One of the most basic questions that we human beings ask is, what is the meaning of life? From one side, it can be answered with a simple sentence, and that is that this life is a test. And from another side, it requires much more detail. When we ask about the purpose of life, we have to consider what life is before we can go into its purpose.
Life, like most other matters, can be seen from different perspectives. In one way, Islam divides life into several stages. One stage is the life of this world. And when we say that life is a test, it means life in this world is a test. Another stage is life in the grave. The word grave has several implications and meanings. It can be in a cemetery, the sea, outer space or the stomach of a carnivore. However, what is intended by life in the grave is the middle realm known as Barzakh. And according to many traditions, it can be a doorway to paradise or hell, depending on how a person lived his/her life in the world.
The next stage of life is the hereafter, or life on Resurrection Day, which is equal to 50,000 years of this world. Depending on a person's deeds in this world, it can also be comfortable and easy or very difficult, with many levels in between. And the final stage is life in paradise or hell. Where a person lives in this stage is also dependant on his or her life in this world.
Certainly, there are other stages among these stages, but this article is concerned with the stage of life in this world. Usually, when people ask about the meaning of life, they are concerned with their lives in this world. It also happens that many people ask this question after experiencing an overbearing difficulty in this life. Nonetheless, interest in this matter is not exclusive to such times, because God has programmed this question and many others like it within the fabric of our beings. Therefore, we regularly make such inquiries.
The Qur'an and the test of life
In numerous verses, the Holy Qur'an states that life in this world is a test. For example, in Surah al-Baqarah, verses 155 and 156, Allah says: "Verily, We will test all of you with things from fear, hunger, loss of property and life, and decrease of fruits; and give the good news to those who are patient and enduring when they are confronted by a hardship from hardships. [They are] those who say, 'we are from God and to Him is our return.'"
These two verses point out to this universal test and some of its forms. The first verse says with certainty: "Verily, all of you will be tested by matters such as fear, hunger, loss of property and body, and reduction of fruits." And due to the fact that it is impossible to succeed and pass these tests without endurance and firmness, the end of the verse states: "Give the good news to those who are enduring and unwavering."
The next verse introduces those people who are enduring and unwavering before life's difficulties and trials and says, "They are those who, whenever confronted by a hardship from the hardships of life, say, 'we are from God and to Him is our return.'" Paying attention to the fact that "we are all from God" teaches us that we should never become perturbed by the decline of bounties, because these bounties and even our own selves belong to Him. One day He gives us, and another day He sees it fit to take it away from us, both of which are for our wellbeing.
In any case, attention to the fact that "we are all going to return to Him" tells us that this world and its life are not permanent and eternal. The decline in bounties or their scarcity, or their abundance and increase, are all passing matters. All of these are means for treading the path towards perfection. Attention to these two principles has a deep influence in bringing about the spirit of patience and endurance with us.
After pointing out to these realities, the following verse (2:157) states God's immense grace for those who endure and strive hard to succeed in this great trail. It says, "For them is God's grace, mercy and blessings." This grace and mercy gives them strength, so that they are not overtaken by mistakes and deviation on this dangerous and frightening path. Therefore, at the end of the verse, Allah says, "They are the ones who are guided." In this manner, in a few short sentences, it shines light on the matter of this great test, its end goal, its various forms, the factors for passing it, and its results.
At this time, several points must be discussed in more detail to shed more light on this issue:
Why does God test people?
There is much discussion concerning the matter of divine testing. The first question that comes to mind is: isn't testing used for making known unknown matters and to decrease our unawareness and ignorance? If this is the case, then why does the omniscient God, who is aware of the inner and outer secrets of all things, knower of the seen and unseen in the heavens and the earth and the possessor of eternal knowledge, test us? Is there anything hidden from Him that will become manifest through testing?
We must investigate the answer to these important questions in order to understand that test has a different meaning in relation to God, and His tests are different from the tests that we conduct. The tests which we carry out, as we previously said, are in order to remove our ignorance about certain matters and give us more understanding. However, divine tests are in reality fostering and training.
Testing has been related to God more than twenty times in the Qur'an. This is a universal law and unending practice. God tests His servants so that their hidden potentials blossom and go from ability to action, as a result fostering them towards perfection. Just as steel is put into hot furnaces in order to make it stronger, people are placed in the furnaces of difficulties so that they are cultivated until they become resilient.
In reality, God's testing is similar to the work of an experienced gardener who plants a seed. These seeds start to grow with the help of natural bounties and gradually fight and battle with hardships and unpleasant events. They stand before difficult storms, life-threatening cold, and burning heat so that a beautiful flower or big and fruitful tree comes about. Facing these harsh conditions enables them to continue living and put up with other difficult events.
In order for a soldier to become strengthened and prepared for battle, he is placed in simulated battles, mock scenarios, and trained by facing different types of difficulties such as thirst, hunger, heat and cold, and other difficult obstacles so that he becomes accustomed and prepared for real battle. This is the mystery of God's tests.
The Holy Qur'an has clarified this fact where it says, "God tests that which you have in your bosoms so that your hearts become pure, and God is aware of that which is in your hearts." (3:154)
Imam Ali (peace be upon him) has a very meaningful explanation concerning the philosophy behind divine tests. He states, "Even though God is more aware of the souls of His servants than they are, He tests them and good and bad deeds, which are the gauge for reward and punishment, are exhibited from them" (Nahjul Balagha, saying #93). This means that the inner characteristics and internal potentials of a person cannot be the gauge for reward and punishment by themselves. They only become so after they are shown through the actions of a person. God tests His servants so that which they have within their hearts and souls become manifest in the form of actions. Divine tests turn potentials into deeds, and therefore, become deserving of God's rewards or punishments.
If there were no divine tests and trials, these potentials would not blossom, and the tree of man's existence would not bear any fruits of actions on its branches. This is the philosophy behind divine tests according to Islamic reasoning.
God's tests are universal
Because the order of life in the world is an order of perfection and fostering, and every living being is traversing the path of perfection, even trees reveal their hidden potentials in the form of fruits, and all people including prophets are tested. Everyone is tested according to this universal law so that their inner potentials blossom. Testing is for everyone, even though divine tests are varying, some are difficult and some easy, and naturally their results also vary.
The Holy Qur'an points to the universal testing of human beings where it says, "Do people think they will be left without being tested? No, everyone will be tested" (29:1).
Testing by means of blessings and misfortunes
Divine trails are not always by means of hard and unpleasant events; at times, God tests His servants with abundance of blessings and successes. The Qur'an states, "We test you by means of bad [events] and good [events]" (21:35). And at times these tests are by means of hardships and loss. At any rate, this shows that wealth and poverty, health and illness, strength and weakness, beauty and ugliness, and every other bounty or calamity in this world are for the purpose of testing. They do not bring any advantages such as merit, honor, respect or nobility for a person. They are nothing more than test materials, and honor and success is earned with faith, perseverance and piety.
Patience and endurance
One of the main elements for passing these divine tests is endurance. The Arabic word for patience and endurance is Sabr. Sabr refers to a very bitter fruit, and the reason why it has been used for patience, endurance, and perseverance is because it is very hard to be patient and enduring during hard times. Dealing with difficulties is very bitter for our souls. However, its result is very sweet.
In the book Usul al-Kafi in "Chapter of Patience", there is a tradition related from Imam as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) that he said: "When a believer goes to his grave, his prayer will provide shade on his right side, his fasting on his left side, and his good deeds above his head. Patience will go to a corner, and when the two angels of questioning and answering enter upon him, patience will say to prayer, fasting, and good deeds to defend your friend, and whenever you are stuck at a place, inform me, and I will come to his aid and rescue him."
In summary, we have all been placed in this world to grow by means of these tests. Life's tests and trials bring out our potentials, and if we face them with faith and endurance, we will be successful in this world and, more importantly, in the next world.
We must never lose sight of the fact that we have been placed in this world for a short period of time, and during that time we are going through a test. The secret to its success is faith, endurance, and keeping in mind that we are not created for this world and that death will take us to our permanent homes.
Moreover, tests and their levels of difficulty and ease vary. However, what is clear is that believers are tested more frequently and with more difficult scenarios in order to attain higher levels. It has been related in Mizan al-Hikmah from the Prophet of God (peace be upon him and his progeny): "The believer is in between five difficulties, (1) a believer who is jealous of him, (2) a hypocrite who hates him, (3) an unbeliever who fights him, (4) his self which fights against him, and (5) a devil who leads him astray."
For this reason, Imam Baqir (peace be upon him) is narrated to have said in Bihar al-Anwar, "A true believer is firmer than a mountain, because you can take away from a mountain but you cannot take anything off of a believer's religion."
Similarly, Imam as-Sadiq has said, "The believer is firmer than pieces of iron, because when iron is placed in fire, it changes, but if the believer is killed then resurrected then killed again, he will not change."
Sayyid Baqir Imrani is a popular speaker among North American Shia communities. Further articles and lectures by him can be found on http://www.mzk4.org.