Islamic philosophy

The two salvations: How erotic beauty is a false category of beauty

In his 2009 book Beauty, the wonderful British philosopher Roger Scruton says many insightful things about beauty. His book inspired me to create my own Islamic theory of aesthetics in which I assert that a beautiful thing is nothing other than that which brings us face-to-face with God. The reason that the most beautiful and picturesque scenes of nature and architecture bring tears to our eyes and make us feel morally uplifted is because beautiful things, in order to be beautiful, must point to God. Beauty is not some independent ideal or standard. Beauty is the power of an object to point the human soul to God. Nothing that is ugly is morally uplifting, and nothing that is beautiful fails to morally uplift us, to make us feel God’s presence and offer us a door to salvation.

This theory applies to music as well. Bach says:

The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.

Whether a composer of classical music seeks God or seeks beauty, they are seeking the exact same thing. All beautiful music has the power to cause mystical experience in us because what makes music beautiful is the fact that it can cause mystical experience in us. This is in opposition to pop music, which celebrates bodily desires and human weaknesses rather than striving toward the Creator. Some types of music can of course blend elements from both categories.

To experience beauty is to experience God in some small way. Beauty is morally uplifting because it connects us with the source that gives life meaning: the Creator. (See my essay Beauty as Pointer: An Islamic Theory of Aesthetics for more on this.) You can verify this theory on your own by looking at a set of beautiful pictures and doing your best appreciate their beauty while keeping your mind free of distractions. As you continue doing this, you will start to feel a mystical connectedness. You will get a feeling of goodness and wholesomeness, as if you are becoming a better, more admirable person.

You may realize that you are seeking some sort of climax. Each picture seems to bring you closer to something you need and desire. And that thing which beauty brings us closer to is God. If you are religious, the experience of beauty always brings with it the desire to praise God. If you are irreligious and do not believe in a God, you can still feel the mystical connectedness. Beauty will be like an open door to God that you will refuse to step through.

This essay is on the issue of erotic beauty. Scruton speaks of erotic beauty (think nude paintings of women) and its special nature. He mentions the “fall” that an observer experiences if he allows himself to become sexually aroused by the painting (as opposed to appreciating it solely for the “beauty” contained therein). For Scruton and many others, erotic beauty is a special category of beauty. It involves something that has the power to sexually attract, but that the observer can appreciate without sexual attraction.

Below I explain why I am highly skeptical of the concept and consider it a false category, or at least something to be categorized separately from ordinary beauty.

Erotic art at its most basic level is a genre of art in which mostly male artists draw sexually attractive females in meaningful and beautiful contexts. It is not the mere beauty of the human form that draws artists to erotic art. If the human form was so beautiful, we would have expected to find a very rich genre of depictions of children and anonymous males. But there is no such genre. This closely parallels the fact that while on the Internet there are thousands of websites dedicated solely to pictures of anonymous nude females, there are almost none dedicated solely to pictures of anonymous nude males. It is not the appreciation of the beauty of the human form that draws artists (and consumers of pornography) to nude females. It is the male sex drive. A man can enjoy himself for hours inside a gallery that only has paintings of nude females. But he will very quickly tire of a gallery that hosts only paintings of nude prepubescent children or nude males (assuming he only finds women sexually attractive).

All beautiful things are morally uplifting. There can be such a thing as a morally uplifting painting that includes a nude person, but the uplift always comes from something else. The painting might depict a very dramatic scene from a story that would be morally uplifting even if one took the trouble to paint clothes over the subjects. The nudity is not essential. The reason that men have created the category of erotic beauty is because of a mistake of the male brain. A nude woman does not merely represent something highly desirable (as in an expensive car). She represents salvation. Speaking biologically, a man’s highest achievement in life is to have a female give him her sexual approval through acting sexually open towards him. And a nude female in a painting is registered as that by the male viewer, because she is nude. Women are not normally nude, they only are during the prelude to sexual union.

A woman’s sexual approval (i.e. her attraction to him and her expressing that she is willing to mate with him, her nudity representing just such an approval) represents millions of years of evolution patting the man on the back, telling him he is a good and worthy male specimen. Perhaps nothing else in the world has such a power to cause a man’s ego to inflate. A woman’s sexual approval means that everything about a man is right, good and proper. He is good-looking, his social status is desirable, he is admirable, he has so much worth that a woman, despite her intense scrutiny of his weaknesses and failings, is willing to put her life and her future in his hands by accepting to procreate with him and become dependent on him.

In short, female nudity is registered by the male brain as female sexual approval, which is registered by the male brain as an invitation to the highest possible achievement in biological life.

A painting of a nude woman is intensely interesting and captivating to a male because for him a nude woman is an offer of biological salvation. A nude female is more interesting to a man than a planet full of treasure. Treasure is nothing more than a means of attaining biological salvation–of attracting a woman’s love and procreating with her. A nude female represents the end result of this process–she is more fundamental than treasure; she is the end result of treasure. Speaking from an evolutionary biology perspective, treasure is only a means toward securing her companionship.

That beautiful nude female, if only she looks at you and accepts you, can make you the happiest man on earth. The same way that beautiful architecture takes us into God’s presence who offers us otherworldly salvation, a nude painting of a female offers us worldly salvation.

Erotic art is interesting only because of a false promise; it misleads the male brain into thinking it is being promised salvation. Just as a religious man may be captivated by the hope of salvation represented by a cheap pilgrimage package to Canterbury or Mecca, any man can be captivated by the promise of biological salvation that attractive females represent (and the less dressed, the more captivating, because less dress means more nearness to the goal). The attraction for females is not a simple desire for sexual enjoyment. The reason why females are so incredibly attractive and why they are used everywhere in marketing to sell things to males is that females represent salvation and immortality because they represent an opportunity for a man’s to pass on his genes, in this way accomplishing his primary purpose in biological life.

You do not have to lustfully glance at a nude painting in order to experience this promise of salvation. Even if you try to stay classy and do your best to avoid the “fall” that comes from sexually objectifying a female, your brain registers the female promise of sexual/biological salvation perfectly: it is only the fact that a fertile-looking female is depicted in the artwork that makes the art interesting as “erotic” art.

When artists draw nude females, they seek salvation. She is the worldly deity who can forgive us our faults, make us happy and give us all that we desire. She is the ultimate aim of existence once we ignore God. It is for this reason that all irreligious male artists are partly obsessed with drawing sexually attractive females (and almost no artist is willing to paint a nude old woman, unless he is the type of person who also likes to draw pictures of unsettling things).

Religious and spiritual artists, on the other hand, focus on nature, architecture, historical scenes and other asexual things that are going to be rather “boring” to males who have fully embraced their animal nature and believe in no higher ideal than salvation through women.

Many irreligious artists worship at the foot of women. They seek salvation, but since they have closed their hearts to mystical salvation, they become enamored of earthly salvation through the female. The desire for this salvation turns the female into an infinitely powerful and infinitely worthy goddess for the male. He places her on a pedestal and prays to her day and night. Turn toward me and give this humble, worthless servant some worth!

There are, of course, artists who believe in God yet also seek salvation through female nudity, mixing their worship of God with their worship of the female.

If you look at a picture gallery that hosts a random selection of images, some of which are beautiful nature scenes and others beautiful, half-naked females, you will instantly feel the extreme conflict between appreciating a nature scene and appreciating a nude female. The female calls you to a wholly different experience compared to the nature scene. And if you give in to her call, the nature scene becomes infinitely boring because the accomplishment of your biological salvation is right before you. Your earthly goddess captures all of your attention so that you have no interest in connecting with the heavenly God. The presence of a nude or half-nude female in a gallery on a website is a very jarring element (at least for males) that can totally ruin his enjoyment in the non-erotic pictures. Classical nude paintings are better in this regard because they are not so obnoxiously sexualized, allowing a man to continue to see a woman as a person rather than an object despite her nudity. However, no matter how well the artist manages to prevent us from sexualizing his nude subject (as Botticelli manages in his Birth of Venus), the fact remains that the painting is made up of two elements: the non-erotic beauty that points to God, and the eroticism that points to biological salvation.

To put it another way, had Venus been properly clothed, the painting would have been a better conduit of beauty. Her nudity conflicts with the moral uplift. It is a jarring element that causes a confusion in the male brain between his desire for spiritual salvation and his desire for biological salvation.

Below is Botticelli’s Venus with an abaya on, probably done by a Persian artist. Once you get over the comical aspect of adding hijab to a nude painting, you may realize that this painting lacks nothing compared to the nude version. It is just as beautiful and meaningful. Not just that, but it is actually better, because now the jarring element of the call for biological salvation is removed. One can appreciate it solely for its beauty, its real, morally uplifting beauty.1

For these reasons, as a Muslim I feel justified in considering nude art an improper and unnecessary category of art. It is merely the expression of the rather banal activity of males seeking salvation through the female body. It is true that eroticism is incredibly captivating. But for a spiritual person it is a dead end. It points away from God. It invites us to engage in fantasies of biological salvation that at best have nothing to contribute to our mission in life and at worst cause us to fall into seeking a false deity through female-worship.

This is not an expression of some sort of moral outrage about nude art, nor is it a call to destroy existing erotic art. But as civilized, self-respecting and God-fearing men, once we realize that nudity is merely a call to biological salvation, we should give preference to the higher salvation by avoiding nudity, whether in its production or consumption, and by seeking God through seeking beauty that lacks the jarring erotic element.

To experience beauty is to experience God. To experience eroticism is to experience your body’s desire for immortality through biological reproduction. To experience erotic beauty is to experience a beautiful thing with eroticism added on as a distraction. Removal of the eroticism removes the distraction without removing the beauty.

This essay is written from a male perspective since the key driver behind erotic art is (or so far has been) the male sex drive. It will be interesting to read a female philosopher’s take on the issue.

Beauty as Pointer: An Islamic Theory of Aesthetics

Why is this beautiful?

There is something special about beauty, as has been recognized by philosophers in the recent centuries. If someone says the above piece of architecture is ugly, I would judge them either liars or somehow morally corrupt.

When we appreciate beauty, we feel morally uplifted. This is very strange. Why should appreciating some design have any relationship with how I feel about myself?

This makes me feel like a better person.

This moral sense of beauty is wonderfully expressed by Roger Scruton in the following passage:

Our need for beauty is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition, as free individuals, seeking our place in a shared and public world. We can wander through this  world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves. The experience of beauty guides us along this second path: it tells us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us. But—and this is again one of the messages of the early modernists—beings like us become at home in the world only by acknowledging our ‘fallen’ condition, as Eliot acknowledged it in The Waste Land. Hence the experience of beauty also points us beyond this world, to a ‘kingdom of ends’ in which our immortal longings and our desire for perfection are finally answered. As Plato and Kant both saw, therefore, the feeling for beauty is proximate to the religious frame of mind, arising from a humble sense of living with imperfections, while aspiring towards the highest unity with the transcendental.1

My point in this post is to take those thoughts slightly further using my Islamic education, especially al-Ghazali’s simulation theory.

A beautiful Gothic cathedral is a “glitch in the matrix” that creates a state of awe in your mind best expressed in the Quranic verse:

Our Lord, You did not create this in vain, glory to You!2

The state of mind tells us that while from inside the universe things may appear meaningless and random, if we could only look beyond, we would see that they have an architecture and a meaning; history has a director; God exists and watches on.

Appreciating beauty leads to a certain state of the mind. The way that taking a drug creates a certain mental state, appreciating beauty too does something to the mind, creating a special mental state. This state of mind produced feels meaningful because it points beyond the here and now, beyond the confines of space and time, beyond the individual human, in short, beyond the universe itself.

In Islam, we use the word ayah (“a sign that points toward something”) to refer to anything and everything that points to God. It might be possible to explain all beauty using the ayah concept alone (although I am not perfectly sure):

A beautiful thing is anything that points the human mind to the transcendent, i.e. to God.

The similarity between mystical experience and the experience of beauty is well-established. That, according to my theory, is because they are the same thing. The state of awe that beauty forces upon us makes us feel infinitely small, makes us feel connected to something larger than ourselves and larger than the universe, and most importantly, makes us feel judged by an all-seeing subject, an eye that knows us better than anyone else and is ready to accept us.

That is where the morally uplifting nature of beauty comes from. When faced with beauty, just as we are casually judging it, we suddenly become aware of an eye that looks back and judges us in return. Something suddenly goes click inside our psyche, we are transported beyond our circumstances, and we are offered a chance to become better than we are. We are on the edge of a great revelation but we do not know what is being offered or who is offering it.

For me appreciating the Quran creates the same psychological experience as appreciating beauty, natural or man-made.

This Quran, in pointing to God, is a universe that speaks. And this universe, in pointing to God, is a silent Quran.3

Many Western hippies have visited Fez, Morocco in their seeking of meaning in life. While Morocco has much beauty to offer, meaning that it helps travelers come face-to-face with the all-seeing subject that looks back at us, judges us and offers us forgiveness as we try to judge beauty, the same experience can be had for much cheaper at home by looking at the architecture of most churches and their surrounding scenery.

Moroccan pottery.

Beautiful art, whether Islamic or Christian, points to God. The experience of beauty, whether in Fez or in the English countryside, is one and the same. Both point to God and make moral demands on us, promising us salvation in return for piety.

The problem with Fez and Turkey’s many tourist attractions is that beauty is devoid of moral teaching, therefore while a lover of beauty is elevated by it and motivated to seek God, if they do not go through with this seeking (through religion or at least through the effort of direct communion with God without religion), they end up as moral failures who never reach what they seek. They admire God through beauty but are too cowardly to talk to Him face-to-face.

I have met some of these unfortunate seekers who never become finders. The fact that you can experience the moral uplift of beauty means that you are capable of contemplating God’s face and communicating with Him. But there is a next step you have to take, which is to seek moral guidance. You can experience God, but Your God can speak, so why don’t you listen to what He has to say?

Most mysticism ends in narcissism. Rumi’s poetry, Morocco’s beauty and Gothic architecture all lift us up into the stratosphere like a thousand tons of rocket fuel, but if we are content with this experience, if we seek the experience itself without bothering to listen to God, then our mysticism and spirituality becomes self-worship. We appreciate art or chant the name of God and enjoy the uplift that comes with it, but the moment God starts speaking to us we shun Him and run away, as if saying O God, give us the good feeling of being close to You, but do not make demands. You are lovely, beautiful, amazing, but stay where I put you.

The narcissistic mystic does not chase God, he chases the feeling of what it is like to be close to God. The one who chases God is eager to listen to Him, while the narcissistic mystic feels inconvenienced by His voice.

Ugliness

If beauty is that which points to God, ugliness is that which points away from Him. Beautiful architecture “traces the contours of God’s face” so to speak, helping us know what it feels like to be near Him even though we cannot see Him. Ugly architecture, on the other hand, often present us with faceless edifices that point to nothing beyond themselves, almost claiming that God does not exist and they are all that there is:

Ugliness personified: Zaha Hadid’s gigantic faceless worms (Galaxy SOHO in Beijing, China)

There is nothing to relate to as a human in the above building. It is an alien, impenetrable thing that might be an alien organism capable of wiping humanity out for all that we know. Beautiful things help us come face-to-face with God and offer us salvation. Ugly things offer us nothing and tell us we are not needed. Ugly architecture offers us cruel and vacant faces, telling us life is meaningless and that there is nothing beyond. Like those dismal Soviet apartment blocks, they remind us of the hopelessness and meaninglessness of existence without God. They can be interesting to look at as technological marvels, as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles below, but they are as morally uplifting as a washing machine.

The cruel, blank, inhuman faces of modern architecture.

And as a cure for the horror of experiencing looking at the above building, here is something beautiful and humane, a building that seems to whisper to us about God, almost as if it is an angel who points to God and offer us everything we could desire if we choose to be morally upright:

Religious propaganda

An important clarification has to be made here. By saying that beauty is all that points to God and that all that points to God is beautiful, I am not referring to religious propaganda, which is often ugly.

A Muslim-made billboard that quotes a verse of the Quran and talks to Christians about how Islam is better for them is not going to create any mystical experience in the hearts of the Christians who view it, because they know there is a human will behind the billboard that cannot be automatically trusted. The billboard might use a beautiful verse and a beautiful design, but the attitude behind the object makes it fall flat. Propaganda-makers pretend to possess the whole truth and refuse to acknowledge their doubts and their human weaknesses. Propaganda tries to change the course of history, it is an expression of the desire for a group of humans to make another group of humans do their bidding (I am not saying this is always bad, it can be done with good intentions, but the point is that it is not beautiful; it is not morally uplifting).

Unlike propaganda, beauty has no human will behind it and does not claim to be perfect. It does not matter who funded the above building and for what purpose. It stands on its own and humbly points to God, without pompously thinking that it knows what your beliefs should be, what you should do with your life or how history should go. It merely helps you have an experience of God while leaving it up to you to discover the truth on your own.

There is a certain class of religious art that does make truth-claims but that is not propaganda because it is aimed at members of the religious community itself; it does not seek to change them but only to reaffirm their faith and worldview. Such art is experienced by us as beautiful provided that we are members of that community because the attitude behind it no longer matters since we share the same attitude as its creators. It does not pompously claim to know the truth or try to change your way of life. It uses beautiful imagery to re-create mystical experiences you have already had in the past. The unsavory ingredient of attitude and politics is not present, so the artwork can be appreciated for itself.

Above, what might be experienced as a threatening cultural incursion by a Christian if they were to see it hung as a poster on some wall in their city is experienced by a Muslim as an apolitical reminder of many beautiful-mystical things: Ramadan, the peacefulness of small Middle Eastern towns in the desert, the Prophet’s migration to Medina . For a Muslim it points to God in numerous ways. For a Christian, if they were to see it hung in the wrong place (on a church’s wall!) it would be a direct, political attack on their way of life and independence of conscience. A beautiful thing in the wrong context can send all the wrong messages; instead of causing mystical experience it can cause discomfort and dread.

Why God Allows Evil to Exist, and Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

Introduction

There is a surprising amount of confusion among the religious, even among clerics and scholars, when it comes to understanding why evil exists and why God stands aside when so much suffering happens throughout the world. Most of us express wonder when we see some horrible catastrophe happen, or when we see evil individuals, companies and institutions wield so much power. Some people even go so far as to blame God for the evil things that exist in this world, since if God had desired, He could have prevented such things from existing or happening in the first place. Others take this even further, using the existence of evil as proof of God’s non-existence. How can a good and supposedly all-powerful God stand by while so much evil happens? Where is our God?

There are good, perfectly logical explanations for these things, deep explanations that elucidate the purpose of this universe, our place in it, and our relationship with God, and through this give us perfectly good reasons for the existence of evil.

Why Evil Exists

What is the point of the existence of this world anyway? Many mistakenly think that the purpose of this world is to be a permanent residence where people judge whether God exists or not. They think that they can gauge God’s “level” of existence by the things that happen around them, so that given the right set of events, they will decide He is alive and active, and given others, they will decide He doesn’t exist, because if He existed, the world wouldn’t be the way it is.

A friend said that he once went on a trip abroad, and before he left, he asked God to protect three things that were most important to him in his life. During his trip, he lost all three, which included the dying of loved ones, and this made him decide that God doesn’t exist. He is a Buddhist now.

The above case is an example of earth-centric thinking, that considers this world a goal in itself. This is the core mistake that leads to millions of people misunderstanding, even disliking, God. That is a mistake because this world is nothing besides a testing hall where humans can freely choose to do as they like, to prove their worthiness of God’s approval or wrath. This world is not meant to be a permanent residence.

Most religions teach that an end of the world is coming. Regardless of religion, the universe is on track to become a dark, lifeless mass as the stars and galaxies die out. Everything is going to end, and what remains is the record of our deeds, kept by God. Even if we manage to create the greatest empire on earth, or write the most wonderful novel, none of our accomplishments will last.

One day the universe will shut down as if it never existed, and on that day what significance can our achievements have? This world is not meant as a permanent home of peace, but as a test. And a test requires that the possibility of failure should exist. If all humans acted according to God’s wishes, evil would not exist. But since God has given humans the freedom to disobey Him, they have the ability to do evil.

God is good, and evil is the absence of goodness, the same way that darkness is the absence of light. If God is Light, we cannot blame Him for the darkness we encounter when we turn away from Him, distance ourselves from Him, and act against His wishes.

Why didn’t God make the universe a place of wholesome goodness lacking in the possibility for evil? Because if evil could not exist, humans wouldn’t truly be free beings.

To be free, humans require the freedom to act against God along with the freedom to act for His sake. God wants to give humans perfect freedom to act and grow, so that they can be the best or the worst they want to be. Since humans have the freedom to act against God, and since to act against God is to create evil, humans have been given the freedom to create evil.

God did not make this world a perfect place because that is not its purpose. Imagine if you were a maker of creatures. If the creatures you made were controlled by their nature to do exactly what you put in them to do, they could never be truly your friends. They would be subservient robot-like machines that cannot help doing whatever you put in them to do.

But imagine if one day you wanted something more. You wanted to make creatures that could truly be your friends. The only way to have a true friend is to create a creature that can choose whether to be your friend or not. And so, you make creatures with free will, who can act according to whatever they wish, rather than according to your programming. Some of these creatures will choose to be your friends, others will ignore you, others will choose to be your enemies. They may fight among themselves, doing much evil to one another, and blaming you, their creator, for the evil they do, when in truth they should blame themselves, for they are the ones choosing to act the way they do. They have the freedom to be good, and many of them choose to be good, but some of them  choose to be evil instead.

The only thing we can blame God for is His creating us and giving us the freedom to be evil. This is a pointless blame. This is our reality and our fate, we cannot escape it. We have been thrown into this game regardless of our wishes, a game that forces us to choose to be either good or evil. We can debate the ethics of forcing people to choose between good and evil. But at the end of the day, we are forced to play this game. There is no dropping out.

Our Creator has done this to us, possibly against our will1, but we cannot get hung up over this fact, because our future holds something very important: Either eternal reward, or eternal punishment. Blaming God will not help our future. It may make us feel better now to hate God as so many do, but by making us think badly of God, this will reduce our chances of future success. The future is coming whether we want it to or not, and we have the power to make it a good or a bad future.2

Not all evil is done by humans. Droughts, floods and other natural disasters can cause much evil and suffering, and we can lose loved ones through car accidents and illnesses. Why doesn’t God prevent these things from happening if He loves us? Because, in order for the testing hall that is this world to be a true and consistent place of testing, God shouldn’t interfere with the functioning of nature3. The laws of nature should behave in such a way that makes sense even without reference to God. If we were as intelligent as we are, and yet we saw that nothing bad ever happened on earth, no car accidents, to illnesses, nothing, that everyone died in old age of natural causes, then this would be undeniable evidence of the existence of a higher power that protects humans.

God wants us to have the possibility of being atheists. It is one of God’s self-imposed rules that it should be impossible to directly detect His existence. And that requires that the functioning of this world should make perfect sense according to predictable scientific laws.

God wants us to believe in Him without seeing Him or knowing that He truly exists, because if it were possible to prove His existence, it would reduce our freedom to act against Him. God wants our universe to seem to make perfect sense without any necessity for His existence. This way we are given the freedom to discover Him and His Scriptures, and through our knowledge and conscience, we gain the ability to either follow His way or disbelieve in Him. Once we are given this knowledge, there is no turning away from the choice between good and evil.4

God wants our test to be a perfect test, in which we have perfect freedom to be good or evil. This would allow us to take credit for our actions. If God’s existence were proven, we’d be turned into slaves who cannot help but do as He says. We’d become merchants who act in our best interests by following God’s commandments. This is not what God wants. God wants us to be honored creatures who befriend Him not because we are forced to, but because we choose to. This is what gives worth to our friendship.

There is little honor in an employee acting according to his or her boss’s wishes, this is the expected behavior. While even this amount of obedience to a boss justifies reward, so that even if we had proof of God’s existence, we could still be rewarded for obeying Him5, God wants to take us beyond this boss-employee relationship. He wants to raise us to the status of honored friends, who act out of love and friendship, and out of our own efforts toward remembrance of God, rather than acting out of practical compulsion.

God wants us to be the servant who continues to love and serve his master, even though the master goes away for years, decades. What incredible honor and reward can await such a servant who faithfully loves and serves his absent master for 50 or 60 years, until he dies, even though the master never returns?6

God, by creating the possibility for the existence of true friendship between Himself and the humans He created, had to also create the possibility for the existence of true enmity between Himself and them. He wanted friends, but He knew that they couldn’t truly be called friends unless they had the option to be His enemies.

The evil done by humans on Earth is a doing of humans when they act against God, it is not a doing of God, therefore humans should be blamed, not God. And the evil done by nature is nature’s own doing, caused by the rules of physics, and God does not want to interfere with it because constant interference with nature would cause His existence to become apparent. It is necessary for disasters and accidents to be possible, as these prove to us the validity of nature’s rules, and allows the atheist the freedom to use these to prove that God doesn’t exist.

God and Nature shall always be apart, or seem to be apart, so that each one appears to function without the other. This is necessary, as this is what enables humans the freedom to choose between faith and disbelief, between good and evil. The world needs to make perfect, logical sense without having to refer to God in our thinking. It should be possible for us to believe that the world functions on its own without anything supernatural existing, this is what gives us the freedom to believe and disbelieve in God.

We need to be able to believe that the Master is absent. This is when the true nature of the servant comes through. Bad servants start to misbehave as soon as the Master looks away, and if the Master is away long enough, they entirely give up serving Him. They will start to loot His property and defile His name. But the good and honorable servant, even as he sees all of this happen, continues to have love and loyalty toward his Master. It makes no difference to him even if the Master never comes back. He keeps the remembrance of his Master in his heart, and he admonishes and encourages himself to continue to be the best servant he can be.

The world, the way it is, gives us the perfect opportunity to be this honorable and admirable servant. If evil did not exist, and if bad things did not happen, then there would have been no way for such servants of God to exist. We’d instead all be lowly and menial servants who never had a chance to disobey, and thus never had a chance to prove our loyalty toward God.

A world without evil and disaster would be a dysfunctional testing hall that cannot differentiate between the best and the worst of us. Without evil and disaster, God’s existence would be so clearly visible to us that most of us would cower in front of Him. A few people might be found who are daring enough to disobey God even in such circumstances, but the majority of people would kneel before God as they would before a great emperor, regardless of whether they had any loyalty toward Him.

A world that seems to be ruled by the cold, harsh laws of nature, and that completely hides the existence of God from our eyes, gives us the perfect opportunity to prove our loyalty to God. This world, with all of its problems, is the perfect testing hall, because of the problems it has.

Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

I will get around the metaphysical complexity of defining good and bad people by saying that a good person is anyone the reader thinks does not deserve to suffer, while a bad person is someone who does not deserve God’s protection.

Why good people suffer has already been mostly answered. If bad things never happened to good people, this would act as a proof of God’s existence and the invalidity of nature’s laws. If all good people lived to old age and died of natural causes, this would be easily detectable by even the simplest analysis.

There are religious people who wrongly think that if you are truly faithful, you will never suffer anything bad. When they see bad things happen to people, they try to find the reasons why the sufferers themselves are responsible for the suffering that has come upon them.

But disasters are a natural part of life, and it should affect good and bad people equally, or at least it should seem to do so. God does not want to be seen, so it should be impossible to detect miracles happening to save good people.

The suffering of good people proves that nature’s laws are real. If nothing bad ever happened to good people, but only happened to bad people, the fact would act as a proof of God’s existence, and this is what God does not want in this world. God wants us to follow Him and serve Him of our own free will, without any compulsion or strong inducement.

There would be millions, maybe billions, more believers if avoiding suffering was as simple as believing in God and serving Him. But these believers would be tantamount to fair-weather friends, who are on the bandwagon of faith only for their own immediate, short-term interest. They wouldn’t be loyal friends of God.

The world should occasionally give the faithful the impression that God has abandoned them. This is the true test of faith. Once all blessing seems to have gone from our lives, that’s when we look inside our hearts to find God again. If we weren’t true believers, if we only believed in God to ensure our own worldly good, then there would be no God in our hearts. We’d lose faith and abandon religion once we had the impression that God has abandoned us, like millions do.

But as for the truly faithful, when life gives us the impression that God has abandoned us, we continue to believe in God and to do our best to protect our faith. If our Master seems absent, it does not mean He has gone away forever. Only a dishonorable servant would start to act as if the Master is dead once He is gone away for a month or two. Those of us who truly believe in God, who love Him and want His friendship, and who have accepted to be His servants for eternity, will not abandon serving Him, regardless of what hardship and loneliness comes our way.

By the morning brightness

And [by] the night when it covers with darkness,

Your Lord has not taken leave of you, nor has He detested [you].

And the Hereafter is better for you than the first [life].

And your Lord is going to give to you, and you will be satisfied.

Did He not find you an orphan and give [you] refuge?

And He found you lost and guided [you],

And He found you poor and made [you] self-sufficient.
[Quran 93:1-8]

The possibility of good people suffering something horrible is nothing but an extension of these facts of life; the need for a proof of nature’s laws, the necessity for some suffering to prove one’s faith and virtue. God can inflict the greatest suffering on His most beloved servants, as He did with Abraham when He asked him to slaughter his beloved son, and as He did was Jacob in allowing him to believe, for years on end, that his most beloved son was dead, as this is how the greatest friends of God are raised to the highest ranks.

There can never be virtue without suffering. A virtuous act is one where we overcome our natural tendencies for the sake of God, and attaining virtue always has an element of suffering in it, small or great. A rich person who, out of love for God, refuses to practice usury to further enrich himself or herself, is doing a virtuous thing. Their suffering is that they watch their fellow rich men and women practice usury and see their wealth increase exponentially, while their own wealth increases slowly and is subject to far more risk.

And someone who attains virtue by working for a charitable cause, or by giving money to the poor, is also subject to a mild form of suffering (what economists would call “opportunity cost”), as they lose time and money that could have been used for something pleasurable.7

The possibility of good people suffering does not mean that blessedness in this world does not exist. As in the story of Joseph, God will allow suffering to happen, followed by periods of ease and enjoyment, followed by more suffering, until His servant is raised to the highest possible status. God will not leave his faithful servants abandoned alone to be entirely subject to the cold, harsh laws of nature, though it is necessary that it should appear so, so that God’s existence will not become apparent. The Quran says:

Whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, and who is a believer - We will surely cause him to live a good life, and We will surely give them their reward [in the Hereafter] according to the best of what they used to do.
[Quran 16:97]

Besides reward in the afterlife, the verse promises a good worldly life. The word used in the verse to mean “good” is tayyib, which can also be translated as “wholesome”. God will have a hand in the lives of good people, ensuring that despite the disasters they suffer, they will end up having wholesome, blessed lives. This, of course, cannot be proven, in accordance with God’s plan. But it can be seen in little things for those of us who have faith. The lives of believers seem to have more purpose. Their life stories seem better arranged and guided. This of course cannot be proven to an atheist, and it doesn’t have to be.

On the other hand, for disbelievers, people who knowingly rebel against God even though they believe in Him in their hearts, the Quran has this to say:

But whosoever turns away from My Remembrance, verily for him is a life narrowed down, and We shall raise him up blind on the Day of Judgment. He will say: "My Lord, why have you summoned me as a blind person when I was sighted?" He will say: "Thus did Our signs come to you, and you forgot them; that is why you have been forgotten this Day."
[Quran 20:124-126]

This verse, similar to the previous one, implies that there are worldly consequences for having (and in this case, not having) faith. Those who knowingly reject God will have a “narrowed down” life, also translated as “straitened” and “constricted”. Similar to how the lives of good people are blessed despite their hardships, the lives of evil people are constricted despite their joys and pleasures.

To put it another way, the general theme of a believer’s life is blessedness, while the general theme of a disbeliever’s life is constrictedness, a feeling of being oppressed by life. Both will enjoy periods of joy and periods of suffering, but through submitting to God, believers are blessed by God and are freed from many of the constraints of life, while disbelievers are, in general, and not very detectably, made to submit to the harshness and coldness of nature.

There will be a hidden hand of God that shields and guides the believer, while there is no such shield and guide for the disbeliever, and the world, itself a servant of God, treats them the way they like to be treated, as if God does not exist.

God could inspire us to always make the right choices in order to avoid all that is bad and to always gain what is good. But, besides making God’s existence apparent, this would reduce the value of our friendship with Him. A true friend of God is the one who keeps his faith in Him during difficulties, while a fair-weather friend of God is the one who only loves and worships God during times of peace and plenty, and whose faith is shaken whenever something bad happens to them (and plenty of such believers do exist).

The matter of ranks of God’s chosen friends in the afterlife is important, because it decides a person’s status in the afterlife for all of eternity. God does not want most of us to leave this world without having proven how good of a friend of God we are. That, in fact, is the main purpose of this world: To distinguish our ranks, from the very best of us to the very worst.

Some people die before they can prove themselves to God, for example infants. God allows this to happen because infant deaths are required by the laws of nature. And as for the poor infant, while their death is a tragedy in this life, in the afterlife God can choose to give them great reward without them having worked for it, since God’s generosity is not limited. He may also give them a higher status in the ranks of His friends than their parents as a reward for the parents, while also raising the status of the parents who kept their faith during the ordeal. A truly just God will not let an infant’s death go to waste.8

There are a thousand ways in which God can preserve eternal justice while allowing tragedies like infant deaths to happen, since this life is no more than a mere flicker compared to the eternity of the afterlife, and everything that happens here will one day be nothing more than a pale memory when a person has spent millions of years enjoying the rewards of the afterlife, close to family and friends and close to God.

Suffering is a natural part of a believer’s life. God does not ask us to stoically control our emotions, never letting any suffering show, to prove that we are faithful. Jacob was a prophet of God, and yet he cried so much after his son was believed dead that his eyes turned blind. There is no shame in sadness. God does not ask us to be super-human, but to keep faith alive in our hearts as we are subjected to life’s joys and sorrows.

Isn’t it Unkind for God to Punish His Creatures?

Think of God as Light. By staying close to Him, by following His commandments, we ensure our eternal good. No one is perfectly close to Him, each person is at some degree of distance. Eternal punishment is only for those who knowingly stray so far away from the Light that they knowingly wallow in complete darkness. Anyone who stays within the merest flicker of Light may gain God’s forgiveness and eternal reward.

Eternal punishment is necessary because that is the only way of ensuring that evil-doers don’t get away with their evil deeds. Many Jews (and Christians too) have become corrupted by the idea that they are God’s chosen children and that no matter what they do, they will eventually be forgiven. This is a highly dangerous thing to believe, because once you believe that you will never be punished eternally, then you can get away with anything. If you are an Israeli settler, who cares if you take over other people’s lands with violence. You are God’s Chosen, and you will be forgiven.

Once the idea of eternal justice is corrupted, then from that all evil follows. Even if people believe in an afterlife, if they think that there will be a limit on their punishment term, that they will burn for a thousand years and then will be freed to enjoy life for the rest of eternity, then many of them will not find it so bad to devolve utterly into sin, since they will eventually get away with it.

To preserve justice, people should not be able to get away with their crimes. During their lifetimes God gives them thousands of opportunities to repent and become better people. God believes that a human lifetime is sufficient to distinguish good people from bad, that it contains enough opportunities for humans to prove whether they deserve eternal good or eternal punishment. Every hour of every day contains opportunities for us to change, for better or for worse, and these small changes mount. There is a Light in this world and we can choose to either walk toward it or away from it every hour of every day. Every time we take a step away from it, we do it in the full knowledge that we have the chance to take a step toward it instead.

If we spend all of our lifetimes walking away from the Light by knowingly doing evil, we shouldn’t be surprised when one day we find ourselves in total darkness, hopeless of ever finding the Light again. It was our own choices that brought us here. For years and decades we had the option to turn back and walk toward the Light again, our consciences kept reminding us that we still had a chance to return to God, that God’s door was wide open to us, but instead we decided to keep walking away, chasing our shadow instead of chasing the Light.

Once a person falls into total darkness through their own choices, there will no longer be a point to extending their lives to let them come back. This is what Scripture claims, that once a person is totally surrounded by their evil deeds, they will never come back toward the Light. There is a point of no return, meaning that a person who crosses this point, even if given a lifetime of a hundred thousand years, it will not make a difference in their fate.

In fact, the Quran claims that such evil people, even if taken to the afterlife and shown all of the signs of God’s greatness, then brought back to earth, they will continue to be evil. Among some Christians there is the belief that people, no matter how bad, can be made to become good through education and reformation. The Quran, always unabashedly realistic, has a more satisfactory view, that guidance can only be had with God’s blessing, that even if someone fully understands God and believes in Him, they can still choose to be evil. The Quran goes beyond this, saying that once a person fully devolves into evil, not only will they become unreformable, but that God will actively prevent any reform, because they’ve done sufficient evil to seal their fate (as in the case of the Pharaoh of Egypt in the story of Moses).

If you could but see when they are made to stand before the Fire and will say, "Oh, would that we could be returned [to life on earth] and not deny the signs of our Lord and be among the believers."

But what they concealed before has [now] appeared to them. And even if they were returned, they would return to that which they were forbidden; and indeed, they are liars.

And they say, "There is none but our worldly life, and we will not be resurrected."

If you could but see when they will be made to stand before their Lord. He will say, "Is this not the truth?" They will say, "Yes, by our Lord." He will [then] say, "So taste the punishment because you used to disbelieve."

Truly, they have lost, those who deny the meeting with God , until when the Hour [of resurrection] comes upon them unexpectedly, they will say, "Oh, [how great is] our regret over what we neglected concerning it," while they bear their burdens on their backs. Unquestionably, evil is that which they bear.

And the worldly life is nothing but amusement and diversion; but the home of the Hereafter is best for those who fear God, so will you not reason?
[Quran 6:27-32]

The average person might be a sinner, but they do not fight against God every chance they get, and at the time of death they will likely possess enough light to be eligible for God’s forgiveness.

What are some examples of people who deserve eternal punishment? Usurers and their central bankers, who knowingly enslave millions to an evil, unnatural type of debt to enrich themselves, who orchestrate economic bubbles and bursts to reap trillions of dollars in profit while destroying the livelihoods of millions of families, and who plunge countries like the US into war after war, knowing that hundreds of thousands of innocent people will be killed, just so that they can earn their trillions financing these wars. A just God will not let these people go unpunished, and their punishment will not be something they can laugh at, it will not be a slap on the wrist like the US government gives to the usurers at Goldman Sachs every year when they are caught manipulating markets and destroying parts of the economy to enrich themselves. It will be something that will make them cry every single day for eternity.

I will not believe in a God who lets these people get away with the immense evil they do.

Conclusion

People make the mistake of considering this world their permanent home. They become attached to its blessings and disasters, and they think they can judge God based on what happens in their lives. But this world is nothing more than a tool for distinguishing God’s true friends from His fair-weather friends, and distinguishing these from His true enemies.

This world is nothing more than a preparation for the eternity of the afterlife. We would be wise not to become attached to its ups and downs, and to know that these are the days given to us by God in which we can prove ourselves to Him.

***

I originally published this essay as a short ebook on Amazon in 2015. I’ve decided to publish it for free here on my website, after thoroughly rewriting it, so that more people may (hopefully) benefit from it.