What is evil? So much seems to be and feels like evil. When I read the Quran and think that the creator of this universe is asking me to seek refuge with him from the evil of what he has created, I find myself puzzled. Now I can, if i so choose (and so many people choose unfortunately), just think about all the things that I don’t like, all the suffering and pain and oppression in the world, all the injustices and disease and death and abuse of power and cruelty, betrayal and loss and pain and poverty and so on and so on (some of the bad things people doing to others, others, well, nature/heavens/fate/time/God doing to people and the world). Then I can think that the creator is asking me to seek his refuge from all of these. And I can just comply with his “command” and repeat after him “I seek refuge with God from…..”. I can imagine I understand what refuge is and I can imagine that saying I seek refuge is the same as seeking refuge (which it obviously is not). I can take this to be a “prayer” with which I am supposed to ask God for “protection” against all the bad things. Protection, in this view, is simply the desire that things happen as I want/like them to happen based on my current, unguided-by-revelation perspective about what my like and dislike of things mean, what is good and what is evil. So I read the verses superficially, without taking any guidance from them and think they are asking me to, as if, utter things like: “O God.please keep me healthy, keep me safe from war and poverty and injustice, keep me safe and keep everyone else safe too. Let the good people prosper and let the bad one’s fail and so on.” I read them as a bargain: I will ask you for protection as you told me, and you will then protect me from all these bad things (bad according to my own likes and dislikes which I give meaning on my own). And I can then wish/hope that God will answer these prayers and if and when he doesn’t (for instance when there is injustice and oppression for others or a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal disease or someone harms me etc.), I can either feel abandoned by God and despair or just re-assure myself that God does answer prayers and if i don’t believe that I will not be a good believer and will go to hell. I can try to convince myself (by pure assertion and fear of being a bad person or fear that God will punish me) that God will answer the prayer and protect me and others. He has some bigger plan that I dont know. I can try to tell myself that He will punish the evil in hell and reward those wronged here, as he says in the Quran. I can repeat these claims to myself and assert them with ever greater intensity…BUT..none of these work, not for me at least. Alas, all this, not matter how well-intentioned, does not make sense and does not give me peace no matter how badly and earnestly I wish for it. I am not free to just love and worship a God who makes wars and pestilence without some thought and reflection. I can lie to myself or be too afraid to admit but the honest thing to do is to ask the maker for the meaning of what he does.
There are many problems with this way of treating revelation as far as I am concerned. One, I can’t actually come to be sure of judgment day (reward and punishment) by simply repeating what the Quran says about judgment day. How can I be sure it is really the case that there is eternal punishment and eternal reward? Two, how does some postponed/future punishment for evil ones make up for rights and wrongs suffered by innocent people here and now? To me, it does not! I am given the need to find meaning now. Two, I can’t actually feel grateful to a God who is supposed to have wisdom and mercy etc. but this wisdom and mercy seems often utterly absent and inaccessible to me and is rather contradicted by all the needless injustice, pain and suffering I see in the world. How can he ask me, as he does in the Quran, to be grateful to him when I find no wisdom and mercy in what he does? There is no reason for me to accept that I am supposed to (or even that I can even if i wanted to) believe that God is all merciful while at the same time feel he is letting cruel and evil things happen – things that I, if I had the power to determine events, would not allow to happen at all. I cannot feel gratitude towards such a being here and now even if I want to. Third, I am not sure what the meanings of injustice, evil, good and pain really are. I assume I know based on what I currently like and not like. But perhaps I did not understand things properly. I will need to understand them from my subjective perspective as good or evil but this does not mean that I cannot ask my maker to suggest meanings for me to consider. Fourth, what indeed is the meaning of my likes and dislikes? Why don’t I like certain things? How is it that I am pained by injustice and suffering? If my maker has made me in this way, should he not tell me what meaning I should give to myself? Why do I feel pain and why does my heart break? I can speculate or turn to other sources for understind myself, or my “I” OR I can ask him and expect him to answer and reveal this to me. I expect him to tell me what evil is and what the truth of it is. Fifth, I need to be sure that the Quran is actually revelation from my maker. I need to witness the truth of its claims, including the claim that I should seek refuge with him from the evil of what he himself as created! I ask: You are telling me that you have made evil and now you want me to seek refuge from it with you? What is this evil you speak of and how are you a refuge for me? Whatever I am told of the unseen (God being a refuge), I need to see signs of it here so I can witness the truth of the existence of that unseen. Revelation is critical to me for this purpose.
Turning to envy specifically, why is it suddenly mentioned at the end of this chapter? What is the evil of the envious when they envy? How does one take refuge from it with God? I need to reflect on these signs/verses/ayat and try to find their truth. That truth, which I can witness and feel and am convinced about in my heart, will be my guide and a reminder. Otherwise, it will just be claims which will have no meaning for me, no matter how religiously I recite them or how much we extol them as effective means for protecting ourselves against evil etc.
As I talk about envy now, keep in mind that I will need to make a choice about the notion of evil: Who will define it for me? Is something evil only when it is evil for me or is it evil regardless of how I think or feel about it? And if something is evil but I don’t see it as such, is it something I can honestly seek protection from? My view is that my maker speaks of evil, punishment, reward etc. in a way that I can (and should be able to) experience and witness as evil, punishment, reward etc. There must be signs that help me confirm the truth claims that revelation makes. Without exception!
In my view, the evil that revelation speaks about is NOT the evil that an addressee of the Quran experiences and recognizes as evil when they first turn to the Quran for guidance. There is no way to limit the scope of what evil is or is not at the start of turn to revelation. Indeed, I expect revelation to reveal the meaning of evil to me, which I will then confirm and be guided by or else not find useful and reject. Having said that, it is inevitable that I will start with some sense of what I understand or feel is evil. I am open to considering what revelation has to say – I need it to say something because I am not satisfied and at peace in a world where so many suffer and, on account of their suffering, I too suffer. I am in need of meaning for the immense personal suffering and for the immense suffering in the world. In my view, chapter 113 is one place where I find revelation guiding me what is really “evil” for me and what is a refuge from such evil. I need to understand what it says, and whether it is true for a being like me so that I may choose to accept or reject it. Envy is presented as the example – the Quran always uses one or two examples in a given verse or set of verses, that then can be (and I think should be) extended to cover all other cases.
This chapter begins by telling me to “say, I seek refuge with the sustainer/lord of the rising dawn/breaking open/bringing things into being/ etc.” What I understand is that things, all things are, in reality, from Him. Do I see this? I don’t! I see them as just existing – just there. I don’t see anyone creating them. But the Quran is asking me to consider how can they be just there? Something or someone is bringing them into being. We can’t discuss how a creature like me can decide whether a thing exists or is being brought into being here. That is another discussion that the Quran addresses in other places. For now, the claim is that they are being brought into being by someone.
Then it says I should seek refuge “from the sharr/evil of what He created.” And I respond by asking: is there a sharr/evil associated with the “createdness” of a thing that I may not be aware of and for which my refuge will be the one bringing them into being? Is this true? Is it a guidance? Pay attention to my response/question. If I am not going to read my own ideas about what is “evil” in the world (the terrible aunt, the abusive spouse, some political leader, the economic system etc etc), I need to pay attention to what revelation is drawing my attention to here. Why does it say evil of what is created?
A short but necessary digression here: It is relevant to reflect on the Quran’s claim in verses like 4:79, “Whatever good happens to you is from God; and whatever evil befalls you is from yourself…” The word here is not “sharr” but ‘sayyi’a’. They mean similar things to me. We know the Quran also says in 41:46, “WHOEVER does what is just and right, does so for his own good; and whoever does evil (asa’a – related to the word “sayyi’a), does so to his own hurt: and never does God do the least wrong to His creatures.” What the Quran claims then is that it is due to my own mistake, my mistaken interpretation of reality? that makes a thing bad or evil for me. I do wrong to myself with it and suffer from it. It’s evil lies in it being harmful for me from my “misguided” reading or understanding of that thing, not the thing itself. It is the meaning I get (and what I fail to get) that hurts me. The evil is a harm or wrong (zulm) I do to myself. The Quran claims that it wants to guide me out of this self-inflicted harm. In other words, the existence of the thing itself is not evil but my perspective, and hence the meaning I get from it, makes me suffer, as if it were really evil. What is created can be (will certainly be, the Quran claims) evil and torturous for me because of what I will feel/understand it to UNLESS I took revelation’s guidance into account (see 2:38-39 for instance where it is those – we – who find themselves in a place where they suffer harm have a way out in taking revelation’s guidance into account). This is an interesting suggestion.The Quran’s claims seems to be that when the One, the sustainer and Lord, goes missing from my perspective on a created (and therefore not just a self-existent) thing, I suffer its evil on account of its createdness/limitednesss/contingency and so on. Since it is not the source of its existence and is instead being given existence, when I give it the status of a self-existent being, I am made to suffer). Once I remember the One creating it, the sustainer and the the Lord of that things and connect with him through that created thing’s createdness, this One will be a refuge from the evil I would inflict upon myself and see others afflicted by whenever I forget to look upon myself or others from an unguided perspective.
Back to Surah 113: verses 3 and 4 claims that this “evil” of whatever is created (and whose source of being I forget and thus need to return to) seems reasonable and experiential to me (as a darkness descending upon myself or others). I also see it in people who try to or actually inflict harm or pain on others. It may, in other words, be felt to be already there as a visceral reality (an earthquake, a disease, a system of oppression and so on) and also in what I might see as someone’s desire or action or effort to harm me or others (interestingly presented as blowing on knots to indicate the ridiculousness of thinking others can actually harm me by such means). In either case, the verses are speaking to the person’s experience of or signs of the existence of evil in the world and claiming that it is truthful and meaningful guidance for me to respond to this by seeking refuge from this evil with the One who is the source of all things. There is a possible cruel paradox here: seek refuge with the one who is the source of the evil from which protection is to be sought! But let’s hang on to that paradox till we get to the end. The chapter ends with claiming that I should seek refuge from the “evil of the envious when they envy.” It is this last verse I want to reflect on.
What is envy/hasad? Its an attitude that exists in the world. I act with envy when I see some good with someone else and i want that good to be taken away from them. Let me take one example to focus the discussion. Let’s say I am praised and admired by people. It is something that I like and desire. I want to be loved and admired and praised and honored by others. Let’s say I am admired and loved for my kindness. Let’s say i like being kind. Now let’s say I begin to think that a friend of mine is envious of me. Let’s say they are actually envious. I come to know that they actually want people to hate me, want me to be thought of as unkind and cruel, that they resent me for my kindness and for the love I get from others. My friend finds it hurtful and unfair that I am more loved and considered more kind than they are or more than he thinks I actually am. So in this example, I am the one being envied by another. At least that is my perception and let’s say I have evidence to believe that someone is really and truly envious of me. Lets bring in the Quran now: my maker is asking me to ask Him for protection from the evil of this envious person when he envies, right? But what is his evil? This questions requires that I have a sense of why something is valuable to me that I may lose as the result of this envy. In this example, the valuable thing is the praise and love I get from others for my kindness. Pay attention now: The evil of envy is that it makes me think it is MY kindness that is appreciated by others and it is therefore my kindness that the envious person wants not to be appreciated and loved so much by others. Perhaps he feels belittled and of lesser value because he feels he can’t be as kind or that he is as kind but is unfairly not as appreciated as me etc etc. The envy of the envious makes me believe that what is envied is indeed mine. It can make me forget that what is loved and appreciated by others, kindness, is not my property and not a thing that just exists by itself. It is being brought into being and it belongs to the One who is bringing it into being. The Lord of kindness is the kind one. He creates me together with kindness and much else e.g. consciousness, intelligence etc etc. To see kindness as created by the Lord who brings things into being is to see that i) envy of a fellow creature is actually impossible because what is loved and appreciated (kindness here) and on account of which the envious was envying, is not the property of that creature and ii) that if i do not remind myself that the Kind one is being appreciated and loved by those who admire this kindness in me and also the one who apparently envies me on its account, I may start to see myself as the source of that limited and fleeting kindness that is being given to me. This self-perception of being kind and all that entails (trying to remain kind and win others’ praise and love for it, loss of self-worth if people do not affirm that self-perception, inability to accomplish with this self-claimed kindness what real kindness is expected to accomplish – for instance relieving poverty for all or keep everyone young and healthy and happy forever – etc. brings harm to the one who believed that the kindness in them was their own and not the provision from a sustainer.
When I realize this, I realize that instead of acknowledging whatever kindness was manifest in me and that was appreciated by others as a sign to the kindness of my lord and others’ love of this lord and seeing the equal dignity of all creatures in the envious person’s refusal to accept that someone could “be”, as if on their own and on account of their “higher” virtue, more kind and more loved/valued by others, I would claim kindness for myself, giving a lie to the fact that I am not the producer or owner of the kindness I find in myself. I will start to think evil of the person I think is envious of me. I will think all such loved and lovable qualities belong to the things upon which they are made to appear by the Lord. This assigning the qualities of the Owner of those qualities to created beings who can only manifest them in limited form and temporarily, by His grace and leave, as signs to be read, is what the Quran calls “shirk” or associating partners with the One. This associating is harmful for me for it severs my connection to the real eternal and perfect source of those qualities. Envy of envious is evil because, if i grant it as real and possible, I am condemned to associating partners with the One (including the thought that that person, in addition to the One, has some power to cause harm to me that is somehow outside the power and knowledge of my maker).
I have seen so much heartache, intrigue and just foolishness on account of people and families and groups etc. thinking that jealousy or envy is possible or real and that the envious person can cause some real harm to the one envied. The evil in envy is my perception that the thing for which I am being envied belongs to me. I would not take seriously someone’s envy, for instance, when they envy me for owning a car that was not mine and that I had just borrowed from a friend for a few hours to carry out a task. The evil of it will be there for me if I started to think that the car was indeed my own. Now, suddenly, I have a car that I could lose. Suddenly, I have a reputation as the owner of that nice car that I need to protect when it is clear that I have to return the car and I can’t actually keep it.
The post is already too long to discuss other ways of thinking about the evil of envious. But I end here in the hope that what I have said is a different and more useful take on envy and the evil of envy in the Quran than what is commonly understood. Evil in the Quran is intimately tied to “shirk” and this evil is something I experience here and now. Its not that God gets extra mad about it. He tells me about it because it is the most frequent error I make and which is at the root of all self-harm.