One of the most vexing questions for people is why God allows evil and suffering in the world. Some think that since God is all-powerful, He could create a world in which human beings always do good and no suffering exists. In fact, He has created a place of perpetual happiness, free of sin, hardship, pain, misfortune, or any sort of distress. That place, of course, is Paradise, in the Hereafter. If we accept that this world, on the other hand, is the place where humans are tested as to their faith and their deeds, so as to earn Paradise, then if follows that there must be the freedom to choose right from wrong. And some people choose to do wrong, resulting in suffering for themselves either in this world or in the Hereafter, and suffering for others in small or large number. Beyond that, there is also suffering as a result of natural occurrences like a hurricane or illness or death of a loved one.
We are told in the Qur’an, “The One Who created death and life, so that He may put you to test, to find out which of you is best in deeds; He is the All-mighty, the All-forgiving” (Qur’an, 67:2). God, in His mercy, has built into His design, though, that whatever adversity we experience, it is a test that is inclined in our favor. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “How amazing is the case of the believer; there is good for him in everything, and this characteristic is exclusively for him alone. If he experiences something pleasant, he is thankful, and that is good for him; and if he comes across some adversity, he is patient, and that is good for him.” And he also said, “No calamity befalls a Muslim but that Allah expiates some of his sins because of it, even though it were the prick from a thorn.” This reinforces the idea in the first cited hadith that there is “good” in every circumstance for the believer, and explains further how the experience of hardship or adversity serves an important role: expiation of sins. Here we have a very specific description of how adversity is “good” for the believer (of course with the presumption that, as a believer, he will be patient in the face of adversity).
In fact, He has created a place of perpetual happiness, free of sin, hardship, pain, misfortune, or any sort of distress. That place, of course, is Paradise, in the Hereafter.
Adversity is good for us in other ways as well. When we face challenges and difficulties of every sort, this is what spurs our growth and, for believers, this is what allows for purification of the soul. In fact, it is through suffering that the soul opens itself to the healing and purifying agency of faith. The depths of soul are revealed to us through our encounters with hardship. And many times our suffering is the result of having made the wrong choice or decision, and the consequences of our wrongdoing or poor decision-making – suffering – can be the greatest teacher.
Through the loss from a tornado or the pain of the thorn prick or the criticism from non-Muslims we develop gratitude for what we have, we can practice patience, and we can develop tolerance. By encountering situations in which we can choose to keep our souls pure or give in to corruption, we learn a sense of accountability. When we are provoked by a friend or co-worker we have opportunity to restrain our anger. How else might we learn good decision-making and appreciation of a clear conscience without being afforded the choice to act rightly or wrongly? Only in a world where there is exploitation and breaches of trust might we commit to fight for social justice and the proper discharge of power by government and other institutions. We yearn for peace because we have experienced conflict and the ravages of war. We appreciate love because we see hatred in too many corners. We honor kindness and caring and generosity because we know the scourge of meanness and greed.
Both the beauty and the ugliness that reside in the world can turn our hearts to the Creator. This earth is where we are tested as to faith and deeds. The suffering is not without purpose. The test is not without reward for those “…who are patient in adversity out of a longing for their Sustainer’s countenance, and are constant in prayer, and spend on others, secretly and openly, out of what We provide for them as sustenance, and [who] repel evil with good. It is these that shall find their fulfillment in the hereafter: Gardens of perpetual bliss, which they shall enter together with the righteous among their parents, their spouses, and their offspring: and angels will come unto them from every gate [with the salutation]: ‘Peace unto you for that ye persevered in patience! Now how excellent is the final home!’” (Quran, 13:23-24)