Jewish liturgy repeatedly refers to God as melech ha’olam, “Sovereign” or “king of the universe,” and the story of the Exodus affirms the image of an activist God who saves the downtrodden and punishes the oppressor. Later we’ll have occasion to more fully explore God’s role in history, but for now it’s worth noting that the Bible itself struggles with this very question. The Book of Deuteronomy tries to explain the apparent absence of divine intervention by asserting that Israel’s sins bring about a hiding of God’s face, which allows evil to flourish (31:16-17). This hardly satisfied Job. “The earth is given into the hand of the wicked; He covers the eyes of its judges, if it is not He, then who? . . . I insist on arguing with God” (Job 9:24 and 13:3). Many of the psalms also angrily chide God for failing to exercise sovereignty: “Why Lord, do You stand aloof, heedless in times of trouble . . . The wicked . . . think God is not mindful, He hides His face, He never looks . . .” (Psalms 10:1-11). The rabbis of the Talmud were no less honest. One tale recounts why certain biblical texts ascribed to Jeremiah and Daniel fail to refer to God precisely as Moses had, as “mighty and awesome” (Deuteronomy 10:17). The explanation? Because in the days of Jeremiah enemies destroyed God’s Temple, so where’s the awesomeness? Because in Daniel’s day enemies enslaved God’s people, so where’s the might? Still, how did Jeremiah and Daniel dare to abolish something written by Moses? “They knew,” says the Talmud, “that God insists on truth and they would not ascribe false things to God!”The Aleynu, a prayer recited three times daily, refers to God as “our Sovereign,” but concludes that, “we hope in You . . . that we may soon behold Your might . . .” Paradoxically, we both assert God’s sovereignty and pray for — and work to bring — the day when it will truly become manifest.
To speak of God as “sovereign” of the universe is at once an act of faith and an expression of longing for divine mercy and justice to be manifest in our broken world. We voice our faith that the incomprehensible God cares for all creation. We cry out, mindful of the violence, chaos, and finitude of the human condition.
Clearly, God is not sovereign in the conventional sense of the term. God does not eradicate evil. Suffering abounds. How the infinite goodness of God can allow so much suffering remains a major enigma for religious persons. Job’s question has never been adequately answered.
While many Christians have thought of God as omnipotent, and thus incapable of suffering, others suggest that God is affected by our suffering; God is with us in our suffering. As theologian John Merkle writes, “If we stop thinking of omnipotence as an attribute of the divine, we will be free to appreciate as never before that the true mark of divinity—what makes God divine and thus worthy of our worship—is not absolute power and control, but infinite compassion, unending love.”*
God in the Qur’an is Al Malik al Mulk (Sovereign of the sovereign). Al Mulk (the Sovereign) is one of His attributes in the Qur’an. His Throne extends over heavens and earth and He controls everything. In the famous Qur’anic verse called Aayatul Kursi, the Qur’an described God: “there is no deity save Him, the Ever-Living, the Self-Subsistent Fount of All Being. Neither slumber overtakes Him, nor sleep. His is all that is in the heavens and all that is on earth. Who is there that could intercede with Him, unless it be by His leave? He knows all that lies open before men and all that is hidden from them, whereas they cannot attain to aught of His knowledge save that which He wills [them to attain]. His eternal power overspreads the heavens and the earth, and their upholding wearies Him not. And he alone is truly exalted, tremendous” (2:255). Describing God as the Sovereign, the Qur’an says: “SAY: ‘O God, Lord of all dominion! Thou grantest dominion unto whom Thou willest, and takest away dominion from whom Thou willest; and Thou exaltest whom Thou willest, and abasest whom Thou willest. In Thy hand is all good. Verily, Thou hast the power to will anything’” (3:26).
But why does God humiliate some and destroy others? Why He makes some suffer and others prosper is a fundamental question raised in many religions. The Qur’an asks the people to take responsibility for all that happens to them. “Whatever misfortune happens to you, is because of the things your hands have wrought, and for many [of them] He grants forgiveness” (42:30). The Qur’an says: “Allah created the heavens and the earth for just ends, and in order that each soul may find the recompense of what it has earned and none of them be wronged” (45:22). God multiplies good deeds with His grace, but wrong deeds receive only what they deserve – and because God is merciful and forgiving, many times these bad deeds are overlooked and forgiven. The Qur’an says: “Whoever shall come [before God] with a good deed will gain 10 times the like thereof; but whoever shall come with an evil deed will be requited with no more than the like thereof; and none shall be wronged” (6:160). The good is even multiplied up to 700 times or even more with His Grace. The Qur’an says: “The parable of those who spend their possessions for the sake of God is that of a grain out of which grow seven ears, in every ear a hundred grains: for God grants manifold increase unto whom He wills; and God is infinite, all-knowing” (2:261).
When suffering and calamities happen, why does God, the Sovereign, not stop them? The Qur’an would say so that people take the responsibility and also turn back to Him. “Mischief has appeared on land and sea because of [the deed] that the hands of men have earned, that [Allah] may give them a taste of some of their deeds: in order that they may turn back [from Evil]” (30:41). But suffering is not always caused by wrong deeds; it may be a test of faith from God as it was in the case of Prophet Job. Or it may be to reward them with something greater as it was in the case of Khidr [the Green one] and Moses, where Khidr kills a child. Answering Moses’ objection to the killing, Khidr said, “God will compensate the parents with a better one” (18:74-80). There is a story of a pious man in Muslim tradition. Whenever any one would complain to him of a suffering, he would say: “Be pleased there is good (al Khair) in it.” There was a man who intended to injure the pious man when he came out of his home. While the man was waiting outside, the pious man fell down inside his home, injured his knee and did not come out. The man went inside the house and found the pious man suffering. When his potential assailant asked about the injury, the pious man said: “There must be good in it.” Then the other man told him of his bad intentions and confessed that whatever God does is always good for humanity but many times we do not realize it.
Note: Translation of the Qur’anic verses and many of the Hadith translation with references were taken from Islamicity.com; some translations of and references to the Hadith were taken from ahadith.co.uk.