With the pandemic of COVID-19 unleashing the deadly effects of its virus that has already claimed over three million casualties all over the globe, the question of evil and suffering cannot be more relevant today. Even though evil and the cause of human suffering is perhaps one of the most debated questions in philosophy of religion, the coronavirus pandemic forces one to look at this issue with renewed fervor, not least because it challenges one to rethink the role of a powerful and merciful God in the face of disproportionate human suffering. Considering the volume of afflictions and adversities that the pandemic has imposed on people so far, one faces the challenge of explaining whether it is possible to think of this world as the work of an omnipotent Creator Who is motivated by and/or defined as limitless love and compassion.
This project’s intended multi-disciplinary online conference (and the edited volume based on the submitted papers) is intended as an opportunity to revisit and to examine the myriad contemporary issues around which the different views of evil and suffering might be rearticulated from the perspectives of Islamic philosophical and theological traditions. For many contemporary philosophers, the problem of evil and suffering seems to arise from three related propositional challenges. The first is that there is a God who is wholly good and omnipotent. The second is that evils, both of a moral and natural kind, exist in a cosmos created by that God. The third is the hiddenness of God and the seeming remoteness of that creator from our everyday lives. Taken together, one can say that the existence of these evils in this world is highly incompatible with a warranted belief in the existence of a God who is good, just, and omnipotent. Surely such a God would not tolerate the existence of those evils and suffering, especially since His knowledge of them must at some level also be causative of them, and His omnipotence entails that there are no limits to what He can do. Therefore, the argument suggests that the postulation of the existence of such a God ought to be rejected, since there is no morally sufficient reason why such a God should allow suffering and evil to exist.
In light of the above critiques, most contemporary theistic responses attempt to re-define evil and suffering through some kind of freewill defense that points to God’s provision of freewill and our misuse of it. The basic postulation is that a world created with free-willing agents who are free to perform good and evil and who tend towards performing more good than evil, ceteris paribus, is better than a world containing no free creatures at all. Others, such as Christian process theologians, reconsider what it means for God to act and then to act for the good and how He might use evils for the furthering of that greater good. In doing so, process theologians tend to advocate an open theism: future contingents are truly unknown and even God does not know what will happen; they thus advocate a God Who is not a controlling power but a persuasive one Whose will is often not done. In Islamic philosophy, thinkers such as Ibn ‘Arabi explain the existence of evil as a consequence of both metaphysical necessity and God’s volitional act. From a slightly different perspective, the great Islamic philosopher Mulla Sadra makes sense of evil through his gradational ontology—which is the most appropriate way of thinking about God’s providential care in its totality―by distinguishing between the cosmos and the contingent effects of God’s actions in their undifferentiated reality from the differentiated details of the hierarchy of the cosmos.
While acknowledging the relative merits of the above positions, this conference (and the edited volume) intends to bring new options to the table by drawing our focus away from God and the divine attributes of goodness, justice, and power and redirecting it to humans and human vulnerability, resilience, and spiritual growth. By doing so, our goal is to not offer historical reconstructions of a given Muslim theologian or a philosopher’s views on evil and suffering, but to propose new perspectives based on various modern and non-modern materials that would enrich the emerging field of the global philosophy of religion. In particular, we want to drive home the point that, by shifting focus away from God and channeling it to humans, we can come away with significantly new insights on the problem of evil, which can radically transform the debate on the origin and necessity of evil and suffering.
While the focus of the conference will be a novel human-centered approach to evil and suffering in the world, in wrestling with evil(s) we are confronted with a multi-layered phenomenon which invites philosophers from a wide range of perspectives within the Islamic intellectual tradition, namely the theological, the philosophical, the Shi’i, and the Sufi. The conference also seeks to represent the geographic expanse of the Islamic world by inviting scholars whose research foci take in traditionally neglected regions of the Islamic world, such as West Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.
Muhammad U. Faruque (Principal Investigator) is the Inayat Malik Assistant Professor at the University of Cincinnati. His research lies at the intersection of religion, science, philosophy, and literature, especially in relation to the Islamic intellectual tradition. He earned his PhD (with distinction) from the University of California, Berkeley, and served as Exchange Scholar at Harvard University and as George Ames Postdoctoral Fellow at Fordham University. His highly acclaimed book Sculpting the Self (University of Michigan Press, 2021) addresses “what it means to be human” in a secular, post-Enlightenment world by exploring notions of selfhood and subjectivity in Islamic and non-Islamic literatures including modern philosophy and neuroscience. Dr. Faruque’s work has been supported by Templeton Foundation, the Ames Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the Bestway Foundation, among others and has appeared in a number of peer-reviewed journals such as Philosophy East and West, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy (Cambridge), Brill Journal of Sufi Studies, Religious Studies (Cambridge), and Ancient Philosophy. He is also the recipient of numerous awards, grants, and fellowships, including a Templeton Foundation Global Philosophy of Religion Project grant.
While his past research has explored modern and premodern conceptions of selfhood and identity and their bearing on ethics, religion, science, and culture, his current project investigates whether or not Sufi philosophy and practice---as articulated in the School of Ibn ʿArabī---support and foster an active engagement toward the planet's well-being and an ecologically viable way of life and vision. He is also at work on a book on A.I. and the ethical challenges of information technology.
His interests and expertise encompass history and theory of subjectivity, Qur’anic studies, Perso-Arabic mystical literature, religion and climate change, gender hermeneutics, Islamic philosophy and ethics, and Graeco-Arabica. He teaches courses on Islam, Islamic humanities, religion and climate change, as well as on selfhood and identity in Islamic and contemporary thought. He is also affiliated with the department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and the program in Religious Certificate.
Mohammed Rustom is Professor of Islamic Thought at Carleton University. He has been the recipient of a number of academic distinctions and prizes such as the Ibn ‘Arabi Society Latina’s Tarjuman Prize, a Templeton Foundation/University of Birmingham Global Philosophy of Religion grant, The Institute of Ismaili Studies’ Annemarie Schimmel Fellowship, Iran’s World Prize for the Book of the Year, and Senior Fellowships courtesy of the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute’s Library of Arabic Literature and Humanities Research Fellowship programs.
An internationally recognized scholar whose works have been translated into over ten languages, Professor Rustom’s research focuses on Islamic philosophy, Sufism, Quranic exegesis, and cross-cultural philosophy. He is author of The Triumph of Mercy: Philosophy and Scripture in Mulla Sadra (SUNY Press, 2012), co-editor of The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary (HarperOne, 2015), and translator of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, The Condemnation of Pride and Self-Admiration (Islamic Texts Society, 2018).
Dr. Rustom’s forthcoming books include Inrushes of the Heart: The Sufi Philosophy of ‘Ayn al-Qudat (SUNY Press, 2022), The Essence of Reality: A Defense of Philosophical Sufism (NYU Press, 2022), and Global Philosophy: A Sourcebook (forthcoming). Dr. Rustom is also the Editor of Equinox Publishing’s Global Philosophy series, Associate Editor of the Journal of Sufi Studies (Brill), Commissioning Editor of the Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society (JMIAS), and Editorial Board member of the Library of Arabic Literature (NYU Press).