We all make mistakes. We all say things we later regret. Yet, Stephen Fry’s comments which have been under investigation by Police in the Republic of Ireland about meeting ‘God’ caused quite the controversy among his friends and foes. When asked what Fry would say on approaching ‘God’ at the ‘pearly white gates’ he responded:
“I will basically…that is the odyssey…I think I’d say, ‘Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. Its utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?’ That’s what I’d say.”
Fundamentally, Stephen Fry questions a ‘God’ who would create suffering in the world. Fry chose bone cancer in children as an example, but there are many more examples: starving children in India; migrant Africans drowning in the ocean; raped women the world over. The world is full of suffering, teeming with injustice.
This is not a new question and is one which man has grappled with since time immemorial. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, whilst appearing on Newsnight, struggled to find an adequate reply:
“It’s interesting that already in the Psalms and the book of Job, you’re beginning to have that kind of protest voice within religious communities. It would be a very, very stupid and insensitive person who never felt that.
“But to me what’s mysterious is the fact that people in the heart of suffering, people who are alongside children with bone cancer still, somehow, maintain a faith, a trust of some kind. And that has to be mysterious, that has to be something that makes one draw back a little bit from simply saying well ‘It’s all God’s fault and that’s it’. And I’d also rather like to hope that if Stephen Fry actually met God, he’d wait for the reply.”
For Muslims this is easier to answer. Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) created everything. Allāh created both good and evil. In the Qur’ān, Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) says:
“He who created death and life to test you [as to] which of you is best in deed – and He is the Exalted in Might, the Forgiving.”
Once we appreciate that Allāh created both good and bad, the question as to why then naturally follows.
If we take a young child with bone cancer for example. Let’s call her Maryam, aged two. Maryam is in excruciating pain; her mother sleeps beside her in hospital, holding her at night as Maryam sobs whilst trying to hold back her own maternal tears. The exhausted father sits by her bedside, constantly reciting the Qur’ān on his daughter, and neighbours and the extended family take turns bringing food and offering comfort and moral support.
Calamity compels us to react in one of two ways; we either flee to Allāh or run in the other direction. This family have decided to turn to the One who decreed the trial and beg Him (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) to grant an urgent cure, patience and mercy. Much good has come from this tragic event. The parents have drawn closer to Allāh, perhaps they perform the night prayer, voluntary fasts and give more in charity. Perhaps the uncle who had strayed from Islām sees his favourite niece suffering and decides to repent, hoping Allāh will then listen to his supplication. Perhaps a non-Muslim medic will look into Islām seeing the noble example of this patient and dignified family. Perhaps an estranged family member will decide to provide dinner for the family and elects to build bridges which were once seemingly burned. So much goodness can come from something so tragic. The test was not only for her parents, but the entire community. In a ḥadīth qudsi, the messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) says:
“Allāh will say on the Day of Judgment, ‘O son of Ādam, I was sick and you did not visit Me.’ He will say, ‘O my Lord, how could I visit You, when you are the Lord of the Worlds.’ Allāh will say, ‘Did you not know that My servant so-and-so was sick and you did not visit him? Did you not know that if you had visited him, you would have found Me there?’ Allāh will say, ‘O son of Ādam, I asked you for food and you fed Me not.’ He shall say, ‘O my Lord, how could I feed you and you are the Lord of the Worlds?’ And Allāh will say, ‘Did you not know that My servant so-and-so was in need of food and you did not feed him? Did you not know that if you had fed him, you would have found that to have been for Me?’ ‘O son of Ādam, I asked you for water and you did not give Me to drink.’ The man shall say, ‘O my Lord, how could I give You water, when You are the Lord of the Worlds?’ Allāh will say, ‘My servant so-and-so asked you for water and you did not give him to drink water. Did you not know that if you had given him to drink, you would have found that to have been for Me.’”
But what about this child with bone cancer? Though it is true, to an extent, that she knows only pain and suffering, it is a short-sighted standpoint. What if we consider that death is only a bridge to the afterlife – one of eternal happiness. Would we feel that sorry for her in the end? Let us consider this little girl playing in the fields of Paradise with her adoring family for an eternity. A pleasure that will never end in exchange for a few years of suffering in this life is surely a profitable trade.
Some Christian theologians use the concept of ‘original sin’ as an explanation for all the evils in the world created by a perfect God. Original sin is an Augustine Christian doctrine that says every child is born sinful, possessing the urge to disobey God and commit sins. It is not only a spiritual disease that is inherited but so too is the condemnation that comes with it. It is for this reason that Augustine preached infant baptism. Then what of those infants who are not baptised? What is their fate? This has been a contentious issue for the Catholic church, and deeply distressing for many Catholic parents who have lost their baby to stillbirth, miscarriage and sudden infant death syndrome. It took the Catholic church 2,000 years to address the issue. It was previously taught that the unbaptised infant was in ‘limbo’, however in 2007 the International Theological Commission stated that there was “hope for salvation for infants who die without being baptised”. But they issued a caveat:
“It must be clearly acknowledged that the Church does not have sure knowledge about the salvation of unbaptized infants who die.”
Islām is far more forthright. We believe every child is innocent, free of sins and, by the mercy of Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā), will either enter Paradise or be tested in its own way according to divine mercy and justice. Rather than place doubt on the salvation of such an infant, Islām comforts Muslim parents confirming the child’s final abode and goes further to say that the infant may well be the cause of the parents entering paradise, if they take heed. Abū Hassan (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) came to Abū Hurayrah (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) and asked him:
“Two of my sons have died. Can you narrate to me any ḥadīth from the Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) which will console us for our loss?”
Abū Hurayrah (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) answered:
“Yes: Their little ones are the little ones (da’āmīs) of Paradise. When one of them meets his father – or his parents – he takes hold of his garment – or his hand – as I am taking hold of the hem of your garment, and he does not let go until Allāh admits him and his father to Paradise’.” 
As unimaginably painful as it may be, whoever loses a child in this life should know they will be reunited with them in the next life, the final abode, inshāAllāh.
Let us return to Maryam who is skipping in the gardens of Paradise, drinking from its rivers and eating from its fruits. Were we to ask Maryam which she would choose between on the one hand living for 80 years on Earth with no guarantee of Paradise, suffering life’s trials and tribulations, afflicted by the pangs of death and standing on the Day of Judgement which lasts for 50,000 years, or on the other hand suffering as she did but with the guarantee of Paradise which lasts an eternity; what do you imagine her answer would be? If we were offered a similar bargain, who among us would not take that deal?
Evil necessitates the need for good to combat it. If there was no starvation, how could we feed the poor? Without orphans, how could we attain the reward for building an orphanage? Life is a trial; it is our response to the trial, whether we are the one afflicted by the evil or the one correcting it, that differentiates those who are successful from those with regret.
One of the greatest trials is to lose your child. It goes against the natural order of life. Our noble Messenger (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) too went through this most difficult trial. The beloved of Allāh did not just have to show patience once, but it was six times that he had to bury his own child. The Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said:
“Trials will continue to befall the believing man and woman, with regard to themselves, their children and their wealth, until they meet Allāh with no sin on them.”
When burying his son Ibrāhīm, the Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam), with tears in his eyes, said:
“The eyes bear witness to what the heart feels, but the tongue does not say anything which displeases the Lord.”
In this most testing time we see the best of mankind demonstrating beautiful contentment with Allāh’s decree. While this is admirable, it is not obligatory on Muslims going through a trial to show this level of sabr (patience, perseverance). Allāh’s essence is Mercy. He is al-Raḥmān, al-Raḥīm. Each and every trial for a believer is a mercy because it serves as purification. Whilst we may find it difficult to appreciate this at the time, oftentimes a little while later we can see the wisdom of Allāh’s decree. We just need to trust Allāh and know that He (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) loves us more than our own mothers.
But just like testing times bring out the best in good people, it brings out the worst in heedless, ignorant people. Stephen Fry arrogantly and ignorantly challenged ‘God’ stating categorically that “misery” is not our fault.
But is it God who drops barrel bombs? Is it God who abuses underprivileged children? Is it God who killed half the population of the Congo so its riches could be stolen and sent to Belgium? Is it God who enslaved an entire continent to benefit the ancestors of Stephen Fry and his ilk?
Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) says in the Qur’ān:
“Whatever reaches you of good, is from Allāh, but whatever befalls you of evil, is from yourself. Allāh has sent you (Muḥammad) for mankind as a messenger, and Allāh is Sufficient as a Witness.”
Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) teaches us that the evil we see in the world is due—in part—to our own actions and sins as a species. We only need look at the world to see the reality of this āyah. Compound interest bearing loans have crippled developing countries with debt now standing at a staggering 4 trillion dollars, food wastage in rich countries (222 million tonnes) is almost equivalent to food production in sub-saharan Africa (230 million tonnes); the elite are aided in avoiding tax through complex avoidance schemes whilst the poor, single mother living in a housing estate gets locked up for benefit fraud; multi-national corporations escape tax; wars are waged to secure natural resources and despotic dictators hang onto power at any cost. The world is teeming with unspeakable injustice from our own hands and our own lack of action.
A distinction should be drawn between a trial Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) places on a person such as illness, loss of wealth and bereavement, and evil which Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) allows to happen out of his wisdom and justice. The Islamic doctrine teaches that man has free will to do good as well as evil.
Misfortune may befall a believer either as an expiation and wake up call for his sins or as a test due to his obedience to Allāh. Any difficulty that befalls a believer, be it as small as a paper cut or as great as bereavement, only serves to cleanse him of his sins and raise his rank in Paradise if he shows patience. What a merciful, caring and generous Rabb we have.
Stephen Fry also accused ‘God’ of being capricious. For a man famed for supposed intellect, this is a surprising demonstration of ignorance. ‘God’ has made it abundantly clear that there is a Paradise for those whom He (subḥānahu wa taʿālā) is pleased with and a Hell for those who angered Him. When Fry does finally meet his maker and should he find himself able to repeat himself, what does he expect the response will be? What will Fry do if the Lord of the heavens and the earth is angered? With whom will Fry seek refuge against the Wrath of Allāh? To whom will Fry seek protection if Allāh decides to throw him into the Hellfire?
The knee-jerk answer of heedless people will be no doubt that they claim not to even believe in God’s promise in the first place, and the response to mentioning hereafter reward and punishment may be met with an obstinate mockery. But instead of building an entire structure of a fallacious argument on such foundations, they would do much better to actually research and address this contention in particular; and no doubt those that do so with an open mind often surprise themselves.
As for those of us who are past the initial hurdle of sound sources of information about the nature of this life as a test, and the consequences of success and failure, we should, every one of us, reflect on the majesty of the Creator of the Sun which burns at 15 million0C when we consider the highest temperature recorded on Earth is a mere 56.70C.
The truth is, when the arrogant who challenge Allāh out of a compounded ignorance eventually do meet Allāh (subḥānahu wa taʿālā), they will be a quivering wreck, exposed. Unless, of course, they use the mind Allāh gave them and overcome the urges of their lower ego and repent beforehand. Regardless, we should all pay heed to Allāh’s stern warning:
“Soon I will cast him into Hellfire. And what will explain to you exactly what Hellfire is? Nothing does it permit to endure and nothing does it leave alone. Burning the skins.”
As for any Muslims who struggle to reflect and ponder over life’s calamities to see their wisdom, remembering a simple fact will ensure that our questions are borne out of sincere enquiry and not obstinate disobedience: The One whose decree you may struggle to see mercy in, is the one who instilled that mercy into your nature in the first place! It is, after all, a tremendous fallacy to worry about whether or not Allāh will deal with someone justly or mercifully, since it is not only confirmed with certainty that He is the most just and most merciful, but He is also the most knowledgeable and most wise—whilst our sense of mercy and justice is often, as we have seen, tainted by ignorance and emotions.
 Al-Qur’ān, 67:2
 Muslim, Hadith no. 4661
 Sahih Muslim, Book 32, Number 6370
 At-Tirmidhi, Number Volume 4, Book 10, Number 2399
 Al-Qur’ān, 4:79
 Al-Qur’ān, 74:26-29
The views expressed on Islam21c and its connected channels do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation.