بسم الله الرحمان الرحيم
I noticed this very small text by Izz-ul-Din ibn Abdis-Salam (~577AH – ~670AH) being taught and explained by members of the global Muslim community, and liked it so much that I decided to temporarily suspend my current Islamic Studies curriculum and teach this to my students instead. I want to share my very brief summary and explanation of the text here for the benefit of others inshaAllah, especially considering the relevance of the topic in these current times.
Who was Izz-ul-Din ibn Abdis-Salam?
He was a prominent and great Shafii scholar who became known not just for his vast amount of knowledge, teaching and writing of books, but also for putting his knowledge into action through religious activism. Among many other books, he wrote a tafsir and was one of the pioneers of documenting the ‘Principles of Fiqh’ in his celebrated book al-Qawa’id al-Kubra. The Abbasid sultan during his time built a Shafii college in Cairo for him to be in charge of.
Other than being a great scholar, what the Imam became most famous for would be his vocal correction of unIslamic practices of rulers, admonishment of the powerful slave-based military class, the harmful religious innovations of callers to Islam. This was often done in public, but despite this the Imam maintained a high amount of respect with rulers, scholars and the public.
An example of his religious activism is the following (summarized from Imam al-Subki’s al-Tabaqat al-Shafi’iyah al-Kubra):
Once he went to the palace of the Sultan, and the governors were kissing the ground where the Sultan was walking. In that moment, the Imam interjected in a loud voice in front of the Sultan and the whole palace, “What will you do when Allah says to you: I gave you the kingdom of Egypt but then you allow wine to be sold in a tavern in the city? This is happening along with many other evil things.”
The palace guards stood watching, but the Sultan asked, “Has this really happened?” He said, “Yes.” The Sultan replied, “This is my father’s fault. It’s from his time and he didn’t do anything about it.” The Imam replied, “Are you like those who said, ‘Indeed we found our forefathers upon this’?” Hearing this, the Sultan immediately ordered for the wine markets to be closed.
As the news of this event spread throughout Cairo, his student asked him, “What happened?” He said, “I saw the Sultan in all his splendor, and I was afraid that he would become arrogant and that it would destroy him.” His student asked, “Were you not scared?” He replied, “By Allah my boy, I brought forward the majesty of Allah and the Sultan became like a kitten in front of me.”
Note from this story how:
1) The Imam corrected the leader publicly without fear.
2) That he corrected him in a way that was constructive, he knew he had influence and used it well.
3) That he corrected him indirectly (without mentioning arrogance), showing wisdom.
4) He did not just want to ‘correct’ the Sultan, but he had genuine concern that the Sultan would harm himself because of his arrogance. It was not because of self-righteous anger or an outburst of personal piety as is often the case unfortunately with most people. May Allah rectify us.
Along with his other books, the Imam wrote a small booklet entitled, “The Benefits of Adversity and Affliction.” His advice is valuable, as he is someone who put faith into action, and not just teach and write books. He noted 17 benefits in the book. I will not translate it word-for-word, rather summarize the text, which are the underlined sections, and add my commentary, which is not underlined.
From afflictions we learn of the glory of Allah, and his overwhelming power from which none can escape. Calamities and difficulties remind us of Allah’s lordship, his rububiyyah, that Allah is ultimately in charge. Whether we like it or not, the Creator is in control.
From afflictions we learn of the humility and weakness of ubudiyyah, or slave-hood. “Those who when they are afflicted, say we are from Allah, and to Him we will return.” (2:156). This is the characteristic of the believers, that they know they are the property and slaves of Allah, and compelled by His will. We become accustomed to hearing we are the slaves of Allah, but difficulties remind us that ultimately we are helpless (just like slaves), and have no choice but to be carried on the tide of Allah’s will. This is not a negation of free will, but an affirmation of it’s limiting of by Allah’s will, knowledge and predestination.
We learn sincerity to Allah, as there is no way out except to turn to Him alone with sincerity. “If Allah seizes you with adversity then there is none that can remove it except Him.” (6:17) “If they set sail on a ship they call to Him with sincerity in their actions.” (29:65) Adversities and calamities leave us with no one to return to except Allah, resulting in automatic sincerity. Facing sheer fear, hopelessness and uncertainty, especially when no one else can help us we find none to turn to except Allah, and because of the circumstances, we do it with certainty as well. All doubts are dismissed at the moment of desperation.
One is compelled to take the steps to come closer to Allah themselves, without outside intervention. “When man is faced with hardship he calls to His Lord, seeking him out.” (39:8) A person may be the worst disbeliever, hypocrite or sinner but when hardship arrives, even this person actively takes steps to seek out Allah. Have you ever heard of an atheist/Islamophobe complain about multi-faith prayer rooms in hospitals, or the presence of faith and God in funerals?
Humility and meekness in dua. Many times unfortunately, we become insensitive to the importance of dua for our soul. We make dua for worldly concerns, but we do not see dua as an act of worship that purifies our own soul as well. Adversity reminds us of the true etiquette and purpose of dua: it is not just to ask Allah for material things, it is to demonstrate our lowly station in front of the Creator and to purify our soul from arrogance towards Him.
Calmness and self-control in the face of calamity. When we are not faced with significant adversities, we eventually become desensitized to affliction. Whenever the smallest harm occurs to us we become anxious, depressed or paranoid. True adversity creates calm and patience. The eminent psychologist Dr. Viktor Frankl described this psychological effect in his books and lectures as the ‘Will to Meaning’, or how suffering brings about a re-connection between the human being and their instinctual need to perceive meaning in life. We realize that we have nowhere to go and no one to turn to except Allah. We do not resign to ourselves, we resign to Allah and His overpowering will and infinite mercy.
Forgiveness of perpetrators. “Whoever forgives and does good then their reward is with Allah.” (42:40) If the adversity or affliction has been brought upon us by another person, then because of it we learn to forgive and let go of grudges against people. After all the lessons adversities teach us, we realize it is best to forgive and forget. In the end it was always Allah’s will, whether this perpetrator was present or not.
Abdullah ibn al-Abbas رضي الله عنه, who was just a boy at the time, narrated: “One day I was riding behind the Prophet ﷺ when he said, ‘Young man, I will teach you some words. Be mindful of Allah, and He will take care of you. Be mindful of Him, and you shall find Him at your side. If you ask, ask of Allah. If you seek help, seek it from Allah. Know that if the whole world were to gather together in order to help you, they would not be able to help you except if Allah had willed it. And if the whole world were to gather together in order to harm you, they would not harm you except if Allah had willed it. The pens have been lifted, and the pages have dried.” (Tirmidhi)
Forgiving people who harm us is a golden opportunity to purify our souls, earn Allah’s pleasure, rectify our selves and spread mercy and good morals in society.
Being patient. “Indeed Allah loves the patient.” (3:146), “Allah compensates the patient without restriction.” (39:10). “No one is given is given a gift better and greater than patience.” (Bukhari)
The following is summarized from al-Tashil fi Ulumit-Tanzil by Imam ibn Juzayy al-Maliki: Patience is mentioned more than 70 times in the Quran. The reward of patience is like fasting in that its reward is without restriction. Allah mentions 7 attributes of the patient: His love for them, His reward for them, His support and help of them, An everlasting home in Paradise, His mercy, His guidance and His blessings. Patience is of 4 types: Patience in times of hardship, patience in times of ease (by being thankful and obeying Allah), patience in avoiding sins, and patience (and submission) with what Allah has ordained in our destiny.
Being happy because of the benefits of difficulties and adversities. Ibn Masud رضي الله عنه said, “How wonderful are the two disliked things: poverty and death.” This is similar to how one is pleased with the bitterness and foul taste of a doctor’s medicine. This is not a call to sadism. The point here is not that we enjoy suffering or seek it out. The Prophet ﷺ would seek out the easier of two options as long as it was Islamically appropriate. The point here is that we recognize how suffering brings about benefit for us, and that we rejoice in such personal growth and understanding.
Thankfulness is another benefit of calamities and trials. Adversity and affliction make us more grateful, especially if we are from the more fortunate. Unfortunately when we do not see those who have less than us and do not spend time with them, we become less sensitive to how much we have and how thankful we should be. Gratitude has been shown in psychology to have numerous benefits, such as generating lasting happiness, eliminating stress & negativity, making us less materialistic, better at social relationships, and even have better sleep! And who better to be thankful to than the Creator and Provider of all that exists?
Calamities and adversity are a means of forgiveness for our sins. “The believer is not afflicted by difficulty, illness, even a worry that depresses them, or a prick of a thorn, except that it is a means of forgiveness of their sins.” (Muslim) From the signs of faith in a believer is that they are purified of their sins in this life by difficulties instead of being punished for them in the hereafter. The Prophets are the best examples of this. Difficulties are not punishments for the righteous, they are a means of even more forgiveness and purification, and chances to earn reward with patience.
Difficulties and problems bring about acts of mercy and generosity between people. “People are tried and tested, so be merciful to people in difficulty, and be thankful to Allah for being well.” (Muwatta – said to be a statement of Isa عليه السلام). In difficulties and calamities generous, kind, merciful and good-hearted people shine as they tend to others who are going through adversity. We are exposed to the best and worst behaviour of people and as such are reminded of the importance of morals, ethics and character. Such situations are our opportunity to be one of them. Already we have seen in the current crisis of Covid-19 how so many people have stepped up to help their neighbours and the less fortunate.
We learn the extent of how much we have been blessed by Allah. The extent of blessings are not recognized until they are lost. Hardships remind us of how much we have to lose. We are most often not able to recognize Allah’s blessings until they are taken away from us. Without hardships, we lose appreciation for what we have been given by Allah in life. Contentment in what we have is one the signs of faith in a believer.
“Take advantage of five before five: your youth before old age, your health before illness, your wealth before poverty, your free time before becoming busy, and life before death.” (Hakim)
The reward given by Allah for all of these benefits of adversity and affliction. Each of the benefits we have discussed are not just benefits in and of themselves, they are also rewarded by Allah as good deeds. Recognizing the Creator, humility with Him, taking steps to Him, making dua to Him, calmness & self-control in the face of calamity, patience, thankfulness, helping the less fortunate, experiencing hardship as a believer, and being content are all either acts of worship, acts beloved by Allah or acts that bring about eternal reward in some way.
The hidden wisdom of difficulties that may not be apparent to us right away but reveal themselves in the long term. “Perhaps you dislike something, but it is good for you.” (2:216) Perhaps the most beautiful story in the Qur’an that is a comprehensive, insightful and moving explanation of this principle is the story of Yusuf عليه السلام. In the story, he experiences betrayal from his brothers, separation from his family, slavery, deception, harassment and imprisonment until Allah rewards him for his patience and makes him a minister in the Ancient Egyptian government. His father Ya’qub عليه السلام also undergoes affliction, as his beloved sons betray each other, are taken away from him, and he loses his sight.
Difficulties and calamities prevent from evil and ungratefulness, showing off and haughtiness, arrogance and tyranny. Were it not for their power and kingdom, Nimrud and Fir’awn would not have seen themselves gods. The poor and the weak are often the followers of Allah and his Messengers. Excess luxury, wealth, power and material sufficiency (as is often the case in the modern lifestyle) desensitize us to the fragility of wealth and material possessions. We live with the blind assumption that good times will always last, which can make us either nihilistic, unconcerned and apathetic to ourselves and others, or even worse make us arrogant and contemptuous of others. Adversity and affliction destroy this mirage in our hearts and expose our own weaknesses to ourselves.
We are pleased with these benefits, which makes Allah pleased with us. Difficulties are experienced by both those who do good and those who don’t. Those who become bitter, jealous and hateful because of difficulties suffer in this life and the next. Those who are content experience the pleasure of Allah, which is a greater reward than Paradise itself. Hardships and difficulties can make some people bitter and angry. They blame Allah for their misfortune as they fail to see the value of failure, difficulties and hardship. Others have not only faith, but optimism. They see a silver lining in what Allah has preordained for them, and because of that they not only achieve contentment, but the pleasure of Allah Himself.
Benefit 18 (this and the following were added by me):
Adversity and affliction remind us of the importance of taking practical action in Islam. It shows the sheer lunacy, as well as contradiction with the Sirah, Shariah, common sense and scientific knowledge to sit idly by while we suffer and are exposed to harm.
Calamities and hardship remind us that Islam is a communal religion, not an isolationist one. In times of difficulty we are obligated to help others, and also expect help from others when we are in desperate conditions. Ethical and legal duties that serve to protect society are valuable in Islam, not just ones that protect the self at the expense of all others.
Calamities and afflictions remind us of the weakness of human beings as a whole, in stark contrast to the blind optimism of the modern era steeped in the false promises of scientism and neo-liberal economics. As an effect, they also show us the wisdom of many ancient and traditional assumptions and beliefs of human beings and the human condition.
We understand from adversities and hardships the value of resilience and toughness. While this is not an excuse to not take action and improve our situation, we realize the value of being able to withstand pressure and think clearly, calmly, rationally and strategically about our situation, not to panic, run away and live in fear. Adversity and hardships are a fact of life, and there is no escape them from them, especially the greatest hardships like death, the grave and the Day of Reckoning. As the quote from Marcus Aurelius in ‘Gladiator’ goes, “Death smiles at us all, all a man can do is smile back.”
Allah knows best. May he relive us of difficulties and grant us good and blessings in this life and the next.