Evil and Suffering

What do we know about Good and Evil?

What do we know about Good and Evil? (Abdus Salam Madsen) Before I venture upon answering the question as to what we know about good and evil from an Islamic point of view, I feel I have to elucidate the meanings of the words “know”, “good”, and “evil”. I do not intend to use the word “to know” in a specific religious sense, even if such a significance existed separately. Islam rejects all kinds of dualism — or should we say: splitting up or doubling reality, and therefore a consequent and internally coherent monotheism. The Persian-Greek dualism of body and soul, earth and heaven, light and darkness, good and evil has certainly left its stamp on the monotheistic Semitic religions, which we are considering this evening. I am only called upon to speak on Islam, which has also received its share in the course of history of that contamination or pollution which is termed dualism — and which is really a kind of shirk, of polytheism. But Muslims have succeeded in keeping themselves cleaner than the two other religions. Whatever the results of historical corrosion, I am endeavouring to keep clear of it and stick to the original and unequivocal teachings of the Quran: “All perfect praise belongs to Allah Who has created the heavens and the earth and produced light and darkness — but then the disbelievers put up partners to their Lord. . . He is God in the heavens and on the earth. . . (al-An’am, chap. 6) He has created all things and gave all things their measure of progressiveness. (al-Furgan ch. 25). God has created man with his reasoning faculties and his sense apparatus, and he has equally revealed religion: science and religion derive from the same source and therefore cannot be but in consonance. Whatever we know from one field must be confirmed by what we know from the other, because there can be no contradiction in the being or essence of the One, Indivisable God — nor in His attributes or predicates. He is One and Unique and His creation is one and the laws that govern this creation are reducable to one, however multiple they may appear. In the end different formulas will be reduced to a single formula, and this work of reduction is really the effort of all true science. 20 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS Science expresses itself in factual statements about reality: such and such is the case — whereas moral statements do not intend to predicate anything about reality, they do not say what things really are, but rather how they should be, how they ought to be according to a system of personal subjective values. This dichotomy of human knowledge or perception of reality is really that kind of dualism or cultivation (and worshipping) of two principles which we have aimed at. It may even be a pluralistic attitude which is only a reflection of polytheism in a more refined philosophic garb, but nevertheless — when robbed of its finery of expression — the same old polytheism. Islam underlines as we have said unity and monotheism. In being monotheists we try to take monotheism seriously and demand that it is taken in all seriousness in all aspects of life and existence. There is only One God, and no different “gods” or principles who govern different areas. Everything has its source in One God, and a moral statement therefore deals with reality in the same way as any other meaningful sentence. When man ought to act morally, we must needs be able to explain to man that what he ought to do is basically what is useful and beneficient to him and spells progress and development for all the capacities still unfolded that are included in his nature and only await a transformation from being human instincts to being human and humane moral qualities of a high order. Certain orthodox (or traditional) Muslim Theologians have been infected with dualism and have raised the question: is good good because God so wills? Or: does God will it, because it is good? As they think and believe that nothing whatsoever-— and not a moral evaluation either — could stand above God, they consider it as an expression of right belief that God arbitrarily puts down something as good and something as evil — just as He likes — without the least consideration for human understanding or explanation and without taking into His revelation to make it conceivable for human knowledge. Formulated this way it all sound very pious and God fearing, but in reality it is a rejection of God’s knowledge and wisdom that necessarily adhere to Him — just as much as power and sovereignty adhere to Him. The problem is a would-be problem, and not a real one. It can only arise in a context where there is an a priori split between God and man, in a kind of Deism where God does not communicate and where the fact is ignored that man is created to realize the likeness of God. What God has created is good •— that could be said, but it is a fact that when humans use the words “good” and “evil” they apply them to things and persons and acts. So a Muslim would answer that things and persons are created directly by God, whereas an act (although created) as always earned and therefore belongs to man: “We have certainly created man in the best shape.” (Tin ch. 95). WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT GOOD AND EVIL? 21 On the basis of this verse we cannot say that man is created good or evil, but that he is created with all possibilities of a good development (or an evil degradation — all according to circumstances). For a good development — if it brings into useful application all the Godgiven abilities and capabilities of its nature according to their predetermination. For degradation if the same nature or form is misused or abused in contradiction of Divine predetermination (which is essentially know through Divine revelation). Good is beneficial, whereas evil is harmful: so in the Quran we often find a parallel between useful and good on one side — and evil and harmful on the other. “Direct your full attention to religion or righteousness in sincerity to God and in true honesty: It is the true nature as created by God, and wherein He created man. There is no changing Divine creation: this is the true and eternal religion, even if the majority does not know.” (Rum ch. 30). According to Islam there is no radical change in life-conditions since creation. Since the time “when everything was just good”. No cosmic Sin has appeared, and no inherited Sin come into existence. God says: “I have only created men — high and low — that they should worship Me by realizing My attributes.” (Dhariyat ch. 51:57). If we return to what was said about knowledge as one kind of knowledge, we are now in a position to add: Knowledge exists in its perfect form on in God. What we humans know is simply a reflection, an imperfect picture of Divine Knowledge. So it is also under the law of development, it is never absolute or static, it must progress — step after step. In the same way good and evil are not absolute. The absolute good is God Who is the Only True Reality. The absolute evil is non-existant. Therefore devil or shaitan or iblis in the Quran is never “the Prince of this world” as in Christian scripture, but only a being or rather beings who have their definite place and function in the creational order of God •—• by being at work (along with good powers or angles) in enabling man to effectuate his free choice between good and evil. It is common-talk and almost (theoretically) unopposed that war is evil, and peace is good — although it means an absolutization morally of the two cases. Now for what the Quran says about war: “It is prescribed for you to fight, even if it is abhorrent to you. But it may be that you detest something, that is really good for you, and it is just possible that you love something which is evil for you. And Allah knows, whereas you don’t know. 22 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS They ask you about fighting in the forbidden month. Answer: Fighting in it is a serious matter, but to keep people away from the way of God and to reject Him and the Holy Mosque and to drive its people out is even more serious in the eyes of Allah, And persecution is more serious than battle.” (al-Baqara ch. 2). If it is possible to say it in a more lucid way, then please turn to: “Permission to fight is given to those, against whom battle is already waged, because they were persecuted, and because they were driven out of their home without any other cause than they said: Our Lord is only Allah . . . And Allah has certainly the power to help them. If it wasn’t like that, that Allah repelled some people by the help of others (i.e. by giving them permission to defend themselves) then churches and cloisters and synagogues and mosques in which the name of God is much commemorated, would definitely have been pulled down. (al-Hajj ch. 22). Another quote that helps us to realize that we should never render moral categories absolute, but place them in their proper setting according to time and demand, we find just after our first passage on war quoted from chapter 2: “They ask thee concerning wine and games of chance: tell them: in both there is much harm, but also different kinds of advantages to men. But their harm is always bigger than the benefit, you can derive from them.” Things are not good or evil in themselves. Use for the benefit of men is termed “good” — their misuse to the harm of yourself or others we term as “evil”. There is always a graduation in good evil. The text we just quoted proceeds to give an instance of how just a graduation can be summed up in a single very meaningful Arabic word: “They ask thee concerning what they should spend in the cause of God or good. Answer: What you can spare — and then: that which is best — and finally: you should spend in such a way that you voluntarily give out of your property without being asked to do so. This triple-partition of good in spending is all contained in the same Arabic word al’afw. Another example of graduation is found in the following Quranic verse that is repeated in the second part of all Friday sermons because of its enormous importance in being the most general exposition of Islamic morality: Allah commands you that you first act in accordance with justice and equity —• then in reciprocating with a bigger amount of good than you have yourself received — and finally: that you come to the point of doing WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT GOOD AND EVIL? 23 good instinctively like a mother to her child without expecting anything as a reward or appreciation. (16:91). The same verse then follows up with three different grades of evil, so as to enable us to limit the evil gradually, systematically and in a disciplined way. As we read: “And Allah forbids you: evil thoughts (that are a source of all other evil) and then what is manifestly evil (seen by others, but not harming them directly) and finally that which is a real transgression against others. In the case of evil: Baghy or transgression against others, whether on life, property or rights, we have (not a private moral problem but) a juristic problem, which man is obliged to try to confine. Moral transgressions are not punished by man, but by God through the moral law instituted by Him: Whosoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it, and whosoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it. (Zilzal ch. 99). Here we must needs add that God is the Lord and Master of His own Order and His own Law, as that He can forgive to whomsoever He wills. He is not a simple judge, He is Master of Judgment and the One Whose mercy comprehends everything, and Who created the world to manifest His mercy. If we are confronted with a direct assault against the person, properties or rights of others — it is definitely our task to repel, to judge and to reestablish order in this world. The Quran prescribes in certain extreme cases very severe punishment — and this is often criticized with great lack of understanding and appreciation — but here we are dealing with the principles of Islamic law, not with certain particulars. We find that the Quran does not teach any vindictiveness nor any extreme forbearance, but strikes a medium tone in upholding the harmony and good order of society. We are not considering revenge or justice as an absolute demand, neither does the appeal for forgiveness have any absolute weight in our deliberations. Our reason and discerning faculties are to be applied in every case to their limits (and God does not impose upon us a burden that is unbearable). The following verse is clear and conducive to a real human and humane attitude: The punishment of evil should be in accordance with the gravity of the crime — but he who forgives and thereby reforms a transgressor, has a duty to do so and deserves thereby a special reward from God, for God does not love those who apply retribution and forgiveness in wrong places. (shura ch. 42). If my readers should have a desire to go deeper in this direction of the Quran, the whole context in Sura al-Shura should be taken into account. Then 24 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS you would—I am sure—really come to appreciate the deep philosophy of the Quranic injunctions both morally and juristically — and you would find that every command or prohibition or advice is based on reasoning and arguments. To elaborate this would lead us away from our sufficient •— so I choose to conclude with a verse that also reveals some of the philosophy of the Quran in this respect, namely: “He has only prohibited you that which dies of itself and blood and the flesh of swine and that which is sacrificed to any other than God. But whoever is forced by circumstances and does not desire the prohibited or transgress the limits of the barest need — on them there rests no sin, for Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” As we have already said: “Allah does not emburden a soul beyond its capacity.” (al-Baqara ch. 2). That is exactly why we can sum up all true Islamic morality in the words: “Good and evil are not equal. Repel or react always with what is best.” (Ha Mini Sajda 41:45). Bear in Mind Keep your thoughts clean of all petty things. Do not fill your mind and yourthinking with disagreeable thoughts. To stand still is to go back. When you give to others you are opening the way for more and greater blessings to be bestowed upon you. Success is generally due to holding on, and failure to letting go. True’wealth is not what you restate a mounts to but what you amount to. The workshop of character is everyday life. Of all the things you wear your expression is the most important.

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