The Muslim Response to Why Evil Exists Despite a Merciful and All-Powerful God

This is an issue, often referred to as ‘The Problem of Evil’, that I have been thinking about over the past year or so. A number of responses have been written on the topic by Muslims and it is definetly worth a read. Before I share links to those responses, I have the following important points to make on the subject based on my own research:

  • God never promised a perfect world. He never said that this world will not contain injustice, problems, etc. In fact, he explicitly says the opposite. We are told from the very beginning of Adam’s creation that we are a species that will shed blood. Humanity in general is spoken about in a very negative light in the Quran. That utopian perfection is in the afterlife in Paradise not this world. Was never meant to be. So those who say if God is all Powerful and Merciful and Just, then why doesn’t He intervene, we say because He never claimed that He would in every occasion.
  • Many of the injustices and evils we have, we brought onto oursleves. This is part of the consequences of having free will. Skeptics want God to intervene after every wrong choice we make? Then what’s the point of free will to begin with? We have to bear the consequences of our choices. Hence: “That is for what your hands have put forth and because Allah is not ever unjust to [His] servants” (Quran 3:182).
  • We need to remember that this life is merely a test to see which one of us is best in deed (Quran 67:2). Part of the tests include dealing with horrific situations and this is why the believers are constantly told to be patient and hope for reward, because there is an ultimate day coming to settle it all in the most just of ways.
  • Just because Allah allows certain evils to exist does not mean that He likes it or approves of it. He allows the consequences of our actions to go into effect and this will be used as evidence against us on the Day of Judgement. In Surah al-Kahf, it states regarding the wrongdoers, “If He were to seize them ˹immediately˺ for what they commit, He would have certainly hastened their punishment. But they have an appointed time, from which they will find no refuge” (Quran 18:58). This shows us that Allah is aware of what the wrongdoers are doing yet allows them to continue in their behavior because they have an oppointed deadline from which they cannot escape and will eventually be held responsible for their actions. In another verse of the Quran, we are told, “We only extend it for them so that they may increase in sin, and for them is a humiliating punishment” (Quran 3:178).
  • As for why things were chosen to be done with these rules and not others, then we can simply say “He is not questioned about what He does, but they will be questioned” (Quran 21:23).

Ust. Samir Hussein also made some good points in his post on Facebook:

One of the theological issues that I have never really had a personal problem with in my journey of becoming a Muslim, and then studying Islam, was the problem of evil and ethical controversies in Islam. And Allah alone is due praise and thanks for this. My personal issue was a bit more complicated, it had to do with the epistemic rationale for believing in God, but I cleared that up over the course of a decade of reading & study.

I really don’t understand why people have trouble understanding why Allah and evil coexist, and why it is so difficult for them to accept some of the more ethically controversial (in the modern world) aspects of Islam. In my mutakallim mind, once you understand the epistemic justification for why we believe Allah to be true along with a proper understanding Allah’s omnipotence, then ethical controversies in the context of the Qur’an and Sunnah are a mere footnote. All 3 schools of Sunni theology agreed that once sacred text comes into play, the intellect must submit.

If the Creator, All-Powerful and All-Wise decides for something to happen, or for something to be good or bad, then there is no need for discussion on it. Your ethical concern is diminished because of your lowly status as slave and creation, and your opinion – subject to cultural and social pressures and the limits of the human mind, is not even significant in the first place. You might have questions, but perhaps those are best left for the afterlife when the answers are available. True submission is not just the physical one of sujud, but also the rational one of ethical priorities.

But as I have interacted with students, I understand this may be difficult for many to grasp. Not everyone possesses or is able to to develop the robotic mutakallim mindset that prioritizes sacred text, reason and empirical data over emotions and feelings. I’m not saying Muslims shouldn’t learn theology and the epistemic grounding for their beliefs, but that people differ in their personalities, psychologies, learning opportunities and emotional priorities.

For these Muslims, there is increasingly more literature available online on ethical concerns in Islamic theology, and Islamic ethics is a new academic field with some very promising developments incoming. I would even venture to say the field of Islamic ethics is one of the most important developments in Islamic studies since the Qawa’id ul-Fiqh and Maqasid al-Shariah. Also, given current political and social trends, it seems that the next few generations will witness ethical upheavals and changes of their own. I wouldn’t be surprised if coming generations see a world in which Islamic ethics make more sense than ever before.

Until then however, besides learning theology and solidifying the rational and epistemic roots of Islamic belief, what I recommend for people whose psychology and personality grant more epistemic weight to their emotions and feelings, is worship and tasawwuf. Don’t dismiss theology, but your theological medication is better when spiritual: building a better relationship with the Creator.

Learn to love Allah and trust in Him and His words. This means not just fulfilling obligations, but going beyond into recommended acts. Sin may be a greater poison for you than scientism. It also means attuning the heart to worship, developing khushu, doing dhikr and prioritizing witnessing Allah’s presence in one’s acts of worship instead of just mechanically doing them. Engage in more tawbah, and spend more time with the righteous. Even the mutakallim needs this, so the one who doesn’t have that knowledge or faculty of reason needs it even more.

As for some more reading on the topic from an Islamic perspective, I suggest the following:

The Problem of Evil: A Multifaceted Islamic Solution

Why Do People Suffer? God’s Existence & the Problem of Evil

Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering

Response to the Atheist Question, “Who Created God?”

The question of “Who created God?” often emerges in discussions about the existence of God or the nature of ultimate reality. While it is a reasonable question to ask, it is important to note that it is based on a misunderstanding of the concept of God in many religious and philosophical traditions. Here are a few arguments that are commonly made in response to the question:

God as a Necessary Being

Many philosophical arguments for the existence of God posit God as a Necessary Being. According to this view, God is not caused or created but Exists by necessity. The concept of God as a Necessary Being means that God’s existence is not dependent on anything else but is Self-Existent or Self-Caused. In this understanding, God is the ultimate explanation or cause of all contingent things, but God Himself does not require a cause or creator.

A Necessary Being is one whose existence is not dependent on anything else. It exists by its own nature and does not rely on any external factors or conditions. In contrast, a contingent being is one whose existence depends on something else, such as its causes or conditions. A Necessary Being is self-existent, meaning it does not require a cause or explanation for its existence. It is the ultimate source of its own existence and is not derived from anything prior. Because a necessary being is not contingent on time or causes, it is often considered eternal, existing outside the constraints of time and space. A Necessary Being is typically thought of as unchanging and immutable because it is not subject to external influences or forces.

Conceptual Limitations

The question “Who created God?” assumes that everything must have a creator. However, this assumption may not apply to God if God is considered the ultimate foundation or source of all things. God exists outside the framework of cause and effect, time, and space. Therefore, the concept of creation, which implies a temporal and causal process, is not applicable to God.

Infinite Regress

The question “Who created God?” leads to an infinite regress if we apply it recursively. If we say that God was created by another being, then we can ask who created that being, and so on. This infinite regress fails to provide a satisfactory explanation. One way to break this regress is by positing a Necessary Being like God that does not require a creator.

Infinite regress is considered logically flawed because it leads to an infinite chain of explanations or causes without a foundational or ultimate explanation. In other words, it fails to provide a satisfactory resolution or endpoint.

The principle of sufficient reason, which is a fundamental principle in philosophy and logic, states that everything must have a reason or cause. When we encounter a series of explanations or causes, we typically look for a sufficient reason or cause that ultimately grounds or justifies the entire series. Without such a grounding or ultimate explanation, the series lacks a satisfactory explanation.

In the context of infinite regress, the problem arises when we propose an infinite chain of explanations or causes without a starting point or ultimate explanation. If we say that X is caused by Y, and Y is caused by Z, and Z is caused by A, and so on, without reaching an ultimate cause or explanation, we are left without a satisfactory resolution. The question of why there is an infinite chain of causes or explanations, rather than a stopping point, remains unanswered.

Additionally, an infinite regress can lead to logical paradoxes or contradictions. For example, in an infinite chain of causation, if every event is caused by a prior event, and there is no beginning, it becomes difficult to identify a cause for any particular event. This can violate the principle of causality, which states that every event must have a cause.

Therefore, due to the logical difficulties and the failure to provide a satisfactory explanation, infinite regress is considered logically flawed. Philosophers and logicians have proposed various solutions, such as positing a first cause or foundational explanation, to avoid the problem of infinite regress and provide a coherent account of causation or explanation. We argue that ‘first cause’ or ‘foundational explanation’ is God as the most reasonable explanation.

Transcendence and Mystery

God, as understood in many religious traditions, is regarded as Transcendent and beyond full human comprehension. The question “Who created God?” assumes that we can fully grasp the nature of God and fit it into our human understanding. However, if God is truly Transcendent, then our human intellects are insufficient to fully comprehend God’s nature.

Hadiths on the Topic

Abu Hurayrah reported that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said:

لاَ يَزَالُ النَّاسُ يَتَسَاءَلُونَ حَتَّى يُقَالَ هَذَا خَلَقَ اللهُ الْخَلْقَ فَمَنْ خَلَقَ اللهَ فَمَنْ وَجَدَ مِنْ ذَلِكَ شَيْئًا فَلْيَقُلْ آمَنْتُ بِاللَّهِ

“The people will continue to ask questions until it will be said, ‘Allah created the creation so who created Allah?’ Whoever finds [himself] in anything like that, then let him say, ‘I believe in Allah.’”

[Muslim 134]

In another version of the hadith, it is reported that the Prophet ﷺ said:

يَأْتِي الشَّيْطَانُ أَحَدَكُمْ فَيَقُولُ مَنْ خَلَقَ كَذَا مَنْ خَلَقَ كَذَا حَتَّى يَقُولَ مَنْ خَلَقَ رَبَّكَ فَإِذَا بَلَغَهُ فَلْيَسْتَعِذْ بِاللَّهِ، وَلْيَنْتَهِ

“Satan comes to one of you and says, ‘Who created such and such, who created such and such?’ Until he says, ‘Who created your Lord?’ If one of you reaches that point, then let him seek refuge in Allah and put an end to it.”

[Bukhari 3276]

In another version of the hadith, it is reported that the Prophet ﷺ said to respond in the following way:

فَإِذَا قَالُوا ذَلِكَ فَقُولُوا ‏{‏ اللهُ أَحَدٌ * اللهُ الصَّمَدُ * لَمْ يَلِدْ وَلَمْ يُولَدْ * وَلَمْ يَكُنْ لَهُ كُفُوًا أَحَدٌ ‏}‏ ثُمَّ لْيَتْفُلْ عَنْ يَسَارِهِ ثَلاَثًا وَلْيَسْتَعِذْ مِنَ الشَّيْطَانِ

“If they say that, then say, ‘Allah is One. He is Self-Sufficient. He begets not nor was He begotten. There is nothing like Him. Then let him [dry] spit to his left three times and seek refuge [in Allah] from Satan.”

[Abu Dawud 4722; Al-Albani graded it Hasan]

The people of knowledge explain the above reports as follows:

The faith in Allah, may He be glorified, requires a conscious and aware heart, complete submission, and full surrender to Allah. Because many matters, especially those related to the unseen, are beyond the capacity of the human mind to comprehend. It is possible that individuals may be plagued by doubts and corrupted thoughts. In such situations, it is imperative for believers to quickly return to their faith in Allah and what He has revealed about Himself. The intention behind these questions is to cast doubt on Allah, suggesting that there must be a creator above Him. However, the believer must respond promptly by affirming belief in Allah and His messengers. These questions could be posed by others or come up internally within the conscious of the person.

The Prophet ﷺ advises that if Satan comes to anyone with such whispers, they should seek refuge in Allah and declare their belief in Him and His messengers. Satan, the worst enemy of humanity, aims to misguide people and lead them to destruction. He employs various insinuations and doubts, especially targeting matters of creed, which forms the foundation of religion and faith. He raises questions about the creation of the heavens and the earth, intending to make people fall into error and disbelief.

These hadiths emphasize seeking Allah’s help in overcoming the whispers of Satan. It also encourages believers to turn away from unsettled thoughts without engaging in debates or attempting to invalidate them, as this is one of the greatest means of ensuring one’s peace of mind.

The hadith which emphasizes Surah al-Ikhlaas as a response, it is because in it Allah is affirmed in His uniqueness, uncreatedness, and not described with the attributes of creation, such as being born or having a spouse or offspring. Allah is Exalted above what the wrongdoers say.

Regarding the act of dry spitting thrice to the left, it is a gesture of repulsion towards Satan and a way of belittling him. Following this, seeking refuge in Allah is emphasized to protect oneself from the insinuations of Satan that he casts into the hearts of people.

The hadith elucidates the possibility of intellectual doubt in matters of creed, but it underscores that the believer should always return to their faith. The narrations further explains that Satan hovers around the hearts of believers, casting doubts. However, believers are advised to seek refuge in Allah and adopt the means that repel such doubts.