God & Human Suffering
Mubasher Ahmad, M.A. LL.B.
Member, Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.
7102 W. Shefford Lane
Louisville, KY 40242-6462, USA
According to the Holy Quran, our present life, with all its joys and sufferings,
is merely transitory and illusionary. The passage of human life continues after
crossing the valley of death. Our present life is but temporary and fleeting,
and the life after life is permanent and perpetual. Death may be the ultimate
human suffering in this world, but it is certainly not the end of life. Death is
just like a door through which we have to pass to enter into a new dimension of
life. In Islam, the next life is a reality beyond any doubt. Both the dimensions
of human life -- the life in this world and life yet to come -- are welded
together, one merging into the other like a splendid waterfall turning into a
mighty river. The only difference is this that the second phase of human life is
reflective of how we conduct ourselves in the first phase of life. The joys as
well as the sufferings shall continue in the life Hereafter.
Therefore, according to Islamic perspective, many who might have lived a life
full of sufferings in this transitory world may enjoy the most blissful and
everlasting life in the next world in what is known as the Heaven; and many who
might have enjoyed sinful pleasures of this material world, may go through a
grievous torment in life yet to come in what is known as the Hell. It all
depends how we carry out ourselves under given circumstances in this life.
Islam acknowledges that life is full of suffering, starting as early as the very
process of human conception in a mother's womb and during the process of
In the Holy Quran, we read:
"And We [i.e. GOD] have enjoined on man to be good to his parents -- his mother
bears him in suffering after suffering of weakness," (46:15)
Again, we read: "Certainly there was a long period of time when man was almost
insubstantial. We created him from a sticking sperm-drop that We caused him to
pass through a trial of precarious stages; then, turned him into a being capable
of hearing and seeing. Verily, We have shown him the way, (giving him full
freedom of choice) whether he be grateful or ungrateful," (76:2-4)
Again we read in the Holy Quran:
"And We have enjoined on every human being to be good to his parents. His mother
bears him with pain, and brings him forth with severe pangs (of childbirth),"
Not only both the mother and the new born baby have to go through a tremendous
painful suffering in the process of childbirth, the Holy Quran also acknowledges
the existence of human suffering in various forms throughout human experience.
First, there are natural disasters and the climatic tragedies like
earthquakes, floods, lightening, storms and famines. We can also include in such
calamities the outbreak of contagious, epidemic and endemic diseases, plagues
and pestilence. And, moreover, there are innumerable illnesses and bodily
These calamities and diseases do occur in consequence of a wider circle of
natural laws that are necessary to exist in the vast universe, in which human
life is an important but still a very small portion.
The laws of nature, that sometimes cause these sufferings, are put in place by
God the Creator actually to support and evolve life on the earth in its
totality. If these natural laws are taken out of the universal design of God,
the Creator, the very existence of every living thing will be jeopardized.
Therefore, the disasters that are caused by natural laws are no reflection of
the Creator's cruelty over humans. According to the Holy Quran, the study of
natural phenomenon makes us understand that, despite the devastation suffered by
some humans, God's Mercy (rahmah) is the most overwhelming attribute in Nature
that creates, maintains and evolves all forms of life including human life.
Secondly, there are the man-made infliction that cause other humans to
suffer physical pain and mental anguish and sometimes even death, such as --
false accusation, wrongful imprisonment, kidnapping, rape, theft, physical and
emotional abuse, economical exploitation, slavery, wrongful occupation of
other's property and land, war and holocaust. The list of these sinful acts and
social and international crimes is very long indeed. We may also add to the list
the environmental destruction and pollution caused by us humans.
These and similar other inflictions caused by some are due to the abuse of what
we call the freedom of man's will. And we certainly cannot say that freedom of
will is an evil in itself. Without free will, man would lose the very essence of
his existence. Therefore, causing suffering, pain and death to others through
the misuse and abuse of one's free will, humans remain responsible to God, and
not God to humans.
To eliminate suffering caused by humans, God has commanded us not to inflict any
harm on others, and those who do so, must face the consequences. Therefore, to
establish, a JUST society is one of the most important obligations taught by
Islam. Those who may escape the corporal punishment in this world, for them
God's punishment shall be waiting in the life to come.
Thirdly, there are acts of "self-inflicted suffering": These could be accidental
or intentional. The Holy Quran prohibits inflicting self-injuries, specifically
committing of suicide. The sufferings that we may inflict upon ourselves are
mostly caused by our mental condition that we have the choice to control with or
without the help of others. These miseries are usually caused by our anger,
jealousy, depression, or getting into addiction -- such as drug-abuse,
alcoholism, and gambling. For all these kind of self-inflicted sufferings, man
himself remains responsible and accountable to God, and not the vice-versa. God
is ever ready to forgive our trespasses against our own souls.
The Holy Quran is very clear on this point that even the smallest of an action
-- good or bad -- committed in this life by any human being will not go waste!
"Then whosoever has done so much as an atom's weight of good will see its good
result, and whoso has done an atom's weight of evil will also see its evil
result." (Chapter 99, Al-Zilzal, verses 7-9)
Again, the Holy Quran says:
"Every soul shall taste of death. And you shall be paid in full your rewards
only on the day of Resurrection. So whosoever is removed away from the Fire (of
Hell) and is made to enter Heaven, (that person) had indeed attained his goal.
And life of this world is nothing but an illusionary enjoyment. You shall surely
be tried in your possessions and in your persons." (Chapter 3, Al-i-Imran, v.
Therefore, according to the teachings of the Holy Quran, it does not matter how
much a person suffers in this world, as long as he or she is engaged, according
to his or her capacity, in repelling the evil and doing the good works. The joys
and comforts of the life yet to come are far greater, unparalleled and
everlasting as compared with human sufferings of this life! The human sufferings
of the present life are termed as "a trial" -- a test, an evaluation and a
validation to measure the success and strength of each human soul, its capacity
to do good deeds.
So, according to the Holy Quran, all the tragedy, affliction, anguish, grief and
fear that we may have to go through in this life are actually tests and trials
from God. If we succeed in the test by remaining prayerful and patient, showing
complete perseverance and trust in God during the period of suffering, and we
continue doing good deeds, and we avoid evil thoughts and actions, then the end
result is that God grants us boundless joy, happiness and His everlasting
The Holy Quran says:
"Do you think that you will enter Heaven, while you have not yet suffered
similar afflictions which befell those who have passed away before you?
Distress and affliction befell them, and they were made to suffer violent
shaking, so that the Messenger and those who believed along with him cried out:
"When will come the help of God?" Then they were told, 'Behold! Surely the help
of God is always nearby.'" (Chapter 2, Al-Baqara, verse 215)
Thus, by understanding the continuous nature of life in its totality, the human
suffering does not remain an issue to be settled by challenging the existence or
goodness of our Lord God - the Creator. Once we are able to conceive and
believe that every soul has to enter another dimension of life by passing
through the door of death, only then we can fully appreciate the existence of
God Who reaches the depth of our souls to enhance its strength through our
endurance of sufferings, and thus makes us the winners in the long run.
The Holy Quran further elaborates this point by narrating to us how all the men
and women of God, the prophets, the messengers and the righteous persons - both
male and female -- have gone through all sorts of human sufferings, but none of
them ever lost their hope, their trust in God's help, and they endured all the
pain, anguish and fear with utmost patience, sincerity and perseverance, and at
the end they all were winners.
For example, Adam and Eve had to encounter the devil -- the whispering tempter
-- who made them suffer to forget a clear commandment of God! As a consequence,
they lost Paradise and entered into a life of labor and pain. But still they
retained dominion over all other creatures on the earth and received forgiveness
of God. Abraham was put to the terrible trial to offer his first-born child in
sacrifice, but he ended up being the father of nations -- his progeny becoming
countless like the stars in heavens. Job's (Ayub's) sufferings are proverbial,
but he retains his confidence in Divine Goodness, and his suffering becomes a
medium of refining his righteousness. Moses had to run for his life under the
threats of Pharaoh and led his people for 40 long years and suffered many pains
and disappointments by the hands of his enemies and his own people, but he never
lost his faith in the Almighty God. And we all know the story of Jesus and his
mother Mary. Virgin Mary ha! d to suffer the grievous insult of becoming
pregnant prior to getting married. And Jesus the beloved of God suffered
physical torture and was put on the cross with the intent to be killed on the
wood -- to die an accursed death! But God did not forsake him, and God did
honor his mother, and now billions revere them both as innocent and sinless.
It is also a matter recorded in history that the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (may
peace and blessings of God be on him) was the most successful man both in the
realms of religions as well as in social and worldly affairs. He has been
acknowledged as the most influential man in history. His main task was, on the
one hand, to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, to establish firm faith in
the existence of ONE GOD - and to establish perpetual worship of the Most-Loving
and Most Merciful God; and, on the other hand, his mission was to establish a
just and benevolent social order. And he achieved an unparalleled success in
both the domains despite tremendous personal pain and anguish that he was made
to suffer through his life on this earth.
After receiving an answer to his heart-rendering prayers concerning the
moral depreciation, social injustice, lawlessness and mutual fights in the
fragmented nation of his fellow countrymen in Arabia, when he started his
mission as the Prophet of God to remove all the social, moral and spiritual ills
around him, he suffered the most bitter persecution and oppression at the hands
of his own people - those people that he wanted to help and guide. He was
laughed at, scorned and derided, abused and tormented. Trash was thrown onto his
way, and filth was laid on his head. The vagabonds beat him up most severely;
throwing stones and rocks, making him bleed almost to death. Some of his
followers were brutally murdered. Some of his dear ones were split apart alive
by tying their legs to two strong camels and made them run into opposite
directions. Some of the women who believed in him, were butchered shamelessly by
Even when he and his followers were forced to leave their hometown Mecca and
they settled in Medina - a town more than 200 miles away from Mecca, the enemy
did not allow them to live in peace, and initiated armed attacks and made them
suffer the horrors of war. The brutal enemy mutilated the dead bodies of his
dear ones. They cut their noses and ears, and in one instance even took out the
liver and chewed it raw. He himself received severe injuries on his face in one
of such battles.
Not only that, he suffered many personal domestic tragedies in his life. He lost
some his children while they were young, and some died in his lifetime as grown
ups. He had four sons, but all of them passed away in their infancy. But despite
all the enormous human suffering throughout his life, Holy Prophet Muhammad (may
peace and blessings of God be on him) always had a warm smile on face.
Throughout his life, he remained cheerful and a tremendous source of peace of
mind and comfort for all who got in touch with him. He succeeded in establishing
a firm faith in the existence of God in the hearts of thousands upon thousand,
and he successfully replaced injustice with equity, cruelty and oppression with
forgiveness and mercy.
By studying his personal sufferings juxtaposed on his most successful life, and
through his practical demonstration of compassion, peace, comfort, service to
others, love for all and hatred for none, we find the most shining example in
the person of the Most Noble Prophet Muhammad of reconciling the existence of a
Compassionate and Loving God and human suffering. (May peace and blessings of
God be on him.) It was not merely an intellectual reconciliation, it was a
factual and most impressive reconciliation between God and human suffering.
Therefore, for us Muslims and all others, the important thing should be is to
learn how to handle human sufferings retaining full faith in a loving God!
The Holy Quran teaches us "The truly righteous -- are those who endure with
fortitude misfortune, hardship and peril. That is, who are patient in poverty
and affliction, and in time of war."(2:178)
Again, in the Holy Quran we read:
"O you who believe! Seek (God's) help with perfect patience and prayer; for
surely God is with the patiently persevering (Sabireen). And do not count as
dead those who are killed in the cause of God. Rather they are living; only you
perceive not (their life). And We will certainly reward you after trying you
with something of fear and hunger and some loss of substance and of lives, and
fruits (of your toil). Give glad tidings to the patiently persevering; who, when
a calamity befalls them, say, 'Surely to God we belong and to Him shall we
return.' It is they on whom descend the blessings and mercy (rahmah) from their
Lord God; and it is they who are rightly guided."
(Chapter 2, verses 154-157)
At the end, I would like to say: All praise belongs to God, the Lord of all the
universes, Most Gracious, Ever Merciful, the Master of the day of Judgment.
This paper was presented at an interfaith symposium in Zion City,
Illinois, on December 8, 2002