Tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, fire and other natural disasters have been occurring throughout the passage of time.
Seeing the human suffering, death and destruction we are all shaken. It is difficult to forget the scenes of death, pain, cries of people, men women and children. Those who believe in God are concerned to know why God allowed these disasters to happen. Those who do not believe in God are ready to exploit this disaster to argue against God or His existence.
We see in this world all kinds of sufferings, evil and pain. We find sickness, old age and death. We see things that are ugly, people who are insane and foolish. We also see people who commit sins, show disloyalty, unfaithfulness, greed and insincerity. We see people commit rapes, murders, violence and wars. We know all these and many other problems. There are evils caused by human beings and there are natural disasters. There are sufferings for individuals and there are those that involve a large number of people.
The world, however, is not all evil. Beside all these negative things we also see beauty, health, prosperity, life, birth, wisdom, intelligence, growth and progress. We also see goodness among people, faith, sincerity, charity, love and the spirit of sacrifice. We see a lot of virtue and piety. It is also the fact that the element of good is more in the creation than the element of evil. We all see that there are more people who are healthy than those who are sick. There are more that eat well then those who starve. There are more people who live decent life then those who commit crimes. Goodness is the rule and evil is the exception. Virtue is the norm and sin is the aberration. Generally trees bear fruits, the flowers bloom, the winds move smoothly.
The question still remains why Allah allows sufferings. Why did He not create a world without any difficulty or pain? Let us ask this question to understand Allah's ways in His creation. The Qur'an tells us that Good and evil whatever happens in this world happens by Allah's Will (mashi'at Allah). Only Allah knows fully His Will. We finite beings cannot grasp fully His infinite Will and Wisdom. He runs His universe the way He deems fit. Allah says in the Qur'an:
No calamity occurs, except by the leave of Allah; and whosoever believes in Allah, He guides his heart. And Allah knows all things. (Al-Taghabun 64:11)
The famous Muslim philosopher, jurist and thinker Imam Ghazali (d. 11) elaborates this very clearly:
We believe that He is the Willer of things that are, and of things that happen. There does not come about in the world, seen or unseen, little or much, small or great, good or evil, advantage or disadvantage, faith or unbelief, knowledge or ignorance, success or loss, increase or decrease, obedience or rebellion, except by His will. What He wills is, and what He wills not is not. Not a glance of one who looks, or a slip of one who thinks is outside His will. He is the Creator, the Bringer back, the Doer of that which He wills. (A Short Creed of Ghazali)
As Muslims we believe that Allah is Wise and everything that Allah does is right, just, and fair. We must submit and surrender to His Will. The Qur'an has not given us all the details about Allah's Will, but it has enlightened us with the guidance that is useful and sufficient for us. The problem of the existence of evil in this world is a complex one and there is no one simple answer for it. There are several points that we have to keep in our mind to understand this issue:
1. First of all, Allah did not make this world a permanent world. This is a temporary world and every thing here has a time limit. When its time comes it dies, comes to an end and finishes. Neither the good things of this world are forever, nor the bad things eternal. We are here for a short time and we are being tested. Those who will pass this test they will find an eternal world that is perfect and permanent. Those who will fail this test they shall see the evil consequences of their sins and corruption.
It is He Who created the Night and the Day, and the sun and the moon; all (the celestial bodies) swim along, each in its rounded course. We granted not to any man before you permanent life (here); if you die, would they live permanently? Every soul shall have a taste of death: and We test you by evil and by good by way of trial. To Us is the return. (Al-Anbiya' 21:33-35)
2. Allah has placed physical and moral laws in this universe. Allah allows suffering to occur when one or more of these laws are broken. The physical laws are based on cause and effect. Sickness comes if some laws of health are not observed or violated. Auto accidents occur when traffic laws are not followed or the traffic laws are not right or not properly enforced, or the roads and freeways are not made and kept in right shape. Study of causes and effects is very important to give safeguards. Even here we should keep in mind that Allah often saves us and He does not cause us to suffer for every single negligence on our part. How many times it happens that we are not careful and still reach safely to our destinations. The way people drive in some cities, it is a miracle that more accidents do not happen and more people do not suffer. Allah says:
The Most Merciful, He taught the Qur'an. He created man. He taught him speech. The sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed; and the herbs and the trees both (alike) bow in adoration. And the Firmament He has raised high, and He has set up the Balance (of Justice), in order that you may not transgress (due) balance. So establish weight with justice and fall not short in the balance. He spread out the earth for (His) creatures. (al-Rahman 55:1-10)
The ways we exceed the measures set by Allah and violate His laws of cause and effect is incredible. It is really the mercy of Allah that we are saved. Strictly speaking the question should not be why Allah allows suffering, but how much Allah protects us and saves us all the time in spite of our violations and negligence. The Qur'an says:
If Allah were to punish people according to what they deserve, He would not leave on the back of the (earth) a single living creature; but He gives them respite for a stated Term. When their Term expires, verily Allah has in His sight all His servants. (Fatir 35:45)
3. Sometimes Allah does punish some people because of their violations of His laws whether they are physical or moral. When the general punishment comes then the sinners and the innocents are all destroyed. The Qur'an tells us that many nations and communities were destroyed because of their sinful lifestyles.
If they treat you as false, so did the Peoples before them (with their Prophets), the People of Noah, and Ad and Thamud, those of Abraham and Lot, and the Companions of the Madyan people; and Moses was rejected (in the same way). But I granted respite to the Unbelievers, and (only) after that did I punish them; but how (terrible) was My rejection (of them)! How many populations have We destroyed, which were given to wrong-doing! They tumbled down on their roofs. And how many wells are lying idle and neglected, and castles lofty and well-built? (al-Hajj 22:42-45)
Allah warns the people in the Qur'an who see corruption and do not stand up to correct the wrong doers or to stop them from their wrong doings. Allah says in the Qur'an:
Why were there not, among the generations before you, persons possessed of balanced good sense, prohibiting (men) from mischief in the earth, except a few among them whom We saved (from harm)? But the wrong-doers pursued the enjoyment of the good things of life which were given them, and persisted in sin. (Hud 11:116)
However, we must keep in mind that only Prophets of Allah, who had access to the Revelation (wahi), could inform us whether a disaster was a punishment of Allah or not. After the coming of the Last Prophet Muhammad - peace and blessings of Allah be upon him- no one has access to any new Divine Revelation and hence no one is allowed to say definitely that a particular disaster or difficulty is the punishment of God to a person or to a group.
4. Suffering can also be a test and trial for some people. Allah allows some people to suffer in order to test their patience and steadfastness. Even Allah's Prophets and Messengers were made to suffer. Prophet Ayyub (Job) is mentioned in the Qur'an as a Prophet who was very patients. Good people sometimes suffer but their sufferings heal others and bring goodness to their communities. People learn lessons from their good examples. Martyrs die for their faith, soldiers give their lives for their nations and this brings liberation and freedom for their people.
Be sure We shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere. Who say, when afflicted with calamity: "To Allah we belong, and to Him is our return" They are those on whom (descend) blessings from their Lord, and Mercy, and they are the ones that receive guidance. (Al-Baqarah 2:155-157)
5. Suffering of some people could be a test for others who did not suffer. Whether we understand or not the reason why some people went through a disaster, our responsibility is to help them. When we see a person who is sick, poor or needy, or when we see a whole community gone through some disaster, actually we are also tested by Allah. It is wrong to leave them alone saying that "if Allah wanted He would have saved them." Allah mentions with disapproval the saying of some people:
And when they are told, "Spend of (the bounties) with which Allah has provided you," The Unbelievers say to those who believe: "Shall we then feed those whom, if Allah had so willed, He would have fed, (Himself)? You are in nothing but manifest error." (Yasin 36:47)
In the suffering of those people our faith and charity is tested. When we see a person in pain and in difficulty, we should pay extra attention. It is possible that Allah is there to see what our response is. In a very moving Hadith Qudsi, the Prophet -peace be upon him- said:
Allah will say on the Day of Judgment, 'O son of Adam, I was sick and you did not visit Me.'
He will say, 'O my Lord, how could I visit You, when you are the Lord of the Worlds.'
Allah will say, 'Did you not know that My servant so and so was sick and you did not visit him? Did you not know that if you had visited him, you would have found Me there?'
Allah will say, 'O son of Adam, I asked you for food and you fed Me not.'
He shall say, 'O my Lord, how could I feed you and you are the Lord of the Worlds?'
And Allah will say, 'Did you not know that My servant so and so was looking for food and you did not feed him? Did you not know that if you had fed him, you would have found that to have been for Me?'
'O son of Adam, I asked you for water and you did not give Me to drink.'
The man shall say, 'O my Lord, how could I give You water, when You are the Lord of the Worlds?'
Allah will say, 'My servant so and so asked you for water and you did not give him to drink water. Did you not know that if you had given him to drink, you would have found that to have been for Me.'
(Muslim, Hadith no. 4661. Jesus -peace be upon him- is also reported to have said something similar. See Matthew 25:35-45)
To summarize we can say:
1. Sufferings occur to teach us that we must adhere to Allah's natural and moral laws.
2. Sufferings are sometimes to punish those who violate Allah's natural or moral laws.
3. Suffering of the righteous people also become a healing and liberation for others. Those who patiently bear their pain and suffering are also promised great blessings from Allah.
4. Sufferings of some people are a test for other people's commitment to human values and charity.
Whenever we encounter suffering we should ask ourselves, "Have we broken any law of Allah?" Let us study the cause of the problem and use the corrective methods.
"Could it be a punishment?" Let us repent and ask forgiveness and reform our ways.
"Could it be a test and trial for us?" Let us work hard to pass this test with patience if we are suffering; or with charity and kindness if we see others are in difficulty.
Believers face the sufferings with prayers, repentance and good deeds. The non-believers face the sufferings with doubts and confusions. They blame Allah or make arguments against Him. May Allah keep us on the right path.
Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, Director of the Islamic Society of Orange County and former President of the Islamic Society of North America
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