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Suffering As Purification: Healing in Solitude (Day 5)

“Suffering is a means of purification. Solitude is a means of clarification. And loss—whether of companionship, wealth, or even comfort itself—is a means of enrichment. It is a gift.”

—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah

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The “Healing in Solitude” reflections offer a glimpse into the heart of Umm Zakiyyah, as she continues her emotional healing journey during the social distancing lockdown amidst the coronavirus epidemic. Each journal reflection represents a “new day” in her healing journey and/or a new day in the mandatory isolation of social distancing. The following is Day 5:

Unwrap the pain, I tell myself. What message is hidden beneath the painful wrapping enveloping your heart?

This is a question I ask myself each time I face yet another difficult trial in life. This is an integral part of my soul care. Because I know all too well that it is often in that intimate space of making sense of our pain and trauma that we choose our spiritual path in this world—and our eternal home in the Hereafter.

Sometimes our trauma incites in our hearts kibr (spiritually harmful pride). Sometimes it incites in our hearts hasad (destructive envy). And sometimes it even incites in our hearts anger or frustration with God. (May our Merciful Creator protect us from self-harm.)

But for the believing heart, pain and trauma incite only a deeper connection to their Merciful Creator, even if their heart remains restless and confused as they navigate the pain.

But Why So Much Suffering?

Some years ago I was reading a book by M. Scott Peck called People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. As it is with every book I read outside the Qur’an, I found in it some points that were beneficial and enlightening while others were troubling and harmful. Then there were those points that I really didn’t know what to do with, but they remained thought provoking nonetheless.

Today as I reflect on all the trauma and pain I’ve battled in my life, I recall so many moments that I couldn’t make sense of what was happening to me, especially when I was being deliberately harmed by people I loved and trusted. My heart just couldn’t reconcile how I understood our sacred bond should be, with what I was experiencing day after day at their tongues and hands. There were even moments that some of them appeared to enjoy the suffering they inflicted on me, and these were people I’d considered close friends and loved ones.

Till today, I struggle to understand that experience, but in this moment, I recall something that I read and noted from the book, People of the Lie:

“It is as if we automatically assume this is a naturally good world that has somehow been contaminated by evil. In terms of what we know of science, however, it is actually easier to explain evil. That things decay is quite explainable in accord with the natural law of physics. That life should evolve into more and more complex forms is not so easily understandable… If we seriously think about it, it probably makes more sense to assume this is a naturally evil world that has somehow been mysteriously ‘contaminated’ by goodness, rather than the other way around. The mystery of goodness is even greater than the mystery of evil” (Peck, 1985).

No, I don’t think he’s right about the nature of this world being rooted in evil, because I know that in our purest form—the of the fitrah (our inherent uncorrupted spiritual nature)—the world of humans is one of natural goodness and spiritual purity. But still, I can’t deny that the author is tapping into some truth here, especially when we view our limited experiences in this world as a reflection of the nature of the world itself. This is especially the case when we also view this transient worldly life as a complete “world” that is separate from a larger, more magnificent existence.

In other words, once our hearts and minds remove from the equation the events of the Barzakh (the commencement of the soul’s journey in the grave) or the Day of Judgment and beyond, then what the author is speaking holds an uncomfortable grain of truth.

Unwrap the pain QUOTE

How Do Our Souls See the World?

“I don’t spend a single moment of my life worrying about the grave or the Day of Judgment!” a spiritual leader once told me. This was the same spiritual leader whom I mentioned in Day 4 of my reflections and who insisted that I should stop studying and practicing Islam according to the teachings of the Qur’an and instead follow the teachings of the chief Imam he favored.

I think on this spiritual leader now because it seems that he, as well as so many other professed Muslims and spiritual teachers I’ve met during my sojourn in this world thus far, is so focused on what this world should (or must) offer him that the reality of the Barzakh becomes irrelevant to his heart, though he professes belief in an afterlife.

This is unsettling to think about because the vast majority of us—even in our most heartfelt prayers—are most concerned with what we want to amass, enjoy, and achieve in this world as opposed to the Hereafter. Meanwhile we make compromises and sacrifices in our spiritual beliefs and practice because we are genuinely convinced that if anything must be abandoned for a greater good, that “greater good” almost always refers to something we want in this world.

This is why it is so common for Muslims to have more heartfelt dedication to their own opinions about how people should dress or behave, or even how they live out their private lives in their marriages, than to what Allah actually says. It’s even become common for Muslims to trivialize the importance of the five foundational prayers as we prioritize spending our days binge-watching our favorite entertainment, amassing wealth, “following our dreams” and even reinterpreting the Qur’an itself until it aligns with our ailing hearts.

As a result, for the mast majority of our day, the wider spiritual world that we are part of ceases to exist in the experience of our hearts and minds, even as it continues to exist in the experience of our tongues that profess emaan (true faith and authentic spirituality).

How Can You Seek Good Only in This Temporary Life?

If our hearts experience the “nature of this world” as independent of the wider spiritual world that envelops it, it’s impossible (logically speaking) to see this world as full of overwhelming goodness and happiness while evil and suffering are merely appalling anomalies. This is because through this limited lens, we would be forced to see this worldly life for what it is—fraught with painful trials, loss, and suffering (with moments of happiness and joy sprinkled throughout)—not as a place where our every wish can be granted and our every desire can be fulfilled.

Yet this irrational view (full of wishful thinking and satiating our every desire) is actually necessary to any lost soul whose heart is filled with hopes and dreams that do not extend beyond the dirt of their grave. Thus, to the soul that is attached to this world, the “fairytale world” irrationality is unavoidable.

But it will never come true.

So long as our souls see our experiences in this world as the sum total of our world and purpose in life, then we will forever be compelled to transform this world into something that it’s not: a Paradise on earth. Then we’ll continue to be confused, angry, or frustrated due to all the sadness, pain, and loss we suffer in this world. This is because in the “fairytale Paradise” (i.e. our life in this world) that we’ve created in our minds, we keep seeing this worldly life as full of overflowing happiness, goodness, and abundance—a “fairytale” we’ll either never enjoy or that we’ll taste only for a short period of time before it all falls to pieces, again and again.

QUOTE And all those worldly comforts and human relationships you thought you couldn’t live without? They were just temporary companions on your journey home. They were divine mercies—and tests—scattered along your path.

What Did You Expect?

I find the irrationality of the fairytale Paradise on earth to be very profound, mainly because of how I myself have so often processed my own pain. More times than I can count, I’ve battled the agony of my heart crying out, “But this isn’t how it’s supposed to be!” Even as this same heart expresses belief in the Words of our Merciful Creator, which have been translated to mean, “And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient” (Al-Baqarah, 2:155).

So as I sit in the quiet space of social distancing and “alone time” with my soul, I ask myself in subdued exhaustion: What did you expect?

Then I pray to my Merciful Creator to purify my heart from any unhealthy traces of the “fairytale” that I myself continue to hold on to, even when I don’t realize it.

Suffering As Purification

As a consolation to myself regarding the difficult parts of my spiritual journey, I am reminded of something I wrote in my journal a while ago:

Suffering is a means of purification. Solitude is a means of clarification. And loss—whether of companionship, wealth, or even comfort itself—is a means of enrichment.

It is a gift.

It is like your Lord handing you a weathered roadmap, one retrieved from the aged dirt of the earth, and pointing you in the direction of home.

Yet you didn’t even know you were lost. You didn’t even know what was home.

Until He placed that roadmap in your hand.

That’s the moment your soul falls in submission—despite all the suffering, clamoring, and confusion of life—and you humbly accept this inescapable truth: You are all alone on this journey home.

And step by step, breath by breath, and pain by pain, you are being called back.

And all those worldly comforts and human relationships you thought you couldn’t live without? They were just temporary companions on your journey home. They were divine mercies—and tests—scattered along your path. But like a cool drink of water on an arduous journey, they quench the veins only for the moment, and only enough to keep you moving.

Because even they have a path and roadmap of their own.

And that’s the beauty. That’s the blessing.

Because without the suffering and abandonment when your roadmaps point to diverging paths, you’d think that these temporary comforts and tests scattered along your path were the destination itself.

You don’t have to struggle alone. Let’s work together:

Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of more than twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. She recently launched her “Choosing To Love Alone” series via to support struggling believers seeking to nourish their emotional and spiritual health.

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