I haven’t blogged in a long time but was asked a question and thought people might benefit from the answer. The question was:
“What is the purpose of suffering?”
And this is my response:
Hey there Amal,
Thanks so much for your question and sorry about the delay. I’m going to assume you’re asking me to answer from what I know of the Islamic perspective about the purpose of suffering and will answer as such. I first need to address the underlying assumptions which I’m assuming are behind such a question.
We live in a society in which we try to live happy lives. In our modern society, and certainly in the UK/US, the happy life is the good life. Not only this, but there is a form of happiness that’s also being pushed upon us: it’s often about entertaining ourselves, having a good time with friends, involving some kind of marketed consumer product and perhaps a holiday package. In this understanding of life, the idea of suffering is very bad. It goes against the purpose of life, which is to be happy and have fun/good times, etc. Of course, I’m kind of painting a caricature of how things are here, but essentially this is the case. Popular media, TV, social media, advertising etc. constantly bombard us with these ideas. Importantly, this modern perspective of life assumes no existence of God, no eternal afterlife, and no human soul. Without these three existential details, it is very hard to argue or justify a case for suffering. It is bleak and morbid within such a secular paradigm that promotes ego-based happiness.
Now let’s move that aside, and consider how we understand suffering within the Islamic perspective. I don’t know exactly what you are searching for, but I’ll make my answer quite broad in hope that it might catch something that resonates with you. In Islam, the primary purpose of life is not to be happy; rather, the purpose of life is to have an intimate Relationship with Allah. This means that anyone, regardless if they are happy or not, is free to engage in that Relationship if they choose to do so. The interesting thing about this is that those who are undergoing suffering, might be quicker to call on Allah than those who are not. So instantly, suffering in Islam, actually has an advantageous quality. This is not to say that Allah wants everyone to suffer – of course not. But sometimes, just like you never know who your true friends are unless you are in a time of need, being tested in discomfort is when we really get a chance to demonstrate our sincerity and genuine faith in God.
There are so many examples of people coming to the Prophet (pbuh), suffering some kind of hardship, whether struggles within themselves, problems with family, to physical illnesses, and the prophetic response always had the same core message: that Allah will be pleased with you and reward you and bless you with paradise for following the religion as much as you can, *inspite* of your pain and discomfort.
A very important point is that suffering or going through any discomfort or difficulty in life is the only way in which we can exercise one of the most important virtues, which is sabr (patience, endurance, stamina, forbearance). Not only does this trait develop us as human beings, but it also demonstrates to Allah that we submit to His will. I’m reminded of the story in which a man was going through difficulty and called out to Allah, and Allah delayed in responding to him, so the man then complained to Allah. Allah finally replied to him saying, “oh my servant, how can I have Mercy on you, by taking you away from that which brings you Mercy?” The issue here was that while this person was exercising patience in hard times and calling to Allah, that was the blessed state. In Islam, it’s not necessarily about trying to push the negative situation away from yourself, it’s about the quality of your conduct while you are in it. Someone might be going through the worst heartache or life difficulty, but if they are doing it while holding on to their good character as best they can, and keeping communication with Allah, they are absolute winners in the sight of Allah.
Finally, there is another purpose of suffering/discomfort which the believer might face: Sometimes our moods are a reflection of our spiritual states. Whenever something bad happens to us, it might just be a nudge for us to check something about our life that might be out of place. I have personally seen this in my life many times over. When things aren’t going well, I think, ‘maybe there is something that I’m doing that I shouldn’t be doing; or maybe there’s something that I should be doing that I’m not doing.’ It might have no obvious link to the problem showing up in your life, but peculiarly enough, once you rectify the spiritually-relevant practice/issue in your life, the problem seems to go away. Certain moments of difficulty and discomfort are a way for Allah to steer us back on course when we’re walking off the straight path. If He didn’t give us these nudges, we would go further, further astray. So even that is a great Mercy from Him. In other matters where the pain or discomfort is not linked to something we’re doing or not doing, the above would apply.
Ultimately then, what is the purpose of suffering? Suffering might be a divine nudge from Allah as a means for us to check ourselves. It is a necessary way for us to draw closer to God and to exercise the highest of virtues, which is patience. Going through such trying circumstances with increased success, reveals our sincerity and fulfils our highest purpose, which is to have an intimate relationship with Allah.
Hope that helps,