The Question of Suffering
WHEN WE EXPLORE the history of evolution in search of the causative factors which gave birth to the sensory organs as life evolved, we can safely conclude that right from the beginning they have always been the sense of loss and gain. We identify the journey of evolution to be a long procession of some obscure realization of gains and losses which gradually evolved the sensory organs to register the presence of pleasure and pain, comfort and suffering. If we look back at the lower forms of life, at the first few rungs of the ladder and compare them with the higher forms of life near the top, it is not difficult to recognize that in real terms the evolution is the evolution of consciousness. Life is constantly spiralling up from a lesser state of consciousness to a higher state with continuously sharpening faculties of awareness.
The awareness of gain and loss is rather vague and obscure in the beginning, and we cannot locate a definite seat for this awareness in the anatomy of rudimentary organisms. But we know from their reactions to the surrounding elements and situations that they do possess some defused sense of awareness. It is this diffused inexplicable sense which is employed somehow by the Creator to initiate the sense of perception in life. This sense of perception gradually developed and created its own seats in the organism of life. It is these seats which got precipitated ultimately into what we know now as sensory organs. The creation of the brain was not a separate and unrelated incident. No development of sensory organs could be meaningful without a corresponding development of a central nervous system and a simultaneous evolution of the brain, which could decipher the messages transmitted by the sensory organs. Evidently therefore, the brain developed as an essential counterpart of the system of perception. The more evolved the consciousness becomes, the more intense grows the sense of loss and gain felt by specific nerve centres which translate the awareness of loss as suffering, and gain as pleasure, to the mind through the brain.
The less developed the consciousness, the smaller is the awareness of suffering. The same goes for happiness. Thus, the sensory provisions for the recognition of suffering and happiness are indispensable to each other. It is quite likely that if the level to which suffering can be experienced is reduced, its opposite number, the capacity to feel pleasure and happiness, will also be lowered to the same degree. The two seem to participate equally in propelling the wheel of evolution; both possess equal significance. One cannot be done away with alone without the other, thus nullifying the entire creative plan of evolution.
We understand from the Holy Quran, that God did not create suffering as an independent entity in its own right, but only as an indispensable counterpart of pleasure and comfort. The absence of happiness is suffering, which is like its shadow, just as darkness is the shadow cast by the absence of light. If there is life, there has to be death; both are situated at the extreme poles of the same plane, with innumerable grades and shades in between. As we move away from death, we gradually move towards a state of life which is happiness; as we move away from life, we move away with a sense of loss and sorrow towards death. This is the key to understanding the struggle for existence, which in turn leads to a constant improvement in the quality of life and helps it to achieve the ultimate goal of evolution. The principle of the “survival of the fittest” plays an integral role in this grand scheme of evolution.
This phenomenon is mentioned in the Holy Quran in the following verse:
Blessed is He in whose hand is the kingdom, and He has power over all things;
It is He Who has created death and life that He might try you—which of you is best in deeds; and He is the Mighty, the Most Forgiving.
1. The answer to the question ‘Why is there suffering?’ is clearly implied in this verse in its widest application.
The profound philosophy of life and death, the innumerable shades in between, and the role they play in shaping life and improving its quality are all covered in the above verse. It is the very scheme of things that God discloses here. We know that life is only a positive value, and death merely means its absence, and no sharp border exists separating one from the other. It is a gradual process, the way life travels towards death and ebbs out, or from the other direction we view death travelling towards life gaining strength, energy and consciousness as it moves on. This is the grand plan of creation, but why has God designed it so? ‘That He might try you—which of you is best in deeds’, is the answer provided by the Holy Quran.
It is the perpetual struggle between life and death that subjects the living to a constant state of trial, so that all who conduct themselves best survive and gain a higher status of existence. Herein lies the philosophy and the machination of evolution as described in the verses above. It is this constant struggle between the forces of life and the forces of death which provide the thrust to the living to perpetually move away from death or towards it. It may result either in the improvement or deterioration in the quality of existence in the wide spectrum of evolutionary changes. This is the essence and spirit of evolution.
Suffering could only be considered objectionable if it were created as an independent entity with no meaningful role to play in the scheme of things. But without the taste of suffering or an awareness of what it means, the feeling of relief and comfort would also vanish. Without an encounter with pain and misery, most certainly, joy and happiness would lose all meaning. Indeed the very existence of life would lose purpose, and the steps of evolution would stop dead in their tracks.
Thus in the evolution of our five senses, the awareness of loss and gain has played an equally essential role like the two wheels of a wagon; remove one, and the other would also lose its meaning. The very concept of the wagon would be grounded. The struggle between life and death, which produces suffering, is also the means of creating pleasure. It is the primary motivating force which fuels the carriage of evolution to move forward eternally.
During the long history of evolution, disease has arisen from various causes, directly or indirectly related to developmental changes. Environmental variations, the struggle for existence, mutations and accidents, have all jointly or severally played their part. Disease, defects and shortcomings all have a role to play in effecting improvement. This is how various animal species went on evolving unconsciously it seems, but certainly with a direction, which appears to follow a consciously designed course towards greater consciousness.
LET US NOW try to conceive another scheme in which the element of suffering is set aside by the application of a hypothetical rule: all forms of life must be equally provided with an equal share of happiness with no portion of suffering at all. Perhaps then we shall be able to eliminate suffering altogether from afflicting life. There would be absolute equality and everyone would be placed on a level platform, but how and where should we introduce this new scheme? Alas! Wherever we attempt to introduce it in the long chain of evolution, we are bound to come across insurmountable problems. These new rules either have to be introduced at the very beginning of creation or not at all. To apply absolute equality at any following stage would be impossible without creating insoluble contradictions. We shall thus need to return to the point where life started.
We must go back all the way in the history of life; all the way to the very beginning and start to build the ladder of evolution anew, rung by rung. But try as we may, we are bound to get stuck at the very first step, the starting point of life. We would not be able to take a single step forward because an equal distribution of happiness and total absence of suffering would entirely eliminate the impetus for evolution. There would be no struggle for existence, no natural selection, no survival of the fittest. Not a single progressive step would be taken by the first, most rudimentary forms of life.
Picture the stage of life represented by the three earliest life units known to man, i.e. bacteria with nuclei, bacteria without nuclei and pyro-bacteria (born by the energy of fire). In this imaginary system there would be no competition for food or survival, because all are equally provided for; there would be no suffering either. As a consequence, in that hypothetical revised plan of creation, life would certainly remain stationary and stagnant, forever fixed at its earliest rudimentary form. The creation of man would remain a far cry from the point of its ancient beginning. Therefore the real question is whether to choose a system with suffering as its integral part, perpetually spiralling evolution in the greater interest of life, or to abandon the plan altogether for the fear of unavoidable suffering. In the final analysis therefore, the only question we are left with is, ‘To be or not to be’?
The rudimentary forms of life, if they had a brain to think, would much rather wish ‘not to be’ than ‘to be’ in such meaningless drudgery of existence.
Suffering is also associated with the idea of retribution and punishment. Glimpses of retribution can be witnessed in the animal kingdom only in a narrow and limited application. They can be observed in the behaviour of many animals of land, sea and air. Elephants and buffaloes are notorious for their propensity towards revenge. This gradually developing trait of life is inevitably linked up to the gradual synthesis of choice. To do something or not to do something can either be an intuitive compulsion or a calculated decision of mind. We are not yet certain about how far the element of choice plays a role in animal conduct, but we know that choice begins to play a vital role in the decision-making process of humans. Whether one moves towards light or darkness, towards life or death, is most often a conscious decision on the part of man. If therefore, as a natural consequence of man’s wilful actions, a reward is provided or penalty exacted, none else is to be blamed but man himself.
Sometimes people may suffer without realizing that they themselves are to be blamed—that there is a general principle of retribution operative in nature known as nemesis. They may have earned that suffering advertently or inadvertently, without identifying the cause. It is so because every fault does not result in an immediate punitive consequence. It often happens that nature executes justice against transgression imperceptibly.
However this is not the whole problem. It is far too complex, vast and intricate and needs to be further illustrated with the help of specific scientific examples, hypothetical or real. There are some very difficult cases to explain, like those of children born with certain congenital defects. Why are they made to suffer? It cannot be said that it is through any fault of theirs. If there is any fault it might have been of their parents, yet that may not have been intentional on their part. In this context the term “fault” should be understood in its widest application, covering even accidental occurrence of congenital diseases. Such faults are far from being conscious crimes. Whatever the nature of the particular cause of some defect, one thing is certain that the poor innocent child who is born with any disadvantage is not responsible for the cause of this suffering in any way.
The solution to the understanding of this problem lies in the realization that all suffering cannot be categorized as punishment, nor all happiness as reward. There is always a small percentage of individuals who will seem to suffer as though without justification. However, a closer more careful examination of such cases would reveal that there is no question of wilful injustice involved. They are merely an unavoidable by-product of the wide plan of creation, but they also play a meaningful role in the general advancement of human society.
One must not forget that ’cause and effect’ is one thing and ‘crime and punishment’ is quite another, however closely they may seem to resemble each other. It is correct to say that a crime may work as a cause and every punishment that may ensue would be an effect of that causative crime. But it is not correct to claim that every suffering is a punishment of some crime committed before. It is wrong to say that all healthy babies are healthy because they are rewarded for some act of goodness of their parents. So also it is wrong to maintain that every unhealthy baby is punished for an unidentified crime of its parents or forefathers. Health and disease, ability and disability, fortune or misfortune, congenital advantages or disadvantages are themselves but indispensable to the grand scheme of things, in which they play a causative role. They are distinctly apart from the phenomenon of crime and punishment, goodness and reward. As we have discussed above, suffering, like happiness, is an essential prerequisite for life to evolve and in the course of evolution it is not related to the phenomenon of crime and punishment at all. Suffering in its causative role produces a wide spectrum of useful effects which amply justify its existence.
Suffering has been a great teacher, cultivating and culturing our conduct. It develops and refines sensibilities, teaches humility and in more than one way, prepares humans to be able to turn to God. It awakens the need for search and exploration and creates that necessity which is the mother of all inventions. Remove suffering as a causative factor in developing man’s potential and the wheel of progress would turn back a hundred thousand times. Man may try his hand at altering the plan of things, but frustration would be all he will achieve. Thus, the question of apportioning blame for the existence of suffering upon the Creator should not arise. Suffering, to play its subtle creative role in the scheme of things, is indeed a blessing in disguise.
The secret of all scientific investigation and discovery lies in a constant quest for the relief of pain and discomfort. The motivation behind scientific exploration and discovery is based less on a desire to gain luxuries than on a need to escape pain. Luxury itself is, after all, a further extension of the same tendency to move away from a state of discomfort to a state of comparative ease.’
Let us once again examine the scenario of the ‘innocent sufferers’, the newborn babies with congenital defects or those falling ill at a later age with typhoid or some other disabling disease, rendering them blind, deaf and dumb, or even partially or totally paralysed for life. Worse still may be the case of those, whose central nervous system is damaged by mishaps during birth, resulting in mental disorders. Is the question valid: Why this particular child, A or B? Why not another, say for instance C or D? Would not the same question repeat again and yet again: Why C or D? Why not E or F and so on? The only valid question therefore, would be: Why anyone at all? Hence the only option the Creator is left with is either to create all babies equally healthy or equally unhealthy. This leads us to the realization that the health of a baby itself is merely of relative value. Perhaps it is hard to find any two babies equally gifted with the health of mind and heart and all the physical organs alike. To resolve the question of suffering, there is another valid question to be raised against the Creator. If one child is born with pinhole eyes and a large ugly nose and other disproportionate features, will he not suffer all his life comparing his disadvantages with the advantages of other more fortunate fellow human beings?
Inequality of health and looks will continue to irritate most individuals and will even agonise some at finding themselves to be at a disadvantage in comparison to others. Does it not warrant in the name of absolute justice and fair play that God should create every human exactly alike in health and looks? Widen the area of comparison by bringing into play the faculties of head and heart and disposition and the contrast between those who have advantages and those who have disadvantages will become even more pronounced. In the absence of extreme cases even the mild cases will appear offensive to the sense of justice. One has to begin somewhere to create variety and diversity to break the monotony. Wherever there is variety and diversity, comparative suffering and happiness are bound to be generated. To object against the plan of things in the name of compassion for disabled children is one thing, but to replace the plan with a more just and compassionate viable plan is quite another. One may try one’s hand at altering the scheme for aeons of time but one will still not be able to replace the plan of God’s creations for a better one. In other words, we shall be again reverting to the question of why any disease and suffering at all; why should they be inevitable? One answer to this question, we have already given above.
LET US EXAMINE the same question from yet another perspective: from the viewpoint of an atheist as well as from the viewpoint of a believer in God.
For the atheist, strictly logically speaking, there should be no problem to be resolved—there should be no question to be answered. They do not owe their existence to any creator, and no creator is accountable before them if they find any distortion in the random unrolling of creation. For every suffering, every misery, every unequal distribution of happiness, nothing but chance is to be blamed and that realization ends the age-old debate. Chance being the creator, or nature, as we may call it, being unconscious, deaf and dumb, blind and chaotic cannot be blamed for any flaw in what is born out of chaos. The outcome of chance, without a creator, has to be blind and disorderly, without reason, without design, without direction.
For those who believe in God, the Creator, there should be no problem either, because they see enough direction, balance and purpose in creation, to submit to the wisdom of the plan in its totality. An odd thorn jutting out here and there from a most artistically arranged, colourful and fragrant bouquet of flowers will not provide sufficient cause for the rejection of the bouquet, or will it?
If the atheist’s scepticism is correct, then death seems to be the only solution for the drawn out misery of the innocent sufferers. If the believer’s scenario of creation is right, then death again acquires the role of a redeemer, but in a completely different way. For them, death acts only as a gateway to the life after death, which will usher the innocent sufferers into an era of unlimited reward. If they could only dream of what rewards were waiting for them in the Hereafter as compensation for their transient misery on earth, they would smilingly jog along despite suffering as though it were mere pinpricks or an odd thorn on the way to an eternal life of comfort and happiness.
Some people may not accept this and may still insist that they are not satisfied because there is no God and no life of reward or punishment after death. For them there is no value in this answer. If so, then the question should not be discussed at all. The question, they should remember, can only be discussed in relation to the role of God as Creator. The question of morality, the right and wrong of something, arises only with the belief in the existence of God. If there is God, then the suggestion of a possible compensation presented above cannot be dismissed merely with a scornful chuckle. If there is no God, then we cannot blame Him or anyone else for any chance suffering that we may encounter. We must then take life and all that pertains to it merely as an accident without meaning, without direction, without goal. Suffering has to be accepted as a part of nature, as something that cannot be done away with and cannot be run away from. Either way, one must learn to live with suffering.
Of course, suffering is a vital constituent of the motive force of evolution. However the question of balance between suffering and the pleasure derived from the consciousness of existence, remains to be decided. If, in this simple equation, suffering offsets the deep-rooted satisfaction born out of the awareness of one’s existence, then most people would rather die than live to suffer. If most of those who suffer would much rather lose conscious identity of existence than compromise with unhappiness, then the very wisdom of such a plan would be called into question. But that, which we actually observe in real life, is exactly the opposite of what is suggested above. Life dearly clings to the very awareness of its existence, sometimes even at the price of immense misery and unhappiness. That is the predominant rule with minor exceptions too insignificant by comparison.
Again we should remember that the perspective of suffering is variable. It constantly keeps changing when viewed from different angles of observation. Those who are healthy themselves perceive the state of a subnormal child as that of extreme suffering, but those who are placed at an even lower level of deprivation than the subnormal child in question may look up to him with envy.
N A MUCH WIDER CANVAS, each form of life is either superior or inferior to the forms of life below or above it respectively. Throughout the process of evolution our awareness of values has kept changing as they evolved from lower to higher orders. The stages that occur in the upward spiralling course of evolution, when looked down upon from a higher vantage point, appear to be at a disadvantage. The higher forms of life cling dearly to the greater awareness of values which they have gained over millions of years of evolution. Any reversal or loss of such values and faculties would inevitably result in suffering, which by itself is indispensable for the promotion of the same values. Consider the state of worms in comparison to some higher forms of life, and compare yet again the state of those higher forms of life in comparison to the more advanced animal species placed even higher in the ladder of evolution. They all are certainly not equally gifted. The worms that thrive on the product of organic decay and filth could not by any means perceive themselves to be at par with the freely roaming wild horses, grazing in prairies on tender grass. Yet they cannot perceive themselves at a disadvantage either. Theirs are two different worlds, different faculties, different requirements and different aspirations—if aspirations could be attributed to worms at all!
Thus this imbalance does not suggest that they have been the target of any injustice. Visualize, for instance, the case of a few happy healthy worms. They all seem to be perfectly adjusted to their environment which in turn is well adjusted to them. They are fully content with the faculties they are provided with, and are incapable of yearning for things beyond the scope of their senses. Yet, if a human child were to be offered to exchange his suffering state of life with that of a happy contented worm, would he not rather die than to accept this option of living the lowly existence of a worm?
The very awareness of one’s life and the higher status one occupies in the grades of life is sufficient in most cases to offset the disadvantage of suffering. It transpires that suffering is after all a relative state. The source of suffering is embedded in the sense of deprivation. It is the awareness of loss of some familiar cherished values which generate a sense of pain. It can only happen when one has already tasted the pleasure of such values or has observed others enjoying them. The loss of such values once enjoyed or the knowledge of others possessing them, while one cannot, are two powerful factors which generate pain. But the lack of such values, the nature of which one does not perceive cannot cause suffering. What is pain after all, if not mere signals of a variety of losses? Despite the fact that we cannot always relate all our varied encounters with pain to specific bereavements, an in-depth study would always reveal that every sense of pain is inseparably connected with a corresponding sense of loss.
The creation and evolution of sensory organs owe their existence to interminably long encounters with loss or gain. They are the two most potent creative factors created by God. All the five senses which we possess are the products of our awareness of them, as discussed before, which during a billion years of our evolution, gradually materialised into sensory perceptive mechanisms. Suffering and happiness could not by themselves have created the mechanism of consciousness. To register their presence without such mechanisms, they themselves would cease to be. How then can nothingness create anything? Unconsciousness cannot design and create consciousness even in trillions of years. It has to be a conscious Creator to endow death with consciousness and create life out of it. The Most Masterly Creator seems to have employed pain and pleasure in an, as yet, unknown manner to create the very organs which perceive them. Remove the pain as an instrument in the making of this masterpiece of creative wonder and life will be rendered into a senseless mass of vegetation, not even aware of itself. Are a few odd cases of misery and deprivation too big a price to pay for the prodigious marvel of consciousness?
Let us remind the reader that Islam defines evil only as a shadow created by the lack of light. It is not a positive existence in itself. We can imagine a source of light (a lamp or the sun), but we cannot imagine any object as a source of darkness. The only way in which an object becomes a source of darkness is through its ability to obstruct light. Likewise, it is only the absence of goodness that constitutes evil. The grades of evil are only determined by the opacity of the obstructing medium.
Likewise, it is the awareness of possession which constitutes happiness. Any loss or threat of loss to possession constitutes pain or agony. But they must coexist in an equation of positive and negative poles. Remove one, and the other will disappear. Hence no one on earth can interfere with the creative design of pain, pleasure, goodness and evil and succeed in altering the plan of things. It is beyond the reach of human compassion to efface suffering without effacing life itself.
Translation of 67:2–3 by the author.