Spiritual Significance of Suffering from the Sufi Perspective
The enlightened person approaches pain as a stepping stone towards his perfection and spiritual growth, the pessimist sees it as a stumbling block.
By Henry Francis B. Espiritu
If Divine Providence is just, why is there so much suffering in this world? Philosophers, theologians, and even common folks ask this perennial question. My reflections on suffering here are not entirely my own—they are informed and mediated by my philosophical and spiritual readings of the transcendental and devotional writings of the sages and saints of mystical Islam (Tasawwuf or Sufism). For me, the profound reflections of these Sufi savants hold rich treasures of insights on suffering, as well as keys that unlock the secret panacea that will eventually allow us to overcome pain and suffering: by making us understand and appreciate the redeeming value of suffering in our spiritual journey to God Who is our Ultimate Goal.
Sufi mystics offer a profound perspective regarding the purpose of suffering. Hazrat Bayazid Bistami, a Persian Sufi, states: “Accepting our human condition of un satisfactoriness is the antidote to suffering, for somebody who knows that the oil in his lamp is limited, will not moan after its extinction. One who knows that the lamp which he has lit is not safe from the harsh winds will not scream when it is blown out”.
Hazrat Maseehullah Khan Sherwani Chishti, a renowned Muslim saint, noted on the inevitability of suffering as part-and-parcel of our own human situatedness. He said: “Suffering is not negative; it happens to everyone in this imperfect world—we suffer because this world is far from perfect. Suffering is a great equalizer; suffering is a ‘given’ and a ‘constant’ in this ephemeral world… that is why I call suffering a neutral occurrence. It is how [‘how’ or ‘what’?] we make of it that makes suffering negative or positive. The enlightened person approaches pain as a stepping stone towards his perfection and spiritual growth…the pessimist sees it as a stumbling block…it is your decision that matters as to how you see it and respond to its challenges”.
Spiritually speaking, suffering is beneficial if we know its redemptive purport, transformative aim, and transcendental objective. Hazrat Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, a great Turkish saint, said that pain and sufferings instruct us so that we can be able to see a “higher view of life”. Suffering enables us to contemplate that God alone suffices for us, and that we need to submit ourselves to the Providence of God, in perfect trust, contentment, gratitude, forbearance and obedience. Furthermore, it is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we grow spiritually strong and psychologically mature in life.
It is only through sufferings and difficulties that one can attain mastery in life. Hazrat Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, the famous 12th century Sufi, keenly observed: “God turns you from one feeling to another and teaches you by means of opposites, so that you will have two wings to fly—and not just one”. For Maulana Rumi, life is characterized by the alternating movements of opposites: conflict and peace, peace and conflict, happiness and sufferings, sufferings and happiness, joy and pain, pain and joy… so on and so forth. God designs this alternating psycho-spiritual dynamics in the inward soul for the moral, mental, emotional, and spiritual development of humans.
The Quran says: “Verily, with every difficulty, there is relief; verily with every hardship, there is ease. Therefore, when you are free from your immediate burden, still toil—and toil hard. And to your Cherishing Lord, turn all your attention. In your toil and ease, strive to please your Lord” (Quran, 94:5-8).
Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi speaks about the educative aspect of human suffering: “They throw barley on the earth; then came out branches. Next, they crushed it in the mill; then it became delicious bread after being baked and placed in the burning furnace. Next, the bread is chewed and digested and it became mind, spirit, body, and emotion. And when the mind is bewildered with love for the Beloved, what a wonderful transformation this simple barley has gone through! This barley-grain has indeed taken a marvellous journey!”
If we long to attain true happiness of living, we have to undergo difficult and painful experiences in life. Great men and women suffered from oppression, torture, poverty, persecution, and misunderstanding, but they courageously persevered in going on with life by God’s grace, beneficence, and mercy. That is why they become heroes and saints. By responding with perfect submission, coupled with courage and trust, to whatever challenges the Almighty God gives us, we become co-workers with Him in furthering His Will in our lives and in the lives of others. Facing our suffering with courage, perseverance, fortitude, and faith is both a source of grace and a sure road to our inward sanctification and spiritual transformation.
This is, I believe, how the Sufis understood and realized the transcendental, sanctifying, and liberating value of suffering in our lives as human persons.
(Prof. Henry Francis B. Espiritu is Associate Professor-VI of Philosophy and Asian Studies at the University of the Philippines (UP), Cebu City)