(The main ideas of this writing are derived from a lecture given by Sayyid Munīr al-Khabbāz with additions and deletions. The last section was produced after critical remarks brought forth by TheMuslimTheist). Originally published on Mind in Momentum.
Why does God place some people in believing families and communities and others in disbelieving ones? More generally, why does He place some humans in highly prosperous families and environments whilst He places others in highly disadvantaged families and environments? Is this compatible with His Justice?
We can answer this question from five different aspects: legal, philosophical, theological, environmental, and mystical.
The question of justice is only relevant with respect to a right. Justice is providing entitled individuals their rights. If there are no rights, it is futile to speak of justice. If we believe that animals have the right to live in their own natural habitats, then caging them is a violation of this right and a form of injustice done against them. But if we don’t believe they are entitled to this right, then their capture does not enumerate as injustice.
We ask the simple question: did we have a right upon God that he place us in a particular environment? Was He obliged to place us in a family of status, wealth or piety? When we reflect upon our one-to-one and direct relationship with God, does He owe it to us to place us in particular environments of prosperity and utmost bliss?
Before we are able to answer the above question, we need to first answer a deeper one: to whom do we give rights to begin with? What does someone have to do to be entitled to some right? In today’s civil societies and states, what criteria is used in granting individual rights?
If we return to the most popular document of rights, namely, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we see that we are given certain rights by virtue of being human. They are referred to as natural rights. The right to liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of association, to determine one’s future, etc. They are granted to all humans because we are created equally. These rights are to be respected by other humans, because we all view ourselves equally. They are a measure of justice governing the relationships between humans. This is a fundamental point. If God is not part of the human society, rather, their Creator, is He subject to the same laws they enact between themselves? Or more realistically speaking, if He places laws amongst humans, does that mean He should also obey them? If He demands that the rights of parents are x, y and z; does that mean He should also respect those rights? The clear answer to these questions is negative. God is not one of the humans and so respecting these natural rights is by definition not applicable to Him. If anything, it is more accurate to say, because He created us equally, then it is He who specifies which rights are natural and should be respected by all humans mutually.
If we move beyond natural rights, which requires a deeper discussion; in particular, when envisaged with God in the picture, we observe that human societies are governed by other sets of rights as well: contractual rights. Contracts allow two or more entities to commit to providing certain services and receive others in return. The contract establishes a right for the entities involved. A work contract, for example, dictates that after the completion of certain tasks, the employer is to pay the employee his wages. That is, the employee has the right to his wages, as does the employer to the receiving of the services promised by the employee. A religious marriage contract establishes certain rights and responsibilities for the husband, as it does for the wife. So on and so forth.
If societies enact rights either because they are natural or contractual, and God is neither a human nor a legal entity we signed a contract with, then he is not bound by any of these rights. If there are natural rights, they are given by God and there are no contracts binding Him to act in a certain way. The conclusion is simple: there is no judicial requirement for God to place His servant in one environment or another. The human prior to his birth has no right upon the Creator with respect to where He should allow his growth and nourishment to begin from. He has endowed humans the privilege to life, to experience consciousness, to grow towards perfection and to encapsulate moments of connection with the Divine Himself; these endowments prove that it the human which owes God rights; not the other way around.
Each person’s identity is a product of two components: the fixed (predetermined) and the flexible. The latter is a combination of our choices and decisions: how we choose to act in the world creates our identity (and fate). This is an obvious aspect of our identity. We choose our way of thinking, who to associate with, how to spend our time, which books to read etc.
However, there are other important parts of our identity over which we have no control, the most important of these being our parents. Those who brings us into this world play a critical role in who we are. I don’t mean this only in the sense that it is our parents who educate and nourish us and that we are only as good as our upbringing. Rather, I also mean it in a more technical and metaphysical sense. To clarify my point, consider the following example:
Ahmad the son of Abdullah and Zaynab would not be the same person if he was the son of another couple. You would have not been you if you were born in a different family. You are you, because you are born from two specific individuals, namely your father and your mother. If you were born from a different set of parents, you no longer would have been the current ‘you’.
This might sound trivial, but it is at the heart of answering the question at hand from a philosophical perspective. When it is asked, “Why didn’t God place me in a different family, one which was more pious and educated?”, in essence what is being asked is this: “Why didn’t God make me born from another set of parents?”. You can already begin to feel the problem with the question once it is worded that way. The soul which comes to life via the marriage of two specific parents can never be the same soul that is born of a different couple. They are two different identities.
Therefore, technically speaking, the initial question is problematic. Identities cannot be translated over environments which cannot preserve them. You can change countries, travel to new places and move homes, but these environmental changes do not change your identity: you are still who you are (for example, Ahmad the son of Abdullah and Zaynab). But to ask to be born of a new set of parents, is an environmental change that does not preserve your identity; you’ll be someone else born of a different set of parents. Therefore, to ask God why He did not place me in a different family is asking to be someone else, and that is absurd. If you were not created through the channels you were created (your parents), you would have not existed all together. You are only here because you are you, otherwise, you would have not been here to begin with.
This can be considered an extension of the philosophical answer, but outlines other important dimensions which deserve separate mention:
An action which we classify as wrong and unjust, can only be attributed to God if He is responsible for its occurrence. Generally speaking, we cannot blame any person for actions they have not committed. Similarly, we cannot challenge God’s justice and place Him under questioning and scrutiny, if being born in an unfavorable environment is not from His actions.
When we analyze the birth and growth of each human being in his environment, what part of this process can we attribute to God and what part of is not attributable to Him? If your parents are not devoted to religion and in turn raise you in an environment of apathy towards faith and God, is this as a result of God’s actions or that of your parents? Was the environment of apathy created intentionally by God or by your parents?
Let’s track this further back. If you are born in a family of low wealth because your forefathers never considered building a profitable business which would grow substantially by the time you are born, is that a fault of God or laziness from your forefathers?
Let’s go further back in history. If aggressive governments invaded the country of your birth one hundred years ago, emptied it of its resources, drained it of its potentials, left the nation in impoverishment and blocked the doors of progress by unjust killing and oppression, is that the fault of God or that of selfish international entities?
When we analyze the environments we are born in and grow in, from their microdetails to the more determining factors, are they usually products of human action or that of God’s intervention?
What we find is, if God has intervened in our environments, it usually has been positive: the sending of prophets, the placement of just leaders, the destruction of arrogant nations and the flourishing of nature in all of its dimensions. Whereas, when we study the negative features of our environments, it usually has been a product of poor human decision making and of conflicts of interest that have led to kufr (disbelief), wars, famine and lack of opportunity.
Some actions are the complete cause for the occurrence of an event, while others only provide the grounds for the birth of that event. When you kick a soccer ball, the energy exerted onto the ball by your leg will send it flying. That mechanical energy is the complete cause for the movement of the ball. It has no option but to move. However, there are other factors in this process that do not count as the complete cause mandating the inevitable motion of the ball, but provide the grounds for which this process can occur. Some of these factors include your shoes, suitable ground, the material of the ball and the amount of food you had consumed which allowed you to undertake the kick. None of these factors are the cause for the movement of the ball, they only prepare you to take the kick and transfer the energy from your leg to the ball.
Similarly, when we observe the personality traits we have inherited genetically from our parents, we conclude they are not the complete cause for our personality, but prepare the grounds for us exhibit those traits and personality. If the kind and generous nature of my mother was transferred to me, it does not necessarily mean I will be kind and generous as well. It requires the exertion of my will power and freedom to choose to be kind and giving. Surely my genetic make-up means the potentiality of being gentle and kindhearted is present and it makes it more likely that I will actually be so, but it still does not entail that I necessarily will be so. The converse is true as well. If I inherit negative traits from my parents such as rashness and impatience; it is not necessarily the case that I exhibit these features in my life. It is true that this inheritance makes it more likely and prepares the grounds for me to show anger, but it is not the complete cause for my personality and behaviour. Ultimately, upon having studied my patterns of behaviour, I can conclude that I have a tendency to be impatient but by self-discipline I can learn to control these tendencies and transform myself to a patient individual.
In the same vein, being born and raised in an environment of disbelief is not the complete cause of our deviation from religion and disobedience to God just like being born and raised in an environment of piety is no guarantee that we will lead a life of virtue. The ultimate decider of our fate is our own decisions. History is filled with stories of individuals who resisted the unfavourable grounds of their upbringing, challenged themselves to their limits and developed to become extraordinary human beings.
From the perspective of the Divine, we are ultimately judged by how much effort we expatiate in our growth and journey towards perfection. God’s measure stick is not the amount of positive actions we do per se, but rather, how much effort was required on our behalf to execute those positive actions. The small profitable deed of a person challenged with unpromising environments is more valued in the eyes of God then the largely profitable deed of a person who could have done even more because of his favourable environments. “And there is nothing for man except [the good] for which he strives for.” (Q53:39). In His calculation and judicial judgement, He takes into consideration the obstacles hindering growth and does not punish for what is beyond our control, and rewards plentifully for the little we do with sincere effort.
Mystics and teachers of akhlāq return this question to a more general one: why does evil exist in this world? Of course, the question of evil deserves in its own right a lengthy discussion, however, there is an intersection between our inquiry and that question which can be helpful. Being born and raised in environments of disbelief, poverty and difficulty can be considered a form of evil done to the individual experiencing it. Thus, we can ask, why should this particular form of evil be allowed?
In answer, mystics and philosophers say that this world is created with polar opposites: health against illness, wealth against poverty, dignity against humiliation, faith against disbelief, conviction against doubt, opportunity against impoverishment and joy against pain. There are at least three reasons behind this: comprehension and appreciation, metaphysical existence, growth and divine proximity.
Comprehension and Appreciation
Were it not for the existence of these opposites, we would not be able to appreciate the beauty of their positive counterparts. Were it not for pain, a constant state of joy would bear no meaning. Were it not for sickness, we could not appreciate health. Were it not for anxious states of doubt and delusion, we could not be grateful for moments of conviction and certainty. The negative opposites not only allow us to appreciate the positive ones, but without them we would not be able to essentially comprehend what joy, wealth, health, dignity and faith are. Our minds are able to decipher concepts by comparing them to other concepts and if there was no point of reference and comparison, how could we know what joy really is?
In the above point we focused on the epistemological aspect of the relationship between good and evil, and how in turn, our knowledge of the evil allows us to appreciate the good. But there is a deeper aspect to this relationship: the existence of certain goods would not be metaphysically possible without evil. For example, fighting against oppression which is a noble end, would not be actualized if there was no oppression to begin with.
Individuals who experience difficulty and survive its tests generally have stronger characters and deeper integrity. With constant ease and luxury, no solid personality can been carved and no person of virtue can been built. Our personal experiences and human history are testimonies to this anecdotal truth. Without pain there is no gain. It is only by testing ourselves to the limit that we can grow transcendentally towards perfection.
Difficulties and tribulations are the greatest reminders of our feeble creation and weakness without the Divine. “Nay! Man will transgress because he sees himself self-sufficient” (Q96:7). The pitfall of Man is arrogance in his own ability and forgetting the Divine. Without experiencing difficulty, we are unlikely to return to our Lord and reach closer to Him. Were it not for illnesses, loss of life, hunger and pain, the human being would abandon his Benefactor and he would therefore lose the purpose of his stay in this fast-fleeting mode of existence.
Putting all of these together, from a mystical and spiritual perspective we conclude that the birth and growth of individuals in different environments serves three wisdoms: the appreciation and comprehension of the beauties of life, the growth and strengthening of the character and finally a medium of reaching closer to God.
If we have not signed a contract with God, how do you explain verses of the Quran explicitly mentioning the covenant we signed with God? One such example is:
And [mention] when your Lord took from the children of Adam – from their loins – their descendants and made them testify against themselves, [saying to them], “Am I not your Lord?” They said, “Yes, we have testified.” [This] – lest you should say on the day of Resurrection, “Indeed, we were of this unaware. (Q7:172)
There is a difference of opinion amongst the commentators as to whether this event took place in a world prior to ours or is only a metaphor for a deeper reality. Putting that aside, the mentioned verse and similar ones, as well reports carrying similar meanings, use the event and idea of the covenant and testimony to demonstrate the official acceptance of responsibility on the side of the children of Adam to stay loyal to their Lord despite the tests they will be faced with in the variety of environments and circumstances they will experience. In this light, the existence of such texts not only does not weaken our initial argument but strengthens it in that if there are rights and responsibilities, it is what we owe to God and not vice versa. In particular, no part of these reports indicates God promising to place humans in certain environments.
Why is it that one’s parents are necessary and essential to his identity, rather than being an accidental property? It does not seem logically contradictory to imagine myself being born to different parents, so how exactly is it a logical necessity to have been born to a particular set of parents? Why isn’t it accidental, like one’s hair colour, country of birth, etc?
This is a great question and touches on the deeper discussion of personal identity: what makes each person unique? It also requires some discussion on what it means for something to be unique in the more general sense and not only for people. Philosophers – ancient and contemporary – have argued about these questions heavily and there are many views out there. I, however, suggest a simple thought experiment:
If we can reduce our personal identity to our consciousness, such that, what makes each one of us unique is our personal conscious experience of the world, then it is plausible to think that God can make the same person be born of different parents. This is because ultimately, he is connecting our consciousness to a different body and soul which has its unique physical and psychological dispositions.
But to reduce personal identity to consciousness removes too much from a meaningful description of what a person is. If each person is unique because he is an independent conscious being, then that leaves very little to distinguish one person from the next. Our differences only become arbitrary names we place on these conscious beings: conscious being A, conscious being B, conscious being C, etc.
Psychological traits that latch onto this consciousness are accidental, but are specific to it. In Logic, this is called a special accident. Although a person is essentially and truly made unique because of his independent experiences the world, but these accidents are what give him personhood. The combination of consciousness and obtained personality traits is what makes a person unique. In this light, if our parents are the medium through which we receive these traits as attachments to our consciousness, then it is not difficult to conceive why the channels that produced us are critically important in the definition of what it means to be the person we are.
(I must admit that although the above answer seems sufficiently plausible but is only a preliminary attempt, and hence I require further research and reflection for a more a metaphysically- and epistemologically-universal solution.)
If one is arguing that God is unjust, then the mere fact that someone is more likely to be a believer or disbeliever, for example, is enough to prove the discrimination.
As argued in section 3 (the theological dimension), differences in our environments are not always attributable to God. In fact, most of the time their causes are found in human actions and in particular, the decisions of those who preceded us. Therefore, attributing the differing tendencies and aptitudes that existed in humans for both positive things (such as kindness and piety) and negative things (such as anger and religious apathy), to God is not entirely accurate.
Secondly, as noted previously, God’s judgement is executed with a consideration for all the contributing factors that acted as catalysts for our actions. Therefore, if there are any tendencies towards disbelief and disobedience, He will consider and correct for them in His judgement.
Ali Safdari is a BA in Philosophy and Physics from University of Sydney and has been studying in the Islamic Seminary of Qom since 2018.