Suffering — the price of being alive: an Islamic perspective

Islam - unlike Christianity - may not have a central motif of pain, sin and suffering, but it reveals so much about what it means to live with adversity.

A muslim in prayer
A muslim in prayer.

It seems to me that, on philosophical and theological levels across religious traditions and cultures, we are more consumed by the realities of suffering than the search for happiness. I use the word ‘suffering’ here in its broadest sense to mean all that we must endure in life and all that we hope we might be able to resist. Our concern as people and as believers in a higher reality is not how we avoid suffering, but how we live with suffering. Living with suffering is a consequence of living with desires, the distance between what we have and what we want. There are the theologies of suffering and then there is real physical and emotional suffering, which all of us will experience simply by virtue of being human. One of the most eloquent expressions of humankind’s ability to live, seek and be moved by the suffering and indignity of others, is encapsulated in the memorable lines of the philosopher Bertrand Russell who wrote in his Autobiography:

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind […] Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons and the whole world of loneliness, poverty and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

It could be argued that the central story of Sunni Islam is not one of suffering and redemption, but rather the story of success (falah). Suffering and evil are often part of the same moral debates, but I’d like to draw a distinction between evil (both moral and natural) and human suffering as a lived experience, which is personal to each of us, despite its universality.

The Qur’anic account of evil is often located in the story of God’s creation of Adam and Adam’s disobedience. Adam’s temptation and transgression – eating from the forbidden tree when he had been expressly forbidden – is not fundamentally about the ‘fall of man’, but the fall of Iblis himself, who goes from being an angel to the accursed Satan. With the creation of human beings, Iblis’s fate also changes. Loving God, but rejected by God, his nature and purpose is based on the intent to destroy goodness, beginning with the sexual innocence in Adam and Eve’s relationship. The awareness he arouses in Adam and Eve is not an increased awareness of the divine, but that of the profane.

At one level, the Qur’anic story is essentially a narrative of struggle with, but not alienation from, a transcendent God. The Qur’anic verse, ‘I am placing on the earth a vicegerent’, already alludes to Adam’s destiny, in that Adam was created for the earth and not for the heavens. Adam must now experience distance from God to understand what nearness was and, while this might lie at the root of human suffering, it is also a route to human development. In fact, some Muslim thinkers saw a positive ray in the first human act of disobedience. One of the few Muslim theologians of the modern period who has tried to reconcile a good God with the existence of moral and natural evil was the Indian philosopher-poet, Muhammad Iqbal, who saw Adam’s transgression as a transition from simple consciousness to the first flash of self-consciousness.

God has taken a risk in the creation of humanity and an even greater risk by creating human beings who are free. For Iqbal, good and evil fall within the same whole of creation, because both are predicated on God’s risk-taking, faith in humanity and the human freedom to choose. Iblis is a symbolic but necessary player in the quest for goodness, since without him there is nothing for intelligence to master. Unlike Adam, ordinary mortals have not experienced creation without suffering, but nor have humans experienced creation without love and joy and beauty.

Unlike the Christian cross, which represents both suffering and triumph, Islam has no such central image. The sense of human alienation and need for redemption is far greater in Christianity than Islam, prompting Max Weber to argue that Islam is not a salvation religion and that it lacks a tragic sense of sin. But human suffering is nevertheless seen as the most fundamental reality in people’s lives, deepening and strengthening every quality we have. The Qur’anic narrative is built around human struggle, of a difficult journey where no man bears the burden of another, where we remain steadfast and show patience (sabr) and where God is always present. This is a fundamental discourse of the Qur’an, often linked to the lives of the prophets, who were always tested in the course of their divine election. If one examines prophetic traditions relating to suffering, the most commonly cited are about believers facing their sufferings with prayer, repentance and good deeds. This is usually in contrast with the non-believers facing their sufferings with doubts and confusion. There is a tension in Islamic thought between predestined events and human freedom to act in the face of such events, where no amount of guilt can change the past and no amount of worrying can change the future. Some have argued that the fatalism of the nomadic Arab was not something to be regretted, but a quality which he must have if he is to make a success of life in the desert, which crept into Islamic thinking. A question that was sometimes very poignantly discussed by the mystics of Islam (Sufis) was which of the two stations, patience or gratitude, was superior on the mystical path; many prayed for suffering as a way of being certain that God was testing them and this meant God hadn’t forgotten them.

But despite philosophical and theological attempts to understand why human beings suffer, most of us are unsettled by this issue only when we experience suffering ourselves. The suffering of others may move us, but our own suffering, or the fear of suffering, is what causes us to contemplate its depths. For example, one of the growing concerns of today is that of experiencing a debilitating disease. While modern life has made death a sequestered event, removing it from our public consciousness, there has nevertheless been a rise in our fear of being diagnosed with a debilitating illness and losing personal dignity, because this kind of suffering is a very public suffering. Illnesses which cause premature ageing and decline make us feel that one day our lives will not be our lives any more – we will cease to be individuals in our own right and become people other people care for. Our loss of independence, both physical and mental, is a real cause of anguish and as rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s rise in the Western world, many of us are questioning what exactly is meant by human dignity. Illness can age you prematurely and so, when we do think of our own death, we want to die as we have lived, just older, not sick, not dependent and most of all still with the capacity to show love and feel loved. In recent years, I have talked to several friends and colleagues who spoke of their parents suffering from advanced stages of dementia. Many of them acknowledge that their parents don’t even recognise them any more and that this gradual decline can be more painful than sudden death. There is something very frightening about losing one’s memory and control because you inhabit a world where all familiarity has gradually left you and taken away your identity. Your loved ones try to remind you of your past, but you feel powerless to let anyone else in.

Once at a conference, I related my own concerns on the subject of debilitating disease and suffering to a Jesuit scholar. I told him how recent stories of assisted dying in the media had made me even more afraid of illness as I grew older, the absolute fear of losing personal dignity, as I saw it, through the loss of autonomy. I told him that I have found myself wondering whether my religious convictions and all the ethical debates about the sanctity of human life wouldn’t simply crumble if I felt that my life was no longer worth living, that there was no life, only illness. I was questioning the very meaning of human dignity; is it really something we are born with, or is it something we have to struggle for? In a very gentle manner, he told me the story of a Christian saint who was so physically helpless in his old age and illness that he had reached the point of drifting in and out of consciousness. When he did have moments of consciousness, he would try to write something and one of his lines was: ‘Now I am happy, because it is only now that I am completely in God’s hands.’ I was silenced and felt slightly ashamed at myself by the strength of this faith, the absolute surrender of the self, when there is such a deep belief in God’s love.

There are similar stories across religions, especially in the more mystical genres of literature, but sometimes you need to hear another religious voice to understand the issue you’re struggling with, to look deeper into your own faith to find the resources to sustain you and even to challenge your vulnerabilities. So while human suffering or the expectation that we will all suffer in life is real, religious resources always remind us that we are not alone in our pain. In fact, there are prophetic sayings which express God’s closeness to human situations: ‘When I love him I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes and his foot with which he walks. Were he to ask [something] of Me, I would surely give it to him and were he to ask Me for refuge, I would surely grant him it.’ Islam does not have a tragic sense of sin, but it has an almost desperate sense of divine forgiveness. God’s transcendence and omnipotence are not the defining attributes of a distant God. When the human face turns to God, God does not turn away. It is in this turning to God for repentance, for consolation in the dark silence of the universe, that the Muslim encounters the mercy and nearness of the Creator. The obvious question this begs is, does God suffer with us? This is not a question most Muslim theologians have discussed, as it implies a vulnerability in God, but it is possible to think that, if God responds to our prayers, he also feels our prayers.

The dominant Qur’anic theme is that God’s mercy or wrath is given to human beings, it is not our right. God in his compassion may forgive every person in the end, in response to the ‘atom’s worth of faith’, but the dominant discourse is the command to do right, to do good deeds. We are alone in this life and alone in death and we carry only ourselves into the next life. This was a theme expressed poignantly in Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s Letter to a Disciple. Al-Ghazali writes of Hatim al Assam, who said:

I observed mankind and saw that everyone had an object of love and infatuation which he loved and with which he was infatuated. Some of what was loved accompanied him up to the sickness of death and some to the graveside. Then all went back and left him solitary and alone and not one of them entered his grave with him. So I thought and said, the best of what one loves is what will enter one’s grave and be a friend to one in it. And I found it to be nothing but good deeds. So I took them as the object of my love, to be a light for me in my grave, to be a friend to me in it and not leave me alone.

The paradigm is that of the divine-prophetic relationship, often construed as a struggle, a paradigm in which God has sent prophets to lead human-kind to him, for therein lies the good life, the moral life. Our journey is caught between obedience and disobedience, where sorrow and affliction are as present as joy and pleasure. Both are intertwined throughout the course of our lives, but the end is a new beginning with God. It is this new beginning which is understood not so much in terms of salvation but falah, a reaching of a certain state. It is in this journey that suffering is also a test of our relationships, our faith our loyalties and our certainties.

Thus, throughout Islamic thought, one cannot escape from the fundamental human condition that the life worth living is meant to be difficult and that human suffering is unavoidable. Suffering is often understood as a divine test, as a divine purpose, but it must not lead to fatalism, but rather to trust in God, a wrestling with God. It is about awakening within us the meaning of faith itself and whether our relationship with God is defined by hope or by despair. One could argue that suffering is not about being a victim and that it does not have to diminish us. Thus, suffering becomes synonymous with being human, but also with living in the hope that no pain is forever. This can create a philosophical ambivalence and it was expressed movingly by a giant of 20th century German poetry, Rainer Maria Rilke, in his uncollected poems:

Long you must suffer not knowing what

until suddenly from a piece of fruit hatefully bitten, the taste of suffering enters you and then

you already almost love what you have savoured. No one will talk it out of you again.

Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror. Just keep going, no feeling is final.

On this point of feelings which pass, I’d like too share two personal experiences of witnessing suffering and suffering myself, both to do with death and the way God was the ultimate refuge. I first experienced death in the family when my maternal grandfather died. Like many of their generation, my parents had left the Indian subcontinent and all their family behind in the late 1960s. This meant that my mother had not seen her own father in years. One morning, I saw my mother sitting on a prayer mat in her bedroom with her hands held out. She was crying softly, as if remembering and mourning at the same time. She didn’t say much to us; she had been his favourite child and hadn’t seen him in years. Something had broken inside her and ended with his death. It never occurred to me at that age to ask my mother what a parent’s death felt like and she never talked to us about it. Her suffering was her own, too personal and precious to be shared. She was a strong woman and her faith and prayers helped her always to look forward.

My mother was a very strong presence in my life and it was precisely because of our relationship that it seemed inconceivable that I could continue without her. She died of a massive brain haemorrhage after being in intensive care for ten days. I was not there at the exact moment she passed away and that still haunts me. It seems strange even today, 17 years later, to say ‘she died’ or ‘she passed away’ because the distressing finality of those words takes you to an unknown place. Those ten days I sat by her bed often with other family, we watched her lie still and merely breathe, wires and tubes keeping her alive. The initial shock of seeing her like that transformed into a quiet acceptance and we consoled ourselves over cups of tea and chatter into thinking that life was welcome in whatever form; as long as her hands were warm and she breathed, we would never lose her. I was promising her things, reassuring her that all would be fine, in the full certainty that my words might make a difference, that she was listening and might find her pain a little easier. Death brings to an end the possibilities of any more shared moments, only shared memories. When you love someone that is the most difficult thing to accept. The words of the great mystic Abdel Qadir al-Jilani – ‘believers do not die. They only pass from this temporal life to the everlasting life’ – didn’t console me, but I continued to find refuge in prayer.

How we imagine God is how we imagine our destinies. Despite understanding God as the transcendent other, Islamic thought has from the earliest times wrestled with how divine presence manifests itself in this world and how humans can understand themselves as God’s agents of the ‘divine breath’. Though Adam’s descent on earth is regarded as a new paradigm for human existence, a new hope, it seems that something between the human and the divine has been ruptured in this exile; thus our longing for return, the restlessness we endure, remains powerful. Poets and writers have wrestled with the question of human restlessness, of why we feel that we are always searching, looking for a beauty, for some meaning, for some contentment in ourselves, in our relationships and often in something beyond ourselves, which we can’t quite define. Maybe this restlessness is the cause of this breath, that something of the divine within us makes us long to return to the divine. As St Augustine said: ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.’ Our restlessness may actually be a desire for peace, for some stillness in our lives. Yet restlessness can be what makes us more noble creatures; it is perhaps more creative than it is destructive. So let me end with a quote by the Nigerian writer, Ben Okri: ‘The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.’

Suffering – the price of being alive: an Islamic perspective by Mona Siddiqui was first published in Religion, Axess Publishing, 2020


Mona Siddiqui