By M. Nazir Khan and M. Faisal Abideen
Human suffering is a part of life, but why? What is its value? Is there any way in which it can be positive? How can suffering develop us morally and spiritually and bring us closer to God?
Human suffering and the attributes of God
One of the unique aspects of Islamic theology is the very rich and colourful description it provides of the qualities of God. The Qur’anic verses are punctuated with diverse Names describing the nature of God, the different shades and hues of His love, mercy, compassion, justice, omnipotence, omniscience, generosity, forgiveness, power, sovereignty and so on. Indeed, the Prophet Muhammad said, “Verily, God has ninety-nine Names. Whoever encompasses them, will enter Heaven” [Related in Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim]. What exactly does it mean to encompass them? Each of the Divine Names not only tells us something about God but also informs us about the moral quality that human beings must strive to embody. As the eminent classical Islamic theologian, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah wrote, “God loves those who embody the effects of His Divine Attributes.” Thus, knowledge of God’s name ar-Rahman (the One whose Mercy encompasses everything in existence) entails that we as human beings become the vessels of Divine mercy, allowing it to reach the weak, destitute and suffering people around the world through our good deeds. It is only when we show such relentless mercy that we truly understand and appreciate the meaning of mercy, allowing us to gain a closer relationship with the One who is the source of all Mercy – God Almighty.
And this is the secret of suffering. If there were no suffering in the world, where then would be the opportunity to strive to develop this beautiful capacity for mercy? Where would be the opportunity to grow in one’s understanding of what it means to be merciful, deepening one’s relationship with the Most Merciful?
One can observe that if there was no poverty in this world, where would the opportunity be to show generosity? And in doing so, increase one’s understanding and build his relationship with the One who is the Most Generous. Being able to show generosity gives one the opportunity to truly understand what it means when God says that He is Al-Mannan (المنان) – the One who is the Most Generous and bestows favours upon every creation, and Al-Wahhab (الوهاب) – the One who is continuously bestowing His gifts again and again to His creation. How can one truly appreciate the significance of these qualities if they do not experience the virtue of generosity themselves?
– If there were no injustice or oppression in the world, how would one strives to establish justice and by doing so gain an appreciation and draw closer to God, the One Who is the Most Just – Al-Adl (العدل)?
– If there were no violence in this world, how would one strive to establish and spread peace and by doing so grow in his appreciation and understanding of the One Who is the Source of All Peace – As-Salaam (السلام)?
– If there were no wrongdoing, how would one develop the capacity to show forgiveness and in doing so, he grows in his appreciation and understanding of the One with the Greatest Forgiveness –Al Ghafoor (الغفور)?
– If there were no darkness in this world, how could one strive to be a beacon of light and in doing so draw nearer to the One Who is the Source and Bestower of Light and Enlightment – An-Nur (النور)?
Hence, there is a profound connection between striving for moral growth and building a relationship with the Divine. Through our virtuous deeds we increase in our understanding of God and draw closer to Him. We grow spiritually in our relationship with God, and morally in the good that we show to others. We become the very medium by which Divine Mercy reaches the hapless souls in misery and anguish. In fact, it is hard to imagine any philosophy or religion that offers a more empowering view of humanity than this. Human beings possess an incredible potential to use their intellectual capacities to spread goodness and eradicate suffering, and this is what enables them to come closer to God. This is worship of God in Islam. The cousin of the Prophet and eminent scholar of Islam, Ibn Abbas, stated that in the verse where God states “I did not create the human being except to worship Me” (Qur’an 51:56), the phrase “to worship Me” is synonymous with “to know Me”. Knowledge of God is acquired through an appreciation of His Beautiful Names and Attributes, and embodying the moral virtues which they entail in one’s daily life.
There are three possible objections that one may raise in response to the Qur’anic theodicy outlines above.
(1) The first question would be – is it really necessary? Couldn’t God have made us automatically beings of moral virtue with this understanding? Why go through this journey of suffering to get there? Essentially, this question is that of the angels posed in the first story of the Qur’an. Why make human beings when the angels already exist? The angels are a creation that is incapable of sin and continuously performs worship without pause. God responded to this question by demonstrating the human potential to reach a higher status than the angels – through knowledge, free-will and moral choice. The human being can experience the Divine Names and Attributes to a greater degree through the journey of worship in a life surrounded by temptation and tribulation.
But, a questioner might ask, why not implant all those memories of struggles into the human mind without actually having to experience it? Well, if this is the case – are we not simply redefining reality? If such ‘virtual suffering’ was just as excruciating as enduring the real suffering, would it be any less ‘real’? Indeed, the Islamic tradition affirms that the reality of this life will seem but a dream upon entering into the next life. The Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law and famous caliph of Islam, Ali ibn Abi Talib is reported to have said, “People are asleep and when they die they awaken.” The Prophet Muhammad himself described this when he said, “The most destitute of the people in this world will be brought and dipped once in Paradise, and it will be said to him: ‘O son of Adam, did you ever see anything bad? Did you ever experience any hardship?’ He will say: ‘No, by God, O Lord. I never saw anything bad and I never experienced any hardship’” [Related in Sahih Muslim].
(2) The second possible objection is that there is evil of a category which cannot serve as an opportunity for moral and spiritual growth, or deepening one’s relation with God. Take the evil that befalls children, the mentally handicap or animals, for instance. These beings do not possess the rational capacity to perceive suffering as an opportunity for growth.
The first part of the answer has already preceded – that such suffering of the vulnerable presents a moral responsibility for those around them to care for and protect them.
Secondly, such suffering will seem illusory upon entrance into the unfathomable pleasures in the afterlife.
Thirdly, any suffering that is experienced in this life is associated with a concomitant increase in reward in the afterlife and an expiation of any moral failings a person may have committed. The Prophet said,“No calamity befalls a Muslim but that God expiates some of his sins because of it, even if it were the prick he receives from a thorn” [Related in Saheeh Bukhari].
Fourthly, with regard to animals, it needs to be pointed out that there is a philosophical conundrum in assuming a sentient conscious experience for their suffering in the manner that we experience it as human beings. Are we immoral if we do not find ourselves galvanized into action to defend every hapless fly from being devoured by a spider? Most people would say no, and would be content to leave the natural ecosystem to operate without the imposition of our moral values to arbitrate every predator-prey relationship in the world. Nevertheless, we have a moral duty in how we choose to interact with the animal world: the Prophet Muhammad said,“Let anyone who kills even a sparrow for no reason know that it will cry aloud to God on the Day of the Resurrection, saying, ‘O my Lord! So-and-so killed me just for fun; he killed me for no reason!’” [Related in Sunan al-Nasa’i].
(3) The third possible objection would be that evil and suffering has a component that is gratuitous. Yes, some suffering may be necessary for this spiritual journey towards God, but the scale and magnitude of suffering that we see in the world just seems far too excessive.
In response to this objection, one must ask the question – is there any degree of suffering that human beings would find morally acceptable? By which relativistic goldilocks standards should evil be quantified and measured as being ‘too little’, ‘too much’, or ‘just right’? Moreover, again the Qur’an surprises us by addressing this objection directly and informing us that while the intensity and quantity of evil in the world may astonish us, goodness remains vastly superior to it.“Say, ‘Evil and Good are not equivalent, though the sheer quantity of evil might astonish you.’ So develop consciousness of God, O you of understanding, that you may be successful” (Qur’an 5:100).
Indeed, we see clearly from this verse, that God intended to place us in such a world where the forces of good seem hopelessly outnumbered by the forces of evil. It is only in a desperate, hopeless, dismal plight that the brilliance of human courage, love, justice, strength and determination shine forth. This is the unlimited potential that we unlock when we open our minds and hearts to the Qur’anic virtue of taqwa – consciousness of God. In such desperate situations, it is the mind filled with the consciousness of God that advances without hesitation. That is the moment where heroes emerge and legends are born – those who do not cower in the face of such unfathomable evil but rather rise to challenge it. Humans innately admire and aspire towards such examples and hence we feature such examples in our most powerful and moving stories.
The religion of Islam provides an incredibly optimistic and empowering view of the world where one sees every occurrence in life as an opportunity to do good deeds and become a better person. The Prophet Muhammad said, “The situation of the believer is amazing, for no matter what happens it is always good. And that is only for the believer. For when something fortunate happens to him, he exhibits gratitude, and in that there is good for him. And if some calamity befalls him, he endures with patience, and in that there is good for him” [Related in Sahih Muslim]. In the Islamic worldview, one should not be depressed by all the suffering that one sees around him – but rather one should be empowered and strive in order to fill the world with righteousness, virtue and acts of goodness. And in doing so, he will come nearer to God and fulfill the purpose of his creation.
As God says in the Qur’an, “And those who strive for Us – We will surely guide them to Our paths. And indeed, God is with the doers of good” (Qur’an 29:69).