The lessons and benefits of illness

Julia Khadija Lafene shares the lessons she has learned from illness.

During the past six months I have not felt able to write any articles, due to several health issues. For four months I had mysterious symptoms which no doctor was able to diagnose. Was it something serious? Or was it just ageing? All I could do was learn to live with it by using the spiritual resources I had been given. Then to my great relief and eternal gratitude, the symptoms gradually lessened and then disappeared. But then other different problems arose!! The learning continues. I was not going to be let off so lightly. I realised that if I shared my experiences, I would not only be given a chance to help others but also re-enforce my own learning.

When we are ill we become vulnerable and feel powerless. We desperately seek healing from many quarters – the NHS, overworked GPs and specialists, alternative medicine, the internet and advice from many sources on self help.  Finally, we are forced to give up the idea of being ‘in control’ of our lives, as society expects, and throw ourselves onto the mercy of God.

I was supposed to be a believer, a ‘spiritual’ person; so why couldn’t I cope with this? What about the previous articles I had written about ‘Peace of Mind’, ‘consciousness’, ‘the self’ etc..? What was the point of theory without practice? So I began to conclude that this was happening to me to force me to look at the meaning of my illness and put into practice what I knew to be true.

I searched for Quranic verses and quotations from wise teachers to help me, and indeed I found a treasury of wisdom. We all know the verse in the Qur’an “Do men imagine that they will be left alone because they say, ‘We believe,’ and will not be tested?” (29:2). So I had to reflect on how this test applied to me and how I could ‘pass’ this test

The following quotations also helped me:

Surely created beings are meanings set up in images.’  (Shaykh Ibn al-Habib)

‘Grief can be the garden of compassion.  If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom’ (Maulana Rumi)

‘Suffering is essential for awakening…The joy of such experience is to know that only by His mercy are we alive and the opportunity to be in submission to him.  (Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri)

These thoughts are not glib or easy. They compelled me to look at myself.  Changes in understanding and spiritual growth will not happen in a day. You have to work at it, and may often go backwards, especially when you are having a bad day.

The first of these quotes has been part of my life for many years: it implies that everything created and everything that happens has significance beyond its mere existence. So what was the ‘meaning’ of my illness?

I came to the conclusion that I had been too proud of my good health in old age and had not been thankful enough.  I must be more humble, more grateful for the bounties showered on me and be thankful that God was showing me new spiritual resources.  I had often been in a state of ghafla (forgetfulness). Also I must do more to prepare myself for the end of my life on this earth.

As well as reflecting on the meaning, I realised I also had to change my perception of the illness: instead of a negative experience it could be transformative. The quotations challenged me to find my inner resources.  The question was, how could I do this?

I could not do it by myself; I had to realise that God was my only recourse, so I asked for help.  This does not mean one should not seek help for physical ills from earthly sources, but the primary mover or source is God and the secondary ones will not work unless we acknowledge this and remain ever grateful.

I found an acupuncturist whose treatment gave me immediate relief.  However, he said that he did not understand why ‘religious people’ believed and prayed to God for whom there was no proof, but did not believe in acupuncture which had proven results for thousands of years. I did not want to start an argument with him about ‘religious’ belief; if we want to provoke reflection, we have to start from where a person actually is. So I said to him, “You believe in ‘qi’ (pronounced chi, the Chinese word for the Life force); that is in fact God by another name.” I see this as the equivalent of the ‘ruh’, the spirit of God, which the Holy Qur’an says he breathed into us. It is also referred to in the Bible as the ‘Holy spirit’. The acupuncturist did not reply, but I could see I had given him food for thought. I was so grateful to God for giving me healing from an unexpected source.

I realised God had already given me many teachings which I had been neglecting and which I should make more effort to put into practice. Gratitude, seeing the highest in everyone and everything, accepting the pain as my companion and teacher, recalling the courage and steadfastness of people much worse off than myself, were all ways in which I could change my negative perceptions of the illness. These were ways of bringing the Light into my life through what I was suffering. Gratitude in particular is the key.  Whenever I feel downhearted because of pain, I find something to be grateful for.  This works wonders on the psyche.

I remembered to use ‘the Names of God’ as a resource. I began to repeat the dhikr, remembrance of certain names, such as; ‘Ya rahman’ ‘Ya rahim’ Oh merciful, Oh compassionate, and’ Ya shafi’, ‘Ya saboor,’ Oh healer, Oh giver of patience. I found that not only did this change my perception; it calmed me and gave me peace even when suffering pain.

As we are told in the Qur’an, “Fa inna ma‘a al ‘usri yusra.” (Chapter Inshirah) “Indeed with difficulty there is ease.”  This verse is repeated, meaning that there are two eases or solutions. One is that ultimately the difficulty will pass, though maybe not in this world. The second lies in understanding how the difficulty arose and seeing its meaning. However this is not an easy journey!  It is part of the jihad (struggle) of life and will continue until we leave the world.




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