It was only a dream. For a moment, it overtakes me. Yet the suffering I feel in my nightmare is only an illusion. Temporary. Like the blink of an eye. Why do I dream? Why do I have to feel that loss, fear, and sadness in my sleep?
On a greater scale, it’s a question that has been asked throughout time. And for many people, the answer to that question has determined their path to—or away from—faith. Faith in God, faith in life’s purpose, faith in a higher order or a final destination has often all rested upon how this singular question has been answered. And so, to ask this question is to ask about life, in the most ultimate way.
Why do we suffer? Why do ‘bad’ things happen to ‘good’ people? How could there be a God if innocent children starve and criminals run free? How can there be an all-loving, all-powerful deity who would allow such misfortunes to happen?
And if God is indeed Just and Good, shouldn’t only good things happen to good people and only bad things happen to bad people?
Well, the answer is: yes. Absolutely. Only good things do happen to good people. And only bad things happen to bad people. Why? Because God IS the Most Just and the Most Loving. And He has no deficiency in His knowledge or understanding.
The problem is that we do have deficiencies in knowledge and understanding.
See, to understand the statement “only good things happen to good people and only bad things happen to bad people”, we must first define ‘good’ and ‘bad’. And although there are as many definitions of good and bad as there are people, a comprehensive understanding exists. For example, most people would agree that to succeed in achieving my desired purpose or goal in a particular matter would be ‘good’. While on the other hand, failing to achieve my intended purpose or aim would be bad. If my aim is to gain weight because I am dangerously underweight, becoming heavier would be good. If, on the other hand, my aim is to lose weight because I am harmfully overweight, becoming heavier would be bad. The same event could be good or bad, depending on my intended purpose. So ‘good’ in my eyes rests on the achievement of my personal aim. And ultimate ‘Good’ rests on the achievement of my ultimate aim.
But what is my aim?
That brings us to the fundamental question of purpose as it relates to the greater Reality of existence. There are essentially two distinct worldviews when it comes to purpose in life. The first worldview holds that this life is the Reality, the final destination and ultimate goal of our endeavors. The second worldview holds that this life is only a bridge, a means that stands as nothing more than a glimpse in the context of God’s infinite Reality.
For those in the first group, this life is everything. It is the End to which all actions strive. For those in the second group, this life tends towards zero. Why? Because, in comparison to infinity, even the largest number becomes zero. Nothing. Like a fleeting dream.
These distinct worldviews directly affect the question of purpose. See, if one believes that this life is the Reality, the final destination, the goal of all endeavors, the purpose of life would be to maximize pleasure and gain in this life. In that paradigm, ‘bad’ things ARE in fact happening to ‘good’ people every single second. Within that paradigm, people reach the conclusion that there is no justice and therefore either there is no God or God is not Just (wa athu billah, I seek refuge in God). It’s like a person who concludes that there must be no God because they had a bad dream. But why don’t we give the experiences of our dreams much weight? After all, some dreams are horrifying to live through—and very often do happen to ‘good’ people. In our dreams, do we not experience extreme terror or bliss? Yes. But why doesn’t it matter?
Because put in context of our real life, it is nothing.
In the second world view (the Islamic paradigm) the purpose of creation is *not* maximizing pleasure and gain in a life that is nothing more than a dream. In that world view, life’s purpose is defined by God who tells us: “I have not created jinn and humans (for any purpose) except to worship me,” (Qur’an, 51:56).
It is important to note the special construction of this statement. It begins with a negation: ‘I have not created jinn and humans (for any purpose) […]’. First Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala (exalted is He) negates ALL other purposes before He states the one and only, singular purpose: ‘except to worship Me.’ This means that as a believer I know that there is no other purpose of my existence except to know, love and get closer to God. This is the one and only reason why I was created. And this is the most essential realization, as it defines everything else I do or believe. It defines all things around me, and everything I experience in life.
So returning to the meaning of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, we find that anything that brings us closer to our ultimate purpose is Good and anything that takes us away from our ultimate purpose is Bad, in an ultimate sense. In a relative sense, for those whose goal is this material world, worldly things define their ‘good’ and ‘bad’. For them, things like gaining wealth, status, fame, or property is necessarily ‘good’. Losing wealth, status, fame, or property is necessarily ‘bad’. So in that paradigm, when an innocent person loses every material possession they own, this is a ‘bad’ thing happening to a ‘good’ person. But that is the illusion that comes as a result of a flawed worldview. When the lens itself is distorted, so too is the image seen through it.
For those of the second worldview, anything that brings us closer to our purpose of nearness to God’s love is good; and anything that takes us away from that purpose is bad. Therefore, winning a billion dollars may be the greatest calamity ever to happen to me if it takes me away from God—my ultimate purpose. On the other hand, losing my job, all my wealth, and even falling ill, may in fact be the greatest blessing ever given to me if it brings me closer to God—my ultimate purpose. This is the Reality that is spoken about in the Qur’an when Allah (swt) says:
“It may happen that you hate a thing which is good for you, and it may happen that you love a thing which is bad for you. Allah knows, you know not,” (2:216).
As a believer, my criterion is no longer gain or loss in a material sense. My criterion is something higher. What I have or do not have in a worldly sense is only relevant in as much as it brings me closer or farther from my Aim: God. This dunya (life) becomes nothing more than that dream that I experience for a moment and then awaken from. Whether that dream was good or bad for me, depends only on my state once I awaken.
And so on the ultimate scale there is perfect justice. God only gives good (nearness to Him) to good people, and bad (distance from Him) to bad people. The greatest good is nearness to God, in this life and the next. And it is only ‘good’ people who are blessed with this. That is why the Prophet ﷺ has said: “Strange is the case of a believer, there is good for him in everything—and this is only for the believer. If a blessing reaches him, he is grateful to God, which is good for him, and if an adversity reaches him, he is patient which is good for him,” (Muslim).
As this hadith (record of the sayings or actions of the Prophet ﷺ) explains, whether something is good or bad is not defined by how it appears externally. “Goodness”, as explained by this hadith, is defined by the good internal state that it produces: patience and gratitude—both manifestations of peace with and nearness to God.
On the other hand, the greatest calamity is distance from God—in this life and the next. And it is only ‘bad’ people who are punished with this. What such ‘distanced’ people have, or do not have of wealth or status or property or fame is only an illusion—no more real or important than having, or not having, these things in the greatest dream, or the worst nightmare.
Of these illusions Allah (swt) says: “Nor strain your eyes in longing for the things We have given for enjoyment to parties of them, the splendor of the life of this world, through which We test them: but the provision of thy Lord is better and more enduring,” (Qur’an, 20:131).
The enduring life is the one that begins once we awaken from this world. And it is in that awakening that we realize…
It was only a dream.