“And all those worldly comforts and human relationships you thought you couldn’t live without? They were just temporary companions on your life journey.”
—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah
You cannot control another human being, and you cannot own another human being. And you have no ultimate responsibility or burden for any life or soul other than your own. Understanding this from the depths of my heart has been one of the most freeing epiphanies in my adult life.
Yes, it’s something that I’ve always known logically, as it’s something that both my faith and common sense teach. But the problem is, we are raised in cultures of entitlement and ungratefulness, such that we reach adulthood genuinely believing that it is someone else’s responsibility to make us happy, to fix our personal problems, and even to never make any decision that we dislike or disagree with, no matter how beneficial or necessary they deem it to be for themselves or others.
In this way, we are taught to believe that the world should revolve around our fleeting emotions, unhealed wounds and traumas, and our personal insecurities. So many problems in families, whether between parents and children or husbands and wives, could be better addressed if we understood this humbling fact—from the depths of our hearts and souls: You cannot control another human being, and you cannot own another human being. And you have no ultimate responsibility or burden for any life or soul other than your own.
Respecting the right of children to their own lives and souls is something that so many parents have yet to understand or even attempt to. Respecting the right of women to their own lives and souls is something that so many husbands have yet to understand or even attempt to. And respecting the right of men to their own lives and souls is something that many wives have yet to understand or even attempt to.
Why? Because our troubled hearts make us so fixated on what we deem to be our rights and needs that we forget that the one we are demanding to fulfill these on our behalf has his or her own rights and needs, separate from our own.
And oh the misery, broken hearts, and traumatized spirits that befall us as a result!
Do You Want One Level of Healing, or Three?
No, not a single one of us can escape pain, heartbreak, and trauma in life. But we can certainly reduce the depths of them by understanding that excepting cases of clear abuse, wrongdoing or oppression; most pain, heartbreak, and trauma are just inevitable facts of life—with no victims or wrongdoers involved. It just is what it is.
Those who don’t understand this sobering fact have three levels of healing to do instead of one: The first level is from the emotional wounding itself. The second level is from the “wrongdoing” someone inflicted on us due to not living up to our expectations of who or what they “should have” been to us. And the third level is from waking up and realizing that we wounded ourselves and other innocent souls in our unnecessary victimhood (in level two).
However, those who accept the natural pain and trauma inherent in the reality of life and human relationships have only one level of healing: the emotional healing of self (the first level above). And this journey of addressing emotional wounding itself can last a lifetime. Just imagine how much time it would take and how much unnecessary agony we would endure if we added the two other levels on top of that.
Given the level of pain involved in embracing self-honesty and emotional maturity in life, it is no wonder that so many of us choose entitlement and ungratefulness instead of self-accountability and self-healing. That way—if we can pull this off for a lifetime—we have absolutely no healing to do, no apologies to make, or no relationships to rectify, as all our pain and suffering is someone else’s fault; be it our parents or children, our husbands or wives, or even God Himself.
But to the hurting soul in self-denial, it is never us. Never, ever us. Never our own souls. Because we have made ourselves the perpetual victims of the wrongdoings of others, who were supposed to always make us happy, take away our pain, and always be there for us.
But oh, the emotional freedom and happiness that is born from realizing that our soul-care is no one’s responsibility but our own. Yes, friends, families, and loved ones are certainly crucial in our life journey of self-betterment and self-care, but they do not represent the betterment of self, itself.
Everything and Everyone Belong To Allah
Another essential part of self-honesty and emotional maturity is realizing this: All wealth and status belong to Allah, and all human souls belong to Him. There is no wealth or worldly comfort that is our divine right, and there is no human soul that is ours to possess and control, even if it is the soul of our husband or wife.
Moreover, if Allah chooses to test you with something, you’re going to be tested with that. Whether it’s a difficult marriage, an unexpected divorce, loss of wealth, or even spiritual trials; if it’s written for you, it will be part of your life path—no matter how many “precautions” you take, whom you trust for “expert” or spiritual advice, or even how much you pray Istikhaarah before making the decision.
This is because trials are a part of life, and no one can escape them.
Nevertheless, we still turn to Allah in du’aa and Istikhaarah so that our hearts can rest assured that whatever trial is befalling us is ultimately good for our life and soul, no matter how painful and confusing things are right now.
In reminding myself of this, I wrote this note in my personal journal:
Istikhaarah is not our ticket to “happily ever after” in every circumstance that Allah shows is best for us. This life is only a path to eternal happiness. It is not eternal happiness itself. So when you pray Istikhaarah and then something falls apart down the road, don’t look back and wonder if you misunderstood the signs from Allah. You didn’t.
But you might be misunderstanding the meaning of Allah decreeing what is best for you. The closest we’ll ever get to everlasting happiness in this world is in the relationship we establish with our Creator. And if any trial brings us closer to Allah, it was best for us, even if it’s the most painful thing we’ll ever experience in this world.
But Is It a Test or a Punishment?
Sometimes it’s difficult to accept that our suffering is simply an inevitable trial of life because we’re wondering if our painful experiences are in reality a punishment from God for our faults and sins.
In the Qur’an, our Creator says what has been translated to mean, “Whatever misfortune happens to you, is because of the things your hands have earned, and for many [of them] He pardons” (Ash-Shooraa, 42:30).
Furthermore, in a famous hadith, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him said), “All of the children of Adam sin, and the best of those who sin are those who constantly repent” (Sunan al-Tirmidhī, 2499, Sahih by Al-Suyuti).
As for the pain we suffer in life, whether physical or emotional, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) also said, “No fatigue, nor disease, nor sorrow, nor sadness, nor hurt, nor distress befalls a Muslim, even if it were the prick he receives from a thorn, except that Allah expiates some of his sins through that” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 5641, 5642).
Given this reality, when we are suffering a trial, we might still ask ourselves, “How do I know if it’s a test or a punishment?” This is a question I myself wondered for years. And every chance I got, I asked an Islamic teacher about it, or read whatever I could on the issue. Till today, this is the answer that resonates with me most: You don’t.
In any case, we can seek goodness and benefit from the experience by repenting to Allah and begging His forgiveness (whether for the sins we know we’ve committed, or for those we don’t know about or cannot recall). We can also strive to have beautiful patience through the trial and ask Allah to write us down amongst His sincere believers, even as we beg Him to lift the trial from us. In this way, bi’idhnillaah, we can embody the meaning of the prophetic words: “Amazing is the affair of the believer. Verily, every affair of his is good, and this is for no one except the believer. If something of good [or happiness] befalls him, he is grateful, and that is good for him. If something of harm befalls him, he is patient, and that is good for him” (Sahih Muslim, 2999).
If we are in the habit of constantly seeking forgiveness, even if we are indeed experiencing a punishment, we will be responding by repenting and changing our lives for the better. In this way, the circumstance ultimately brings good to us, if we are sincere and steadfast in making the necessary changes in our personal and spiritual lives.
In the end, only Allah knows why He puts believers through certain trials. Also, a test and a punishment are not mutually exclusive. Both could be happening at once.
All of life is a test for the human being, so everything we experience is meant to direct us back to our purpose: worshipping and serving our Creator. Therefore, whether we are experiencing ease or hardship, enjoying the worldly fruit of honest hard work, or suffering the bitter consequences of arrogantly disobeying Allah; we have in each circumstance the opportunity to seek Allah’s pleasure, beg His forgiveness, and attain Paradise when we die.
And if the worldly trial—or punishment—is encouraging us to turn to Allah, repent, and improve our spiritual lives; what practical benefit do we gain from obsessing over whether or not Allah is angry with us?
Unless we are arrogantly seeking to continue disobeying Allah and need a serious reality check, fixating on this question can become a distraction from spiritual growth itself. No matter what is or is not happening in our life (and why), we should be worshipping Allah and seeking His guidance and forgiveness anyway.
And would—or should—knowing whether you are facing a trial or a punishment change this noble focus for you?
Wealth and Happiness Are Also Trials
Prosperity, happiness, and social acceptance so often act as blinders to the soul. Most people are not propelled toward gratefulness, humility, and generosity through them; but rather entitlement, arrogance, and the obsessive need to protect their privilege at all costs, even if it means that innocent people suffer.
This is something I wrote in my journal as a reminder to myself to be careful for the sake of my soul. I share this reflection here because it is most often only during times of pain and hardship that we ask ourselves, “Is this is a test or a punishment?” However, the truth is that suffering pain is just one type of punishment.
Experiencing ease, wealth, and worldly happiness can also be a punishment, and a more severe one at that. This is specifically the case when someone has become so arrogant in their sin or disbelief that Allah leaves them on this path of error and self-deception while they are enjoying lots of wealth and children or other means of “happiness” in this world. In this state, they think that Allah is hastening all these wonderful good things for them in their lives, but they are merely piling up on sins until they meet Him. Yet they have no perception of this happening to them.
Allah says what has been translated to mean, “So leave them in their error for a time. Do they think that We enlarge them in wealth and children, We hasten unto them with good things? Nay, but they perceive not” (Al-Mu’minoon, 23:54-56).
In protecting ourselves from this error and self-delusion, we need to remember that wealth, children, happy marriages, and any other enjoyments of this world are merely trials from Allah to test us to see if our behavior will be a testimony for us or against us. These enjoyments are not necessarily any proof that we are good people and are being rewarded for our goodness in this world.
Allah says, “Wealth and children are the adornment of the life of this world. But the good righteous deeds that last, are better with your Lord for rewards and better in respect of hope” (Al-Kahf, 18:46). He also says, “You shall certainly be tried and tested in your wealth and properties and within your personal selves…” (Ali ‘Imraan, 3:186).
While being tried and tested with our wealth and blessings can certainly mean losing them at times, it can also mean enjoying them greatly. This “trial of enjoyment” is given to us in order to expose what is happening in our hearts (as manifested in our spiritual lives) as a result of being showered with so many blessings. In seeking to remind myself of this, I wrote this personal note in my journal: It doesn’t matter how little or how much you have. In the end, all that will matter is what you did with it—and what you allowed it to do to your heart. …Hence the part of the above ayah from Qur’an that says our trials include being tried and tested “…within your personal selves…” (3:186).
What Is Your Trial Exposing in Your Heart?
Some of us go through severe trials—or a trial of extreme happiness—and it inspires in us humility and servitude. So we call out to our Creator in sincerity, begging for His forgiveness and mercy. Others go through severe trials—or a trial of extreme happiness—and it incites in them arrogance and entitlement. So they turn away from their Lord in bitterness and frustration, angry that He’s withholding what they feel they “deserve.” Or they turn away in negligence because their ease and happiness is distracting them from worshipping Allah.
Meanwhile, many of these “successful people” arrogantly share with the world their tools for success, thereby taking credit for what God has decreed, while imagining it’s all because of their own inherent goodness and hard work. In this, they have no idea that their lack of shukr (sincere gratitude as manifested in humbly worshipping and thanking Allah) is merely a means of exposing to the world and their Book of Deeds a deep spiritual sickness in their hearts.
This is something that we all need to be careful of, even if we imagine ourselves to be “good Muslims.” As a reminder to myself regarding this, I wrote this note in my personal journal:
As I meet more and more people who take credit for God’s work in their lives and claim it to be their own—saying their positive mindset and hard work alone “channeled the energy of the Universe” in their favor—I’m growing to appreciate the wisdom in the simple utterance, “Alhamdulillaah” (i.e. “All praise and thanks belong to God”) and in the simple act of sajdatu-shukr (prostration for gratefulness), wherein we place our heads humbly on the ground and glorify our Creator after something good has happened in our lives.
In moving our tongue in remembrance of our Creator after every decree (good and bad), we are reminded where both the power and praise always belong. And in placing our heads humbly on the ground after receiving good news, we are reminded where we ourselves always belong—in humble remembrance that our highest honor is found in embracing our humility before God, not in claiming our greatness before His creation.
Yes, the ground where you place your head might have “greener grass” than someone else’s. But don’t assume it’s because you put in all the necessary work while they didn’t. Your grass is not greener only because you watered it. It’s greener because God planted it, thus giving you something to water in the first place. Then He granted you the knowledge and tools you needed to make that grass grow—which is more a testimony to His greatness than your work.
We wouldn’t have even a patch of dirt to stand on—let alone grass growing from it—if it weren’t for God saying “Be” and granting it to us.
So before you share how much you watered your grass and someone else didn’t, take a moment to praise and acknowledge the One who can strip it all from you in the blink of an eye, like He did with the arrogant man who owned the beautiful gardens in Surah Al-Kahf (18:32-43).
And be careful, lest in boldly declaring your “tools to success”—whether in amassing wealth or knowledge, or in having a lasting marriage or strong family ties—you become like those whom our Creator warns us about in the Qur’an: “Think not that those who exult in what they have brought about, and love to be praised for what they have not done—never think them [to be] safe from punishment [of Allah]…” (Ali ’Imraan, 3:188).
And we seek protection, guidance, and forgiveness wherever we have forgotten our Creator, or ourselves.
Like Wealth, Marriage Is a Trial That Exposes the Heart
Just as we should be careful of taking credit for God’s blessings in attaining wealth and worldly success, we should also be careful of taking credit for God’s blessings in having a good or lasting marriage. And just as those who forget Allah after they have attained wealth and status have no problem arrogantly sharing their “tools for success” sans shukr and humility, many of us who have been granted happy or lasting marriages think this blessing was due to our own work more than God’s. For this reason, I advise myself and others:
Choose your advisors carefully, especially when it comes to important decisions like marriage.
In general there are two categories of people who offer advice on marriage: those who trust Allah, and those who trust themselves.
Advisors who trust Allah will always encourage you to consult your Lord before making any decision, and they will openly acknowledge that only you, with the help of Allah, can ultimately determine what is best for you. Yes, they will also let you know the pros and cons of certain life choices so that you can, bi’idhnillaah, make an informed, wise decision that is best for your life and soul. But they will never seek to define marital happiness for you.
Those who trust themselves will list for you a million don’ts, many of which fall in the category of what is permissible and beloved to Allah. And their advice is almost always rooted in their own arrogance or insecurities. They will tell you not to marry into a certain race, color or income bracket, and they’ll have a million opinions against “settling” for someone who’s divorced, in polygyny, or has children. …And the list goes on and on.
Because their arrogance and insecurities go on and on.
Yes, we all have insecurities and must battle kibr (unhealthy pride) in our hearts. However, unless you’re seeking to have someone else’s insecurities added your own, then choose the advisor who trusts Allah. It will encourage you to do the same.
As for those who take credit for not only their success in marriage itself, but the success of their husband or wife, I offer this reminder:
No matter how much love and sacrifice you put into a marriage, you didn’t make your husband or wife into the “great person” they are today. God did.
If God in His infinite Mercy chose to use you for this noble purpose (and He certainly doesn’t need your help in honoring His servants), then take a moment and thank and praise HIM for allowing you to be a tool in bestowing goodness in this world.
But no matter how much goodness He used you for in shaping who your husband or wife is today, they have no obligation to remain married to you—or to only you—as a result. At the end of the day, every man and woman is responsible for nurturing their own life and soul. And other than good treatment and not violating the boundaries set by God in their treatment of you, they owe you nothing as a result of the good that God did for them through you.
Lastly, know this and know it well: Hurt feelings and personal frustrations are natural parts of life, so we have to learn to deal with them humbly and maturely when they’re decreed for us (as they inevitably will be). On the other hand, abuse and wrongdoing are completely different, as they are personal decisions that clearly violate your safety or right, even though they too can incite hurt and frustration, but in a way that’s much more damaging than natural hurt and frustration. Learn the difference.
Just because your husband or wife has made a decision that hurt your feelings, frustrated you, or doesn’t include you in a way you feel they should, doesn’t mean they abused or wronged you. Just like you have the right to make personal decisions that preserve your emotional and spiritual health—even if it offends your parents, friends, and loved ones—so it is with the person you’re married to.
Yes, we should be kind and considerate. But that goes both ways, in making a decision that affects our loved one’s life—and in responding to a decision they made that we disagree with.
If you happen to be in a situation in which you genuinely believe your emotional and intimate needs are not being met, you have the full right to either marital counseling or divorce. But don’t assume that just because your needs (and demands) are not being met that your husband or wife is abusing or wronging you. Sometimes you’re just no longer compatible or healthy for each other. It is what it is. That’s life.
Yes, it will hurt like hell when you have to walk away. And yes, you have every right to heal those emotional wounds and engage in self-care. But understand that this hurt and wounding isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault.
As I reflected some time ago: Being hurt is not the same as being wronged. Being wronged is not the same as being abused. And yes, you can suffer emotional trauma without being the victim of any crime—or even of wrongdoing or abuse. Life is complex, as is pain and suffering. And every agony doesn’t have behind it a person to blame. Someone can be the trigger of your pain, but not the cause of it. Part of emotional maturity and personal growth, as well as fully healing, is understanding these basic truths of adult life.
What If My Test Is ‘Bad Marriage’ and Divorce?
One of the harmful side effects of being part of a culture that praises humans more than God, and that fixates on this world more than the Hereafter, is that we genuinely imagine that “successful people” have some foolproof formula to offer us that will automatically make our lives mirror theirs. This is completely false.
While we can certainly benefit from each other’s success stories and implement some important lessons in our lives, ultimately the result is not from our work as humans. It is from the qadar (divine decree) of God—Allah Himself. And no matter how closely we follow someone else’s advice, we have no ability to transfer the qadar of their life to our own.
As I mentioned earlier: If Allah chooses to test you with something, you’re going to be tested with that. Whether it’s a difficult marriage, an unexpected divorce, loss of wealth, or even spiritual trials; if it’s written for you, it will be part of your life path—no matter how many “precautions” you take, whom you trust for “expert” or spiritual advice, or even how much you pray Istikhaarah before making the decision…
Therefore, if your trial with marriage has been the opposite of that of “successful people,” this is not necessarily because you’re being punished or doing everything wrong. As discussed earlier, happiness and success itself can be a punishment for some people, and painful trials can be a blessed purification for others.
Yes, those who have lasting, successful marriages can share with you some beneficial lessons, but you must realize that they didn’t decree their happiness and success. God did. Likewise, you didn’t decree your struggles with “bad marriage” or divorce. God did.
You can do absolutely everything “right” according the guidelines of both God and the people and still suffer a “bad marriage” or divorce. Similarly, you can make a zillion mistakes and fall into a zillion sins before getting married and still be granted a “happy, lasting marriage.” Why? Because in the end, the result is from God, not you.
In this, we must remember this life is not Paradise—where we’ll enjoy all the benefits of all the good we’ve done—and we shouldn’t imagine it is. Therefore, if your trials with “bad marriage” or divorce came upon you after you sincerely tried to do everything right in front of Allah (irrespective of some inevitable faults and shortcomings along the way), remember this:
Whether you are married or divorced—or even married or divorced multiple times—never feel bad about your sincere efforts to fear Allah. People will have a zillion things to say about your “bad choices” in life. These people may be family or friends, or even imams or marriage experts. Yet not a single one of them has the slightest idea what’s written next to your name in the Preserved Tablet in front of Allah. Remember that. They don’t even have the slightest idea what’s written next to their own name. So be careful before you rush to listen to their “advice.”
Yes, as is the case with all humans offering advice, we should take what is beneficial and leave what is not. But we should never treat the words of humans like they are the words of Allah.
For surely, those advisors who speak so confidently about what you should or should not do are only flawed, sinful children of Adam just like you. Never forget that, no matter how lofty their spiritual or worldly titles.
So as you strive each day to be a better person, remember this, and remember it well: It is never wrong to strive to fear Allah and save yourself from the Hellfire. It doesn’t matter how short or long your marriage lasts. It doesn’t matter how short or long your engagement is before marriage. And it doesn’t matter how much—or little—time you wait to remarry after divorce. If you haven’t transgressed the bounds of Allah, then you’ve done nothing wrong, no matter what people say.
Yes, we should all self-reflect on our personal choices and sincerely reflect on what’s most beneficial so that we can do it, and on what’s most harmful so that we can stay away from it. But more than anything, marriage is an issue of the ghayb, the unseen, a reality that is between only you and Allah. And there isn’t a single child of Adam, whether imam or marriage counselor, who can speak confidently about your ghayb, without transgressing the bounds of Allah themselves.
So continue to fear Allah in your choices, no matter what people say for or against them.
Just pray Istikhaarah before you take a single step, and trust that Allah is with you every step of the way, even when that step feels like it took you in the wrong direction. But know, there is no “wrong direction” when you are being guided by Allah.
My Prayer for You and Us All
O Allah, we ask You to soften our hearts and place in them compassion and empathy for all of Your creation—especially for Your believing servants who are struggling in ways that we cannot understand or comprehend, and who are battling trials that we have not been tested with!
And O Al-Muhaymin (Granter of Security), Al-Ghaffaar (Ever Forgiving)! We beg You to protect us from the evil within ourselves, and forgive us our sins and faults, both hidden and open, and of what we know and what we don’t know!
And O Al-Wahhaab (Bestower of Goodness), Al-Haadee (The One Who Guides)! Remove from our hearts the stains of arrogance, self-praise, and kibr (looking down on others and rejecting the truth)! And O Allah, Al-Kareem (The Most Generous)! We beg You to make every trial You place in our lives, whether in ease or hardship, cause us to draw closer to You in humility, gratitude, and tawakkul (sincere trust in Your plan, guidance, and decree) until we meet You!
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. In 2019, she launched UZ Soul Gear, a passion project fueled by her love of both art and inspirational reflections. UZSoulGear.com offers apparel, wall décor, and more, aimed at supporting and inspiring the soul-centered lifestyle.
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