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  • Writer's pictureOmid Moludy

The Problem of Evil from Morteza Motahhari's Philosophical Perspective

The Problem of Evil from Morteza Motahhari's Philosophical Perspective

The conundrum of evil persists as an enduring enigma that has profoundly engaged the intellects and souls of both religious scholars and theologians over a protracted period. It has also served as a focal point for atheists in their disavowal of a divine entity, simultaneously instigating profound contemplation among the faithful regarding its ontological essence and purpose. Islamic philosophers and theologians have undertaken the solemn duty of elucidating and rationalizing this enigma, drawing upon the tenets of reason, philosophy, and divine wisdom.

In the contemporary milieu, the late Motahhari (1919- May 1979) undertook the formidable task of dissecting this quandary through the lens of a Muslim philosopher. With meticulous scrutiny, he ventured into the perspectives of his philosophical predecessors, embarking on a quest to unravel the intricacies of this problem. This article aspires to furnish a succinct overview of his scholarly endeavors in unraveling this philosophical puzzle.

Within the domain of the philosophy of religion, certain philosophers posit that the arguments advocating the existence of a divine entity not only fail to bestow unassailable and indubitable credence upon the existence of God but can also be marshaled as substantiating evidence for the non-existence of God. This is primarily achieved by accentuating the predicament of evil and the coexistence of malevolence within the world.

In the annals of classical Greek philosophy, the philosopher Epicurus grappled with the issue of evil and suffering. Epicurus, who resided in the 4th century BCE, formulated an argument known as the "Epicurean Paradox" or the "Problem of Evil." He posed the question of how it is conceivable to reconcile the existence of evil and suffering in the world with the existence of gods traditionally deemed benevolent and all-powerful.

Epicurus contended that if gods are indeed benevolent, they would ardently desire to prevent evil and suffering. If they are all-powerful, they would inherently possess the capability to prevent it. However, since evil and suffering manifest in the world, Epicurus concluded that either the gods are not genuinely benevolent, or they lack the power to forestall such malevolences, or they simply do not exist.(1)

Epicurus' exploration of this problem has sparked extensive philosophical debate and contemplation over the ages, persisting as a significant point of discussion in the philosophy of religion. It stands as an early example of philosophical inquiry into the nature of evil and its compatibility with the attributes of divine beings, offering an alternative perspective compared to the biblical narrative of Job or the Islamic philosopher Morteza Motahhari's viewpoints.

The predicament of evil, antedating its formulation as a philosophical quandary, has perennially perplexed the cogitations and innermost thoughts of humanity in multifarious ways. Among the most ancient religious texts grappling with this issue is the narrative of Job in the Old Testament. Job, despite enduring a myriad of suffering and calamities without transgressing any moral boundaries, ultimately found solace in submission to the divine will. He discerned that divine wisdom transcends the limits of human comprehension, rendering futile any attempts to probe the rationale behind the suffering and malevolence he endured. The Book of Job essentially portrays an earnest quest for a rational solution to this age-old question. In the Abrahamic religions, while the cause of Job's afflictions, from Job's perspective, is attributed to Satan, the scripture refrains from elucidating whether Job himself pondered the 'how' and 'why' of the suffering and malevolence he endured.

However, theologian-philosophers have remained dissatisfied with this explanation, laboring to discern a rational solution to the problem of evil. Conversely, as previously mentioned, atheist philosophers have harnessed this conundrum as a foundational pillar for their repudiation of God's existence. In the perspective of Motahhari, this matter emerges as one of the preeminent subjects within the ambit of theology, representing a crucible where ancient and modern philosophy engage in a dialectical confrontation. This confrontation revolves around the disparate and even contradictory methodologies employed by these two philosophical paradigms. Consequently, Motahhari diligently employed his various literary works, including his exegesis on Islamic theology (Sharh Al-Ilahiyyat) and The Book of Divine Justice (Kitab Adl Al-Ilahi), to furnish a meticulous and coherent elucidation of the viewpoints articulated by Islamic philosophers regarding this matter and to disentangle the intricacies surrounding this problem.(2)

In this article, an endeavor has been made to elucidate his exposition of the stance adopted by Islamic philosophers when confronted with this exigent issue.

The Problem of Evil and Divine Providence

Within the realms of theology and philosophy, a vexing issue persists: the relationship between evil and malevolence on one hand and divine providence on the other. The dilemma at hand teeters between two possibilities. On the one hand, asserting that evil exists independently of divine providence leads us down a perilous path, suggesting the existence of events beyond the purview of divine will. This, in turn, implies a deviation from the domain of divine destiny and decree—a notion wholly incompatible with monotheism and antithetical to Islamic beliefs and jurisprudence.(3)

In accordance with the foundational tenets of Islamic philosophy, this premise is deemed erroneous. Within this philosophical framework, every instance of evil in the world can be categorized as either necessary in existence or merely possible in existence. If we consider it as necessary in existence, we inevitably face the conundrum of multiplying necessary existents in the world—a concept that contravenes the established unity of the source of existence and is thus an untenable proposition, fundamentally contradicting the monotheistic conception of God. On the other hand, if we view evil as possible in existence, it either emanates from and is instigated by God or stems from and is induced by another entity. In either case, attributing these manifestations of evil to the essence of God remains an impossibility.

However, a complex problem ensues: if we accept that evil and malevolence are ascribed to the essence of God, how do we reconcile their contingency with divine wisdom? Put differently, if both justice and wisdom constitute attributes of God, how do we harmonize the existence of evil with these two divine attributes? If God is indeed characterized by wisdom, and the fabric of existence represents the pinnacle of righteousness and excellence, how do we account for the presence of imperfections, mortality, disparities, and other undesirable facets of existence? This predicament stands as one of the most profound conundrums in the domains of philosophy and theology, and it is a rare philosopher who has not grappled with it. Furthermore, it serves as a focal point of contention between ancient and modern philosophical paradigms.

According to Motahhari, addressing the enigma of evil necessitates a preliminary clarification of the concept of divine wisdom, followed by a nuanced exploration of the very nature and essence of evil itself.

The Meaning of Divine Wisdom According to Motahhari

In the realm of Islamic philosophy, when contemplating divine wisdom, often referred to as providence, a triadic framework emerges:

1- God's Cognizance of the Summum bonum: This pertains to the divine apprehension and comprehension of the Summum bonum, signifying God's intimate awareness of the highest good or ultimate purpose.

2- God as the Efficient Cause of the Summum bonum: Within this context, God emerges as the efficient cause or origin of the Summum bonum, indicating that God is the primary source responsible for its instantiation and realization.

3- God's Divine Satisfaction with the Summum bonum: This dimension alludes to God's contentment or divine satisfaction concerning the Summum bonum, intimating a profound sense of approval and divine complacency.(4)

However, Motahhari posits that this definition remains insufficient. It is imperative, he argues, to gain a deeper understanding of divine wisdom by first examining the human conception of wisdom and subsequently applying it to God, meticulously purging it of any imperfections or deficiencies.(5)

A pivotal point to note here is that before Islamic philosophers attribute any attribute of perfection to God, they meticulously identify the aspects of deficiency in that attribute within the contingent world, purify it from any blemishes or defects, and only then ascribe it as a perfect attribute to God. Motahhari contends that this same issue plagues Western philosophers in their comprehension of wisdom, ultimately leading them into conflating wisdom with the problem of evil and David Hume's objections concerning the argument from design.(6)

In the human context, wisdom denotes the capacity to select the loftiest and noblest objectives, coupled with the ability to choose the most adept means and tools for realizing these objectives. Wisdom, in this sense, encompasses both knowledge and action. Western philosophers have, by extension, projected this human notion of wisdom onto the divine sphere. However, Motahari argues that this projection carries inherent defects and limitations.

Human wisdom, by nature, is laden with imperfections and shortcomings. Individuals often fall prey to the constraint of ignorance and lack omniscience—a deficiency that severely impairs their ability to discern and apprehend the totality of consequences resulting from their actions. Furthermore, human wisdom is marred by subjectivity, rendering it susceptible to biases and errors in judgment. These inherent deficiencies within the scope of human wisdom inevitably engender imperfections in the objectives pursued and the means employed to attain these objectives.

In contrast, divine wisdom operates on an entirely different plane. God's knowledge is unbounded and all-encompassing, precluding any form of ignorance. Consequently, His selection of objectives is devoid of any imperfections or deficiencies. Furthermore, His actions are informed by an infallible wisdom, free from any biases or errors. Therefore, in the divine context, the objectives pursued by God are not only the loftiest but are also free from any imperfections. In essence, divine wisdom denotes the capacity to select the most noble and elevated objectives and to employ the most adept means for realizing these objectives—albeit without any deficiency or error.

The Nature of Evil and Its Compatibility with Divine Wisdom

Having delineated the concept of divine wisdom, Motahhari proceeds to engage with the nature of evil. Evil, in its multifarious forms, is considered one of the most significant challenges to religious belief and a stumbling block for theologians and philosophers alike. Evil manifests in the form of moral evil, such as human actions that transgress moral boundaries, as well as natural evil, including natural disasters, diseases, and suffering.

Motahhari contends that evil, in its essence, represents a form of negation or privation. It is not an entity or substance in itself but rather the absence or deficiency of goodness. This conceptualization aligns with the traditional Islamic understanding of evil, where it is perceived as the absence or privation of goodness. Just as darkness is the absence of light and coldness is the absence of heat, evil is the absence or negation of goodness.(7)

In the divine context, God is the source of all goodness and perfection. His attributes are inherently good, and His actions are characterized by perfect wisdom. Evil, as a form of negation of goodness, cannot emanate from God's essence, for that would imply a deficiency in His perfection, and it would contravene the very definition of divine wisdom. Instead, evil is a contingent and secondary phenomenon that emerges within the created world.

Motahhari posits that evil, as a privation of goodness, serves a purpose within the divine plan. It is instrumental in the manifestation of divine attributes such as justice, mercy, and forgiveness. Without the existence of evil and suffering, these attributes would remain dormant and unexpressed. In the face of evil, God's justice becomes evident in His response to human actions, and His mercy is manifest in His forgiveness and guidance. In this sense, evil serves as a backdrop against which the divine attributes can shine forth and be recognized by humanity.

Additionally, evil can serve as a means of testing and purification for human beings. It is through facing adversity and moral choices that individuals have the opportunity to demonstrate their faith, resilience, and moral character. In the Islamic tradition, it is believed that God does not burden a soul beyond its capacity, and trials and tribulations are seen as opportunities for spiritual growth and purification.


The problem of evil remains a profound and enduring philosophical and theological challenge. Islamic philosophers, including Motahhari, have grappled with this issue, seeking to reconcile the existence of evil with the attributes of God. Motahhari's exposition on divine wisdom and the nature of evil offers a unique perspective within the Islamic philosophical tradition.

In his view, evil is a privation of goodness and cannot emanate from God's essence, which is inherently perfect and good. Instead, evil serves a purpose within the divine plan, allowing for the manifestation of God's attributes and providing opportunities for human growth and moral testing. Motahhari's exploration of these concepts demonstrates the depth and nuance of Islamic philosophical thought in addressing the problem of evil and offers insights into the intricate relationship between divine wisdom and the existence of evil in the world.


1. Oxford Handbook of Epicurus and Epicureanism, edited by Phillip Mitsis, published by OUP USA on 17th September 2020, page 768.

2. Motahhari, Morteza. "Collected Works of Morteza Motahhari (Volume 8)." Sadra, 2006, pp. 392-395.

3. Motahhari, Morteza. "Divine Justice." Sadra Publications, 1973, p. 70.

4. Motahhari, Morteza. "Collected Works of Morteza Motahhari (Volume 8)." Sadra, 2006, pp. 392-395.

5. Motahhari, Morteza. "Divine Justice." Sadra Publications, 1973, pp. 70-75.

6. Motahhari, Morteza. "Collected Works of Morteza Motahhari (Volume 8)." Sadra, 2006, p. 398.

7. Tabatabai, Allameh. "Principles of Philosophy and the Method of Realism." Footnote by Morteza Motahhari. Sadra Almotalehin Publications, 1993, (Fifth volume), pp. 62.

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