“Suffering is a gift. In it is hidden mercy.” — Rumi


The great divide between theist and atheist is their reaction to human suffering. Often the first views it as either deserved or an impenetrable mystery, while the second sees it as unnecessary and inexcusable. The Qur’an advocates neither viewpoint. Trial and tribulation are held to be inevitable and essential to human development and both the believer and unbeliever will experience them.

Most assuredly We will try you with something of danger, and hunger, and the loss of worldly goods, of lives and the fruits of your labour. But give glad tidings to those who are patient in adversity -who when calamity befalls them, say, “Truly unto God do we belong and truly, unto Him we shall return.” (2:155)

Do you think that you could enter paradise without having suffered like those who passed away before you? Misfortune and hardship befell them, and so shaken were they that the Messenger and the believers with him, would exclaim, “When will God’s help come?” Oh truly, God’s help is always near. (2:214)

You will certainly be tried in your possessions and yourselves. (3:186)

And if we make man taste mercy from Us, then withdraw it from him, he is surely despairing, ungrateful. And if we make him taste a favour after distress has afflicted him, he says: “The evils are gone away from me.” Truly he is exultant, boastful; except those who are persevering and do good. For them is forgiveness and a great reward (11:9-11)

Every soul must taste of death. And we try you with calamity and prosperity, [both] as a means of trial. And to Us you are returned. (21:35)

O man! Truly you’ve been toiling towards your Lord in painful toil -but you shall meet Him! (84:6)

Man, however, does not grow only through patient suffering, but by striving and struggling against hardship and adversity. This explains why “jihad” is such a key concept in Qur’an. Often translated as “holy war,” the word “jihad” literally means “a struggle,” “a striving,” “an exertion” or “a great effort”. It may include fighting for a just cause, but it has a more general connotation as the associated verbal noun of “jahada”, “to toil,” “to weary,” “to struggle,” “to strive after,” “to exert oneself.” The following verses revealed in Makkah before Muslims were involved in combat, bring out this more general sense.

And those who strive hard (jahadu) for Us, We shall certainly guide them in Our ways, and God is surely with the doers of good. (29:69)

And whoever strives hard (jahada) strives (yujahidu) for his self, for God is Self-Sufficient, above the need of the worlds. (29:6)

And strive hard (jahidu) for God with due striving (jihadihi). (22:78)

So, obey not the unbelievers and strive against them (jahid-hum) a mighty striving (jihadan) with it [the Qur’an]. (25:52)

The last verse occurs in a passage that encourages Muslims to make us of the Qur’an when they argue with disbelievers.

The Qur’an’s attitude towards suffering and adversity is not passive and resigned, but positive and dynamic. The believers are told that they will surely suffer and to be patient and persevering in times of hardship, but they are also to look forward and seek opportunities to improve their situation and rectify existing wrongs. They are told that while the risks and struggle may be great, the ultimate benefit and reward will be much greater (2:218; 3:142; 4:95-96; 8:74,; 9:88-89; 16:110; 26:69).

Those who believed and fled their homes, and strove hard in God’s way with their possessions and their selves are much higher in rank with God. And it is these -they are the triumphant. (9:20)

Life was never meant to be easy. The Qur’an refers to a successful life as an “uphill climb,” a climb that most will avoid.

We certainly have created man to face distress. Does he think that no one has power over him? He will say: I have wasted much wealth. Does he think that no one sees him? Have We not given him two eyes, and a tongue and two lips and pointed out to him the two conspicuous ways? But he attempts not the uphill climb; and what will make you comprehend the uphill climb? [It is] to free a slave, or to feed in a day of hunger an orphan nearly related, or the poor one lying in the dust. Then he is of those who believe and exhort one another to patience and exhort one another to mercy. (90:4-17)

“Even Angels Ask”, Dr. Jeffrey Lang, Professor of Mathematics, University of Kansas

Picture: Suffering by Paula Smith Heffel.