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The Theodicies of Allama Iqbal & John Hick

Muhammad Mohsin Masood compares the evolutionary thinking of theologian John Hick and poet-philosopher Muhammad Allama Iqbal.

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Thus pronounces Epicurus, a Greek philosopher well before the birth of Christ. The argument is a seeming paradox in which the very existence of evil and the infinite goodness and omnipotence of God are put head to head. These lines encapsulate the immense problem that faces every major theology regarding the attributes of a God defined as both good and powerful. The attempt to address this problem is called ‘theodicy’.

Every major textual religion has carried a narrative about the origin of evil in this world, divine goodness and power, and reward and punishment in the afterlife. In the ancient religions of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism, there exists a duality between the forces of good and the malevolent powers of evil. Zoroastrianism points to Angra Mainyu, a destructive spirit, at odds with Ahura Mazda, the perfect god. Buddhism also retains a dualism between evil and good, but without reference to gods or spirits. Rather, evil and good are viewed as opposing mental states. Hindu literature contains both good gods and evil demons waging war with each other on a level stage.

For monotheistic religions, the problem of evil is accentuated, since God, as the supreme entity, is above all creation and hence is all-embracing as well as all-powerful. Islam, Judaism and Christianity all subscribe to this view, and all three carry the same narrative of Satan rebelling and falling from divine grace leading to the first sin of Adam. Monotheistic prophets, philosophers, theologians, and writers throughout the ages have tried to reconcile the goodness and power of God with the existence of evil. Each new age has brought new ideas, and this demonstrates a gradual evolution of thought.

Christian thought on the problem of evil began in earnest with St Augustine, and continues all the way through to modern-day thinkers such as Schleiermacher and John Hick. Early Islamic schools of the Asha rite and the Mu’tazila debated the issue; Ghazali also gave his opinion; and despite the stagnation of Islamic thought in the twentieth century, Allama Iqbal tried to put forward a new theodicy. Indeed, both Allama Iqbal (1877-1938) and John Hick (1922-2012) came up with ideas related to the existence of evil as a necessary factor for human spiritual and moral evolution. Both thinkers have also presented a metaphoric interpretation of the fall of Adam consistent with modern thought, and both have presented their own reading of Satan as the originator of evil. I’d like us to briefly consider their thoughts on this topic.


Allama Iqbal
Allama Iqbal in 1938

The central idea of Allama Iqbal’s theodicy is based upon his idea of reality, which stems from his idea of Khudi or the development of the soul.

Iqbal thinks of reality as a ceaseless act in motion. Experience stems from this motion. This motion furthers result in evolution which is creative and purposeful. So Iqbal posits a dynamic outlook on reality that has progress embedded in it. He does not subscribe to the view of a fixed universe with a fixed purpose. This, to him, would be to rob the universe of its vitality and creativity. Each happening in time is not predetermined, but rather born anew. According to Iqbal, predetermination would robs life of originality and its creative spark. Iqbal then extends his outlook on life by taking the creative impulse in humankind as leading to higher planes of spirituality. Iqbal views reality as the creative progress of the individual, wherein the individual by his actions gives rise to new events in time. By his thinking, the exercise of the creative impulse leads humans closer to God, since God is the fount of all creation. This becomes the journey of humanity, which eventually result in humans becoming the Hamkar-e-Khuda or ‘the co-workers of God’. He asks, “Are you alive? Be vehement, be creative.”

It is necessary to keep in mind Iqbal’s fundamental view of reality to understand his idea of evil. For the individual to act creatively, it is vital that he/she must do so themselves, without being governed or guided by an external force, which would in fact mean predetermination. Free will, therefore, is a big deal in the theodicy of Iqbal. Under their own wills, must humans decide, and upon their decision, they create. If they make the right choices they morally evolve and rise spiritually. For all this to happen, however, evil must exist. Evil is there to subvert human choices. Evil therefore is a key ingredient to drive humanity’s moral development, since free will requires at least two choices in any decision; and in moral choices, there is one that leads to evil and one that leads to good. Only under these circumstances can free will be utilized; but this means that to develop using free will, humanity will be struggling against evil. That struggle will lead to creative evolution, and to taking the next step into the higher planes of morality and spirituality. Evil is therefore necessary for creative evolution. The journey is fraught with difficulty and hardship: pain and suffering are essential parts of it. It is a hard climb, and most may not make it. But Iqbal sees the dichotomy of good and evil meeting a conclusive end in the infinite God.


John Hick begins his theodicy by basing it on Irenaean thinking. Irenaeus (130-202 CE), a very early Christian theologian, distinguished between the idea of humanity being created in the image of God as intelligent, free beings, from them being in the likeness of God, which they must reach. The likeness of God represents humanity’s final perfection, to be achieved through the influence of the Holy Spirit. This journey from image to likeness is a process of growth and development. Once again, then, the world is a site of spiritual ascent, where humans can learn from evil and suffering to make moral choices. This is a ‘soul-making’, where good and evil and their associated choices determine the attainment of the likeness of God (within God’s providence). Hick develops this view by stating that humanity has undergone two phases of evolution: we have biologically evolved to become the ‘image of God’, and are now in the second phase, of becoming the ‘likeness of God’.

Hick’s approach is evolutionary, but otherwise is much like Iqbal’s: towards a final perfection. Hick believes that humans are in a process of development to become morally perfected, mature beings. Human goodness is built up by moral effort and exercise. It is not communal, but rather individual. To become perfected beings, people must undergo an unpredictable journey through the exercise of free will. Also much like Iqbal, Hick argues that people participate in the creative process. By doing so they take part in soul-making’s creative spiritual evolution. Hick believes that a world with evil, suffering, pain, and tribulations, is more effective as the ‘vale of soul-making’ than a world full of pleasure and free of vice would be.

Hick responds to those who challenge human free will by highlighting the omnipotence of God, by positing the idea of freedom as creativity, and of humans being endowed with limited creativity. The idea is that in making non-predetermined, free decisions, each of us is forming his or her own character – which could influence the next decision. Hence a process of forming and reforming occurs with every decision. Hick then builds his case by arguing that pain and suffering are inevitable since they are linked to the human environment, which is intrinsically linked to our nature. However, pain and suffering do sometimes bring forth morally good acts, such as are often seen in times of calamity. This is one way that evil eventually helps in ‘soul-making’. Hence love and other aspects of character deemed good are understood against the backdrop of pain and suffering, which is evil. This view is congruent with Iqbal’s since evil is not seen as totally ‘anti-good’, but rather, both good and evil are viewed within the framework of creative spiritual evolution.

Evil & Evolution

Within this framework of a soul-making theodicy, Iqbal and Hick both then go on to examine the origin of evil in the world.

Traditional monotheistic theology narrates the Fall of Adam and Eve as the origin of evil in the world. According to this orthodox Judeo-Christian view, as presented in the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve in paradise were forbidden to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A serpent – seen as the devil – tempted Eve to eat it. Adam then joined Eve in doing so, and for this act of disobedience they were ejected from paradise and made to live as mortal beings. The Catholic doctrine of Original Sin, articulated by St Augustine, says that humanity inherits the sin of Adam and hence has inherent sin, which propagates generation by generation. Literary figures such as Milton, Goethe and Dante also added to the Christian tradition about the work of the Devil with works such as Paradise Lost (which also puts hope into the legend by treating the Fall as fortunate, or as felix culpa – ‘happy guilt’). The Islamic story told in the Quran is much the same as the Judeo-Christian one, although certain elements are hidden, such as the serpent. The Islamic story also describes Adam as repenting, and God accepting his repentance.

Hick rejects the idea of a Fall in this sense. Humanity has not ‘fallen’, but is born at a distance from God, a distance which needs to be bridged. Hick believes that for human freedom it is necessary to have this separation from God. The human condition he describes as one of posse peccare – ‘being able to sin’ – since only in such a condition can soul-making take place. This entails some sort of distance from God, who is initially veiled in the world. Indeed, Hick takes the initial separateness of God and humanity as a precondition for human free will to be exercised without God’s overbearing influence. He further adds that evil comes about by the interaction of humanity with factors in its initial conditions, such as humanity’s inversion in nature, which alienates God. The Fall then is not a tale of wickedness, but rather, a tragedy.

Iqbal also views the legend of the Fall (this time from the Quran) not as a historic tale but a legend that conveys universal philosophical and moral lessons. He holds this partly because the Quranic version does away with details and names. He believes that the Quran does not narrate the origin of humanity, and that the paradise in the story is not the eternal abode of the pious but an altogether different state for the inception of humankind. He sees the legend of the Fall as alluding to the point when self-consciousness arose in humanity by mythologising the transition from simple existence to the awakening of self-conscious desire, and thus of the free will to make choices. In this interpretation, Iqbal contends that freedom entails the possibility of sin – hence it is a risk; but since God forgave Adam, it can be taken that the freedom to make choices is for building up moral consciousness. The Fall is the start of a battle within human beings themselves, as they undergo the trials of soul-making.

In their interpretations of the Fall, both philosophers deal with the figure of Satan. In the scriptures of both their religions, Satan is presented as the antithesis of God, being shown as the one who incites people to evil by his cunning. He is depicted as the enemy of God and humanity, and to be resisted. The Quran also shows his haughtiness when he refused to bow to Adam and so fell from grace.

John Hick rejects the devil as an anthropomorphic figure, and rather contends that the devil represents the psychoses or complexes within the human mind: he believes that the devil is nothing but pressures which force themselves upon humanity in moments of making choices, such as libidinous pressures. So his conception of the devil is more like Carl Jung’s than the Bible’s.

Iqbal also interprets the devil anthropomorphically, but his conception is closer to Goethe’s and Rumi’s than the Quran’s. Iqbal’s devil is not the outright enemy of God, but rather is the first lover of God. Iqbal even sees Satan’s pride as an act of love, and advises people to learn the lessons of Tawhid – the unity of God – from the devil himself. Iqbal sees Satan’s refusal to bow as positive self-esteem, not arrogance. Iqbal also wonders in his verse, could Satan be the confidant of God, who willed him to rebel?

Iqbal’s Satan uses his great intellect for tempting humans. He is witty and challenges God, has pride in his rivalry with humanity, and is also political and seen as the founder of capitalism. All these aspects highlight the devil’s role in soul-making by challenging humanity. The devil then fulfills the ultimate will of God. Iqbal thus says, “Waste not your life in a world devoid of taste, which contains God but not the Devil” (‘Paradise’, Payam-e-Mashriq, 1923 ).

Image © Venantius J Pinto 2023. To see more of his art, please visit behance.net/venantiuspinto

Problems In Paradise

A main argument against Hick’s soul-making theodicy is that instead of using suffering and pain to grow the soul, God could have created a world where soul-making takes place without humans combatting evil and enduring misery. A big problem also arises for Hick’s theodicy on those occasions when pain and suffering do not lead to any moral progress. Moreover, the Holocaust is not needed to learn about compassion and mercy. There is also a great amount of non-human suffering which soul-making does not incorporate. Another problem is, what is the span of time needed for soul-making? Moreover, does death lead to Hell if the process is incomplete? In that case, new-born babies dying would go straight to Hell which would seem both cruel and pointless.

Hick does away with an eternal Hell and so does Iqbal, Instead they put their faith in eternal redemption. Hick views Hell as another sphere of existence that continues soul-making; but then, one might ask, how many such spheres of existence are there, and how long is the journey to God’s likeliness? Answers are absent. It may also be asked: if Hell is not a punishment, then what is the reward for those who conscientiously try to undergo soul-making, if all end up the same, in Heaven? Is doing good only a sort of short-cut?

To conclude, although both Iqbal’s and Hick’s theodicies suffer from philosophical problems, this does not take away from the crux of their message concerning the problem of evil. The main idea of both philosophers is that the creation of humanity is not a careless act by blind forces, but rather is part of the fulfillment of a divine plan, and humanity is in a state of spiritual becoming. This state, which contains a tension, is necessary for the free will to choose, in which evil tests humanity. It is an exercise in risk, but a worthwhile one, as freely coming to God by moral and spiritual development has great worth. Ceaseless moral action is the message that follows.

Iqbal stresses to not get embroiled in the complexities of good and evil, but rather to work towards the creative progress of humanity. His message not only proposes a place for evil in the divine plan, but is also a call to action, even to feverish activity. But it should be realized that the fulfillment is to be found in tomorrow, when humanity has gone beyond good and evil and attained a higher spiritual level, even with the assistance of the devil and the evil that stands in the path towards moral maturity.

© Muhammad Mohsin Masood 2023

Muhammad Mohsin Masood graduated with a law degree from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and is practicing in the field of constitutional law as a litigator. Alongside his work he retains a key interest and regularly dabbles in studying philosophy, religion and poetry.

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