Are We Tested or Punished Through Calamities?

I have to admit one thing: sometimes I become very perplexed and reflective after meeting or observing different kinds of people over a number of years, because of what I observe of their apparent personal circumstances.

They say that one should never judge or try to draw conclusions about someone’s personal struggles in life based on their mere appearances, because no one besides Allah knows the truth and reality behind the facade of what appears on the surface of matters.

That is true.

Nevertheless, the absolutely stark differences between the circumstances of different people and their apparent varying levels of religiosity sometimes make me, inadvertently, end up wondering to myself about life, faith in Allah, worldly trials and tests, and the relationship of all of these things with our ultimate fate in the afterlife.

Why is it that righteous believers seem to be continuously afflicted with worldly difficulties, whereas apparently sinful and transgressing Muslims enjoy a variety of opulent blessings in life?

How does one know if the difficulties that befall one in life are a trial of their faith from Allah, or a punishment for their sins?

Because if sins were punished in the form of problems, distress, hardship, and pain in this world, then flagrant sinners would not be enjoying so many worldly blessings, would they?

And righteous people wouldn’t be suffering one difficulty after another, would they?

Allah Tests Those Whom He Loves

A cursory reading as well as a deep reflection upon the Quran makes one thing quite clear: all of the Prophets of Allah were afflicted with severe hardships during their lives,- both physical, social and psychological,- and all the more so after they started propagating the message of Allah to mankind.

Allah has clearly stated in the Quran that He will test believers with difficulties in this world:

And most certainly shall We try you by means of danger, and hunger, and loss of worldly goods, of lives and of fruits. But give glad tidings to those who are patient in adversity. (2:155)

So, whether it is the Prophets of Allah or righteous believers who come towards Deen and start to propagate it after a rejuvenation of their faith, what happens goes usually like this: a Muslim lives heedlessly in this world with a shaky faith in Allah and the afterlife, and does half-hearted good deeds on an ad-hoc, free-spirited basis, giving the life of this world more priority.

He or she enjoys social popularity and prestige, and has an otherwise seemingly comfortable life. Then suddenly, they have a spiritual awakening and return to Allah, starting to live a life of strict adherence to Islam henceforth.

Suddenly, from then on, they are faced with trial after trial, just like Allah’s Prophets did after they received prophethood from Allah and started propagating the Divine message to mankind.

It seems, on the surface, as if practicing Islam brings on only worldly loss and hardships, whereas leading a secular, “free” lifestyle with basic ‘human’ values leads to a life of peace, freedom, enjoyment and prosperity.

Such is the enormity of this apparent disparity between the outward, apparent worldly facades of religiosity and a lack thereof, that most people who are standing on the borderline of faith, choose to throw their hands up in the air, and say, “No thanks, we do not want to become religious. We want to enjoy living a comfortable life. We do not want to be tested.”

Punishment or Test: How to Tell?

So the two questions that remain are:

– Why does Allah test us? Especially when He already knows the sincerity of our faith. Why test us at all, when He already knows everything?

– How do we know whether the difficulties in our lives are a test, or a punishment for our sins?

The answer to the first question can be summed up threefold thus:

– Because He wants to display the beautiful patience and character of the believers who are tested, to other people in this world, so that the latter can learn from their exemplary behavior, and emulate it, and come towards the beautiful Deen that teaches then this conduct.

– He wants to increase their ranks in this world and their rewards in the Hereafter. The higher the pain that they bear patiently in this world, the higher will be their sweet rewards in Jannah, insha’Allah.

– Enduring hardships in this world paves the way to wisdom, forbearance, self-discipline, respect, honor, integrity, and many other lofty values and morals that cannot be attained by living an easy, luxurious life sans problems. Those who endure more hardships are more prone to help others, because they have experienced pain firsthand and know what it’s like to endure it.

The answer to the second question is actually simpler: our level of faith, actions and behavior during and after the calamity are clear indicators of whether that calamity was a test of our faith, or a punishment for our sins.

Do we become humble before Allah, turn back to Him, repent for our sins, and become more righteous in deeds, as a result of the trial that we are enduring? Are we patient in bearing the pain, forcing ourselves to be content with the decree of Allah, seeking only His pleasure with us?

Or do we become angry at Allah, recalcitrant in word and deed, complaining about what is happening to us, showing discontentment with Allah’s decree, and in the process, moving away from adherence to the obligations of Islam?

Do we start to lose our faith in Allah’s mercy because of the calamity? Do we begin to have doubts about Islam? Do we start to disobey Allah, and turn to means that He has forbidden, instead of to Him, for comfort and support?

It is for the ‘make or break’ nature of trials and tribulations that Prophet Muhammad has taught Muslims to seek refuge in Allah from being tested with trials in this world.

It was narrated from Anas ibn Malik that the Prophet said:

“The greatest reward comes with the greatest trial. When Allah loves a people He tests them. Whoever accepts that, wins His pleasure but whoever is discontent with that, earns His wrath.” (Ibn Majah)