For every question there is an answer, but there are two kinds of questions that are unanswerable for any given individual. The first one are questions that we lack the understanding to ask, and the second kind are ones that we lack the understanding to understand the answer when answered.
Take for example the following scenerio. You arrive at class and after a briefly getting situated the professor immediately begins his lecture on some new subject matter. Then after some 20 minutes of talking, with the punctuated stops to rigorously scribble notes on the chalkboard, he turns to the class and asks, “does anyone have any questions?” Then there is the inevitable silence as students awkwardly shuffle in their seats trying to avoid making eye contact, and since no one is asking any questions the professor assumes the class understood what was said and continues on with the lecture.
What happened at that moment was not the silence of approval, but the silence that occurs where the individuals listening were so befuddled by the material that their minds could not even formulate a question to ask. For how can someone ask a question where they don’t even know where to start. This is because people’s capacity to ask questions is directly correlated to their understanding of the subject matter. So the first kind of unanswerable question, are questions that we lack the understanding to even ask.
So for instance, my kids are not going to ask about the stock market, because they do not even know such a thing exists. Or continuing with the lecture example, if you are in a biology class in order to ask about the function of the Golgi apparatus you need to have an understanding of organelles within a cell and that such an organelle even exits. If on the other hand, you were the top biologist in the world in the year 1859 you would have still been under the impression that the cell was nothing more than a simple membrane of protoplasm and completely oblivious to the complexity of the molecular devices and operations enlocked in such a marvelous piece of machinery, and therefore would never conceive to ask such a question.
But there is a second kind of question that is also unanswerable, but unlike the first, this one does not require in-depth knowledge in order to ask. In the book The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which later was made into a movie, an advanced civilization creates a supercomputer that could answer any question. So after completion of this machine the people posed the question: “what is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.” So the machine tells that it will have the answer for them in 7.5 million years, then, sure enough, they come back 7.5 million years later and the machine informs them the answer is: 42.
So the two kinds of questions that are unanswerable for a person are:
- Questions we lack the knowledge to ask
- Questions that we lack the knowledge to understand the answer
This means for a person to be properly informed on a subject they have to be knowledgeable enough to know what questions to ask and secondly to be able to understand the answer in order to make sense of it. I think this is perfectly encompassed in the history of Job. In the Quran, it informs us the following about Job:
[21:83] And Job implored his Lord: “Adversity has befallen me, and, of all the merciful ones, You are the Most Merciful.” [21:84] We responded to him, relieved his adversity, and restored his family for him, even twice as much. That was a mercy from us, and a reminder for the worshipers.
[38:41] Remember our servant Job: he called upon his Lord, “The devil has afflicted me with hardship and pain.” [38:42] “Strike the ground with your foot. A spring will give you healing and a drink.” [38:43] We restored his family for him; twice as many. Such is our mercy; a reminder for those who possess intelligence. [38:44] “Now, you shall travel the land and preach the message, to fulfill your pledge.” We found him steadfast. What a good servant! He was a submitter.
While the Quran doesn’t provide much detail about Job the Book of Job in the Bible sheds some light on the backstory. In short, in this book, we see that Satan made a claim on Job that if Satan afflicted harm and suffering on Job that he would revert from worshipping God.
Book of Job 1
1 In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil…
6 One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. 7 The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.” 8 Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” 9 “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. 10 “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. 11 But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” 12 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”
2 On another day the angels[a] came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them to present himself before him. 2 And the Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.” 3 Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.” 4 “Skin for skin!” Satan replied. “A man will give all he has for his own life. 5 But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.” 6 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.” 7 So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. 8 Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.
Then chapters 3 – 37 is an exchange between Job and three of his friends who represented the three main schools of thought to why people suffer. So while Job testified to his innocence of not doing any wrongdoing to deserved this as well as his confusion, his friends held the position that Job must of done something wrong to deserve this. According to the three friends if someone was suffering it meant that they must have done something wrong. Such that you do good then good things happen to you and if you do evil then you will suffer the consequences. Then in the 32nd chapter a fourth friend shows up and makes a more logical argument that yes God is Just and that God runs the world in a just manner, but that God can afflict hardship as a warning or to build character.
Then in the 38th chapter, God comes to address Job and his friends, but the answer He gave interestingly requires deep contemplation:
38 Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:
2 “Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
3 Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels[a] shouted for joy?
8 “Who shut up the sea behind doors
when it burst forth from the womb,
9 when I made the clouds its garment
and wrapped it in thick darkness,
10 when I fixed limits for it
and set its doors and bars in place,
11 when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther;
here is where your proud waves halt’?
Then in the verses that follow God describes the breeding patterns, feeding habits, and migrations of certain animals. Finally, the Book of Job describes two terrifying creatures that are called Behmouth and Liviathon who by their nature are not evil, but nor are they safe either.
I think this history in the Bible perfectly depicts the shortcoming we have when asking God to explain Himself to the outcomes one may see in life. While this is a simple question the answer is far from it. In everything God does there is absolute perfection. This is manifest in the extreme fine-tuning and existence of the universe with its intricate laws and unfathomable precision. But this is just one scope, when we consider the ways of biological life and the mechanisms that God designed for creatures we are completely oblivious to God undoubtedly not only knows their behavior but was the One who mapped it all out. Yet we think that because we see something that appears to be injustice that somehow God did not account for it, made a mistake, or forgot! And in regards to understanding justice, we are presented with the allegory of Behemouth and Leviathon to further reinforce that to understand God’s justice you will have to be able to deal with creations that are outside of your possible comprehesion which is an impossible task.
This response in essence is posing a question to Job and his friends, that if they would want to establish the world based on their overtly simplistic worldview that what they are negating is the overt lack of understanding of such complexity they are dealing with. For example, let’s assume someone is found guilty of stealing a car how would you determine the most just punishment for this crime? If you go with the simplistic view that if someone does wrong then they should swiftly and quickly be punished then you may decide to throw that person immediately in jail. But what if that person had a family with a wife and children who depended on that person. Would it be just to punish them for his crime? Or what if they had a job that now his coworkers and company is being punished for him not being able to show up any more in work.
Very quickly you realize that while in our perspective justice can be doled out with little consideration to these other points of injustice, this is not how God operates. God takes all these infinite cascading effects into consideration such that no one in this equation suffers more than they need to. Then ontop of that God additionally uses any hardship we face or affliction we suffer in a way that is to the person’s best interest when they draw closer to God by the event, and only to their detriment when they turn away.
God provides us a similar example in Sura 18 of the Quran regarding Moses and his teacher. What is interesting is that where Moses and his teacher met was at the juncture where the two rivers met.
[18:60] Moses said to his servant, “I will not rest until I reach the point where the two rivers meet, no matter how long it takes.”
(٦٠) وَإِذْ قَالَ مُوسَىٰ لِفَتَاهُ لَا أَبْرَحُ حَتَّىٰ أَبْلُغَ مَجْمَعَ الْبَحْرَيْنِ أَوْ أَمْضِيَ حُقُبًا
We see this word for the two rivers or two seas, الْبَحْرَيْنِ / l-baḥrayni occur as well in the following verse:
[25:53] He is the One who merges the two seas; one is fresh and palatable, while the other is salty and undrinkable. And He separated them with a formidable, inviolable barrier (evaporation).
(٥٣) وَهُوَ الَّذِي مَرَجَ الْبَحْرَيْنِ هَٰذَا عَذْبٌ فُرَاتٌ وَهَٰذَا مِلْحٌ أُجَاجٌ وَجَعَلَ بَيْنَهُمَا بَرْزَخًا وَحِجْرًا مَحْجُورًا
I see this as symbolism of what laid ahead for Moses in his lesson with his teacher. In this life we are accustom to fresh drinking water. This represents the things that happen in our life where we can make sense of. Where things are more cut and dry such that you do good and good things happen to you, you do bad and bad things happen to you. But there is another kind of water that is salty and undrinkable. This represents the things in life that don’t make sense. The hardships that present themselves, the pain an suffering that we see around us, the perceived injustices around the world. What this teacher was going to show Moses was the reasons behind this other side of the world, the parts that he could not comprehend.
[18:66] Moses said to him, “Can I follow you, that you may teach me some of the knowledge and the guidance bestowed upon you?” [18:67] He said, “You cannot stand to be with me. [18:68] “How can you stand that which you do not comprehend?” [18:69] He said, “You will find me, GOD willing, patient. I will not disobey any command you give me.” [18:70] He said, “If you follow me, then you shall not ask me about anything, unless I choose to tell you about it.”
So what happens next? Moses’ teacher first bores a hole into a poor fisherman’s ship. Then he kills a young boy. And finally he patches a wall in a community that was unhospitable to him without requesting a wage. At this time the teacher parts ways with Moses, but before doing so informs him of why he did these things:
[18:78] He said, “Now we have to part company. But I will explain to you everything you could not stand. [18:79] “As for the ship, it belonged to poor fishermen, and I wanted to render it defective. There was a king coming after them, who was confiscating every ship, forcibly. [18:80] “As for the boy, his parents were good believers, and we saw that he was going to burden them with his transgression and disbelief. [18:81] “We willed that your Lord substitute in his place another son; one who is better in righteousness and kindness. [18:82] “As for the wall, it belonged to two orphan boys in the city. Under it, there was a treasure that belonged to them. Because their father was a righteous man, your Lord wanted them to grow up and attain full strength, then extract their treasure. Such is mercy from your Lord. I did none of that of my own volition. This is the explanation of the things you could not stand.”
[21:23] He is never to be asked about anything He does, while all others are questioned.
(٢٣) لَا يُسْأَلُ عَمَّا يَفْعَلُ وَهُمْ يُسْأَلُونَ
Being part of God’s dominion requires that we need to prove our faith under all conditions to see if we trust in God when things seem tough and hopeless. The purpose of this is to push us to our limits and if we stay committed to God then it will elevate us, but if we turn away then it will weed us out.
[29:2] Do the people think that they will be left to say, “We believe,” without being put to the test? [29:3] We have tested those before them, for GOD must distinguish those who are truthful, and He must expose the liars.
[2:214] Do you expect to enter Paradise without being tested like those before you? They were tested with hardship and adversity, and were shaken up, until the messenger and those who believed with him said, “Where is GOD’s victory?” GOD’s victory is near.
أَمْ حَسِبْتُمْ أَنْ تَدْخُلُوا الْجَنَّةَ وَلَمَّا يَأْتِكُمْ مَثَلُ الَّذِينَ خَلَوْا مِنْ قَبْلِكُمْ مَسَّتْهُمُ الْبَأْسَاءُ وَالضَّرَّاءُ وَزُلْزِلُوا حَتَّىٰ يَقُولَ الرَّسُولُ وَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مَعَهُ مَتَىٰ نَصْرُ اللَّهِ أَلَا إِنَّ نَصْرَ اللَّهِ قَرِيبٌ
[12:110] Just when the messengers despair, and think that they had been rejected, our victory comes to them. We then save whomever we choose, while our retribution for the guilty people is unavoidable.
حَتَّىٰ إِذَا اسْتَيْأَسَ الرُّسُلُ وَظَنُّوا أَنَّهُمْ قَدْ كُذِبُوا جَاءَهُمْ نَصْرُنَا فَنُجِّيَ مَنْ نَشَاءُ وَلَا يُرَدُّ بَأْسُنَا عَنِ الْقَوْمِ الْمُجْرِمِينَ
It is a predetermined fact that all of us will be tested to bring out our true convictions, and to prove if we believe in God alone under all circumstances or when things get tough and uncertain do we revert from this religion. This means that as well as facing the parts of life that are sweet and delicious, we are also going to face aspects of life that are salty and unpalatable, but if we trust in God He will use all these events in our life for our good to form us to reach our potential.
Consider that to make chocolatechip cookies that one of the ingredients is salt. If someone would look at this ingredient in isolation it wouldn’t make sense, but when the entire recipe is said and done then we have a better understanding to why this crucial ingredient was necessary. Similarly in life, occasionally we will come across things that are salty and can make our blood boil, but if we trust in God He will use these opportunities to perfect His creation with our souls. Sometimes he will make His intentions clear to us immediately, like in the example of the poor fishermen and the raft. Othertimes we may not know the reason until the Hereafter, like in the case of the parents who lost their boy or the father who parted this world and his two children. And in other instances, God has already put everything in motion to bless us, but we will not be aware until many years later, like the boy and their treasure.
If we trust in God through the ups and downs in life and fully submit under all circumstances then God will grant us peace in this world and in the Hereafter. In the following verse God informs us that any hardship we face is for our own good.
[4:147] What will GOD gain from punishing you, if you became appreciative and believed? GOD is Appreciative, Omniscient.
(١٤٧) مَا يَفْعَلُ اللَّهُ بِعَذَابِكُمْ إِنْ شَكَرْتُمْ وَآمَنْتُمْ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ شَاكِرًا عَلِيمًا
What is interesting is that tin this verse God uses the name Appreciative to describe Himself. But how is God Appreciative? It makes sense why we are appreciative as we are thankful to everything God has done for us, but how does this apply to God. One aspect of appreciation is to see the value in things. So when God is saying that He is Appreciative, it is informing us that He sees the value in the system that He has created, and if we trust in Him and steadfastly submit, then He will let us see a glimpse of the beauty of His creations and intricate design as well.