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Why do the Innocent Suffer?
Understanding the Difference Between the Apparent and the Reality:
An individual once asked Sayyid Mawdudi about why many people, despite being good and pious, or apparently innocent, suffer severe tribulations in this worldly life. What wrong could a minor child or an infant, for example, commit so that he or she should have to suffer a fatal disease or even be murdered? Why do we see many good people suffering severe afflictions and calamities that they apparently do not deserve?
Mawdudi asked him to consider a beautiful, well-kept garden and its gardener. The garden has many kinds of plants, each requiring various types of resources and care. It is well kept and healthy since the gardener meticulously takes care of it. He often clears the weeds and unnecessary plants that are harmful for the good plants. He trims branches and leaves to maintain their good health. He waters his garden when needed, or withholds water when that is harmful. It is because of such good care that his garden remains beautiful and healthy.
The weeds or plants that he removes or the leaves and branches that he trims suffer much and complains. Their instincts are reactive to their own physical needs and they have little or no understanding about their surroundings, let alone the rest of the garden. They complain about their immediate needs and sufferings and do not know what is ultimately good for even themselves, much less the entire garden. Mawdudi then asked him to compare the garden with the universe and the gardener with Allah (swt).
The point was well made. The analogy, however, is simplistic, for Allah’s knowledge and wisdom is infinite compared to the finite knowledge of a gardener, and His domain is infinitely wider and more complex than a garden. In this universe where an infinite number of laws, events, variables and factors are at work, each affecting others in complex ways, it is impossible for us to comprehend the full wisdom and purpose behind what we apparently observe.
Parables are sometimes used in the Qur’an to make a point understood. Often, when intellect fails to comprehend a matter, a simple parable can get it across.
Prophet Musa and Khidr:
The Qur’an mentions an interesting story about Musa in chapter al-Kahf. In this story, Musa met a Prophet named Khidr, whom Allah had given “special knowledge”, at a place where “two rivers meet”. Musa asked him for permission to accompany him in his travel.
Khidr replied, “You will surely not be able to bear with me. For how can you patiently bear with something you cannot encompass in your knowledge?”
After Musa insisted that he would be patient, Khidr allowed him to come with him on condition that he must not question him about anything unless he himself explains it to him.
They came to a place and found a boat. Khidr damaged the boat by making a hole in it.
Musa immediately objected saying, “Have you made a hole in it so as to drown the people in the boat? You have certainly done an awful thing.”
Khidr replied, “Did I not tell you that you will not be able to patiently bear with me?” Musa pleaded with him, saying that he forgot the promise.
Moving on, they next came to a place where they met a boy, and Khidr killed him.
Utterly shocked, Musa exclaimed, “What! Have you slain an innocent person without his having slain anyone? Surely you have done a horrible thing.”
Khidr replied, “Did I not tell you that you will not be able to patiently bear with me?” Musa pleaded again, saying that if he ever questioned him again about anything, then he would be fully justified in discarding him.
Moving further on, they came to a town where they found a wall that was broken and falling apart. Khidr repaired the wall to prevent it from disintegrating. Unable to hold his curiosity, Musa told Khidr that if he wished, he could have gotten a payment for it. Perhaps he was hoping that Khidr would explain the matter to him without him asking a question.
That final comment made Khidr discard Musa. “This brings me and you to parting of ways”, he said. “Now I shall explain to you the true meaning of things about which you could not remain patient.”
About the boat, he explained, it belonged to some poor people who earned their livelihood from the river. Nearby, there was an oppressive king who was seizing all boats by force. He damaged the boat so that the king will ignore it.
About the boy, his parents were righteous whereas this boy was growing up to be a violent man who would have oppressed them. It was hoped that Allah would now provide them with a righteous son.
Lastly, about the wall, there was some buried treasure in there for two orphan boys left behind by their righteous father. By fixing the wall and preventing it from falling apart and thus exposing the treasure, he gained time for the boys to grow up and recover their property.
Before leaving, Khidr made his final comment that none of these was done by his own wish, meaning that he was simply executing Allah’s commands.
The narration of Musa’ story here is meant to draw both the unbelievers’ and the believers’ attention to an important fact. Those who are concerned with the external aspects of things are liable to draw false conclusions from their observations. This happens because man is not aware of the wisdom underlying the events that take place under God’s dispensation. One frequently witnesses that the wrong-doers prosper whereas the innocent suffer hardships; those who disobey God and commit transgression live in great affluence whereas those who obey God face adversities, and that the wicked enjoy the pleasures of worldly life whereas the virtuous live in misery. Such spectacles are quite common.
Not knowing why such things happen, doubts arise in people’s minds, leading them, on occasion, to have totally false perception of things. Those who consciously disbelieve and are immersed in the perpetration of injustice and oppression are led to conclude that they live in a disordered and chaotic world, a world which has either no sovereign, or if there is any, one who must have become senseless or unjust. Hence, they conclude that people may go about doing what they please, without fearing that they will be called to account. On the other hand, those who believe in God are heart-broken by what they see around them. It also often happens that when such believers are faced with sever tests, their faith is shaken to the core.
It was in order to enable Musa to comprehend the wisdom underlying those events which generally baffle one’s understanding that God slightly lifts the curtain from the reality which governs the working of the world. In this way, Musa was able to appreciate that appearances are quite different from the reality.
These two stories above – one a parable and the other a real story – brings out a fact that is central to understanding the Islamic perspectives on trials and tribulations, and that is: trials and tribulations is not an end on itself. It is a temporal event and a part of a process beyond which lies the reality of something good and desirable. Unlike Musa for whom the curtain was briefly lifted, a believer cannot see that reality immediately with his mortal eyes, but his faith and knowledge makes him fully confident of that reality.
Say: "Nothing can happen to us except what Allah has ordained for us. He is Our Master. It is in Allah that the believers should put their trust." (Surat at-Tawba, 51)
"For truly with hardship comes ease; truly with hardship comes ease".
(Surat al-Inshirah, 5-6)
"We belong to Allah and to Him we will return" (Surat al-Baqara, 156)
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