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Is God Merciful? Islam’s Response to Evil & Suffering (Part 1 of 5)


Is God Merciful part 1 of 5.pngWhen I was a child,
my parents would always chide me for trying to drink my grandfather’s whisky.  You
can imagine, an active and inquisitive young child observing his grandfather
sip this thick, gold, smooth liquid.  I wanted some! However, every time I
attempted to secretly drink the enticing beverage, I would get into big trouble. 
I never understood why, thus negative thoughts about my parents would race
through my mind.  Fast-forward many years: I now realise why they didn’t allow
me to drink my grandfather’s whisky, it could have poisoned me.  A 40 percent
volume alcoholic drink would not have been pleasant on my young stomach or
liver.  However, when I was younger, I did not have access to the wisdom that
formed the basis of my parents’ decision, yet I thought I was justified in my
negativity towards them.

This sums up the atheist attitude towards God when
trying to understand evil and suffering in the world (note: this doesn’t
apply to all atheists
).  The above story is not intended to belittle the
suffering and pain that people experience.  As human beings we must feel
empathy and find ways of alleviating people’s hardships.  However, the example
is meant to raise a conceptual point.  Due to a valid and genuine concern for
human and other sentient beings, many atheists argue that the existence of a
powerful and merciful[1] God
is incompatible with the existence of evil and suffering in the world.  If He
is The-Merciful, He should want the evil and suffering to stop, and if He is
All-Powerful, He should be able to stop it.  However, since there is evil and
suffering, it means that either He is not powerful, or He lacks mercy, or both.

The evil and suffering argument is a very weak one
because it is based on two major false assumptions.  The first concerns the
nature of God.  It implies that God is only The-Merciful and All-Powerful,
thereby isolating two attributes and ignoring others that the Qur’an has
revealed about God.  The second assumption is that God has provided us with no
reasons for why He has allowed evil and suffering to exist.[2]  This is
not true.  Islamic revelation provides us with many reasons for why God has
allowed evil and suffering to exist.  Both assumptions will be addressed below.

Is God only The-Merciful and All-Powerful?

According to the Qur’an, God is Al-Qadeer,
meaning the All-Powerful, and Ar-Rahmaan, meaning The-Merciful,
which also implies compassion.  Islam requires that mankind know and believe in
a God of power, mercy and goodness.  However, the atheist grossly misrepresents
the comprehensive Islamic conception of God.  God is not only The-Merciful and
All-Powerful; rather, He has many names and attributes.  These are understood
holistically via God’s oneness.  For instance, one of His names is Al-Hakeem,
meaning the The-Wise.  Since the very nature of God is wisdom, it follows that
whatever He wills is in line with Divine wisdom.  When something is explained
by an underlying wisdom, it implies a reason for its occurrence.  In this
light, the atheist reduces God to two attributes and by doing so builds a straw
man, thereby engaging in an irrelevant monologue.

The writer Alom Shaha, who wrote The Young
Atheist’s Handbook
, responds to the assertion that Divine wisdom is an
explanation for evil and suffering by describing it as an intellectual cop-out:

“The problem of evil genuinely stumps most ordinary
believers.  In my experience, they usually respond with an answer along the
lines of, ‘God moves in mysterious ways.’ Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Suffering is
God’s way of testing us,’ to which the obvious response is, ‘Why does he have
to test us in such evil ways’ To which the response is, ‘God moves in
mysterious ways.’ You get the idea.”[3]

Alom, like many other atheists, commits the fallacy
of argumentum ad ignoratium, arguing from ignorance.  Just because
he cannot access Divine wisdom does not mean it does not exist.  This reasoning
is typical of toddlers.  Many children are scolded by their parents for something
they want to do, such as eating too many sweets.  The toddlers usually cry or
have a tantrum because they think how bad mummy and daddy are, but the child
does not realise the wisdom underlying their objection (in this case, too many
sweets are bad for their teeth).  Furthermore, this contention misunderstands
the definition and nature of God.  Since God is transcendent, knowing and wise,
then it logically follows that limited human beings cannot fully comprehend the
Divine will.  To even suggest that we can appreciate the totality of God’s
wisdom would mean that we are like God, which denies the fact of His
transcendence, or implies that God is limited like a human.  This argument has
no traction with any believer, because no Muslim believes in a created, limited
God.  It is not an intellectual cop-out to refer to Divine wisdom, because it
is not referring to some mysterious unknown.  Rather, it truly understands the
nature of God and makes the necessary logical conclusions.  As I have pointed
out before, God has the picture, and we have just a pixel.

Although I empathise with their concern and anguish at
the suffering inflicted on fellow sentient beings, some atheists suffer from a
veiled type of egocentrism.  This means they make special effort not to see the
world from any perspective other than through their own eyes.  However, in
doing so, they commit a type of emotional—or spiritual—fallacy.  They
anthropomorphise God and turn Him into a limited man.  They assume that God
must see things the way we see things, and therefore He should stop the evil.  If
He allows it to continue, He must be questioned and rejected.

The problem of evil and suffering argument exposes a
cognitive bias known as egocentrism.  Such a person cannot see any perspective
on a particular issue apart from their own.  Some atheists suffer from this
cognitive bias.  They assume that since they cannot possibly fathom any good
reasons to justify the evil and suffering in the world, everyone else—including
God—must also have the same problem.  Thus they deny God, because they assume
that God cannot be justified for permitting the evil and suffering in the world. 
If God has no justification, then the mercy and power of God are illusions.  Thus,
the traditional concept of God is nullified.  However, all atheists have done
is superimposed their perspective on God.  This is like arguing that God must
think how a human thinks.  This is impossible because human beings and God
cannot be compared, as God is transcendent and has the totality of wisdom and


The problem of evil and suffering argument has been expressed in a number of
different ways.  Some of the arguments use the words good, merciful, loving or
kind interchangeably.  Despite the varying use of words, the argument remains
the same.  Instead of using the word good, terms like merciful, loving, kind,
etc., can also be used.  The problem of evil assumes that the traditional
concept of God must include an attribute that would imply God does not want
evil and suffering to exist.  Hence, using alternative words like merciful,
loving and kind do not affect the argument.

This assumption has been adapted from Professor William Lane Craig’s treatment
on the problem of evil.  Moreland, J.  P.  and Craig, W.  L.  (2003).  Philosophical
Foundations for a Christian Worldview.  Downers Grove, Ill, InterVarsity Press. 
See chapter 27.

Shaha, A.  (2012) The Young Atheist’s Handbook, p.  51.


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