I still remember the desperation. In the deep disappointment which often follows self-reflection, I turned to my Creator to plead. I turned to plead – but not for what can be measured, bought, sold, or traded. It was desperation for a truer currency. With my flaws suddenly made open to me, I became desperate to be liberated from the tyranny of my own nafs (lower desires). I became desperate to be a better person.
And so, handing my heart to Allah (swt), I prayed that I might be purified. And while I had always held to firm faith that God is the Hearer of prayers, I never imagined when – or how – that prayer would be answered.
Soon after that prayer, I experienced one of the most difficult periods of my life. During the experience, I braced myself, and prayed for guidance and strength. But never did I see any connection to my previous prayer. It was not until that time had passed, and reflecting on it, I realized how I had grown. Suddenly I remembered my prayer. Suddenly I felt that the difficulty was itself the answer to the prayer I had made so desperately.
The words of Rumi explain beautifully: “When someone beats a rug with a stick, he is not beating the rug – his aim is to get rid of the dust. Your inward is full of dust from the veil of ‘I’-ness, and that dust will not leave all at once. With every cruelty and every blow, it departs little by little from the heart’s face, sometimes in sleep and sometimes in wakefulness.”
So often we experience things in life, and yet never see the connections between them. When we are given a hardship, or feel pain, we often fail to consider that that experience may be the direct cause or result of another action or experience. Sometimes we fail to recognize the direct connection between the pain in our lives and our relationship with Allah (swt).
That pain and adversity serves many purposes in life. Times of hardship can act as both an indication as well as a cure, for our broken relationship with our Creator.
Times of difficulty test our faith, our fortitude and our strength. During these times, the level of our iman becomes manifest. Adversity strips away our masks, revealing the truth behind mere declaration of faith. Hardships separate those whose declaration is true from those who are false.
Allah says: “Do the people think that they will be left to say, “We believe” and they will not be tested? But We have certainly tested those before them, and Allah will surely make evident those who are truthful, and He will surely make evident the liars” (Qur’an, 29:2-3).
Hardships test us. But hardships can also be a blessing and a sign of Allah’s love. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said: “Whenever Allah wills good for a person, He subjects him to adversity” [Bukhari].
And yet most people cannot fathom how adversity could possibly be good. Many do not recognize that hardship is in fact a purifier, which brings people back to their Lord. What happens to the arrogant who are suddenly put in a situation they cannot control? What happens to a man who finds himself stranded on the ocean in the middle of a storm? What happens when the ship that is ‘unsinkable’ becomes the tale of the Titanic?
These perceived misfortunes are in fact wake up calls. They humble. They shake. They remind us of how small we are, and how Great God is. And in that way they awaken us from the slumber of our deceptions, our heedlessness, our wandering, and bring us back to our Creator. Hardships strip away the veil of comfort from our eyes, and remind us of what we are and where we’re going.
Allah (swt) says: “…And We tested them with good [times] and bad that perhaps they would return [to obedience]” (Qur’an, 7:168). In another ayah, Allah (swt) explains: “Whenever We sent a prophet to a town, We took up its people in suffering and adversity, in order that they might learn humility.” (Qur’an, 7:94).
This lesson in humility purifies the human soul so much so that Allah (swt) comforts the believers in the Qur’an, assuring them that any pain they encounter is intended to elevate and honor them. He says:
“If a wound hath touched you, be sure a similar wound hath touched the others. Such days (of varying fortunes) We give to men and men by turns: that Allah may know those that believe, and that He may take to Himself from your ranks Martyr-witnesses (to Truth). And Allah loveth not those that do wrong.” (Qur’an, 3:140-142).
It is that very battle to purify the self which is the essence of the upward path to God. It begins with self-sacrifice, and is paved by the sweat of struggle. It is this path, which God describes when He says: “Oh mankind! Verily you are ever toiling on towards your Lord – painfully toiling – but you shall meet Him.” (Qur’an, 84:6).