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.
The counter arguments to this arise when whole nations are put under tests, disasters and oppressions so we are quick to question “Why did Go punish all those innocent people when only a handful were evil?” The answers lie in the above verses again; community blame is also something that is neglected. People’s hurtful intentions can take others down with them.
And God says wake up from that too.
Anywho, mashaAllah. Shukran sr. Yasmin.
Good point there. It seems if one wants, there can be a thousand different excuses to blame Him for the “bad” that happens, be it on a personal or a community level. If one, however, were to get past the ego within, it becomes so much easier to acknowledge, trust and be grateful for His Infinite Mercy, again both on a personal and on a community level. Subhanallah for people like the ones working on this site and the commentators… for giving everybody newer perspectives and new-found resolves to becoming better servants of Allah.
Ma’sha’allah, another beautiful piece Sr. Yasmin.
My top 3 on SuhaibWebb.com: Sr. Muslema, Sr. Jinan and Sr. Yasmin 🙂 No offense to my fellow brothers who contribute to the site 🙂
That is why we have to revive sister scholarship and encourage and invest in them!
So true Zaufishan, just as our good deeds have a collective impact, our bad deeds do too. That is why enjoining the good and forbidding the evil is an individual obligation.
Beautiful article Yasmin, masha’Allah.
Well written. MA
absolutely beautiful Mashallah!
This was such a beautiful read, and in a really surreal way – a timely one for me! I was feeling debilitated, because of the recent ”dreams” I’ve had, and after a really long time – allowed myself to fall short on faith… albeit a transient moment, Alhumdulillah.
JazakAllah Khayr for sharing this.
Best wishes and FiamaanAllah
SubhanAllah! Thank you sr Yasmin for this reminder. To answer Zaufishan, I think that when Allah sends calamities onto entire communities, this can also be in the light of “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 sr Yasmin pointed out so beautifully, what is (or can be) good about such catastrophic events is that they bring us closer to God. It is always in moments of deep pain and suffering that we rely the most on Allah to help us, and in so doing we increase our closeness to Him. It is this inner state that is the ultimate good. May Allah guide us all to His Mercy and bestow upon us the joy of being close to Him.
MASHALLAH sister Yasmin your articles are awesome n really thought provoking ones.
jazkALLAH khairan kathiran!
Ayah: I couldnt have said it better myself!
Zaufishan: Again those ‘disasters’ are not a punishment except for the ‘evil’ among the nation. For the ‘good’ it will only be good for them as it will either bring them closer to God and expiates sin (hadith: for the believer even the prick of a thorn removes sin like leaves falling from a tree). Even if the ‘good’/innocent people lose their lives, they have paradise, and possibly martyrdom. So even these so-called disasters that take up entire nations are good for the believer. Its like the beautiful saying of Ibn Taymiyyah: What can my enemies do to me? If they imprison me, it is a spiritual retreat, if they exile me, it is a chance to journey through Gods land, and if they kill me, I become a martyr.
MashaAllah. The beauty of Islam well explored. Jazakallah Sr Yasmin.
Mashallah sister Yasmin, jazakallah for yet another amazing eye-opener.
I was born a Muslim, but never was a religious person and recently became even less religious because of this particular topic. Please explain me couple questions I have here:
1)When God says I created humans to worship me, that creates a logical question in my mind-Why do you need someone to worship you? Isn’t it kind of egoistical?
2) If everything will make sense in the end, but its too complicated for us, mere humans, with our limited minds to comprehend, why does God expect us to believe in him, without any common sense proof? If you believe in Santa Claus, people will say you are crazy, since nobody ever seen one and they take him as a fictional character to keep kids happy.
3) As to pleasure maximizing, as Solomon the wise said: “Eye never gets full of seeing and ear never gets full of hearing.”-Its pointless. 99% of what we live we end up forgetting anyways.
4) When you talk about loss of material things, you can argue that it brought you closer to God, but there is line to everything. If a child gets a disease early in his/her life and spends next 10 years in bed, and ends up dying from hunger-I really doubt that brings you closer to God.
5)Since humans are imperfect, no matter how hard we try, we can not bring perfect justice, casualties happen every day. Sacrificing 10 to save 1000, would make a sense from human perspective, but if its God, who is almighty, any casualties are unacceptable, in my humble opinion. And when plains crash babies that die are innocent no matter how bad their parents could be.
6) Why children have to suffer for deeds of their fathers?
7) Why men can have multiple wives, while women cannot have multiple husbands?
I’d really love to be proved wrong, so that I could restore my religious views, but the only answer I got so far, was “It will all make sense in the end”-type of answer.
I hope you are well. I see that you asked these questions many months ago and I just stumbled upon this page now. I’ll try my best to provide some answers 🙂 I warn you that it’s long! (But you did ask a lot of questions) 🙂
Question 1: This verse refers to what purpose that we, as human beings, should adopt in order to gain the most out of this life. It does not mean that God needs us to worship him. If this was really the case – that God ‘needs’ us to worship Him – then we would not have a choice rather we would be forced to worship Him by innate nature. The fact that we can choose to worship or not indicates that the issue of worship is down to us to decide what route we would take in life. This is further explained in the Quran, chapter 67, verse 2:
“It is He who created death and life to test you as to which of you is best in deed – and He is the Exalted in Might, the Forgiving.”
So life is a test to see which route we will take. And each person has the ability within them to find the way to God and God continuously makes ways for him or her to reach Him.
Question 2: God expects us to believe in Him because it is not too complicated. What maybe complicated to some people is making sense of certain things at a certain point in time. It is common sense to arrive at the belief in God. This has always been the case from philosophers of antiquity (Aristotle etc) to phenomenal scientists (Isaac Newton). Belief in God has always existed, endured, persisted and continues to be believed in. If you believe that a person can only believe what he/she can see then this is a flawed way of thinking. Let me give you an example. Let us take love. Can you see it? Do we have any empirical proof of there is something called love? We don’t. Yet we believe in it. Belief in God is much more than this. A person can observe (nature and much more), contemplate, rationalise and one logically arrives at the conclusion of a Creator as opposed to the lack of one (we can talk more about this if you want).
Question 3: I’m very sorry as I don’t understand the point that was made in relevance to the article (I’m hungry at the moment and I can smell Mum’s cooking and that is very distracting!)
Question 4: This is a very subjective matter. Some people would be very ‘angry at God’ but this is not everyone. I have seen many people who are very happy with their ailments (I’m a medical student so I get to see people at such a point in their life where they either believe or cease to). These are the second group of people who view the world in the way Sr Yasmin beautifully described as the second world view and the lens with which it is viewed through. It is a view and a realisation that there is more to life than this fleeting existence. And how would you know health if you didn’t know illness? And happiness if you did not feel sadness? And life if you didn’t know death? The thing is every single thing in life has the potential to bring you closer to God. It’s how you view it. If you haven’t tried these pair of lenses to view the world then you really should – it’s a beautiful view in which your mind is put at rest and you are happy through every moment in life 🙂
Question 5: This is related to the above question. But I’ll just add in some questions for you to think about. How much intervention from God would you like? I mean, the reason why we can’t see God is because He wants us to believe in Him through reason, logic and common sense. If we take that plane crash for example, would you like God to just pluck the babies from the air and make them float to the nearest comfy bed? And if this happens, how would the babies feel growing up without their parents? What if they end up with horrible foster parents? Or perhaps He should save the parents as well? But they have to die someday right? Will the babies, now grown up, not mind then? Will they not have developed much more stronger attachments and feel more pain that their parents now leave them? So should they all live forever? You see, us humans cannot come up with concrete answers to questions like these because we are not the ones bringing about the turn of events hence we do not know the ultimate reason behind it. Just because we do not know the reason behind it doesn’t mean that whatever happened was bad. However, on the Day of Judgement, we will know everything as the entire history of the universe will be played out in front of everyone’s eyes. And this is a movie to look forward to! Depending on how you have cast your character in this life!
Question 6: In Islam there is no concept that children have to suffer for the deeds of their fathers or mothers. In fact no one bears the sins of another or suffers for another’s deeds. Below is just one of many such verses that are in the Quran:
“And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another (sins). And if a heavily laden soul calls another to carry some of its load (sins), nothing of it will be carried, even if he should be a close relative. You can only warn those who fear their Lord unseen and have established prayer. And whoever purifies himself only purifies himself for the benefit of his soul. And to Allah is the final destination.” Chapter 35, verse 18
Question 7: To be entirely honest with you, I do not see this question as something that would disprove the existence of God. Perhaps you could elaborate?
I have written a lot! If you have got to the end then I thank you for your patience! 😀 I would love to hear from you soon.
Hey Rustam as for ruzkys first answer I thought it was kind of complicated but for that question I would answer that if there was no life other than god than who would admire his creation other than a free-willed creature (us). Anyway would you like to be nonexistent .