Judaism assumes that God “cares” about the state of the world. Upon finishing creation, God “found it very good” (Genesis1:31). In the Bible, God often acts when that “goodness” is threatened. When Pharaoh cruelly oppresses the innocent Israelites God rescues them “with a strong hand.” Nowadays it’s not so easy to see God’s saving hand in history. But we see signs of it whenever human beings act to repair the world. God works through us, not in place of us. For a people with a long, painful history, the Exodus stands as an indestructible symbol of our hope for a world redeemed — and our commitment to bring it about.
Christianity also affirms, as David has said in his response to this question, that “God works through us, not in place of us.” We view God’s work in us particularly through the lens of discipleship to Christ—a way of living that saves us from excessive self-absorption, fear and enslavement. In living as disciples, we not only experience salvation but also act in ways that contribute to the world’s salvation. To say that God “rescues” us through Jesus Christ is in large measure to claim that Jesus offers a Way to God that patterns our daily lives. By striving to love our enemies, we lessen the world’s violence and the violence within our own being. By engaging in acts of service, we are redeemed from the constriction of selfishness and become part of activity larger than ourselves—an activity that partakes of the coming reign of God. By forgiving others (and ourselves), we experience deliverance from an anger that can so easily corrode us by sapping our psychic energy. By responding to those in need, we mediate God’s healing.
God made people custodians of the earth to live in peace and to preserve its beauty and life. The Qur’an has continuously warned people to stay away from corruption and destruction. Sadly, some people of power become arrogant, spread corruption and destroy the environment and its fruitfulness (2:205). God sent prophets to restore justice on earth and to warn people against their misbehavior. The Qur’an has stories of God’s rescuing his prophets and their righteous followers and destroying the arrogant. God sent floods in Noah’s time and rescued him and his companions (11:32-48). When Abraham was thrown into the fire by his people, God told the fire to be cool and comfortable to Abraham and not to harm him (21:66-69). The Qur’an speaks of David’s defeating the forces of Goliath: “And David slew Goliath; and God bestowed upon him dominion, and wisdom, and imparted to him the knowledge of whatever He willed. And if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, corruption would surely overwhelm the earth: but God is limitless in His bounty unto all the worlds” (2:251). The same is true about the rescue of Israelites from Pharaoh. The Qur’anic principle is: “O ye who believe! If ye will aid [the cause of] Allah, He will aid you, and plant your feet firmly” (47:7).
Given the magnitude of human suffering, how is it possible to believe in an all just, all powerful God?
The Haggadah repeatedly speaks of God’s redeeming Israel with a “strong hand.” Yet this very passage refers to another “hand,” one that chronically threatens an innocent people’s destruction “But the Holy One saves us from their hand.” But alas, God does not always “save us from their hand.” Why? Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1992), the great Modern Orthodox scholar, compared the situation to a tapestry of which we can only view the reverse side. We cannot see the totality of the design that reveals the “divine plan.”* This view evokes the image of God depicted by Isaiah: “I make peace and I make evil” (45:7).* In his modern classic, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold Kushner rejects this and says, for example, that we should not view a plane crash as an act of God. Such things “happen at random, and randomness is another name for chaos, in those corners of the universe where God’s creative light has not yet penetrated.”* Isaiah again: “We hope for light, and lo! there is darkness” (59:9).
A divine plan in which events like the Holocaust ultimately make sense is too horrifying to contemplate; those still unilluminated “corners” of the universe seem to be everywhere. A verse from Psalms helps me struggle with the question of innocent suffering. “The heaven belongs to Adonai, but the earth God gave to humanity” (Psalms 115:16). God formed us in the divine image, with free will, as creators in our own right, with ever expanding spheres of dominion. What we fashion — for good or ill — lies in our hands, not God’s. God inspires the best in us and prays that we act righteously. When we do, God’s prayers are answered.
The writer of the Letter to the Colossians, most likely a disciple of the Apostle Paul, spoke of Jesus as “the image of the invisible God (1:15). Jesus acts in ways that heal and that manifest the divine reign of mercy and justice. In him people experience redemption. Yet he does not ameliorate every suffering person or heal all the world’s ills—and he, too, suffers an ignominious death at the hands of imperial Rome. Death, however, is not the last word. In the claim that God has raised Jesus from the dead, Christians voice their belief that redemption extends beyond the realm of death.
We are meant, like those Hebrews in Egypt who groaned in slavery, to cry out for redemption. Even as we speak of Christ as our redeemer, we know that redemption is incomplete. Our world is captive to powerful forces of evil; each of us is vulnerable to this evil. In writing to the community at Rome, Paul says that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23).
God is all peace (Salaam) and wants people to live in peace with justice. God forbids people to commit oppression, corruption and mischief on earth. God does not make people to suffer, but people suffer because of their own actions. The Qur’an says: “ [Since they have become oblivious of God], corruption has appeared on land and in the sea as an outcome of what men’s hands have wrought: and so He will let them taste [the evil of] some of their doings, so that they might return [to the right path]” (30:41).
God is all powerful in Islam, but God has given free will to people and makes them responsible for their actions. Qur’anic stories of destruction are rooted in grave misdeeds by those people. For example, the destruction of Pharaoh and his armies came about from their own violent action against the Israelites. The same thing happens in the story of the people of Thamud and `Aad, who unfortunately followed the path of injustice and oppression and invited their self-destruction (7:73-79).
The problem that we face behind many of these stories is the notion of God as a rescuer and destroyer. It is God who unleashed a tornado on the wicked people and showered them with stones. It is God who caused the earth to swallow the evil ones. But then the Qur’an says that it was not God who wronged them but they wronged themselves. (29:40.)
There are two approaches to understanding this dichotomy. One is that the destruction stories in the Qur’an have limited application. The destruction came upon those communities in the presence of their prophets. More specifically, the communities or the communities’ leaders persecuted and denied their prophets, and compelled them to pray against them. These prayers were similar to Noah’s: “O my Sustainer! Leave not on earth any of those who deny the truth” (Q.,71:26).
Second, when Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his followers were persecuted, tortured and even driven out of their homes, the angels of destruction came on several occasions to allow them to destroy the Meccans and the people of Ta’if. However, Muhammad refused to do so and prayed for their safety. It is said that Muhammad prayed to God to stop destroying communities because of their sins, and God heard his prayers.
What about modern-day disasters, such as Sandy, Katrina, earthquakes and other calamities? Many Muslim scholars would say these are natural and environmental disasters, not supernatural ones. We are trustees of the Earth and should take care of it and protect it. These natural calamities teach us to preserve the environment and to humble ourselves before God and His creation by helping and standing together with those who have suffered. However there are some Muslims who would say that such disasters are caused by the sins of people.
Most Muslims are straightforward in their belief about God. They believe that God can make things happen with a simple command. Believers are thankful to God in all conditions, whether happiness or suffering. Muslims believe that everything comes from God and there is Khair (blessing-goodness) in what happens to them. A person says Al Hamdu Lillah (praise be to God) whether he/she hears a message of sorrow or happiness. Disasters and calamities teach Muslims how to be responsible – repenting, reaching out and working together to repair the wounds of humanity.
Given the Jewish people’s difficult history, Judaism’s responses to suffering are legion. One Talmudic view announces, “There is no death without sin and there is no suffering without iniquity.”* Would that the link between one’s iniquity and suffering were always so clear. To solve this problem, traditional Judaism also holds that although the righteous may suffer in this world, they will receive their just deserts in the world to come. Then there’s the view that when God is pleased with someone, God crushes him with suffering. So suffering has been seen as a sign of God’s love.*
Beyond efforts to explain suffering, Judaism holds in some very deep sense that God is with us when we suffer. “Fear not,” says the prophet Isaiah, “for I am with you. Be not frightened, for I am your God; I strengthen you and I help you . . .” (Isaiah 41:10). Those who share this kind of faith are never truly alone in their suffering. The words of the 23rd Psalm, read at most Jewish funerals, provide assurance of God’s presence through the travails of death and dark times. “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. . . . Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness, I fear no harm, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff — they comfort me” (Psalm 23: 1,4).
Judaism also sustains those who suffer through strong bonds of community. Visiting the sick and comforting those in mourning are religious obligations not just for clergy, but for all Jews. Indeed, the Jewish laws of mourning are geared to insure that the bereaved receive support throughout and remain engaged with the community. The daily requirement for those in mourning to recite kaddish¸ a prayer for the dead, with a group of 10 Jews helps assure this.
Finally, Judaism helps cope with suffering by sustaining hope. The story of the Exodus stands as the archetype for hope: suffering does not have the last word; slavery gives way to freedom; the darkest night begets great light. A people who endured the hardships of statelessness for two millennia, Jews now have a homeland — and its anthem is HaTikvah, The Hope.
Suffering is an immense and mysterious phenomenon. However rich and complex the legacy of our religious traditions, they are ultimately inadequate when it comes to explaining and understanding suffering. Given our common origins in biblical Israel, the Jewish and Christian traditions share ways of thinking about and dealing with suffering—some wise and some less so—but we also approach the topic in distinctive ways. Robert Gibbs captures this in a single sentence: “Christian theology can no more think about suffering in general without reference to Christ than Jewish thought can approach suffering by forgetting the specificity of Jewish suffering.”*
In general, much Christian thinking about suffering is refracted through the cross of Jesus Christ. By the time of the earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, composed ca. 70 C.E., the cross had already become a symbol of self-transcending love, a symbol of following the Way of Jesus: “Take up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Jesus’ death was a consequence of how he had lived and what he had taught: God’s reign of justice, mercy and peace—a stark contrast to the injustice of Roman rule. To live justly, act with mercy, and be a peacemaker is to open oneself to suffering.
The communities of his followers interpreted the crucifixion of Jesus by the power of the Roman Empire as a martyr’s death, which God vindicated by raising him from the dead: “The followers of Jesus did not believe in him because of the resurrection. They believed in the resurrection because they first believed in him and in the spiritual life he unleashed among them. This is, finally, what the resurrection proclamation is about. It is about the decision to believe in Jesus and to give oneself over to the Spirit to be discovered in his life.”*
Our mission in this world is to be Christ—to be his body broken for others, his blood outpoured for our world. This is our passion: being Christ in this world.
The Qur’an teaches patience and return to prayers in times of suffering. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) would return to prayer in sorrows and happiness. He was accustomed to saying that prayers were refreshing coolness for his eyes. The Qur’an says: “O ye who believe! seek help with patient perseverance and prayer; for Allah is with those who patiently persevere”(2:153). Zikr (remembering God) is another way to stay peaceful and refreshed. The Qur’an says: “And do thou [O reader!] Bring thy Lord to remembrance in thy [very] soul, with humility and in reverence, without loudness in words, in the mornings and evenings; and be not thou of those who are unheedful” (7:205). The Qur’an asks people to lighten their houses with Zikr to find peace: “[Lit is such a Light] in houses, which Allah hath permitted to be raised to honor; for the celebration, in them, of His name: In them is He glorified in the mornings and in the evenings, [again and again]”(24:36).
It is also the community’s responsibility to help and to stand with others in times of suffering. Who will not show mercy will not receive mercy is a well-known tradition in Islam. “God helps those who are in service of others” are repeated words in Muslim tradition. The Prophet used to say, “Clothe those who are naked; God will clothe you on the day of judgment. Provide shelter to those who do not have shelter; God will provide you shelter on the day of judgment when there will be no shelter.”
There are two dangers here— first, in forgetting that individuals and groups have in fact been victimized through absolutely no fault of their own, and second, in building an identity around victimhood. Innocent victims need acknowledgment, empathy, a chance to heal and to see that a proper measure of justice is done. They don’t need to be blamed for what has befallen them. Jewish sources also invite us to ponder a grey zone in which distinctions between innocence and guilt are not so clear: sometimes victims unwittingly contribute to their fate. The Talmud notes that Jacob’s favoring Joseph over his other sons set in motion a chain of events that resulted in the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt.* Similarly, an important modern commentary attributes Israel’s ordeal in Egypt to Joseph’s previous treatment of the Egyptians who “would take their revenge on Joseph for having reduced them to slavery, by enslaving his people.”*
Building an identity around victimhood keeps the wound raw. An ancient midrash uses the story of Exodus to teach a difficult lesson about the importance of moving on, of allowing wounds to heal. “If a person does evil to his neighbor, it never leaves the aggrieved party’s heart; but not so God. Israel was in Egypt and the Egyptians enslaved them. . . . After all the evil they had done to Israel, God still had pity upon them and decreed, ‘You shall not abhor an Egyptian . . .’” (Deuteronomy 23:8) but pursue peace, as it is said, “Seek peace, and pursue it” (Psalm 24:15).* God manages to move on and so should we.
Over the centuries, Christianity has been a powerful force in many lands, and thus tempted to misuse its power. Without question, Christianity has too often victimized others, particularly Jews and Muslims in the Crusades and in other outbreaks of intolerance. Even its well-intentioned missionary initiatives often contributed to the colonization of peoples and thus the imposition of foreign cultural norms and mores. Yet in certain times and places, Christians, too, have been (and are) the victims of despotic governments, intolerant leaders, fanatic fundamentalists of other religious traditions, and greedy corporations. The world continues to make martyrs, who pay for their deeds of justice with their lives.
So Christians are both victimizer and victim. In recalling those vilified or persecuted or killed in the name of Christ, we resolve to change direction. In remembering those among us who have suffered or died (and are now suffering and dying) because of following the Way of Christ, we give thanks for their fidelity and deepen our resolve
To dream awake
to keep watch asleep,
to live while dying,
and to know ourselves already
resurrected! [25. From the poem “Threatened with Resurrection” by Julia Esquivel (Nos han amenzado de Resurrección) in Threatened with Resurrection: Prayers and Poems from an Exiled Guatemalan, trans. Ann Woehrle (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1994), 101.]
God is very Merciful and Compassionate (Al Rahman al Rahim). He is the Most Forgiving (al Ghafur). God is our Master (Malik) and we are His humble servants (`Ibaad). No one shall be disappointed with His mercy and blessings. In Islam the word Al Rahman refers to His mercy and blessings for all of His creation in heaven and on earth. No matter how sinful a person may be, or how deprived or denied the person may feel, one day God’s mercy will reach him/her. Hopelessness is a disease leading to sickness and inferiority complexes. Hopefulness is a believer’s way to contentment with patience and perseverance, though the person may have been afflicted with many sufferings.
When I was in college in the ‘70s, I had a friend who had a Master of Science degree but could not get a job. He received another Master’s degree, but still could not get a job. I had just finished my Master’s and got a job. When I met this friend and saw his situation, I invited him to live with me until he got work. He was very hopeless and disappointed, feeling he was a victim of God’s wrath. He would not ask God for help. When I asked him why he refused to beg God’s help, he said it was because God was punishing him for some reason. He had prayed and begged for His mercy but none of his prayers were accepted. After some time he got a job and his sorrows were gone.
God hears and answers your prayers in the Muslim tradition. No one shall feel deprived, left out or thinking he or she is a victim of God’s wrath. God is closer to a human being than his/her jugular vein (50:16). When some one prays and asks God for a favor, God answers it in one of three ways: accepting it right away; blessing him/her with something else; or removing some hardship or suffering that was due to fall upon him/her.
God in Islam is just and loving. He loves His creation and especially us humans, who are the best of His creation. He wants us to live with justice and love with ourselves and with the world at large. God is there to help, to assist and sends His mercy and no one shall be disappointed with His mercy. God does not destroy but people destroy themselves through unjust deeds and corruption on earth.
Victimization of people by people is forbidden and is against God’s way. It would be hard not to accept that Muslims have not victimized people of other faiths and non-faiths in the past and especially during the Caliphate period. However it is also true that comparatively, Muslims have treated non-Muslims better than some other faiths have done. The Abbasid capital of Baghdad during the Abbasid rule and Muslim rule over Spain in the medieval period were known for their tolerance and promoting interfaith dialogue.*
Muslims today are victims of their own rulers, especially in the post-colonial period. Muslims living in many of the Muslim majority countries are deprived of their basic human rights and necessities of life. Many can blame the West for supporting the cruel rulers, but at the same time many of these despotic rulers are responsible for the victimization of the their own people. It is due to persecution and lack of freedom that Muslims are taking their refuge in Western countries. Muslim living conditions are much better in Western countries, including America, than in many of their countries of birth. This is true even after 9/11, which caused a rise in discrimination against Muslims.