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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Suffering and the Problem of Evil

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Mutazilis believed that humans could discern the difference between good and evil and choose freely, that a just God would be compelled to reward good deeds and punish bad ones, and that this was the essential character of the relationship between humans and God. Sunnis, on the other hand, were reluctant to argue that God, who was above human rules and rationality, could be compelled to do anything, even to be bound by his own nature. To preserve the Sunni tenet of God's complete and utter transcendence and superiority, their rejoinder to the Mutazilis was that God alone determined what was just and unjust, that God alone determined what was good and what was evil, and that human perception is inferior to God's precepts. It was God's prerogative, they argued, to have bad things happen to good people, for reasons he alone could possess and discern, and it was humankind's responsibility to accept and submit to his will.

The Opening Chapter of the Holy Quran
  1. In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
  2. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;
  3. Most Gracious, Most Merciful
  4. Master of the Day of Judgment
  5. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek
  6. Show us the straight way,
  7. The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those who (portion) is no wrath, and go not astray.

This perspective may seem counter-intuitive to modern sensibilities, and it was not meant to seem bullheaded or stubborn. Though Sunnis believed in a merciful and compassionate God, they did not want to submit that God to human processes of judgment and reason. Mutazilis and Sunnis disagreed over other points of doctrine and interpretation as well, but these fundamental issues about why people suffer, what really constitutes that suffering and its justice, centered on their different conceptions of who has agency in human life and what that means for predestination and free will. These questions are in turn related to conceptions of divine justice and the nature of God and God's relationship to human beings. As a theological school, Mutazilism as such did not survive, and Ashari Sunni theology has become, with some exceptions, the mainstream and defining theological school for most Sunni Muslims.

Study Questions:
     1.    Why is the question of evil a question of Allah’s nature?
     2.    How does Sunnism answer the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
     3.    What did the Mutazilism school teach about free will?


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