The Meaning Behind Life’s Trials, Tragedies & Suffering
Life is never without its ups and downs, its triumphs and tears, its joys and sorrows. In the Qur’an we read the following: We will surely test you with fear and hunger, and loss of property and lives and trade. But give glad-tidings to the patient who, when struck by some misfortune, say: “We belong to God, and to Him shall we return.” On those shall be blessings from their Lord and mercy; and such are the rightly-guided. [2:155-57]
Patience (sabr) is seen as an antidote to the earthly struggles or sufferings we all must endure. The unbeliever must endure, as must the believer. Suffering is intrinsic to the human story – though the ‘problem of suffering’ as a crucial chapter in the philosophy of religion is of fairly recent origin. By patience I mean: restraining one’s soul in times of difficulty or discomfort, and enduring adversity without complaint.
Those who choose to lose sight of God, when they are struck by a misfortune, tend to suffer on two levels. First, there is the calamity itself and its corresponding pain and anguish. Second, there is the accompanying belief that it should never have happened and that its happening proves something very bitter and dark about the world (and if they bring God into it, then about the nature of God).
The believer, by contrast, lives under the awareness that whatever we have or enjoy is ultimately a gift on loan to us from God, upon an acceptance of the destiny willed by God.“We belong to God, and to Him shall we return.” Yet knowledge that God is the sole owner of all that we have (including our ownselves) is not to deny human emotions; that are themselves God-given. Once, as his dying infant son gasped his final breath, the Prophet, peace be upon him, took him in his arms, whilst tears flowed from his eyes. One of those present was puzzled over such weeping, given how the Prophet himself had forbidden wailing and vociferous lamentation. When he did finally find his voice, the Prophet said: ‘This is compassion. The eyes shed tears, the heart grieves, yet we say nothing to displease our Lord. O Ibrahim, we grieve over being parted from you.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.1303; Muslim, no.2315]
Patience amid trials, adversity and suffering – without the heart becoming resentful, bitter or hard – exists only if there is a sense of proportion. Which is to say, suffering is bearable only if it is understood; even when such understanding is unformulated or hazy. The fact that I am grieving, does not mean the world is out of kilter. The fact that I have been done injury to, does not mean that God is unjust. The fact that my life is now darkened by tradegy, does not mean that no sun shines upon creation. No! It is when anguish and grief are taken out of their proper sphere that we have the “problem of suffering”.
A believer endures precisely because adversity and suffering are not seen as senseless or meaningless. Instead, he sees them as invested with purpose. One hadith goes: ‘No Muslim is afflicted with hardship, pain, anxiety, grief or injury – even to the extent of being pricked by a thorn – without God causing it to be an atonement for his sins.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.5641]
On being asked who among people is tried the toughest, the Prophet, upon whom be peace, responded: ‘The prophets, then the righteous, then those most like them, then those most like them. A person is tried in proportion to his faith. If his faith is firm, his trial is increased; if it is fragile, his trial is lightened. A person continues to be tried in this way till he walks on the earth with no sin whatsoever.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.2398]
Then there is the following hadith that offers great comfort and healing amidst what may seem like the pelting of life’s pitiless storms: ‘When God loves a person, He tries them.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.5645]
All this helps to comfort the believer and assures him that his suffering is not without meaning; although it is unlikely to satisfy the profane mind, or the armchair critics of God.
Here, as is often the case, the believer inhabits a different world from others. For his ambition is to grow in faith and to mature spiritually. He knows this worldly life is a preparation for what comes after. Therefore, he views trials as being, not something negative, but part of his life education where the divine intent is either to nurture his latent potential in order to bring out the best in him; or refine and raise his rank with God; or prune and purify him from sins; or to simply humble him and bring home to him how powerless he is in the face of affliction and how in need he is of God’s grace. Moreover, the believer is less concerned with why he faces trials and ordeals – which he is content to leave to a Wisdom much greater than his – than with the appropriate response he should offer God in such situations.
The believers, then, live their lives knowing full well that in this earthly arena they will certainly face trials and tribulations. But with patience and being steadfast, they know that the outcome will always be favourable to them; that whatever happens will surely bring them good: ‘The case of the believer is wonderful,’ one hadith celebrates, ‘for his affair is always good; which isn’t the case with anyone else except the believer. If good fortune comes his way, he is thankful, and that is good for him. But if adversity strikes him, he is patient, and that too is good for him.’ [Muslim, no.2999] In that, let believers take comfort, let hearts hold out hope and let souls be soothed.