In difficult and traumatic times, asks Heba Shakeel, how do we understand our purpose on this Earth and how can we best spend our time here without falling into doubt and misery?
Throughout the various phases of life, mankind experiences various forms of suffering. From having abusive or neglectful parents, particularly those battling with alcoholism or substance abuse, to experiencing bullying, peer pressure, and social anxiety during childhood and adolescence, financial difficulties, marriage problems in adulthood, and the declining health and loneliness of old age. But it doesn’t end there; some of us grow up in conflict zones, where the very fabric of existence is frayed by violence and uncertainty.
These sufferings make us feel trapped in a bad dream that seems to have no way out. It is in these moments that we can’t help but ponder as to why a benevolent God would permit such prolonged trials.
Why, we ask, do we experience violence at the hands of others? How can God allow innocent children to tremble night after night in bed, clinging to the hope of seeing their loved ones the next morning? Alternatively, we can reflect upon the instances when the Prophet ﷺ endured being stoned until he bled, and when his companions were subjected to physical abuse and hunger, all of which were inflicted upon them by others. After all, why does God even extend His mercy to those who cause immeasurable suffering to others? What’s the point of experiencing so much suffering? Why didn’t God just make us angels and pop us in Heaven?
These distressing experiences of suffering lead us to question the very purpose of our existence and the reasons behind our creation.
In Surah Baqarah, chapter 2 of the Qur’an, verse 30 we see that when Allah, the Almighty said to the angels, “I am going to place a successive ˹human˺ authority on earth.”,
the Angels replied: “Will You place in it someone who will spread corruption there and shed blood while We praise and glorify You?”
Isn’t this a question that many of us would have in our minds. Why would God create a being for some positive role when he is capable of doing tremendous wrongdoing. He can potentially spread corruption, exhibit violence, and is an inherently fallible creature. Meanwhile, angels glorify and praise their Lord and are perfectly submissive to Him.
This shows that even the angels understood this aspect of human nature – before we even came to be. But certainly, there was something about this being that God knew but the angels did not.
We see this in the very next verses, where Allah, the Almighty, in His divine wisdom, taught Adam the names of all things. He presented these creations to the angels, challenging them to reveal their names if they were indeed knowledgeable. The angels, acknowledging their limited knowledge, admitted that they knew only that which their Lord had taught them.
This signifies that humans are inherently learning creatures. They have been endowed with intellect and the ability to learn, reason, and understand. While the angels are celestial beings, they do not possess the capacity for learning and acquiring knowledge. Instead, they serve as obedient and glorifying beings.
After Adam’s superiority in knowledge was proven, the angels were told to bow in prostration to him. Something very interesting to notice is how occasionally, when Allah wants someone to stand out and elevate their position, He first highlights the futility of others before casting a spotlight on that person to increase the appreciation for his capabilities and elevates his prestige even more.
Well, but what is the significance of bowing down to someone in prostration?
Bowing down represents the recognition of the superiority of one being over another, as well as a gesture of obedience to this higher authority.
As humans make moral decisions to grow spiritually and morally, the angelic and satanic forces serve as catalysts for these moral choices. It’s on us to navigate the influences of our soul (nafs) and external forces, making the ultimate choice between immorality and God-consciousness over and over again in life. Thus, humans were created not solely intelligent beings but also moral creatures, capable of distinguishing between right and wrong.
The Qur’an has time and again encouraged us to utilize our intellectual faculties to reason, ponder, reflect, and use our reasoning abilities to recognize the truth. It encourages believers to reflect on the signs of God’s creation as a means to strengthen their faith. The Qur’an also encourages people to use their logic to differentiate between true faith and false belief.
In Surah Al-A’raf (7:179), the Qur’an mentions: “Indeed, We have destined many of the jinn and mankind for Hell. They have hearts with which they do not understand, they have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear. They are like cattle. In fact, they are [even] more astray. It is they who are ‘entirely’ heedless.”
If Allah willed, he could have guided every soul, like I mentioned earlier, we all could have simply been created as angels and popped into the heavens. But we, as humans, have been given the freedom to make our own decisions and choose for ourselves. The Qur’an mentions this in Surah Yunus (Verse 99): “Had your Lord so willed ˹O Prophet˺, all ˹people˺ on earth would have certainly believed, every single one of them! Would you then force people to become believers?”
But the question of why we have to experience so much suffering in this world still remains. Suffering is perceived differently across different religions, and is most often viewed as an unfavorable component of human existence. The Qur’an, on the other hand, presents hardships as a motivator for personal progress. It encourages people to embrace misfortune and see it as an opportunity for spiritual growth.
The Noble Qur’an reminds us that, “You will surely be tested in your possessions and in yourselves. And you will surely hear from those who were given the Scripture before you and from those who associate others with Allah much abuse. But if you are patient and fear Allah – indeed, that is of the matters [worthy] of determination.”(Qur’an 3:186).
It reminds us in another verse, “We shall test you with something of fear and hunger, and decrease of goods, life and fruits. Give glad tidings to the patient”. (Qur’an 2:155)
This explains why we undoubtedly face trials in life, including hunger and hardship, but it also offers solace by lauding the virtues of patience during adversity.Those who, when struck by a disaster, steadfastly say, “Surely unto God we belong, and to Him we will all return” (Qur’an 2:156), find the strength to endure whatever comes their way. Remembering that we belong to Allah and that we will return to Him, helps us shift our perspective. Nothing is meant to last forever, not even the difficulties we face and furthermore, we are not facing them alone.
Dealing with setbacks, frustration, and day-to-day trials can be challenging and we lose focus on the bigger picture. Dealing with disappointments is an inevitable fact of life. However, this does not mean that we should sit back and be overtaken by worries and stresses. Our Lord tells us that, “We have created humankind in ‘constant’ struggle” (Qur’an 90: 4), Allah also reminds us, “We created man in the finest state” (Qur’an 95: 4). This reminds us that whilst we are going to face trials, Allah has also prepared us to withstand these challenges and overcome them, as He has endowed us with intellect, maturity and the ability to make wise decisions, guided by our faith.
Allah informed us that He laid out two paths for us; “Have we not shown them the two ways?” (Qur’an 90:10) This alludes to the two ways: the right(good) and the wrong(bad). The path of good leads to God’s pleasure and Paradise, while the latter leads to His wrath and punishment. But if it’s this simple, then why are there so many who choose doom and destruction?
Our answer lies in the next verse, “If they only had attempted the challenging path.” (Qur’an 90:11) We see that although the path of good is rewarding, it is challenging. The hills are steep, and the trail is arduous. “And what will make you realize what the challenging path is? It is to free a slave; or to give food in times of famine to an orphaned relative, or to a poor person in distress.”(90: 12-16)
But most importantly, what is our life’s purpose? Could there even be a purpose? The purpose of the glorious sun, first fallen snow, birds defying gravity, crescent moons and breathtaking oceans. Were they simply intended to adorn our lonely planet? The purpose should be far deeper than that. “Our Lord! You have not created ˹all of˺ this without purpose.” Qur’an (3:191).
The Qur’an does not leave us without answers to this critical question. It mentions that “We did not create the heavens and the earth and everything in between for sport. Had We intended to take some amusement, We could have found it in Our presence, if that had been Our Will.”Qur’an(21: 16-17)
Our sole purpose of life should be to attain the precious companionship of our Lord. His mercy and pleasure, and the delight that comes with seeking a close bond with Him, is worth sacrificing for. Our purpose should be to seek the pleasure of the Almighty. The Holy Quran says: “So give your close relatives their due, as well as the poor and the needy traveler. That is best for those who seek the pleasure of Allah, and it is they who will be successful.”(30:38).
After all, “He is the One Who created death and life in order to test which of you is best in deeds.” (Quran 67:2). He tests us to see who is more sincere in their deeds. Life and death were created to allow us to reach our highest potential, each in our own respects and according to our own capacity. Hard times are not meant to break us- they are meant to make us the best versions of ourselves. We need to constantly examine ourselves on are we fulfilling the purpose of our lives? Is there excellence in everything we do, starting from our worship? Do we deal with those around us in the most excellent manner? Do we pay the rights of others in the best way possible? Do we hold an excellent character?
Allah knows us in our entirety. Our trials are ‘custom’ made with such subtlety and awareness from Allah to be a tool of cleansing and transformation to help us arrive at our best selves. May we experience the strength and gentleness of Allah in our journeys of betterment and positive self-transformation for Him.
Our Lord! Forgive our sins, absolve us of our misdeeds, and join us with the virtuous when we die. Our Lord! Grant us what You have promised us through Your messengers and do not put us to shame on the Judgment Day—for certainly You never fail in Your promise.”