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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Suffering and the Problem of Evil

Written by: Nancy Khalek

The problem of evil, and general questions about why suffering exists, why bad things happen to good people and vice versa,  which are encompassed by the broad term "theodicy," are fundamental to many philosophical and religious traditions. Muslim theologians did not address the problem of evil directly as such, but they did ask questions about good and evil, what to do about them, and who created them and was responsible for them.

From an Islamic perspective, these questions are related to fundamental inquiries into the nature of good and evil, the nature of God (i.e., why would a Merciful God create a world in which evil exists, etc.), and the nature of the human condition. Muslims believe that only God has creative power, and that he is just, omnipotent, and omniscient. Thus a particularly important question in this vein, from an Islamic perspective that includes a concept of a judgment day and accountability in an afterlife, is how people could be punished if God is responsible for everything, including human actions. This is tied in to the question of why it is that bad things can happen to good people - shouldn't a just God reward good deeds and punish bad deeds appropriately?

One way to answer the question of why evil exists is to claim that it is not God who commits bad actions - people do. This answer hinges on a conception of free will, on the notion that humans are, to a degree, free to make independent choices. The first great theological controversy in the Islamic world occurred over precisely this question, because it seemed to run against other prevailing notions about the omniscience and omnipotence of God.

An early Islamic movement called the Qadariyya (from the Arabic word for fate, qadar) held that humans had free will. This belief stemmed in part from a desire to resolve issues pertaining to the problem of evil. If humans were to be held accountable for their actions, which they had to be if God was just, then each person deserved the reward or punishment they received. In order to preserve a vision of a just God, Qadaris insisted on free will.

There was also a political dimension to this belief.  The Umayyad dynasty of the late 7th and early 8th centuries defended its authority by arguing that they were in power by special ordinance from God. The Qadaris, who believed the Umayyad caliphs were despotic, opposed this claim by arguing that they were acting out of free will, not out of divine support.

Qadaris were one of several theological movements in Islam that claimed to be ideologically related to al-Hasan al-Basri, who died in the third or fourth decade of the 8th century.  In particular, al-Hasan al-Basri refused to believe that God would predestine people to sin. This view against predestination would eventually create great discomfort for Sunni orthodox theologians.

A second theological conflict that occurred in the classical period of Islam was the Mutazilite controversy - initiated by one of al-Hasan al-Basri's pupils ¬- and it also is related to the discourse on free will. Often described as a discourse that pitted "traditionalists" (proto-Sunnis) against "rationalists" (Mutazilis), there were several points of difference between the two main groups. Mutazilism flourished in the east, especially in Baghdad and Basra, from the 8th to the 10th centuries. The main points of disagreement it had with the emerging Sunni belief (the primary school of which came to be called Asharism after its founder Al-Asahri) had to do with the questions of suffering and predestination, the nature of God and justice, and major questions of good and evil.

 

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