Hardships: Path to the Most Merciful

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ 

A lot of times we connect hardship to punishment or wrath. We always associate hardship with negativity; we are programmed to think that way, that ease is a good thing and hardship, by definition, is a bad thing.

Inspiration: Hidden blessings

Inspiration: Hidden blessings

In this talk, Yasmin Mogahed explains how hardship is a path to the most Merciful, Allah (SWT), who although He is the most Merciful, He still does send us hardship.

Every single human being on Earth, will go through hardship. So, the question we have to ask ourselves, is why – why do we go through hardship? And what is the mercy behind hardship?

Allah (SWT) tells us in the Quran

ِAllah (SWT) is saying to us, ‘Do you think that you will enter (Jannah) Paradise without such trials as came to those who passed before you?’

‘They encountered suffering and adversity’

‘And they were so shaken’. The work for earthquake in Arabic is ‘زلزال’, here the word ‘وزلزلوا’ is from the same root word (زلزال) – ‘they were so shaken (in spirit)’.

‘That even the Messenger (PBUH) and those who believed along with him said, ‘When will the help of Allah come?”

And then Allah (SWT) ends this Ayah by saying, and giving us hope

‘Indeed, the help of Allah is near!’

The beginning of this Ayah is for us to realize that we are not the first people to ever be tested. We are not the first people to ever suffer.

Sometimes when we are going through something difficult, we feel like we are the only people in the world who feel that way: You’re the only one in the world who is going through what you’re going through. Although everyone experiences things differently, are we the only ones in the world who suffer?

What happens sometimes, by feeling that way, is that we become isolated because we feel that ‘I am alone in my pain’ or ‘I am alone in my hardship’. This isn’t true.

We are not the first to be tested, to suffer, and we are not the last. While we are going through our hardship, others are also going through hardships.

Allah (SWT) after telling us this – that we are not the first, it is not unique what we are going through and that it is not unique that we are going through hardship – Allah reminds us that even those who came before us were people that were so tested, and they were so shaken, that even the Messengers and those who believed with the Messengers, cried out. In the same way that we sometimes cry out when things become really hard.

Our heart is asking (متى نصر الله), ‘When will the help of Allah come?’ And then Allah (SWT) answers that question (الا ان نصر الله قريب), ‘Indeed, the help of Allah is near!’

Not only is this comforting, but it also tells us that we are not alone. We are not the first, and we are not the last, to go through hardship. And it assures us that Allah’s help is near.

There is something amazing about this life, it is the reality or truth of this life, that causes us pain sometimes. But it is also the same reality, and truth, that gives us comfort: the reality that nothing lasts.

Nothing in this life lasts. Everything passes away.

Sometimes this reality causes us pain; we have something we love, and then it goes away, it passes away, it ends. So we get sad. But that same reality is also a comfort, because when you’re going through hardship, that too won’t last forever.

Nothing lasts forever. Not pleasure, nor pain.

Similarly, Allah (SWT) tells us

This Ayah has, many times, been translated and understood incorrectly.  We usually translate it as ‘after hardship comes ease’.  But that is not the correct translation, nor what the Ayah says.

The Ayah says (ان مع العسر بسرا), not (ان بعد العسر بسرا). So what that means is that ‘with’ hardship is ease: ‘With’ your hardship is ease. It is at the same time. Thus, we should always think that when we are going through hardship, no matter how hard it is, that we still have ease. We still have something, that Allah (SWT) that has given us, from His mercy, to help us.

If we take a moment to think about this, and bring to mind a time in our life that we went through a hardship. And when we think about that time, we usually look back and think of it as all bad. It was just all bad. But the truth is, if we really examine it, it was not all bad. There was some ease, even within that hardship.

For example, you may have had some trouble with one aspect of your life but there was another aspect of your life that was good. You were healthy, maybe your family was healthy, you had a roof over your head – you still had some ease to give you help with that hardship. You still had (لا اله الا الله), you still had your ‘Iman‘ (faith), perhaps. And if you still have (لا اله الا الله), you still have everything.

Our problem is that, when we go through hardship, it is very difficult for us to see that. And what we do is focus on the problem itself, this is one of that main mistakes we do when we go through a hardship. When we encounter something that is difficult, the first hing that usually happens is we have to ‘brace ourselves’: how am I going to deal with this? How am I going to handle this? And then we start to feel anxiety and worry; we start to preoccupy ourselves with how to solve the problem, how we’re going to get through it. And what ends up happening is that we focus on the problem itself. We start to become preoccupied and obsessed with the problem itself.

Soon enough we’re thinking about the problem in every prayer (salah). So now, instead of looking to the one who can solve our problem, and seeking Him to help us, we try to solve the problem ourselves. What we’ve done here, is shifted our focus from the One who solves all problems, from the One who can mend anything that is broken, to that which is broken itself.

We start to shift, and this is the problem. We have a problem, or difficulty, but instead of the heart focusing on Allah (SWT), and seeking His help, and putting trust in Him – we instead, shift the focus of the heart on the issue itself. And soon enough, it actually takes over our mind and heart; this is what causes anxiety, and feeling overwhelmed.

Here’s a secret, and through this we have to unlearn the way we think about tests. Allah (SWT) tells us in the Quran that He will test us. As soon as something hits us, even if we are good believers, we think ‘Okay, I’m being tested and have to be strong now’. But the mistake that we make, is that we think of Allah (SWT) as a professor.

When a professor gives us an exam, he hands us the exam, and then he steps back and watches to see if we’re going to fail, if we’re going to pass, and maybe he even wants us to fail. When we are in an examination room with a professor – are we allowed to raise our hand and ask for help? No, because that would be called cheating. And that’s how we think about Allah (SWT).

We think that when we are given the examination, we have to do this ourselves because Allah is testing us, watching us, He wants to see how we can do, so we have to depend on ourselves: I have to depend on me, or something else of the creation. And that is our mistake: we think we can’t raise our hand and ask for help. While that is the actual purpose of the test.

And that is the difference: Allah (SWT) is not a professor who gives you a test and steps back to see how you’re going to do.  In fact, the test itself is given to you, at times, in order for you to raise your hands and ask for help. In order for you to go back to Him. Allah (SWT) tells us in the Quran many verses (ayat) about hardship and why they are given to people. And one of the reasons Allah (SWT) says is

‘So that they might return’.

Allah is giving the test so that people will come back to Him, and raise their hand and ask for help. In another Ayah, Allah (SWT) says

(تضرع) is a very strong concept, and can be translated as humility, or humbleness – but that does not give it justice. To really understand the intensity of (تضرع) – the intense need and humility involved in this state – imagine a person in the middle of the ocean on a boat. It feels safe, then all of a sudden a storm hits. The knee-jerk reaction, the first thing that person does, is that they seek the creation; the means for protection. In this case, the person will call for help, call the coastguard, but only when that doesn’t work, they look for the next means. Now, they will look for the lifeboat, but they find the lifeboats damaged. So they look for the life jacket, but all the life jackets are lost. Now that they have exhausted every single means possible, every avenue of the creation, when nothing else works – now what will they do? They will raise their hands to the sky and call: ‘Ya Allah’. And this is what we do.

As soon as we are hit with a hardship, where do we turn first? And that is a very important question to ask ourselves – where do we go first? This is not to say that we cannot seek the means, this is not to say that ‘I’m sick, I can’t go to the doctor’ – but it means, where do I turn fist? And where does my dependency lie? Who do I really think is going to save me from that storm? Do I really think that a doctor can cure me?  Do I really believe that the medicine is curing me? Because if we do, then we have been fooled, deceived by the means. Those things are just tools.

The medicine is just a tool and the doctor is just a tool. The One who cures, the One who saves, is Allah (SWT). So in that storm, on that boat, at the point where there is nowhere else to turn, and the illusion of all the rest of the tools has been lifted from our eyes, and then we ask Allah (SWT) – the state that we are in, at that moment, is (تضرع). It is not just humility, it is absolute desperation. It is the realization for our need for Allah (SWT).

It isn’t just raising our hand and asking for help – it is getting down on our hands and knees and begging for help. And that is actually the point.

When Allah (SWT) sends us a hardship, the reason it feels heavy is because we are trying to carry it ourselves. We do not depend on Allah when we have a hardship. We might say that we depend on Allah, but the truth is we try every other means – we’ll call our friends, we’ll call the doctor, we will go to our bank account, we’ll go to our house, we’ll try to depend on everything else to solve our problem – but not Allah (SWT).

Sometimes Allah, out of His mercy, does something amazing. You have a problem, so you go to your friend, but your friend hangs up the phone in your face, or your friend isn’t there for you; your friend lets you down. Then you go to a doctor, or you go to this, or you go to that, and every single place that you try to go to for help, or for refuge, the door gets slammed in your face. Then another door closes, then another. And every time you seek those other means, the doors close in your face. At your lowest point in your life, you feel that no one is there for you when you need them most. It’s like when you really needed that friend, or that doctor – that’s when they weren’t there. Or when you really needed that life jacket to work – that’s when it didn’t work.

One of the reasons why this happens (and Allah knows best), is that Allah is directing you toward Him. Because we are trying to put our dependency in the wrong place; we are seeking help from the wrong things. We are not asking Allah (SWT) for help – and instead we are seeking other things for help.

Maybe you have experienced this: You may have at first tried to seek help from other things, seek other things to depend on to get you out of your problem, and when they didn’t work, usually you’ll find that you’ll end up turning to Allah (SWT) in a way that you never would have otherwise. And you’ll find that your closeness to Allah (SWT) is most during those hardest times of your life. Do you know why that happens? Because at that place, in that state of need, in that state of (تضرع), is when we are closest to Allah (SWT).

So now, if Allah wants to bring us close, what does He do? If the only way you and I – because we are so engrossed in the illusions of the creation – are going to turn to Him is when everything else is closed, that’s when He will close everything.

It is not a punishment if we respond correctly, in fact, it is a mercy. Had that storm never come, you would have never tasted that closeness to Allah (SWT).

Some people may taste closeness to Allah (SWT), but unfortunately other people get very deceived by ease. And Allah tells us this in the Quran, that when the storm hits, in the middle of the ocean, and the waves are like mountains surrounding them, that’s when they call on Allah (SWT) in a state of oneness (توحيد). Allah brings us to (توحيد) in that situation; we are no longer asking for help from anyone else, because no one else can help us. It is in those situations, where no one else can help us, that we are able to ask Allah – and Allah alone – and really realize (لا حول ولا قوة الا بالله): There is no change is state, nor power, nor strength, except by Allah (SWT). And sometimes it takes a storm to make us realize that.

But then Allah continues and tells us that as soon as these people are saved, and they reach the shore – now things are easy again – they turn away from Allah (SWT) and become distracted by the many distractions. That is the way we are. So it is within the hardship itself that we are directed to Allah (SWT), but what we have to do is this: even in the ease, we need to not be deceived.

A lot of people think that tests only come in the form of hardships. But an even greater test than hardship, is the test of ease. On shore we are farther from Allah, because when we are given ease, it is even harder to turn completely to Allah – which is why ease is an ever harder test than hardship. It is as if the hardship is a multiple answer test, with only one option and it is the right answer. This is because Allah sends the hardship, and then closes every other avenue of help – leaving the only option as Allah, which is the right answer. And as soon as we get into the ease, we are given lots of options in the multiple choice test; the question is there, but the answers are many: your money, your status, your spouse, your friend, your father, your mother. Those are the things that we become distracted with, and those are the things  that we begin to love more than Allah (SWT), and that happens during ease. So, the test of ease is sometime more difficult that then the test of hardship.

Other reasons that Allah gives us hardship, is that Allah tells us about (تمحيص). In one of the verses (Ayat) about hardship, Allah says

What that means is that Allah (SWT) sends the hardship in order to make those who believe, undergo a process of (تمحيص), or ‘purification’. But it is not just purification – more specifically, the concept of (تمحيص) is like what happens to gold. When we want to purify gold, we heat it up. And when it is heated up, all the impurities are removed. And the same things happens when a believer is ‘heated up’, or put through something hard – Allah is removing the impurities because our insides are full of some good and some bad. And when Allah wants to separate the good from the bad, He gives us hardships – and it has that same effect that heating up gold does; that is (تمحيص).

In this way, hardships purify us, they bring us back to Allah (SWT), and they humble us. Therefore, if we respond correctly to hardships, no hardship is a punishment for us. If we respond correctly.

What it the correct response to hardship? At the very least, the minimum that a believer should have as a response is ‘sabr‘, or patience. Patience means that it may hurt internally, but we do not complain. ‘Complaining’ here requires some explanation: complaining about Allah is different than complaining to Allah.

Complaining about Allah means that you are complaining about the situation in the sense that you are resentful and angry, saying, ‘Oh Allah how could you do this to me?!’ or  ‘Oh Allah why me?!’ – that is not ‘sabr‘. We should never respond in that way. If we respond in that way, we will not get the benefits of hardship in the form of purification, in the humility and in the blessing and mercy that come out of it.

Complaining to Allah is what the prophets did. Prophet Yacob (AS), when he lost Prophet Yusuf (AS), he said

‘I complain of my sadness and sorrow only to Allah’. This complaining is when you turn to Allah, and say ‘Oh Allah, help me, I am weak’ or ‘Oh Allah it hurts’. You are complaining to Allah, because Allah is your refuge. If we are not going to turn to Allah for refuge, where else are we going to go? Even the Prophet (PBUH), after Taif, he complained to Allah – and that is not ingratitude.

Crying, does not mean you are not in a state of ‘sabr‘. The Prophet (PBUH) cried when his son died, but his heart was patient; his heart was content with the decision of Allah (SWT). But that doesn’t mean you can’t cry, or complain to Allah (SWT), and it doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t hurt inside either. It may hurt, but you are not angry at Allah (SWT), you are not complaining about what Allah gave you – but you are asking for help from Allah, and admitting your own weakness.

The fruits of ‘sabr‘, among many, is that your sins will be erased. We are told by the Prophet (PBUH) that when a believer goes through any type of pain, or hardship, or loss, even the prick of a thorn, Allah removes our sins like leaves falling from a tree. That’s if we respond with ‘sabr‘.

Narrated by Abu Said Al-Khudri and Abu-Huraira, the Prophet (PBUH) said: “No fatigue, nor disease, nor sorrow, nor sadness, nor hurt, nor distress befalls a muslim, even if it were the prick he receives from a thorn, but that Allah expiates some of his sins for that.”

And then there is an even higher level of response to hardship than ‘sabr‘, and that is (رضى) , or contentment. Patience (sabr), is when it still hurts inside but we’re struggling, still trying to be patient.

Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri: Some Ansari persons asked for (something) from Allah’s Apostle (PBUH) and he gave them. They again asked him for (something) and he again gave them. And then they asked him and he gave them again till all that was with him finished. And then he said “If I had anything. I would not keep it away from you. (Remember) Whoever abstains from asking others, Allah will make him contented, and whoever tries to make himself self-sufficient, Allah will make him self-sufficient. And whoever remains patient, Allah will make him patient. Nobody can be given a blessing better and greater than patience.”

So, even if we are not able to be patient, we have to strive, to struggle, to remain patient because Allah will see that and bless us with patience, inshallah.

The higher level (رضى), contentment, is when internally there is peace. No matter what the circumstance.

When we talk about not being attached to this world, it is not about not owning things. A saying that Ali (RA) said about (زهد), or detachment form this life (dunya), is that it is not that you do not own anything in this life, but that nothing owns you. So, you own your money, but your money doesn’t own you – and that is the difference. If your money is given to, or taken away from, you – it should not control you, or destroy you; but you control it.

There is a very beautiful story of Abu Hanifa (RA) that illustrates this. He was a man who owned property, and once while he was teaching, some people came to him and told him that his ships had sunk (or some portion of his ships had sunk). This is the equivalent of  someone finding out that they have lost a lot of money. Abu Hanifa (RA) paused for a moment and said: “Elhamdullilah”, and continued teaching.

A while later, they went back to him and told him that they were mistaken and that it wasn’t his ships that sunk, his ships were fine. Again, Abu Hanifa (RA) paused and said: “Elhamdullilah”, and continued teaching.

When he was asked about that, he explained that when he was first told that his ships had sunk, he paused to examine his heart. He found it unmoved by the loss, so he said “Elhamdullilah”. And then again, when he was told that his ships were fine, he paused and examined his heart. Again, he found it unmoved by the gain, so he said “Elhamdullilah”.

His “Elhamdullilah” wasn’t about the gain or the loss. His “Elhamdullilah” was about the fact that his heart was not attached to the gain or the loss.

The lesson here, is that regardless of the circumstance Abu Hanifa (RA) was in, it did not change the state of his heart. His heart was still in a state of contentment (رضى) regardless of loss, or gain.

That is the highest level. If we respond in this way, and ask Allah (SWT) to make this response easy for us, not only will our sins be forgiven, but a person is elevated in rank, or station, with Allah (SWT). 

We ask Allah (SWT) to make us among those who have patience (صبر) and contentment (رضى), and who have the ability to respond to hardship in a way that will purify us, elevate us, and bring us nearer to Allah (SWT).

Ameen.

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It was narrated that Anas bin Mâlik said: The Messenger of Allah said “Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim.”

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It was narrated that Anas bin Mâlik said: The Messenger of Allah said “Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim.”

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