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Islam and Spiritualism ( 5 Jun 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Spiritual Significance of Suffering from the Perspective of Islamic Sufism

By Prof. Henry Francis B. Espiritu, New Age Islam

05 June, 2015

            If Divine Providence (Qadr) is just, why are there so much sufferings in this world? Philosophers, theologians, and even common folks ask this perennial question. Ancient and contemporary sages pondered on this question and they too had some answers to this paradox of life—answers that fill volumes upon volumes of books and philosophical treatises. Likewise, I would, from time to time, reflect on this existential mystery and I gained some glimpses of truth on the nature of suffering and its value in our spiritual maturity. I am not however pretending to give a comprehensive answer to this most ancient of questions. I am sharing my “cents-worth” of insights to those who may be right now are searching to find existential sanity in the midst of overwhelming suffering and hurts that they experienced in their lives; perchance, my reflection can be a source of inspiration for them to go on living their lives with meaning despite pains and suffering. My reflections on suffering are however not entirely my own; they are informed and mediated by my philosophical and spiritual readings of the transcendental and devotional writings of the sages and saints of mystical Islam (Tasawwuf or Sufism). For me, the profound reflections of these Sufi savants hold rich treasures of insights on suffering, as well as keys that unlock the secret panacea that will eventually allow us to overcome pain and suffering: by making us understand and appreciate the redeeming value of suffering in our spiritual journey to God Who is our Ultimate Goal.    

The Perspective of Buddhist Philosophy: Suffering as Caused by Worldly Desires and Materialistic Cravings

            Taking a cursory look at our world, we find many unpleasant things and occurrences that are happening: death, injustice, and hunger, human trafficking, natural and man-made calamities, cruelties, barbarities, wars, terrorism, chronic sickness, epidemics, etc. This phenomenal world is in pain and in constant suffering. Pain is not only limited to the outside world; in our internal world (Nafs) we are also suffering because we can hurt our own selves just as well. Insults from people, broken relationships, misunderstandings with friends, bitter feelings towards another person, persecutions from enemies, sadness, ennui, boredom, guilt feelings, and our own materialistic cravings—all these can hurt us deeply. Why then do we have to suffer? Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, the sage of Buddhism also questioned this formidably depressing situation characterizing human existence. In fact, his Enlightenment was the culmination of his long search for a comprehensive answer to suffering. This is the first statement of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: “Life is full of sufferings”. This truth is very relevant for our own reflection on suffering since if this is properly contemplated and realized; that is, once we see the full existential picture of this truth, we begin to transcend suffering. From the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, once we truly accept the difficulty of life and the existence of suffering as part of the nuances of living, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters. It means that suffering as part of our human situatedness, once admitted and accepted, can be the starting point of our own spiritual healing. (See M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. London: Arrow Publishers, 1990; pp. 13-14.)

             What is the main cause of suffering? The Buddhist perspective simply answers: “Limitless desires”. The Buddha said: “Suffering is brought about by our infinite cravings or desires”. Our unlimited cravings and desires pitted against the true nature of Reality are the causes of our own pains. For instance, we want to be rich and famous without being disturbed and without exertion. We want to be absolute knower without striving to learn. We want to be happy always freed from any inconveniences and botherations. We want to be healthy and well always; but if we look at Reality we will be frustrated since not all our desires can be satisfied the way we want them. Since we crave and desire with no limitations—but the nature of Reality does not permit our unlimited desires—we grumble and sigh: “Oh what a cruel world!”

Sufism’s Existential View of Suffering as Part and Parcel of the Imperfect Condition Characterizing Human Existence

            In contrast with the much rationalizing and overly cerebral attitude of Buddhism regarding suffering, Sufi-Islamic mystics offer a more profound existentialist perspective regarding the purpose of suffering with respect to “our human condition of unsatisfactoriness”. Hazrat Bayazid Bistami, a Persian Sufi spiritual master, states: “Accepting our human condition of unsatisfactoriness is the antidote to suffering, for somebody who knows that the oil in his lamp is limited, will not moan after its extinction. One who knows that the lamp which he has lit is not safe from the harsh winds will not scream when it is blown out” (Sirr-e-Dil [Secrets of the Heart]. Dacca, Bangladesh: Naksbondi Sahit Kitabkhana, 1977; p.141). Sufism likewise accepts the inevitability of suffering as part of the overall makeup of Reality. Therefore, we are obliged to accept the existence of suffering for our own mental and spiritual sanity.

             Hazrat Maseehullah Khan Sherwani Chishti, a renowned saint and Muslim scholar from the Indian Subcontinent, noted on the inevitability of suffering as part-and-parcel of our own human situatedness. He said: “Suffering is not per’se, negative; it happens to everyone in this imperfect world—we suffer because this world is far from perfect. Suffering is a great equalizer; suffering is therefore a ‘given’ and a ‘constant’ in this ephemeral world... that is why I call suffering a neutral occurrence. It is how we make of it that makes suffering negative or positive. The enlightened person approaches pain as a stepping stone towards his perfection and spiritual growth... the pessimist sees it as a stumbling block... it is your decision that matters as to how you see it and respond to its challenges” (cited in The Grace of Contentment and Surrender, by Abubakr Qadri. Peshawar, Pakistan: Qadri Book Depot, 1975; p. 41).

The Redeeming, Transforming, and Purifying Value of Suffering in the Perspective of Islamic Sufism

            Spiritually speaking, suffering is beneficial if we know its redemptive purport, transformative aim, and its transcendental objective. Hazrat Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, a great Turkish saint said that pain and sufferings instruct us so that we will be able to see a “higher view of life”. Suffering enables us to contemplate that God alone suffices for us; and that we need to submit ourselves to the Providence of God, in perfect trust, contentment, gratitude, forbearance and obedience (Cf., Risale-i-Nur: The Flashes Collection. Istanbul: Sozler Publications, 2004; p. 27-28). Furthermore, it is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we grow spiritually strong and psychologically mature in life—thus we learn to face life in its multi-dimensional challenges and tasks. As per Hazrat Said Nursi, truly wise people do not dread pain and suffering; they welcome them, learn from them, pour courage on them and find wisdom in them. Our experiences of suffering make us resolute, spiritually mature and holy; since the experience of pain and suffering prod us to place our reliance solely on the Benevolent God Who allows us to experience difficulties for the good of our souls.

             It is only through sufferings and difficulties that one can attain mastery in life and living. Hazrat Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, the famous 12th century Turkish mystic, keenly observed our human condition; thereafter, he articulated this very penetrating observation: “God turns you from one feeling to another and teaches you by means of opposites, so that you will have two wings to fly—and not just one” (Masnawi Selections, Islamabad, Pakistan: Ruhaniyyat Press, 1985; p. 76). For Maulana Rumi, life is characterized by the alternating movements of opposites: conflict and peace, peace and conflict, happiness and sufferings, sufferings and happiness, joy and pain, pain and joy… so on and so forth. God designs this alternating psycho-spiritual dynamics in the inward soul for the moral, mental, emotional, and spiritual development of humans.

             The Holy Quran-an says: “Verily, with every difficulty, there is relief; verily with every hardship, there is ease. Therefore, when you are free from your immediate burden, still toil—and toil hard. And to your Cherishing Lord, turn all your attention. In your toil and ease, strive to please your Lord” (Al Quran-an, 94:5-8. Istanbul: Asir Ajans Publishers, 2005). Similarly, the view of the idealist German philosopher Hegel absolutely agrees with the abovementioned Quranic pronouncement when he said; “Conflicts, disputes, confrontations, and struggles are the laws of progress. Human development evolves in the battlefield of the mind and in the riot of the world. One can therefore reach stability and tranquillity only through conflicts, disputes, and struggles. Here, I am not speaking only of struggles in society but also from the point of view of the struggle in man’s inward psyche. Life’s development and transformation are always borne out of conflict... conflict purifies experience... Struggle and striving are the vehicles for the evolution of man’s spirit” (in Helmut Wilhelm Kuhn, The Spirituality of Hegel. Winchester: Anglican Resources, Ltd., 1985; p. 127).

             In the same vein, Hazrat Bediuzzaman Said Nursi echoed Hegel’s perspective regarding the dialectic relationship between conflict and development. However, transcending Hegel’s view, Hazrat Said Nursi strongly articulated on the redemptive effect of conflict in our inner-life and in our spiritual growth towards deep communion with the Supreme Beloved. To quote Hazrat Said Nursi: “... by means of misfortune, illness and pain, and other motion-inducing contingencies, the cogs of the human machine are set in motion and revolution... It [i.e., suffering or conflict] induces in man to toil and labour for excellence. Thus by means of these contingencies, man becomes like a moving pen... he becomes a pen to write the decree of God in his very own life; and due to this, he becomes an ode to the glory of God” (Risale-i-Nur: The Flashes, op. cit., p. 28). Thus for Hazrat Said Nursi, suffering is a venue by which we can reach the heights of spiritual excellence, and a vehicle whereby we can manifest the majesty of God in all our life’s struggles.          

 The Believer’s Experience of Suffering: Venue towards Sensitivity of the Heart, Training of the Spirit, and Openness to Receive God’s Grace into the Soul

            Baba Guru Nanak Sahib, a saint of medieval India, founder of the Sikh religion, and equally revered by Muslims and Hindus alike, once said, “When God instructs His slaves with profound things and mysterious secrets of life, He drowns them into the sea of suffering. Like a swimming tutor who throws his new student into the water and makes him struggle to learn swimming, God does the same to perfect His slaves’ patience and forbearance” (Guru Nanak Sahib ka Ustat [In Appreciation of Guru Nanak Sahib]. Jabalpur, India: Sikhi Prachar Sangh Publishing, 1991; p.75). Baba Guru Nanak’s analogy is indeed very instructing and very true; for if one simply reads hundreds of books on swimming, he will not learn how to swim. The student has to wade into the deep water and risk the danger of drowning, and from there learn swimming.

             In the same vein, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi analogized on the educative aspect of human suffering when he said; “They throw barley on the earth; then came out branches. Next, they crushed it in the mill; then it became delicious bread after being baked and placed in the burning furnace. Next, the bread is chewed and digested and it became mind, spirit, body, and emotion. And when the mind is bewildered with love for the Beloved, what a wonderful transformation this simple barley has gone through! (sic) This barley-grain has indeed taken a marvellous journey!” (Masnawi Selections, Islamabad, Pakistan: Ruhaniyyat Press, 1985; p. 81)

            Therefore, if we long to attain true happiness of living, we have to undergo all difficult and painful experiences in life. Great men and women, saints, savants, martyrs, and heroes suffered from oppressions, tortures, poverty, persecutions, and misunderstandings; they courageously persevered in going on with life—despite much difficulties—by God’s grace, beneficence, and mercy; that is why they become heroes and saints. By responding with perfect submission, coupled with courage and trust to whatever challenges the Almighty God give us, we become co-workers with Him in furthering His Will in our lives and in the lives of others. Facing our suffering with courage, perseverance, fortitude, and faith is both a source of grace and a sure road to our inward sanctification and spiritual transformation. This is, I believe, how the Sufi mystics of Islam understood and realized the transcendental, sanctifying, and liberating value of suffering in our lives as human persons. May we therefore possess a mature realization that living entails both joy and suffering; hence, we should not escape suffering for sheer enjoyment, instead we should use our pain and suffering as vehicles for our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth; for it is in learning and realizing the redemptive and transformative values of suffering where we can comprehend the secret of life’s significance, meaning, and joy.

             May our All-Compassionate God give us steadfastness (Istiqamah) to face sufferings and pains in life. May He give us patience, courage and determination to overcome sufferings and pains by His mercy and grace. Amen, a thousand times Amen!

 Prof. Henry Francis B. Espiritu is Associate Professor-VI of Philosophy and Asian Studies at the University of the Philippines (UP), Cebu City. He was former Academic Coordinator of the Political Science Program at UP Cebu from 2011-2014. His research interests include Islamic Studies particularly Sunni (Hanafi) jurisprudence, Islamic feminist discourses, Islam in interfaith dialogue initiatives, Islamic environmentalism, the writings of Imam Al-Ghazali on pluralism and tolerance, Turkish Sufism, Muslim-Christian dialogue, Middle Eastern affairs, Peace Studies and Public Theology.