Mubasher Ahmad, M.A. LL.B.
Member, Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc
According to the Holy Quran, our present life, with all its joys and sufferings, is merely transitory and illusionary. The passage of human life continues after crossing the valley of death. Our present life is but temporary and fleeting, and the life after life is permanent and perpetual. Death may be the ultimate human suffering in this world, but it is certainly not the end of life. Death is just like a door through which we have to pass to enter into a new dimension of life. In Islam, the next life is a reality beyond any doubt. Both the dimensions of human life -- the life in this world and life yet to come -- are welded together, one merging into the other like a splendid waterfall turning into a mighty river. The only difference is this that the second phase of human life is reflective of how we conduct ourselves in the first phase of life. The joys as well as the sufferings shall continue in the life Hereafter.
Therefore, according to Islamic perspective, many who might have lived a life full of sufferings in this transitory world may enjoy the most blissful and everlasting life in the next world in what is known as the Heaven; and many who might have enjoyed sinful pleasures of this material world, may go through a grievous torment in life yet to come in what is known as the Hell. It all depends how we carry out ourselves under given circumstances in this life.
Islam acknowledges that life is full of suffering, starting as early as the very process of human conception in a mother's womb and during the process of childbirth.
In the Holy Quran, we read:
"And We [i.e. GOD] have enjoined on man to be good to his parents -- his mother bears him in suffering after suffering of weakness," (31:15)
Again, we read: "Certainly there was a long period of time when man was almost insubstantial. We created him from a sticking sperm-drop that We caused him to pass through a trial of precarious stages; then, turned him into a being capable of hearing and seeing. Verily, We have shown him the way, (giving him full freedom of choice) whether he be grateful or ungrateful," (76:2-4)
Again we read in the Holy Quran:
"And We have enjoined on every human being to be good to his parents. His mother bears him with pain, and brings him forth with severe pangs (of childbirth)," (46:16)
Not only both the mother and the new born baby have to go through a tremendous painful suffering in the process of childbirth, the Holy Quran also acknowledges the existence of human suffering in various forms throughout human experience.
First, there are natural disasters and the climatic tragedies like earthquakes, floods, lightening, storms and famines. We can also include in such calamities the outbreak of contagious, epidemic and endemic diseases, plagues and pestilence. And, moreover, there are innumerable illnesses and bodily sufferings.
These calamities and diseases do occur in consequence of a wider circle of natural laws that are necessary to exist in the vast universe, in which human life is an important but still a very small portion.
The laws of nature, that sometimes cause these sufferings, are put in place by God the Creator actually to support and evolve life on the earth in its totality. If these natural laws are taken out of the universal design of God, the Creator, the very existence of every living thing will be jeopardized. Therefore, the disasters that are caused by natural laws are no reflection of the Creator's cruelty over humans. According to the Holy Quran, the study of natural phenomenon makes us understand that, despite the devastation suffered by some humans, God's Mercy (rahmah) is the most overwhelming attribute in Nature that creates, maintains and evolves all forms of life including human life.
Secondly, there are the man-made infliction that cause other humans to suffer physical pain and mental anguish and sometimes even death, such as -- false accusation, wrongful imprisonment, kidnapping, rape, theft, physical and emotional abuse, economical exploitation, slavery, wrongful occupation of other's property and land, war and holocaust. The list of these sinful acts and social and international crimes is very long indeed. We may also add to the list the environmental destruction and pollution caused by us humans.
These and similar other inflictions caused by some are due to the abuse of what we call the freedom of man's will. And we certainly cannot say that freedom of will is an evil in itself. Without free will, man would lose the very essence of his existence. Therefore, causing suffering, pain and death to others through the misuse and abuse of one's free will, humans remain responsible to God, and not God to humans.
To eliminate suffering caused by humans, God has commanded us not to inflict any harm on others, and those who do so, must face the consequences. Therefore, to establish, a JUST society is one of the most important obligations taught by Islam. Those who may escape the corporal punishment in this world, for them God's punishment shall be waiting in the life to come.
Thirdly, there are acts of "self-inflicted suffering": These could be accidental or intentional. The Holy Quran prohibits inflicting self-injuries, specifically committing of suicide. The sufferings that we may inflict upon ourselves are mostly caused by our mental condition that we have the choice to control with or without the help of others. These miseries are usually caused by our anger, jealousy, depression, or getting into addiction -- such as drug-abuse, alcoholism, and gambling. For all these kind of self-inflicted sufferings, man himself remains responsible and accountable to God, and not the vice-versa. God is ever ready to forgive our trespasses against our own souls.
The Holy Quran is very clear on this point that even the smallest of an action -- good or bad -- committed in this life by any human being will not go waste! "Then whosoever has done so much as an atom's weight of good will see its good result, and whoso has done an atom's weight of evil will also see its evil result." (Chapter 99, Al-Zilzal, verses 7-9)
Again, the Holy Quran says:
"Every soul shall taste of death. And you shall be paid in full your rewards only on the day of Resurrection. So whosoever is removed away from the Fire (of Hell) and is made to enter Heaven, (that person) had indeed attained his goal. And life of this world is nothing but an illusionary enjoyment. You shall surely be tried in your possessions and in your persons." (Chapter 3, Al-i-Imran, v. 186-187)
Therefore, according to the teachings of the Holy Quran, it does not matter how much a person suffers in this world, as long as he or she is engaged, according to his or her capacity, in repelling the evil and doing the good works. The joys and comforts of the life yet to come are far greater, unparalleled and everlasting as compared with human sufferings of this life! The human sufferings of the present life are termed as "a trial" -- a test, an evaluation and a validation to measure the success and strength of each human soul, its capacity to do good deeds.
So, according to the Holy Quran, all the tragedy, affliction, anguish, grief and fear that we may have to go through in this life are actually tests and trials from God. If we succeed in the test by remaining prayerful and patient, showing complete perseverance and trust in God during the period of suffering, and we continue doing good deeds, and we avoid evil thoughts and actions, then the end result is that God grants us boundless joy, happiness and His everlasting pleasure.
The Holy Quran says:
"Do you think that you will enter Heaven, while you have not yet suffered similar afflictions which befell those who have passed away before you? Distress and affliction befell them, and they were made to suffer violent shaking, so that the Messenger and those who believed along with him cried out: "When will come the help of God?" Then they were told, 'Behold! Surely the help of God is always nearby.'" (Chapter 2, Al-Baqara, verse 215)
Thus, by understanding the continuous nature of life in its totality, the human suffering does not remain an issue to be settled by challenging the existence or goodness of our Lord God - the Creator. Once we are able to conceive and believe that every soul has to enter another dimension of life by passing through the door of death, only then we can fully appreciate the existence of God Who reaches the depth of our souls to enhance its strength through our endurance of sufferings, and thus makes us the winners in the long run.
The Holy Quran further elaborates this point by narrating to us how all the men and women of God, the prophets, the messengers and the righteous persons - both male and female -- have gone through all sorts of human sufferings, but none of them ever lost their hope, their trust in God's help, and they endured all the pain, anguish and fear with utmost patience, sincerity and perseverance, and at the end they all were winners.
For example, Adam and Eve had to encounter the devil -- the whispering tempter -- who made them suffer to forget a clear commandment of God! As a consequence, they lost Paradise and entered into a life of labor and pain. But still they retained dominion over all other creatures on the earth and received forgiveness of God. Abraham was put to the terrible trial to offer his first-born child in sacrifice, but he ended up being the father of nations -- his progeny becoming countless like the stars in heavens. Job's (Ayub's) sufferings are proverbial, but he retains his confidence in Divine Goodness, and his suffering becomes a medium of refining his righteousness. Moses had to run for his life under the threats of Pharaoh and led his people for 40 long years and suffered many pains and disappointments by the hands of his enemies and his own people, but he never lost his faith in the Almighty God. And we all know the story of Jesus and his mother Mary. Virgin Mary ha! d to suffer the grievous insult of becoming pregnant prior to getting married. And Jesus the beloved of God suffered physical torture and was put on the cross with the intent to be killed on the wood -- to die an accursed death! But God did not forsake him, and God did honor his mother, and now billions revere them both as innocent and sinless.
It is also a matter recorded in history that the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (may peace and blessings of God be on him) was the most successful man both in the realms of religions as well as in social and worldly affairs. He has been acknowledged as the most influential man in history. His main task was, on the one hand, to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, to establish firm faith in the existence of ONE GOD - and to establish perpetual worship of the Most-Loving and Most Merciful God; and, on the other hand, his mission was to establish a just and benevolent social order. And he achieved an unparalleled success in both the domains despite tremendous personal pain and anguish that he was made to suffer through his life on this earth.
After receiving an answer to his heart-rendering prayers concerning the moral depreciation, social injustice, lawlessness and mutual fights in the fragmented nation of his fellow countrymen in Arabia, when he started his mission as the Prophet of God to remove all the social, moral and spiritual ills around him, he suffered the most bitter persecution and oppression at the hands of his own people - those people that he wanted to help and guide. He was laughed at, scorned and derided, abused and tormented. Trash was thrown onto his way, and filth was laid on his head. The vagabonds beat him up most severely; throwing stones and rocks, making him bleed almost to death. Some of his followers were brutally murdered. Some of his dear ones were split apart alive by tying their legs to two strong camels and made them run into opposite directions. Some of the women who believed in him, were butchered shamelessly by his enemies.
Even when he and his followers were forced to leave their hometown Mecca and they settled in Medina - a town more than 200 miles away from Mecca, the enemy did not allow them to live in peace, and initiated armed attacks and made them suffer the horrors of war. The brutal enemy mutilated the dead bodies of his dear ones. They cut their noses and ears, and in one instance even took out the liver and chewed it raw. He himself received severe injuries on his face in one of such battles.
Not only that, he suffered many personal domestic tragedies in his life. He lost some his children while they were young, and some died in his lifetime as grown ups. He had four sons, but all of them passed away in their infancy. But despite all the enormous human suffering throughout his life, Holy Prophet Muhammad (may peace and blessings of God be on him) always had a warm smile on face. Throughout his life, he remained cheerful and a tremendous source of peace of mind and comfort for all who got in touch with him. He succeeded in establishing a firm faith in the existence of God in the hearts of thousands upon thousand, and he successfully replaced injustice with equity, cruelty and oppression with forgiveness and mercy.
By studying his personal sufferings juxtaposed on his most successful life, and through his practical demonstration of compassion, peace, comfort, service to others, love for all and hatred for none, we find the most shining example in the person of the Most Noble Prophet Muhammad of reconciling the existence of a Compassionate and Loving God and human suffering. (May peace and blessings of God be on him.) It was not merely an intellectual reconciliation, it was a factual and most impressive reconciliation between God and human suffering.
Therefore, for us Muslims and all others, the important thing should be is to learn how to handle human sufferings retaining full faith in a loving God!
The Holy Quran teaches us "The truly righteous -- are those who endure with fortitude misfortune, hardship and peril. That is, who are patient in poverty and affliction, and in time of war."(2:178)
Again, in the Holy Quran we read:
"O you who believe! Seek (God's) help with perfect patience and prayer; for surely God is with the patiently persevering (Sabireen). And do not count as dead those who are killed in the cause of God. Rather they are living; only you perceive not (their life). And We will certainly reward you after trying you with something of fear and hunger and some loss of substance and of lives, and fruits (of your toil). Give glad tidings to the patiently persevering; who, when a calamity befalls them, say, 'Surely to God we belong and to Him shall we return.' It is they on whom descend the blessings and mercy (rahmah) from their Lord God; and it is they who are rightly guided."
(Chapter 2, verses 154-157)
At the end, I would like to say: All praise belongs to God, the Lord of all the universes, Most Gracious, Ever Merciful, the Master of the day of Judgment.
This paper was presented at an interfaith symposium in Zion City, Illinois, on December 8, 2002