There are different reports of this saying. Despite variations in its wording, all of these reports essentially point to the same meaning. Those scholars who embody knowledge in the true sense of the word, and the righteous ones, are friends of God; they are the heirs of the prophets. Since in Islamic thought the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, is the seal of prophets, it can be said that the greatest trials will be inflicted upon the friends of God most, just as it has been until today, and will continue to be so until the end of the world.
Then, why is this so? Why do those nearest to God have to suffer the most? One of the main reasons why it is not easy for us to rationalize this matter is because we can only perceive the outward face of misfortunes which look crushing. All the hardships and ordeals we experience in our lives are in fact instrumental in our spiritual cultivation and growth. Difficulties and calamities are like storms that occur in spring: they enable a person to discover a number of qualities in themselves. A person who has not survived through such trials is likely to have gaps of immaturity in their character, as a result of which they cannot develop a strong bond with the Divine.
As a matter of fact, God may rain down calamities on some people who are expected to shoulder a great cause to prepare them for even greater challenges in the face of which they will retreat at a critical moment. It is as if God is trying these leading people with the toughest of hardships and sufferings in order to prevent other weak and frail people from taking on an important service they will not be able to bear. God puts them through a sieve fifty times a day and shakes them to their senses so that those who are not strong enough, and are likely to turn back on their mission when faced with a very serious struggle – say, when their family is in danger – are separated from those who are strong. In this way, God sieves those who will never give up on the cause from those who are not at that caliber.
This has been the case since time immemorial. When a Prophet was raised in a community to convey God’s message to them, God sent great calamities there so that His message was raised on the strong foundations of qualified persons, not weak ones.
During the Age of Happiness, i.e. the time of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, trial and suffering were experienced greatly in Mecca, and were the reason why Muslims emigrated to Medina. However, even in a safe haven like Medina, an epidemic caught hold of the people and took its toll. Just as leading believers like Abu Bakr and Bilal were affected by it, so, too, was the blessed Messenger. However, they did not lay the blame on Medina and turn back on this tribulation; they did not leave the city, and chose to remain with the Prophet and his cause. This was a serious test, after which those who were ready to endure this difficult cause with the Prophet became evident.
The wisdom behind calamities is explained in many places in the Qur’an. One verse related to this subject is as follows: “Did you suppose that you should enter Paradise without God marking out those among you who really strive hard (in His cause), and marking out the patient and steadfast?” (Al ‘Imran, 3:142).
In another place, this situation is expressed as follows: “(Given the history of humankind in this world,) do you think that you will enter Paradise while there has not yet come upon you the like of what came upon those who passed away before you? They were visited by such adversities and hardships, and were so shaken as by earthquakes that the Messenger and those who believed in his company nearly cried out: ‘When comes God’s help?’ Beware! The help of God is surely near!” (Al-Baqarah, 2:214). In another place it is stated, “We will certainly test you with something of fear and hunger, and loss of wealth and lives and fruits (earnings); but give glad tidings to the persevering and patient” (Al-Baqarah, 2:155).
Although the report is not highly reliable, the adversity confronted by Prophet Job is similar to the situation related in this last verse. His property had been ruined, his children had died, and everything he had in his possession was destroyed. At that time, the devil, taking advantage of the situation, approached him and whispered into his ear in an effort to deceive him into rebellion. However, that hero of patience said, “Thanks be to God who gave everything to me initially and now has taken it back,” and pointed out the important place of adversity in a believer’s life. His attitude was the same in regards to other adversities.
Another positive aspect to the matter are the gains that this kind of calamity and adversity brings to a person. Perhaps these great people suffered some calamities, but at the same time, their spiritual levels were constantly increasing, and they were getting nearer and nearer to God. For this reason, enduring calamity and adversity are considered to be a type of worship.1 So much so that they provide greater and more unique gains for a person than regular worship.
The positive types of worship, which are physically performed, are visible to other people, and others can praise a person for his or her prayers. When praised by others, it becomes difficult to keep one’s sincerity of intention regarding their prayers. Consequently, we might foul our prayers as we submit to a sense of ostentation in our intentions. However, there is no ostentation or hypocrisy in the “negative worship” one observes when one suffers from physical and economic hardships; few people, if any, know when a person undergoes such trials. Such hardships are very significant, in the sense that, for instance, there are some sins which can only be redeemed by the difficulties a person encounters while procuring sustenance for their family.
Thus, “negative worship” is when a person resists a hardship with patience, which is rewarding even if a person is in a rather passive mood. If even a single thorn pricking a person’s foot is a vehicle for shedding sins—and this is clearly stated by the Prophet—then being subject to serious trials and tribulations would completely cleanse and purify a person, and there would be no traces of hypocrisy in them.
It can be understood from all of the points discussed that being subject to adversity is like a path leading to a person’s celestial make-up, where pleasure and taste are perfected, and, naturally, it is the prophets, saints, and others who walk this path who are able to attain God’s blessings.
1 “Worship consists of two kinds: positive and negative (in the sense of absence). What is meant by positive is the worship we perform regularly. As for negative worship, this is when one who is afflicted with misfortune or disease perceives their own weakness and helplessness, turning to and seeking refuge in their Compassionate Lord, concentrating upon Him, and entreating Him, and thus offers a pure form of worship.” (from Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s The Gleams [Second Gleam, Second Point])