Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Problem of Suffering: Muslim Theological Reflections

Hi everyone!

Apologies for the EXTREME delay... And unfortunately I haven't come back with a post of my own but rather an article of an outstanding professor I thought I'd like to share with you all, it might as well be the beginning of a stronger come-back from me to the world of blogging!

It's quite a heavy piece of writing and I had to read it a few time to grasp its complete meaning, but Professor Sherman A. Jackson couldn't have said it better on the Huffington Post:

"M: "Glorified be God who is above committing evil."
A: "No, glorified be God in whose dominion nothing occurs without God's permission."
M: "Does God will that God be disobeyed?"
A: "Could God be disobeyed against God's will?"
M: "If God denies me guidance and decrees my perdition, does God commit a good or an evil act?"
A: "If God denies you something that belongs to you, then God commits an evil act. But if God denies you something that belongs to God, then God simply singles out for God's mercy whomever God pleases."

The problem of evil, especially human suffering, exercised classical Muslim theologians as much it does Western philosophers, theologians and scientists today. The issue then was basically the same as it is now: If God is All-Good and All-Powerful, how do we explain the existence of evil? The theological school known as Mu'tazilism emphasized God's all-goodness and argued that since God is All-Good, God cannot be the source of evil. Rather, it is humans who inflict suffering on other humans, entirely on their own. In fact, the Mu'tazilites argued, beyond the original act of creation, humans are not at all dependent on God to do what they do but actually create their own acts! By contrast, the Ash'arite school emphasized God's All-Powerfulness and argued that if God did not control all the affairs of the universe, something other than God could bring about things that went against God's will. For them, whatever occurs had to occur because God willed it. Otherwise, God would be neither All-Powerful, in complete control, nor, ultimately, God.

Both schools sought to absolve God of responsibility for evil. The Mu'tazilites did this by placing evil human acts entirely outside God's power and wholly in the hands of humans (which left them to explain things like earthquakes, floods and cancer). The Ash'arites, meanwhile, argued that if God is truly the All-Powerful Owner of the universe, God must be able to do with creation as God pleases, and no one can sit in judgment over what God does with God's own "property." In fact, the Ash'arites accused the Mu'tazilites of fudging the issue by falsely privileging the human perspective on what actually constitutes good and evil. They denied that humans were the center of some objective moral universe and pointed out that every moral judgment that humans might make could be matched by an opposite judgment by other humans. In this context, human suffering might be evil from the perspective of humans. But this would be no more an objective basis for indicting God than would be the argument of plants and animals against humans for eating them!

Of course, such arguments did not satisfy everyone. The founder of the Traditionalist school once asked rhetorically: If God is wholly unconnected to evil, what role can God play in lifting it? The Maturidite school, meanwhile, went even further. Not only did its founder accept that God could create evil, he actually turned evil's existence into a proof of God's existence! According to him, had the universe come into being on its own, it would have produced nothing that jeopardized its integrity or well-being. Thus, the very existence of evil implies autonomous choice on the part of something that stands outside the system -- God. Yet, while God can, according to the Maturidites, create evil and human suffering, God cannot and does not create evil that does not ultimately serve a wise purpose.

In all of this, Muslim theologians never isolated a single attribute of God (All-Powerful, All-Good, All-Wise, All-Merciful) as the sole basis of God's actions. While Mu'tazilites privileged God's all-goodness, this was tempered by their recognition of God's wisdom, power, autonomy, patience and other attributes. Ash'arites appear stoic in privileging God's all-powerfulness, but only if they are seen as negating God's goodness, mercy, justice and other attributes. In fact, when Ash'arites speak of God's ability to do whatever God pleases, they are only speaking of what God can do. What God actually does will be based not solely on God's brute power but on the total composite of God's attributes. The same applies to Traditionalists and Maturidites.

This strikes me to be perhaps among the most important differences between classical Muslim and many modern, non-Muslim Western discussions on evil and suffering. While the latter seem to isolate a single attribute -- all-goodness, all-lovingness, all-powerfulness -- and decide the issue on that basis alone, the former simply emphasize a single attribute but cling to a more complex composite of divine "character." In this light, the mere existence of evil and suffering could not dispose of the God question. For even if every instance of human suffering could tell us something about the existence and nature of God, every instance of human happiness and well-being must tell us something of equal proof-value about the nature and existence of a complex, multifaceted Creator.

Muslim theologians summed up this dual reality in the notion of living life between the two poles of hope and fear -- hope that the irresistible choices of an all-powerful God would be ultimately tempered by mercy, compassion and love, and fear that they might not. Of course, the very notion of fear is a major problem for religious discourse today, as "organized religion" has so notoriously used it to exploit and subjugate believers. But just because one is paranoid does not mean that one is not being followed. In the end, we are all afraid, if not of God, death, and eternal damnation then of the earthly Hell of loveless objectification, disrespect and nobodyness, a fear that can subject us to régimes of fantasy and exploitation no less debilitating, and no less blasphemous, than religious tyranny and treachery.

But is theology in the end really a match for the brutalities and disappointments of life -- an earthquake, the death of a child, 9/11, the betrayal of a friend, spouse or sibling, the seemingly schizophrenic turning of one's entire society against one? In these moments, it seems to matter little whether one is a Mu'tazilite, Ash'arite, Maturidite or Traditionalist. For, while good theological answers may empower one to understand catastrophe, understanding alone is rarely enough to neutralize the pain of loss or regret. What I need here is solace and reconciliation with the fact of my creatureliness; the courage, honesty and dignity to acknowledge that I am not in control; yet the insight and fullness of soul to see in the enormity of what has happened that I am just as eligible for enormous good as I am for enormous tragedy. Here my reach is ultimately for something "outside the system," something capable of breaking all the rules, of defying the laws of probability and chance -- for me! This is the beginning of the theological impulse.

Yet, while, the theological impulse, however crude, may be the beginning of my relationship with God, it is only the beginning. And I must be careful not to mistake the menu for the meal. Whether I emphasize God's goodness or justice, God's power or wisdom, these mental abstractions will only take on concrete meaning for me in the context of my actual relationship with God. Ultimately, if the real goal of theology is to promote a living relationship with God and not simply to paint a pretty picture of God, perhaps the real value of what it has to say about evil and suffering resides not so much in how it mars or enhances idealized images of God but in how it enriches or impoverishes the human relationship with God."

Friday, 30 April 2010

4th Mensiversary

I know, I'm sorry, I've been a disappointing blogger... It's just that life can really force you to live it sometimes!

I promise May's gonna be much better, I've got a lot on my mind that needs blogging...

In the meantime, April's the month my love story was born... and hence I thought this clip just says it all, it's just absolutely hilarious! Enjoy :)

P.S. Thanks guys for the last post's comments, I'll be back to it :)

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Independence - Is It Really Good?

Once upon a time my great grandfather was a very rich man. He owned numerous lands and farms. He didn’t want his children to go to school – anything not related to farming was a waste of time. One day, due to uncontrollable circumstances, he had to leave the country he was so rich in, and come to Oman. He lost all his lands. Because he was pretty much hopeless in anything else, and barely had any friends around to help him out, he worked as a truck driver. His older kids got similar jobs – construction, driving, garbage collectors etc. while his younger kids went to school. He was married to 2 wives with 15+ kids in total, and they all had to live in a 2 bedroom apartment. That was all they could afford. Did his independence help? I don’t think so.

Taking a nation-wide example, look at Iraq. Before the war in 2003, Iraq was pretty much independent in terms of infrastructure – roads, electricity, water, telecoms. Leaving aside all the political issues, Iraq was actually doing quite well in terms of quality of service –better than the GCC at the time. The war came, and 7 years later the country’s infrastructure is still in chaos! You can say it’s America’s fault; they’re not really putting an effort. However, if Iraq wasn’t INDEPENDENTLY providing these services through its ministries – if the providers were actually international companies – America’s interference in Iraq would’ve at least respected those companies (to keep their own international relationships at peace) and the current state of infrastructure services in Iraq wouldn’t have been this hectic. Hell, it could’ve prevented the war in the first place – by way of strong opposition from the other countries (them having their stakes in Iraq at risk). So while being independent was great for a certain period of time, it made Iraq exposed to greater risks in the long run which are now materializing.
In the situations above, risks were inevitable, and being independent didn’t help – it was actually a risk in itself. And this could apply to all of you, dearest readers. Leaving aside financials, let’s look at the effects of independence from family: a major difference between the civilized world and third world countries (e.g. Oman). Individualism VS Collectivism.

For a civilised family, once the kids become adults they have to learn how to be “independent” – live alone, pay their own expenses, and simply learn life the difficult way. And they do. They grow up, get married, create their own families, and eventually become really independent from their parents – it’s OK to dump them in an elderly home (I know I’m generalizing, but I talk about the majority here). Their independence transfers to their own kids, who also put them in an elderly home when their time comes. For “civilized” parents, it’s so important to have a pension fund, to “secure” their future by financial means.

On the other hand, not too long ago a whole Omani family would live in the same house, or on the same piece of land, for 3 or more generations (i.e. with the grandparents and aunts and uncles). Knowing you’re mother’s 3rd cousin’s in-laws’ grandfather was normal (maybe because it was your own grandfather, but you know what I mean). The interesting bit is not only knowing distant relatives, but actually being able to help them out, or get some sort of support from them, when either party falls into trouble. A “sabla” – a big living room open for all men – was essential in every city. The sablaat (plural) and/or mosques provided means of communication, discussion, raising issues in society, and opportunities for INTERDEPENDENCE – not independence.

Speaking from a Muscat-raised point of view, the current situation is quite different. A married man still living in his parents’ house could be deemed a disgrace. The importance of each individual is getting highlighted (as I explained earlier) – and consequently we’re investing more of our time and money on establishing ourselves, furthering our careers, building our future to be independent rather than building stronger relationships with family members, staying in touch, and having a wider circle of friends/family (although I must admit Facebook is helping A LOT). Nevertheless, visits have become cumbersome. Slowly we’re becoming, apparently, “civilized”.

Are we sure we want to? Do we actually realize what’s going on, or are we just blindly imitating the majority? Do we believe that if we work harder and strengthen ourselves to be independent then we’d be able to overcome the major stumbling blocks in life?

I don’t. No matter how much time, money, and effort is spent on becoming better, it’ll never be sustainable – look at my rich great grandfather, powerful Iraq, or the civilized parents – although independent; they all couldn’t carry on being wealthy, powerful and satisfied. It’s worth more to spend that time, money and effort on helping family, friends and strangers. What we call, “التكافل الاجتماعي” – social solidarity.So I don’t think independence is all that, what do YOU think? Agree? Disagree? Give it to me, I want a debate!

Monday, 29 March 2010

3rd Mensiversary

So I just figured out that a monthly-anniversary is actually called a "Mensiversary"!

And it's time for my 3rd one ;)

As usual, I have these mensiversaries in order to fulfill my duties as a blogger to the bestest audience, to thank you all, entertain you and draw a smile on your faces every now and then...

This month is actually Maz Jobrani's month in Oman, so I thought putting a video of his would be suitable to raise the level of anticipation of those going to his show. So here you go! (I suggest forwarding the first minute as it's just an intro)


P.S. A mini survey: do you guys think I should continue with the "mensiversaries" or are they getting lame? Just wondering! You're opinion would be much appreciated :)

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Reminder - Earth Hour Again!

Sorry to post about the same subject again, but just a reminder that in one hour and a few minutes Earth Hour will begin... It's quite exciting and seems like Oman's government will actually join the cause (appears so from the local newspapers).

Just one hour, go on, switch it off!

Here's how 2nd Cup is participating, I thought it was a cute initiative...


Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Earth Hour

Dear all,

Saturday, 27th of March 2010, from 8.30 p.m. to 9.30 p.m. will be....

Help the world for one hour by switching off as many electrical appliances as possible. This includes lights, laptops/computers, televisions, barely-used refrigerators ;), water heaters, modems, fans, and everything that works using a switch! It's your chance to help the world, save some energy, reduce the load on those poor continuous electricity generators, and save some of the diminishing gas reserves we luckily still have... prepare yourself with some candles, chocolates, and good friends or family to have long chats with for just an hour...

I understand that if you're in Oman it could be dark, and you might feel bored and hot. However, what do people in the dark, feeling bored and hot usually do? *wink wink*

Ehem, the above does not apply to single gents/ladies...

It's only one hour out of the 8760 in a year. Try it out, it's fun!

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Closing Your Mind to Reality


She’s a Muslim who wears the scarf, but not the abaya (black cloak worn in the GCC). Her clothing, while conservative, is always colourful and stylish. She gets married. Her husband asks her to wear the abaya. She accepts, and while her personality doesn’t change, her dress-code does. She gets divorced (for unrelated reasons). She sees no reason for wearing the abaya anymore, and takes it off. Her clothing returns to being conservative yet colourful.

Her family:

Look at her. She’s a lively stylish young woman who knows how to dress up. That marriage created a siege on her personality, and constrained her freedom. Thanks to Allah she got divorced.

Her ex’s family:

Look at her. That marriage taught her to be a good Muslim, with proper ethics and decent shy behaviour – which is highly encouraged in Islam. Divorce put her back to zero, and may Allah guide her to the true path now.


The company was facing a financial crisis. If they didn’t do anything urgently, it could’ve gotten liquidated immediately. They held an abrupt meeting to discuss the problem. The 1st attendee suggested a solution. They all agreed. The 2nd attendee suggested how this solution may be implemented. They all agreed. Everyone went home with a smile on their faces.

1st attendee’s thoughts:

If it wasn’t for me, that company would’ve lost everything. I should force them to give me a promotion when this mess is cleaned up.

2nd attendee’s thoughts:

If it wasn’t for me, that solution would’ve been executed all wrong. It could’ve been a disaster. I should force them to give me a promotion when this mess is cleaned up.

A few weeks later, the company goes bankrupt.


She was beautiful and she was a star. She took good care of herself (exercise, healthy food, make-up) and she was extremely successful at work. She and her husband decided to get a baby. They got one, and she resigned from work. 2 years later, the baby is chubby, cute, and smilingly looking at his exhausted, fat, messy mother. She smiles back weakly.

Her 1st friend:

Dear God what happened to her? I feel so sorry for her. She’s lonely now; her husband is always out at work and she’s got no time to see family or friends. Plus all her previous beauty has gone away, and her successful career is forgotten. May Allah ease her pains.

Her 2nd friend:

Oh look at that adorable child she’s got. Lucky her. Her life was empty before, just a routine like any other Omani citizen. Now it’s full of love and plentiful cuteness. I wish Allah engulfs me with blessings just as her’s.

Dearest readers,

Things aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes you need a reality check to confirm your thoughts. Sometimes your thoughts seem to match the story, and the conclusion seems accurate. The biggest problem is to act upon your conclusion without ensuring that it is correct.

P.S. Apologies for posting a bit late, I’m too busy and will be even busier within the next few days! Bear with me, and soon this blog will be updated more regularly :)