God has bestowed upon some people material wealth and comfort, status and prestige, and upon others poverty, misery, and affliction. Does this mean that God prefers those who are wealthy, or that those who are poor deserve to be so?
Such questions should be asked only if one sincerely desires to learn the Divine reasoning behind such differences. To question the Divine decree in any other manner is sinful.
God bestows material wealth and poverty upon whom and as He pleases. For example, wealth may be inherited within a family so that those who were poor become better off. Certain abilities or personal traits, such as intelligence, shrewdness, and acumen in the management of wealth, are inherited genetically. And yet we see individuals who are just as capable, but whose circumstances deny them the opportunity to use their abilities.
Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, is reported to have said that God bestows the goods of this world upon whom He pleases, but knowledge ('Ilm) upon those who petition Him for it. This hadith, although possessing a defective transmission is, nevertheless, a most significant one. Clearly, material possessions should not be seen as necessarily good in themselves. God sometimes bestows material security and happiness upon those who petition Him for such things, but sometimes He does not.
There is good in what He bestows, whether it be wealth or poverty. For faithful individuals who do good deeds and are generous with what they have been given, wealth is a means of good.
If, however, they have weak faith and stray from the path of right action and charity, wealth becomes a means of evil. For example, if such people use their wealth to buy worldly things to satisfy temptations or to boast to others, or to do or purchase harmful things, their wealth is clearly a means of evil.
Similarly, if such people have abandoned the path of right action, poverty may be a means of unbelief, for it might cause them to rebel, inwardly or outwardly, against God's decree. Whoever does not wholly submit to God, whoever does not sincerely try to follow Islam, will find that his or her wealth will become a means of distress, a severe and demanding test: Know that your children and your worldly goods are but a trial and a temptation, and that God's reward is great (8:28).
We should recall here another saying of the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings: "Among you are such people that if they raise their hands and swear by God, He grants them whatever they desire and never makes them swear falsely. Ber'a ibn Malik is one of them" (Al- Bukhari, "Sulh," 8; Muslim, "Qasama," 24).
Ber'a ibn Malik, Anas' younger brother, lived a subsistence-level life of complete poverty. He did not have much food or a place to sleep. Such people, though poor and ragged in appearance, were the most loved and appreciated for their sincere piety. They were praised, and their actions were esteemed in the Prophet's statement mentioned above.
Once when 'Umar entered the Prophet's room, he saw the marks of the Prophet's rough sleeping mat on the Prophet's back. Tears came to 'Umar's eyes, and he remarked how the Byzantine and Persian emperors lived in pomp and luxury while the Messenger of God slept on a rough bed. The Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, replied:
"Do you not agree that they should have this world and we the Hereafter?" (Ibn Majah, "Zuhd," 11). During 'Umar's caliphate, when Byzantium's and Persia's treasuries flowed into the state funds of the Muslims, 'Umar continued to live a life of bare subsistence.
We must understand something here: Poverty in itself is not good; rather, poverty disciplines (and causes one to triumph over) the worldly self (nafs) and sets its sight upon eternal life. Poverty may allow some people to achieve that state of mind. But in others, it can engender inner distress, rancor, and ingratitude toward God, which is the root of unbelief. Similarly, material wealth and security may delude some people into feelings of pride and self-esteem, which cause them to neglect the needs of their fellow human beings and their debt to God. Their own arrogance and ingratitude are likewise a root of unbelief.
The surest way for a believer, therefore, is to understand that God gives something to perfect that individual in the best way. Whatever the circumstances, believers should strive to improve the welfare of their fellow human beings, and to trust completely in the All-Mighty, All-Merciful. The best attitude to display in this world, which is no more than a halting-place on the way to our everlasting destination, is well expressed in this brief poem:
I accept, my Lord, whatever comes to me from You,
For whatever comes to me from You is for my good.
Whether a robe of honor comes or a shroud,
Whether a sharp thorn or a sweet, fresh rose,
If it comes with Your blessing, it is my good that comes.
Are we victims of Destiny? Do we have any part in the calamities that befall us?
No one is a victim of Destiny. God never destines us to do something; rather, He creates whatever we will to do. In Its decrees or verdicts, Destiny always takes our free will into consideration.
People are directly responsible for the misfortunes that befall them. All misfortunes are the result of our choice to misuse our free will, or, as with Prophets, God wills to promote them to higher and higher ranks. For example, the sun is absolutely necessary for and indispensable to life. If someone stays in the sun for too long and dies of sunstroke, who can blame the sun? In the same way, the misfortunes we attribute to Destiny are the result of our misused free will. If we insist on blaming Destiny for what befalls us, Destiny will double the misfortune.
To cite another example: God created and endowed us with certain faculties or powers, one of which is lust. If we use it in unlawful ways, thus harming ourselves, who should be blamed for the resulting misfortune? God has given us this power so that we may use it in lawful ways to reproduce and be promoted to higher spiritual ranks by resisting our carnal self's suggestions to use it illicitly. It is the same with anger, which God gave to us to defend ourselves and our religious and social values, not to hurt others. Therefore, if we are taken in by it and kill someone, it our own fault, not Destiny's.
Destiny relates to simultaneously both cause and effect. If we judge only by considering the effect, we are usually mistaken. For example, if we accuse a father who is disciplining his child without considering his reasons for doing so, we may accuse him unjustly. If we are to judge any event accurately, we should consider everything related to it. If we still are unable to discern the good in an event, we should convince ourselves that whatever God does is good either in itself or with respect to its consequences. We should never accuse Destiny of anything.
People usually judge something to be evil when it may actually be good for them, or conclude that something is good when actually it may be bad for them.
The Qur'an declares: It may be that you dislike a thing although it is good for you, and that you love a thing although it is bad for you. God knows, but you know not (2:216).
Why Do the Innocent and the Guilty Suffer from the Same Calamity?
In such calamities as earthquakes or floods, God usually does not choose between the innocent and the sinful. When such calamities come, they fall on both groups, for the meaning of testing individuals in this world requires it to be so. However, in return for such calamities the innocent will be rewarded greatly in the Hereafter. God sometimes includes the innocent in such calamities because they do not try to stop the guilty from engaging in their sinful behavior.
Whatever God Does Is the Best and Most Proper.
As God only does what is right, we should try to see His wisdom behind His actions, the good He bestows on us, and the sufferings to which He subjects us.