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Archive for the ‘Islamic Theodicy’ Category

Introduction

Everyone in this world experiences pain and suffering to some degree, some more than the others. Philosophers and theologians categorize such suffering as either Natural Evil (floods, diseases, droughts, accidents, etc.) or Human Evil (deception, cheating, rape, murder, etc.). Throughout human intellectual history, this question of random and rampant suffering, technically known as the Problem of Evil, has remained the most potent and sustained argument for the nonexistence of God. In the Bible, “the best-known wrestling with the problem of suffering comes to us in the book of Job.” (Ehrman, 2008, p. 162). In this paper we’ll look for a response from the Christian and Muslim scriptures to the question of human suffering through the story of Job, and examine it for validity and coherence.

Job is the central character of the Book of Job in the Old Testament. The story has a fairly simple structure, but most biblical scholars agree that the book, as it has reached us, is the result of two separate strands of literature, written by at least two distinct authors (Kee, Meyers, Regerson, & Saldarini, 1997, p. 255), spliced together (Ehrman, 2008, p. 163); prose folktale vs. poetic dialogs. Chapter 1 and 2 are written in prose. Job 3:1 through 42:6 is poetry that consists of a cycle of speeches between Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and later Elihu, followed by the dialogue between God and Job. From Job 42:7-14 the writing turns back to the prose style, in continuation and conclusion of the narrative folktale with which the book begins.

A person with like name, Ayyub (Arabic version of Latinized name “Job”; Hebrew Yov or Yovav), and somewhat similar story, is also mentioned briefly in the Quran, albeit with different theological presuppositions, and perhaps divergent conclusions.

The story has far-reaching theological implications and has been used by both sides; by religious people to support their theodicies, and by atheists and agnostics to advance the Problem of Evil (e.g. Epicurean paradox) to knockdown the arguments for the existence of an all-powerful and all-good God.

A Summary of the Story – According to the Bible

In the Christian intellectual history, the book of Job has been connected with the issue of theodicy. Alongside other philosophical issues that the book explores, the suffering of the righteous is certainly central to this work. In a most masterful manner, the book of Job portrays, in a profoundly humane way, the nature of human suffering. The reader is allowed to listen in and watch a range of reactions to Job’s fast deteriorating fortune. Most human societies, in general, have believed that good people usually profit within this world, but certainly in the afterlife; and that bad people usually suffer the consequences for their action within this life, but certainly in the life to come. Though some prominent Christian scholars and thinkers doubt the historicity of the character of Job (Lewis, 1964, p. 110), a Christian reader sees a confirmation of these beliefs in the story of Job.

Book of Job is accounted by most Christians among the Wisdom Literature but not under Major or Minor Prophets. The narrative framework of the book tells the story of Job as a very rich man who lives in the land of Uz[i]. He worships God sincerely and regularly, and most importantly, is a truly righteous person in the sight of God (Job 1:1). One day, in a wager between Satan and God, God solicits Satan’s opinion regarding Job. Satan – a heavenly being at God’s court – accuses Job of being loyal to God only because of the blessings he continues to receive from God. If God were to take away what Job has, Satan insists, Job would “curse You to Your face” (Job 1:11). As a response, God allows Satan to takeaway, first Job’s wealth, then his children, and finally his health. But Job does not curse God; not even after all these calamities befall him one after the other. Instead, he goes into mourning. He shaves his head, tears his clothes and says, “Naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return: Lord has given, and Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of Lord” (Job 1:20). In spite of all the pain and suffering, Job maintains his integrity. In the end of the folktale part of the story, Job’s patient endurance under duress is rewarded by God by restoring all his wealth. Job is also given ten new children and he gets to live a happy life till a ripe old age.

The story is somewhat different in the poetic part which constitutes the major portion of the book. Here we find a Job who is bitter against God. In his anguished state, Job repeatedly pleads with God to come and explain his meaningless and unjustified suffering. He curses the day he was born (chap 3) and even wishes he was dead (6:8-9). Upon hearing of all the suffering that has come upon Job, three of his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar come to console him (A fourth, Elihu, first begins talking in Chapter 32 and plays a significant role in the dialogue; however, his arrival is not described in the text). His three friends insist that Job’s suffering must be a punishment for some sin that he must have committed, but Job strictly maintains his innocence. His fourth friend (or a bystander) Elihu, after repeating much of what was already said, criticizes both sides of the argument, and finishes by praising God’s care for nature. Throughout their speeches, the friends take the “classical” view of suffering, i.e. sinners get what they deserve (Ehrman, 2008, p. 163). God finally appears to Job out of a whirlwind but instead of providing an explanation, overpowers him, and states that much of what God does cannot be understood by humans. God also criticizes Job for talking so much with such little knowledge. Job repents for his desire to make a plea before God. Even to the end, Job does not understand why he suffered. He felt bitter but he never rejected God and remained faithful and convinced that one day God would rescue him from all the unexplained and undeserved misery.

Critical Analysis

The book of Job is usually dated in the 5th to 4th centuries BCE, but seems to be an adaptation of an earlier Akkadian writing from around the year 1000 BCE. The book of Isaiah, which dates back to 8th century BCE, mentions “the suffering righteous servant” in chapter 53[ii]. Similar oral folktales could have existed much earlier than that in the Mesopotamian tradition. Other examples of ancient works similar to the Book of Job include the Sumerian poetic easy “A man and his God”. Although, there is no direct evidence that the unknown authors of the Book of Job were directly dependent upon any Babylonian literature, Job closely resembles, in both content and themes, with the “Babylonian Job” in Ludlul Bel Nemeqi, Babylonian Theodicy (a poem also known as Babylonian Ecclesiastes) and Dialogue of Pessimism (Kee, Meyers, Regerson, & Saldarini, 1997, p. 255).

As the book has come down to us, the narrative framework seems to be incomplete. The ending makes no mention of Satan, and implies that Job’s friends have already spoken – which they do in the poems but not in the narrative part (Kee, Meyers, Regerson, & Saldarini, 1997, p. 253). Close analyses of the two genres – narrative prose and poetic dialogs that make up this book – show that the name of God is different between the two parts. God is referred to as Yahweh in the prose sections and as El/Eloah/Shaddai in the poetic part (Ehrman, 2008, p. 164). Furthermore, Job’s attitude is drastically different in the two parts of the book. In the prose narration, he is a patient sufferer; in the poetic part, he is defiant and combative (Kee, Meyers, Regerson, & Saldarini, 1997, p. 253). Thus God’s response is also different towards the two Jobs: commending in the prose but rebuking in the poetry. Clearly, the two authors had different and contradictory understanding of the question of suffering (Ehrman, 2008, p. 162).

What is the moral of the story? The prose folktale suggests that God deals with us according to our merit, whereas the whole point of the poetic dialogs is that is not the case. God is neither bound to deal justly nor does God need to explain anything to us mere-mortals. Under the first perspective, suffering comes to us all as a test of our sincerity. In the second viewpoint, suffering is a mystery beyond human comprehension (Ehrman, 2008, p. 164).

Other Old Testament (OT) authors are keenly aware that innocent people suffer. The History part of the OT is replete with such examples. In David’s story alone we find Abner being murdered by Joab (2 Sam 3:22-34), Tamar being raped by her half-brother Amnon (2 Sam 13:1-22), David arranging for his most loyal general Uriah’s death (2 Sam 11:14-25). The list goes on. In face of all this, the Book of Job seems to be “an attack on the simplistic view that all suffering is deserved and that the universe is a moral universe”. The authors could have been the “wealthy, educated and philosophically sensitive Jews” who were “suffering from the post-exilic Judah” (Kee, Meyers, Regerson, & Saldarini, 1997, p. 256).

The book of Job thus offers a complex picture of God. Rather than deciding that He does not have to prove anything to Satan, God chooses to get entangled with Satan for His own glory, and takes his loyal worshiper through a most terrible and miserable ordeal. God does not even explain his role to Job. Instead, God challenges Job’s right to question the integrity of Divine Justice (40:8). In the end of this wisdom story, the ultimate question that seems to be the primary focus of the story remains unanswered: why do we suffer?

A Summary of the Story – According to the Quran

The Quranic account of Ayyub (Job) is so brief that it is hard to summarize it any further. However there are a few points that can be inferred safely.

Out of the four cursory references (4:163, 6:84, 21:83, 38:41-44*), the first two Quranic references only mention Ayyub by name among other prophets and messengers, indicating that he, too, was among the chosen and guided prophets of God, and that he was among the progeny of Noah. Besides this, not much information can be derived. The latter two references, however, deliver a bit more information. As is common with the Quran, this information needs to be unpacked very carefully and logically, without getting swayed by the known biblical account.

The third time Quran mentions Ayyub, i.e. 21:83, the story begins directly from Ayyub’s reaching out to God in supplication while in extreme distress. Ayyub’s words of prayer are quoted but without any mention of Satan, or Satanic role in bringing misery. The verse seems to be stressing Ayyub’s acknowledgment of God’s care and mercy. As a response to Ayyub’s beseeching prayer, God tells us, in the first-person speech, that He removed the distress that had overcome Ayyub, and provided him with more blessings. But also, more importantly, the lesson of the passage seems to be in the end of the verse; God informs us that this is how He showers His grace and blessing upon those who turn to Him.

In the fourth and final passage (38:41), there is an elusive reference to the “evil one” (Lit. Satan) responsible for Ayyub’s condition, but does not provide any further details. What was the exact nature of this responsibility? Elsewhere Quran categorically tells us that Satan has no power over us beyond “malicious suggestions” (e.g. 15:42, 58:10). As Maududi speculates, is it those evil-whisperings that Ayyub is referring to here? (Maududi, 1949, pp. 340, Note 42). This could be a good research question but is somewhat off the scope of our present concern. That being said, the focus of this passage also does not seem to be a theodicy. When God listens to Ayyub’s distressed supplication, instead of magically curing him, God gives him a plan-of-action; do this and you’ll get this. With God-given knowledge, Ayyub now digs up a water-fountain at the specified location and benefits by its healing power. This seems to be according to God’s pattern, commonly referred to in the Quran as the Sunnah of God. We see a similar patter, for example, in the story of Mary, mother of Jesus. During the pangs of childbirth, Mary reaches out to God in distressed supplication, and God gives her a plan-of-action; move the branches of this tree, gather the ripe dates that fall, and drink from this fountain. This seems to be the primary lesson here: God will guide us in this earthly sojourn, but it will be upon us to put our trust in God and take the appropriate action. Again, according to the standard Quranic style, God seems to be bringing this point home via a moving example.

Critical Analysis

Encountering such passing references in the Quran to a full-blown story that preexisted in the earlier scriptures and even in pre-biblical folklore, one is naturally forced to raise the question: Is it assumed that the listener/reader of the Quran has prior knowledge of the story of Job? The answer seems to be yes, because without that background information, the four scattered and brief references do not make much sense. But if a positive answer is to be accepted, the question becomes: what was the source of this story in Arabia? Which version of the story was the common Arab of 7th century familiar with? We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls (Targum of Job 11Q10[iii]: dated 150 BCE – 70 CE) that the text was somewhat different from as now known. What moral and theological conclusions did the Arabs derive from the story they knew?

Ali, in his commentary of the Quran, says the following about the comparison of the story of Job between the Biblical account and the Quranic version:

Of all the Hebrew writings, the Hebrew of this book comes nearest to Arabic. The account given in the Biblical sources and the image that it projects of Prophet Job is decidedly different from that found in the Quran and the Hadith, which present him as a prophet and a brilliant example of dignified patience becoming of a great prophet of Allah ever trustful in Him and His promises. Nothing could be further from the truth than saying that he lost his peace of mind or resorted to curses during the period of his trial. Job is the pattern of humility, patience and faith in Allah. It was with these weapons that he fought and conquered evil.

Considering 21:83, one cannot help but notice that there is no mention of the biblical wager between Satan and God to test the loyalty of Ayyub towards God. Also, the focus of this brief passage does not seem to be the philosophical “Origin of Evil” but rather instruction into profitable behavior through practical example. Here was a guy during times past just like anyone of us today, who was met with extreme distress and hardship in life, and here’s what he did that profited him. What should I do when I’m in a similar situation? That’s the question, it seems, this verse is trying to address.

But with the background knowledge of the Book of Job, it seems that the Quran is missing the whole point here. The real intellectual question is “whence evil?” not “what to do when trapped in evil”. Like Buddhist thought, is the Quran sidestepping the real question? A surface comparison with the Book of Job might suggest so, but on closer inspection, it is evident that Quran does take up the “Origin of Evil” question at other places, e.g. 2:30-39; it just does not seem to be the focus here.

Conclusion

Both stories, in the Bible and in the Quran, are told beautifully. Although the intellectual focus, social context and intended audience is different, both stories have played a major role in formulating understanding and evoking action of the believers in the two religious traditions.

Elsewhere, Quran presents itself as guardian, explainer and protector of the earlier scriptures (5:48, 10:37). What parts does the Quran agree with and what subtle points does the Quran correct in the story as received in the Book of Job? This seems to be a potentially fruitful question for further research.

* Ref – Job in the Quran (Ali, 2008):

We have sent thee inspiration, as We sent it to Noah and the Messengers after him: we sent inspiration to Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, and solomon, and to David We gave the Psalms. (4:163)

We gave him (Abraham) Isaac and Jacob: all (three) guided: and before him, We guided Noah, and among his progeny, David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, Moses, and Aaron: thus do We reward those who do good. (6:84)

And (remember) Job, when He cried to his Lord, “Truly distress has seized me, but Thou art the Most Merciful of those that are merciful.” So We listened to him: We removed the distress that was on him, and We restored his people to him, and doubled their number,- as a Grace from Ourselves, and a thing for commemoration, for all who serve Us. (21:83-84)

Commemorate Our Servant Job. Behold he cried to his Lord: “The Evil One has afflicted me with distress and suffering!” (The command was given:) “Strike with thy foot: here is (water) wherein to wash, cool and refreshing, and (water) to drink.” And We gave him (back) his people, and doubled their number,- as a Grace from Ourselves, and a thing for commemoration, for all who have Understanding. “And take in thy hand a little grass, and strike therewith: and break not (thy oath).” Truly We found him full of patience and constancy. How excellent in Our service! ever did he turn (to Us)! (38:41-44)

Bibliography

Ali, A. Y. (2008). Meaning of the Holy Qur’an. Amana Pub.

Ehrman, B. D. (2008). God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer. HarperOne.

Kee, H. C., Meyers, E. M., Regerson, J., & Saldarini, A. J. (1997). The Cambridge Companion to the Bible. Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, C. S. (1964). Reflections on the Psalms. Mariner Books.

Maududi, S. A. (1949). Tafheem-ul-Quran [Urdu] Vol 4. http://www.scholaris.com/pdf/quran/038%20Surah%20Sad.pdf.


[i] Usually, this is located in Edom (Lamentations 4:21), towards the south-east of Israel. This implies that Job is not an Israelite (Ehrman, 2008, p. 164). Edom is an alias for Esau the son of Issac (Genesis 25:30).

[ii] Tradition ascribes the book to Isaiah himself, but for over a hundred years scholars have divided it into three parts: Proto-Isaiah (chapters 1-39), containing the words of the 8th century BCE prophet and 7th century BCE expansions; Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55), a 6th century BCE work by an author who wrote under the Babylonian captivity; and Trito-Isaiah (chapters 56-66), composed probably by multiple authors in Jerusalem shortly after the exile. (May, Herbert G. and Bruce M. Metzger. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. 1977).

[iii] This small scroll found in Cave 11 has a large portion, in Aramaic, of the last seven chapters of the Book of Job. Twenty-seven small fragments deal with parts of Job 17:14 to 36:33. It represents, along with the small fragments of Leviticus and another scroll of Job also found in Cave 4, the oldest existing text of the Hebrew Bible.

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This last weekend, 02/27/2010, some of us friends got together in my basement. We watched a video of Dr. Jeffrey Lang delivering a lecture on the topic of ‘Purpose of Life’ (full version available here). This stimulating lecture was followed by a passionate and intellectual discussion. In the lines that follow, I’ll try to summarize what we learned and discussed, interlaced with some of my own conclusions, comments and relevant material from other sources. As always, please feel free to jump in and share your thoughts on this online forum.

The question can simply be stated like this: Why are we here? Or, in other words, given an all-loving, all-powerful God, which we believe exists, why are human beings suffering on this rotten planet, instead of being somewhere else, like, for example, in heaven? And not only that we suffer; we have intellect to understand the reasons and raise questions about our suffering. Giving us the intelligence of this degree and then allowing us to suffer is like operating on a patient without Morphine. We see animals suffer on this planet too, but without the human intellect, animals at least are not so acutely conscious of it. Undoubtedly, it’s this awareness that is most painful. If God loved us, why would He put us here, where we can experience terrible pain and agony, disappointments and broken hearts, horrible diseases and earthquakes, murders and rapes and other ingenious methods of torture that some humans are capable of inventing and executing on other fellow beings. The simplistic answer, ‘we are here as a test’ does not really cut it. The purpose of a test is for the examiner to know better about the worth of the test-taker. In this case, the Examiner already knows everything there is to know, because He’s all-knowing. Logically speaking, there’s nothing we can do that can increase God’s knowledge. So why put us through this painful drama? Some people will tell you that this test is not for increasing God’s knowledge but yours. And further, that everything that had to happen has already happened; we are living this life now only to understand our choices. The science-fiction movie Matrix is a case in point. I, personally, don’t find it convincing at all – all this elaborate and agonizing drama to give me knowledge? – I don’t think so. There could be easier, and certainly less painful, ways for God to grant me that knowledge. In our meeting, we discussed the case of termites – the amazing engineering skills and the wonderful buildings this blind creature erects with that skill and knowledge. We discussed the remarkable fact that all this knowledge is bestowed to this creature right from the birth. If it was only knowledge I needed, why couldn’t God grant me such knowledge in a way similar to that?

Dr. Lang points out that in order for a relationship to develop, the two parties must have some common ground. Greater the common ground, stronger will be the resulting bond and relationship. Describing different levels of relationship, he offers the example of his own relationship with his goldfish, his dog and his daughter. With increasing common ground at each higher level, the bond gets stronger. Because we are more intellectual than physical beings, the best companionship develops with convergence of ideas and common personality characteristics. The only possibility of such common ground, between humans and God, lies in the moral dimension i.e. the adjectival nouns or attributes of God, e.g. mercy, truth, care, compassion, benevolence, guidance, peace, love, etc (the ~99 most beautiful names of God mentioned in the Qur’an). By cultivating these attributes in our own personalities, we can bring ourselves closer to God. Thus, according to Dr. Lang, we are placed here on earth to grow in our moral dimension. We are not finished products yet, but are rather work-in-progress creatures. In that sense, we can more appropriately be called human-becomings rather than human-beings. Once developed, this moral dimension will be the necessary common ground between God and us, for an eternal relationship of love and friendship. The final product of this process would be the best of the creatures – a friend and vicegerent of God in all universes.

So again, why is it necessary to put us here in the environment of suffering? Dr. Lang points out the three necessary ingredients to the recipe of morality: Intellect, choice and suffering. In other words, the human suffering on this earth is part of the original Divine plan. (on a side note: contrast this approach to the Sufism’s reply to the same question. For example, if you asked Prof. Nasr: why is there evil in this world? His reply would be: as privation of good and distance from God. In other words, God could not create a world, distant from Himself, and yet make it perfect. Clearly that makes evil, and resultant suffering, an imperfection and byproduct of the very process of creation, and certainly not a conscious and intentional Divine plan for some higher purpose. For further detail, see my critique of that approach). Only in the presence of these three necessary ingredients, we have a chance of moral growth. That makes suffering, at least in theory, an opportunity rather than a nuisance. The quantity of suffering one is subjected to, however, depends upon many different factors, not all of which we can understand completely. But like a good teacher, who wants the student to learn and grow, always gives assignments, just above the current caliber of the student – enough to challenge but not too much to frustrate – the extremely difficult lives of the chosen messengers and prophets of God, like Muhammad, Jesus, Abraham, Job, Joseph, etc, makes perfect sense.

Technically speaking, the evil in this world can be divided into two categories: Natural evil and Human evil. Disease, earthquake and tsunami, for example, fall in the first category while murder, rape and theft, in the second. Both result in human suffering. Most thinkers agree that this environment of suffering does bring out, what Prof. Patrick Grim calls, ‘higher order good’ and proffers the example of ‘courage’ that can only exist in an environment of fear. But Prof. Grim does not think that such good things, no matter how high on the scale of morality, can justify human suffering. Besides other examples, Prof. Grim brings up one of the most acclaimed and passionately written piece of literature, i.e. The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. Like Ivan (one of the main characters of this novel), Prof. Grim rejects this world that God has created because of it’s suffering, and thinks it’s not worth it. He actually goes further and says that a moral God won’t do it – won’t make a child suffer for you and me to learn morality.

So, once again the question becomes, as we have often heard: Is this the best of the worlds that God could create? As we discussed in our meeting, this question, stated like this, is incomplete and hides vital detail. We know from our experience that things are not good or bad in an absolute sense but are always relative to a purpose. We discussed the example that a van might be best road transport vehicle, if the purpose is to carry a large family long distance, but the same van might not be the best choice if the purpose is to race on a racetrack. On the other hand, Corvette might be the best vehicle on racetrack, but is not so good a choice for the purposes of a large family transport. The point being that the purpose determines the worth. With this understanding, the above question can be restated as: is this the best of the worlds God could create to its purpose? But what is that purpose? Most people who think that this world is not the best of the worlds that all-loving all-powerful God could create, mistakenly presume that the purpose of this world is for us to be comfortable and have fun. That is confusing earth with heaven – we’re not there yet. But if we understand the purpose of this world to be a learning academy – a place where we can grow, morally and intellectually – then the verdict might be different. For one thing we humans cannot do in this world is to not-learn – we necessarily learn from our experiences, and the choices we make, make this learning positive or negative.

Coming back to Prof. Grim’s question: is the ‘higher good’ that comes out of suffering, worth it? Undoubtedly, it’s an extremely serious and far-reaching question, but before we venture on to answer that question, I think, we should carefully consider two points. One, on a smaller scale, we make similar decisions routinely, and choose temporary suffering for some higher good in the future. For example, we knowingly expose our children to the rigor and hardship of school and college in consideration of their future success and benefit, even though we have a choice not to. Granted that the rigors of four year college is nothing compared to the suffering of this world, but then again, the resulting benefits are also disproportional – a four year college degree to be used for the next forty five years of working life, compared to eternal bliss and friendship with the creator of the heavens and earth. Secondly, many thinkers agree that there are higher realities than what meets the eye in this world. Plato’s ‘shadows in the cave’ and Qur’an’s higher reality of the afterlife (50:22) can be points to be considered. In that higher reality, our earthly existence would seem only part of a day, says the Qur’an (79:46). The suffering of this earthly life feels very much real and heart-wrenching when we’re going through it, but so do our dreams. Who is to say that the death from this life won’t be like waking up into a higher reality from a dream that felt very real?

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