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Albert Camus and Said Nursi on the Problem of Evil
Jul 1, 2018

Many atheists suggest that if God exists, there should not be evil, since God, by definition, is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent. Therefore, atheists conclude that the existence of evil actually refutes the theists’ argument for the existence of a benevolent God.

But is it a legitimate point to make?

Albert Camus and Bediuzzaman Said Nursi are two thinkers of the same era, one representing the Western atheist viewpoint and one representing the Eastern Islamic viewpoint. They present two very different versions of how humankind should understand the problem of evil and suffering.

Albert Camus and The Plague

Camus chose to express some of his philosophical views in his novels. His 1947 novel La Peste, translated into English as The Plague, is where he exercises his position on the problem of evil. The Plague depicts the emergence of a natural evil, i.e. the bubonic plague brought by rats, in a French-Algerian town of Oran (Wahran in today’s Algeria). Camus might have been inspired either by the 1849 Algerian cholera epidemic, a natural evil that claimed many lives, or by the moral evil of the Nazi invasion of France, which inflicted millions of deaths and immeasurable suffering.[1]

Among many characters in The Plague, two became most prominent in terms of expressing Camus’ philosophical position. Like David Hume’s characterizations of Philo, Demea, and Cleanthes who represent different philosophical points of view, Camus exercises atheistic and theistic arguments through the mouths of a 35-year-old Dr. Bernard Rieux and of the relatively older Father Paneloux. The narrator of the story, an atheist moralist, who, as the reader discovers only at the end of the book, is Dr. Rieux, represents Camus’ own point of view. Father Paneloux, a Jesuit priest, expresses the theist viewpoints of a Christian through his sermons and his conversations with Dr. Rieux.

Camus tells a two-front war against the plague epidemic in Oran. The rational front, in the light of research, science, and technology, is led by Dr. Rieux, who struggles to stop the spread of the disease by means of testing new vaccines. At the same time, the ecclesiastical authorities of the town take the metaphysical approach of urging citizens to common prayer. In the first month of the plague, Father Paneloux is invited to give a speech in the town cathedral. He opens his speech with an accusation. He says, “My brethren, a calamity has befallen you; my brethren, you have deserved it!”[2] and he continues with a passage from Exodus. He says, “The first time that this tribulation appeared in history, it was to strike down the enemies of God. Pharaoh opposed the designs of the Eternal and the plague brought him to his knees. Since the beginning of history, the scourge of God has brought down the proud and the blind beneath His feet. Think on this and fall to your knees.”[3]

To Father Paneloux, the plague, or any evil for that matter, was sent upon people who deviated from the path of God in order to alert or punish them. He insists that the people of Oran deserve this heavenly punishment, as did the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Pharaoh. The plague, to Paneloux, was God’s flail with which He beats the people of Oran in order to scatter the blood and human misery “in a sowing that would make way for a harvest of truth.”[4]

Paneloux, in conclusion, suggests to the citizens of Oran that they should offer the heavens the only word that a Christian should offer, which is the word of love. Then, he believes, God would do the rest.[5]

After Father Paneloux’s sermon Monsieur Othon, the town’s magistrate, tells Dr. Rieux that the father’s analysis was “absolutely irrefutable.” However, Camus exposes his existentialist position in the later pages where Dr. Rieux and Jean Tarrou have a conversation in Rieux’s home where he stays with his mother, Mme Rieux, who came to stay with him after his wife was taken away to a sanatorium.

As the novel progresses, Camus brings up the sufferings of innocent children due to the plague. Jacques Othon, the son of Monsieur Othon, contracts the disease. Despite Dr. Castel’s attempts to save his life with the new anti-plague serum, Jacques dies after a lengthy, painful suffering.

Dr. Rieux and Father Paneloux meet again outside the hospital where the young Jacques has just died. Paneloux suggests that although the suffering and the death of an innocent child is outrageous and beyond the understanding of humankind, one should love what one does not understand. To which Dr. Rieux replies, “No, Father. I have a different notion of love; and to the day I die I shall refuse to love this creation in which children are tortured.”

Father Paneloux stays with young Jacques during his last hour and says prayers to God to spare him. Despite all the efforts of Dr. Rieux, Dr. Castel, and the medical staff, as well as Father Paneloux’s prayers, the boy dies. This, Father Paneloux finds, is completely unjustifiable, yet has to be accepted since God willed so.

From this point onward, Camus portrays Paneloux as a priest who starts having doubts since the suffering of innocent children could not be explained by any religious arguments.

In Father Paneloux’s second sermon, there is a calmer priest as opposed to a stern one. He uses the pronoun “we” as opposed to “you.” Deeply affected by the suffering and the consequent death of a child, Father Paneloux speaks to the less crowded church with a less enthusiastic audience. He says:

My brethren, the love of God is a difficult one. It assumes a total abandonment of oneself and contempt for one's person. But it alone can wipe away the suffering and death of children, it alone makes them necessary because it is impossible to understand such things, so we have no alternative except to desire them. This is the hard lesson that I wanted to share with you. This is the faith — cruel in the eyes of man, decisive in the eyes of God — which we must try to reach. We must try to make ourselves equal to this awful image. On this peak, everything will be confounded and made equal, and the truth will break forth from apparent injustice. This is why, in many churches in the South of France, plague victims have slept for centuries beneath the stones in the choir and priests speak above their tombs; the spirit that they proclaim rises out of these heaps of ashes even though children are among those who go to make them.[6]

Towards the end of The Plague, Camus depicts the contractions of the disease by Father Paneloux and Jean Tarrou. Paneloux accepts the will of God and refuses to fight the disease and dies whilst holding on to the remnants of his faith. Dr. Rieux records Paneloux’s case as a “doubtful case” since it did not clearly resemble that of the plague. Meanwhile Tarrou puts up a great heroic fight against the plague only to fail.

Said Nursi and the Risale-i Nur (Epistles of Light)

In the Risale-i Nur,[7] the collection of Nursi’s writings, Nursi builds his philosophy on the basis of the existence of God as creator and sustainer of life and the universe. The clear distinction between the theists’ concept of God and Nursi’s is that Nursi believes in a God who is not only omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent but also The Just (al-‘Adil), The Punisher (al-Qahhar), All-Wise (al-Hakim), and The Forceful (al-Jabbar). Therefore, Nursi argues that any apparent evil or suffering do not necessarily contradict the existence of a benevolent God. A situation in which evil and suffering exist might actually show the need of God’s qualities as The Just (al-‘Adil), The Punisher (al-Qahhar), and All-Wise (al-Hakim) for the situation to be eventually resolved.

Although Nursi’s position on evil and suffering initially resembles the one presented by Father Paneloux, one can observe substantial differences. It is true that Nursi considers evil and suffering as part of a Divine warning to wrong-doing people and advises people to take refuge in supplication,[8] but he also elaborates on why the existence of evil and suffering is not necessarily a proof of the non-existence of God.

According to Nursi, man has no right to complain either about the natural evils or about the moral evils which might inflict sufferings upon him. Nursi explains his position with a three-point argument.

The first point Nursi makes is that man is the artistic creation of God, hence God retains all rights to act freely upon his creation. In an analogy, Nursi likens man to a model upon whom an artistic tailor practices his art of making garments. Nursi explains that the artist who pays the model has a natural right to ask him to sit down, stand up, turn around, and so on and so forth. The model has no right to complain to his employer about his or her discomfort. In The Flashes, Nursi writes:

… Just as the name of Healer makes it necessary that illness should exist, so too the name of Provider requires that hunger should exist. And so on. The Lord of All Dominion has disposal over His dominion as He wishes.[9]

Therefore, to Nursi, the body and life are the property of the Creator temporarily lent to man. Man ought to be grateful for being given this gift, rather than complain about the aspects of it.

Nursi also implies that certain attributes of God require the existence of negative conditions to reveal His positive attributes. For instance, the name of God the Healer requires illness, and the name God the Sustainer requires hunger, and so on.[10]

The second point that Nursi highlights is the argument that evil and suffering are intended to purify and improve life. Nursi claims that the lack of ills and evils is actually more negative for life than their presence. For instance, if there were no diseases, which is what Camus implies an ideal life should be, there would have been no betterment of life in general. In other words, mankind has been working for disease prevention for centuries, and in return, hygiene, sanitation, and living conditions have been improved significantly. If open, rank sewers had not caused diseases, man would not have had to use his ingenuity and exert himself to build the modern sewage systems we all enjoy today; instead, we would still be living in extreme filth, unworthy of the human condition. Nursi remarks:

It is by means of disasters and sicknesses that life is refined, perfected, strengthened and advanced; that it yields results, attains perfection and fulfills its own purpose. Life led monotonously on the couch of ease and comfort resembles not so much the pure good that is being, as the pure evil that is non-being; it tends in fact in that direction.[11]

The third point Nursi makes is the argument that the brief life in this world is but a preparation for an infinite life in the hereafter. Therefore, it involves ills, evils, sufferings, and tribulations in order to test man to see how he reacts to them. His reactions will earn him an eternal reward or punishment. For this reason, man is meant to show strength and patience to endure the calamities thrown at him. Nursi writes:

This worldly realm is the field of testing, the abode of service. It is not the place of pleasure, reward, and requital. Considering, then, that it is the abode of service and place of worship, sicknesses and misfortunes – as long as they do not affect belief and are patiently endured – conform fully to service and worship, and even strengthen it. Since they make each hour’s worship equivalent to that of a day, one should offer thanks instead of complaining.[12]

Expounding around the thesis that not every apparent evil is necessarily evil in itself, Nursi further explains that evil is needed to appreciate pleasure. He explains that the cessation of pleasure is a pain in itself and reciprocally the cessation of pain is a great pleasure.[13]

In conclusion, Nursi contends that there is no contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil. Nursi argues that God is not only all-loving, all-caring, and all-compassionate, as the classical Christian perception would have it, but possesses many more attributes than these. Nursi asserts that evil is needed to reveal God’s other attributes such as The Sustainer (al-Razzaq), The Giver of Health (al-Shafi), etc.

Unlike Camus, who tries to resolve the problem of evil only within the framework of our brief earthly life, Nursi seeks solutions from beyond death. To Nursi, the physical life of man ends with his death, but the life of his spirit continues after death. Therefore, no suffering in this life will go unaccounted for. The sufferings are either counted as a punishment to clear an individual from his sins or the token given to him to earn a higher reward in the hereafter.

Furthermore, Nursi contends that, if diseases were only to strike bad people to punish them, everyone would believe in the existence of God, which would defy the purpose of the life completely.

In short, Camus and Nursi differ dramatically on their perception of evil. The former seeks to justify the compatibility of evil with God only within the boundaries of the visible universe and concludes that real evil exists, so God does not. The latter, however, attempts to justify the existence of evil and God in a much larger context, i.e. the earthly life and life after death, and concludes that there is no contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil, and that, on the contrary, they require and complete each other.

[1] In “Layers of meanings in La Peste,” Margaret E Gray writes that The Plague is an allegory to Nazi invasion of France. See Edward J. Hughes, The Cambridge Companion to Camus, NY, Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 165-77.

[2] Camus, Albert, Robin Buss (translator), and Tony Judt (editor). 2001. The Plague, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, p. 73.

[3] Ibid. 74.

[4] Ibid. 75.

[5] Ibid. 75.

[6] Ibid. 176.

[7] The Risale-i Nur (The Epistles of Light) is the name Said Nursi gave to the collection of his writings. It consists of around twenty pieces of books and is about 6000 pages. The main four books are The Words (Sözler), The Letters (Mektubat), The Flashes (Lem'alar), and The Rays (Șualar).

[8] In The Flashes, Nursi writes: “Drawing on the verse (Qur’an, 21:83), we should say in our supplication, ‘O my Lord and Sustainer! Indeed, harm has afflicted me, and You are the Most Merciful of the Merciful.’” See, Nursi, Kaynaklı, İndeksli Risale-I Nur Külliyatı 1, Sözler, Mektubat, Lem’alar, Şualar, p. 580.

[9] Ibid. p. 581.

[10] Nursi defends his theism based on the Divine Names of God which require certain conditions to manifest.  

[11] Nursi, Kaynaklı, İndeksli Risale-I Nur Külliyatı 1, Sözler, Mektubat, Lem’alar, Şualar, p. 581.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid. p. 583.