Bismillaah ir Rahmaan ir Rahiim
In the name of Allah, The Merciful, The Compassionate
Remarks on Evil, Suffering, and the Global Pandemic
By Seyyed Hossein Nasr
The general problem of evil is a subject about which many books have been written
for thousands of years and much of great depth has been said already. It also
became very critical with the rise of modernism in the sense that a lot of people in
the West and even in Western Christianity in general have left religion because they
could not answer the question, "If God is good, why is there evil in the world which
is created by Him?" Many variations of this question thus permeate both Western
philosophy and Western literature, not to speak of Christian theology.
The Islamic perspective on the problem of evil is in general very different from
what one finds in the mainstream in the West. You cannot find Muslims who turn
against God because of the presence of evil in the world; and the few who do are
Westernized Muslims who think that to be fully modernized and Westernized, one
should also have the same "pains" in facing the world from which many Westerners
suffer. Such Muslims do not turn to their own tradition's intellectual and
spiritual resources to deal with this issue, such as the remarkable and also diversified
discussions in the writings of al-Ghazali, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Ibn Sina,
Ibn ʿArabi, and others. These authors always deal with the problem of evil on the
basis of their complete acceptance that God is real and that He is good. Thus, their
attempts to solve the problem of the existence of evil did not affect their belief in
the reality of God. With these words in mind, allow me to now delve into this very
contentious and difficult issue.
First of all, let us ask the question, "What is evil?" Let me point out that in the
Islamic tradition, a common word for "evil" is the Arabic term qubḥ; the word that
is opposed to it is ḥusn or "goodness." But these terms, moreover, also mean "ugliness"
and "beauty," respectively. Thus, from the Islamic point of view, you could
say that goodness is that which is beautiful and evil is that which is ugly.
The dualism of pre-Islamic Iranian religions such as Zoroastrianism, that is,
dualism between good and evil as two independent realities, between Ahura Mazda
and Ahriman, works perfectly well on the ethical and practical level, but not so on the metaphysical level, for there cannot be two Divine Principles. This explains
why there have been certain metaphysicians and Sufis in the Islamic world who
have gone so far as to say that there is no evil in the ontological sense. Rumi, for
example, speaks about this issue and defends it; but one must understand what he
means. Since the Divine, the Absolute (al-muṭlaq
), who is also the All-Good, is
ultimately all that there is and there is no evil in It, evil as such does not exist. This
is what Rumi and others mean when they say there is no evil. In the Absolute, there
is only the Absolute; there is nothing else. A famous Hadith tells us that "God was
and there was nothing with Him" (kāna Allāh wa-mā kāna maʿahu shayʾun
to this saying the Islamic metaphysicians add, "And it is now as it was" (wa'l-ān
So evil does not have the same ontological basis as does goodness.
From the metaphysical point of view, there is therefore no equivalent ontological
juxtaposition between good and evil.
Nevertheless, if there is no evil per se in the absolute sense, that does not negate
the fact that evil is real on the level of relative existence, which is that of this
world. Otherwise, the Qur'an would not affirm the reality of some form of evil on
practically every other page, such as when it warns man not to perform evil acts.
Evil is as real as the shadow under a tree beneath which a person sits in order to
protect himself from the sun. This shadow does have an ontological reality, but it is
essentially the absence of light. On the plane of the relative, evil is as real as we are
as fallen human beings; but on the level of the Absolute, it is as unreal as we are.
Now, there is also this point to add about which the Sufis have always spoken,
and which is the most important way to understand why there is evil. If we conceive
of God as Light - after all He Himself says that He is the "Light of the heavens
and the earth" (Qur'an 24:35)
- and we conceive of Him as the Light of lights (nūr
), as we move away from It, the illumination of this Light becomes less
and less, and darkness becomes more and more pervading until we get so far from
the source of Light that there is only darkness. But darkness is not a substance,
as is light. Darkness is simply the absence of light. Evil is seen in Islamic inner
teachings in this way. Only God is Good, but He also creates. Creation implies
separation - separation from the Source - and that separation means the gradual
weakening of the Light of the Divine Sun. The crystallization of this separation is
what we call "evil." To understand in depth this one principle is to understand everything
about the root of the existence of evil in this world of separative existence.
Ultimately, evil is the result of separation from the good: Dante said so beautifully
in the Divine Comedy that evil is separation from God. On the human plane,
being the ordinary human beings that we are, we live in separation from God, which is why evil is as real as we are. If there were no separation from God, there
would be no creation and no evil. Creation implies limitation - limitation because
of separation from that which is Absolute and Infinite, hence limitless. From this
separation there arises evil in various forms.
We must at the same time be careful not to trivialize evil, which is one of the
great errors of modernism. It not only relativizes both good and evil in denying the
Absolute as well as the relatively absolute, but often denies the ultimate significance
of both by relating them simply to social norms and the like; that is, rather
than denying evil on the level of the Absolute, this tendency in question seeks to
deny it on the level of the relative. Yet denying evil on the level of relativity is like
absolutizing the relative, which is of course the cardinal sin of modern atheism
from a theological point of view and an error from the metaphysical point of view.
I have in mind here those people who say that everything is relative, except of
course their statement that everything is relative.
How remarkable it is that Islamic thought, even before modern times, was fully
aware of the problem of relativizing the relative which derives its reality from
the One who alone is Real, and also the problem of confusing the relative with
the Absolute. This view is totally different from what some sages such as Frithjof
Schuon have called, as just mentioned, the "relatively absolute," namely the manifestation
of the Absolute in a relative way that retains something of that absoluteness
in it. An example of this reality would be the Qur'an itself. There is something
absolute about it as revelation coming from God, the Absolute. There are no other
books that compare to it; yet the Qur'an is not the Absolute as such, but a reality that
reflects the Divine Reality and the Will of God. Only God is the Absolute.
Allow me to come back to the question of beauty and ugliness, for it is not a
superficial matter. One of the most remarkable features of traditional civilizations
is the presence of so much beauty and so little ugliness. The stable in which Christ
was born was much more beautiful than any one of these modern churches built on
M street in Washington, DC; there is no doubt about it. That is why we go and visit
those old sites which were simple, even stables where horses or animals were kept.
This idea of the centrality of beauty was especially strong in Islam, where you have
the famous Hadith, "God is beautiful, and He loves beauty."
So our whole attachment
to God involves God's beauty and also love. If you love God, you must love
what God loves, and thus you must love beauty. Islamic civilization was remarkably
successful in creating things of beauty, from the carpets on which people sat
to the minarets from which the call to prayer was made, and nearly all the objects,
buildings, and surfaces in between.
From the Islamic point of view aesthetics and ethics are not separated from
each other; although evil has to do with ethics, whereas ugliness has to do with
aesthetics, the two are closely related. This is totally different from the view that is now prevalent in many religious circles in the West and even to some extent in
some parts of the Islamic world where Muslims have done a good job in matching
Westerners in building ugly mosques, not to speak of other elements from interior
design to everyday utensils. Traditionally, goodness was also associated with
the beauty of the soul and evil with its ugliness. Even in English when one says,
"I did something ugly" or "This was an ugly act," it refers to an evil act and not a
A comment is also in order concerning our responsibility before evil. In Islam,
we are always responsible for our actions. If something happens for which we are
not responsible, we will not be judged by God for its consequences. The question
of responsibility involves not only the act itself but also the conditions in which
the act is performed. What is evil? It is what we know to be evil and nevertheless
commit with our free will. If we had no free will, we could not commit evil. So the
question of responsibility in relation to evil is very important, and this fact necessitates
saying something about knowledge. Without knowledge, there cannot really
be evil; we have to know what is good and bad before being responsible for our
actions, which is why all sacred scriptures emphasize this point so much. We have
to know what God wants of us. Without this knowledge, one would be innocent;
ignorance is innocence in this sense. However, we are also required to try to not be
ignorant, which takes us back to responsibility.
I now turn to the question of suffering. One might say that suffering comes
ultimately from separation from God. When we were in Paradise, close to God,
we did not suffer; suffering comes from separation from who we really are, from
our fiṭra or primordial nature. We have fallen on earth and have fallen away from
who we are really, but nevertheless we carry something of that reality within us.
The whole of the religious life is based on us seeking to return to the real us, to
how God created us. Suffering thus has to do with a loss of identity in a sense,
more than anything else. That is the height of it. With it comes all other forms of
suffering human beings experience: physical pain, psychological pain, economic
suffering, wars, pestilence, etc. There is, however, a very important difference in
the use and interpretation of this universal human experience in the religious life,
and this reality is important to mention these days because, despite the prevalence
of secularism for many Westerners, Christianity is still the dominant religion and
Christian ethics and ideals are still prevalent even among secularists.
Christ suffered in a way that the Prophet of Islam did not. The Prophet also suffered,
but Christ suffered on the cross. He suffered excruciating pain, and the image
of Christ in the Christian mind - the cross being the sacred symbol of Christianity - is that of Christ suffering. Has one ever seen a picture of Christ laughing on
the cross? The famous paintings of Velazquez, Michelangelo, or even Giotto are
scenes of Christ's life where Christ is smiling. But on the cross He is suffering; He
is in pain, sometimes with His head down. And so, suffering plays a special religious
role in Christianity that it does not in Islam. Moreover, Buddhism shares this
perspective to some extent with Christianity, paying specific attention to the fact
that this world is characterized by suffering, although images of the Buddha himself
are characterized by the state of bliss rather than pain. For Muslims, therefore, suffering does not pose the same theological significance as it does for Christians,
although it is considered to be a part of human life.
Some people suffer more, some less; some people know why they suffer, some
do not; and so on. In any case, we must remember that ordinary human beings
only know so much of the trajectory of their lives - they do not really know what
came before and they do not know what is going to come after. We cannot judge
our relationship with God and His Presence or the lack thereof in our lives only in
relation to what we remember of the acts that we have performed or not performed,
since this type of awareness concerns only a small part of the trajectory of our lives
that extends to before our coming into this world and after our departing from it.
When Muslims think of the Prophet, they think of all the difficulties he had, all the
problems that he and his Companions faced. But they do not identify his life essentially
with suffering. The Prophet came to bring knowledge of the One (lā ilāha
), as he said, "Say, 'There is no god but God,' and be saved."
That is it.
That was his message. He came to the world to reveal that basic truth. Everything
else in Islam comes from this one teaching concerning the reality of God and our
relation to Him.
Spiritually speaking, suffering should always be an occasion for us to draw
closer to God. The word dard in Persian, which can mean "pain" or "suffering,"
was often used by Sufis in a positive sense. There are many Sufi texts about this
matter, and there is even a famous Sufi poet of India whose takhalluṣ or penname
was Dard. Suffering should always have a spiritual element connected to it. We
should accept pain and suffering as part of our destiny and should not rebel against
Heaven because we suffer and question God by asking why if one is good do bad
things happen to him or her, and the like. This type of attitude is prevalent in the
modern world, but it is an error from the Islamic point of view. God knows best -
He has created us. Suffering should bring us closer to Him.
This brings me to the final issue, namely the pandemic. The pandemic is a very
concrete lesson about what I have already discussed. From the human point of
view, yes the pandemic is evil. But from the point of view of the viruses that created
the pandemic, it is not evil at all because it is the expansion of their kingdom.
And I hate to say this, but with respect to the preservation of the natural
environment, the pandemic has not been negative. Yes, we are sad that several
million people have died. Yet we should also look at how much waste several
million people can create over a period of two years. It is very tragic to say it, but
we human beings are living in such a way that our very existence is a danger to
the continuation of life on earth, and the pandemic should first and foremost be a
reminder to us that we are not the lords of nature. Nature can play the same game,
and little viruses that mean nothing to you can outwit you and rob you years of a
healthy life, leaving even the best scientists unable to do something about them. In
helping us to realize our limited power over nature, the experience of the pandemic should also remove some of the hubris of the modern natural sciences which has
percolated into the whole of modern society. It should bring about a sense of humility.
This triumphalism which has been wed to modern science since before the time
of Galileo in the early 17th century needs to be changed, as it is very dangerous for
human life and the future of the earth.
With this humility should come an awareness of how precious life is, of how
we usually take everything for granted. Three years ago, when we walked in
the street we did not constantly think about viruses, wear masks, wash our hands, wipe
down surfaces, etc. The suddenness of the pandemic alone should make us more
humble and should make us realize that life is not to be taken for granted. It is one of
the great sins of modern man that he takes existence itself and all the blessings
that God has given to him for granted, thinking that it is his right to exist and have
blessings, and always wanting more. He should rather ask himself these questions:
"Did I create myself?" No. "Can I make my own liver?" No. "What did I do that
makes me who I am?" Nothing. Yes, he eats to make his body grow; but even
when he eats, he does not know how his body grows. The cells in his body that are
absorbing the food, applying the oxygen, and so forth are not under his control;
they are performing their own functions according to their nature. These observations
are important to keep in mind in order to bring about within us an appreciation
of the preciousness of life and along with it a sense of inwardness. You cannot
have happiness by relying only on outward factors, as the outward world around
you might crumble at any moment. We have to find our joy within ourselves. "The
Kingdom of God is within you," Christ said, and the Prophet said, qalb al-muʾmin
, "The heart of the faithful is the Throne of the All-Merciful."
Finally, the experience of the pandemic should bring about in us greater tawakkul,
greater reliance upon God and less reliance upon the absoluteness of human
will and capability. This is not to say that we should not rely on the gifts which
God has given to us, because the fact that we can do something itself comes from
God. I use the Arabic term tawakkul, the idea of total reliance upon God, because
it is so important in Islam. What is negative, what belongs to the shadows, namely
the evils of the pandemic, can also bring about some good. There is nothing in life
that happens from which one cannot draw a positive lesson, and happy are those
whom God allows to do so.
For an exposition of this saying, see ʿAyn al-Quḍāt, The Essence of Reality: A Defense of Philosophical Sufism,
ed. and trans. Mohammed Rustom (New York: New York University Press, 2022), 111–113.
See the commentary upon this verse in Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Caner Dagli, Maria Dakake, Joseph Lumbard, and Mohammed Rustom (eds.), The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary
(New York: HarperOne, 2015), 878–880.
Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, Musnad, in Jamʿ jawāmiʿ al-aḥādīth wa'l-asānīd wa-maknaz al-ṣiḥāḥ wa'l-sunan wa'l-masānīd
, vol. 12 (Vaduz: Jamʿiyyat al-Maknaz al-Islāmī, 2000), # 386.
Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal, Musnad
, # 16,871.
For an exposition of this Hadith, see Seyyed Hossein Nasr, "The Heart of the Faithful Is the Throne of the All-Merciful," in Paths to the Heart: Sufism and the Christian East
, ed. James Cutsinger (Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2004), 32–45.
Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal. Musnad
. In Jamʿ jawāmiʿ al-aḥādīth wa'l-asānīd wa-maknaz al-ṣiḥāḥ
, vol. 12. Vaduz: Jamʿiyyat al-Maknāz al-Islāmī, 2000.
ʿAyn al-Quḍāt. The Essence of Reality: A Defense of Philosophical Sufism
. Edited and translated by Mohammed Rustom. New York: New York University Press, 2022.
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. "The Heart of the Faithful Is the Throne of the All-Merciful." In
Paths to the Heart: Sufism and the Christian East
, edited by James Cutsinger, 32–45.
Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2004.
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Caner Dagli, Maria Dakake, Joseph Lumbard, and Mohammed
Rustom (eds.). The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary
. New York: