Suffering and the Problem of Evil
Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka
The monotheistic faiths must consider the problems of suffering and evil within the context of God's power and mercy. In Islam, there are two views of suffering, both of which resemble views held by its sister faiths, Judaism and Christianity. Suffering is either the painful result of sin, or it is a test.
In the latter view, suffering tests belief; a true Muslim will remain faithful through the trials of life. But suffering also reveals the hidden self to God. Suffering is built into the fabric of existence so that God may see who is truly righteous. In other words, God not only allows the various agonies and struggles of life, but has a purpose for them. Suffering opens up the soul and reveals it to God. God uses suffering to look within humans and test their characters, and correct the unbelievers.
Suffering is also a painful result of sin. In Islam, sin is associated with unbelief. Muslims surrender to God's will, and find peace in that surrender. Sometimes people forget to listen to the prophets, and fail to serve God in all that they do. This is the state of unbelief, called kufr, which literally means to forget through hiding of the truth. Therefore someone who is a kafir is someone who has purposefully forgotten the Lord. They become preoccupied with their own particular needs and their passions. Islam does not condemn human passions or human needs, seeing them as a necessary part of a full and useful life. But when people forget to serve God, these needs and passions can enslave them. They begin to misuse their divine gifts of intelligence, will, and speech. Enslaved by lust, and by cravings for wealth and pleasure, they do evil and destructive things. These moments of unbelief can happen to anyone, and when people realize their mistake, they suffer. Seen in this light, suffering is not only painful, but a lesson. It reminds humans of the truth of God's revelation.
Although all people are imperfect and vulnerable to kufr, Islam does not teach that they are essentially evil. When they realize their sin and make amends with true remorse, God forgives the sin. Genuine repentance is all that is needed to restore humans to a sinless state. However, individuals are always vulnerable to it, and sin and suffering are serious matters. The great struggle, or jihad, of human life is the struggle to perfect one's heart and live in total submission to God. It is possible to be a perfect Muslim, since God does not ask anyone to do anything that is beyond his or her ability. But perfect Muslims, like prophets, are very rare individuals. Most must be vigilant and always begin with the intention to do good.
Islam teaches the endurance of suffering with hope and faith. The faithful are not counseled to resist it, or to ask why. Instead, they accept it as God's will and live through it with faith that God never asks more of them than they can endure. However, Islam also teaches the faithful to work actively to alleviate the suffering of others. Recognizing that they are the cause of their own suffering, individuals work to bring suffering to an end. In the Islamic view, righteous individuals are revealed not only through patient acceptance of their own suffering, but through their good works for others. And if suffering is a consequence of unbelief, then good works will relieve pain.
1. How should suffering be viewed? Why might it be the key indicator of one’s devotion?
2. Do Muslims view themselves as inherently sinful?
3. How does sin differ from evil, and why might this be important to Muslims’ actions and relationship with Allah?