M: "Glorified be God who is above committing evil."
A: "No, glorified be God in whose dominion nothing occurs without God's permission."
M: "Does God will that God be disobeyed?"
A: "Could God be disobeyed against God's will?"
M: "If God denies me guidance and decrees my perdition, does God commit a good or an
A: "If God denies you something that belongs to you, then God commits an evil act. But if God denies you something that belongs to God, then God simply singles out for God's mercy whomever God pleases."
The problem of evil, especially human suffering, exercised classical Muslim theologians as much it does Western philosophers, theologians and scientists today. The issue then was basically the same as it is now: If God is All-Good and All-Powerful, how do we explain the existence of evil? The theological school known as Mu'tazilism emphasized God's all-goodness and argued that since God is All-Good, God cannot be the source of evil. Rather, it is humans who inflict suffering on other humans, entirely on their own. In fact, the Mu'tazilites argued, beyond the original act of creation, humans are not at all dependent on God to do what they do but actually create their own acts! By contrast, the Ash'arite school emphasized God's All-Powerfulness and argued that if God did not control all the affairs of the universe, something other than God could bring about things that went against God's will. For them, whatever occurs had to occur because God willed it. Otherwise, God would be neither All-Powerful, in complete control, nor, ultimately, God.
Both schools sought to absolve God of responsibility for evil. The Mu'tazilites did this by placing evil human acts entirely outside God's power and wholly in the hands of humans (which left them to explain things like earthquakes, floods and cancer). The Ash'arites, meanwhile, argued that if God is truly the All-Powerful Owner of the universe, God must be able to do with creation as God pleases, and no one can sit in judgment over what God does with God's own "property." In fact, the Ash'arites accused the Mu'tazilites of fudging the issue by falsely privileging the human perspective on what actually constitutes good and evil. They denied that humans were the center of some objective moral universe and pointed out that every moral judgment that humans might make could be matched by an opposite judgment by other humans. In this context, human suffering might be evil from the perspective of humans. But this would be no more an objective basis for indicting God than would be the argument of plants and animals against humans for eating them!
Of course, such arguments did not satisfy everyone. The founder of the Traditionalist school once asked rhetorically: If God is wholly unconnected to evil, what role can God play in lifting it? The Maturidite school, meanwhile, went even further. Not only did its founder accept that God could create evil, he actually turned evil's existence into a proof of God's existence! According to him, had the universe come into being on its own, it would have produced nothing that jeopardized its integrity or well-being. Thus, the very existence of evil implies autonomous choice on the part of something that stands outside the system -- God. Yet, while God can, according to the Maturidites, create evil and human suffering, God cannot and does not create evil that does not ultimately serve a wise purpose.
In all of this, Muslim theologians never isolated a single attribute of God (All-Powerful, All-Good, All-Wise, All-Merciful) as the sole basis of God's actions. While Mu'tazilites privileged God's all-goodness, this was tempered by their recognition of God's wisdom, power, autonomy, patience and other attributes. Ash'arites appear stoic in privileging God's all-powerfulness, but only if they are seen as negating God's goodness, mercy, justice and other attributes. In fact, when Ash'arites speak of God's ability to do whatever God pleases, they are only speaking of what God can do. What God actually does will be based not solely on God's brute power but on the total composite of God's attributes. The same applies to Traditionalists and Maturidites.
This strikes me to be perhaps among the most important differences between classical Muslim and many modern, non-Muslim Western discussions on evil and suffering. While the latter seem to isolate a single attribute -- all-goodness, all-lovingness, all-powerfulness -- and decide the issue on that basis alone, the former simply emphasize a single attribute but cling to a more complex composite of divine "character." In this light, the mere existence of evil and suffering could not dispose of the God question. For even if every instance of human suffering could tell us something about the existence and nature of God, every instance of human happiness and well-being must tell us something of equal proof-value about the nature and existence of a complex, multifaceted Creator.
Muslim theologians summed up this dual reality in the notion of living life between the two poles of hope and fear -- hope that the irresistible choices of an all-powerful God would be ultimately tempered by mercy, compassion and love, and fear that they might not. Of course, the very notion of fear is a major problem for religious discourse today, as "organized religion" has so notoriously used it to exploit and subjugate believers. But just because one is paranoid does not mean that one is not being followed. In the end, we are all afraid, if not of God, death, and eternal damnation then of the earthly Hell of loveless objectification, disrespect and nobodyness, a fear that can subject us to régimes of fantasy and exploitation no less debilitating, and no less blasphemous, than religious tyranny and treachery.
But is theology in the end really a match for the brutalities and disappointments of life -- an earthquake, the death of a child, 9/11, the betrayal of a friend, spouse or sibling, the seemingly schizophrenic turning of one's entire society against one? In these moments, it seems to matter little whether one is a Mu'tazilite, Ash'arite, Maturidite or Traditionalist. For, while good theological answers may empower one to understand catastrophe, understanding alone is rarely enough to neutralize the pain of loss or regret. What I need here is solace and reconciliation with the fact of my creatureliness; the courage, honesty and dignity to acknowledge that I am not in control; yet the insight and fullness of soul to see in the enormity of what has happened that I am just as eligible for enormous good as I am for enormous tragedy. Here my reach is ultimately for something "outside the system," something capable of breaking all the rules, of defying the laws of probability and chance -- for me! This is the beginning of the theological impulse.
Yet, while, the theological impulse, however crude, may be the beginning of my relationship with God, it is only the beginning. And I must be careful not to mistake the menu for the meal. Whether I emphasize God's goodness or justice, God's power or wisdom, these mental abstractions will only take on concrete meaning for me in the context of my actual relationship with God. Ultimately, if the real goal of theology is to promote a living relationship with God and not simply to paint a pretty picture of God, perhaps the real value of what it has to say about evil and suffering resides not so much in how it mars or enhances idealized images of God but in how it enriches or impoverishes the human relationship with God.
For a more detailed look at Muslim theology, see my On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam (Oxford, 2002) or, especially on suffering, my Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering (Oxford, 2009).