The Problem of Evil: An Islamic Response

The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) declared that every calamity that befalls a believer, including the prick of the thorn, will remove their sins. Thus, every beating, bombing, and murder serve as a form of purification that continues to remove people’s sins.

The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) declared that every calamity that befalls a believer, including the prick of the thorn, will remove their sins. Thus, every beating, bombing, and murder serve as a form of purification that continues to remove people’s sins.

It seems everywhere we look, we see people who are suffering. When we look at Palestine, we see the injustices of people being deprived of clean water, being forced to live in open-air concentration camps. In Yemen, we see innocent children being bombed and dying from starvation daily. Or perhaps we see the forced sterilization, rape, and genocide against the Uyghurs by the Chinese regime.

The suffering of people across the globe has led many to ask the following question: “If God is considered as the Most Loving and Most Merciful, why would God allow people to suffer?” Surely God must have the power to stop these criminals, yet He continues to spectate while they suffer.

Prominent atheists such as Stephen Fry use this reasoning behind their disbelief in God. When asked what he would say if he spoke to God, Fry remarked:

“Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you. How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that isn’t our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God, who created a world which is so full of injustice and pain?” [1]

This sentiment about God being unjust for allowing the suffering of innocents has led many to question their faith. According to Pew Research, Western countries continue to see a decrease in religion which is partly due to this disturbing question [2]. Atheists claim this argument to be a threat against the existence of an All-Powerful and All-Loving God, and believe it to be irrefutable.

Although many have attempted to reconcile this question of how an All-Powerful, All-Loving, and All-Merciful God can still exist despite the global phenomena of innocent people suffering, the Quran provides a solution to this problem. The Quran recalls the story of the Prophet Moses who ventures out to meet a wise man named Khidr to learn the divine wisdom given to him which provides the answer to this issue [3].

The Story of Moses and Khidr

As he reaches Khidr, Moses asks permission to accompany him on his journey to attain knowledge that God has given Khidr and not him. Khidr accepts under the premise that Moses must be patient with him on this journey and not to question his actions until he explains it to Moses. Moses agrees, and both men begin their journey.

As the men walked alongside the sea, a boat appears, and Khidr asks if they could board the ship. Out of their generosity, the ship crew allowed the men to board it without charging them a fee.

While relaxing on the ship, Khidr took a nearby axe and tore out a plank, thereby damaging the ship. Moses witnesses this and questions Khidr’s actions.

“Why did you do this? The ship crew allowed us to aboard with no charge and you damaged it, which will cause this ship to sink. You have just committed a horrendous action O Khidr”.

“Didn’t I tell you not to question my actions O Moses?”

“Excuse me for I forgot of our promise”.

As the men sat on the damaged ship, they noticed a sparrow drinking from the sea. Noticing the sparrow drinking, Khidr stated:

“My knowledge and your knowledge in comparison to the knowledge of God are nothing but like that water which the sparrow has taken in its beak from the sea”.

Khidr illustrates that the water drunk by the sparrow in comparison to the sea is nothing and highlights that the knowledge of the human being is nothing compared to the knowledge of God.

Once the damaged ship reached the shore, Moses and Khidr excused themselves and began to walk alongside the seashore. Khidr noticed some children playing together and approached one of them. Khidr grasped the child and murdered him before everyone, including Moses. Moses became astonished and questioned the motives of Khidr:

“Have you killed an innocent child who hadn’t done anything? O Khidr, you have done an evil act”.

“Didn’t I tell you not to question my actions O Moses? I knew you couldn’t stay patient with me.”

“If I ever question your actions again O Khidr, then I will be forced to leave your company.”

Accepting his promise, Khidr continued on his journey with Moses through an unknown town. The men were starving from their journey and asked the townspeople for food and hospitality. The people refrained from assisting the men and forced them to starve. Realizing they needed to look elsewhere for food, they began to relocate elsewhere. But before leaving, Khidr noticed a damaged wall that had almost collapsed and began to repair it until it was fixed. Moses questions the intentions behind Khidr’s kind gesture:

“O Khidr, why did you fix this broken wall for free? The people here ignored us and failed to feed us while we continued to starve?”

“O Musa, I told you not to question my actions. This is where we both part ways. However, now I will tell you the interpretation of the reasoning behind my actions”.

“As for the ship that I damaged, it belonged to a group of poor fishermen. An evil tyrannical king was marching through the lands, acquiring every single useable ship without pay. However, when he reached this ship, he ignored it because of its defect and allowed the fisherman to keep it.”

“As for the child that was killed, his parents were righteous, and God knew this child would grow up to cause grief, anxiety and pain to his parents. This would be an evil child. Therefore, God would take his life and substitute him for a loving, upright child for his parents.”

“And as for the village that neglected us hospitality, the wall belonged to two orphans. Their father was a righteous man and had buried treasure underneath this wall for his children. God wanted to preserve the treasure until the children became mature.”

“This was the reasoning behind my actions, O Moses”.

Lessons from Moses and Khidr

During this story, every time Khidr conducted an action, Moses was confused regarding the wisdom behind it. From the damaging of the ship, to the murder of a child, to the repair of the broken wall, everything Moses saw seemed questionable. Yet to Khidr, this was done with wisdom.

Moses saw everything at its surface level and to him, everything he saw was wrong. But when explained to him by a servant who is given knowledge by God, everything begins to make sense. Then Moses sees the wisdom behind destroying the ship, the killing of the child, and repairing the wall despite the ill-treatment by the townsfolk. Without that wisdom, every action seemed to be depressing, evil, and filled with suffering.

The analogy stated by Khidr compares the water the sparrow drinks as the knowledge of the human being and the vast sea filled with abundant water as the knowledge of God. God has the picture whereas we have the pixel. How much can we really understand from the pixel of a picture?

Moreover, within suffering, there is often a great blessing that must be uncovered. Muhammad Ali, regarded as the greatest athlete of the 20th century, struggled with Parkinson’s disease. It was a disease that slurred his speech, slowed his movements, and caused him to tremor. This affliction seemed to be the furthest thing from being a blessing. However, when discussing the tribulation of having Parkinson’s disease, Ali remarked:

“I’m blessed and thankful to God that I understand He’s trying me. This is a trial from God. He gave me this illness to remind me that I am not number one, but He is.”

Ali recognized that even Parkinson’s disease contained its blessings because it made him realize that God is the greatest and not him. For that reason alone, Ali considered this disease, which caused him immense suffering, to be a blessing because it instilled humility within him. He understood that everything God decreed was filled with wisdom, including the tribulations.

Furthermore, the problem of evil only poses as a problem to those who disbelieve in an afterlife, and those who believe this life to be the end-all. In the Islamic tradition, ultimate justice will not be served in this life, but the next. All the suffering of this life will act as redemption that will purify our sins.

The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) declared that every calamity that befalls a believer, including the prick of the thorn, will remove their sins [4]. Thus, every beating, bombing, and murder serve as a form of purification that continues to remove people’s sins.

“But they still had to go through all that painful suffering whereas the criminals lived a blessed life.”

Yes, they did, but in comparison to Paradise, that suffering means nothing. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) narrated:

“(Some of) the most privileged people in this world will be dipped into the Hellfire on the Day of Judgement and they will be asked if they had ever experienced any blessing. They will respond by stating they never experienced any blessing at all. Then the most oppressed people in this world will be dipped into Paradise and they will be asked if they experienced any hardship or oppression. They will respond by stating they had never experienced any hardship in their life.” [5]

Therefore, God is All-Good, All-Powerful but also All-Wise. Everything done by God contains wisdom. Just because we cannot see the divine wisdom, does not mean the wisdom does not exist. It can simply only be understood by those who have received divine knowledge.

And what is the suffering of this world compared to eternal Paradise where the most beautiful of gardens, rivers, and fruits reside – a place where children will live happily with their Lord? Exposure to that bliss for even a moment will make the oppressed forget all of the ills they ever suffered in this world.

May God make us among the people of paradise.


[1] Shaykh Hamza Yusuf responds to Stephen Fry’s “There is no God”

[2] Lipka, Michael. “Why Some Americans Left Religion behind.” Pew Research Center. May 30, 2020. Accessed July 30, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/08/24/why-americas-nones-left-religion-behind/.

[3] Ibn Kathir, “Stories of the Prophets”. 2003

[4] Sahih al-Bukhari 5640

[5] Sahih Muslim 2807