Illness as an Occasion for Spiritual Growth

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We commonly think of illness as dreadful, something to complain about, but there’s a very different way of understanding it, as reflected in a saying attributed to Prophet Muhammad: Nothing befalls a believer, a [prick of a] thorn or more than that, but God will raise him one degree in status thereby, or erase a bad deed.

By A. Kasvari

With God’s grace, I’ve never fallen very seriously sick””I mean physically””in all my almost fifty years. Perhaps the most I’ve had to face was a spell of jaundice some thirty years ago, and then, recently, a rather severe attack of food poisoning. I’ve had my share of insect-bites, rashes, falls, wounds, allergies, stomach-pains, fever, headaches, coughs and colds and so on””routine sorts of ailments””but, thankfully, nothing really very awful-sounding. And that’s a blessing that I really haven’t cared to think much about and appreciate, I have to admit.
Brought up in an environment that had little or no room for God and religion, illness, when it did strike me, was almost entirely a this-worldly thing. That reflected the thoroughly materialistic ethos I was reared in. God and religion or spirituality played no role in the way I saw illness. If I fell ill and it was something that I thought I could handle myself, I’d pop in a couple of pills, trusting that they would do the trick and get me okay. If my ailment was more serious than that, I’d visit a clinic and do as the doctor suggested, putting my faith entirely in him or her. When I got well, it was assumed that this had happened because of the doctor’s expertise, plus the magic of the medicines I had taken. In my scheme of things, there was no role for God in all of this.

Complete Absence of God
So, that’s what I mean when I say that for me the process of falling ill and getting cured was an entirely this-worldly one. It had no reference whatsoever to God. I can’t ever remember my parents of friends suggesting that I pray to God to get well if I was sick. Nor did I give that same advice to anyone. That God did have a role in my condition and in its cure, that I could turn to Him for help when I was ill, and that could and should thank Him when I got well””these were things that I didn’t know or think about””such was the depth of the almost complete absence of God in my life. It was medicines and medical ‘experts’ that I turned to when I was sick, not our Creator.
But there is, I’ve recently discovered, a very different way of looking at, and relating to, illness and healing. And for that I owe a great debt to my friend Shabnam and her father, 83 year-old Uncle Hasan. They have taught me that illness and healing can be occasions for connecting with God (through prayer for healing and thanksgiving for being healed) and with other human beings (through acts of charity). From their example I’ve learnt that illness and healing can be a great means for our spiritual growth, helping our relationship with God and with our fellow creatures become deeper and stronger.
I’ve known Uncle Hasan and Shabnam for almost a decade, but it was only recently that I came to recognize this other way of viewing illness and healing. Some days ago, I was at their house when Uncle Hasan said to me, “Do you know someone who’s really deserving? I’ve got some money, which I’d like to give for a good cause.”
It so happened that I did indeed know someone who fitted the bill exactly””a person in great financial need””and I said so to Uncle.
“I trust you. I’m giving you the money, and you give it to whoever you think deserves it”, Uncle replied. Saying that, he drew out a thick wad of notes from a packet with the words ‘Money for charity’ inscribed on it and handed it to me. It was a very sizeable sum!

Money for a Good Cause
Now, I’ve met many generous people, of course, but never before have I come across anyone so eager to share his money for a good cause. How many people do we personally know so enthusiastic to help others at Uncle Hasan’s age of 83?

The Practice of Giving
Touched by what Uncle Hasan had done, I later asked Shabnam about his practice of giving. I learned from her that even when she was a child her parents would take out money regularly from their earnings and put it in an envelope, marking it as ‘charity money’ or what they referred to by the Arabic word sadaqa (This is in addition to the money they took out every year for zakat, which is an Islamic obligation for those Muslims to whom it is applicable). Their budget-book had a separate entry for what they gave in sadaqa. One major occasion for taking out sadaqa for them was when someone in the family fell ill.
Shabnam learned to follow this practice from her father. “If I am unwell, I take out some money””it could be ten rupees or a hundred. I don’t wait till I am cured to do this””that would be like being conditional, thinking that only if God cures me, I’ll give the money to someone deserving”, she explained.
Sadaqa Acts as a Protection against Harm
Sadaqa, Shabnam said, acts as a protection against harm. It’s not only in the event of illness that she gives sadaqa. If she faces any other such difficult situation””it could be just missing being run over by a vehicle or narrowly escaping an obstacle””she takes out a few rupees to give someone as sadaqa and thanks God for saving her. Besides this, she keeps apart 300 rupees a month””ten rupees a day””as ‘charity money’, which she saves in a separate ‘charity purse’. And every month when she gets her salary, before she spends on anything else she takes out an additional hundred rupees with the intention of giving it to the deserving””her home-help, for instance, or a person she meets on the street asking for alms.
Shabnam takes out sadaqa to distribute to people who are economically needy not only when she herself is ill but also when others are. I learned that she even did this for me just the other day! That was when I was when I was down with a stomach condition. She didn’t tell me this at the time, but she took out sadaqa of a hundred rupees and prayed to God for my cure. Then, when I got alright, she offered prayers to God to express her thankfulness to Him.
Just as illness is an occasion for them to reach out to the needy through charity, for Uncle Hasan and Shabnam it is also an occasion to connect with God. “If I fall sick”“even if it’s as small a thing as a headache,” Shabnam related, “I first pray to God to relieve me from the distress, and also take medicines if it’s essential. And when I am cured, I turn again to God and thank Him.”
We commonly think of illness as dreadful, something to complain about, but there’s a very different way of understanding it, as reflected in a saying attributed to Prophet Muhammad that Shabnam shared with me:
Nothing befalls a believer, a [prick of a] thorn or more than that, but God will raise him one degree in status thereby, or erase a bad deed