Al-Ghazali’s Islamic Explanations of Evil

The 11th-century essay “There is no Evil in Allah’s Perfect World” by the Islamic Theologian Abū Ḥāmed Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī demonstrates that a single religion can offer multiple theodicies (explanations for the existence of evil). Within Christianity, one encounters all kinds of different explanations for evil. The same holds true for Islam. But of the theodicies presented in Al-Ghazali’s text, only one rings true for me personally.

The first theodicy he offers is that evil and suffering on earth bring reward in heaven (“All poverty and loss in this world is a diminution in this world but an increase in the next”). This is a commonly encountered Christian perspective as well. I find this theodicy disappointing, if not deplorable, in that it encourages people to accept misery, in hopes of something better after death. This reminds me of a similar theodicy that crops up in Hinduism, regarding reincarnation and the caste system. Some Hindus believe that you are born into a particular caste because of karma, and that you should be content with the caste you are born into, because it will help you refine your spirit and be born into a better life next time. So, if you are born into the lowest caste, and live a life of woe, you are expected to simply accept it. Others around you, who may be in a higher caste, might not make any attempts to help you, because they do not want to interfere with your karmic trajectory.

This is definitely not the way all Hindus understand theodicy, but I have encountered it often in India. Many Hindus possess an understanding that I find more “enlightened,” which is that those born to higher castes should help the lowly-born, because generosity and compassion improve one’s own karma. Such a viewpoint creates a theodicy where suffering becomes an opportunity to bring about God’s goodness. The idea of accepting evil and suffering, and hoping for a better life after death, seems to me to ignore God’s ability to work through people.

Another theodicy that Al-Ghazali offers is that “good and evil are foreordained.” This is very similar to the first idea, in that it encourages people to believe that they are destined to their fate, and so must accept their lot in the life. I object to it on the same grounds, and would encourage people who believe this theodicy to consider that all people may be predestined to strive for the good – not just for themselves, but for those around them. Such a “caveat” would open up the doctrine of predestination, shifting the focus from the impossible to the possible.

The theodicy of Al-Ghazali’s that I relate to most is one that approaches Taoist philosophy. In saying that “were it not for night, the value of day would be unknown,” he evokes the imagery of the Taoist wheel of yin-yang, illustrating the cosmos as an infinite cycle of states of opposition which cannot exist apart from each other – light and darkness, life and death, good and evil. To me, this theodicy offers a better ethic, where in understanding evil’s role in good, we comprehend our own ability to “spin the wheel” in a particular direction.

1 comment:

  1. I most agree with the Taoist philosophy as well. It is the closest to pure logic and does not inspire an acceptance of misery.