Masood N. Khan M.D.
When human beings are met with challenging situations, does God test them how they react, as has been commonly believed? And if so, what do we understand; when we say God is testing us. We happened to discuss this topic on ‘The Round Table’. Here we have selected two perspectives for your review and critique.
“God is testing you” are the often-heard words coming from the well wishers and friends of those who are going through pain and suffering. The occasions are numerous whether you meet an accident for no fault of yours, or grieve the
loss of a loved one or face the challenges of dire poverty, God is always there testing you. This quick declaration, is pronounced so frequently that in spite of being negative and rude, it has become an emotional headrest for the victim as well as for the one trying to give moral support. It spares the consoler the struggle to find right words to console, and gives the person in pain, a pause to his hurt, diverting his mind trying to channel his emotions acceptable to God.
In this act of testing, God is the subject, one who administers the test, and the human being is an object who undergoes the test, while the calamity itself is like a test paper with questions that the victim has to answer correctly by reacting to the pain with patience and fortitude. Once you passed the test, life moves on until there comes another test from God demanding similar reaction. This often repeated exercise of testing by God, and trying hard by human beings to pass the test, has deprived the painful experience of any meaning and purpose and made it a ritual giving rise to helpless passivity and a sense of forced submission. This is not what Quran has meant it to be- to make a very profoundly challenging human experience, simply a waster.
I think behind this often repeated exercise where God is portrayed in such a miscast, there lies misinterpretation of Arabic words in Quran. The root word in Arabic from which Quranic words mistranslated as ‘test’ are derived, is which has a range of meaning, for example, ‘to be proved by examination’ , to ‘be placed in a testing situation’, ‘to experience or encounter a painful condition’ or ‘to go through a trial’. When, for a given word, you have different shades of meaning, the right choice that would convey the meaning properly with its contextual sense, becomes an important responsibility of the translator. Unfortunately this responsibility was not observed in the translation. Therefore the Arabic word translated as ‘test’ has given rise to a very erroneous understanding with its negative and shallow effect. The correct choice that rightly communicates what Quran wants to convey should be “putting somebody in a testing situation”, which is different than testing somebody.
To be in a testing situation conveys totally different sense than being subjected to a test. When we read the verses in Quran, for example verse 2 of chapter 67 & verse 155 of chapter2 and many others, Arabic words like یبلوکم or نبلوکم are used derived from the root word بلا..
The right translation of these verses that conveys the Quranic message, I think, would be:
ھو الذی خلق الموت والحیوۃ لیبلوکم ایکم احسن عملا
He is one who created death and life so as to let you be in testing situations (in life) to see who among you excels in good deeds
بشر الصابرین ۔ الذین اذا اصبتھم مصیبۃ قا لو انا للہ
ونقص من الاموال والا نفس واثمرات
و انا الیہ راجعون ولنبلو نکم بشي من الخوف والجوع
We have let you experience testing situations (in life) with fear and hunger and loss of possessions, lives and achievements; But let joy be for the steadfast, those when afflicted with a calamity, say we are for Allah and to Him we return.
Here the message becomes very clear, and that is, the inevitable trials in life involving fear, hunger, loss of life and property etc, indeed the very fact that we are given life for a limited period on this earth only to be ended with an unavoidable death, hold opportunities for us to procure a path of continuous self-improvement. God has made such trials embedded in the natural order of creation. They are meant to be distilling experiences for human beings to help them emerge, improved and evolved. They are not meant to be reduced to vain cycles of temporary sadness, depression and helpless submission to the divine will, only to be luckily followed by gradual recovery – all resulting in business as usual. They are indeed to serve as propellers for human beings to push them to higher stations of morality and sprituality.The emphasis is on how human beings meet such situations and what they make of it and not on somebody testing them. A poet has expressed it beautifully in the following verse in Urdu:
ہر نفس غم جا نا ں ہر قدم غم دورا ں
اس طرح نکھرتی ہۓ زند گی کی رعنای
So after pondering on what God has said in Quran about the pain and suffering we go through in this world, if God-forbid I am in such a situation، and
if my well-wishers and friends tell me that God is testing me, I give them a sarcastic smile and quietly remind myself that God is not testing me, I am testing myself to see; if I transform into a better human being than I was before.