How can there be evil if God is merciful?On November 17, 2020 by Usama
As soon as one disentangles “harm” from “evil” the dilemma falls apart…
Harm is a subjective experience of an event. For instance… The beautiful cosmic trace left behind from a dying star may be pleasant in the eyes of one beholder, meanwhile “on the other end”, the spectacle might have been the last spark of a civilisation unknown to the first observer. This example illustrates how the same event can be perceived in an entirely different manner according to the personal significance that each observer associates with the outcome.
In order to decide whether something is evil or not it isnt sufficient to have insight about the harm that has come about. A part of the assessment deals with the relationship between the outcome and the preceding cause. Whenever there is an intentional actor orchestrating a harmful outcome we become more prone to understanding the outcome as an example of evil conduct. If harm occurs without being preceded by an intention it is usually regarded as “unfortunate” eventhough the amount of harm may not differ. For instance… A driver that unintentionally runs over a person has caused harm but is probably not considered evil although the calamity is obvious.
Intentions thus seem to matter, still not all intentions that precede a harmful action are deemed equal in weight. If we consider a scenario where one entrepreneur drives another entrepreneur owner out of business, it matters a lot whether the outcome was caused by fair competition or if a part of the rivalry was resolved using unlawful means. Furthermore the definition of “fair” can differ from one ideological standard to the other. In short one can deduce that incidents of similar appearance can have different “moral weight”.
Evil is a different concept altogether since it implies that the observers position makes no difference. Evil is used to describe harmful events where it is assumed that the outcome is in no way justifiable – this is however a falsifiable statement and many things that intuitively are considered evil are understood from the vantage point of evolutionary biology as versatile additions to the behavioural repertoire of our species.
The difference between harm and evil is more important than one might realise at first. There is no instance of something being considered evil without that thing first being either harmful or expected to cause harm if it were to follow an expected trajectory. Nothing is either good or bad if you are a rock. Therefore, every discussion of evil is in reality a discussion of the distribution of harm and of how the beings who are concered with the harm are to understand the events and subsequently cope with the situation. At a broader level, the discussion on a societal or a civilisational level has to do with mitigation, revitalization and the efforts required in order to decrease the likelihood of similar future events.
Our personal beliefs about harmful outcomes matter…
From the Islamic perspective it is accepted that life comes with trials and tribulations whilst at the same time it is accepted that with every such occurrence there is a way forward although the difficulty of the terrain may vary. Islam not only regards one’s personal experiences as a type of trial, it also suggests that there are trials that come about from the impact that other people have on our lives. There is for instance a trial of patience for the one stricken by a debilitating condition but there is as well a trial of generosity, kindness and self-sacrifice for the significant others who have to deal with their share of the situation. What Islam does is that it speaks to the victim(s) of the harmful act since their perspectives determine the “weight” of the incidence.
The islamic concept of trial does not only deal with harm. Islam also views pleasant events as a different type of trial where the adequate response differs from the one required for coping with tragedy. The idea of events in life being different types of trials means that the only distinction between harmful events and pleasant events is that the latter type of trials may appear lighter to bear. Islam however dispels this notion by declaring that the difficulty of ones trials will be taken into account once the life one has lived ultimately is scrutinized.
Islams solution to “the dilemma of evil” avoids getting entangled in the vague distinction between harm and evil since Islam rejects the idea of a life entirely free of suffering. From the Islamic vantage point it is not equally important to ask “Why does God allow X to exist” as it is to ask “How can we aspire to living a meaningful life despite having been the victims of X” and also asking “How can society minimize the number of incidents of X”.
About the content
Modern societies are a noisy mess composed of the intersections between a plurality of needs, instincts, desires and hopes. Within this shared space people of all varieties seek ways of settling their differing outlooks – the outcomes are often to the benefit of some and the detriment of others. The texts on this blog are my personal effort of trying to make sense of the friction within human society.