Abode of trials: Exploring Quranic teachings on life’s challenges

Zafir Ahmad, Ahmadiyya Archive & Research Centre
rafif prawira Ke2Pieu1Gwg unsplash
Rafif Prawira | Unsplash


The Islamic worldview often refers to this world as dar al-bala’, which can be translated as “the abode of trials”. This concept is central to understanding life from an Islamic perspective, as it emphasises that earthly life is full of challenges that test the strength of our faith. In this article, I will divide the topic into five sections:

(1) Synonyms for ibtila’ (trial), which discusses the various synonyms for the word ibtila’ that Allah has used in the Quran. These synonyms reflect the diverse aspects of the trials that believers may face in life. (2) Types of trials, which examines the different types of trials that Allah subjects the believer’s faith to. These trials can be physical, psychological, or spiritual in nature and serve to strengthen the sincerity and devotion of the believer to Allah. (3) Difference between ibtila’ and ‘uqubah, which discussed the essential aspect of the differentiation between ibtila’ as trial and ‘uqubah as punishment. It is crucial to grasp the characteristics of a divine trial and to distinguish it from a punishment. (4) The wisdom behind the trials, which deals with the question of why Allah tests human beings. The goal is to fathom the wisdom and intentions behind the divine trials. The focus here is on how these trials can contribute to the development and maturation of a believer. (5) Aids in facing trials, which presents methods that can help in adequately dealing with trials. These include prayer, patience, gratitude, and trust in Allah.

Which words did Allah use in the Quran for trials?

The following section first analyses the use of the words that Allah has employed in the Quran regarding subjecting human beings to trials. In the Quran, Allah uses three verbs: imtahanafatana, and bala. The verb bala appears in the Quran in two verb forms: bala and ibtala. Each verb is used in a specific sense. Words derived from the root letters of the verb bala appear a total of 38 times in the Quran. In Surah al-Ma’idah, Ch.5: V.49, the verb bala is used, and we read:

وَلَوۡ شَآءَ اللّٰہُ لَجَعَلَکُمۡ اُمَّةً وَّاحِدَةً وَّلٰکِنۡ لِّيَبۡلُوَکُمۡ فِيۡ مَاۤ اٰتٰٮکُمۡ فَاسۡتَبِقُوا الۡخَيۡرٰتِ

“And if Allah had [enforced] His will, He would have made you [all] one people, but [He wishes] to try you by that which He has given you. Vie, then, with one another in good works.” (Surah al-Ma’idah, Ch.5: V.49)

The second verb imtahana is also used in the context of trial. This can be evidenced from Surah al-Hujurat, Ch.49: V.4:

اِنَّ الَّذِيۡنَ يَغُضُّوۡنَ اَصۡوَاتَہُمۡ عِنۡدَ رَسُوۡلِ اللّٰہِ اُولٰٓئِکَ الَّذِيۡنَ امۡتَحَنَ اللّٰہُ قُلُوۡبَہُمۡ لِلتَّقۡوٰي ؕ لَہُمۡ مَّغۡفِرَةٌ وَّاَجۡرٌ عَظِيۡمٌ

“Verily those who lower their voices in the presence of the Messenger of Allah are the ones whose hearts Allah has purified for righteousness. For them is forgiveness and a great reward.”

The third verb fatana has the root letters ft, and n, thus pointing to a solid origin that indicates testing and trial. Fitnah in the Islamic understanding refers to uncovering and revealing something that is uncomfortable for the affected person.

An essential difference between fitnah and ibtila’ is that fitnah is a more general term. While ibtila’ specifically refers to trials from Allah, fitnah can encompass a broader spectrum of tests and difficulties:

وَکَذٰلِکَ فَتَنَّا بَعۡضَہُمۡ بِبَعۡضٍ لِّيَقُوۡلُوۡۤا اَہٰۤؤُلَآءِ مَنَّ اللّٰہُ عَلَيۡہِمۡ مِّنۡۢ بَيۡنِنَا ؕ اَلَيۡسَ اللّٰہُ بِاَعۡلَمَ بِالشّٰکِرِيۡنَ

“And in like manner have We tried some of them by others, that they may say, ‘Is it these whom Allah has favoured from among us?’ Does not Allah know best those who are grateful?” (Surah al-An‘am, Ch.6: V.54)

A verb mentioned in the Quran in the context of a trial that does not mean “to test”, but carries the meaning of “to test”, is the word tamhis. It is also used as a synonym for ibtila’. However, it means to purify or to liberate something from something else. An example from the Islamic context is the sentence mahhasa Allahu al-‘abda min adh-dhanbi, which means “Allah purified the servant from sin.”

The difference between ibtila’ and tamhis lies in the consequences of the trial. While ibtila’ can lead to both positive and negative outcomes, the consequences of tamhis are exclusively positive. The term tamhis refers to a process through which purification takes place by means of trial. This analogy can be applied to the refinement of gold, where impurities are removed to obtain the pure metal. Transferred to the human being, this means that through tamhis the soul is purified from sins and bad qualities, leading to a spiritual elevation of the individual. In Surah Al-e-‘Imran, Ch.3: V.155, it is stated:

وَلِيَبۡتَلِيَ اللّٰہُ مَا فِيۡ صُدُوۡرِکُمۡ وَلِيُمَحِّصَ مَا فِيۡ قُلُوۡبِکُمۡ

“[A]nd that Allah might test what was in your breasts and that He might purge what was in your hearts.”

How does Allah test us?

In general, two types of trials by which Allah tests the believers can be identified from the verses of the Quran: The first type of trial is through good and evil (al-ibtila’ bi-l-khayr wa-sh-sharr). This trial can take the form of prosperity and ease or difficulties and adversities. It serves to test the gratitude and patience of human beings and to see whether they hold fast to Allah’s commandments in good times as well as bad.

In the Quranic exegesis Five-Volume Commentary, which is based on notes by Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IIra, this fact is explained as follows:

“There are two ways to test the mettle of a person, viz. (a) by making him pass through the fire of trials and tribulations; and (b) by bestowing upon him wealth and material power and prosperity. God tries His servants in both these ways.” (The Holy Quran with English translation and commentary [2018], Vol. 4, p. 2087)

The second type of trial is through command and prohibition (al-ibtila’ bi-l-amr wa-n-nahy). Here, the human being is tested on whether they follow the instructions and prohibitions of Allah. These trials can relate to the observance of religious obligations, such as prayer and fasting, but also to the avoidance of what is forbidden.

Referring to the Quranic verse “And [when] it is said to the righteous, ‘What [think ye of] that which your Lord has revealed?’ they say, ‘The best.’ For those who do good there is good in this world, and the home of the Hereafter is [even] better. Excellent indeed is the abode of the righteous” (Surah an-Nahl, Ch.16: V.31), Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IIIrh says about this type of test:

“So in this verse, the teachings of the Quran are called good (al-khayr). Therefore, I interpret the verse ‘and We test you with evil and good by way of trial’ (Surah al-Anbiya’, Ch.21: V.36) to mean that We will test you through the injunctions (commands and prohibitions) of the Noble Quran, and if we reflect, it is indeed a trial.” (Anwar al-Quran, Vol. 2, p. 292)

Allah says in Surah al-Anbiya’, Ch.21: V.36:

کُلُّ نَفۡسٍ ذَآئِقَةُ الۡمَوۡتِ ؕ وَنَبۡلُوۡکُمۡ بِالشَّرِّ وَالۡخَيۡرِ فِتۡنَةً ؕ وَاِلَيۡنَا تُرۡجَعُوۡنَ

“Every soul shall taste of death; and We prove you with evil and good by way of trial. And to Us shall you be returned.”

This verse reveals that in the course of their life, human beings will be confronted with both good and evil. These trials may come in the form of well-being and adversity, joy and distress, comfort and hardship, as well as striving and exhaustion. They are trials that can evoke both joy and discomfort. It is important to understand that these trials are a part of human life and prepare us for the return to God.

In Surah al-A‘raf, Ch.7: V.169, of the Quran, it is stated:

وَقَطَّعۡنٰہُمۡ فِي الۡاَرۡضِ اُمَمًا ۚ مِنۡہُمُ الصّٰلِحُوۡنَ وَمِنۡہُمۡ دُوۡنَ ذٰلِکَ ۫ وَبَلَوۡنٰہُمۡ بِالۡحَسَنٰتِ وَالسَّيِّاٰتِ لَعَلَّہُمۡ يَرۡجِعُوۡنَ

“And We broke them up into [separate] peoples in the earth. Among them are those that are righteous and among them are those that are otherwise. And We tried them with good things and bad things that they might return.”

This verse shows that people are tested through good and bad events, such as accidents or other difficult situations. Here, the question arises: How does Allah test us with bad and good things?

I will first explain how Allah tests us with bad things. For this, let us read Surah al-Baqarah, Ch.2: V.156:

وَلَنَبۡلُوَنَّکُمۡ بِشَيۡءٍ مِّنَ الۡخَوۡفِ وَالۡجُوۡعِ وَنَقۡصٍ مِّنَ الۡاَمۡوَالِ وَالۡاَنۡفُسِ وَالثَّمَرٰتِ ؕ وَبَشِّرِ الصّٰبِرِيۡنَ

“And We will try you with something of fear and hunger, and loss of wealth and lives, and fruits; but give glad tidings to the patient.”

From this verse, we can precisely understand what is meant by Allah’s trial through bad things. Allah will test through hunger, fear, loss of people and money, etc. When the Holy Prophetsa began to spread his message, Allah tested the hearts and faith of the Companionsra, both men and women. The Meccans were the greatest enemies of Islam. They instilled fear in those who believed in Allah. Thus, Allah put the believers to the test. Would the believers abandon or conceal their religion out of fear? This was a trial. Many Ahmadis around the world are persecuted. The trial they are subjected to is a similar trial. Then Allah says that He will also test people through hunger. Every Muslim knows the time when the Holy Prophetsa and his followers were banished to the valley of Shi‘b Abi Talib. The Companionsra, both men and women, were patient. But Allah tested their patience. They had nothing to eat. But they were steadfast. This, too, was a trial through adversity.

Opening pages from the Quran by Khayr al Din al Mar‘ashi scaled
Opening pages from the Quran by Khayr al-Din al-Mar‘ashi | Wiki Commons

This fact is explained in the Five-Volume Commentary as follows:

“The tests by means of which God intended to ‘prove’ the faithful are, as stated in this verse: (1) Fear, i.e. a state or condition in which fear will dominate them, the enemy surrounding them with diverse dangers. (2) Hunger, i.e. shortage of food; the enemy will not only cut off their means of communication but will also completely boycott them, leaving them stranded without food or provision. The word ‘hunger’ may also signify a state of famine. (3) Loss of wealth and property. The enemy will raid Muslims repeatedly and inflict heavy losses on them. (4) Loss of lives, i.e. the cruel war inflicted on them by the enemy will also cause loss of life. (5) Loss of fruits. The action of the enemy will not be confined to inflicting loss of lives and property only but will extend to inflicting loss of crops as well. As ثمرة (fruit) also means the fruit of one’s labour or the profit accruing to a man from any source, loss of fruits also signifies disorganisation of trade and industry.”  (The Holy Quran with English translation and commentary [2018], Vol. 1, p. 259)

In summary, in Islam, trials are seen as a part of life and a way to Allah, to test a person’s faith, patience, and perseverance. The adversity here does not mean that Allah creates evil, but rather refers to the difficulties and challenges that a person may face in their life. The purpose of these trials is not only to test faith, but also to strengthen the spirit and character, and to foster trust in God.

In the Five-Volume Commentary it is explained:

“According to the Quran, God has generally two purposes in ‘proving’ men. He ‘proves’ or tries those who have attained to a high stage of spiritual advancement, as was the case with Abraham (2:125); and He also tries those who have not yet attained to that stage (29:3). His object in ‘proving’ the former is to bring them to the notice of the people and make them shine as models of virtue and purity; while in the case of the latter, the purpose is to make them acquainted with their own weaknesses so that they may try to improve their condition. Though misfortunes and afflictions involve a certain amount of pain, they also afford a good opportunity for spiritual reformation and purification.” (Ibid.)

Much more interesting is the trial through good things. It is much easier to identify the bad than the good. Therefore, I will explain how Allah tests us through the good. Allah has blessed us with many gifts, such as wealth, children, and health. However, these blessings are also a trial. God has entrusted these gifts to their recipients to see how they handle them. Will they become arrogant and corrupt the earth, as Pharaoh did? Will they be miserly and forbid what God has commanded, as Qarun did? Or will they use their God-given knowledge for hypocrisy and superiority over others, without fearing God, as Balaam, son of Beor, did?

Qarun was a member of the people of Mosesas, but he acted tyrannically towards them. Allah had given him immense treasures, whose keys would have been a burden even for a group of strong men. Despite these blessings, Qarun became arrogant and attributed his wealth to his own knowledge, instead of thanking Allah. His people warned him and said:

لَا تَفۡرَحۡ اِنَّ اللّٰہَ لَا يُحِبُّ الۡفَرِحِيۡنَ وَابۡتَغِ فِيۡمَاۤ اٰتٰٮکَ اللّٰہُ الدَّارَ الۡاٰخِرَةَ وَلَا تَنۡسَ نَصِيۡبَکَ مِنَ الدُّنۡيَا وَاَحۡسِنۡ کَمَاۤ اَحۡسَنَ اللّٰہُ اِلَيۡکَ وَلَا تَبۡغِ الۡفَسَادَ فِي الۡاَرۡضِ ؕ اِنَّ اللّٰہَ لَا يُحِبُّ الۡمُفۡسِدِيۡنَ

“Exult not, surely Allah loves not those who exult. And seek, in that which Allah has given thee, the Home of the Hereafter; and neglect not thy lot in this world; and do good [to others] as Allah has done good to thee; and seek not to make mischief in the earth, verily Allah loves not those who make mischief.” (Surah al-Qasas, Ch.28: V.77-78)

Qarun, however, ignored this advice and continued to boast about his wealth. He displayed his finery before his people, and those who desired the life of this world wished they had the same as Qarun. But those who had been given knowledge warned, saying:

وَيۡلَکُمۡ ثَوَابُ اللّٰہِ خَيۡرٌ لِّمَنۡ اٰمَنَ وَعَمِلَ صَالِحًا ۚ وَلَا يُلَقّٰہَاۤ اِلَّا الصّٰبِرُوۡنَ

“Woe to you, Allah’s reward is best for those who believe and do good works; and it shall be granted to none except those who are steadfast.” (Surah al-Qasas, Ch.28: V.81)

Finally, Allah caused the earth to swallow Qarun and his dwelling. He had no one to help him against Allah, and he could not save himself.

In this story, we can clearly understand the trial. Allah tested Qarun on how he would handle his wealth. Pharaoh had power. But Allah tested him on how he would use his power. Would he be arrogant, would he abuse his power or turn to Allah and accept Him? Accordingly, everyone is tested by Allah through good and bad things.

In addition to this trial, there is also a trial that specifically afflicts only the believers, namely the observance of commands and prohibitions. The trial of command and prohibition is a central aspect in the life of every human being. It is the means by which judgments are established as permitted (halal) and prohibited (haram).

This type of trial relates to the observance of divine commands and prohibitions. It tests whether an individual is able to follow the instructions given to them, and whether they abstain from the things that have been forbidden to them. It is a trial of obedience and discipline, which requires us to constantly strive to do what is right and avoid what is wrong. It is also a trial of our ability to take responsibility for our actions and bear the consequences of our decisions. This trial is an essential part of spiritual growth and personal development. It helps to shape our character, strengthen our moral and ethical values, and guide us on the path to a fulfilling and meaningful life.

What is the difference between a trial (ibtila’) and a punishment (‘uqubah)?

The distinction between trial and punishment is clear and straightforward. A trial is a process that serves to bring a believing person closer to their success. However, it is important to note that this process requires patience, perseverance, and the willingness to endure suffering. No human being is exempt from trials. Every second and every moment in a person’s life can represent a trial, whether through positive or negative experiences.

An illustrative example of this process can be found in the first Muslim community, the community of the Companionsra. After going through a trial that required a great deal of patience, steadfastness, and the ability to endure suffering, the believers ultimately attained honour, wealth, and strengthened faith. Especially when the Muslims lived in Mecca and after their emigration, when they were subjected to a multitude of trials, they had to show patience and strictly adhere to the commands and prohibitions. As a result of these trials, they were eventually able to conquer Mecca, Arabia, Persia, and other regions.

In Islam, the faith of an individual is often tested through trials. It is said that the stronger a person’s faith is, the more difficult the trials they are subjected to. This concept is underscored by a hadith in which the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa was asked who had the most difficult trials. He answered that the Prophets have the most difficult trials, followed by the righteous. This indicates that a person is tested according to their faith. (Sunan Ibn Majah, Kitab al-fitan, Bab as-sabri ‘ala l-bala’, no. 4024)

However, it is a widespread misconception to believe that when God gives a person good things, He is pleased with them, and when He restricts their wealth, He is displeased. This is refuted in Surah al-Fajr, Ch.89: V.16-17 of the Quran, where it states:

فَاَمَّا الۡاِنۡسَانُ اِذَا مَا ابۡتَلٰٮہُ رَبُّہٗ فَاَکۡرَمَہٗ وَنَعَّمَہٗ ۬ۙ فَيَقُوۡلُ رَبِّيۡۤ اَکۡرَمَنِ وَاَمَّاۤ اِذَا مَا ابۡتَلٰٮہُ فَقَدَرَ عَلَيۡہِ رِزۡقَہٗ ۬ۙ فَيَقُوۡلُ رَبِّيۡۤ اَہَانَنِ

“As for man, when his Lord tries him and honours him and bestows favours on him, he says, ‘My Lord has honoured me.’ But when He tries him and straitens for him his [means of] subsistence, he says, ‘My Lord has disgraced me.’”

Punishment, also known as ‘uqubah, is a consequence that results from sins, transgressions, and deviations from the right path. The more sins and transgressions are committed, the more severe the punishment will be. It is important to understand that punishment is not only a form of retribution, but also a means of spiritual purification and the restoration of justice. Punishment takes effect after a sin has been committed. The severity of the punishment is proportional to the gravity of the sin committed. Punishment can occur both in this life and in the Hereafter. It is important to note that the manner in which punishment is meted out is determined solely by Allah. It can take the form of psychological punishment, physical punishment, or both. There are two main types of punishments: punishment out of mercy and punishment out of God’s wrath. Punishment out of mercy, also known as kaffarah is comparable to the relationship between parents and children. This type of punishment serves as an admonition and reminder, leading to repentance (tauba).

The punishment out of God’s wrath is a harsher form of punishment, which is imposed as a reaction to grave sins. An example of this is the punishment inflicted upon Pharaoh.

Why does Allah test us?

The human trial by Allah is a central means of separating truth from falsehood. This aspect is of fundamental importance. It is a double-edged sword: On the one hand, it serves to elevate the status of an individual, grant rewards, and forgive sins. On the other hand, it serves to test people collectively and separate the good from the bad. This principle is also found in the Quran.

In the Five-Volume Commentary, it is explained:

“God makes believers pass through travails, trials and tribulations and He has enjoined fighting on them that sincere believers may become distinguished from the hypocrites and that the qualities of head and heart of believers and also the results of their steadfastness and fortitude amidst hardships and privations may have an opportunity to come into actual play.” (The Holy Quran with English translation and commentary [2018], Vol. 5, p. 2932)

An example of this is the change of the direction of prayer, the qibla, by Allah. This change was met with resistance from some people. But God explained that the change in the direction of prayer was a test to see who truly remains with Allah and who returns to their original misguidance.

Overall, the trial by Allah is an important aspect of faith, which serves to reveal the truth, reward the believers, and separate the disbelievers. It is a process that takes place on both an individual and a collective level and serves to separate truth from falsehood and the good from the bad.

Aids in facing trials

Islam teaches patience in times of ease and hardship. This virtue can help overcome difficult trials. Patience is a teaching from the Quran, where Allah attributes this quality only to believers. The Holy Prophet Muhammadsa linked patience with the concept of ihtisab, which means to endure or pursue something in the hope and trust in Allah, that Allah will reward one for it.

Seeking divine assistance and taking refuge in God is of great importance for believers. The art of patience presents a challenge for them, which they must master. Prayer can serve as a means of strengthening one’s willpower. Believers should keep in mind that Allah is accepted as the Helper. This can be illustrated by examples such as the deliverance of Mosesas from slavery in Egypt by God, and Abraham’sas deliverance by God from the burning fire. Believers should therefore be able to rely on Allah to assist them as well. The Quran is referred to as a remedy for believers. Reading the Quran alleviates the burden of trial because, in almost every verse, Allah makes it clear that He does not abandon anyone. Giving charity is very important. Allah repeatedly calls upon believers in the Quran to give charity. Giving charity can also help in a time of trial. In many traditions of the Holy Prophetsa, we read that giving charity will remove future difficulties.

Understanding destiny can also help a person comprehend the burden of trial and assist them in patience. Ultimately, it is a person’s firm belief in Allah and His Omnipotence that saves them. He is the One who can rescue and help a person from every trial and difficulty.

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