“Do you believe that your struggle is more severe than the personal trials of every other Muslim? Why then do you say yours is ‘unfair’? Is it unfair because you are facing it, or is it unfair because you believe no other trial is at least as severe?”
— from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah
The following is an excerpt from the book Let’s Talk About Sex and Muslim Love by Umm Zakiyyah:
During the most difficult and confusing times of our lives, our faith is often shaken. We begin to question who we are and what we believe. Sometimes when there is no one around to hear us but the walls of our room and God above the heavens, we cry out, “Why me? Why is this happening to me?”
Our despair can be due to the death of a loved one, to a terminal illness diagnosis, or even the loss of a coveted career or educational opportunity. But regardless of the details of our individual trials, beneath each episode is the excruciating feeling of helplessness because we have lost—or we are at risk of losing—something that is dear to us or something that we believe is essential to our sense of self or the meaning of our lives.
No one is exempt from life’s trials, not even prophets and righteous people.
“Or do you think that you will enter Paradise while such [trial] has not yet come to you as came to those who passed on before you? They were touched by poverty and hardship and were shaken until [even their] messenger and those who believed with him said, ‘When [will come] the help of Allah?’ Unquestionably, the help of Allah is [always] near.”
Can You Help Me?
Being in a position where I’m regularly contacted by people seeking advice during some of the most difficult and trying times of their lives is very humbling. Emails, phone calls, and whispered stories in which someone seeks help and guidance are parts of my daily life, as it is for many public figures, community leaders, and respected members in the Muslim community.
Though the details of each story are unique, many of those seeking advice have very similar (and sometimes identical) struggles. But not every narrative is shared for the purpose of receiving spiritual direction. Some people need only a shoulder to cry on or someone to listen with empathy and without judgment to their pain and confusion. For most of us, both are essential to getting through a difficult trial. Thus, it is a combination of both religious honesty and nonjudgmental compassion that we all need when we reach out to someone and say, “Can you help me?”
When We Don’t Care What’s Right
In facing the inevitable trials of life, sometimes we don’t care what’s right. We want what we want, even if it means displeasing Allah. In these circumstances, our reaching out and seeking advice is usually in hopes of someone saying that we don’t have to do what we know full well Allah asks of us.
What makes this spiritual trauma both crippling and self-destructive is that we are not always conscious of our impure intentions. It often takes an outsider looking in to point out the sometimes obvious contradictions in our words and actions, contradictions that go far beyond natural, inevitable human fault. Destructive spiritual trauma occurs when our trials worsen the darkness of our souls, when we are effectively throwing ourselves headlong into sin and, more tragically, disbelief.
The Prophet (peace be upon him said), “The believer is the mirror of the believer.” Thus, during these times, our entire perception of reality hinges on someone holding up a mirror in front of us and showing us our reflections, no matter how repulsive our image might be.
When our trial involves open disobedience to Allah, it is excruciatingly difficult to face ourselves, so we often lash out at others and blame them for holding up a mirror in front of us. We often become meticulously critical of and ultra sensitive to everything that is said to us or to even how people behave around us. In this way, we project our guilty conscience on others and interpret nearly every word of advice as a personal attack. Sometimes we become, quite frankly, pretty nasty people to be around. Loved ones may even tiptoe around us, afraid that even the innocent “How are you?” will be interpreted negatively.
Sometimes we even provoke discord so that we can accuse someone of being mean to us, especially those who are reminding us of Allah and pleading with us to repent and change our ways. We might rush to social media so that we can play victim behind our Facebook or Twitter accounts, cushioned by the multitude of “likes” and “followers” who will nearly always support our pity parties…because we craftily frame our posts such that we evoke the most sympathy and the least scrutiny, sometimes even hiding behind someone else’s words or blog that we share on our page.
Some of us make the spiritually tragic choice to use social media to not only publicize our sin, but also to openly promote it. This promotion is often carried out under the guise of some greater cause or “spreading awareness” about an issue that we claim is close to our hearts (an issue that conveniently allows us to continue our sin guilt-free while painting others as harassers and aggressors if they, publicly or privately, tell us that we are wrong).
If we are promoting our un-Islamic lifestyle of drinking alcohol or interacting inappropriately with the opposite sex, our “greater cause” will likely be “Don’t judge.” If we are promoting our non-hijabi status, we will likely—in addition to championing the “Don’t judge” cause—criticize and shame movements that praise or support successful hijabis who are athletes, journalists, or public figures. “So are the only real Muslim women those who wear hijab?” we might cry out indignantly, even as the pro-hijab movements claimed nothing of this sort.
Thus, when our response to our test is so spiritually destructive that we have moved from feeling shame for our sin to openly bragging about it or even promoting it, it’s not good enough to merely have multitudes of people being kind and empathetic due to our struggles in the faith. We feel the need to go a step further and tear down those who are being positively recognized for their strengths in the areas that we have refused to work on spiritually.
Whose Trial Is More Difficult? Mine or Yours?
In the short story, “The Invitation,” we learn the trials of two best friends, Faith and Paula. Faith is struggling with her attachment to her high school boyfriend, John, as she comes to terms with her spiritual obligations after becoming Muslim. And Paula is struggling with her faith and sexuality after she decides to come out as gay—and convert to Islam.
Whose trial is more difficult? Faith’s or Paula’s? Oftentimes, when pondering the answer to this, we use our opinions, experiences, and selfish perceptions to come to a conclusion. However, we have no way of knowing whose test is more difficult because, ultimately, the most excruciatingly difficult tests are faced by those with the most emaan (faith) in their hearts.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was once asked, “O Messenger of Allah, who are the people who are most severely tried?” He replied, “The people who are tested the most severely are the Prophets, then the righteous, then the next best and the next best, and a man will be tested in accordance with his level of faith; the stronger his faith, the more severe will be his test” (sahih, Ahmad).
Thus, the level of difficulty a person faces through his or her tests is a matter of the unseen, as we have no way of knowing the level of righteousness in a person’s heart.
This Is So Unfair!
It’s difficult not to look at someone else’s life and think that they have it easier than we do. After all, we experience firsthand only our own trials, not anyone else’s. As such, we have intimate knowledge of the painful nuances and visceral realities of whatever trial we’re facing. We have no way of having that same level of knowledge regarding someone else’s life, no matter how close they are to us, in our hearts or circumstance.
“This is so unfair. This is so f—ing unfair.”
These are Faith’s angry words from “The Invitation” in response to her difficult trial—and they mirror how so many of us feel about the tests Allah gives us, even if we don’t speak these words aloud.
None of us is immune to the degeneration of the human spirit. We can all fall victim to the darkness of sin that mars our souls. And we can all fall victim to imagining that Allah is being unjust or “unfair” by giving us a trial that no one else has to face.
But ultimately, we are all being tested…and we can all pass our tests, with the help of Allah.
And, unquestionably, the help of Allah is always near.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. Join UZ University to learn how you too can find your writing voice and share inspirational stories with the world: UZuniversity.com
Original version published via MuslimMatters.org
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