Right from his conception until he breathes his last, man faces problems, difficulties, risks and dangers. These challenges may be in the form of health hazards, diseases, mental disorders, economic or social pressures, family or professional stresses, political crises or natural disasters. Young or old, rich or poor, black or white—all are equally exposed to these threats.
“Man has been created in toil
(and hardships).” (Qur’an, 90:4)
Two conclusions are obvious: First, this life is full of challenges and must have a serious purpose that needs to be explored. Second, all elements and events that occur in this universe are components of a Master Design of the Creator. What appears random to the human eye is calculated in the Divine Administration. Generally, when people have a comfortable life, they tend to brag; but when a tragedy befalls someone, the person impatiently starts questioning: Why me?: When We give men a taste of Our benevolence, they start rejoicing in it; and when misfortune befalls them, as a result of what they have done themselves, they begin to despair. [Q, 30: 36]
Hunger is a ‘silent epidemic’ in America that has risen to a reprehensible level
Hence, there is a need to understand the nature of the conditions that constantly evolve around us and challenge us in a multitude of ways and develop appropriate responses when faced with harsh realities in order to continue living a normal life of conscience, endurance and dignity. Equally important is to understand the role of man in the universe around him and his relation to his Creator. These inquisitions are not unrelated; rather they have a common thread that underpins the purpose of life.
Pursuant to that, the human sufferings must be looked at from five corners for a comprehensive vision of their origin, impact, and implications:
God, The Almighty, says in the Qur’an: “…indeed Allah ordains whatever He pleases.” [Q, 5: 1] None has a right to challenge His decision nor does anyone have power to alter it. Of course, God’s decisions are based on His infinite wisdom, knowledge and munificence. In addition, nothing can occur, good or bad, without His permission: No calamity can occur, except by the permission of Allah; and if any one believes in Allah, He guides his heart aright … [Q, 64:11]
Even the prophets of Allah SWT have not been spared from such hardships. Obviously, they were the most obedient and closest to Allah SWT, yet they were being tested to set examples for others that one must earn what one aspires to: Do you think that you will enter Paradise while yet there has not come unto you the like of those who came before you? Affliction and adversity befell them; they were shaken as with earthquake, till the messenger (of Allah) and those who believed along with him said: When will come Allah’s help…? [Q, 2:214] Family, health, wealth, poverty, authority, and knowledge, for instance, are different forms of tests one may be subjected to.
Non-Permanency of Life
This world and everything in it is temporary. Nothing is durable or dependable, including the earthly life and its enjoyments: O my people! The life of this world is temporary; only the abode of the Hereafter is permanent. [Q, 40:39] Similarly, the conditions one must endure during this short stay on earth are also short lived. No judgment of success or failure can be passed about a person on the basis of transitory circumstances he lives under. So, sooner or later all conditions people face will come to an end, and what will really matter in the final analysis is how the subjected individual lived through them.
There are internal and external causes for the infliction of calamities on a person. Some wounds, tragically, are self-inflicted. For instance, poor health due to unhealthy diet or bad addictions, poverty due to irresponsible fiscal behavior, stress and mental problems due to material obsession and declining moral values, and dysfunctional family due to a lack of discipline and proper supervision are cases of self-created disasters. All such problems are caused internally because of a deviant and reckless lifestyle: Whatever misfortune strikes you, it’s for what your own hands have earned; and He forgives much. [Q, 42:30]
On the other hand, there are many afflictions that are beyond one’s control. They are caused externally by the permission of Allah SWT and He alone knows the wisdom behind them: …Nothing (good or bad) can befall us except what Allah has destined for us…[Q, 9:51] Famines, draughts, floods, earthquakes, accidents, sicknesses, and loss of loved ones are examples of externally caused afflictions by Allah’s decree.
Response of the Afflicted
The appropriate response by a person who is suffering from a particular difficulty will depend on the cause of that difficulty. If this problem is caused by his own doings, he is the one who has to fix it. He must take the responsibility of his actions and follow the necessary steps, within his power, to correct the situation before relying on Allah SWT. This is a condition for seeking Allah’s help: …Allah does not change the conditions of people until they themselves initiate a change. [Q, 13:11] Change your lifestyle, for example, knock off bad habits that might have caused the problem in the first place, seek medical treatment if necessary and then turn to Allah for forgiveness and help. It’s just around the corner.
If the problem is beyond your control, however, and not related to your actions, it’s from Allah SWT, as a temporary trial. Live through it as best as you can with patience. There is an opportunity in it to get closer to Allah SWT. Closeness to Allah SWT brings rewards from Him or invokes His forgiveness for past sins. Those who have faith, their hearts grow stronger in difficult moments, as they put their trust in Him: And if any one believes in Allah, He guides his heart aright, for Allah knows all things …[Q, 64:11] The Prophet Muhammad SAW says: When Allah SWT intends to favor a person, He puts him through difficulties. (Bukhari) He further says: Whatever sufferings a believer goes through, sickness, grief, or even a little thorn scratch, his sins are forgiven for that. [Bukhari and Muslim] The purpose behind these trials is to see how we behave when surrounded by extraordinary circumstances. We pass the test if our commitment to Allah SWT grows stronger and healthier. When challenged: …it only increases their faith and submissiveness. [Q, 33:22]
Bear in mind, human beings are made of physical body and soul. Many voids can be filled only by reconnecting with Allah SWT and engaging in His remembrance, especially when faced with harsh times: …Without doubt, in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find peace. [Q, 13:28] In addition to actively seeking medical care, as appropriate, this is the most effective remedy for stress and blood pressure related ailments.
There are certain things that we must not do, however. Exposing personal problems to others, whining and peevishly complaining in front of irrelevant people, for instance, is to only invite humiliation and more frustration. It’s a cry against Allah’s decision in vain. It is appropriate, though, to discuss problems with those who have expertise and can offer some advice, like a physician or a family counselor, while keeping full trust in Allah SWT. Most importantly, do not turn toward anybody considered saintly or holy for help other than Allah SWT: Do not call upon any apart from Allah – on those who have no power to benefit or hurt you… [Q, 10:106]
Approaching those who themselves are dependent on Allah SWT for their survival is a serious violation of Allah’s Sovereignty and is considered a major sin (shirk): …For if you call upon others than Allah you will be reckoned among the wrong-doers. [Q, 10:106]
Responsibility of the Society
While it’s a test for a person or a group of people who is subjected to harsh conditions by Allah SWT, the bigger trial is, however, is for those who are around the victim(s), such as family members, relatives, friends, community members and society at large. The first and foremost thing that one must do is to be grateful to Allah SWT for being spared from the calamities that others could not escape. The best way to express this gratitude, however, is to do whatever possible to alleviate the sufferings of those who have fallen victims – an opportunity that must not be missed to stretch out a helping hand.
Islam views humanity as one global family. The Prophet SAW frequently reminded us that loving and caring for fellow humans is the essence of Islam. He called himself a slave of Allah SWT and a servant of humanity. He described humanity as family of Allah, and the most beloved of Allah SWT is he who loves Allah’s family. The best among you, says the Prophet SAW, is he who is best to his fellow humans. He warns that Iman (faith) is not complete if your neighbor is in distress and you do nothing to help.
It’s unconscionable in this day and age that the human sufferings continue in many fundamental ways. Despite vast resources, access to food, clean water, housing, and health-care (for instance) is beyond reach for many in several parts of the world. As mistakenly believed, this crisis is not limited to Third World countries alone. Even the most affluent and powerful society on earth bears this stigma on its forehead. A sizeable U.S. population, for example, is deprived even of food – the most basic human need. Hunger, is a ‘silent epidemic’ in America that has risen to a reprehensible level. A 2008 USDA survey revealed that about 49 million individuals (including 16.7 million children) in this leading country have food insecurity – a number 36% higher than what a similar survey found in 2006. The most recent nationwide study conducted by ‘Feeding America’ has shown that 320,000 people sought food assistance just in Eastern Massachusetts in 2009 (23% more than 2005). The key findings of the study also indicate that a majority (73%) of those in need of food assistance has a place to live and about half of them have to choose between buying food and paying heating or medical bills.
While a lot of organizations do play an active role in fighting hunger in this country, it is obvious that they still fall far short of what we could do and achieve. Since the disastrous event of 9/11, Muslims have been on the defense and constantly fighting anti-Islamic propaganda and bigotry. However, programs like the food pantries initiative that ICNA Relief USA has launched are perhaps a better way to respond to misgivings—for this is what Islam speaks and stands for.