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From Suffering to Healing

Question and answer details
Chantelle minniealiza paine
2011/08/03
What do Muslims believe about suffering? How do Muslims deal with suffering?
Amani Aboul Fadl Farag
Answer

Salam, dear Chantelle. 

A person of my age would wonder why someone of your age would speak of suffering. Yet, apparently, suffering is a fact of life that none can break away from regardless of age, culture, or social rank. 

Suffering may be physical, like illnesses, or emotional, like frustrations or losing those whom we love or failing in any aspect of our lives. Hardly anyone escapes one or more of these aspects throughout life. Sometimes we ask ourselves why God destines us to have suffering and what benefits will He gain by watching us in pain. 

According to Islamic faith, Allah (God) in His wisdom prescribed suffering for essential purposes. Only the believers know this wisdom and feel its sweetness in their hearts. In Arabic language, the word for "suffering" is ibtilaa', which constitutes a big philosophy in Islamic thought and is the title of a major chapter in all books of faith in this religion. 

For the unjust, suffering is a punishment. This is a fact that has long been proved in scriptures when they tell about the fate of the people of Lot, the Pharaoh and his army, the people of Noah, etc. As for those who believe, even if they are sinners, ibtilaa' carries a different message rather than punishment. It could be a test through which Allah may want to elevate His pious servants to higher ranks in the hereafter. 

In this context Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, "If Allah wants to do good to somebody, He afflicts him with trials" (Al-Bukhari). This trial could be as serious as losing one's sight or having any other weakness or sickness. Allah says in a hadith qudsi, "If I deprive My slave of his two beloved things (his two eyes) and he remains patient, I will let him enter Paradise in compensation for them" (Al-Bukhari). 

I do believe that this is the reason all Allah's messengers were tried in this life: Think of Jesus when he was betrayed and driven to the threat of the cross, before he was uplifted and rescued by God. Think of Muhammad who lost five of his six children, including the only male child, during his life as a father. Think of Job and his long suffering with sickness. Think of all the rest: None of them lead a normal, cozy life; Allah made them suffer because He loved them.

The purpose of this ibtilaa' could be otherwise. It could be a means to clean away the believer's sins and bring him or her back to his or her earlier purity. In this meaning our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) said, "No fatigue, nor disease, nor sorrow, nor sadness, nor hurt, nor distress befalls a Muslim, even if it were the prick he receives from a thorn, but that Allah expiates some of his sins for that" (Al-Bukhari). He also said, "No Muslim is afflicted with any harm but for that Allah will remove his sins as the leaves of tree fall down" (Al-Bukhari). 

It is human nature that when man is in trouble, he comes closer to Allah, running to Him in prayer and supplication, refraining from the stray path that he has led. When one is worn out with one of these tests of life, one starts to rethink and reconsiders one's course of life and may determine to change. 

I recall the story of Cat Stevens, the British pop star who was world-famous during the 1960s. He used to lead a life that was the furthest from God-fearing till he got severe pneumonia and was close to death. While he was relating his story, he said that during his moments of consciousness he only thought of his past life and the sins he used to commit. He regretted doing them and was afraid of not having time to change. But, by the mercy of Allah, he recovered and went back to life to fill it with piety, good deeds, social services, and most important, with a decent art that was again a source of pleasure to his fans. In cases as such, ibtilaa' becomes a mercy and a bounty from the Creator rather than a sign of anger.   

Two reactions are expected from the believers once they are exposed to any suffering, in order to deserve the price of either erasing their sins or elevating their rank in Paradise. The first one is to show patience, and the second is to show gratitude to God for sending them this test. God says in Qur'an what means: 

(...those who patiently persevere will truly receive a reward without measure...) (Az-Zumar 39:10)

Don't think that patience and gratitude are easy reactions. In fact, they need a lot of training till they become an inherent behavior. It is useful for the suffering ones to understand that showing intolerance or feeling annoyance or displeasure in relation to what God destines for them, may deprive them of the fruitful reward of ibtilaa'. This fact may help them to discipline themselves to these noble reactions and help them overcome the natural human feelings of shock and panic to reach this super-human feeling of acceptance and contentment. 

I hope my answer is useful to you. In case you need to know more, please write to us again. Thank you and please stay in touch. 

Salam.            

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