Why does God allow suffering?

From WikiAhmadiyya, the free encyclopedia on Islam and Ahmadiyyat

This article discusses why God allows evil and suffering to occur. 


Evolutionary need for suffering

Ironically, the question of suffering is often taken up as a criticism of God by atheists who claim to follow science, whereas biologists long ago formed the theory that 'survival of the fittest' (ie suffering) is necessary for the evolution of any species to a higher form and for the development of life. As evolutionary biologist and staunch atheist, Richard Dawkins, himself explains:

During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.

Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life

According to evolutionary biologists, suffering 'must be so'. The fourth Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community addressed the issue from a Quranic perspective:

"Blessed is He in whose hand is the kingdom, and He has power over all things; It is He Who has created death and life that He might try you - which of you is best in deeds; and He is the Mighty, the Most Forgiving." (Quran 67:2-3)

The answer to the question 'Why is there suffering?' is clearly implied in this verse in its widest application.

The profound philosophy of life and death, the innumerable shades in between, and the role they play in shaping life and improving its quality are all covered in the above verse. It is the very scheme of things that God discloses here. We know that life is only a positive value, and death merely means its absence, and no sharp border exists separating one from the other. It is a gradual process, the way life travels towards death and ebbs out, or from the other direction we view death travelling towards life gaining strength, energy and consciousness as it moves on. This is the grand plan of creation, but why has God designed it so? 'That He might try you - which of you is best in deeds', is the answer provided by the Holy Quran.

It is the perpetual struggle between life and death that subjects the living to a constant state of trial, so that all who conduct themselves best survive and gain a higher status of existence. Herein lies the philosophy and the machination of evolution as described in the verses above. It is this constant struggle between the forces of life and the forces of death which provide the thrust to the living to perpetually move away from death or towards it. It may result either in the improvement or deterioration in the quality of existence in the wide spectrum of evolutionary changes. This is the essence and spirit of evolution.

Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge & Truth

Small amounts of suffering may prevent greater suffering

The human body has been designed with receptors that can feel pain. Far from being a form of divinely inflicted misery, these prove extremely useful to human survival. For example, if they are exposed to water - or any substance - that is dangerously hot, they reflexively move away from that substance and so in this instance pain saves the human skin from damage.

Suffering Human-made

The majority of suffering around the world is caused by humankind. For example, the wars of the 20th century killed tens of millions of innocent people needlessly. These World Wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1949) had nothing to do with God or religion and rather consisted of humans inflicting needless suffering upon one another. Similarly, other forms of suffering caused by economic injustice, crime or damage to the environment are caused by man - against the instructions of God as found in the Quran. In fact, God can be considered to protect us from the most widespread forms of suffering. For example, for thousands and millions of years God has protected the planet from meteors and other destructive events that could have long ago wiped out humankind -  or even life altogether.

Solutions to suffering worse than suffering itself

One obvious solution to human-made suffering at least would be for God to remove the ability of humans to act evilly. However this would require the removal of all choice from human endeavors. Any moral actions by humans could no longer be considered good deeds, because they would have no choice to act otherwise. Most would reject such a scenario and prefer liberty - even with the risk that some humans behaving evilly. 

Another form of suffering is losing those we love; our longing for those who have passed away causes us to suffer. A solution would be for humankind to lose the ability to love. Again, most would reject this scenario, as one famous poet writes:

I hold it true, whate'er befall;

I feel it when I sorrow most;

'Tis better to have loved and lost

Than never to have loved at all.

Alfred TennysonIn Memoriam A.H.H.

Suffering necessary to appreciate joy

Suffering could only be considered objectionable if it were created as an independent entity with no meaningful role to play in the scheme of things. But without the taste of suffering or an awareness of what it means, the feeling of relief and comfort would also vanish. Without an encounter with pain and misery, most certainly, joy and happiness would lose all meaning. Indeed the very existence of life would lose purpose, and the steps of evolution would stop dead in their tracks.

Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge & Truth

Islamic perspective

Islam teaches that humans should endeavour not to cause any suffering and should instead relieve the suffering of others:

[The virtuous] fulfil their vow, and fear a day the evil of which is widespread. And they feed, for love of Him, the poor, the orphan, and the prisoner, Saying, ‘We feed you for Allah’s pleasure only. We desire no reward nor thanks from you.

- Quran 76:8-10

Show kindness to parents, and to kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbour that is a kinsman and the neighbour that is a stranger, and the companion by your side, and the wayfarer

- Quran 4:37

The orphan, oppress not, And him who seeks thy help, chide not

- Quran 93:10-11

The Messenger of Allahsa has ordered us to visit the sick, to follow the funeral (of a dead believer), respond to the sneezer (i.e., by saying to him: Yarhamuk-Allah after he says: Al-hamdu lillah), to help those who vow to fulfill it, to help the oppressed, to accept the invitation extended by the inviter; and to promote greetings.

- Bukhari

See also