Suffering and Unity: An Islamic Perspective

Presented by Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali at the open session of the conference: “Together to give hope. Christians and Muslims on the march with the charism of unity” (Special Interfaith Edition issue 65 March 2019)

(Originally published on Issue 61, July 2018)

We live in an important period in the history of humanity where we witness many suffering. However, we also see many signs of hope. Meetings such as this are a great sign of hope, as hundreds of people from all over the world and from Islamic and Christian backgrounds are here under one roof with united hearts.

I remember the first time I was here with my wife and two sons in 1999, we had people then whom we do not have today, Chiara, Natalia, and Imam W.D. Mohammad. We also had a meeting with Pope John Paul II. So, we remember all those souls who gave their life for unity and suffered for humanity. Indeed, blessed are those who suffer for humanity.
Today I would like to share a brief account of the Islamic understanding of suffering. Suffering is part of human life in this world. We cannot expect a life without misery and difficulty. If you want a perfect life, then you have to wait until you go to Heaven. In this world, there is no perfection. Right from the beginning, God told Adam to be careful with respect to Satan.
The Qur’an in chapter Taha, verse 117 states, “We said, ‘O Adam!
This is indeed an enemy of yours and your mate’s. So do not let him expel you from paradise, or you will be miserable.’”
God said to Adam, “This is an enemy of you and your wife. Do not let him send you outside heaven, otherwise, you would suffer.”
Therefore, our suffering started when we came to this world. Of course, when I say this world I do not mean this planet, but the physical and worldly life that we have in this stage of our life. Similarly, God says in the Qur’an: “Certainly We created man in travail” (90:4).

We have created man in hardship. The numerous limitations and interactions in this life cause suffering; for example, an innocent person could carefully be crossing the road, but a careless driver can come and hit him. He did nothing wrong, but it is unavoidable. Farmers are happy when it rains, but the homeless are not happy because they suffer. Yet, it is something that we cannot avoid in this world of limitations, interactions and cause and effect. What other people do affects us, while what we do affects other people. Therefore, lots of interactions may make scenarios that have positive or negative impacts upon us.

Then, we have to remember that we are also free because God has given us free will. Thus, sometimes we make mistakes; mistakes and problems can happen out of our control or sometimes as a result of our unwise decisions. For instance, if we have not studied well when we were young in adulthood we cannot get a good job. Thus, it would bring some kind of suffering to me and my family.

We cannot completely avoid suffering in this world. Moreover, it is important to have these difficulties for the purpose for which God has created this world. If you want to train commandos you would not send them to five-star hotels, but to forests and you would reduce their food and sleep in order to train them. Likewise, God wants us to train, cultivate our will and acquire virtue. Therefore, it is actually serving our purpose to be in a world where we are challenged and sometimes stretched.

Suffering is not necessarily a sign of being disliked by God. When people saw that the Prophet Ayyub (Job) was suffering, some judged him by saying that he must have done something bad so God was now punishing him. This is certainly not the case. Although it is true that we suffer because of our mistakes, it is not always the case. Consequently, to suffer is not necessarily a sign of being disliked by God. On the contrary, it is actually possible to be a sign of being liked and favoured by God. Therefore, one must be able to discern if he is suffering because he has done something wrong so that one can change his behaviour or whether the cause was out of his control.
To be healthy, rich, or powerful are also not necessarily signs of being favoured by God. In fact, they may sometimes be signs of the opposite. Not only is suffering not a sign of being disliked but to have no problem is also not a sign of being loved by God. There is no such implication that not being poor or ill is an indication of being liked by God.
Indeed, the Qur’an tells us that when it comes to giving worldly gifts, God is more ready to give worldly gifts to the people who are not faithful. The Qur’an says:

“… had it not been that the faithful people would have lost their faith, He would have given so much wealth to the people who denied and rejected Him that they would have made silver roofs and ceilings for their houses” (43:33).

Thus, God has no hesitation in giving worldly blessings to everyone, especially to the people who only think about this world and the people who have nothing else. God is happy to give wealth; so, we should not think that people who have fewer problems are necessarily favoured by God.

It is possible that those who suffer are very much loved by God. Once Prophet Muhammad was asked, “Who are the people who have the greatest suffering and calamities befall them in their life?” The Prophet said, “The prophets and messengers face the greatest challenges in their life,” and then he said, Those who resemble the prophets the most would receive challenges the second-most.” So, depending on your rank you are supposed to be ready to be challenged by problems.

Imam al-Baqir says that if God really loves someone, the person might be beset by calamities. He prayed to God, “Please remove these calamities;” God says, “My servant, I can be fast in removing your problems, but if I save it for you and do not respond quickly it would be better for you.”
We understand from several hadiths that on the Day of Judgment when people see what God gives them for their suffering, they would wish they had endured more. Someone who has lost his/her parents especially in childhood who comes to know how God protects, loves and awards orphans, would accept his situation more wholeheartedly. The same goes for a person who suffers physical hardship due to illness.

If one does not suffer at all, one should worry. If someone never faces tragedy and always has full protection everywhere, one should know that there must be something wrong. Once the Prophet was invited by someone so he went to that man’s house and just before the meal was served, the Prophet saw a hen walking on the wall and laying an egg. The egg dropped and stood on a nail in the wall. It did not crack, which was unusual. The host realised that the Prophet was surprised. He said, “O Messenger of God! Are you surprised? By the one who has raised you as a prophet, I have never had any tragedy in my life.”
Perhaps he thought God was favouring him that he had no problems. The hadith states that the Prophet did not eat, but stood up and said: “ So God has left you to yourself if you do not suffer at all.” It means that God no longer cares about you.
God is most generous in His rewarding of the patient. When it comes to rewards the Qur’an tells us that God is very generous. Many adjectives describe the reward from God: ajrun kabir (great reward), ajrun karim (generous reward), and ajrun ghayru mamnun (reward without being accounted). The Qur’an tells us that God rewards good deeds ten times more; it is the minimum, not the maximum.

“Whoever brings virtue shall receive [a reward] ten times it’s like (6:160).”

God does not multiply the punishment; yet, when it comes to rewarding for good actions the minimum is ten times more.
For example, if you give to charity, God says it is like a seed which multiplies into many more seeds. and then even more. Indeed, He is very generous, but there is something exceptional for the people who suffer and remain patient. In this case, God does not state how many more times He rewards them, God says:

“Indeed the patient will be paid in full their reward without any reckoning (39:10).”

God will reward them without measure for He has special treatment in store for them. This verse truly depicts the power of suffering.

I say to people if you have a problem, perhaps in marriage, business, community, or with neighbours, children, or parents, first ensure that you are not responsible. Unfortunately, we usually look for others to blame; we hardly look at ourselves. Our first assumption is that others have imposed that suffering on us. We have to question ourselves first. A believer has to be doubtful about himself (al-muminu zaninun bi nafsih). We love ourselves so much that we can easily deceive ourselves; we cannot see our own problems. If you are convinced that you have done nothing wrong then look at your actions again and again, as it is not sufficient to only look once at ourselves to find the problem. Only then, if you sincerely find no fault of your own but are still suffering, be grateful that there is an opportunity for you to rise toward God. You have to be thankful so that you can achieve much more.

A beautiful hadith states that sometimes in the knowledge of God a person is capable of reaching a certain position, but his actions are not enough to raise him to that position. Therefore, it is through suffering that he can reach that position. Hence, some spiritual people have actually prayed to God to make them ill and poor so they could suffer. However, the Prophet and our Imams teach us not to ask and volunteer for suffering, but to be ready for it when it does come.

There is a very inspirational story about a young person from the city of Balkh, Afghanistan. He asked Bayazid Bastami (d. 261/874–5 or 234/848–9), a spiritual master, his definition of ascetism. Bayazid replied, “When God gives us blessings we thank Him, and when He does not give us blessings we are patient.” If we are ill or poor, we are patient, but if He gives us we are grateful. This young man replied, “This is what dogs do in our city. When we give them food they are thankful and when we do not give them food they do not attack us, they remain patient.” This Sufi master was very humbled and asked, “So, what is your definition of gratitude?” The young person said, “When God gives us we give to others and when He does not give us we thank Him.” The master learned a lesson that day. Hence, if suffering comes you should actually be grateful; of course, not if you bring it upon yourself or others.

In one of the passages that we pray to God while in prostration, we say, “All praise is due to You, the way that people who are grateful for [their] suffering praise You.” I want to praise You in the way that people who are grateful for their suffering praise You; I do not want to praise You just like someone whose stomach is full and then he says, “Thank you God for giving me food.” I want to praise You God like someone who has nothing to eat and then says thank you, like someone who knows the value of poverty as he knows the value of being rich.

Suffering can help with respect to unity. Suffering is one of the greatest tools for achieving humbleness and humility. Unfortunately, when everything is right we tend to take things for granted and think that we do not need God anymore. If I have a good job and enough money coming in every month to pay my bills, I do not need to worry; “Indeed man becomes rebellious when he considers himself without a need (96:6-7).”

If we have no problem this does not mean we are totally free from need. It is suffering which makes us humble. When you have an ill person at home or when you have problems in society you feel that you have limits and you have to accept the realities of life. You do not become like Pharaoh, Nimrod, or Hitler; rather, you become very humble. Undoubtedly, the greatest obstacle for unity is arrogance; arrogant people cannot be united.
The late Imam Khomeini used to say that if 124,000 prophets live together they will be united, but sometimes even two scholars in one city cannot be united. Therefore, suffering is a very important tool for humbleness.
When you suffer you may have a better understanding and empathy for other people who suffer. if you are ill, not only do you understand people who are ill, you may even better understand people who have other kinds of suffering. For example, someone who is ill feels for someone who is poor, because by suffering our hearts become soft and we can better sense the problems of others.
The hearts of those who do not suffer for the sake of others, slowly become hard and then they become inattentive to the problems of people. So through our suffering, we can be united with others who suffer too.

When we suffer we see that many things lose their significance and many barriers disappear. Suppose you are a Muslim mother and your child is ill in hospital and next to you is a Christian mother whose child is also ill. Will you say that I am a Muslim and she is a Christian, so we have nothing in common? Or on the contrary, your common suffering makes you united. Even if other people mind their differences these two would never quarrel over it. They will help each other so that they can better serve their children.

For example considering the Syrian refugees who have lost their homes. Does it make a difference whether they are Muslims or Christians? You cannot go through that hardship and still partition people; yes, when you feel strong, when you are behind the pulpit or on the minbar, and you have thousands of followers, then you may make distinctions.
However, when you are a refugee, a homeless person, an ill person, or someone in difficulty, you understand the suffering of others and you cannot make those distinctions.
Thus, suffering is not necessarily a bad thing; rather, it can actually be one of the best experiences that we have in our life and a great tool for unity. Thank you very much.


Islam Today issue 65 (Special Issue) is dedicated to the interfaith work undertaken by the Islamic Centre of England over the past few years. Download the full pdf here:

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