COVID-19 and Problem of Evil
There seems to be no clear end to the COVID-19 pandemic as yet.
In fact, the world over, including in Malaysia, we are only beginning to experience its effects and aftermaths in various forms, economy included.
It was reported recently that from January to mid July this year, 64,495 Malaysians have become jobless.
Unemployment as well as other related socio-economic woes is expected to worsen if the pandemic continues to halt or decelerate many economic activities.
It is often the case that in situations such as the one we are currently experiencing, many people who are badly affected will begin to raise questions pertaining to what the philosophers in the West generally refer to as “problem of evil.”
The problem essentially concerns the dilemma one faces in reconciling one’s firm belief in a good Creator with the factual presence of bad things in His creation, whatever they are.
To my mind, the problem with the aforementioned problem is the tendency of its propagators to understand evil as being both moral (i.e. the one caused by free human actions) and natural (i.e. the one caused by natural disasters such as pandemics, earthquakes, and floods) whereas what is really involved is the way one looks at things.
The issue therefore pertains not so much to the actual trouble as to the problem of worldview and mindset.
Given the right mindset and perspective, the problem won’t exist, at least not in the sense it has been held in the West from time immemorial.
As far as a Muslim is concerned, his entire life in this world with all its ups and downs is trials by Allah the Almighty.
The Qur’an renders explicit this fact in the first and second verses of surat al-Mulk (the 67th chapter of the Qur’an): “Blessed is He in Whose hand is the Sovereignty, and, He is Able to do all things. Who hath created life and death that He may try you which of you is best in conduct; and He is the Mighty, the Forgiving.” (Pickthall’s translation)
Furthermore, the Qur’an is also replete with reminders that a believer on account of his or her profession of faith shall be tested, not once but many times; for instance, in the 29th chapter, surat al-ʻAnkabut, in verses 2 and 3, Allah reminds: “Do men imagine that they will be left (at ease) because they say, ‘We believe,’ and will not be tested with affliction? Lo! We tested those who were before you. Thus Allah knoweth those who are sincere, and knoweth those who feign.” (Pickthall’s translation)
Thus, in the Worldview of Islam, it is held that whatever a person undergoes in his life, be the experience pleasant or painful, is a test.
As such, one cannot conclude that any calamity which befalls one is inherently bad, as if by such a happening one becomes disliked or cursed by one’s Creator.
On the contrary, what is held as determining whether one is blessed or not is not the happening itself but one’s own attitude and position in relation to such happening, regardless of whether it causes one to be joyful or hurts one.
It is hence an established teaching in Islam that a Muslim is expected to behave properly, both inwardly and outwardly, as per the occasion he or she is in.
As Imam al-Ghazzali had emphasised more than nine centuries ago in his magnum opus Ihyā’ ‘Ulum al-Din, patience (sabr) and gratitude (shukr) being signs of faith are its two halves.
When a believer is endowed with anything that pleases him, he should be ever grateful to Allah; yet, when pain is inflicted on him, he should exercise patience.
What he should continue committing himself to in either case, though, is doing what is good and avoiding what is bad, whether in thought or in deeds.
In fact, insofar as one’s salvation and real happiness are concerned, it is one’s exemplification of thankfulness (shukr) or patience (sabr) as befits one’s situation that really matters.
As reported by the Companion Anas ibn Malik, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, once said: “How wonderful is one who has faith in Allah (al-mu’min)! Nothing is to be which Allah has decreed for him (be it pleasant or otherwise) except that it shall be good (khayr) for him.”
Indeed, according to an account by al-Tabarani, the same companion relates: “When Allah loves a people, He afflicts them with trials.”
In another narration by al-Hakim, the Companion Abu Sa‘id al-Khudri asked the Prophet: “Which people are tried the most?” The Prophet answered, “The Prophets (al-anbiya’).” Abu Sa‘id then asked, “And after them?,” to which the Prophet replied, “Those possessed of knowledge (al-‘ulama’).” The former continued, “And then?” The latter responded by saying “Good people (al-salihun).”
It is in relation to the aforementioned that the great sufi master of the Shadhiliyyah Order, Shaykh al-Darqawi (d. 1823), said in his 134th letter, “Indeed, trials are proportionate to the spiritual station (maqam) as indicated . . . (by the above noble saying). But—by Allah—that does not mean that He abandons them or neglects them; quite the opposite, this is proof of a grace that He bestows upon them! It is a favour, a benefit and a great gift from Allah to them.” (The Spiritual Teachings of the Prophet: Hadith with Commentaries by Saints and Sages of Islam by Tayeb Chouiref, published by Fons Vitæ, p. 31)
Similarly, according to al-Tabarani, the Companion ibn ‘Abbas related a saying from the Prophet: “Whoever does not consider trial (al-bala’) as a blessing (ni‘mah) and ease (al-rakha’) as a misfortune (musibah) is not amongst the accomplished mu’min (one who really believes in Allah).”
Amidst the present trial in the form of COVID-19 pandemic, it is indeed important for Muslims to bear all the above-mentioned in mind!