This is an edited excerpt from an interview with Shaykh Faraz Rabbani (SFR) by Dr Shadee ElMasry (SM) of Safina Society. The discussion is wide-ranging, but begins with the question of good and evil in Islam. You can watch the entire interview here.
SM: I don’t think the Christian theologians have done much to answer this question. But the Muslim theologians, not only have they answered the question, they’ve actually transformed it into an immense blessing and a spiritual subject that revives your spirituality in such a way that is unbelievable. And that subject is evil.
If God is so merciful why do all these bad things happen to people? Why is it that people cannot reconcile the idea that the Creator has mercy and the concept that bad things happen to them? That’s what we’re going to explore today.
The Definition of Good and Evil
Uthman: The first question that we have would be: what is the definition of Good and Evil in Islam? Do we have a conception? For example you have something that’s Haram and something that’s Halal. Now, something that is halal, would we consider that to be the essence of good itself? And something that’s Haram – is that evil? Are these two the fiqh definition? And this other definition of Good and Evil, are they separate from each other?
SFR: So if we can just step back just a little bit from that. Very often things only make sense if you understand why they are the way they are. If you come to a building and you’re trying to enter from all over. What’s up with this structure? I can’t get in. But you understand that a building needs walls. There’s a door. If you want to get in just go to the door. But then you get to the door and it’s not opening. Well, there’s a buzzer. So you kind of need a little bit of instruction so that you know how to get into the building. That’s not being unfair because a building without walls wouldn’t exist.
Similarly, to understand many of these things, one of the challenges with Islam, for us as Muslims, is that there are rules and teachings related to everything. Things don’t make sense unless you understand why they are the way they are. A lot of people pray yet they don’t really consider: why am I praying? Or this is what I believe, but why do I believe what I believe?
Hardships and Tribulations
The first thing to appreciate regarding rules. Growing up I was really lazy. I wouldn’t do anything unless I knew why. You’d have to convince me. – Someone says: Get me a glass of water. Why do you need water? – It’s actually a good thing to ask. We shouldn’t hesitate to ask. Very often depending on our upbringing we’re told not to ask too many questions. Or we fear that if we ask it is somehow not right.
The first thing to appreciate is: Who is Allah and why there are rules. One of the simplest ways is if you look at what we open all our actions with. “We say Bismillah al Rahman al Rahim.” By the name of Allah, the All-Merciful and the particularly Merciful. If you consider that. Who is Allah himself? He is the the All-Merciful, al Rahman. His Mercy encompasses everything and that includes both what He creates – there’s Mercy, and what He [legislates], what the rules of Islam are, there’s Mercy in them.
The difference [is] between Allah being al Rahman, the encompassingly merciful, and al Rahim, the particularly merciful. One of the ways that’s explained is that the particularly merciful relates to the believer. That whatever happens to you, or whatever the ruling is, the mercy is found if you respond to it as a believer.
Allah being al Rahman, encompassingly merciful. Everything, even creating, is Mercy. Because if you didn’t exist – I mean there’s nothing possibly worse than not existing – but once you exist as a Believer you can attain Allah’s Mercy by responding as a Believer to any particular situation. Whether it’s what happens to you or a particular ruling that appears to be difficult or disadvantageous. “I did something wrong now I have to…”
Let’s say, if I slandered somebody, I have to apologize and clarify to people that I shouldn’t have done that. “Why’d I have to do all of that? Where is the mercy in it?” The mercy in it is if you realize: “How exactly do I respond to it?” That’s how we view even the most difficult of rulings.
Existence Is a Mercy
Uthman: So, a question that you brought up was existence itself being a mercy. A lot of people I who face depression don’t see it that way. I’m also reminded of the story of Miriam when she’s giving birth. She said: قَالَتْ يَـٰلَيْتَنِى مِتُّ قَبْلَ هَـٰذَا وَكُنتُ نَسْيًۭا مَّنسِيًّۭا – “O, I wish I had died before this and were gone, forgotten.” [Quran 19:23] Why would she be making this dua or this wish if she knew that to exist was a mercy?
SFR: It’s not unusual to feel overwhelmed. When one does feel overwhelmed there’s a difference between your reaction and your response. Sometimes, at the moment of being overwhelmed you may react in a way that is just the beginning of your response. That’s one of the ways the scholars of tafsir have explained that. That’s just the beginning of her response.
You see that with many of the Sahaba, Allah be pleased with them. Even some of the great prophets, peace be upon them. That’s just part of the weakness of the human condition. The reality is that Allah tells us the human being has been created weak.
Part of our weakness is that when we initially look at something it can seem huge, overwhelming, unbearable. But if we stop and reflect and consult, if we contextualize it and consider outcomes, then, we can see the reality that Allah does not burden any soul beyond its capacity.
In those situations where things seem overwhelming, that’s natural because life is meant to be testing. How you initially feel is not rejected. That’s your initial reaction. But then you do have to step back – consider, consult, contextualize, and then you see wisdom in the way things are. That helps you respond in a way that you can see the mercy in it very clearly.
Our Relation to Allah
SM: I would add that Surah al A‘raf [Quran 7:1-206] gives us so much. It builds upon what you just said. I want to point everyone to what you just said. Mercy is if you act upon or react to a tribulation as a believer. So it is around verse 54, 55, and 56. It begins by describing Allah Most High as the Creator. The creator of the heavens and of the Earth. Then He says this creation is all His – أَلَا لَهُ ٱلْخَلْقُ وَٱلْأَمْرُ – “Clearly, the creation and the command are His,” [Quran7:54] which is an extremely important reminder about what justice is and what justice isn’t.
If this is mine, and this is mine, and my phone is mine, and the ring is mine, nobody can tell me what to do with it. There’s never an injustice in how I handle my own possessions. That’s the first thing. لَهُ ٱلْخَلْقُ وَٱلْأَمْرُ – “the creation and the command are His,” and the Sharia [the command] being His Law.
It then calls for drawing near to Allah by dua. ٱدْعُوا۟ رَبَّكُمْ تَضَرُّعًۭا وَخُفْيَةً – “Call upon your Lord meekly and softly.” [Quran 7:55] Call upon Him in good times and in bad times. Loudly and silently. In every possible way. That’s how you’re going to fulfill your position as a creation. You fulfill your position by praying to this Creator. That’s the relationship.
Now, verse 56 is so important. وَلَا تُفْسِدُوا۟ فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ – “Don’t corrupt the earth.” [Quran 7:56] Meaning, the vast majority of bad things that happen are caused by humans. It’s us who do them. And someone says, well, what about the Hurricanes that happen in Florida and destroy so many homes? Hold on a second, you don’t know that hurricanes happen there? You live there. You took your own self and you went there. So, even in natural disasters, it’s something that human beings in a sense are part of.
It’s maybe not our direct fault, but setting that aside, the corruption of human beings is a large source of a lot of diseases and problems.
بَعْدَ إِصْلَـٰحِهَا وَٱدْعُوهُ خَوْفًۭا وَطَمَعًا ۚ إِنَّ رَحْمَتَ ٱللَّهِ قَرِيبٌۭ مِّنَ ٱلْمُحْسِنِينَ
“…after it is made right. Call upon Him with fear and hope. The mercy of Allah is near those who do good.” [Quran 7: 56]
Another reminder. This is an ayah that’s so important. If people are asking: where is the mercy here? Where is the mercy there? Allah says, if you want to know where the mercy is in anything you can’t find it if you are not in a spiritual state of ihsan. To cite what some secularists may say, Einstein said, You cannot solve a problem with the same mentality by which it was created.
So, if your consciousness and your mentality has a certain level, that’s the reason the problem exists in the first place. You can’t solve it at that same level. You actually have to elevate your consciousness to a higher level now to be able to see this from a bird’s eye view. Move a couple pieces. Then, you realize what’s going on. You physically have to change your spiritual state completely in order to see the wisdom behind something. And see the mercy.
Allah pointed to that two times in this series of ayahs. Make dua. Make dua. And dua, what does it require? It requires a great amount of humility. It requires belief. It’s ‘ibada. It’s all actually ‘ibada. So, I think it’s important to say that the first point you made here: Evil tends to be something people find no mercy in. Yet Allah tells you you will find mercy in it, but you have to change yourself first. You have to become one of the مُحْسِنِينَ – those who do good.
This Is Not the Meal
SFR: Part of it is also that if you look at things just from the perspective of this life, life itself is brutal. You’re going to die. There’s nothing more final than death. It’s a losing proposition. But things only make sense if you consider that this isn’t your life. You have a hereafter, personally. Secondly, you have a Lord. And you have to consider who Allah is.
Ibn ‘Ata Illah al Sikandari, one of the Great imams of Islamic spirituality says: “Let It diminish the pain of your tests, your tribulations, to know that it is He, Allah, who is testing you. Are you accustomed to anything from him except that which is good to you?”
So, sometimes, when there is a test rather than immediately reacting: this happened! You have to kind of pause and take things back to Allah. Which is why one of the deeply neglected acts of remembrance is to say: إِنَّا لِلَّهِ وَإِنَّآ إِلَيْهِ رَٰجِعُونَ – “Truly we are Allah’s and truly it is to Allah that we are returning.” [Quran 2:156] This is said not only at the time of death.
Allah says: ٱلَّذِينَ إِذَآ أَصَٰبَتۡهُم مُّصِيبَةٞ – “Those whom a misfortune befalls…” [Quran 2:156] That relates to when you hear about death, about anything else. If something happens. You get sick, you lose your eyesight temporarily, or whatever. You have to realize: Truly we are Allah’s and truly it is to Allah that we are returning.” He is the merciful and as believers we know there’s a hereafter.
We also have to understand that this life is an exam room. Anything you get in this life is like snacks during your exam. It’s an add-on. The reward, the good that you find, is not in this life. It’s in the next life. That’s also important to appreciate. Ultimately, the good that you’re seeking, the comfort that you’re seeking, the joy that you’re seeking is not in this life. That‘s just an add-on.
Well, while writing in the exam I get to drink some coffee. There’s some water. There’s some snacks. But that’s not the meal.