Ghazali, exists mainly for the majority of the faithful who require a God that is accessible ‘by anthropopathic descriptions.’ For the metaphysicians amongst us, this is all unnecessary. We shift from a God of ‘resemblance’ (tasbih) to a God of ‘otherness’ (tanzih). In the end, it is this otherness of God that leaves theodicy helpless.
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