The intelligibility of good and evil (husn wa qubh aqli)

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The intelligibility of good and evil (husn wa qubh aqli)
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All Muslims are at one over the issue of divine justice; but there is a certain difference of opinion regarding the question of what the justice of God actually means. Muslims have opted for one of the two following positions:

1) The human intellect distinguishes between good and evil actions, understanding the former to indicate the perfection of the agent, and the later the imperfection of the agent. Since God, by nature, possesses all ontological perfections, the intellect discloses that his acts must be perfect and pleasing, his most holy nature being devoid of all kind of evil. Consequently, God deals justly in his relation with mankind.
In Islamic theology this approach goes by the name of 'The intelligibility of good and evil'(husn wa qubh aqli). The adherents of this approach are referred to as the 'adliyya'[1], the forerunners of whom were the scholars of the Ahlulbayt school of thought (Shi'a).

The human intellect distinguishes between good and evil actions, understanding the former to indicate the perfection of the agent, and the later the imperfection of the agent. Since God, by nature, possesses all ontological perfections, the intellect discloses that his acts must be perfect and pleasing, his most holy nature being devoid of all kind of evil. Consequently, God deals justly in his relation with mankind.
In Islamic theology this approach goes by the name of 'the intelligibility of good and evil'(husn wa qubh aqli).

2) There is another perspective, according to which the human intellect is incapable of discriminating between good and evil actions, even in a general way. It is asserted that the distinction between good and evil can only be made on the basis of divine revelation: that it is God who commands us to do good and God who forbids us from evil and it is God who determines what is good and what id bad.
According to this perspective, if God were to consign sinless souls to hell and sinners to paradise, this would constitute perfect goodness and justice. If God is described as just, it is only because he has been given this attribute by revelation.[2] and [3]

Since the principle of 'the intelligibility of good and evil' is the foundation of many Shi'i beliefs, we ought to mention, albeit briefly, two of the many arguments from which its validity can be derived.

1. Every individual, whatever be his religious path or creed and wherever he be on this planet, is capable of grasping the beauty of justice and the ugliness of injustice, the beauty of keeping one's word and the ugliness of breaking it, the virtue of repaying goodness with goodness and the vice of repaying goodness with evil. History shows ample evidence of this truth, and hitherto the wise have never denied it.

2. If we were to suppose that the intellect were incapable -in a universal fashion- of grasping the distinction between good and evil acts, and that all people must refer to religion to enable them to perceive the goodness or evil of a given act, then we would be forced to accept the concomitant argument that even the validity of the religiously sanctioned distinction between good and evil could not be proven. For, assuming that the Lawgiver informs us about the goodness of one action and the evil of another, we could not truly benefit from this Information for as long as there were any possibility in our minds that the Lawgiver may not be speaking the truth. However, the case would be entirely different if it were already self-evident to us that the Lawgiver is utterly beyond the ugliness of lying and this evidence only comes to us by means of the intellect. 

If we were to suppose that the intellect were incapable -in a universal fashion- of grasping the distinction between good and evil acts, and that all people must refer to religion to enable them to perceive the goodness or evil of a given act, then we would be forced to accept the concomitant argument that even the validity of the religiously sanctioned distinction between good and evil could not be proven. For, assuming that the Lawgiver informs us about the goodness of one action and the evil of another, we could not truly benefit from this Information for as long as there were any possibility in our minds that the Lawgiver may not be speaking the truth.

In addition to these two points, there are also verses from the Qur'an which uphold the principle that the intellect is indeed inherently capable of discriminating between good and evil:

Then will We treat the Muslims like the criminals? What is [the matter] with you? How do you judge?(Sura al-Qalam, 68:35-36)

In this verse, a question is posed, and we are able to provide the answer:

Is the reward of goodness other than goodness? (Sura al-Rahman, 55:60)

In the following verse, God says:

He is not questioned about what He does, but they will be questioned. (Sura al-Anbiya', 21:23)

Now the question might arise: God knows that He is too exalted to be accountable to anyone, therefore no action of His can be called to account; but if we operate on the basis of an intellectually posited distinction between good and evil, then, supposing that God were to commit [what may appear to us as] an 'evil' act, we would have to ask: why  has this act been committed? The response to this is as follows: the reason why God is not called to account is, precisely, because He is Wise, and a wise agent cannot commit any type of unjust action, for wisdom is always inseparable from good action, so there can be no possible action that one might call in to question on the part of God.[4]

1) the term 'adlyya' refers to both the Shi'I and the Mu'tazili schools which stress justice as one of their key theological principles.
2) this interpretation of divine justice is presented by Ash'arite theology, which is one of the two Sunnite schools of thought in theology, according to which: that is just which God does, and it is just because he does it.
3) doctrines of Shi'i Islam, written by Ayatullah Ja'far sobhani, p48.
4. Translator's note: The question dialectically posed to himself by the author is intended to probe the implications of the principle of the intelligibility of good and evil: if God's actions were to be evaluated in terms of the said principle, by being, as it were, 'accountable' to a higher principle-one that is posited by the human intellect-would it not be tantamount to subordinating God to man? The author's response is intended to show that the question is ill-posed, since the supposition that God could perform an evil act is grasped as an impossibility by the intellect: it is an innate function of the Intellect to discern the infinite wisdom and, thus, the unimpeachable goodness of God, from whom all principles-spiritual, intellectual and moral-are derived.

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لا يكونُ أخوكَ أقوى مِنكَ على مَودّتِهِ.
Do not let your brother be stronger than you are in your amity for him.