Last Updated on 17th March 2023
As I have travelled and observed life on different continents, it has become clear that suffering is an inherent part of the human experience. Those heartbreaking images of malnourished children on TV are a brutal reminder of the pervasive nature of suffering in our world. However, what we often forget is that suffering can exist in the midst of happiness, too. Even amidst contentment and joy, we may be surrounded by people who are silently battling their own demons. It is entirely possible that the people around us who seem the happiest are actually suffering from deep emotional pain or have witnessed the pain of a loved one. That is why it is crucial to acknowledge and show empathy for all forms of suffering that exist in and around us, but also to know what suffering means.
Some people, when they see suffering, ask: Where is God in all this? There can’t be an All-Powerful, All-Loving God! Either He can’t stop the suffering, in which case He is not All-Powerful, or He won’t stop it, in which case He is not All-Loving.
Does suffering exist independently?
Let’s first address the nature of suffering. Islam defines suffering and evil only as a shadow created by the lack of light. To better understand this idea, take a moment to look around the room you are in. Take notice of the various sources of light and how they cast shadows around the room. Now, if someone were to ask you where the source of light in the room was, you would most likely be able to point to it. However, here is the important question: If I were to ask you what the source of the dark shadows was, you wouldn’t be able to point towards anything. Thus, darkness is merely the absence of light. Likewise, suffering is merely the absence of happiness.
Suffering could only be considered objectionable if it were created as an independent entity with no meaningful role to play in the grand scheme of things. Thus, suffering is essential, as there would be no such thing as ‘happiness’ without ‘suffering’.
No suffering – no life
Let’s now look at suffering in relation to human life. The Holy Quran states:
تَبٰرَکَ الَّذِيۡ بِيَدِہِ الۡمُلۡکُ ۫ وَہُوَ عَلٰي کُلِّ شَيۡءٍ قَدِيۡرُ ۣالَّذِيۡ خَلَقَ الۡمَوۡتَ وَالۡحَيٰوةَ لِيَبۡلُوَکُمۡ اَيُّکُمۡ اَحۡسَنُ عَمَلًا ؕ وَہُوَ الۡعَزِيۡزُ الۡغَفُوۡرُ ۙ الَّذِيۡ خَلَقَ سَبۡعَ سَمٰوٰتٍ طِبَاقًا ؕ مَا تَرٰي فِيۡ خَلۡقِ الرَّحۡمٰنِ مِنۡ تَفٰوُتٍ ؕ فَارۡجِعِ الۡبَصَرَ ۙ ہَلۡ تَرٰي مِنۡ فُطُوۡرٍ ثُمَّ ارۡجِعِ الۡبَصَرَ کَرَّتَيۡنِ يَنۡقَلِبۡ اِلَيۡکَ الۡبَصَرُ خَاسِئًا وَّہُوَ حَسِيۡرٌ
“Blessed is He in Whose hand is the kingdom, and He has power over all things; Who has created death and life that He might try you — which of you is best in deeds; and He is the Mighty, the Most Forgiving. Who has created seven heavens in harmony. No incongruity canst thou see in the creation of the Gracious [God]. Then look again: Seest thou any flaw? Aye, look again, and yet again, thy sight will [only] return unto thee confused and fatigued.” (Surah al-Mulk, Ch. 67: V.2-5)
These verses tell us that suffering [trial] is crucial for the development or even existence of life. Imagine that all our prehistoric forefathers had all their suffering taken away and all their wishes granted. Would mankind have made any further progress? Would we not still be cavemen? What need would we have for fire if we were never cold? Why would the caveman even stand up to do anything at all, for that would involve effort, and effort would mean suffering, which in this hypothesis has been taken away.
Or better yet, if we really want to remove suffering from our world, we should do it right at the beginning; at the very first step of evolution; the time of the amoeba. Imagine whatever little suffering, the very primitive forms of life, were dimly aware of, being taken away; those organisms could not be allowed to outcompete other organisms for resources, for that would involve suffering. There would be no race for the “survival of the fittest” for that could cause suffering. Life would not have even kickstarted without suffering, let alone develop to a state where we have gained consciousness or an awareness of loss or gain. (www.rationalreligion.co.uk/messianic-reasoning/why-does-god-allow-suffering/)
The same problem would apply wherever we sought to end suffering. So, by demanding there be no suffering, what we are truly demanding is that there be no life at all. In the final analysis, therefore, the only question we are left with is, ‘To be, or not to be?’.
Now, you would say: Fine! Suffering does not exist independently. Suffering was crucial in order for humans to develop into conscious beings, which we now are, but why can God not take away suffering now?
Well, there is another factor that perhaps plays the most important role in the entire discussion, and that is free will.
The Holy Quran teaches that human life evolved in a controlled and designed way from a unicellular form of life and that Prophet Adam was not the first man to walk the earth. There were other humans before him. It also teaches that every human being is born with a pure conscience and nature, free of sin, and that humans are endowed with the gift of free will.
Now, whether one moves toward light or darkness, toward life or death, is usually a conscious decision on the part of man. If, therefore, as a natural consequence of Man’s willful actions, a reward is provided or a penalty is exacted, no one else is to be blamed but Man himself.
The misuse of this gift of free will accounts for the vast majority of the suffering in the world. Just take a look at all the wars in human history. Many ask, “Why didn’t God stop them?” The real question is why didn’t Man stop them? Then take a look at world hunger or poverty. We all know that there is more than enough food in the world, yet many still starve. There are more than enough resources in the world, and yet we ourselves create inequality and poverty. The sad reality is that many people abuse the blessing of free will. Instead of helping people with it, they hurt them. To alleviate the suffering caused by free will, it follows that free will must be abolished.
Remove free will?
Now, imagine life without it – without the luxury to choose between doing something good or something bad. Our actions would be neither good nor bad. We would just be puppets on a string, going through whatever motions someone else has set for us. No one could be held responsible for any action.
Thus, free will is definitely worth keeping. And if we want to get rid of the suffering caused by it, then the real solution is to start using it properly!
At this point, you would say: Alright, we grant you that: Suffering does not exist as an independent entity. There cannot be an awareness of happiness without suffering. Suffering was crucial in order for humans to evolve into conscious beings and life could not have started and developed without it. A vast majority of suffering is also due to our indispensable free will. All is well and good, but what about those innocent children, for example, who are born with congenital diseases? A valid question. This is what we would refer to as natural suffering.
Now, imagine a world where such terrible diseases do not exist: Remove congenital diseases, cancer, even fever and cough, and everything else. If every person was born without any disease, then even the smaller variants [for example, a bigger nose, smaller ears], would appear to be offensive to people’s sense of justice. They would say, “How terrible! What horrible cruelty and disaster! This poor child has small ears.”
So, the only solution you’d be left with is to make every human being absolutely equal, which would again mean that life comes to a complete halt. We will cease to be humans. There will be no social interaction or cooperation. We will become equally happy and healthy, monotonous, dull robots!
So, one has to begin somewhere to create variety and diversity. Wherever there is diversity, comparative suffering and happiness are bound to be generated.
Suffering: driving force for scientific progress
It is also important to note that the secret of all scientific investigation and discovery lies in a constant quest for the relief of pain and discomfort. Throughout history, the pain and hardship that humans endure have been the driving forces behind countless scientific advancements.
Take, for instance, the suffering of cancer patients, which spurred the development of chemotherapy, or the agony of soldiers, which led to the mass production of penicillin as a drug.
Take the example of the recent Covid-19 pandemic. Although it has been a devastating global crisis, it has also brought about tremendous scientific benefits, such as the development of mRNA vaccine technology, increased scientific collaboration, and a renewed emphasis on public health infrastructure and data sharing.
The study of suffering itself has yielded crucial breakthroughs in neuroscience, psychology, and other fields. By delving into the biological and psychological mechanisms that underpin suffering, scientists have gained a deeper appreciation for the human body and mind, leading to novel therapies for pain management and mental health conditions.
Suffering: An atheist’s point of view
Let’s now look at suffering from the viewpoint of an atheist as well as from the viewpoint of a believer in God. For the atheist, strictly logically speaking, there should be no question to be answered. They do not owe their existence to any creator, and no creator should be held accountable before them if they find any distortion in the “accidental” creation. Nothing but chance is to be blamed for everything.
A famous atheist of our time said:
“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” (Dawkins, Richard, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, New York: Basic Books, 1995, Chapter 4, “The Ultraviolet Garden”, p. 133)
In other words, Hitler and Stalin and the rest of them were just ‘dancing to the music of their DNA’? No blame can be apportioned to them? They are free to go? If God is removed from the equation, suffering will continue, but, under such a worldview, there will be not even the faintest glimmer of hope of compensation in the afterlife.
Suffering: A believer’s point of view
For the believers in God, death acts only as a gateway to life after death, which will usher the innocent sufferers into an era of unlimited reward. If they could only dream of what rewards were waiting for them in the Hereafter as compensation for their transient misery on earth, they would smilingly jog along despite suffering as though it were mere pinpricks or an odd thorn on the way to an eternal life of comfort and happiness.
We cannot deny, however, that all the suffering; whether it’s from other people’s actions or from natural phenomena, involves a loss in one form or another, be it a loss of health, wealth, or a loved one, but these losses ultimately serve to remind us of our ultimate purpose.
It reminds the believers that this world and everything in it is transient, and if we attach our hearts to it, it will eventually betray us. When we lose something we loved in this world, it reminds us that if we want true and lasting contentment, we must love and attach our hearts to the One who is Eternal, the One who will never suffer any injury, loss, or death, and who will never disappoint.
Suffering: A great teacher and an essential driver of spiritual progress
It is also worth noting that suffering has been a great teacher, cultivating and culturing our behaviour. It develops and refines sensibilities, teaches humility and, in more than one way, prepares humans to be able to turn to God. Rather, it is essential for the spiritual progress of believers.
Allah says in the Holy Quran:
اَحَسِبَ النَّاسُ اَنۡ يُّتۡرَکُوۡۤا اَنۡ يَّقُوۡلُوۡۤا اٰمَنَّا وَہُمۡ لَا يُفۡتَنُوۡنَ
“Do men think that they will be left alone because they say, ‘We believe,’ and that they will not be tested?” (Surah al-‘Ankabut, Ch. 29: V.3)
The Promised Messiahas has explained that there are two types of hardships in the path of faith – those associated with sharia (such as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, and almsgiving) and those that come from heaven. The hardships of sharia are means of reward and advancement towards God, but humans can find ways to make them easier. This is why they do not cleanse a person fully and the stages of spiritual journey are not covered expeditiously. In contrast, afflictions from heaven must be endured and are a means of attaining nearness to God. (Malfuzat [English], Vol. 10, p. 100)
With regard to the second type of hardships, Allah says in the Holy Quran:
وَلَنَبۡلُوَنَّکُمۡ بِشَيۡءٍ مِّنَ الۡخَوۡفِ وَالۡجُوۡعِ وَنَقۡصٍ مِّنَ الۡاَمۡوَالِ وَالۡاَنۡفُسِ وَالثَّمَرٰتِ ؕ وَبَشِّرِ الصّٰبِرِيۡنَ الَّذِيۡنَ اِذَاۤ اَصَابَتۡہُمۡ مُّصِيۡبَةٌ ۙ قَالُوۡۤا اِنَّا لِلّٰہِ وَاِنَّاۤ اِلَيۡہِ رٰجِعُوۡنَ اُولٰٓئِکَ عَلَيۡہِمۡ صَلَوٰتٌ مِّنۡ رَّبِّہِمۡ وَرَحۡمَةٌ ۟ وَاُولٰٓئِکَ ہُمُ الۡمُہۡتَدُوۡنَ
“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. Who, when a misfortune overtakes them, say, ‘Surely, to Allah we belong and to Him shall we return.’ It is these on whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy, and it is these who are rightly guided.’” (Surah al-Baqarah, Ch. 2: V. 156-158)
Thus, various types of adversities come directly from God, such as fear, poverty, loss of wealth, loss of crops or fruits, and the death of beloved children. These can sometimes become a huge trial for those who have been afflicted with them. (Malfuzat [English], Vol. 10, p. 102)
“Allah the Exalted, however, is not cruel. When one shows patience in the face of severe hardship—the greater the hardship, the greater is His reward. God Almighty is Rahim [Merciful], Ghafur [Forgiver], and Sattar [Concealer of weaknesses]. He does not inflict hardship on Man so that he would disassociate from the Faith upon suffering the hardship. Rather, the hardships come to spur him forward [toward God]. There is a saying among the mystics that in times of trial, a sinner pulls back but a righteous person pushes forward all the more.” (Ibid.)
Suffering and Prophets
Throughout history, Prophets and Messengers – the foremost among them being our lord and master, the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa – faced immense trials and tribulations, but they persevered with unwavering patience and steadfastness. Through their enduring faith, they achieved lofty ranks bestowed upon them by God Almighty. The ultimate measure of righteousness, or taqwa, is proven when one is afflicted with adversity and discards all other concerns for the sake of God. The Promised Messiahas states, “The inner condition of man cannot be rectified merely by formal Prayers and Fasting. It is necessary that hardships should come.” (Ibid. pp. 103-104)
He further states:
“Despite thousands of weaknesses, Man shows loyalty to his sincere friend. How is it, then, that God, who is Rahman [Gracious] and Rahim [Merciful], would not show loyalty to you? Love God Almighty such that even if you have a thousand of your children on one side and God on the other, you prefer God and disregard all the children.” (Ibid., p. 104)
Promised Messiah’sas advice for members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat
“Now, members of the Jama’at should listen to this carefully and understand that God has appointed both kinds of hardships for you. The first are the asperities of the Shariah. You must bear them. The second kind of asperities are those of qaza and qadr [destiny and fate]. Most people eschew the asperities of the Shariah in one way or another and do not observe it to the full extent, but who can run away from qaza and qadr? Man has no choice in it.
“Bear in mind, for humans, this is not the only world. There is another world after it. This one here is only a very short life. Some died at the age of fifty or sixty years. Some lived ten or twelve years longer. The hardships of this life end with death, but there is no end to that world. Given that the Day of Judgement is valid and is an integral part of faith, how hard is it to put up with the hardships of this temporary life? One should strive for that eternal world. One who does not suffer any hardship at all – what capital does he possess?
“The hallmark of a believer is not just that he should show patience, but even more that he should be reconciled with the calamity; he should align his will with the will of God—this indeed is a lofty status. In times of adversity, precedence should be given to the will of God. Give precedence to the Bestower of bounties over the bounties themselves. There are many who start to complain when faced with a calamity. In a way, they sever their ties with God. Some women react by vituperation and cursing. Some men, too, are infirm in their faith.
“It is crucial advice and should be kept in mind that when one suffers a calamity, he should be fearful that a greater calamity may befall him. The world is home to calamities. It is not good to be careless about it. Most adversities come to warn. Initially, they are mild and one does not consider them to be a calamity. Then it becomes a calamity, causing distress. If one were massaged gently, it would comfort him, but the same hand struck with force would cause pain. Some calamities are severe and become distressful. The Holy Quran has mentioned both types of adversity.
“Hardships are for spiritual elevation. Abrahamas did not make a fuss when God Almighty asked him for his son. Rather, he thanked God Almighty that an opportunity to serve Him had become available. The mother of the boy gave her consent and the boy agreed as well.
“It is mentioned that once a minaret of a mosque fell. The king of the time prostrated [in gratitude] that God Almighty had given him the opportunity to share in the service that the noble kings had rendered [beforehand] in the building of the mosque.
“Time passes no matter what. People who live lavishly also die in the end, but one who shows patience in the face of hardships, is ultimately rewarded. One hundred and twenty-four thousand Prophets bear testimony that there is reward for patience.” (Malfuzat [English], Vol. 10, pp. 105-107)
Stressing the importance of patience, Huzooras further stated:
“Those who do not show patience for the sake of God have to endure as well, but then there is no reward and no merit. Women wail at the death of their loved ones; some ignorant men put ashes on their heads—but they all settle down after a while and forget their loss. It is said that a woman’s child had died and she was wailing at his gravesite. The Holy Prophetsa happened to pass by. He told her to fear God and be patient.
“The unfortunate lady replied, ‘Go away! You have not suffered a calamity like mine.’
“Little did the wretched lady know that he had shown patience even at the death of his eleven children! Later, when she discovered that the one counselling her was none other than the Holy Prophetsa, she came to his house and said, ‘O Prophet of God! I am patient.’
“He replied الصَّبرُ عندَ الصَّدمةِ الأولى [‘True patience is if you demonstrate it at the outset in the face of a calamity.’ (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-jana’iz, Bab ziyarati l-qubur, Hadith 1283)]
“In other words, one has to reconcile with the passage of time. Patience is if you do it for the sake of God Almighty in the very beginning. It is the promise of God Almighty that He abundantly rewards those who show patience. This promise of immense reward is destined only for those who demonstrate patience.” (Ibid.)
Advice by Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa
Following the fire incident at the Baitul Futuh Mosque, our beloved Imam, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih Vaa, delivered a deeply insightful Friday Sermon on 2 October 2015. Given the growing hostility towards the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Bangladesh and beyond, it is crucial to reflect on his words. During the sermon, Huzooraa said:
“Always remember that when hardships and difficulties come upon the messengers or the loved ones of Allah the Exalted, and for that matter, also come upon the communities of the Prophets, who are following their correct teachings. In times of such hardship and difficulty, it is important to remember that Allah the Exalted does not make his Messengers or loved ones suffer in order to punish them or put them in trouble. Instead, these challenges are a means for Allah to reward them. On the other hand, when the wicked face similar difficulties, it leads to their destruction.
“Those who persevere through hardships and remain patient are the true inheritors of Allah’s unlimited and incalculable reward. Therefore, it is necessary for a believer to understand the meaning of patience. Patience does not mean that a person should not feel sorry for any loss, but rather that one should not let any loss or pain overwhelm them to the point of losing their senses, becoming hopeless, and not utilising their practical abilities. So, to some extent, it is okay to allow ourselves to feel regret or sadness, but it is important to channel those emotions into positive actions even more than before and move forward with renewed determination to achieve even higher goals.” (“The Essence of Trials and Tribulations”, www.alislam.org/friday-sermon/2015-10-02.html)
Note: This article primarily draws from the chapter titled “The Question of Suffering” in Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge, and Truth by Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IVrh.