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Purpose behind Human Suffering

Human suffering has always posed an enormous dilemma for religious thought. Why do humans suffer? Is it to satisfy some bored, evil, rival god? Is it punishment for our sinful nature? Is it product of chance that occurs in a godless universe?

All of these questions take for granted that human suffering is damaging and undesirable. This is natural, since it reflects the human perspective, the point of view of one who feels victimized. However, As Dr. Jeffrey Lang points out in his book, Losing My Religion: A Call for Help, the Quran has very different view of human earthly suffering. The Quran claims that it is a necessary and key element in the human growth process and that all of us, good and bad, sinful and righteous, believer and unbeliever, will and must experience it.

Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere, who say, when afflicted with calamity: “To God We belong, and to Him is our return” [Quran 2:-155-156]

Hence everyone will suffer, regardless of their religiosity. Infact Quran connects our suffering with our state in the afterlife.

Or do ye think that ye shall enter the Garden (of bliss) without such (trials) as came to those who passed away before you? they encountered suffering and adversity, and were so shaken in spirit that even the Apostle and those of faith who were with him cried: “When (will come) the help of God?” Ah! Verily, the help of God is (always) near! [Quran 2:214]

What has suffering to do with paradise?

Or do ye think that ye shall enter the Garden (of bliss) without such (trials) as came to those who passed away before you?

Why not? Why is suffering necessary?

they encountered suffering and adversity, and were so shaken in spirit that even the Apostle and those of faith who were with him cried: “When (will come) the help of God?” Ah! Verily, the help of God is (always) near!

Note that this portrayal of human suffering involves truly devout believers – “even the Apostle and those of faith who were with him” – and their agony was so intense – “so shaken in spirit that even the Apostle and those of faith who were with him cried: “When (will come) the help of God?”

Why would good people have to endure agony and fear? Why must we live an existence so precarious and vulnerable?

Every soul shall have a taste of death: and We test you by evil and by good by way of trial. To Us must ye return. [Quran 21:035]

Repeatedly, the Quran recalls, most notably after some verses that emphasize the essentiality of human earthly suffering, that to God we return. But does suffering bring us closer to God in some essential way?

O thou man! Verily thou art ever toiling on towards thy Lord- painfully toiling,- but thou shalt meet Him. [Quran 84:6]

How are we “toiling on towards thy Lord- painfully toiling”? How does our affliction bring us nearer to God?

Verily We have created man into toil and struggle. Thinketh he, that none hath power over him? He may say (boastfully); Wealth have I squandered in abundance!  Thinketh he that none beholdeth him?  Have We not made for him a pair of eyes?-  And a tongue, and a pair of lips?- And shown him the two highways?  But he hath made no haste on the Uphill Climb.  And what will explain to thee the Uphill Climb?-  (It is:) freeing the bondman;  Or the giving of food in a day of privation To the orphan with claims of relationship, Or to the indigent (down) in the dust. Then will he be of those who believe, and enjoin patience, (constancy, and self-restraint), and enjoin deeds of kindness and compassion. [Quran 90-4-17]

“Verily We have created man into toil and struggle.” One cannot deny that mankind is well suited for struggle. Our species seems to thrive on it as tragedy and strife has marked and guided our evolution throughout history. Even when hardship is not our lot, we seek it out in the form of self-made challenges and competitions. Yet human beings may be made “into toil and struggle,” the Quran does not focus here on the part this has played in human wordly progress. It is more concerned with its moral and spiritual repercussions and begins by warning of its potential negative effects. Struggle, which ends either in success or failure, can lead to either hubris or despair, respectively, and in both cases to a loss of God-consciousness and/or confidence in God’s omnipotence, and sometimes, to agnosticism or atheism. Therefore the Quran says

 “Thinketh he, that none hath power over him? He may say (boastfully); Wealth have I squandered in abundance!  Thinketh he that none beholdeth him?”

The remorseful exclamation “Wealth have I squandered in abundance!” epitomizes a life of struggle solely for temporal ends. In contrast, the Quran shows the other path, the one which is taken by the wise, and calls it the “Uphill Climb,” which leads to spiritual fulfilment and gets us closer to God. It is through acts of compassion, mercy and kindness towards others that we find the key to happiness and become fit to receive God’s infinite Mercy.

 Have We not made for him a pair of eyes?-  And a tongue, and a pair of lips?- And shown him the two highways?  But he hath made no haste on the Uphill Climb.  And what will explain to thee the Uphill Climb?-  (It is:) freeing the bondman;  Or the giving of food in a day of privation To the orphan with claims of relationship, Or to the indigent (down) in the dust. Then will he be of those who believe, and enjoin patience, (constancy, and self-restraint), and enjoin deeds of kindness and compassion.

“Uphill Climb” could, on one hand mean an arduous task, demanding struggle and perseverance. On the other hand, it may symbolise a path to spiritual ascent, a vertical climb toward nearness to God. A life dedicated to helping others could be difficult but rewarding. However, a self-seeking lifestyle may be easier, but not the way to true contentment.

Quran emphasizes three essential components of this stage of man’s moral and spiritual evolution; Free will, or the ability to choose; Intellect, the tool for weighing the consequences of one’s choices and learning from them; and third, An environment of adversity.

Our Free will, or the ability to choose; Intellect, the tool for weighing the consequences of one’s choices and learning from them; and an environment of adversity also plays a great role in our spiritual growth. As we know, virtue, if programmed, is not true virtue; it is always something less. You can program a computer never to make an incorrect statement but it does not thereby become a truthful computer, nor does any medicine possess compassion, although they are made to help the sick.

To learn to be truthful requires the option to lie, and hence the ability to learn and discern. A higher level of honesty is attained if we insist on speaking the truth in adversity, say at the threat of physical or material loss. To grow in compassion there must be suffering and the choice to ignore it. And so it is with all the virtues; love, charity, forgiveness and so on. To grow in each of them, we must have the alternative to do otherwise and the possibility for the existence of hate, indifference, greed, vengeance or revenge, and obviously suffering.

 “O ye who believe! Persevere in patience and constancy; vie in such perseverance; strengthen each other; and fear God; that ye may prosper.”[Quran 3:200]

Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere, who say, when afflicted with calamity: “To God We belong, and to Him is our return” [Quran 2:-155-156]

It is by trial and error, and by realizing and rising above our mistakes, that we learn and progress to a higher level of goodness. Error, if realized and repented off sincerely, can lead ultimately to a higher state.

 “Excepting the one repents, believes, and works righteous deeds, for God will change the evil of such persons into good, and God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”[Quran 25:70]

 I would like to conclude with the following verse, in which God reminds us that He has not created anything without a purpose

 “We did not create the heavens and the earth and all that is between them in vain.” [Quran 44:38]

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About Kashif Zuberi

Student of Knowledge

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