Why Does God Allow Suffering?
By Shahul Hamīd
Question: My name is Terrel, a non-Muslim and I am reading a lot about Islām. I have a question and I need a comprehensive answer to it. Why is God allowing much suffering on earth?
In the name of Allāh, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful;
All the praise and Thanks is due to Allāh, the Lord of the al-'ālameen. There is none worthy of worship except Allāh, and that Muhammad, Sallallāhu alayhi wasallam, is His Messenger.
The issue on suffering has been haunting human consciousness from the moment man gained the power of thinking: The question is: If God, that is Allāh the Almighty is good and means well for humankind, why should He allow them to suffer? The answer, one may say, can be found in the universal operation of cause and effect. Basically, human actions are motivated by the hope for desired results. It is the hope for the realization of these results that pushes us forward to do good work.
Islām teaches that evil (calamity, misfortune), which causes suffering, is like one of the twins, the other being good. This is because good in our life on earth is ironically linked to evil. In fact, good in this world cannot exist without bad, as they are two sides of the same coin, and both are relative concepts.
The foregoing means that the inadequacies and deficiencies of this world offer us enough opportunities to engage in creative efforts for improvement; and thus they effectively make our life and work meaningful.
Thus, a little reflection would make us see that both good and evil are equally necessary for the spiritual development of humanity. The spirit grows when it confronts evil and overcomes it to do good. It may read in the Qur'an, which Muslims believe is the word of (God) Allah (Kalamullāh), which means:
“Nor can goodness and Evil be equal. Repel (Evil) with what is better: Then will he between whom and thee was hatred become as it were thy friend and intimate! And no one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint — none but persons of the greatest good fortune.”
[Surah Fussilat, 41:34-35]
The foregoing means that in order to counter evil, immense patience is necessary. Similarly, suffering, which is a natural concomitant of evil, tests the worth and mettle of a person. And the spirits of genuine believers do not weaken under suffering; nor does suffering frighten them or make them desperate.
The superiority of Islām over other philosophies or ideologies can be seen in that it equips its adherents with the spiritual strength to confront evil and overcome suffering. A genuine Muslim accepts physical pain, disease, personal loss of life or property, as an unavoidable test of this life and strives to overcome them with a sense of balance and equanimity.
A genuine Muslim accepts nothing would happen except by the will and decree of Allāh. Allāh Says what means:
“No calamity befalls on the earth or in yourselves but is inscribed in the Book of Decrees (Al-Lauh Al-Mahfuz), before We bring it into existence. Verily, that is easy for Allāh”
It simply means that everything that affects Mankind is duly measured and destined. Allāh Almighty reminds of His measuring and deciding the destiny of all things before He created the creation: “No calamity occurs on the earth nor in yourselves” means, ‘there is nothing that touches you or happens in existence,' “but it is inscribed in the Book of Decrees before We bring it into existence.” meaning, ‘before We created the creation and started life.’
Allāh Almighty created evil or calamity as a form of test and how they would react. He says in the Qur'an, which means:
“And certainly, We shall test you with something of fear, hunger, loss of wealth, lives and fruits, but give glad tidings to the patient ones.” [Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:155]; Or do you think that you will enter Paradise before Allāh tests those of you who fought (in His Cause) and (also) tests those who are As-Sabirun (the patient)?” [Surah Al-Imran, 3: 142] ; “You shall certainly be tried and tested in your wealth and properties and in your personal selves.”[Surah Al-‘Imran, 3: 186]; “Who has created death and life that He may test which of you is best in deed. And He is the All-Mighty, the Oft-Forgiving.” [Surah al- Mulk, 67:2]
In order to face the trials and tribulations of this world with calmness, we need to realize that everything happens by the permission of Allāh Almighty. Allāh Almighty says in the Quran what means:
“And with Him are the keys of the unseen; no one knows them except Him. And He knows what is on the land and in the sea. Not a leaf falls but that He knows it. And no grain is there within the darkness of the earth and no moist or dry [thing] but that is [written] in a clear record.” [Surah Al-An‘am, 6:59]
Indeed, Allāh has power over all things; and the reason why He allows diseases and calamities in a particular situation is beyond our comprehension and for reasons that may not be apparent. Yet, out of His infinite wisdom and mercy, He wants only what is best for us:
“Their Lord gives them glad tidings of a Mercy from Him, and that He is pleased (with them), and of Gardens (Paradise) for them wherein are everlasting delight.”
[Surah At-Tawbah 9:21]
Believers must try to view both good fortune and bad fortune with an equal temper of mind. The ultimate good they are going to get is certainly in the hereafter.
Prophet Muhammad (Sallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam-Allāh’s blessing and peace be upon him) said:
"How wonderful is the affair of the believer, for his affairs are all good. If something good happens to him, he is thankful for it and that is good for him. If something bad happens to him, he bears it with patience and that is also good for him."
[Recorded by Muslim]
Islām teaches that the life of this world is indeed a trial, and what is most beneficial to us ultimately is the good we do. Allāh Almighty Says:
“In order that you may not be sad over matters that you fail to get, nor rejoice because of that which has been given to you. And Allāh likes not prideful boasters.”
[Surah Al-Hadid 57:23]
In his Tafsir, Ibn Kathir said the verse, “In order that you may not grieve at the things over that you fail to get, nor rejoice over that which has been given to you.” means, ‘We informed you of Our encompassing knowledge, recording all things before they occur and creating all things in due measure known to Us, so that you may know that what has met you would never have missed you and what has missed you would never have met you. Therefore, do not grieve for what you have missed of fortune, because had it been destined for you, you would have achieved it.’
The phrase “came to you” means “which has been given to you.” Both are interrelated.
The phrase: “And Allāh likes not prideful boasters.” means, ‘who acts arrogantly with other people’. This indicates that Allāh Almighty reminded ‘the believers’: ‘Not to boast before people about what Allāh has favored you with, because it is not you who earned it by your efforts. Rather, all this came your way because Allāh destined them for you and provided them for you as provisions. Therefore, do not use what Allāh has granted you as a reason to boast and become arrogant with others.’
Ikrimah, a renowned scholar, said, "Every one of us experience happiness and grief, nevertheless, make your joy with gratitude and endure your grief with patience.''
Prophet Muhammad (Sallallāhu 'alayhi wasallam) also said: "No misfortune or disease befalls a Muslim, no worry or grief or harm or distress — not even a thorn that pricks him — but Allah will expiate for some of his sins because of that." [Recorded by Al-Bukhari]
We, humans are weak beings; and our first inclination is to weep and wail about our situation, but God, Who is Most Merciful, promises us that after every hardship there is relief: “So verily, with the hardship, there is relief.” [Surah Ash-Sharh, 94:5]
When struck by illness or injury, believers put their trust in God, and are satisfied with whatever God has decreed for them. And at the same time, they pray to their God for the amelioration of the condition, while resorting to the means of remedy available to them.
It is not uncommon for people suffering from debilitating diseases or terrible disabilities, to thank God for their condition, or speak of the way pain and suffering brought blessings and goodness into their lives. When we are feeling utterly helpless and distressed, God is our only refuge. When pain and suffering become unbearable, only God can send us the means of relief.
Complete trust in God and total submission to His will enable a person to peacefully accept all the conditions this world brings — the good and the hard, as well as the exciting and utterly distressing.
Islām teaches that the suffering of this world is a means of our purification; and indeed, God is there to reward us abundantly in the hereafter for our losses and pains.
Believers never lose hope; they trust in the eternal benevolence and mercy of Allāh the Almighty, as He says in the Quran:
“On no soul doth Allāh Place a burden greater than it can bear.” [Al-Baqarah, 2:286]; “My mercy extends to all things.” [Al-A‘raf, 7:156]
Allāh's mercy is all-pervading, and He fulfills the smallest need of the lowest creature in the most unexpected ways.
We must also accept the calamities and misfortunes are among the signs which Allāh uses as a reminder to mankind. Allāh the Almighty says:
“And whatever of misfortune befalls you, it is because of what your hands have earned. And He pardons much” [Al-Shura, 42:30]; “Whatever of good reaches you, is from Allāh, but whatever of evil befalls you, is from yourself” [Al-Nisā’ 4:79]
It is also a test upon us whether we show mercy and compassion to the victims, poor and needy and to provide assistance to them, because the Prophet (Sallallāhu 'alaihi wa sallam) said:
Show mercy, you will be shown mercy.” [Recorded by Imām Ahmad]; “Those who are merciful will be shown mercy by the Most Merciful. Have mercy on those who are on earth, and the One Who is in heaven will show mercy to you.” [Recorded by Abu Dawūd; At-Tirmidzi]; “Whoever meets the need of his brother, Allāh will meet his needs.” [Recorded by Al-Bukhari; Muslim];
Ibn Abi Hatim and Ibn Jarir recorded that Umm Salamah (radiyallāhu`anha), said that the Prophet (Sallallāhu `alayhi wasallam) used to supplicate: ‘Ya muqallibal-qulubi, thabbit qalbi `ala dinik (O Controller of the hearts make my heart steadfast in Your religion).” Rasulullah (Sallallāhu `alayhi wasallam) then recited: Rabbana la tuzia’qulubana ba’ daiz hadaitana wahab Lana min laduñ karahmah; Iñnaka an tal wahhāb. (Our Lord! Let not our hearts deviate (from the truth) after Thou have guided us, and grant us mercy from Thou. Truly, Thou are the Bestower.) (Al-’Imran, 3:8) [This is recorded by Muslim and At-Tirmidzi]
The core of the faith in Islam is tawhid and taqwa : the submission to Allah. All other deeds form as part of taqwa and tawhid. Without proper tawhid there would be no fear of Allah. If we fear Allah, and love Him the most, this should lead us to be closer to Him. Otherwise, our claim is not valid or incomplete. Our taqwa and fear should be up to the level. So tawhid is the essence of the message of Allah. He sent the Prophet, (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam), with this message and made him an example for us to emulate and follow. Consequently, tawhid (almutab'a) by following the Prophet, (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam), is part of submission to Allah.
Allāh Subhānahu wata‘ala, says: "Verily, the Abrar (pious and righteous) will be in Delight (Jannah). And verily, the Fujjar (the wicked, disbelievers, sinners and evildoers) will be in the blazing Fire (Hell)." [Al-Infitar, 82:13, 14]
Anas Ibn Mālik (radiyallāhu’anhu) who said: “The supplication most often recited by Rasūlullāh (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wasallam): Rabbana-ātina-fid-dunya hasanah, Wa fil-ākhirati-hasanah, Wa-qina-‘ādzabānnār (O Lord! Bestow upon us in this world that which is good and in the Hereafter that which is good, and save us from the punishment of the Fire).’” (Al-Baqārah 2:201) [This is recorded by Al-Bukhāri, Muslim, and Tarmidzi]. Tarmidzi (rahimullāh) said: “Hasanah is very comprehensive and includes in all kinds of good and benefits of this world and of the Hereafter. Good health, wealth and satisfaction of the world and good status in Jannah, forgiveness from sins and Allāh’s bounties and favours in both worlds are included in this duā’” [ Jāmi’ At-Tarmidzi]
'Abdullah bin Mas'ud (radiyallahu ‘anhu) reported that the Prophet (Sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam) used to say: "Allahumma inni as’alukal-huda wat-tuqa wal-‘afafa wal-ghina (O Allah! I ask You for guidance, piety, chastity and self-sufficiency)". [Recorded by Muslim].
The du'a contains four words, the meanings and implications of which constitute its essence. These words are guidance, piety (fear of Allah), chastity and sufficiency. Guidance here means guidance at every turn of life and steadfastness on the path of truth. Fear of Allah is the greatest means of piety and strongest defense against sins. Chastity is the state of being free from what is unlawful. Self-sufficiency is the antonym of poverty and here it means the self-contentment. What it implies is that one should not care for what people possess. In view of all these qualities, the du’a of the Prophet (Sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam) mentioned in this Hadith is very comprehensive and valuable.
And Allāh Almighty knows best.
[Via On Islam dated 28th November, 2011with minor modifications]