Human Suffering and Divine Justice: An Islamic Theological Perspective with Reference to Said Nursi’s Thought By Prof. Fauzan Saleh, Ph.D. Presented for the International Symposium on Justice: Its Role in Building a Better World Xavier Estates Clubhouse, Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines, 20-21 July 2009.
The Beginning,… عجبا لأمر المؤمن لا يقضى الله له قضاءا إلا كان خيرا له ولا يكون هذا إلا فى المؤمن. إذا أصابته سراء شكر وكان خيرا له و إذا أصابته ضراء صبر وكان خيرا له.
Some quotations • Anyone who wishes that there should be no sorrow in this world wishes the impossible. (Al-Kindi, d. 866) • God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws. (Harold S. Kushner, 1983)
What is the suffering? • Simply stated, suffering is anything that hurts or irritates. • Some theologians claim that suffering is something designed by God to make us think and is a tool God uses to incite our attention so as to accomplish His purposes in a way that would never occur without the trial or irritation.
Nevertheless,… • Suffering is not in itself virtuous, nor is it a sign of holiness. Neither is it a means of gaining points with God. Therefore, when possible, suffering is to be avoided. • Suffering is felt to be a threat external to us, something of which we might become the victims. Yet, humans can also cause suffering to other people.
Said Nursi and Suffering • The concern of this paper is mainly to bring to light some aspects of Nursi’s ideas on the problem of human suffering, how he perceived it, and how he put all of the sufferings he had experienced in the framework of divine justice. • It would be more touching if we could try to understand the problem of human suffering through the reflections of the one who had directly and profoundly experienced it.
Encountering injustice • In the last 25 years of his life, Nursi was in exile and imprisonment, for an accusation of being involved in rebellion in the east province. • Nursi experienced all miserable hardship and unlawful injustice inflicted upon him and many of his followers.
The reverse effects? • However, the attempt to entirely isolate and silence him had the reverse effect. • For Nursi, all of hardship and isolation he had encountered during his exile turned into a good opportunity to compile his ideas in a treatise later known as Risale-i Nur. Through this work, Nursi silently spread his original ideas for combating all attempts to uproot Islam from the hearts of Turkish people.
As a necessary means… • Nursi even perceived all sorts of hardship he encountered as a necessary means to reaffirm his knowledge about God’s bounty, and thus his exile and imprisonment were seen as a time of learning in a madrasah. • “All this oppression…is like pieces of wood for the fire of ardour and endeavor which illuminates the light of the Qur’an.”
True spiritual nourishment • In addition, his imprisonment was also deemed to have facilitated his achievement of true spiritual nourishment, like the one experienced by the Prophet Yusuf, whose spiritual gifts are reported to have been developed enormously in the prison house under the rule of Egyptian authority.
Similarly for Nursi… • Similarly for Nursi, in spite of being in exile and imprisoned, he felt that Allah was always with him and that all trials and tribulations gave him a type of courage and power that the disbeliever and ignorant would never achieve. • Though Nursi was bodily imprisoned for very long time of his life, he seemed to have won the struggle for his mind and soul.
A theological depiction • For many centuries people have been asking: • Why does God allow suffering? • Why do bad things happen to good people? • Why doesn’t God stop this? • Why isn’t God intervening? • And still more equivalent questions.
Two contrasting perspectives • On the one hand, people understand suffering as a reality irreconcilable with the belief in the existence of God, or even as a great obstacle to belief in Him. • On the other, the reality of suffering is believed to be aimed as a means for trial leading to the true acceptance of God, and thus essentially reconcilable with the belief in His existence and divine justice.
According to Buddhism… • All human life is suffering, and suffering is caused by human attachment to worldly matters. • This attachment, appearing in the form of greed, hatred and ignorance in this present and past lives, can return as more suffering, called karma, unless mitigated.
For the Christianity… • The question of the unjustified suffering of the innocent is at the heart of the Christian belief system, which holds that a sinless person (Jesus) suffered and died for the sins of humanity. • Some Christians see suffering as God’s punishment of sinful people or the world as a whole. Others see such suffering as a way loving God tests the faith and fortitude of survivors.
For Muslims,… • Since the very world of Islam means “submission” they understand that to suffer—enduring pain or loss—is a way of submitting to the will of Allah. • Many Muslims believe suffering and hardship may strengthen one’s faith, as pain often leads to repentance and prayer, as well as good deeds.
Suffering and divine justice • The concept of divine justice is equally important as the concept of God’s existence and His oneness, and it must be understood as part of the foundation of religion. • God’s justice is clearly manifested in various expressions, such as His assertion that He will never waste the deed of any person, or that He will not cause anybody to lose his/her atom’s weight of good deeds.
Cont’d… • God will not impose on a soul a duty or responsibility beyond one’s ability. Likewise, God does not hold any individual responsible except for his or her own deeds, which are fully under one’s control. • Nobody is charged with responsibility for the deeds of other persons. God also repeatedly ordains all people to do justice and forbids injustices.
For Nursi,… • Nursi admits that justice belongs to the divine name. • He bases his argument on the Qur’anic passage, stating: • “And there is not a thing but its (source) and measures (inexhaustible) are with Us, but We only send down thereof in due and ascertainable measures” (15:21). وإن من شيء إلا عندنا خزائنه وما ننزله إلا بقدر معلوم (الحجر 21).
It means… • Based on the authorization of this verse, Nursi suggests that God’s justice has been actually manifested in the notion that God upholds all the inexhaustible treasures of the universe. • However, the universe, as plausibly realized, is always agitated by war and emigration. Yet, it persistently holds astonishing balance and equilibrium, proving that these innumerable beings are accurately measured.
God puts measures • It is God, the All-Just, who puts measures upon all those innumerable beings. He also weighs them every moment on the determined scales, as He always sees and supervises the whole universe. • The universe has been so beautifully put in order, that every single being is ordered and weighed with so sensitive a balance that the human mind can nowhere see any waste or futility, but the most perfect and beautiful symmetry.
Universal balance and equilibrium • God’s justice is therefore very clear, since it can be effortlessly observed from the manifestation of universal balance and equilibrium. • Humans should learn from their environment how God establishes His justice in all beings. • For Nursi, the total justice in the universe proceeds from the greatest manifestation of the Name of All-Just, and thus God enjoins humans to do justice and avoid any kind of unfairness.
No complaint, no despair… • As his biography reveals, Nursi experienced a lot of hardships for a very long time inflicted upon him by the authorities. Yet, he did not seem to have expressed conspicuously his complaints or despairs against such oppressions. Neither did he, amazingly, solicit God to stop that cruelty, even if threatened his very life.
With earnest serenity • He underwent all kinds of hardship with earnest serenity. Nursi might not have perceived it as an injustice willed by God to happen to him. • He did not consider all sufferings in his life as a sign of God’s abhorrence. Those who do not endure hardship of life and showed much grievance for it do not realize that they cannot experience the true essence of justice in this transient world.
Calamities can strike anybody • Both believers and unbelievers, innocent and wicked, are equally prone to suffering from catastrophes and misfortunes. • There have been too many calamities and natural disasters that caused great misery upon people in general. • Thus, people are wondering whether such calamities are truly meant as the punishment to the wicked people only, when they strike innocent people as well.
Not to undermine justice • It is true that God did not choose only the wicked to be struck by such calamities. When calamities are not specified only for those sinful and wicked people, it is by no means justifiable that God deliberately undermines the principles of justice • The suffering undergone by pious believers caused by calamities may stand for the requital for some mistakes they committed before.
To lessen their burden • God seems to have intended to make such suffering happen to pious believers soon in this worldly life so as to lessen their burden in the afterlife. • Nursi argues: “…the requital for small crimes is made quickly in small centers, as a consequence of an important instance of wisdom.”
Meanwhile,… • When the wicked people appear to have lived so happily and virtually exempt from such dreadful torment, it doesn’t mean that God has overlooked their wickedness, but rather postponed that requital to the last judgment. • “…the recompense of the greater part of the unbelievers’ crimes is postponed to the Last Judgment, while the punishment for the believers’ faults is in part given in this world.”
Swift punishment • Essentially, this issue can be compared with the penalties of those committing small crimes that are delivered locally and to those perpetrating serious crimes which are sent to the high court. • The small errors of believers are punished swiftly and, in part, in this world in order to purify them quickly.
To be referred to Supreme Tribunal • But, since the crimes of the wicked people are so great, their punishments cannot be contained in this brief worldly life, as required by justice. They will be referred to the Supreme Tribunal in the next eternal realm. • They may have been allowed to enjoy their worldly pleasure but will miss the true happiness in the next eternal life.
Not to feel discouraged • Pious believers, therefore, should not feel discouraged by being in excessive despair or lose their hope when encountering all suffering and hardship. • They should remain confident and strong-willed, as well as obediently follow the Shari’ah, so that Islam will prosper and flourish.
Cont’d… • Islamic society can function only through the Shari’ah, by virtue of which the worldly happiness can be achieved. • Otherwise, justice will disappear, public security be overturned, immorality and base qualities prevail, and everything will run by liars.