Answer to Arun Shourie: 'Suffering is also a blessing'

In his book, Does He Know a Mother's Heart, Arun Shourie raises the question, "How can extreme suffering be so commonplace if there is a God who knows everything, who is all-powerful and also compassionate?" He argues that answers offered by religious texts lead inevitably to a conception of God who is all-powerful yet punitive, arbitrary, and tyrannical. A better solution may lie instead in embracing a life of devotion and service that isn't reliant on divine will. 
On Tuesday, we published an excerpt from Shourie's book that pointed out troubling flaws in Gandhi's faith-based explanations for the Bihar earthquake in 1934 and the plights of Jews in Nazi Germany. Today, we present two contrasting views on the broader questions raised by Shourie's book. Below is our email interview with renowned Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin  Khan. 

Arun Shourie makes the case that suffering, especially suffering of the innocent and children, negates the idea of all religions. All religions say suffering has a purpose, and try to rationalise it – as punishment of god for something wrong we did, in this life or the past. Or by saying that the suffering was necessary for us to learn something — patience or forbearance — from it. But if God is all-knowing, wasn't there a better way to teach us these things without suffering?

 A priest of the ancient Samaritan community, wrapped in a prayer shawl, holds up a Tora scroll as worshippers pray during the holy day of Shavuot on Mount Gerizim in Nablus, West Bank. Shavuot is a Jewish religious holiday and commemorates the anniversary of the day God is said to have given the Torah to the Israelites.  Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

A priest of the ancient Samaritan community, wrapped in a prayer shawl, holds up a Tora scroll as worshippers pray during the holy day of Shavuot on Mount Gerizim in Nablus, West Bank. Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Suffering is only a negative name for experience. The fact is that God Almighty has created us with great potential, and it is our job to turn this potential into actual. During this process, sometimes, we achieve and sometimes we lose. But, both these are temporary. It is the temporary nature of the experience of life that creates challenge.

Challenge creates competition, and competition leads to different kinds of experience. It is this challenge-response mechanism, through which we unfold our potential. The fact is that both achievement and failure are relative. From both, we learn and draw lessons. Thus, through the challenge-response mechanism, the journey of life goes on.

People generally believe that he is fortunate who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. But those who are deprived of the “silver spoon” were born with a greater thing and that is the incentive spoon. In practical life, “incentive spoon” is more important than the silver spoon. According to the law of nature, suffering is only a blessing in disguise. Dr APJ Abdul Kalam is a case in point.

Suffering of innocent children is also a blessing. Previously, they were called disabled. Now, after research it is established that they are not disabled but they are differently-abled. One such example is of a well-known British scientist, Stephen Hawking.

The concept of an omniscient, omniscient God in almost all religions flies against the concept of free will. If He/She knows all, is He just watching the fun as  we blunder along? What kind of God is that?

This question can be answered by understanding the Creation Plan of God. God Almighty has created man and has given him total freedom. There is no contradiction between the all-knowing nature of God and total freedom of man. God is all-powerful and along with this, He also has the power to hold back His power. Dark matter is in fact bright, but we cannot see it because it has held back its light. This is a demonstration that God can contain His power so that man continues to possess the freedom to act in whicShourie's hever way he wants.

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Even Gandhi, when confronted with a terrible Bihar earthquake in 1934, says it must have been divine retribution for Indians tolerating the evil of untouchability. More recently, in 2009, Indonesia’s Communication Minister Tifatul Sembiring, said the country was racked by quakes because of the immorality of watching TV shows. Televangelist Pat Robertson said the devastating earthquake in Haiti was sent by god to teach them a lesson. Iranian cleric Hojatosalem Sedighi said quakes came because women did not dress modestly. What’s the linkage between a calamity that strikes everyone – and not just sinners – and wanton acts of god?

I don’t believe in this kind of explanation. Earthquake is a physical phenomenon; it has nothing to do with the theory of punishment. The theory of punishment is a product of some persons; it has no mention in the scriptures.

The Miraculous "Crying" Icon of the Mother of God of Kazan, brought from the village of Kazachinskoye. Ilya Naymushin/Reuters.

The Miraculous "Crying" Icon of the Mother of God of Kazan, brought from the village of Kazachinskoye. Ilya Naymushin/Reuters.

As man has created God in his own image, why should he not be held to the same ethical and moral standards we expect of humans? Why should his deeds and creation not require evidence or justification?

God is all-right. There is no defect in the physical universe. The whole universe is a zero-defect industry. The theory of evil pertains only to a very tiny part of the world, that is, human life. This phenomenon is due to misuse of freedom by humans, it has nothing to do with God Almighty’s attributes.

Why is proof required in every field outside religion but not in matters of blind faith?

There is a difference between belief and superstition. True belief is based on rational proof. It is superstition that has no proof, and superstition is not a part of religion, it is a part of irrational culture.

Events that till recently were held to be god’s work – rainbows or eclipses – were subsequently explained by science. What is the guarantee that the remaining claims of religion will not be solved by science and greater human knowledge?

Religion never tried to explain the phenomena of rainbow or eclipses; these kinds of superstitions were part of culture and not part of religion. And it is a fact that religion and culture are quite different phenomena. Culture is man-made, while religion is that which was directly revealed by God. It is not the job of religion to explain physical phenomena. The domain of religion is spirituality.

When it comes to scriptures and holy books, the plain meanings are often awful. A passage that asks you to kill for a holy purpose would not be tolerated anywhere except in a holy book. But preachers ask you to look beyond the obvious to hidden meanings? Isn’t this a fraud on believers?

No holy book asks people to kill others. This is found only in some cultures, and culture is not a necessary part of religion or holy books.

What is the use of godmen, preachers, priests and other clergy when they make us depend on God when what matters are the choices we make – whether it is the decisions we take or the attitude we bring to our suffering or lot in life?

Experience shows that man has some limitations. Due to these limitations, we time and again face those situations where we feel we have reached a blind alley, and that we won’t be able to overcome the problem on our own. It is at this juncture where we need God Almighty. Seeking God’s help is only to compensate for our limitations and it is, therefore, a blessing for man.

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan is a renowned Islamic Spiritual Scholar and Founder of Center for Peace and Spirituality International. Known for his Gandhian views, he considers non-violence as the only method to achieve success. Internationally recognized for his contributions to world peace, he has received, among others, the Demiurgus Peace International Award, the Padma Bhushan, the Rajiv Gandhi National Sadbhavna Award and the National Citizen's Award. 


Published Date: Aug 10, 2011 04:47 pm | Updated Date: Aug 10, 2011 04:52 pm