Where is Allah in times of suffering?
For those who are unaware or blissfully above the distractions of social media, Humans of New York (HONY) is a photography project by Brandon Stanton, well-known for taking photos of seemingly ordinary people on the streets of New York City and getting them to open up and reveal insights into their lives that are often eye-opening, sometimes disturbing and sometimes inspiring. It has a huge following across its various social media presences, and has inspired photographers to create similar projects in cities across the world, including Singapore.
HONY once posted a photo of a man who had founded a clinic for substance abuse addicts. In a follow-up post, this same man revealed that he had been a Christian belonging to at least two different denominations over the course of his life, and was even an ordained pastor. He was no longer a believer, and in his own words said,
“You see people doing terrible things in the name of religion, and you think: ‘Those people believe just as strongly as I do. They’re just as convinced as I am.’ And it just doesn’t make sense anymore. It doesn’t make sense to believe in a God that dabbles in people’s lives. If a plane crashes, and one person survives, everyone thanks God. They say: ‘God had a purpose for that person. God saved her for a reason!’ Do we not realize how cruel that is? Do we not realize how cruel it is to say that if God had a purpose for that person, he also had a purpose in killing everyone else on that plane? And a purpose in starving millions of children? A purpose in slavery and genocide? For every time you say that there’s a purpose behind one person’s success, you invalidate billions of people. You say there is a purpose to their suffering. And that’s just cruel.”
In light of all the suffering happening in the world today, it’s easy to fall prey to such thoughts. Where is Allah in the oppression in Gaza, in Iraq, in Syria, in the Central African Republic and elsewhere? How can Allah allow so many to suffer and die so miserably, especially when so many of those suffering are Muslims? How can we, as believers, hold on to faith in the light of such depressing reality?
First of all, we need to really recognise that Allah is in control. Every time we say Allahu Akbar in prayer, we are recognising the greatness of Allah. When we say la ilaha illallah, that there is no God but Allah, we are acknowledging that the true reality of things, that despite the chaos we see, Allah is in control of everything and nothing happens without His Will and Knowledge. Assuming that the supposed chaos we see in the world is beyond Allah’s power is tantamount to disbelief.
If we accept that Allah is All-Knowing and All-Powerful, does that then mean that He is cruel or indifferent to the suffering of humankind? No, because good and evil come from Allah. How could it be that Allah is subject to a morality that exists independently of Him, when He is Al-Khaliq (the Creator), Al-Hakim (the Judge) and Al-Malik (the Absolute Ruler) of all creation? Furthermore, Allah is Al-Adil (the Most Just) and Al-Rahman (The Most Merciful), so He could not be unjust to his creation.
There is in fact a purpose in bloodshed and suffering. There is something more to this life than what our five senses can perceive, and when this life ends there is something beyond our deaths. The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said that,
“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,”
Suffering of any kind removes sin, and perhaps it is through their suffering that they are granted the highest of honours. From various hadith related from the Prophet, we know that those who die as a result of drowning, various diseases, plague, falling debris (i.e. from a collapsing building or in an earthquake or other disaster) are among those granted martyrdom, that is, they are guaranteed paradise. This is sometimes derided as delusional by those who subscribe to a materialist view of the world. However, we as Muslims we should believe in the rewards of the hereafter, especially if we ourselves wish to partake of those rewards.
How then should believers respond to times of suffering and despair in the world? When the Boxing Day Tsunami struck in 2004 and killed an estimated 280,000 people, it was reported that those being swept away by the waves in Aceh, Indonesia were in a constant state of dhikr even though they knew there was little chance of surviving this calamity. This is truly the best response to suffering in the world.
Both the rewards and the tribulations of this life are a test for the believer and we should face them in constant remembrance of Allah, knowing that He, Mighty and Majestic, creates all things. We should be thankful to Allah for His blessings and seek refuge in Him from His trials, while understanding that all suffering is merely temporary, and a means to attend a higher station in the afterlife.
However, we should also not just stand by and watch crises and suffering unfold on the news without doing anything. As believers, we should work to alleviate the suffering of others in whatever way we can, whether it be in terms of volunteering our time and effort in emergency relief efforts, or donating our wealth to worthy causes.
We should also remember that suffering doesn’t just happen in the third world, or in war torn countries but right in our own communities, even if it doesn’t make the news headlines. We should thus give our time, money, and effort to support the poor, hungry and suffering around us, while hoping for reward from none other than Allah.
May Allah make it easy for us to hold on to our faith and persevere in these times of strife and fitna.
SeekersGuidance: Suffering and Divine Wisdom by Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller
Ahmad Zhaki Abdullah
Ahmad Zhaki holds a degree in English Literature from the University of London. He is a full-time executive at a local research institute and a part-time writer.