Some Answered Questions


Part 5

Miscellaneous Subjects

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On Good and Evil

1 To explain the truth of this matter is difficult indeed. Know that created things are of two kinds: material and spiritual, sensible and intelligible. That is, some are perceptible to the senses, while others are only perceived by the mind.

2 Sensible realities are those which are perceived by the five outer senses: So, for example, those outward things which the eye sees are called sensible. Intelligible realities are those which have no outward existence but are perceived by the mind. For example, the mind itself is an intelligible reality and has no outward existence. Likewise, all human virtues and attributes have an intelligible rather than a sensible existence; that is, they are realities that are perceived by the mind and not by the senses.

3 Briefly, intelligible realities such as the praiseworthy attributes and perfections of man are purely good and have a positive existence. Evil is simply their non-existence. So ignorance is the want of knowledge, error is the want of guidance, forgetfulness is the want of remembrance, foolishness is the want of understanding: All these are nothing in themselves and have no positive existence.

4 As for sensible realities, these are also purely good, and evil is merely their non-existence; that is, blindness is the want of sight, deafness is the want of hearing, poverty is the want of wealth, illness is the want of health, death is the want of life, and weakness is the want of strength.

5 Now, a doubt comes to mind: Scorpions and snakes are poisonous—is this good or evil, for they have a positive existence? Yes, it is true that scorpions and snakes are evil, but only in relation to us and not to themselves, for their venom is their weapon and their sting their means of defence. But as the constituent elements of their venom are incompatible with those of our bodies—that is, as these constituent elements are mutually opposed—the venom is evil, or rather, those elements are evil in relation to each other, while in their own reality they are both good.

6 To summarize, one thing may be evil in relation to another but not evil within the limits of its own being. It follows therefore that there is no evil in existence: Whatsoever God has created, He has created good. Evil consists merely in non-existence. For example, death is the absence of life: When man is no longer sustained by the power of life, he dies. Darkness is the absence of light: When light is no more, darkness reigns. Light is a positively existing thing, but darkness has no positive existence; it is merely its absence. Likewise, wealth is a positively existing thing but poverty is merely its absence.

7 It is thus evident that all evil is mere non-existence. Good has a positive existence; evil is merely its absence.

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Two Kinds of Torment

1 Know that there are two kinds of torment: subtle and palpable. For example, ignorance is itself a torment, but it is a subtle torment; indifference to God is itself a torment; falsehood is itself a torment; iniquity and treachery are torments. Indeed, all the human imperfections are torments, but they are subtle torments. A person endowed with a conscience will certainly prefer to be killed rather than to sin, and to have his tongue cut out rather than to slander and lie.

2 The other kind of torment is palpable and consists in physical punishments such as imprisonment, beating, expulsion, and banishment. But for the people of God, to be veiled from Him is still more grievous than all these torments.

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The Justice and Mercy of God

1 Know that justice consists in rendering to each his due. For example, when a workman labours from morning till evening, justice requires that he be paid his wage, but bounty consists in rewarding him even when he has done no work and expended no effort. So when you give alms to a poor man who has made no effort and done nothing for your benefit to deserve it, this is bounty. Thus, Christ besought forgiveness for those responsible for His death: This is called bounty.

2 Now, the question of the excellence or baseness of things is determined either by reason or by religious law. Some believe that it is based on religious law: Such is the case with the Jews, who believe that all the commandments of the Torah are binding and that they are matters of religious law rather than of reason. Thus they say that one of the commandments of the Torah is that meat and butter cannot be eaten together, for this is “trefah” (and “trefah” in Hebrew means unclean, while “kosher” means clean). This they say is a question of religious law and not of reason.

3 But the divine philosophers hold that the excellence or baseness of things depends upon both reason and religious law. Thus, the prohibitions on murder, theft, treachery, falsehood, hypocrisy, and iniquity are based on reason: Every rational mind can grasp that these are all vile and reprehensible. For if you merely prick a man with a thorn he will cry out in pain: How well must he realize then that murder, according to reason, is vile and reprehensible. And were he to commit such a crime, he would be held accountable for it whether the prophetic message had reached him or not, for reason itself grasps the reprehensible character of this deed. Thus, when such a person commits such base actions, he will assuredly be held to account.

4 But if the prophetic injunctions have not reached a place and the people fail, as a result, to act in conformity with the divine teachings, then they are not held accountable according to the laws of religion. For instance, Christ enjoined that cruelty should be met with kindness. If a person remains unaware of this injunction and acts according to the promptings of nature, that is, if he returns injury for injury, then he is not held accountable according to the laws of religion, for this divine injunction has not been conveyed to him. Although such a person is not deserving of divine bounty and favour, God will nevertheless deal with him in His mercy and grant him forgiveness.

5 Now, vengeance is reprehensible even according to reason, for it is of no benefit to the avenger. If a man strikes another, and the victim chooses to exact revenge by returning the blow, what advantage will he gain? Will this be a balm to his wound or a remedy for his pain? No, God forbid! In truth the two actions are the same: Both are injuries; the only difference is that one preceded the other. Therefore, if the victim forgives, or better still, if he acts in the opposite manner, this is praiseworthy.

6 As for the body politic, it punishes the aggressor but not to exact revenge. The purpose of this punishment, rather, is to deter and dissuade, and to oppose iniquity and aggression, so as to prevent others from extending their hand likewise in oppression. But if the victim chooses to forgive and to show instead the greatest mercy, this is most approved in the sight of God.

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The Punishment of Criminals

1 Question: Should a criminal be punished, or should he be forgiven and his crime overlooked?

2 Answer: There are two kinds of retributive actions: One is revenge and retaliation, and the other—punishment and requital. An individual has no right to seek revenge, but the body politic has the right to punish the criminal. Such punishment is intended to dissuade and deter others from committing similar crimes. It is for the protection of the rights of man and does not constitute revenge, for revenge is that inner gratification that results from returning like for like. This is not permissible, for no one has been given the right to seek revenge. And yet, if criminals were entirely left to their own devices, the order of the world would be disrupted. So while punishment is one of the essential requirements of the body politic, the wronged and aggrieved party has no right to seek revenge. On the contrary, he should show forgiveness and magnanimity, for this is that which befits the human world.

3 The body politic, however, must punish the oppressor, the murderer, and the assailant, to dissuade and deter others from committing similar crimes. But that which is essential is to so educate the masses that no crimes will be committed in the first place; for a people can be so educated as to shrink entirely from any crime, and indeed regard the crime itself as the greatest chastisement and the most grievous torment and punishment. Thus no crimes would occur in the first place such that punishments would be required.

4 We must speak only of that which is practically feasible in the world. There is indeed an abundance of lofty ideals and sentiments that cannot be put into effect. Therefore we must confine ourselves to that which is practicable.

5 For example, if someone wrongs, injures, and assaults another, and the latter retaliates in kind, this constitutes revenge and is blameworthy. If Peter kills the son of Paul, Paul has no right to kill the son of Peter. Were he to do so, it would be an act of vengeance and blameworthy in the extreme. Rather, he must act in the opposite manner and show forgiveness, and, if possible, even be of some assistance to his aggressor. This indeed is that which is worthy of man; for what advantage does one gain from revenge? The two actions are indeed one and the same: If one is reprehensible, so too is the other. The only difference is that one preceded the other.

6 But the body politic has the right to preserve and to protect. It holds no grudge and harbours no enmity towards the murderer, but chooses to imprison or punish him solely to ensure the protection of others. The purpose is not revenge but a punishment through which the body politic is protected. Otherwise, were both the victim’s heirs and the community to forgive and return good for evil, the wrongdoers would never cease their onslaught and a murder would be committed at every moment—nay, bloodthirsty individuals would, like wolves, entirely destroy the flock of God. The body politic is not prompted by ill will in meting out its punishment; it acts without prejudice and does not seek to gratify a sense of vengeance. Its purpose in inflicting the punishment is to safeguard others and to prevent the future commission of such vile actions.

7 Thus when Christ said, “Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the left one also”,153 the purpose was to educate the people, not to imply that one should assist a wolf that has fallen upon a flock of sheep and is intent upon devouring them all. No, if Christ had known that a wolf had entered the fold and was about to destroy the sheep, He most certainly would have prevented it.

8 Just as forgiveness is one of the attributes of God’s mercy, so is justice one of the attributes of His lordship. The canopy of existence rests upon the pole of justice and not of forgiveness, and the life of mankind depends on justice and not on forgiveness. Thus, if a decree of amnesty were to be enacted henceforth in all countries, the whole world would soon be thrown into disarray and the foundations of human life would be shattered. Likewise, if the powers of Europe had not resisted the notorious Attila, he would not have left a single soul alive.

9 Some men are like bloodthirsty wolves: If they were to see no punishment ahead, they would kill others solely for the sake of their own pleasure and diversion. One of the tyrants of Persia killed his tutor for mere amusement. Mutavakkil, the famous Abbasid caliph, would summon his ministers, deputies, and trustees to his presence, have a box full of scorpions let loose among them, and, forbidding anyone to move, would burst into boisterous laughter whenever one of them was stung.

10 In sum, the proper functioning of the body politic depends upon justice and not forgiveness. So what Christ meant by forgiveness and magnanimity is not that if another nation were to assail you; burn your homes; plunder your possessions; assault your wives, children, and kin; and violate your honour, you must submit to that tyrannical host and permit them to carry out every manner of iniquity and oppression. Rather, the words of Christ refer to private transactions between two individuals, stating that if one person assaults another, the injured party should forgive. But the body politic must safeguard the rights of man. Thus, if someone were to attack, injure, oppress, and wound me, I would in no wise oppose him but would show forgiveness. But if someone were to attack Siyyid Manshádí here,154 I would of course prevent him. Although to the assailant non-interference would appear as kindness, it would be sheer oppression towards Manshádí. So if a savage Arab were to enter the room at this moment brandishing a sword and bent upon assaulting, wounding, or killing you, I would of course prevent him. Were I to abandon you to that man, this would be oppression, not justice. But if he were to harm me personally, I would forgive him.

11 One final point: The body politic is engaged day and night in devising penal laws and in providing for ways and means of punishment. It builds prisons, acquires chains and fetters, and ordains places of exile and banishment, of torment and hardship, seeking thereby to reform the criminal, whereas in reality this only brings about the degradation of morals and the subversion of character. The body politic should instead strive night and day, bending every effort to ensure that souls are properly educated, that they progress day by day, that they advance in science and learning, that they acquire praiseworthy virtues and laudable manners, and that they forsake violent behaviour, so that crimes might never occur. At the present time the contrary prevails: The body politic is ever seeking to strengthen penal laws and securing means of punishment, instruments of death and chastisement, and places of imprisonment and exile, and then waiting for crimes to be committed. This has a most detrimental effect.

12 But if the masses were educated so that knowledge and learning increased day by day, understanding was broadened, perceptions were refined, morals were rectified and manners reformed—in a word, that progress was made with respect to every degree of perfection—then the occurrence of crime would subside.

13 Experience has shown that crime is less prevalent among civilized peoples—that is, among those who have acquired true civilization. And true civilization is divine civilization, the civilization of those who combine material and spiritual perfections. As ignorance is the root cause of crime, the more knowledge and learning advance, the less crime will be committed. Consider the lawless tribes of Africa: How often they kill one another and even consume each other’s flesh and blood! Why do such savageries not take place in Switzerland? The reason, clearly, is education and virtue.

14 Therefore, the body politic must seek to prevent crimes from being committed in the first place, rather than devise harsh punishments and penalties.

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