What is the Purpose of Suffering?

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,

God bless


The Gift of Ramadan

Ramadan is a gift. Not only because of the most obvious and important sense of increased reward and multiplied blessings, but also for its ability to re-structure our environmental patterns. Negative habits within us usually feed off our established sense of routine, not stand alone impulses – since impulses are almost always based on our environment. The misunderstanding leads to a conceptual underestimating of the workings of the shaytan, who is merely and mistakenly seen as one who only ‘whispers’, rather than one who is hell-bent on the more subtle task of manipulating our routinely environment, to institutionalise within us negative habits and mental states that occur automatically. If the ball is already rolling downhill, there is no need to apply another push. In other words, many of us are running on our own habitualised momentum of self-limitation, or worse, self-destruction, and not much further effort from a malicious, external source is needed. This would explain why it is natural to carry some of our negative impulses into Ramadan, despite the shayateen allegedly being chained.

Herein lies the genius of Ramadan for those who seize the opportunity. The holy month, if followed properly with all its recommended requirements, breaks normative patterns and demands personal improvement. A re-structuring of our daily environment is combined with a dramatic incentive to do good, making the blessed month a unique opportunity to strive, more easily, for personal excellence. Our eating and sleeping patterns are altered by the times of iftar and suhour, re-orienting the flow of our day. Aside from increased self-restraint and patience cultivated from a lack of bodily consumption, not eating and drinking also causes a physiological change which can break (or make it easier to break) psychological patterns. Nights of Ramadan, ideally spent performing taraweeh/night prayers, or spent with the Qur’an, are also routine-changes for the vast majority of us, bending our nightly patterns towards something inherently soul-disciplining. I’ve often marvelled at how clever the faith is to practically oblige all its followers to recite or hear the entirety of the Qur’an, systematically, every year; not only a powerful way to make a religious faith and revelation survive across centuries, but to repeatedly pull its believers back to its complete, core message. These environmental changes make us more susceptible to spiritual transformation, particularly in a month so sacredly rich. Furthermore, emphasis on better character invites a moral cleanse in the knowledge that the fast is compromised by the one who still gossips, backbites, lies, or gives into anger. Multiplied good deeds are an incentive to give more in smiles, love, generosity, charity, and service to others, while multiplied bad deeds are a stern reminder to avoid engaging in what really works against your soul this month. And of course, any intentional sexual release, whether alone or with a partner categorically breaks the fast, building further self-restraint and patience. All such components of the month open opportunities to collapse old negative habits and patterns in replace of better ones.

That Ramadan lasts for around 30 days adds to its positive value. A month is a good amount of time to organise, expel and instil certain patterns of behaviour. In this way, it can be used as a periodical ‘springboard’ to leap you into the person you want to be. However, it would be most effective to psychologically prepare for the month prior, and to continue its positive momentum once it has passed. Since old environmental structures of life often immediately resume after Ramadan, it is easy to instantly fall back into old habits, even if one had been – for the most part – successful in giving them up for the month. Therefore, a continuation of some of the daily and nightly practices of Ramadan become vital, particularly after the crescent moon has waned. Similarly, a sudden jump into Ramadan with no psychological or physiological preparation might cause the first portion of the month to feel uncomfortable and somewhat daunting. This, in my opinion, might be a reason why voluntary fasting is particularly encouraged in the preceding and consecutive months of Ramadan. Fasting in Sha’ban and Shawwal, eases us into and out of the pinnacle of blessed months, to help the graduation and maintaining of optimal character and excellence.

So if you’re someone who is keen on bettering the self, do not waste this paramount opportunity. The birth-month of the Qur’an comes once a year, and for many of us, will be the only time we get to work on ourselves so effectively. Finally, regarding the fast, be wary of what you consume with your eyes and your ears, not just your mouth. For some of these things are respective equivalents of poison to the stomach; subtler, but no less hazardously intrusive. May the sight of grateful believers and the speech of God fill your eyes and ears this month. God bless.

Attitudes to Disability: Islam, the West and the Middle East

Prophetic Attitude to Disability

Not a great deal of information can be found in the life of the Prophet Muhammed or in the Qur’an regarding the issue of disability. But like many other issues within the Islamic tradition, a lot can be drawn from a single prophetic example. With this I have in mind the incident where a blind man asked if he could be exempt from the general obligation of attending congregational prayer at the mosque, and pray at home instead due to his disability. Now, given the endless examples of the Prophet’s leniency, gentleness, and patience with all members of his community – especially towards the old, sick, and the needy, one would reasonably expect that the Prophet would have permitted the exemption. However, the tradition goes on to tell us that the Prophet turned down the blind man’s request and encouraged him to attend like everyone else. To some, this may seem a little harsh, but a little insight into social disability theory offers an alternative understanding.

According to sociologist Victor Finkelstein (1980), western attitudes to disability have shifted through three major phases over time. The first phase is said to have existed prior to the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, where those with disabilities were neither segregated from society nor viewed as socially incapable. Instead, they were part of a lower social class along with paupers and the mentally ill who took on the ‘profession’ of begging. Finkelstein claims that negative attitudes towards such people with disabilities were not exclusive to them. Rather, they were seen to be as much to blame for not working as able-bodied poor people due to their own sins, laziness, or the sins of their parents. It was only when society began to distinguish between the able-bodied poor on the one hand, and individuals with disabilities on the other that attitudes between them became distinct. This marks the beginning of phase two – the institutional phase. With the growth of medical institutions and asylums in the 19th century, more and more emphasis was put on ‘caring’ for people with disabilities. What followed was a long and continuous process of physically segregating such people into asylums and special care, removing them from general social engagement and hiding them from the eyes of the public. A new passive identity of ‘otherness’ was thus being constructed for them, largely characterised by weakness and dependence. This paved the way for what disability theorist Mike Oliver has called the ‘personal tragedy theory of disability’ (Oliver 1990). The rise and emphasis of hospital environments facilitated the rapid increase in the number of nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, social workers, counsellors, asylums, and charitable homes which, despite their apparent noble intent, only ensured the success of further segregating people with disabilities from society, and contributed heavily to their stigmatisation as alienated ‘objects of research and help’.

This was followed by phase three and the advent of the revolutionary ‘social model’ of disability in the mid-late 20th century, which was an approach that sought to both improve the way in which we perceive people with disabilities and to reintegrate them back into society. The new model, as an alternative to the previously prominent ‘medical model’ of disability, sees the disabling factor no longer in the individual person, but in the environment’s inability to accommodate them. What needed addressing were structural and technological issues which led to grand investments into the installation of ramps, lifts, automatic doors, better lighting in buildings, wider corridors, beeping signals at pedestrian crossings, audio announcements on public transport, computer aiding technology, and so on across the entire nation. This endeavour, which continues today, aims to reduce the phenomenon of disability as much as possible.

The negative effects of phase two – the institutional phase, however, are still with us. Studies continue to show that disability still exists as a form of social oppression and social exclusion (Oliver & Barnes 1998, Beart et al. 2005). Prejudiced assumptions remain deeply ingrained both in our common perceptions towards people with disabilities, as well as in our media portrayals of them, which are incredibly unflattering (Barnes 1992, Duncan 2002). And all this has been shown to contribute to their continuing lack of self-esteem and psychological distress (Abraham et al. 2002, Paterson 2007). Despite the positive goals of the social model, then, stigmatisation towards people with disabilities as incapable victims of tragedy has been stubbornly rigid in our minds since their construction in the institutional phase.

Coming back to the story about the Prophet, then; by encouraging the blind man to attend the daily congregational prayers – a rich and frequent activity of social cohesion – the Prophet sought to maintain integration amongst all members of the community. To be physically present and integrated denies the possibility of constructed alienation and otherness. Integration also reduces the scope of stigmatisation, insofar as the gap between ‘virtual’ and ‘actual’ social identity is kept to a minimum (Goffman 1969). Furthermore, the Prophet was known to give prominent roles and tasks to people with disabilities in order to further consolidate their involvement in society. Ultimately, the Prophet as ruler and statesman appeared to guide his community in a way which would by-pass the institutional phase of disability outlined by Finkelstein.

There are, of course, many other influences to be considered here, such as the phenomenon of ‘labelling’ in western medical institutions, as well as western society’s emphasis on and glorification of the ‘ideal’ body, which have also fuelled the stigmatisation of people with disabilities in our society – both of which are strongly countered in the Islamic tradition. What is being highlighted here, however, is that the primary solution for negative attitudes towards disability, should have been, and should always be, integration.

Attitudes in the Middle-East

So to what extent do Middle-Eastern Muslim countries follow the integrative attitude of the Prophet with regards to disability? Not very much at all, according to one visually impaired individual who grew up in Bahrain but has lived in the UK for the last 10 years. Yahye, a recent Masters graduate from the University of Westminster and freelance worker for disability integration social enterprise ‘Dialogue in the Dark’ tells me that despite the stigmatisation towards people with disabilities in the west, the implementation of the social model of disability in the UK is ‘head and shoulders’ above other countries in integrating people with disabilities back into society. It would seem that for the large part, the Middle-East is stuck in the institutional phase in which much money is spent on facilities for people with disabilities, but these usually take the form of exclusive ‘care institutes’ hidden from the eyes of the general public. Opportunities for people with disabilities are also incredibly narrow in the Middle East, resulting in degree graduates – of any subject – being destined to work in call centres, if they are fortunate enough to be employed for work at all. This has led many potential students with disabilities to not bother with university in the first place.

The ‘shame’ attached to families with disabled children is also more striking than it is in the west due to the comparative lack of social emphasis on disability equality and discrimination rights. People with disabilities often feel discouraged to even leave their homes due to such judgmental attitudes in society, as well as the lack of available practical assistance to travel. The sight of a disabled person walking or travelling alone is generally interpreted as such an individual being neglected by his or her family. For this reason, they are usually always accompanied by a family member or carer. The emphasis on hospitality and helpfulness typical to Muslim countries doesn’t help the situation either. Such well-meaning traits often only fuel patronising attitudes, unwanted assistance, and deny a disabled person’s independence. In fact, Yahye tells me that he feels much more dignified in the UK where they seem to have accomplished the right balance of allowing a person with disabilities to live and function independently, while at the same time, offering useful individual assistance only when required.

It should come as no surprise that yet another social failure in Muslim lands correlates with the departure from the Prophet’s example on the respective issue. So while the west continues to improve its policies to eliminate disability inequality and increase integration after its previous mistakes, the Middle-East still funds and builds institutes of exclusive care – exacerbating social stigma, and remain largely estranged to the social model of disability. They clearly have a very long way to go.

Abraham, C., Gregory, N., Wolf, L. & Pemberton, R. (2002). Self-esteem, stigma and community participation amongst people with learning difficulties living in the community, Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 12, 430-443
Barnes, C. (1992) Disabling imagery and the Media, an Exploration of the Principles for Media Representations of Disabled People, Halifax: Ryburn Publishing
Beart, S., Hardy, G. & Buchan, L. (2005). How people with intellectual disabilities view their social identity: A review of the literature. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 18, 47-56
Duncan, B. (2002) Portrayal of Disability in Recent Films: Notes, Disability World: 09 June 2002
Finkelstein, V. (1980) Attitudes and Disabled People, New York: World Rehabilitation Fund
Goffman, E. (1963) Stigma: Notes on the management of a spoiled identity, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Oliver, M. & Barnes, C. (1998) Disabled People and Social Policy: From Exclusion to Inclusion, London: Longman
Paterson, L. (2007) Stigma, social comparison and psychological distress in adults with a learning disability, The University of Edinburgh, Doctorate Thesis

India Part 3: Teaching and Camp Life

So day 1 with teaching started and I was quite clueless as to how to go about it. I began to question the founding intentions of Platform2: Why, for example, are we being made to teach these village kids English – that is, their ABC’s, when in all liklihood, they will work manual jobs in and around the village all their lives, and die – in and around the village – having no contact with tourists or ever need such language skills. “But if you get just one kid educated enough to move to Jaipur (the big city), and they work there, then they’ve made it, and you’ve made a difference.” These justifications from my fellow volunteers seemed quite naive and superficial. However, I wasn’t going to try and ideologically uproot this vast humanitarian project within which I am quite insignificant.

I figured that I would use my Muslim identity for teaching purposes – afterall, this is why they singled me out for the Muslim village. In particular, I was thinking of the wash for prayer since some kids are quite dirty. It’s common for the young ones especially to be half naked (this might be a potty training technique?); snot is usually encrusted on their faces on which flies settle without protest from their hosts. I still, for the life of me, can’t understand how the kids don’t seem to realise that three flies are crawling all around their eyelids. The older girls (8-10) dress very colourfully and are always enthusiastic to see us. Amida, the day care centre’s teacher who moves around on her arms due to her disability, is always dressed in a bright yellow modest Indian style dress with plaited hair. She’s 25 but looks 35 and is very thin. On my first day I performed the afternoon prayer and some boys – who should have been at the school – where quite eager to join . A couple of the girls did too. We all went outside in the dry sun and I called for some water to be fetched from the well (haha, I never thought I would ever say that). All 15 kids or so gathered around in their colourful dresses to watch me teach one of the boys how to do the wash for prayer. It seemed they had only seen their fathers and uncles do it but had never done it themselves. I went through the process with about 3 or 4 of the schoolboys. Some of the girls learnt it and poured water for themselves separately. We all then went back into the empty (but again, colourful) room where we prayed. This was a nice experience though it was a one off since the boys went back to school for the remainder of the week and the girls seemed too shy to do it on their own.

In terms of teaching English, I decided to take a little initiative and offer to teach Amida, the day care centre’s teacher, one on one, while my teaching buddies, Chloe and Amy teach and play with the kids. I just figure that Amida would learn faster and if I could spend everyday teaching her English, she could at least continue to teach the kids after we’re gone. She just about knows her ABC so it’s pretty much starting from scratch.

So we teach in the morning and do practical work in the afternoon. Our recent practical work consisted of going into a dirty well and emptying it. This literally meant climbing down inside a rectangular room underground, repeatedly filling up buckets of water and sending them up by rope. Only 3 of us went into the well, myself and two other girls. It was dark so we couldn’t see much if we weren’t standing beneath the well’s trap door above. The water was about calf-height and filthy. Our Indian supervisor had climbed down as well and shone a torch light against the back wall of the well to reveal at least 500 frogs on a dry inclined part of the floor that wasn’t immersed in water. It looked like something out of the Old Testament. We had to clear them out too. We literally picked them up with our bare hands, and threw about 30-50 of them into a bucket at a time. There was plenty of screaming and shouting, me included.

Camp life takes up 70% of our waking time. A lot of time wasted in my opinion. I’ve grown quite popular throughout the camp as I continue to be as helpful as I can. Some of the girls have called me “Jesus” or “a shepherd” because I always have a group of people around me. But it’s true. If I sit somewhere, a group forms quite rapidly. (This is ironic because I’m probably the only person who wants to be alone.) My slightly antagonising strong Christian friend has been quoted to have said “Why does Zee get so much respect, he’s not even speaking the truth”. Not sure what to say about that.

Having a “bedtime” at 11pm is proving quite good for me. I’m beginning to think that one of the keys to organising your life is organising your sleep. I wake up everyday at 6am without fail for morning prayer. At this time everyone is asleep so I head on out into the dry outskirts of the camp to pray. Every other morning after prayer I go for a run around the camp with a tall, slim blonde girl called Megan. She has claimed that she likes the way I think and is one of few girls here who does not seem to engage in gossip. I’m still big in the music scene and have somehow found myself as singer in the camps only band, “The Desert Boys” (I didn’t come up with the name). It consists of myself, JJ who plays guitar, and two other male guitarists/musicains. We’re all from London.

One of the 11 males here is a 20 year old boy from Bernley named Carl who has a shaved head and an athletic build. He has a few tattoos of his local football team around his body and has a thick ‘northen’ accent. He loves Eminem and sport. When he is with some of the other lads, things can begin to get incredibly immature. Half of the boys are quite into alcohol and women. I remember making a statement in the boys room at the very beginning that I didn’t want any alcohol in the room (this is a camp rule anyway). JJ was the only one who backed me on this as he doesn’t drink either. The other evening on a weekend, Carl had come up to me and pulled me aside with a very hesitant expression on his face. His tone was a little uncertain. As he took a second or two to find his words, I couldn’t help but think he was about to ask if it was OK if he and some of the lads could have a few drinks in the room for the night. His actual words were something like this: “I was wondering if I could come watch to do your prayer tonight, I’d really like to see what you do.” I felt like the world had turned upside down. I would have put money on him being the last to show any interest in this (at least 3 others have asked me the same thing). And so, I took him out to the outskirts of the camp at night and talked him though the prayer and Isamic ethics. I tried to sum it up for him: “Prefer others over yourself… So if you want something like water or whatever, and someone else does too, you give it to them first.” He liked the idea. The next day as we got off the bus with our provided lunch boxes, one girl cried out that she forgot hers. Without hesitation, Carl handed over his lunch box to her and kept his head down. I really respected him for this. He’s since been very quick to give up his seat on the daily bus to our placements from camp too. On being asked who his favourite person on camp was, despite us not hanging out that much, he said it was me.

With the girls things are becoming more complicated. “He makes me feel special, but then I know he makes all the other girls feel special so, I don’t know”. I’ve heard such quotes about me on a few occasions. One Catholic Scottish girl came up to me and apologized. I asked her what for, and she said “I thought you were the most insincere person ever, I just thought no one could be that nice.” Unfortunately I have been told that this girl still thinks I’m insincere, but I’m not sure what I can do about that. I’m told, however, that other girls strongly defend me. I had thought that going down the overtly Muslim route (Muslims hat, beard, public prayer) would avert sexual attraction. It doesn’t. My biggest guard is never going to hotels at the weekend with all the others. I am the only one who consistently stays on camp over the weekends since they always come back with stories about who has done what with who. This kind of talk makes up a big portion of general talk on camp.

I still can’t express enough thanks for JJ being here. With him I can be myself and make as many conceptual comments as I want. He does this too. With most of the others, if my conceptual comments aren’t about relationships, there’s not much interest. I kinda feel like I walk around camp enshrouded with veils that are quite suffocating. Being able to take them off now and then makes a big difference.

Till next time, all the best.