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Why do people suffer? - Islamiqate Falsafa (Philosophy),purpose of life
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Why do people suffer?

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Islamic researcher, graduated from Al-Azhar University, Islamic Studies in the English language. I also studied at Temple University in the US.
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In a Nutshell:
The problem of evil can only be understood within the context of the purpose of our existence. This life is a transitional stage to an eternal afterlife. Our world is not some best possible world, but rather a place for a test with events forming the questions we are required to address. When encountering evil, we should see it with this in mind. There is no harm in seeking to understand God's wisdom when considering evil, however, we should exhibit humility given the limited capacity of our minds.


Background

The problem of evil in the world is a frequently discussed issue. People often wonder why many parts of the world are awful places to live in whilst others are not, why some people are deformed and others are not, why some are sick and others are not. They lead to a fundamental question: if there is a just God, why do these inequalities exist? Or put another way, "If God is All-Powerful, All-Merciful and All-Knowing, why do people suffer?" Most, if not all, who abandon theism refer back in some way or another to the problem of evil.

The British philosopher David Hume phrases it eloquently:

"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing? What then is evil?" (part 10)

("Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion")


Assumptions

Firstly this notion is not one that determines the existence of God, rather, it relates to his attributes. At most this problem may suggest an unmerciful god. For that reason, I'm not going to discuss the existence of God here as it is not relevant.

The Purpose of Existence

Life in this world is neither fair nor joyful. Our world is neither the best possible world, nor the perfect world, rather, in Islamic theodicy is a world God created to test us. We came here not to be as happy as possible, but rather as righteous as possible, to please God. The purpose of our existence to pass the test of servitude of God with the aim of pleasing him.

Allah says:

لَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا الْإِنسَانَ فِي كَبَدٍ
"We have, surely, created man to toil and struggle." (Qur'an 89:4)

Allah also said:

وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ
"And I have not created the jinn and Human beings but that they may serve Me." (Qur'an 51:56)

This world is not the end of some story, but the opening page of an eternal afterlife. If we insist on seeing the world as a story that ends at the grave, we would not understand the problem of evil. Life continues beyond the grave, there are eternal reward and punishment for the good or evil we committed.

As the Prophet (saw) said:

حُفت الجنة بالمكاره وحفت النار بالشهوات

"The Paradise is surrounded by hardships and the Hell-Fire is surrounded by temptations." (Sahih Muslim, 2822)

To look at it from this perspective, you would see some years of suffering as nothing compared to eternal happiness for those who are patient. It's the feeling that allows people who suffered to say we have never seen any hardship before when they experience eternal reward for the evil they faced. It is the feeling that lets to wish they could have suffered more.

The Prophet (saw) described such feeling and said:

يوَدُّ أهلُ العافِيَةِ يومَ القِيامَةِ، حِينَ يُعطَى أهْلُ البَلاءِ الثوابَ؛ لوْ أنَّ جُلودَهُمْ كانَتْ قُرِضَتْ بالمقَاريضِ
"On the Day of Judgement, when the people who were tried (in this world) are given their rewards, the people who were pardoned (in life), will wish that their skins had been cut off with scissors while they were in the world." (Jami at-Tirmidhi 2402)

The Prophet (saw) also said:

يُؤْتَى بِأَشَدِّ النَّاسِ بُؤْسًا فِي الدُّنْيَا مِنْ أَهْلِ الْجَنَّةِ فَيُصْبَغُ صَبْغَةً فِي الْجَنَّةِ فَيُقَالُ لَهُ يَا ابْنَ آدَمَ هَلْ رَأَيْتَ بُؤْسًا قَطُّ هَلْ مَرَّ بِكَ شِدَّةٌ قَطُّ فَيَقُولُ لاَ وَاللَّهِ يَا رَبِّ مَا مَرَّ بِي بُؤُسٌ قَطُّ وَلاَ رَأَيْتُ شِدَّةً قَطُّ
"A person will be brought having led the most miserable life (in this world) from amongst the inmates of Paradise. He would be made to dip once in Paradise and it would be said to him: 'O son of Adam, did you face, any hardship? Or had any distress fallen to your lot?' And he would reply: 'By Allah, no, O my Lord, never did I face any hardship or experience any distress." (Sahih Muslim 2807)

Thus our short life here is not the reward of our good deeds, but rather the place in which we are entitled to do good deeds to be rewarded in our afterlife. Whilst it is a test full of hardships and difficult questions, it leads to a world with no evil, suffering or sadness. It is the world we desired to live in happily.

So, the evil we face is a test of faith. As Allah says:

أَحَسِبَ النَّاسُ أَنْ يُتْرَكُوا أَنْ يَقُولُوا آَمَنَّا وَهُمْ لَا يُفْتَنُونَ وَلَقَدْ فَتَنَّا الَّذِينَ مِنْ قَبْلِهِمْ فَلَيَعْلَمَنَّ اللَّهُ الَّذِينَ صَدَقُوا وَلَيَعْلَمَنَّ الْكَاذِبِينَ​​​​​​​
"Do men think that they will be left alone because they say, `We believe,' and that they will not be tried? And We did try those who were before them. So Allah will, assuredly, know those who are truthful and He will, assuredly, know the liars." (Qur'an 29:2-3)

However, Allah also makes clear

يُكَلِّفُ اللَّهُ نَفْسًا إِلَّا وُسْعَهَا​​​​​​​
"God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear." (Qur'an, 2:286)


The Wisdom in the Existence of Evil

Islamic Theodicy in considering the wisdom behind evil and suffering is based on the following principles:

  1. The firm belief in the absolute perfection of God's Attributes. It is necessarily driven from the belief in His existence and His creation of such a complex universe.
  2. The firm belief in the imperfection of our limited minds, impeding us from often reaching or understanding the underlying wisdom.
  3. Divine revelation teaches us that evil appearances often conceal the good and the beneficial. A number of Quranic and prophetic stories illustrate this:
  • The prison of Prophet Yusuf led him to the corridors of power;
  • The assassination of 'Ghulam al-Ukhdud' (the boy of the trench) led to the spread of his righteous beliefs;
  • the killing of a boy and the damage to boats by Khidr was beneficial for all involved.

The story of Khidr explicitly concludes this, when Khidr parts way with Prophet Moses by saying:

رَحْمَةً مِّن رَّبِّكَ ۚ وَمَا فَعَلْتُهُ عَنْ أَمْرِي ۚ ذَٰلِكَ تَأْوِيلُ مَا لَمْ تَسْطِع عَّلَيْهِ صَبْرًا
"All this was done as a mercy from your Lord. What I did was not done by my own will. That is the interpretation of those actions which you could not bear to watch with patience" (Qur'an Al-Kahf:82).

Ibn Taymiyyah said:

فَكُلُ مَا فَعَلَهُ )اللهُ( عَلِمْنَا أنّ لَهُ فِيهِ حِكْمَةً، وَهَذَا يَكْفِينَا مِنْ حَيْثُ الجُمْلَة، وإنْ لَمْ نَعْرِف التَفْصِيلَ، وَعَدَمِ عِلْمِنَا بِتَفْصِيلِ حِكْمَتِهِ بِمَنْزِلَةِ عَدَمِ عِلْمَنَا بِكَيْفِيّةِ ذَاتِهِ.

"We know that everything God does is based on a wisdom, this is generally enough for us even if we don't know the details. We don't know how His Self is (as it is beyond our comprehension) in the same way we may not know some details of His Wisdom." (Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu' al-Fatawa, Vol. 6, p. 128)

There is no evil event without a pearl of comprehensible or incomprehensible wisdom behind it.

Why does an omnipotent God prevent Evil?

In light of the above argument, we could see free will is necessary for life's test - there can be no test without free will. God is all-powerful, so he is able to do all the rationally possible actions and even rational impossibilities.

The attribute of all-powerful and the question of ability have to do with the ability to do what is possible in accordance with a thing's own nature.

For example, it is irrational to say "I created an uncreated cake" because a cake cannot be uncreated once it has been created. This is irrational and impossible for us. The same applies to life's test, free will and the existence of evil, all are intertwined and it is rationally impossible to have one and leave the others.

Ibn Taymiyyah comments on the idea of rationally possible and rationally impossible actions by saying:

كُلِّ شَيْءٍ. وَأَمَّا أَهْلُ السُّنَّةِ، فَعِنْدَهُمْ أَنَّ اللَّهَ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ، وَكُلُّ مُمْكِنٍ فَهُوَ مُنْدَرِجٌ فِي هَذَا, وَأَمَّا الْمُحَالُلِذَاتِهِ، مِثْلُكَوْنِ الشَّيْءِ الْوَاحِدِ (...) الْوَاحِدِ مَوْجُودًا معدوما في حال واحدة، فهذا لَا حَقِيقَةَ لَهُ، وَلَا يُتَصَوَّرُ وُجُودُهُ، وَلَا يُسَمَّى شَيْئًا بِاتِّفَاقِ الْعُقَلَاءِ

"For Sunni Muslims, they believe that God Allah is Able to do everything, but this contains only the possible (things). But the impossible thing in its essence, such as the notion of the existence and non-existence of something, has no reality and its existence is unimaginable. Rational people consensually know that such thing can't be called a thing (because a thing has a reality, while the other is nothing)." (Ibn Taymiyyah, Minhaj as-Sunah, Vol. 2, p. 294)


Why is there Good in the world?

I mean by goodness here every good matter that does not serve the sustenance of human beings and other creatures; i.e. they are not necessary issues for survival. This includes luxury, tranquillity and welfare. The whole universe is available for human welfare except for some matters that are there as a test. This kind of goodness is widespread in the world and we measure the evil according to it. Otherwise, we would not know what evil was because we wouldn't know what good was.

If we wanted to claim evil's existence proves the non-existence of God or an unmerciful god, the existence of goodness logically proves his existence and his merciful attributes. The question here is not why the glass of water is half empty, but why it is half full.

There are four possibilities for the existence of such goodness:

  1. Blind chance and randomness are responsible for such goodness: This is impossible because randomness does not give us repeated, organized and fine-tuned design;
  2. Necessity: This is also impossible because the goodness we discuss is unnecessary;
  3. Illusion: It is not probable because no rational being can deny the reality of goodness, or rather he would not have recognized evil either;
  4. Merciful and Powerful Being (God): It is the necessary Doer for such action. He is Merciful because He had Mercy on us and Powerful because He created, designed and fine-tuned a complex and vast Universe.


Why does God have to test us in such evil ways?

I would say it is wrong to call any question we find tough, disagreeable or tortuous as 'evil' - it is evil if the examiner had malignant intent. Likewise with God. Questions in the test may appear good or bad or evil. All they are, are questions. Likewise in life, they are questions we need to respond to. As for some being easy, difficult, harsh and so on, as in an exam, grades of questions separate out grades of students. Likewise in life, The disbelievers folk first, then those with dhan (less certainty), then those with ghalabat dhan (convince suspicion), then those with yaqeen (certainty) get through. How do you test top people like these? Even the prophets had tests to separate them out.

Conclusion

The Universe contains the evil that erupts into our life. This evil would be meaningful and comprehensible when we look at life as a transitional stage in which we are tested to achieve the pleasure of our creator and thereby be rewarded with eternal life.

We are not here for happiness, rather struggle with evil. People who suffer are the most rewarded, their suffering is neither meaningless nor arbitrary. In fact, if one rejects belief in God and the Hereafter, suffering is little more than a curse of nature, that a spell that can be broken through suicide.

We should try to see the goodness and wisdom behind the veil of evil and trust the All-Powerful, All-Merciful and All-Knowing God

Reference:
Samy Amiry, Mushkilat ash-Shar wa Wujud Allah
Ibn Taymiyyah, Minhaj as-Sunnah


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