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Join him on an existential, spiritual and rational journey that articulates powerful arguments for the existence of God, the Qur'an, the Prophethood of Muhammad and why we must know, l. In The Divine Reality, Hamza Andreas Tzortzis provides a compelling case for the rational and spiritual foundations of Islam, whilst intelligently and compassionately deconstructing atheism. Hamza Andreas Tzortzis is an international public speaker on Islam. He is a writer with articles, essays and commentaries on political philosophy, the philosophy of religion and society. Hamza is an intellectual activist actively engaging on issues pertaining to religion, social cohesion and politics.
When I was a child, my parents would always chide me for trying to drink my grandfather’s whisky. You can imagine, an active and inquisitive young child observing his grandfather sip this thick, gold, smooth liquid. I wanted some! However, every time I attempted to secretly drink the enticing beverage, I would get into big trouble. I never understood why, thus negative thoughts about my parents would race through my mind. Fast-forward many years: I now realise why they didn’t allow me to drink my grandfather’s whisky, it could have poisoned me. A 40 percent volume alcoholic drink would not have been pleasant on my young stomach or liver. However, when I was younger, I did not have access to the wisdom that formed the basis of my parents’ decision, yet I thought I was justified in my negativity towards them.
This sums up the atheist attitude towards God when trying to understand evil and suffering in the world (note: this doesn’t apply to all atheists). The above story is not intended to belittle the suffering and pain that people experience. As human beings we must feel empathy and find ways of alleviating people’s hardships. However, the example is meant to raise a conceptual point. Due to a valid and genuine concern for human and other sentient beings, many atheists argue that the existence of a powerful and merciful God is incompatible with the existence of evil and suffering in the world. If He is The-Merciful, He should want the evil and suffering to stop, and if He is All-Powerful, He should be able to stop it. However, since there is evil and suffering, it means that either He is not powerful, or He lacks mercy, or both.
The evil and suffering argument is a very weak one because it is based on two major false assumptions. The first concerns the nature of God. It implies that God is only The-Merciful and All-Powerful, thereby isolating two attributes and ignoring others that the Qur’an has revealed about God. The second assumption is that God has provided us with no reasons for why He has allowed evil and suffering to exist. This is not true. Islamic revelation provides us with many reasons for why God has allowed evil and suffering to exist. Both assumptions will be addressed below.
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Is God only The-Merciful and All-Powerful?
According to the Qur’an, God is Al-Qadeer, meaning the All-Powerful, and Ar-Rahmaan, meaning The-Merciful, which also implies compassion. Islam requires that mankind know and believe in a God of power, mercy and goodness. However, the atheist grossly misrepresents the comprehensive Islamic conception of God. God is not only The-Merciful and All-Powerful; rather, He has many names and attributes. These are understood holistically via God’s oneness. For instance, one of His names is Al-Hakeem, meaning the The-Wise. Since the very nature of God is wisdom, it follows that whatever He wills is in line with Divine wisdom. When something is explained by an underlying wisdom, it implies a reason for its occurrence. In this light, the atheist reduces God to two attributes and by doing so builds a straw man, thereby engaging in an irrelevant monologue.
The writer Alom Shaha, who wrote TheYoung Atheist’s Handbook, responds to the assertion that Divine wisdom is an explanation for evil and suffering by describing it as an intellectual cop-out:
“The problem of evil genuinely stumps most ordinary believers. In my experience, they usually respond with an answer along the lines of, ‘God moves in mysterious ways.’ Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Suffering is God’s way of testing us,’ to which the obvious response is, ‘Why does he have to test us in such evil ways’ To which the response is, ‘God moves in mysterious ways.’ You get the idea.”
Alom, like many other atheists, commits the fallacy of argumentum ad ignoratium, arguing from ignorance. Just because he cannot access Divine wisdom does not mean it does not exist. This reasoning is typical of toddlers. Many children are scolded by their parents for something they want to do, such as eating too many sweets. The toddlers usually cry or have a tantrum because they think how bad mummy and daddy are, but the child does not realise that the wisdom underlying their objection (in this case, too many sweets are bad for their teeth). Furthermore, this contention misunderstands the definition and nature of God. Since God is transcendent, knowing and wise, then it logically follows that limited human beings cannot fully comprehend the Divine will. To even suggest that we can appreciate the totality of God’s wisdom would mean that we are like God, which denies the fact of His transcendence, or implies that God is limited like a human. This argument has no traction with any believer, because no Muslim believes in a created, limited God. It is not an intellectual cop-out to refer to Divine wisdom, because it is not referring to some mysterious unknown. Rather, it truly understands the nature of God and makes the necessary logical conclusions. As I have pointed out before, God has the picture, and we have just a pixel.
Although I empathise with their concern and anguish at the suffering inflicted on fellow sentient beings, some atheists suffer from a veiled type of egocentrism. This means they make special effort not to see the world from any perspective other than through their own eyes. However, in doing so, they commit a type of emotional—or spiritual—fallacy. They anthropomorphise God and turn Him into a limited man. They assume that God must see things the way we see things, and therefore He should stop the evil. If He allows it to continue, He must be questioned and rejected.
The problem of evil and suffering argument exposes a cognitive bias known as egocentrism. Such a person cannot see any perspective on a particular issue apart from their own. Some atheists suffer from this cognitive bias. They assume that since they cannot possibly fathom any good reasons to justify the evil and suffering in the world, everyone else—including God—must also have the same problem. Thus they deny God, because they assume that God cannot be justified for permitting the evil and suffering in the world. If God has no justification, then the mercy and power of God are illusions. Thus, the traditional concept of God is nullified. However, all atheists have done is superimposed their perspective on God. This is like arguing that God must think how a human thinks. This is impossible because human beings and God cannot be compared, as God is transcendent and has the totality of wisdom and knowledge.
Comparing man with God exposes their inability to understand things holistically. The atheist would probably at this point exclaim that this means man has more compassion than God. This further highlights their inability to see things from beyond their perspective, and exposes their failure to fathom that God’s actions and will are in line with a Divine reason that we cannot access. God does not want evil and suffering to happen. God does not stop these things from happening because He sees something we do not, not that He wants evil and suffering to continue. God has the picture and we just have a pixel. Understanding this facilitates spiritual and intellectual tranquillity because the believer understands that ultimately all that occurs in the world is in line with a superior Divine wisdom that is based on superior Divine goodness. Refusing to accept this is actually where the atheist falls into the quagmire of arrogance, egocentrism and ultimately despair. He has failed the test, and his misunderstanding of God makes him forget who God is, and dismisses the fact of Divine wisdom, mercy and goodness.
At this point the atheist might respond by describing the above as an intelligent way of evading the problem. If the theist can refer to God’s wisdom—and that His wisdom is so great that it cannot be understood—then we can explain anything ‘mysterious’ in reference to a Divine wisdom. I somewhat empathise with this reply, however, in the context of the problem of evil and suffering, it is a false argument. It is the atheist that refers to God’s attributes to begin with; His power and mercy. All that is being said is that they should refer to God as who He is, not as an agent with only two attributes. If they were to include other attributes such as wisdom, their argument would not be valid. If they were to include the attribute of wisdom they would have to show how Divine wisdom is incompatible with a world full of suffering or evil. This would be impossible to prove because there are so many examples in our intellectual and practical lives where we admit our intellectual inferiority—in other words, there are cases where we submit to a wisdom we cannot understand. We rationally submit to realities that we cannot understand on a regular basis. For example, when we visit the doctor we assume that the doctor is an authority. We trust the doctor’s diagnosis on this basis. We even take the medicine the doctor prescribes without any second thought. This and many other similar examples clearly show that referring to God’s wisdom is not evading the problem. Rather, it is accurately presenting who God is and not making out that God has only two attributes. Since He is The-Wise, and His names and attributes are maximally perfect, it follows that there is wisdom behind everything that He does—even if we do not know or understand that wisdom. Many of us do not understand how diseases work, but just because we do not understanding something does not negate its existence.
The Qur’an uses profound stories and narratives to instil this understanding. Take, for instance, the story of Moses and a man he meets on his travels, known as Khidr. Moses observes him do things that seem unjust and evil, but at the end of their journey, the wisdom that Moses did not have access to is brought to light:
“So the two turned back, retraced their footsteps, and found one of Our servants— a man to whom We had granted Our mercy and whom We had given knowledge of Our own. Moses said to him, ‘May I follow you so that you can teach me some of the right guidance you have been taught?’ The man said, ‘You will not be able to bear with me patiently. How could you be patient in matters beyond your knowledge?’ Moses said, ‘God willing, you will find me patient. I will not disobey you in any way.’ The man said, ‘If you follow me then, do not query anything I do before I mention it to you myself.’ They travelled on. Later, when they got into a boat, and the man made a hole in it, Moses said, ‘How could you make a hole in it? Do you want to drown its passengers? What a strange thing to do!’ He replied, ‘Did I not tell you that you would never be able to bear with me patiently?’ Moses said, ‘Forgive me for forgetting. Do not make it too hard for me to follow you.’ And so they travelled on. Then, when they met a young boy and the man killed him, Moses said, ‘How could you kill an innocent person? He has not killed anyone! What a terrible thing to do!’ He replied, ‘Did I not tell you that you would never be able to bear with me patiently?’ Moses said, ‘From now on, if I query anything you do, banish me from your company— you have put up with enough from me.’ And so they travelled on. Then, when they came to a town and asked the inhabitants for food but were refused hospitality, they saw a wall there that was on the point of falling down and the man repaired it. Moses said, ‘But if you had wished you could have taken payment for doing that.’ He said, ‘This is where you and I part company. I will tell you the meaning of the things you could not bear with patiently: the boat belonged to some needy people who made their living from the sea and I damaged it because I knew that coming after them was a king who was seizing every [serviceable] boat by force. The young boy had parents who were people of faith, and so, fearing he would trouble them through wickedness and disbelief, we wished that their Lord should give them another child—purer and more compassionate—in his place.  The wall belonged to two young orphans in the town and there was buried treasure beneath it belonging to them. Their father had been a righteous man, so your Lord intended them to reach maturity and then dig up their treasure as a mercy from your Lord. I did not do [these things] of my own accord: these are the explanations for those things you could not bear with patience.’”
In addition to contrasting our limited wisdom with God’s, this story also provides key lessons and spiritual insights. The first lesson is that in order to understand God’s will, one has to be humble. Moses approached Khidr, and knew that he had some Divinely inspired knowledge that God had not given to Moses. Moses humbly asked to learn from him, yet Khidr responded by questioning his ability to be patient; nevertheless, Moses insisted and wanted to learn. (The spiritual status of Moses is very high according to the Islamic tradition. He was a prophet and messenger, yet he approached the man with humility.) The second lesson is that patience is required to emotionally and psychologically deal with the suffering and evil in the world. Khidr knew that Moses would not be able to be patient with him, as he was going to do things that Moses thought were evil. Moses tried to be patient but always questioned the man’s actions and expressed his anger at the perceived evil. However, at the end of the story, Khidr explained the Divine wisdom behind his actions after exclaiming that Moses was not able to be patient. What we learn from this story is that to be able to deal with evil and suffering in the world, including our inability to understand it, we must be humble and patient.
Commenting on the above verses, the classical scholar Ibn Kathir explained that Khidr was the one to whom God had given knowledge of the reality behind the perceived evil and suffering, and He had not given it to Moses. With reference to the statement “You will not be able to bear with me patiently”, Ibn Kathir writes that this means: “You will not be able to accompany with me when you see me doing things that go against your law, because I have knowledge from God that He has not taught you, and you have knowledge from God that He has not taught me.”
In essence, God’s wisdom is unbounded and complete, whereas we have limited wisdom and knowledge. Another way of putting it is that God has the totality of wisdom and knowledge; we just have its particulars. We see things from the perspective of our fragmentary viewpoint. To fall for the trap of egocentrism is like believing you know the entire puzzle after seeing only one piece. Hence Ibn Kathir explains that the verse “How could you be patient in matters beyond your knowledge?” means that there is a Divine wisdom that we cannot access: “For I know that you will denounce me justifiably, but I have knowledge of God’s wisdom and the hidden interests which I can see but you cannot.”
The view that everything that happens is in line with a Divine wisdom is empowering and positive. This is because God’s wisdom does not contradict other aspects of His nature, such as His perfection and goodness. Therefore, evil and suffering are ultimately part of a Divine purpose. Among many other classical scholars, the 14th century scholar Ibn Taymiyya summarises this point well: “God does not create pure evil. Rather, in everything that He creates is a wise purpose by virtue of what is good. However, there may be some evil in it for some people, and this is partial, relative evil. As for total evil or absolute evil, the Lord is exonerated of that.”
This does not negate the concept of objective moral truths. Even if everything is in line with ultimate goodness, and evil is ‘partial’, it does not undermine the concept of objective evil. Objective evil is not the same as absolute evil, rather it is evil based on a particular context or set of variables. So something can be objectively evil due to certain variables or context, and at the same time it can be included with an ultimate Divine purpose that is good and wise.
This evokes positive psychological responses from believers because all the evil and all the suffering that occur are for a Divine purpose. Ibn Taymiyya summarises this point as well: “If God—exalted is He—is Creator of everything, He creates good and evil on account of the wise purpose that He has in that by virtue of which His action is good and perfect.”
Henri Laoust in his Essay sur les doctrines sociales et politiques de Taki-d-Din Ahmad b. Taimiya, also explains this position: “God is essentially providence. Evil is without real existence in the world. All that God has willed can only conform to a sovereign justice and an infinite goodness, provided, however, that it is envisaged from the point of view of the totality and not from that of the fragmentary and imperfect knowledge that His creatures have of reality….”
Does God give us reasons for why He has allowed evil and suffering to exist?
A sufficient response to the second assumption is to provide a strong argument that God has communicated some reasons to us about why He has allowed evil and suffering in the world. The intellectual richness of Islamic thought provides us with many reasons.
Our purpose is worship
The primary purpose of the human being is not to enjoy a transitory sense of happiness; rather, it is to achieve a deep internal peace through knowing and worshipping God. This fulfilment of the Divine purpose will result in everlasting bliss and true happiness. So, if this is our primary purpose, other aspects of human experience are secondary. The Qur’an states, “I did not create either jinn [spirit world] or man except to worship Me.”
Consider someone who has never experienced any suffering or pain, but experiences pleasure all the time. This person, by virtue of his state of ease, has forgotten God and therefore failed to do what he was created to do. Compare this person with someone whose experiences of hardship and pain have led him to God, and fulfilled his purpose in life. From the perspective of the Islamic spiritual tradition, the one whose suffering has led him to God is better than the one who has never suffered and whose pleasures have led him away from God.
Life is a test
God also created us for a test, and part of this test is to experience trials with suffering and evil. Passing the test facilitates our permanent abode of eternal bliss in paradise. The Qur’an explains that God created death and life, “so that He may put you to test, to find out which of you is best in deeds: He is the The-Almighty, The-Forgiving.”
On a basic level, the atheist misunderstands the purpose of our existence on Earth. The world is supposed to be an arena of trials and tribulations in order to test our conduct and for us to cultivate virtue. For example, how can we cultivate patience if we do not experience things that test our patience? How can we become courageous if there are no dangers to be confronted? How can we be compassionate if no one is in need of it? Life being a test answers these questions. We need them to ensure our moral and spiritual growth. We are not here to party; that is the purpose of paradise.
So why is life a test? Since God is perfectly good, He wants every single one of us to believe and as a result to experience eternal bliss with Him in paradise. God makes it clear that He prefers belief for us all: “And He does not approve for His servants disbelief.”
This clearly shows that God does not want anyone to go to hell. However, if He were to enforce that and send everyone to paradise, then a gross violation of justice would take place; God would be treating Moses and the Pharaoh and Hitler and Jesus as the same. A mechanism is needed to ensure that people who enter paradise do so based on merit. This explains why life is a test. Life is just a mechanism to see who among us are truly deserving of eternal happiness. As such, life is filled with obstacles, which act as tests of our conduct.
In this regard, Islam is extremely empowering because it sees suffering, evil, harm, pain and problems as a test. We can have fun, but we have been created with a purpose and that purpose is to worship God. The empowering Islamic view is that tests are seen as sign of God’s love. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, “When God loves a servant, He tests him.”
The reason God tests those whom He loves is because it is an avenue to achieve the eternal bliss of paradise—and entering paradise is a result of Divine love and mercy. God points this out clearly in the Qur’an: “Do you suppose that you will enter the Garden without first having suffered like those before you? They were afflicted by misfortune and hardship, and they were so shaken that even [their] messenger and the believers with him cried, ‘When will God’s help arrive?’ Truly, God’s help is near.”
The beauty of the Islamic tradition is that God, who knows us better than we know ourselves, has already empowered us and tells us that we have what it takes to overcome these trials. “God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear.”
However, if we cannot overcome these trials after having tried our best, God’s mercy and justice will ensure that we are recompensed in some way, either in this life or the eternal life that awaits us.
Having hardship and suffering enables us to realise and know God’s attributes, such as The-Protector and The-Healer. For example, without the pain of illness we would not appreciate the attribute of God being The-Healer, or the one who gives us health. Knowing God in the Islamic spiritual tradition is a greater good, and worth the experience of suffering or pain, as it will ensure the fulfilment of our primary purpose, which ultimately leads to paradise.
Suffering and evil allow a greater good, also known as second-order good. First-order good is physical pleasure and happiness, and first-order evil is physical pain and sadness. Some examples of second-order goodness include courage, humility and patience. However, in order to have a second-order good (like courage) there must be a first-order evil (like cowardice). According to the Qur’an, elevated good such as courage and humility do not have the same value as evil: “Say Prophet, bad cannot be likened to good, though you may be dazzled by how abundant the bad is. Be mindful of God, people of understanding, so that you may prosper.”
God has given us free will, and free will includes choosing evil acts. This explains personal evil, which is evil or suffering committed by a human being. One can ask: why has God given us free will at all? In order for the tests in life to be meaningful, there must be free will. An exam is pointless if the student is obligated or forced to answer correctly on each question. Similarly, in the exam of life, human beings must be given adequate freedom to do as they please.
Good and evil lose their meaning if God were to always ensure we chose good. Take the following example into consideration: someone points a loaded gun to your head and asks you to give charity. You give the money, but does it have any moral value? It does not, for it only has value if a free agent chooses to do so.
Detachment from the world
According to the Islamic tradition, God has created us so that we may worship and draw near to Him. A fundamental principle concerning this is that we must detach ourselves from the ephemeral nature of the world. Known as dunya, meaning low or lowly, the ephemeral world is the place of limitations, suffering, loss, desires, ego, excessiveness and evil. Suffering shows us how truly low the dunya is, thereby facilitating our detachment from it. Thus we are able to draw closer to God.
The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was reported to have said, “Love of the dunya is the root of all evil.” The greatest evil according to Islam is denying and associating partners with God; therefore detachment from the dunya is necessary to reach the ultimate spiritual goal of nearness to God, and subsequently paradise.
The Qur’an makes it very clear that the dunya is ephemeral and a deceiving enjoyment: “Know that the life of this dunya is but amusement and diversion and adornment and boasting to one another and competition in increase of wealth and children—like the example of a rain whose [resulting] plant growth pleases the tillers; then it dries and you see it turned yellow; then it becomes [scattered] debris.”
The concept of the dunya should not be confused with the positive aspects of creation, known in Arabic as ‘alam and khlaq. These concepts relate to the beauty and wonder of what God has created. They are intended to encourage people to reflect and understand which serve as a means to conclude that there is a Divine power, mercy and wisdom behind them.
Suffering of innocent people is temporary
Even if there is a lot of greater good to be actualised, one may observe that some people still suffer without experiencing any relief. This is why in Islam, God not only provides justifications for evil and suffering in this world but also recompenses them. At the end, all believers who suffered and were innocent will be granted eternal bliss, and all the suffering they had—even if they suffered all of their life—will be forgotten forever. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said:
“… the person who had suffered the most affliction in the world of those destined for Paradise will be brought forth and merely dipped into Paradise for a moment. Then he will be asked ‘O son of Adam, have you ever seen suffering? Have you ever experienced hardship in your life?’ He will reply ‘No my Lord, by God. I have never undergone suffering. I have never seen hardship.’”
Under atheism, evil has no purpose. It is one of the blind forces in the world that indiscriminately chooses its prey. Those who are victims of suffering and evil have no emotional and rational perspectives to help alleviate their suffering or put their experiences into context. Someone could have suffered all their lives and just ended up in the grave. All of their suffering, sacrifice and pain would have absolutely no meaning whatsoever. Evil is viewed to occur due to prior physical processes, and those who experience evil have no recourse. They cannot attribute any type of will to it, whether human or Divine, because everything is just reduced to blind, random and non-rational physical occurrences. Thus, the logical implications of atheism are quite depressing.
The Islamic tradition has a fountain of concepts, principles and ideas that facilitate the believer’s journey in life. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ empowered the believers with hope and patience. All of the suffering that we face is a means of spiritual purification, thereby facilitating paradise in which we will forget every suffering that we ever experienced:
“No calamity befalls a Muslim but that God expiates some of his sins because of it, even though it were the prick he receives from a thorn.”
“Amazing is the affair of the believer, verily all of his affair is good, and this is for no one except the believer. If something of good/happiness befalls him he is grateful and that is good for him. If something of harm befalls him he is patient and that is good for him.”
Even natural disasters and fatal illnesses are seen through the eyes of hope, mercy and forgiveness. The Islamic perspective on illness is that it is a form of purification, which facilitates eternal bliss in paradise for the sick. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ encouraged visiting the sick: “Feed the hungry, visit the sick, and free the captives.” Those who take care of the sick are rewarded with mercy and forgiveness, and ultimately paradise. There are many Prophetic traditions that elaborate on these points. For example, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said that if a believer dies of the plague or a stomach illness, they are considered as a martyr, and all martyrs go to paradise. There are inspiring traditions of mercy, reward and blessings for those who visit and care for the sick; the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said that whoever visits a sick person “is plunging into mercy until he sits down, and when he sits down he is submerged in it.” A moving and powerful narration from the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ teaches us that those who visit the sick will find God with them:
“Verily, God, the Exalted and Glorious, will say on the Day of Judgement: ‘O Son of Adam! I fell ill, but you did not visit Me.’ The human will ask, ‘O my Sustainer! How could I visit You when You are the Sustainer of the Worlds? And how can You fall sick?’ He, the Almighty, will say, ‘Did you not know that such and such a servant of Mine was sick. But you did not visit him. Did you not know that, had you visited him, you would have found Me by his side?’”
Even in the case of natural disasters like tsunamis, the believing victims would be considered people of paradise because death by drowning is considered martyrdom in the Islamic tradition. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said in this regard, “Anyone who drowns is a martyr.” Islamic scholars conclude that if a believer died as a result of being crushed by a building during an earthquake (some even extend this to a plane or a car crash), then they are considered people of paradise. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said that one of the martyrs includes “the one who died in a collapsed (building)”.
But God could create a world without suffering
Notwithstanding the discussion so far, a key objection that usually follows is “but God could create a world without suffering”. This contention is just a repackaging of the original argument; in other words, why has God allowed evil and suffering to exist? Therefore, the same answer applies; Divine wisdom. The one who makes this objection does so because they cannot understand why there is evil and suffering in the first place, and they believe that a merciful and powerful God should prevent every evil and suffering. Nevertheless, this has already been addressed in this essay.
The ‘problem’ of evil and suffering is not a problem for the believer, as evil and suffering are understood as functions of God’s profound wisdom, perfection and goodness. The spiritual teachings of Islam create a sense of hope, patience and tranquillity. The logical implications of atheism is that one is plunged into a hopeless state and does not have any answers to why evil and suffering exist. This ignorance is mostly due to an egocentrism that makes them fail in their ability to see things from another perspective, just as I was when I thought my parents were malicious when they prevented me from drinking my grandfather’s whisky.
Last updated 4 May 2017. Taken and adapted from my book “The Divine Reality: God, Islam & The Mirage of Atheism”. You can purchase the book here.
 The problem of evil and suffering argument has been expressed in a number of different ways. Some of the arguments use the words good, merciful, loving or kind interchangeably. Despite the varying use of words, the argument remains the same. Instead of using the word good, terms like merciful, loving, kind, etc., can also be used. The problem of evil assumes that the traditional concept of God must include an attribute that would imply God does not want evil and suffering to exist. Hence, using alternative words like merciful, loving and kind do not affect the argument.
 This assumption has been adapted from Professor William Lane Craig’s treatment on the problem of evil. Moreland, J. P. and Craig, W. L. (2003). Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, Ill, InterVarsity Press. See chapter 27.
 Shaha, A. (2012) The Young Atheist’s Handbook, p. 51.
 This part of the story shows God’s mercy. All children enter paradise—which is eternal bliss—regardless of their beliefs and actions. Therefore, God inspiring the man to kill the boy is to be understood through the lens of mercy and compassion.
 The Qur’an, Chapter 18, Verses 65 to 82.
 Ibn Kathir, I. (1999) Tafsir al-Qur’an al-‘Atheem. Vol 5, p. 181.
 Ibn Taymiyyah, A. (2004) Majmu’ al-Fatawa Shaykhul Islam Ahmad bin Taymiyyah. Vol 14, p. 266.
 Ibn Taymiyyah, A. (1986) Minhaj al-Sunnah. Edited by Muhammad Rashad Salim. Riyadh: Jami’ah al-Imam Muhammad bin Saud al-Islamiyah. Vol 3, p142.
Hamza Andreas Tzortzisall Islamic Content In One Place Crossword
 Cited in Hoover, J. (2007) Ibn Taymiyya’s Theodicy of Perpetual Optimism. Leiden: Brill, p.4.
 The Qur’an, Chapter 51, Verse 56.
 The Qur’an, Chapter 67, Verse 2.
 The Qur’an, Chapter 39, Verse 7.
 Narrated by Tirmidhi.
 The Qur’an, Chapter 2, Verse 214.
 The Qur’an Chapter 2, Verse 286.
 The Qur’an, Chapter 5, Verse 100.
 Al-Bayhaqi’s Shuʿab al-Iman, traced back to Al-Hasan Al-Basri, who ascribes it to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. The scholars have graded this Prophetic tradition as hasan; its level of authenticity is good.
 The Qur’an, Chapter 57, Verse 20.
 Narrated by Muslim.
 Narrated by Bukhari.
 Narrated by Muslim.
 Narrated by Bukhari.
 Anyone that attempts suicide bombing or engages in terrorism and dies as a result is not considered a martyr. These evil acts are forbidden in Islam.
 Narrated by Muslim.
 Narrated by Ahmad.
 Narrated by Muslim.
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This article first appeared on Muslim Matters.
‘And We created not the heavens and the earth, and all that is between them, for mere play.’ [The Qur’an]
A popular view about life is that it is “just a game”. We have one life and we should make the most of it. However, is life just for mere play? This belief ignores or denies the Divine, and any form of Divine accountability. Even if some people “believe” in a religion or God, many still ignore the implications of holding such views. This is the crisis of a secularised mind, you can believe in God and religious values, but will practically ignore the implications of these beliefs in your life. This type of person has a de-compartmentalised mind, on occasion they hold on to some religious or spiritual ideas (usually at a funeral, when they lose their job or when their partners decided to move on), but most of their lives is premised on: you only live once, so make the most of it.
This article will focus on the existential implications of believing life is just a game. Please note, just because a certain worldview has negative implications, it doesn’t imply it is false. My discussion here is not about the rational foundations of belief; I’ll leave that for another article.
Ignoring or denying God and any Divine accountability leads to an existential nightmare. Rationally speaking, holding on to such views, leads to absurd conclusions (known as argumentum ad ignoratium). When you play a game, you either win or lose, and then you eventually die; game over. This irrational and unintuitive view on life is not simply a worldview that exists in a bubble. If its claims are true, then one would have to make some inevitable existential conclusions that are very bleak. Under this view, life is ludicrous. The formula is simple: denying or ignoring God, Divinely given purpose and accountability equals no ultimate hope and no true happiness (as well as many other things, but I have a word limit). This conclusion is not an outdated religious cliché; it is a result of thinking logically about the implications of this world view.
Hope is defined as the feeling or expectation and desire for something to happen. We all hope for good lives, good health and a good job. Ultimately, we all hope for an immortal blissful existence. Life is such an amazing gift that no one really wants his or her conscious existence to end. Similarly, everyone desires that there will be some form of ultimate justice where wrongs can be made right, and the relevant people will be held accountable. Significantly, if our lives are miserable, or experience pain and suffering, we hope for some peace, pleasure and ease. This is a reflection of the human spirit; we hope for light at the end of the dark tunnel, and if we have tranquillity and joy, we want to keep it that way.
Since believing life is just a game denies or disregards Divine accountability, it also rejects or ignores the concept of an afterlife. Without that, there can be no hope of pleasure following a life of pain. Therefore, the expectation for something positive to happen after our lives is lost. Under this view we cannot expect any light at the end of the dark tunnel of our existence. Imagine you were born in the third world and spent your whole life in starvation and poverty. According to this worldview, you are merely destined for death. Contrast this with the Islamic perspective: all instances of suffering that happens in our lives are for some greater good. Therefore, in the larger scheme of things, no pain or suffering we undergo is meaningless. God is aware of all our sufferings, and He will provide recompense and reprieve.
However, according to the belief that life is just a game, our pains are just as meaningless as our pleasure. The immense sacrifices of the virtuous and the distress of the victim are all falling dominoes in an indifferent world. They happen for no greater good and no higher purpose. There is no ultimate hope of an afterlife or any form of happiness. Even if we lived a life of pleasure and immense luxuries, most of us would inevitably be doomed to some form of evil fate or an incessant desire for more pleasure. The pessimist philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, aptly described the hopelessness and ill fate that awaits us:
“We are like lambs in a field, disporting themselves under the eye of the butcher, who chooses out first one and then another for his prey. So it is that in our good days we are all unconscious of the evil fate may have presently in store for us—sickness, poverty, mutilation, loss of sight or reason…No little part of the torment of existence lies in this, that Time is continually pressing upon us, never letting us take breath, but always coming after us, like a taskmaster with a whip. If at any moment Time stays his hand, it is only when we are delivered over to the misery of boredom…In fact, the conviction that the world and man is something that had better not have been, is of a kind to fill us with indulgence towards one another. Nay, from this point of view, we might well consider the proper form of address to be, not Monsieur, Sir, mein Herr, but my fellow-sufferer, Socî malorum, compagnon de miseres!”
The Qur’an alludes to this hopelessness. It argues that a believer cannot despair, there will always be hope, and hope is connected to God’s mercy, and God’s mercy will manifest itself in this life and the hereafter: ‘Certainly no one despairs of God’s Mercy, except the people who disbelieve.’
Under believing life is just a game, justice is an unachievable goal—a mirage in the desert of life. Since the afterlife is ignored or denied, any expectation of people being held to account is futile. Consider Nazi Germany in the 1940s. An innocent Jewish lady who just saw her husband and children murdered in front of her has no hope for justice when she is waiting for her turn to be cast into the gas chamber. Although the Nazis were eventually defeated, this justice occurred after her death. Under this ludicrous worldview she is now nothing, just another rearrangement of matter, and you cannot give reprieve to something that is lifeless. Islam, however, gives everyone hope for pure Divine justice. No one will be treated unfairly and everyone shall be taken to account,
‘On that Day, people will come forward in separate groups to be shown their deeds: whoever has done an atom’s weight of good will see it, but whoever has done an atom’s weight of evil will see that.’
‘God created the heavens and the Earth for a true purpose: to reward each soul according to its deeds. They will not be wronged.’
The belief that life is just a game is like a mother giving her child a toy and then taking it back for no reason. Life, without a doubt, is a wonderful gift. Yet any pleasure, joy and love we have experienced will be taken away from us and lost forever. Since this worldview denies or ignores the Divine and the hereafter, it means that the pleasures we have experienced in life will disappear. There is no hope of a continuation of happiness, pleasure, love and joy. However, under Islam, these positive experiences are enhanced and continued after our worldly life,
‘They will have therein whatever they desire and We have more than that for them.’
‘The people who lived a pious life will have a good reward and more…’
‘Verily, the dwellers of Paradise that Day, will be busy in joyful things… (It will be said to them): ‘Salamun’ (Peace be on you), a Word from the Lord, Most Merciful.’
‘And a happy future belongs to those who are mindful of Him.’
The pursuit of happiness is an essential part of our human nature. All of us want to be happy—even when sometimes we cannot pinpoint exactly what ‘happiness’ is. This is why if you were to ask the average person why they want to get a good job, they would probably reply, ‘To earn enough to live comfortably’. However, if you questioned them further and asked why they want to live comfortably, they would more than likely say ‘because I want to be happy’. But happiness is ultimately an end, not a means. It is the final destination, not necessarily the journey. We all want to be happy, so we endlessly seek ways to help us achieve that final happy state.
The journey that people seek varies from one person to the next. The list is endless. However, those who believe life is just a game will pursue an existence focused on pleasure and having fun. This begs the question: What is true happiness?
To help answer these questions, imagine the following scenario: While reading this, you are sedated against your will. Suddenly you wake up and find yourself on a plane. You’re in first class. The food is heavenly. The seat is a flatbed, designed for a luxurious, comfortable experience. The entertainment is limitless. The service is out of this world. You start to use all of the excellent facilities. Time starts to pass. Now think for a moment, and ask yourself the question: Would I be happy?
How could you be? You would need some questions answered first. Who sedated you? How did you get on the plane? What’s the purpose of the journey? Where are you heading? If these questions remained unanswered, how could you be happy? Even if you started to enjoy all of the luxuries at your disposal, you would never achieve true happiness. Would a frothy Belgian chocolate mousse on your dessert tray be enough to drown out the questions? It would be a delusion, a temporary, fake type of happiness, only achieved by deliberately ignoring these critical questions.
Now apply this to your life and ask yourself, am I happy? Our coming into existence is no different to being sedated and thrown on a plane. We never chose our birth, our parents or where we come from. Yet some of us do not ask the questions or search for the answers that will help us achieve our ultimate goal of happiness.
Where does true happiness lie? Inevitably, if we reflect on the previous example, happiness really lies in answering key questions about our existence. These include, ‘What is the purpose of life?’ and ‘Where am I heading after my death?’ In this light, our happiness lies in our inwardness, in knowing who we are, and finding the answers to these critical questions.
Unlike animals, we cannot be content by reacting to our instincts. Obeying our hormones and mere physical needs will not bring happiness. To understand why, reflect on another example:
Imagine you were one of 50 human beings locked in a small room with no means of exit. There are only 10 loaves of bread, and there is no more food for another 100 days. What do you all do? If you follow your animalistic instincts, there will be blood. But if you try to answer the question ‘How can we all survive?’ it is likely that you will, as you will devise ways to do so.
Extend this example to your life. Your life has many more variables, which can result in almost an infinite number of outcomes. Yet, some of us just follow our carnal needs. Our jobs may require Ph.D.s or other qualifications, and we may wine and dine with our partners, but all of that is still reduced to mere procreation. Happiness cannot be achieved unless we find out who we really are.
However, under the view that life is just a game these questions do not have any real answers. Why are we here? Just for fun. No profound reason at all. Where are we going? Nowhere. We will just face death; the game will soon be over. Even some philosophers understood life was not just a game. For example, Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, ‘I do not know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.’
In order to achieve true happiness, we all need to answer the fundamental question of why we are here. In Islam, the answer is simple yet profound. We are here to worship God.
‘And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.’
But worship in Islam is quite different from the common understanding of the word. Worship can be shown in every act that we do. The way we talk to each other and the small acts of kindness we do each day. If we focus on pleasing God by our actions, then our actions become an act of worship.
Worship is a comprehensive concept in Islam. It refers to loving God, pleasing Him, knowing Him and singling out all acts of worship to Him alone, such as prayer and supplicating to Him. Worshipping God is the ultimate purpose of our existence; it frees us from the ‘slavery’ to others and society. God, in the Qur’an, presents us with a powerful example:
‘God puts forward this illustration: can a man who has for his masters several partners at odds with each other be considered equal to a man devoted wholly to one master? All praise belongs to God, though most of them do not know.’
Inevitably, if we do not worship God, we end up worshipping other ‘gods’. Think about it. Our partners, our bosses, our teachers, our friends, the societies we live in, and even our own desires ‘enslave’ us in some way. Take for example social norms. Many of us define beauty based on social pressures. We may have a range of likes and dislikes, but these are shaped by others. Ask yourself, why am I wearing these trousers or this skirt? Saying you like it is a shallow response; the point is, why do you like it? If we keep on probing in this way, many will end up admitting ‘because other people think it looks nice’. Unfortunately, we’ve all been influenced by the endless adverts that bombard us.
In this respect we have many ‘masters’ and they all want something from us. They are all ‘at odds with each other’, and we end up living confused, unfulfilled lives. Useful apps for macbook pro. God, who knows us better than we know ourselves, who has more mercy for us than our mothers, is telling us that He is our true master, and only by worshipping Him alone will we truly free ourselves.
The Muslim writer Yasmin Mogahed, in her book Reclaim Your Heart, explains that anything other than God is weak and feeble, and that our freedom lies in worshipping Him:
“Every time you run after, seek, or petition something weak or feeble… you too become weak or feeble. Even if you do reach that which you seek, it will never be enough. You will soon need to seek something else. You will never reach true contentment or satisfaction. That is why we live in a world of trade-ins and upgrades. Your phone, your car, your computer, your woman, your man, can always be traded in for a newer, better model. However, there is a freedom from that slavery. When the object upon which you place all your weight is unshaking, unbreakable, and unending, you cannot fall.”
From an existential perspective, worshipping God is true liberation. If worship entails knowing, loving and obeying God, then in reality many of us also have other gods in our lives. For example, many of us know, love and obey our own egos and desires. We think we are always right, we never want to be wrong and we always want to impose ourselves on others. From this perspective, we are enslaved to our own selves. The Qur’an points out such a debased spiritual state and compares the one who takes his desires, passions and whims as a god worse than an animal,.
‘Think of the man who has taken his own passion as a god: are you to be his guardian? Do you think that most of them hear or understand? They are just like cattle – —no, they are further from the path.’
From self-worship, sometimes we can worship various forms of social pressures, ideas, norms and cultures. They become our point of reference, we start to love them, want to know more about them, and it leads us to ‘obey’ them. Examples abound. Take for instance materialism. We have become so preoccupied with money and material belongings. Obviously, to want money and possessions is not necessarily a bad thing, however, but we have allowed these things to define who we are. Our energy, time and efforts are on devoted to the accumulation of wealth, and making the false notion of material success the primary focus in our lives. From this perspective, material things start to control us, and they control us to serve the culture of avid materialism, rather than serving God. I appreciate that this does not apply to everyone, however, but this form of excessive materialism is very common.
Essentially, if we are not worshipping God, we are still worshipping something else. This can be our own egos and desires, or ephemeral things like material possessions. In the Islamic tradition, worshipping God defines who we are, as it is part of our nature. If we forget God, and start to worship things that do not deserve worship, we will slowly forget our own selves,
‘And be not like those who forgot God, so He made them forget themselves.’
Our understanding of who we are is dependent on our relationship with God, which is shaped by our servitude and worship. In this sense, when we worship God we are freed from the servitude, slavery and submission to other ‘gods’, whether they are our own selves or things that we own.
The next question is: where are we going? We have a choice: to embrace God’s eternal, unbounded mercy, or to run away from it. Accepting His mercy, by responding to His message, and obeying, worshipping and loving Him will facilitate our eternal happiness in paradise. Rejecting and running away from God’s mercy necessitates that we end up in a place devoid of His love, a place of unhappiness—hell. So we have a choice. Either we decide to embrace His mercy or try to escape from it. We have the free will to choose. Even though God wants good for us, He cannot force us to make the right choices. The choices we make in this life will shape our lives after we die:
‘… and when that Day comes, no soul will speak except by His permission, and some of them will be wretched and some happy.’
‘There they will stay—a happy home and resting place!’
Since our ultimate purpose is to worship God, we must establish our natural balance and to find out who we really are. When we worship God, we free ourselves, and find ourselves. If we do not, we are forgetting what makes us human.
‘And be not like those who forgot God, so He made them forget themselves.’
In conclusion, believing that life is just a game cannot provide an intellectual foundation for our sense of ultimate hope. This view cannot give us profound answers for our existence, and therefore real happiness can never be achieved. If someone argues that they are happy under this view, I would argue it is a drunken type of happiness. They only sober up when they start thinking deeply about their own existence.
Last updated 16 January 2017. Taken and adapted from my book “The Divine Reality: God, Islam & The Mirage of Atheism”. You can purchase the book here.
 The Qur’an, Chapter 44, Verse 38
 Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Sufferings of the World. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/On_the_Sufferings_of_the_World.
 The Qur’an Chapter 12, Verse 87
 The Qur’an, Chapter 99, Verses 6 to 8
 The Qur’an, Chapter 45, Verse 22
 The Qur’an, Chapter 50, Verse 35
 The Qur’an, Chapter 10, Verse 26
 The Qur’an, Chapter 36, Verses 55 to 58
 The Qur’an, Chapter 7, Verse 128
 The Qur’an, Chapter 51, Verse 56
 The Qur’an, Chapter 39, Verse 29
 Yasmin Mogahed. Reclaim Your Heart. FB Publishing. 2012, p. 55.
 The Qur’an, Chapter 25, Verses 43 to 44
 The Qur’an, Chapter 59, Verse 19
 The Qur’an, Chapter 11, Verse 105
 The Qur’an, Chapter 25, Verse 75
 The Qur’an, Chapter 59, Verse 19