This is one of the winning papers from Qabeelah Nurayn for the Heavenly Hues class with Shaykh Yaser Birjas. It was written by sr. Erum.
An Examination of Good and Evil in the Glorious Qur’an
Questioning the nature of good and evil is part of human nature. We find people of all creeds, races, and eras seeking to understand good and evil through works of literature, poetry, theatre, art, and more. While an examination of these collective works can provide insight into man’s struggle between good and evil and his understanding of it, such an examination will not provide man with the definition of what good and evil are nor with a prescription for achieving good and prohibiting evil in his life. Only the One who created us, our Lord, Allah subhaanahu wa ta’ala can provide us with such knowledge and guidance. In this paper, we will examine the words of Allah azza wa jal to offer a definition of good and evil and a way to achieving good and preventing evil in this life and the next.
This question in and of itself demands a voluminous response. In the Qur’an Allah azza wa jal uses several words and phrases to refer to good and evil and even an initial search will reveal that these words vary from context to context. Rather than focusing on specific words that refer to good and evil, we will examine the concepts of good and evil more broadly.
Allah azza wa jal clearly provides mankind with the knowledge of good and evil. Firstly, we know that good an evil are two different entities, as Allah azza wa jal says the meaning of which is,
” Say: “Not equal are things that are bad and things that are good, even though the abundance of the bad may dazzle thee; so fear Allah, O ye that understand; that (so) ye may prosper. (5:100).”
An examination of the ayaat speaking of good and evil provides us with a three-level framework for defining and understanding these concepts:
The good/evil things of this life;
Good/evil in actions and belief; and
Good/evil in the hereafter.
The good/evil things of this life. In surat at-Taubah Allah azza wa jal mentions eight lawful things of this world which are beloved to man including, parents, children, brothers, spouses, relatives, wealth, business, and propertyi. In addition to Allah’s words about these good things, we can also use our own observations of the world around us to conclude that most people, regardless of creed, would agree that strong familial and community ties, loyal and caring spouses, wealth, and property are all part of the good things of this life. In fact, most people’s energies are spent in trying to attain these exact things. What of those people, however, who have attained all of these things in life, but who yet feel empty inside and feel as though they have no good in their life. These lawful worldly possessions remain good for a person as long as he remains grateful to the One who gave him those blessings and as long as he does not transgress the bounds set by His Lord in these possessions, otherwise they will become meaningless and lose their goodness. The end of ayah nine in Surah at-Taubah (referenced above) qualifies that man cannot love these lawful worldly goods more than he loves Allah, His Messenger, and striving in His cause.
Say: If it be that your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your mates, or your kindred; the wealth that ye have gained; the commerce in which ye fear a decline: or the dwellings in which ye delight – are dearer to you than Allah, or His Messenger, or the striving in His cause;- then wait until Allah brings about His decision: and Allah guides not the rebellious. (9:24).
We have numerous examples in the Quran that overall goodness is much more than having the desired things of this world, to be discussed in the next section.
Just as we described good in this world as consisting of those lawful things that man longs for, similarly we can describe evil or bad in this world as being the opposite case where he is not receiving the bounties of this life. For example, a person would hate to be in a situation of difficulty and poverty. Allah azza wa jal says the meaning of which is,
“When We bestow favours on man, he turns away, and gets himself remote on his side (instead of coming to Us); and when evil seizes him, (he comes) full of prolonged prayer! (41:51).
According to the tafsir of ibn Kathir, “evil” in this ayat refers to poverty or difficulty.
What is so amazing about being in such an “evil” or difficult state is that it can indeed be a means of good. For example, in and of itself poverty is a bad state that no one would want for himself, however the one who finds himself in such a situation can react to it in two ways: 1) complaining, despairing, and turning away from Allah and thus adding to his own misery; or 2) being patient and thankful and thus gaining the pleasure of his Lord and achieving his own inner peace of mind. Allah azza wa jal explicitly mentions this in the Qur’an when He says the meaning of which is,
“Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere” (2:155).
Similarly, Allah azza wa jal says the meaning of which is, “Fretful when evil touches him. And niggardly when good reaches him;-” (70:20-21). These ayaat describe man as receiving “evil” or “good” based on whether or not he receives the blessings of Allah in terms of worldly possessions and how he reacts to his state.
Also, in class we discussed the statement of Ibn Taymiyya rahimahuAllah summarized as ‘there is no such thing as pure evil,’ and we cited an example that there is even good in the creation of Iblees – that we take him as an example of how not to be. This point of finding good in evil is further supported by a hadith of the Messenger of Allah salAllahu alayhi wa sallam translated as,
“The affair of the believer is amazing! The whole of his life is beneficial, and that is only in the case of the believer. When good times come to him, he is thankful and it is good for him, and when bad times befall him, he is patient and it is also good for him.” [Saheeh Muslim].
In this section we have discussed the meanings of good and evil with regards to the worldly life. In short, we have described the good of this life to consist of the blessings of Allah that He bestows to whom He pleases and the bad of this life (in pure worldly terms) as being the withholding of such bounties. However, we also discussed how the believer’s response to such an evil situation can actually be a means of good for him. The following section will discuss good and evil in the context of actions and belief.
Good/evil in actions and belief. There are numerous ayat in the Qur’an which refer to good in terms of action. For example:
Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth, and ye know not. (2:216).
Those who spend (freely), whether in prosperity, or in adversity; who restrain anger, and pardon (all) men;- for Allah loves those who do good…(3:134).
Serve Allah, and join not any partners with Him; and do good- to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbours who are near, neighbours who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (ye meet), and what your right hands possess: For Allah loveth not the arrogant, the vainglorious;- (4:36).
And establish regular prayers at the two ends of the day and at the approaches of the night: For those things, that are good remove those that are evil: Be that the word of remembrance to those who remember (their Lord): (11:114).
In the above ayaat, we find that Allah azza wa jal describes many actions as good, such as fighting in His cause, giving charity, restraining anger, being forgiving towards people, being kind to parents, relatives, orphans, neighbors, travelers, and slaves, and establishing prayer. Again, most people, regardless of their creed, would agree that most of these actions are good and noble. For the believer, these are actions which Allah azza wa jal has commanded and/or recommended.
A closer examination of the ayaat reveals that goodness does not lie in actions alone. Allah azza wa jal says the meaning of which is, ““Those whose efforts have been wasted in this life, while they thought that they were acquiring good by their works?” (18:104).
Similar to those who acquire the good things of this life yet still feel emptiness inside of themselves, righteous actions are also not enough to achieve goodness in one’s life. Take the contemporary example of Mother Theresa. All throughout her life we heard of the good she did to assist less fortunate people, however after her death some of her personal writing became public in which she confessed her personal anguish, “”Where is my faith?” “Even deep down… there is nothing but emptiness and darkness… If there be God – please forgive me.”ii
Interestingly, Mother Theresa, in her anguish over her weak faith despite her good works, was on the right track to understanding that what she was lacking was good in her beliefs. We find evidence in the glorious Qur’an that goodness comes from coupling good actions with the correct belief (testifying that Allah is the only deity worthy of worship).
“But whoever believes, and works righteousness,- he shall have a goodly reward, and easy will be his task as We order it by our Command.” (18:88).
“Except such as believe and do righteous deeds: For they shall have a reward unfailing.” (95:6).
Allah azza wa jal strikes a beautiful example of the goodness of this testimony of faith when He says the meaning of which is,
“Seest thou not how Allah sets forth a parable? – A goodly word like a goodly tree, whose root is firmly fixed, and its branches (reach) to the heavens,- of its Lord. So Allah sets forth parables for men, in order that they may receive admonition. (14:24).”
According to Tafsir Ibn Kathir, the goodly word referred to in this ayah is the testimony of faith.
Just as Allah azza wa jal enumerates good actions in the Qur’an, He does the same for evil actions.
And remember Moses prayed for water for his people; We said: “Strike the rock with thy staff.” Then gushed forth therefrom twelve springs. Each group knew its own place for water. So eat and drink of the sustenance provided by Allah, and do no evil nor mischief on the (face of the) earth. (2:60).
They followed what the evil ones gave out (falsely) against the power of Solomon: the blasphemers Were, not Solomon, but the evil ones, teaching men Magic…” (2:102).
And O my people! give just measure and weight, nor withhold from the people the things that are their due: commit not evil in the land with intent to do mischief. (11:85).
And (with passion) did she desire him, and he would have desired her, but that he saw the evidence of his Lord: thus (did We order) that We might turn away from him (all) evil and shameful deeds: for he was one of Our servants, sincere and purified. (12:24).
In the above ayaat, we find examples of evil deeds including doing and spreading mischief, engaging in magic, unfair business/trade practices, and illicit relations between men and women. All of these actions are those from which Allah azza wa jal has prohibited us. We also find evidence that refraining from what Allah azza wa jal has commanded us to do is also described as evil, “Nor did they (usually) forbid one another the iniquities which they committed: evil indeed were the deeds which they did” (5:79).
Thus, we can essentially describe evil actions as sins. As Allah azza wa jal says the meaning of which is, “Many of them dost thou see, racing each other in sin and rancour, and their eating of things forbidden. evil indeed are the things that they do.” (5:62).
Evil in belief consists of taking partners with Allah azza wa jal, or having any beliefs that negate the testimony of faith. Just as Allah azza wa jal described the testimony of his Oneness as a “goodly word,” He similarly describes statements of disbelief as “evil” and lacking stabilityiii:
“And the parable of an evil Word is that of an evil tree: It is torn up by the root from the surface of the earth: it has no stability” (14:26).
In this section, we have brought examples showing that good actions are those that Allah azza wa jal has commanded and/or recommended his servants and evil or bad actions are those which incur sin. Additionally, we provided evidence that that good and evil exist in terms of beliefs, with good beliefs consisting of the testimony of faith (to testify that there is no deity worthy of worship except Allah and that Muhammad is his final messenger) and that bad beliefs consist of anything that negate the testimony of faith (primarily to associate partners with Allah azza wa jal). The following section will discuss good and evil with respect to our final abode in the hereafter.
Good/evil in the hereafter. In the above sections, we have established the good that exist in this world (the blessings of Allah, good deeds, and good beliefs), however knowing that this life is temporary, do we find any evidence of any long-lasting good? We are aware of the two outcomes that lie ahead for man: Paradise and Hell-fire. Allah azzah wa jal describes the Paradise as a good reward when He says the meaning of which is,
“For them will be Gardens of Eternity; beneath them rivers will flow; they will be adorned therein with bracelets of gold, and they will wear green garments of fine silk and heavy brocade: They will recline therein on raised thrones. How good the recompense! How beautiful a couch to recline on!” (18:31).
And, “Say: Shall I give you glad tidings of things Far better than those? For the righteous are Gardens in nearness to their Lord, with rivers flowing beneath; therein is their eternal home; with companions pure (and holy); and the good pleasure of Allah. For in Allah’s sight are (all) His servants.” (3:15).
We can assuredly say that the good of the hereafter is much better than any good of this life. For Allah azza wa jal says the meaning of which is,
“To those who leave their homes in the cause of Allah, after suffering oppression,- We will assuredly give a goodly home in this world; but truly the reward of the Hereafter will be greater. If they only realised (this)!” (16:41).
In Paradise, the believer can hope for nothing except good, as it is a place reserved only for dwellers and things that are pure and good. Adding to the goodness of the reward is the fact that it will be eternal, as Allah azza wa jal says the meaning of which is,
“gardens of Eternity, beneath which flow rivers: they will dwell therein for aye: such is the reward of those who purify themselves (from evil).” (20:76).
On the other hand, evil in the hereafter is to reach the Hell-fire as one’s final destination. There are numerous examples in Qur’an where the Hell-fire is clearly and explicitly described as an “evil” place. For example:
O Prophet! Strive hard against the Unbelievers and the Hypocrites, and be firm against them. Their abode is Hell,- an evil refuge (indeed).
For those who reject their Lord (and Cherisher) is the Penalty of Hell: and evil is (such), Destination. (67:6).
In this section, we have brought clear examples showing that good and evil in there hereafter lie in the Paradise and Hell-fire. The final section will briefly discuss the prescriptions found in the Qur’an for achieving a good life and an evil life.
Prescriptions for a good/evil life. The Qur’an is truly amazing in the guidance it provides for man. Within it is one ayath that offers man the way to achieving good in this life and in the hereafter, summarizing all of the above-mentioned points about good. Allah azza wa jal says,
“Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has Faith, verily, to him will We give a new Life, a life that is good and pure and We will bestow on such their reward according to the best of their actions.” (16:97).
SubhanAllah, this is truly an amazing ayah which clearly and explicitly tells man that that by doing good deeds and having faith (good beliefs) Allah will grant him goodness (blessings) in this life and reward them according to their best deeds (which would include the good reward of the in the hereafter).
Additionally, Allah azza wa jal provides man with the knowledge of what will lead him to an evil and miserable life when He says,
“But whosoever turns away from My Message (reminder), verily for him is a life narrowed down, and We shall raise him up blind on the Day of Judgment.” (20:124).
In his tafsir, Ibn Kathir states that “turns away from My message (reminder)” refers to the commands of Allah and His revelation. Turning away from the commands and revelation inherently implies that one is engaging in sin, thus commiting evil deeds and having evil beliefs. For these people is a narrow and restricted life, described by Ibn Kathir as a life of difficulty due to misguidance. In such a life, no matter what material blessings he has, he will not be happy and will always suffer from a type of mental anguish or stress. In short, he will have a life of hardship. Then Allah azza wa jal says that this person will be raised up blind on the Day of Judgement, referring to the bad or evil state of such a person in the hereafter.
In this section we have presented two ayaat of the Quran which essentially summarized the earlier points of the paper by informing mankind of the results of good and evil in worldly terms, in actions, in beliefs, and in the hereafter.
The concepts of good and evil are discussed over and over in the Qur’an. Looking across the different words and/or phrases used to refer to “good” and “evil/bad”, we were able to define these concepts using a three-level framework: 1) Good/evil in this world; 2) Good/evil in actions and beliefs; and 3) Good/evil in the hereafter. In short, good consists of the lawful blessings in this life (including the blessing of being granted the ability enduring hardship with patience), doing righteous actions, having the correct beliefs, and reaching the Jannah as one’s final abode. Conversely, evil consists of the lack of blessings in this life and responding to such affliction with impatience and ungratefulness, acting against the commands of Allah, disbelief, and reaching the Hell-fire as one’s final abode. Based on all of this information and evidence presented (and more), man cannot argue that he has been left aimless without any knowledge of good and evil and without guidance for achieving good and preventing evil. So, may Allah grant us good in this life and good in the hereafter and save us from the Hell-fire – ameen!
Wallahu ta’al a’alam.
i Surah Taubah, verse 9
ii http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/08/23/eveningnews/main3199062.shtml. Accessed on 3.19.08.
iii Tafsir Ibn Kathir, abridged under the supervision of Shaykh Safiur-Rahman al-Mubarakpuri. First edition July 2000, Darussalam Publishers and Distributors: Riyadh, Houston, New York, and Lahore.