Chapter 7: Suffering

What can We Learn from Islam: The Struggle for True Religion
by Marcus Braybrooke

Chapter 7: Suffering

In Islam there is the confidence that in the end God will vindicate the righteous, whereas, it has been suggested above, Christianity, to which the Cross of Christ is so central, has a more tragic view of life. This contrast, as we shall see is not entirely true, especially when the Shi’ite tradition is considered. Even so, Christianity has probably given a larger place to redemptive suffering than Islam. The question of the suffering of the faithful, nevertheless, has been a concern for Muslims just as much as for Christians.

The Qur’an opens with the words, "In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful." These words are found at the head of almost every chapter or sura. Equally, the Qur’an affirms that God is omnipotent, the Lord of the Universe and the Lord of history. God’s ultimate responsibility for all that happens is recognized. "Allah has power over all things" (35, 1; 2, 106).

Suffering, therefore, in a sense comes from God. ‘No kind of calamity can occur, except by the leave of Allah.’ (64, 11). The question then is why God allows suffering. There is a tendency in Islam to see success or ‘manifest victory’ as a sign of God’s favor. When at the battle of Badr, the Muslims, who were largely outnumbered, won an important victory over the Meccans, this was taken as a sign of God’s approval.

‘There has Already been

For you a Sign

In the two armies

That met (in combat).

One was fighting in the Cause

of Allah, the other

Resisting Allah; these saw

With their own eyes

Twice their own number

but Allah doth support

With his aid whom He pleaseth.

In this is a lesson

For such as have eyes to see.’ (3,13).

Yet the following year, at Uhud, the Muslims failed to repeat their success. Why was this?

Not for thee, (but for Allah),

Is the decision:

Whether He turn in mercy

To them, or punish them;

For they are indeed wrong-doers.

To Allah belongeth all

That is in the heavens

And on earth.

He forgiveth whom He pleaseth;

And punisheth whom He pleaseth;

But Allah is Oft-Forgiving,

Most Merciful. (3, 129)

In effect the answer in Islam is ‘submission’, acceptance of the will of God, with whom it is not for us to argue. But experience of life led to some wrestling with the problem of why the faithful are not always successful. Various answers were suggested, although the general expectation remained that the faithful would be victorious and the rapid and victorious spread of Islam seemed to confirm this.

Suffering may be a punishment, especially of proud and evil men. It is said of Pharaoh,

When at length they

Provoked us, We exacted

Retribution upon them and

We drowned them all.

And we made them

(A People) of the Past

And an Example

To later ages. (43, 55-6.)

Although suffering may be a punishment, we cannot assume this of the sufferings of others. For example, those who die in battle should not be derided as though survivors enjoyed the special favor of God. Equally

It is no fault in the blind. Nor in one born lame, nor in one afflicted with illness (24, 61). One cannot assume that the unfortunate are being punished by God and so ignore their needs. In the case of the faithful, suffering may be a correction or a trial or a test.

‘Every soul shall have

A taste of death;

And we test you

By evil and by good

By way of trial.

To us must ye return.(21, 35)

Again the Qur’an says,

‘Be sure we shall test you

With something of fear

And hunger, some loss

in goods, lives and the fruits

(Of your toil), but give

Glad tidings to those

Who patiently persevere,

Who say, when afflicted

With calamity: "To Allah

We belong, and to Him

Is our return."’ (2, 155-6).

The Qur’an recognizes that are those who are religious because they hope to be rewarded.

‘There are among men

Some who serve Allah,

As it were, on the verge.

If good befalls them, they are

Therewith, well content; but

If a trial comes to them,

They turn on their faces:

They lose both this world

And the Hereafter: that

is indeed the manifest loss.’ (22, 11).

Testing is, therefore, to be expected -- particularly of the faithful.

‘If a wound hath touched you,

Be sure a similar wound

Hath touched the others.

Such days (of varying fortunes)

We give to men and men

By turns; that Allah may know

those that believe,

And that He may take

To Himself from your ranks

Martyr-witnesses (to Truth) . . .

Did ye think that ye

Would enter Heaven

Without Allah testing

Those of you who fought hard

(In His Cause) and remained steadfast? (3, 140, 142).

Again the Qur’an says:

Do men think that

They will be left alone

On saying "We believe",

And that they will not

Be tested?’ (29, 2)

There is then an "instrumental" view of suffering. God uses it to punish and to test. This affirms the conviction that God is in control and that suffering can be part of God’s merciful providence to bring people to a right way of living. God does not test people beyond their capability (2, 286) and always offers them the possibility of repentance and forgiveness. The proper response is patience and endurance and trust in God. God in the end will reward the faithful and punish unbelievers. (2, 80-82).

Sometimes outsiders have thought of Islam as fatalistic, but this is a misreading of the Qur’an. The Qur’an makes clear that suffering as far as possible should be relieved and its causes removed. One way of doing so is to construct a society based on the teaching of the Qur’an and this is why some Muslims want an Islamic state. The fashioning of an Islamic society was intended to alleviate suffering. In early Muslim societies the position of women and slaves was improved compared to their contemporaries; almsgiving was required and limitations were placed on war and vengeance.

Equally the individual Muslim was expected to be compassionate. In a passage, which is sometimes thought to refer to Muhammad himself, the Qur’an says,

‘Did He not find thee

An orphan and give thee

Shelter? (and care)?

And he found thee

Wandering, and He gave

Thee guidance.

And He found thee

In need, and made

Thee independent

Therefore, treat not

The orphan with harshness,

Nor repulse him

Who asks;

But the Bounty

Of thy Lord.

Rehearse and proclaim.’ (93, 6-11).

Sometimes acts of mercy are valued above ritual. The Qur’an says:

It is not righteousness

That ye turn your faces

Towards East or West,

But it is righteousness

To believe in Allah

And the Last Day

And the Angels,

And the Book,

And the messengers;

To spend your substance,

Out of love for Him

For your kin,

For orphans,

For the needy,

For the wayfarer,

For those who ask,

And for the ransom of slaves;

To be steadfast in prayer,

And give Zakat,[charitable tax]

To fulfil contracts

Which ye have made;

And to be firm and patient,

In pain (or suffering)

And adversity,

And throughout

All periods of panic.

Such are the people

of truth, the God-fearing.(2, 177).

The teaching of the Qur’an then suggests that success should attend the faithful, but if not it may be a punishment for evil or a test of faith. Suffering does not lead to a questioning of God’s power or mercy and Muslims should seek to alleviate suffering both individually and by creating a just Islamic society.

Yet there are unanswered questions. Does the stress on divine omnipotence allow adequately for human free will? This became a subject of major philosophical debate. Further, I wonder whether Islam allows sufficiently for the depth of human suffering, although many early converts to Islam were persecuted and tortured for their faith. My thoughts are, of course, colored by my particular studies of the Holocaust and genocide and also relate to the different understandings of the crucifixion, which we have discussed. In Shi’a tradition, a theology of martyrdom does develop.

The classical theologians of Islam tried to hold together both divine authority and human responsibility. The Qur’an and Hadith stress the omnipotence of God and some Muslims came close to a determinism which seemed to eclipse human freedom. There was a reaction in a school of thought known as Qadariyya, who held that human beings initiate their own actions and thus determine their destiny. They argued that God remained in control, but that he delegated actions and responsibility to human beings.

The Qadariyya, however, were bitterly attacked for giving too much independence to humans and were called dualists. Orthodox thinkers tried to solve the problem by a concept of "acquisition" rather than "delegation". God did not delegate powers: rather humans acquired them and made them their own. The disciples of al-Ashari said that God creates in humans the resolve to do something. Humans have no effective, but only an acquisitive part in the deed -- that is to say human beings do not cause something to happen but rather connect human power with the deed. This really still allows for the complete control of God, but al-Ashari seems to have modified this extreme position by saying it is possible to allow evil without being its immediate or direct cause. For example, Abel by refusing to defend himself "willed" or did not prevent his own murder, but he did not cause it.

While God is the source of blessing, humans are responsible for their misfortunes:

Whatever good, (O man!)

Happens to thee, is from Allah

But whatever evil happens

To thee, is from thyself (4, 79)

Yet as Asad points out not everything that a person considers as ‘evil fortune’ is bad in its consequences. As the Qur’an says:

‘But it is possible

That ye dislike a thing

Which is good for you,

And that ye love a thing

Which is bad for you.’ (2, 216).

God is essentially inscrutable -- that is what submission means. God cannot be put under any necessity -- not even moral necessity. Al-Ashari, according to ash-Shahrastani, said, ‘God is Lord of creation. He does what He wishes and effects what He desires. If He sent all beings to paradise there would be no injustice, or if He sent them all to Gehenna there would be no wrong. Wrong doing means disposing of things not one’s own or putting them in the wrong place. But since God is the owner of all things without exception, it is impossible to think of wrong-doing in connection with Him and it is impossible to attribute injustice to Him. The argument is similar to Paul’s in the Letter to the Romans, where he compares God to a potter. "Nay but, O man," he wrote, "who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it. Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?" (9, 20-21). Personally I have some difficulties with this argument, because God is surely always more moral than human beings.

Christians may ask whether Islam allows sufficiently for the tragic dimension in life. There is no doctrine of original sin and so no need for an act of atonement. Shi’ite Muslims, however, out of their own tragic history had to contend with the fact that the faithful, even over time, were not vindicated in this world.

The division between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims centered on who should be Caliph. When Muhammed died he was succeeded by Abu Bakr, whose faithfulness to Muhammad was unfailing and whose daughter Muhammad had married. The Shi’ites hold that Ali, Muhammad’s closest relation, who eventually became Caliph, should have been Caliph immediately after Muhammad’s death and that the first three Caliphs were usurpers. Ali’s caliphate ended tragically. He was assassinated by a member of the break away group of Kharijites. Ali’s elder son, al-Hasan succeeded him, but publicly renounced the caliphate in favor of Mu’awiyya, but his brother al-Husain refused to renounce his claims in favor of Yazid, who had succeeded his father Mu’awiyya. On the way to join his supporters, Husain was intercepted by a patrol and surrounded at Karbala. He refused to surrender and on 10th Muharranm 61 AH (10 October 680 CE) his small band were attacked. They resisted, but Husain refused to do so. He and his followers were massacred. A report to Yazid said laconically, "It did not last long, just time to slay a camel and take a nap."

According to a tradition, Jesus with his disciples when roaming in the wilderness came upon Karbala, the place where Husain was to die. On the exact spot where he was to be killed, a lion blocked Jesus’ path. Jesus spoke to the animal, who replied that on this spot the descendant of Muhammad would be killed and that he would not let Jesus pass until he had cursed his murderers. Another tradition says that a group of gazelles were grazing in Karbala and were lamenting Husain’s death and that Jesus then had a vision of the future tragic event and described it vividly.

The deaths of Husain, Ali and even of Hasan were soon seen as martyrdoms and this introduced a new element into Muslim understanding of suffering. Indeed the death of Husain was seen as a cosmic event around which the history of the world revolves. Manifest success could no longer be taken as proof of divine approval. Each year the death of Husain is commemorated. He is innocence personified and sums up all sorrow -- Jacob mourning for Joseph, Rachel weeping for her children and all victims of cruel tyrants. All evil is there at his killing. Husain represents all innocent victims. His suffering, which was totally undeserved, has a virtue which can be pleaded by those burdened with sin and suffering. Thus in the Shi’ite tradition, the ideas of vicarious suffering and martyrdom developed. In Sunni Islam, only the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have the capacity to intercede on behalf of those who make supplication.

There are many forms of Shi’ite passion plays, but the purpose of them all is to encourage actors and spectators to enter into the events as they are re-created and so recognize the benefits of innocent suffering. In one such play, Husain, as he died prayed to be granted "bountifully, the key of the treasure of intercession." Then, at the end of the play, Gabriel delivers a message from Muhammad. "None has suffered the pain and afflictions which Husain has undergone. None has, like him, been obedient in my service. As he has taken no steps save in sincerity in all that he has done, thou must put the key of Paradise in his hand. The privilege of making intercession for sinners is exclusively his. Husain is, by my peculiar grace, the mediator for all." In Sunni Islam however, only the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have the capacity to intercede on behalf of those who make supplication.

In his fascinating book Redemptive Suffering in Islam, the scholar Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub, who was born in a Shi’ite village in South Lebanon, suggests that for the people of God this world is a place of suffering and sorrow, indeed "the House of Sorrows." Although, as he says, Islam has stressed the good things of life which a person should thankfully enjoy, he states that a sense of the sorrowfulness of life is equally recognized in Islam, although this may not be the dominant mood of the Qur’an. The Hadiths suggest that the person of faith may expect to be visited with suffering and calamity in accordance with the strength and durability of his faith. When Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas asked the Prophet who were most likely to be afflicted with calamity, he was told, "The prophets, then the pious, everyone according to the degree of his piety. A man is afflicted according to his faith (din); if his faith is durable, his affliction is accordingly increased . . . until they leave him walking on the face of the earth without any sin cleaving to him." On another occasion, the Prophet said, "If God loves a people, He visits them with afflictions. He who is content [with God’s will], with him will God be pleased." There is also a saying in the Book of Ali, that "truly affliction is nearer to the pious man of faith than is fallen rain to the earth."

Suffering is a purifying test and the person who endures it helps the redemption of others. "Suffering", writes Mahmoud Ayoub, "whatever its cause and nature may be, must be regarded as an evil power of negation and destruction. It is non-being, the opposite of the Good which is Being in all its fullness. Suffering or non-being, cannot itself be destroyed, but it can and must be transformed. The transformation of suffering from a power of total negation into something of value is effected through human faith and divine mercy. Thus transformed, suffering becomes the great teacher for the pious, their road to salvation. The redemptive power of suffering lies in the fact that suffering can be overcome only by its own power. This is movingly stated in the Christian liturgical hymn which triumphantly proclaims "Christ rose from the dead, trampling death and giving life to those in the tomb"’.

"Suffering" Mahmoud Ayoub says "can lead to the annihilation, both physical and spiritual, of the sufferer." But we have argued that ultimate victory over evil, suffering and death, can only be achieved through suffering and death. In fact, where redemption is the primary goal of the life of the religious community, it is accepted as a divine gift of eternal life granted through death. The Christian case is one of the most powerful examples of the phenomenon in human history. We would like to argue that this quest for salvation, in different forms to be sure, plays a major role in the religious life of the Ithna’ashari Shi’ia community.

One aspect of the tradition emphasizes Husain’s mercy, forgiveness and healing. Some modern writers see the main message of his death to be that of his courage, piety and self-sacrifice. Another side of the tradition stresses Husain’s terrible punishment of his enemies. One prominent leader told Mahmoud Ayoub that Husain died "in protest against the hunger of the hungry, the poverty of the poor and the oppression of the oppressed." He also refers to a play performed in Cairo in 1970, which depicted Husain as a revolutionary hero and great martyr. At the end of the play Husain appeared and told the audience, "Remember me as you struggle in order that justice may reign over you, remember me in your struggle . . . When the song of brotherhood disappears and when the poor complain and the pockets of the rich bulge, remember me. . . Remember my revenge so that you may exact it from tyrants. . . But if you hold your peace against deception and accept humiliation, then I would be slain anew. . . I would be killed whenever men are subjugated and humiliated. . . Then would the wound of the martyr forever curse you because you did not avenge the blood of the martyr. Avenge the blood of the martyr." Husain can be made a prophet of liberation theology!

The same event can be remembered by the faithful to teach very different lessons. The Martyrdom of Husain can be used to rally the faithful to seek revenge against those who tyrannize the afflicted, it can be used to teach patience under the purifying test of suffering.

Some of the Sufis, mystics who themselves often suffered fierce opposition and even martyrdom, also spoke of the purifying discipline of pain as a way to bring the soul closer to God. Jalalud Din Rumi wrote, "When you fall ill and suffer pain, your conscience is awakened, you are stricken with remorse and pray God to forgive your trespasses.

The foulness of your sin is shown to you, you resolve to come back to the right way. you promise and vow that henceforth your chosen course of action will be obedience.

Note, then, this principle, O seeker: pain and suffering make one aware of God.

No religion gives an entirely adequate answer to the mystery of suffering. The attempts to explain it are similar in Islam and Christianity, but for Christians God in Jesus Christ has entered into and shared human suffering. Further, Christians believe that by his own suffering even to death, Jesus Christ achieved the salvation of the world. Suffering for Christians, therefore, has redemptive possibilities. This note is also to be heard in Islam, but not so loudly. Some Muslims feel that an undue stress on the redemptive quality of suffering may lead to a pietistic indifference to the suffering in the world. Muslims may, therefore, help to remind Christians of their calling to work and pray for God’s kingdom of justice. The dialogue of Muslims and Christians may help both to maintain a balance between a recognition of the redemptive possibilities of suffering and the of the responsibility to do all that is possible to relieve it.