Philosophy of Trials and Tribulations (Balah)
Before the topic of the article commences, I would like to say that this is a humble attempt of mine regarding such a deep topic. The analysis and reasoning present in this article are by great scholars such as Imam Khomeini, Ayatullah Makarim Shirazi, Ayatullah Ja’far Subhani and several others. If there are any flaws present, please note it is due to my negligence and the respected ulema and the religion of Islam contains no such. At the bottom of the article, the sources will be listed and in-text references will be given.
I begin in the name of Allah, the beneficent the merciful.
“If Allah is all knowing and nothing is hidden from him, then why is it necessary for him to subject people to tests?”
This common question though seems straight forward, holds the grounds for a highly fruitful and beneficial discussion. From its basic premise, it is questioning the very basic beliefs regarding Allah (s.w.t) and His mercy.
Before the purpose of trials is answered, we need to bring forth certain things regarding man to set the grounds to present the answer.
Human beings have been created in a way where the view of the world they form, is from their own perception. In other words the judgements they form regarding matters is based on their interests. Therefore anything man analyzes is based upon the criterion of whether it benefits him or not. For example, many of plants are classified as ‘weed’ and are defined as something without benefit. However that is the perception of man as he has yet to figure the benefit in it but regardless, he chooses to label it as useless. It can be said that evil or suffering is subjective to what man finds to be harmful. What we perceive, in its essence, is relative to us and it can be said that our “judgements” have no neutral classifications. Another thing we have to state is that nothing is fixed and all things are in the process of transitioning towards perfection. During this path to perfection, there are situations that hinder its perfection, therefore there is an ongoing battle to defeat adversary.
Now that we have established the two following points: suffering is relative and all things strive for perfection but face hindrances, we can continue the discussion regarding the purpose of trials. As stated in Philosophy for Islamic Rules by Ayatullah Makarim Shirazi and Ayatullah Ja’far Subhani, man is compelled to go through tests to find out the truth and remove ambiguity due to the lack of wisdom.
“They ask you (O Muhammad) about the spirit. Say: “The spirit is from the command of my Lord, and you have been given the knowledge but a little.” (Bani Israel: 85)
This needs no further explanation but since man is limited in its ability to understand, he cannot understand the unlimited entity in its entirety.
Imam Khomeini in Forty-Hadith (Hadith #15) states that the human soul exists at a level of potentiality and requires stimulus to grow. That is why the two teachers Allah has created for us, our intellect (inward) and the divine personalities (outward), when utilized harmoniously, can lead to attainment of success. By providing us the tools, He has tested us to separate the obedient from the rebellious. Imam Sadiq said, “It is inevitable that mankind should be purified, separated and sieved so that a great is excluded by the sieve.” (Usul al Kafi, vol II, pg.370, no.2).
The tests from Allah form the foundational base of man but what man takes from it is dependent on him. Those who attain felicity do through Allah and those who fall into destruction follow their carnal selves.
“Allah does not impose on any soul a duty but to extend of its ability, for it shall be what it has earned, and against it (shall be) what it has wrought.” (Baqarah: 286)
An analogy can be derived from the above-mentioned verse to better explain this. When one desires to eat a pomegranate, they work hard to peel the hard exterior to enjoy the fruit inside. Same applies to man as through trials, the capabilities and the true, pure essence of man is showcased.
Going through trials and tribulations often leads to pain and that aids in increasing antipathy towards this world. This aversion will lead man to keep the remembrance of Allah constant. Imam Baqir has said, “Verily, God Almighty treats the believer with tribulations in the same way as a man treats his family with gifts after an absence, and He restrains him from the world in the same way as the physician prescribes restraints for the sick man.” (Usul al Kafi, vol II, pg.255, no.17). Even though Allah is merciful on man at all times, he still manages to induce harm on himself.
“Whatever good comes to you (O man) is from Allah, and whatever evil befalls you is from yourself …” (Nisa: 79)
It should be of no debate that the people who faced the most severe trials were the divine personalities. A story mentioned in the Quran and mentioned in detailed by Allamah Majlisi in Hayat Al-Qulub vol I, is the story of Prophet Ayyub. Allamah Majlisi quotes a narration that Abu Basir asked Imam Sadiq the reason why Prophet Ayyub was faced with calamities. Imam replied due to the excessive bounties Allah bestowed upon him and the sincerity in his thankfulness. One day however Satan saw the obedience of Prophet Ayyub and said to Allah, “Ayyub is thankful to You because You have bestowed bountines in huge proportions. But if you take the bounties away he would not remain thankful.” Allah granted Satan the privilege to first control the wealth and the children of Prophet Ayyub but eventually allowed Satan to control him physically, except his intellect. Prophet Ayyub was faced with the worst of physical ailments and was banished from his city. People claimed he had sinned but being sure of his obedience to Allah, Prophet Ayyub never asked forgiveness for a sin, rather for over 7 years he lived in that condition and remained thankful to Allah. By remembering Allah throughout his trial, Prophet Ayyub was blessed with more bounties than he was before. (Anbiya: 83-84).
Prophet Ayyub’s story is of great inspiration to mankind because he exemplified how trials and tribulations are in fact blessings from Allah. The reference to sin is highly important for ourselves because we often find the blame of our trials in life being put on the sins we have committed. Sayyid Hassan Islami in Imam Khomeini, Ethics & Politics, explains the relevance of the world and trials. He states it is clear that the dunya is not to reward or punish people and there is no correlation between sins and trials. The trials people are faced with are dependent on their merit. This means that the stronger the faith one has in Allah, the harder his tests are because he has built his core foundation effectively. However the weak minded are seen to be free from trials as they have shown no signs of tolerance to calamities.
Evil or suffering can be seen as a favour by Allah to help man. The benefits of trials mentioned throughout the article show its necessity in our lives. However this does not mean one should strive to be tested and hope to be faced with tribulations. Imam Radha says, Prophet Yusuf complained to Allah: “’Why did I deserve to be imprisoned?’ Allah revealed to him: “It is you who chose it when you said: ‘O my Lord, the prison is dearer to me than that unto which they invite me’ (Yusuf: 33) Why did you not say, ‘Prosperity is dearer to me than that unto which they invite me?’” (Mizan al Hikman, vol III, pg. 2023). Though trials are beneficial, we should always pray to Allah for his mercy and aid.
The importance of the first two points we determined in the beginning of the article is necessary in order to conclude. The first point that suffering is relative to mankind shows that the way we perceive our trials to be, determines what we take away from it. Our growth is incumbent upon that fact that through the trials of life, we gain proximity towards Allah by having full trust in Him. This leads directly into our second point because our path to perfection only takes us in one direction and that is to Allah (s.w.t). By strengthening our faith through trials that hinder our journey, we should feel blessed because Allah sees potential in us and wants to help in the process of its growth. Man requires the stimulus to fulfill the potential it has of being the greatest of creation. And in no way are trials required for Allah because He is all knowing and nothing is hidden from him, rather they are a necessity for us in order to survive and more importantly thrive as creations of the Al-Mighty.
Philosophy of Islamic Laws – Ayatullah Makarim Shirazi and Ayatullah Ja’far Subhani
Forty Hadith – Imam Khomeini
Imam Khomeini, Ethics and Politics – Sayyid Hassan Islami
The Holy Quran – Tafsir by Aqa Mahdi Puya