Islamic Themes

Struggle and Sacrifice


Basic points:

  • Tests/trials are from Allah and inevitable.
  • Different types of tests/trials.
  • Tests/trials as criterion to test genuine/sincerity and falseness/un-genuineness.
  • Struggle and sacrifice necessary part/consequence of belief in order to defend, aid and raise Islam.
  • Struggle has to be grand/cosmic/titanic and collective and not individual.
  • To overcome trials and tribulations = the parable of the ‘good tree (kalimat shajara tayyiba).

  1. 1. The reality of tests:

  • Allah mentions in the Qur’an that he will surely test the believers.
  • Tests and serious calamity, trials and tribulations are a reality.
  • Tests and serious calamity, trials and tribulations are inevitable and inescapable.
  1. (Be sure We shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods, lives and the fruits [of your toil] but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere. Those who, when misfortune strikes them, say: ‘Indeed we belong to Allah and to Him is our return. Those are the ones upon whom are blessings and mercy from their Lord and it is those who are rightly guided.)[1]
  1. (Every soul shall taste of death. And We will test you with evil and with good by way of trial. And to Us is your return).[2]
  1. (Know that your wealth and your children are but a trial and that Allah has with Him a mighty reward).[3]
  1. (And as for man, whenever his Lord tries him by honouring him and makes him lead an easy life, he says: ‘My Lord honours me’. But when He tries him by straitening his means of subsistence, he says: ‘My Lord has disgraced me’).[4]
  1. (It is He who created death and life that He may try you as to which of you is best in deeds).[5]
  1. Fitna: f / t / n / – linguistically means to burn something; fatanahu / ‘he burned it’; Q. 51:13 yawma hum ‘ala ’l-nar yuftanun (on that day they will be burned in the fire) = the primary meaning.[6] It also means to melt with the fire to separate the good from the bad.[7]
  1. Ibtila’: b / l / y / – to test, try and be afflicted;[8] e.g. with a disease or pain in order to know the state and condition of the object; to learn something new about them and to see whether an outcome is positive or not.[9]

  • The Prophet (saw) said: “When Allah desires good for someone, He tries him with hardships (yusab minhu).”[10]

من يرد الله به خيرا يصب منه

  • Thus, from this hadith we understand that trials and tribulations are a source of khayr (‘good’) from Allah.
  • Tests are a reality.
  • Allah will test us as believers.
  • We have no choice over the tests and neither can we avoid it.

2. Why tests and the need for struggle?

  • Imam Abu Harith al-Muhasibi states in his famous book Risalat al-Mustarshidin:
“Do not rejoice in the easy times. Indeed, Gold is tested for its purity by fire. Likewise, a righteous servant is tested by hard times…”[11]

و لا تفرح بالرخاء فأن الذهب يجرب بالنار و إن العبد الصالح يجرب بالبلاء..

  • The Qur’anic verse behind this inspired statement relating the fact of testing in the imagery of purifying fire (al-tamhis) is:
(And that He may purge those who believe and deprive the unbelievers of blessings). – here tamhis can mean ‘trials’ or ‘tribulations’ (al-ibtila’ wa ’l-ikhtibar).

{ وَلِيُمَحِّصَ ٱللَّهُ ٱلَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ وَيَمْحَقَ ٱلْكَافِرِينَ }

  • The desirability of ibtila’ (‘painful trials’) and imtihan (‘tests’) was the belief of the salaf:
  • Imam al-Shafi’i was asked by a man:
“O Abu ‘Abd Allah, which is better for a man; that he be stable, settled and established or be tested? Al-Shafi’i replied: one cannot attain tranquillity and be established until he is tested. Indeed, Allah tested Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus and Muhammad (upon them all be peace) and when they persevered and remained steadfast, [Allah] established them and made them firm…”[12]

سأل رجل الشافعي فقال ‏:‏ يا أبا عبد الله، أيما أفضل للرجل أن يمكَّن أو يبتلى ‏؟‏ فقال الشافعي ‏:‏ لا يمكَّن حتى يبتلى فإن الله ابتلى نوحاً وإبراهيم وموسى وعيسى ومحمداً صلوات الله وسلامه عليهم أجمعين، فلما صبروا مكنهم، فلا يظن أحد أن يخلص من الألم ألبتة ‏

  • So, why would Allah want to purify the believers through tests like Gold is purified through fire?
  • One reason is that by separating those who are committed to those who are not, Allah can select who will be best to carry the religion forward and work for its progress and establishment.
  • Thus, if we are able to endure and pass the tests, Allah will reward us and through them may honour us with carrying the call.
  • Allah gives this reason clearly in the Qur’an:
(Do men think that they will be left alone on saying, ‘We believe,’ and that they will not be tested? We did test those before them, and Allah will certainly know those who are true from those who are false).[13]

الۤـمۤ } * { أَحَسِبَ ٱلنَّاسُ أَن يُتْرَكُوۤاْ أَن يَقُولُوۤاْ آمَنَّا وَهُمْ لاَ يُفْتَنُونَ } * { وَلَقَدْ فَتَنَّا ٱلَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِهِمْ فَلَيَعْلَمَنَّ ٱللَّهُ ٱلَّذِينَ صَدَقُواْ وَلَيَعْلَمَنَّ ٱلْكَاذِبِينَ }

  • Thus, trials and hardships given to Muslims have their purpose and Allah alone knows in His wisdom why He ultimately allows them and permits them.
  • But they are a reality and do have their possible wisdoms such as:
  1. They are a test of the level of our faith and hence good for our religious progress.
  2. They allow us to actually experience Allah’s names and attributes.
  3. It brings us closer to Allah.
  4. A means of reward.
  • A believer does not attempt to avoid them (he cannot) but to pass them and rise as a new individual.
  • [for struggle section see separate talk].

3. One Qur’anic directive of overcoming these trials and tests:

  • Allah strikes a parable in the Qur’an 14:24-26:
(Have you not considered how Allah sets forth a parable of a ‘beautiful word’ [being] like a good tree, whose root is firm and whose branches are in heaven; It brings forth its fruit at all times, by the permission of its Lord. So Allah sets forth parables for all people, in order that they may receive admonition. And the parable of an ‘ugly word’ is as an ugly tree pulled up from the earth’s surface; it has no stability. Allah will establish in strength those who believe, with the word that stands firm, in this world and in the Hereafter; but Allah will leave, to stray, those who do wrong: Allah does what He wills).

Imam al-Shawkani mentions: “Ibn Jarir as well as Ibn al-Mundhir, Ibn Abi Hatim and al-Bayhaqi from ibn ‘Abbas mention that [Allah’s] saying (have you not seen how Allah strikes a similitude of ‘a beautiful word’) to mean: the shahada of la ilaha illa Allah [‘there is no deity worthy of worship but Allah’] (…like a beautiful tree) here is the believer (its trunk or roots are firm) meaning that la ilaha illa Allah is firmly established in the heart of the believer. (its branches stretch forth to the sky) means: the believer’s deeds ascend to the sky by that (the ugly word) which is shirk ([‘polytheism’] is like an ugly tree pulled up from the earth’s surface and has no stability) meaning: shirk does not have any basis or foundation from which a kafir can take from and neither does it have any proof and Allah does not accept any action based on shirk…”[14]

وقد أخرج ابن جرير، وابن المنذر، وابن أبي حاتم، والبيهقي، عن ابن عباس في قوله: { أَلَمْ تَرَ كَيْفَ ضَرَبَ ٱللَّهُ مَثَلاً كَلِمَةً طَيّبَةً } قال: شهادة أن لا إلٰه إلاّ الله {كَشَجَرةٍ طَيّبَةٍ } وهو المؤمن {أَصْلُهَا ثَابِتٌ } يقول: لا إلٰه إلاّ الله ثابت في قلب المؤمن { وَفَرْعُهَا فِى ٱلسَّمَاء} يقول: يرفع بها عمل المؤمن إلى السماء. {وَمَثلُ كَلِمَةٍ خَبِيثَةٍ } وهي الشرك { كَشَجَرَةٍ خَبِيثَةٍ } يعني: الكافر {ٱجْتُثَّتْ مِن فَوْقِ ٱلأَرْضِ لَهَا مِن قَرَارٍ} يقول: الشرك ليس له أصل يأخذ به الكافر ولا برهان، ولا يقبل الله مع الشرك عملاً.

  • Some points about this parable (mathal):
  1. A ‘beautiful word’ in this verse refers to the Islamic statement of belief: la ilaha illa Allah ([shahada] ‘there is no deity worthy of worship except Allah’).
  2. A ‘beautiful tree’ here characterises or describes generally how a believer is – a beautiful, radiant and visible tree.
  3. The root or trunk (asl) of the believer indicates h/her firmness of faith/belief (iman) – stable, unwavering, firm and strong.
  4. The ‘branches’ (far’) here refers to the fruits and effects of having a true and strong iman which yields continual ‘fruits’ (i.e. rewards and effects), all year round (i.e. it is constant).
  5. ‘Branches reach to the sky’ meaning a believer’s iman cannot remain hidden. A Muslim cannot claim to have iman solely in the heart while not having it show in h/her actions. Contrary to that, iman is something so significant that by its nature, it must be seen by anyone who looks at or interacts with a Muslim. Your iman raises you up to a higher moral level, just as the branches of the beautiful tree reach upwards towards to the sky.
  • The date palm tree (al-nakhla) is the one that resembles the believer as describe by the Prophet: it is upright/straight; grows in any soil; gives its fruit in all seasons; weather conditions cannot batter it; it always remains firm; its trunk is like rock, it is visible, etc….
  • ‘The ugly tree’ is one that has no basis, foundation or stability just like kufr (disbelief’).
  • Allah will establish and keep firm those who believe with the firm and true word – His support is there for them.
  • All the above indicates:
  • to have true and firm iman means to have utter trust, reliance, acceptance and satisfaction with what Allah decrees and how He decides that decree.
  • to have true and firm iman requires us to be steadfast with patience and perseverance in the face of trials, calamities and extreme tests.
  • to have iman requires us to submit to the commandments of Allah and follow them how He has instructed through His beloved.
  • to have iman requires us to do actions and not just make verbal statements/confessions.
  • to have iman requires us to have deep knowledge of Allah; that He exists, is all-powerful, that He loves his servants and has sufficient reasons as to why He does something that seems severe and works with a Divine plan.

This idea and understanding of Allah and the purpose and plan He has will reassure the believer and fortify them, strengthening them and giving them hope; making h/her thankful and content.

And Allah knows best.

S. Z. Chowdhury

[1] Q. 2:155.

[2] Q. 21:35.

[3] Q. 8:28.

[4] Q. 89:15-16.

[5] Q. 67:2.

[6] E. W. Lane, Lexicon, Bk 1, p.2334.

[7] Ibid, Bk 1, p.2334.

[8] Ibid, Bk 1, p.256.

[9] Ibid, Bk 1, p.255.

[10] See al-Bukhari, Sahih, no.5645 and Ibn cAbd al-Barr, Kitab al-Tamhid, 24:180.

[11]See al-Muhasibi, Risalat al-Mustarshidin, p.52. The Prophet is reported in a hadith by al-Hakim in al-Mustadrak, 4:314 which is sahih and confirmed by al-Dhahabi in his Talkhis:

إن الله ليجرب أحدكم بالبلاء كما يجرب أحدكم ذهبه بالنار، فمنه ما يخرج كالذهب الإبريز، فذاك الذي حماه الله من الشبهات، ومنه ما يخرج دون ذلك فذلك الذي يشك بعض الشك، ومنه ما يخرج كالذهب الأسود فذاك الذي افتتن.

[12] Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Kitab al-Fawa’id, p.255.

[13] Q. 29:2-3.

[14] See al-Shawkani, Fath al-Qadir, vol.3, p.706.


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