Human Suffering & Understanding our Place in the Cosmos

Babies and young children are naturally curious: if there is a loud sound, they will quickly look for the source of the sound and ask “what was that?” They are not routinised and everything is intense. This is why Aristotle said: “All men, by nature, desire to know.” As we grow up and become people “of” this world and not people “in” this world (note the difference), we become blinded, indoctrinated and attached to the world. We forget the world is transient, fleeting and, according to one saint, “You are nothing but a number of days, and whenever a day passes away, a part of you passes away.”

The Prophet Muhammad said we should remember death 20 times a day. Death is our reality. It is living – or to put it better, merely existing – in this world that is the illusion, as countless religious and philosophical traditions have said in the past. However, this does not mean we should be in a morbid state; there’s always time for frivolity. But it is remembrance that is the key to life. Platonic philosophy tells us that we know all the answers within, our job is to remember and discover them.

Interestingly, the Arabic word to “discover” comes from a word which means to “enter into an ecstatic state”, the idea being that once we discover the truth within us, we become truly happy. Why is this? There is a popular saying within the Sufi tradition which is often cited which says “if you know yourself, you will know your Lord”. And what more to life is there then coming to know one’s Lord?

Another interesting word in Arabic is insaan, meaning human being, which comes from the word nisyan, which means to forget – the implication being that we are in a state of forgetfulness and heedlessness, ghafla. What often takes us out if this state is suffering. In times of hardship we often, naturally, turn to God – it’s an instinctive response. We forget about God all year – but the night before our exam results we pray “please God, let me get good results” or before an interview “please let this interview go well”. It is in times of desperation that we come to know God.

American intellectual, Hamza Yusuf, said: “God is with the broken-hearted. When your heart breaks, it’s a good thing – the breaking of the heart is what opens it up to the light of Allah. The dunya [the world] is designed to break your heart, to crush it.”

Let’s be honest, this life is replete with suffering. However, there is also so much beauty. While God’s rigour manifests in creation, His mercy ultimately predominates. This is why Hamza Yusuf wrote: “There is a day when the divine redresser will right every wrong, heal every wound, fulfill every vow, and remove for all eternity the scars of this world that were unjustly inflicted by those who betrayed God’s protection.”

The world is therefore a theatre which manifests the attributes of God: of rigour and sternness as well as love and mercy. Human beings also adopt these attributes, that is why we have different natures: some of us are kind, some beautiful, while others are rigorous and some severe. The perfected, Adamic human being has all of these attributes. However, because God has these harsher attributes, harshness in creation is bound to manifest.

A school of thought in Islamic theology, the Ash’arites, believe that nothing in the universe remains still or constant for two successive moments: God is constantly giving existence to all of creation to prevent its annihilation. “Thus, at each instance, God’s mercy and gentleness create all things in the universe…which reaffirms His immanence in the cosmos….but as his Mercy creates, his Wrath destroys as His unique and absolute reality cannot allow any other reality to exist alongside it,” Sachiko Murata writes. This is similar to a theory in Quantum Physics which postulates that everything is popping in and out of existence.

Hardship and human suffering is therefore not only an inevitable part of our lives but also an integral part, too. One contemporary philosopher said: “Suffering is the process by which the soul re-calibrates.” While the Sufi poet Rumi said: “Suffering is a gift, in it is hidden mercy.”

We are told in the Islamic tradition that God breathed something of Himself into Adam. This means there is a divine spark within us and an intrinsic connection between the Creator and the creation. By remembering our Creator we reinforce this divine connection and by forgetting Him, we weaken it. By God giving something of Himself to us, this does not take anything away from the divine Wholeness or Plenitude, analogously similar to the way blood is replenished after it is lost.

Another popular saying within the Sufi tradition is: “God says, ‘I was a hidden treasure and I desired to be known. Therefore I created the creatures, so that I might be known'”. Some claim this saying dates back to the Prophet Muhammad while others claim it is inauthentic. (The late Martin Lings was certain the saying is authentic).

However, during God’s eternal epoch, there must have been a time – God, of course, is atemporal (I use “time” for want of a better word) – when God existed alone without any other created being. So the saying may be true. Other scholars have said that God created human beings so that His beauty may be recognised.

Our purpose is to reach the perfection of ourselves by drawing out the hidden light of our own essence, which will overcome our darkness. By constantly engaging in remembrance of the divine we hope that He will disclose to us the essential light of our own reality. We are the microcosm enclosed with the macrocosm, heading in only one direction, moving away from this world and into the next, our primordial Home. In Heaven we must be a delight to the other blessed spirits who accompany us.

Hell is sometimes needed to purify us of the stains we accumulated in this life where we forgot our purpose so that we can return Home, pure.



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