Why did God create us with different levels of provision and intelligence, lifestyle and physiology? Why does He allow some people to suffer hardship and poverty while others live lives of luxury? Such questions, besides relating to Destiny, also have some bearing on understanding the Divine way of acting.
Before discussing the Divine Wisdom in this matter, we should point out that all such questions arise from not knowing the Divine Being. If we had as much desire to learn everything about God as we do about a movie star or a sports figure, if we had access to the necessary resources from which we could learn something about our Lord, if we studied the Book of the Universe according to the criteria established by the Divine Scripture, and if we followed the principles preached by the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, to establish a true life—if we did all of this, we could discern the immaterial dimension of things and events through the prism of our conscience. If we could really reach that level we would not need to ask such questions. But as long as science isolates itself from religion and healthy meditation is replaced by mechanical life and mass information, we will continue to ask such questions and find it hard to know our Creator.
As a second point in understanding the Divine Wisdom behind these differences, consider our claims of ownership and disposal over what we regard as our property. What share do we have in producing the food we consume? Each morsel of food requires the existence of the entire universe. Given this, and if we can claim ownership and free disposal over our private property in which we have so little share, why should God, the Creator and unique Owner of the universe and all of its contents not have free disposal of His property?
God Almighty has many Names, each of which has different manifestations. The Name All-Providing supplies beings with what they need to live; the Name All-Healing enables patients to recover; and the Name All-Answering comes to the aid of the needy. He warns the heedless with His Name All-Distressing, and relieves the distressed with His Name All-Relieving. If we study the manifestations of God’s Names, we can see the beauty in the variety they bring about in the universe, and understand the wisdom underlying differences in creation. God makes Himself known by manifesting His Names. For example, flowers smile at us as the result of the manifestation of His Names originating in His Grace, while “natural” catastrophes remind us of His Wrath as the manifestation of His Names originating in His Majesty.
We have no right to question God Almighty for what He gives or does not give. Remember that God did not create you as a lifeless element, a plant or an animal, but as a human being. Also, just as there always are people who are wealthier and healthier than you, there also are people who are poorer and sicker than you. So, with respect to wealth and health, consider those who are poorer and sicker than you; with respect to honesty and morality, learning and altruism, truthfulness and generosity, and so on, emulate those who are better than you.
Suppose three destitute people are given an apartment, a large detached house, and a palace, respectively, by a rich person. Does the one who is given an apartment have the right to ask the rich person why he was not given a detached house or a palace? Should he not, rather, thank his benefactor for the apartment? Similarly, all that we have is from God. Thus, whether we are rich or poor, sound or disabled, healthy or sick, we are obliged to thank God.
This world is an arena of trial, a place where we seek to acquire the state appropriate for the other life. This is not easy. Like a tailor trying to design the best possible suit for a client by cutting and stitching the material and then having the client sit and stand and turn around to see how it fits, God Almighty causes us to “turn about” in diverse conditions to “shape” us for the afterlife.
We are like raw mineral that has to be refined. Just as there are many types of minerals, our social life requires that we have different levels of intelligence, physical strength, and sensitivity. Depending upon the final product desired, whether gold or diamonds, coal or copper, different (and more exacting and demanding) processes and methods must be applied to the raw mineral. Similarly, each of us may need a different kind of test, trial, or training to be refined and reach our destined final level of attainment. This means that God subjects each of us to different levels of suffering and affliction to elevate us to a state appropriate for the other world.
Besides being the arena of test and trial, this world is also the realm of trouble. When God warned Adam not to eat of the forbidden tree, He reminded him:
Adam, surely this [Satan] is an enemy to you and your wife. So let him not expel you both from the Garden, so that you are unprosperous. It is assuredly given to you neither to hunger therein nor to go naked, neither to thirst therein, nor to suffer the sun. (20:117–19)
That means that in the world we will hunger, thirst, tire, and encounter hardship. This must be so because it is in this world that we will sow the seeds to be harvested in the Hereafter. Those seeking only to gratify their desires most probably are the ones God will address in the other world with the following words:
You dissipated your good things in your worldly life, and you took your enjoyment in them; therefore today you shall be recompensed with the chastisement of humiliation because you waxed proud on the Earth without right, and for your ungodliness. (46:20)
On the other hand, those who endure hunger, thirst, and other hardship here for the sake of God will be admitted to Paradise and addressed thusly by angels: Peace be upon you. Well you have fared; enter in, to dwell forever (39:72); and Eat and drink with wholesome appetite for that you did long ago, in the days gone by (69:24).
As God gives you more bounties and blessing, your responsibility grows. For example, alms-giving is compulsory for the wealthy, while the disabled, blind, or and sick do not have to bear arms in the way of God. To express the utmost degree of piety, the Prophet Jesus says:
You have heard that it was said: “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into Hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into Hell. (Matthew 5.27-30)
So, we do not know if being rich or poor, or healthy or sick, is better for us. An the Qur’an tells us that: It may be that you dislike a thing although it is good for you, and love a thing although it is bad for you. God knows but you know not (2:216).
Furthermore, many rich people cannot enjoy food and drink or the world’s beauty as much poor people do because of their lack of appetite or bad health. Although poverty is not something to be desired and indeed, as stated by the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, can even cause unbelief, it is difficult to claim that the rich are always happier than the poor. No one can assert that people in the Middle Ages, when living standards were relatively low, were less happy than today’s rich people. Happiness lies in spiritual satisfaction, not in having the material facilities to gratify bodily desires.
Another point to emphasize is that no one should complain about hardship. When compared with times of good health, comfort, and happiness, times of illness or hardship usually are not worth mentioning. Also, we usually live unaware of the constant bounties we receive. For example, the sun rises every day and sends us its heat and light for free. We are never deprived of air, without which we would die instantly, although we pay nothing for it. All the “natural” events necessary for producing rain occur without any contribution from us. What we should do is thank God for these and all other bounties (none of which we can provide for ourselves), for the greatest part of our life (spent in health and comfort), and not to complain to God about illness, hardship, or the lack of some additional blessing.
Equality in material resources, as well as in intellectual and physical ability, should not be considered a desirable social objective, for it is incompatible with the requirements of social life. These differences, as well as those in individual temperament, disposition, and preference, sustain the variety of human occupations, a fundamental element of human social life. This variation causes people to need one another and to establish mutual good relations. However, these relations should be based on justice and mutual love, respect, understanding and care. They should not lead to oppression, usurpation, cheating, or to class-based social hostility and contempt. According to Said Nursi (d. 1960), a Muslim scholar, thinker, and activist who started a major Islamic revival in Turkey in the first half of the twentieth century, two major reasons for all the revolutions and upheavals of the last few centuries are the attitudes: “I do not care if others die of hunger so long as I am full,” and “You work so that I may eat.”
Islam tackles the first attitude with zakat, the obligatory alms-tax on wealthy Muslims, principally for redistribution among the poor and needy. Islam tackles the second attitude by prohibiting all interest-based transactions. Further, Islam extols the virtue helping the poor and needy and commends moderate, disciplined living. The lives of the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessing, and his four immediate political successors (known collectively as the Rightly Guided Caliphs) are good examples for the Muslim élites to follow.
Before closing this discussion, we should point out that however undesirable and even appalling in appearance, affliction and illness usually bear good results. Just as punishing our children to train them, amputating a gangrenous limb, or deriving medicine from a snake’s venom, most afflictions or illnesses usually produce good results. For believers, they are always meant to give good results, even for unbelievers who are not oppressors who lost the ability to believe, they are meant to give good results, serving as warning at least. They require good patience for they are usually followed by good and bring much reward for the next life and perfection of this life.
A sparrow-hawk’s swooping contributes to a sparrow’s alertness and develops its ability to escape. People may be hurt by rain or electricity or fire, but no one actually curses them. Fasting may be difficult, but it provides the body with energy, activity, and resistance. A child’s immune system usually gains strength through illness. Exercise is not easy, but it is almost essential for the body’s health and strength. Our spirit is refined and acquires the state deserving Paradise through worship and meditation (tafakkur), as well as through illness, suffering, and hardship. God gives a large reward for a small sacrifice. Hardship and suffering promote us to higher spiritual degrees and will be rewarded in the other world with a generosity that we cannot even imagine. For this reason, Prophets suffer the most grievous hardship and difficulty, and they are followed by saintly people and other believers, each according to their degree of belief.
Hardship, illness, and calamity cause believers’ sins to be forgiven and remind them to remain alert to sin and the attempted seduction of Satan and their carnal self. They also help us appreciate God’s blessings, express our gratitude, and encourage the rich and healthy to help the poor and the sick. Those who never experience hunger cannot fully appreciate the conditions in which the hungry live. Nor can one who has never been sick be aware of what sick people live through. So, hardship, illness, and calamity may establish closer relations between different groups or classes of people.
Calamity and suffering increase our resistance to the hardships of life and train us to persevere and endure. They also separate the strong and sincere supporters of a cause from those who are supporters out of convenience or some other personal (and therefore inappropriate) reason.
This article has been adapted from Risale- i Nur Collection.