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Muslim and Jewish Views

Why Do Pious People Suffer?

For many people, especially in today's world, it is very hard to reconcile the personal, sometimes seemingly intolerable, suffering of admirable and pious people with Divine justice and love. Believers of all religions face this challenge. There are many answers offered from karma to reincarnatio...
| Allen S. Maller | Issue 141 (May - Jun 2021)

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Why Do Pious People Suffer?

In This Article

  • Do men think that they will be left alone on saying ‘We believe’ and that they will not be tested?
  • God never puts any burden on a soul that is beyond its ability to bear.
  • To love another person is to expose your heart to heartache. If it is worthwhile to love another human, how much more so is it desirable to love God who desires our love.

For many people, especially in today's world, it is very hard to reconcile the personal, sometimes seemingly intolerable, suffering of admirable and pious people with Divine justice and love. Believers of all religions face this challenge. There are many answers offered from karma to reincarnation. 

Muslims and Jews have traditionally given the same answers with some variation. This is to be expected since both Jews and Muslims share the same belief in God's oneness, goodness, and justice; and both Jews and Muslims reject the doctrines of “bad luck,” inheriting sins from previous lives, or one being guilty for the “original sin.” 

The Qur'an tells us that just because you become, or already are, a believer does not mean that you will be exempt from personal suffering. “Do men think that they will be left alone on saying ‘We believe’ and that they will not be tested?” (29:2) It is additionally stated that: “Ye shall certainly be tried and tested in your possessions; and in your personal selves.” (3:186) 

We will be tested by fear of, and hunger for, the loss of material goods, loved ones’ lives, and the failure of our efforts to bear fruit. Yet if we patiently persevere then all will be well: “Be sure We shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods, or lives, or the fruits (of your toil); but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere” (2:155). 

The glad tidings might come from a reversal in your bad fortune in this world, as happened to Prophet Job, or in your life in the world to come. 

Traditional Jewish sages and rabbis would have agreed with all of the already quoted verses in the Qur'an as well as the following Ahadith, or reported sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad: “Anyone for whom Allah intends good, He makes him suffer from some affliction” (Bukhari) and “When Allah intends good for His slave, He punishes him in this world, but when He intends an evil for His slave, He does not quickly take him to task, but calls him to account on the Day of Resurrection” (Tirmidhi).

Most importantly, God never puts any burden on a soul that is beyond its ability to bear. “No burden do We place on any soul but that which it can bear” (6:152) and “Those who believe and do good – We do not impose upon any of them a burden beyond their capacity” (7:42).  

The rabbis were in full accord with these statements. They extended them even further to conclude that believers who were afflicted with severe calamities should take comfort that those who have a strong faith are given harder trials.

So too when Prophet Muhammad was asked about who suffers the greatest afflictions he replied, “The prophets, then those who come next to them, then those who come next to them. A man is afflicted in keeping his religion. If his religion is firm, his trial is severe; but if there is weakness in his religion, it is made light for him, and it continues like that until he walks on the earth without sin” (Tirmidhi).

If this seems very unjust and unfair, remember that “The magnitude of the reward goes along with the magnitude of the affliction” (Tirmidhi). Thus, “The believing man or woman may continue to have affliction in their person, property, and children so that they may finally meet God free from sin (Tirmidhi).

It is probably easier to understand this philosophy of life if it is first expressed in terms of the suffering that comes from human love. To love another person is to expose your heart to heartache. If it is worthwhile to love another human, how much more so is it desirable to love God who desires our love. 

The Torah declares, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) and "What does the Lord your God require of you, but to revere the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

This can be illustrated by the following parable (Martin Buber was a famous 20th century Jewish philosopher):

One day a young man stood in a town square proclaiming that he had the most beautiful heart in the whole valley. A large crowd gathered and all admired his heart, for it was perfect. There was not a single mark or flaw in it. 

Yes, they agreed it truly was the most beautiful heart they had ever seen. It was an ideal heart. As beautiful as a Greek stature of an ideal youth. The young man said that his perfect, beautiful heart, was due to his philosophy of following a path of self-realization, calmness, and detachment.

Then a Rabbi named after Martin Buber appeared at the front of the crowd and said, "Why, your heart is not nearly as beautiful as mine."

The crowd and the young man looked at the Rabbi's heart. It was beating strongly, but it was full of scars. It had places where pieces had been removed and other pieces put in, but they didn't fit quite right and there were several jagged edges. 

In fact, in some places there were deep gouges where whole pieces were missing. The people stared. How could Martin Buber say his heart was more beautiful than the heart of the ideal youth?

The young man looked at the older man's heart and laughed. "You must be joking," he said. "Compare your heart with mine; mine is perfect and yours is a mess of scars and tears."

"Yes," said Rabbi Buber, "Yours is a perfect, heartache free heart, but I would never trade my heart for yours. You see, every scar represents a person to whom I have given my love. I tear out a piece of my heart and give it to people, and often they give me a piece of their heart, which fits into an empty place in my heart. But because the pieces aren't exactly equal, I have some rough edges, which I cherish, because they remind me of the love we shared.” 

Rabbi Buber then said, “Sometimes I give pieces of my heart away, and the other person doesn’t return a piece of his or her heart to me. These are the empty gouges... giving love is taking a chance. And then there are places where my heart is broken, reminding me of the love I have had, and lost. I say the Kaddish prayer for remembering those who have died, in order to praise God for the pains of living a life of loving and caring; for it is better to love and lose than to be detached and never to love at all.”

The young man stood silently, with tears running down his cheeks. He walked up to the older man, reached into his own perfect, young and beautiful heart and ripped a piece out. He offered it to the old man with trembling hands. The Rabbi took the young man's offering, placed it in his heart, and then took a piece from his old, scarred heart and placed it in the wound in the young man's heart. It fit, but not perfectly, as there were some jagged edges. 

The young man looked at his heart, not perfect anymore, but more beautiful than ever, since love from Rabbi Buber’s heart now flowed into his. They embraced and walked away side by side.


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