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Last Updated: 2012/05/27
Summary of question
How can we differentiate between a divine test and a divine punishment?
Which calamities and tribulations should we consider as a divine trial and tribulation and which ones should we consider as the consequence of our wrongdoings and misdeeds? How can we tell the difference between them?
Concise answer

Some of the calamities and hardship we endure in our lives are definitely a part of divine trial and tribulations that are aimed to make us choose our path and adopt our strategy and position against them.  Adopting a position will, in turn, lead to the formation of our real and inward personality. Also, following the emergence of the secondary habits (malakaat) and inward intentions (niyaat) against the events, the believer and non-believer and a hypocrite are discerned from one another. The things with which a person is put to test and which causes one's true intention to be unveiled are the following: death and life; richness and poverty; intelligence and lust; prophets and successors on the one hand and sneaking whisperers and devils on the other; the world and the hereafter; the creational and existential differences of people in terms of race, capacity, potentialities and the existence of evils, harmful beings etc.

It does not make any difference whether a human being is righteous and truthful or wrong and untruthful, or whether he likes or does not like the above, he must pass these tests. However, the calamities which befall a person as a penalty or punishment after sinning will make him wary and remorseful and cause him to repent and seek divine forgiveness. His patience and forbearance against calamities will result in the forgiveness of his sins because man is well aware of his nafs (soul) and he can better distinguish his mistakes. In fact, when a problem comes into being, it can serve as a sign that enables him to distinguish it from other trials and tribulations.

Detailed Answer

Man has been created in a way such that if he is left to himself with no difficulty and hardship, he gets arrogant and swollen with pride. He becomes negligent of the consequences of his wrongdoings, misdeeds and the events which he will go through. In order to prevent this, divine wisdom requires that man's worldly life be combined with problems, setbacks, difficulties, predicaments or hardship which are either natural or self-made. For this reason, calamities like diseases, deaths, handicaps, poverty, richness, flood, earthquakes, cyclones, volcanoes, harmful insects, predatory animals encompass man's body making his nafs get involved with intelligence (aql) and lust, divine guide on the one hand and devil (shaitan) on the other, and limitations in the world as well as the necessity of knowledge and faith in the unseen world. Man's confrontation with physical and spiritual strains forms his character and identity. Intelligence, fitra (God-gifted nature) and divine prophets are, respectively, the internal and external guides leading him to the right path and helping him attain perfection. Indeed, the animalistic desires and never-ending worldly wishes are the internal barriers to his prosperity whereas the human and jenni devils are the external barriers preventing him from reaching prosperity. All these hurdles make him choose between good and evil because he has been born to be free and to act of his own free choice. He cannot escape what God has decreed for him.  Hence, therefore, we should say that the world with all its bounties and calamities is a scene of test and tribulation. Its evils and calamities are also blessings which cause him to act of free will and to prosper. If these difficulties were not there, his nafs would not prosper. It should be noted that the saints and noble leaders of Islam have a greater share of these calamities because they are more prepared and have greater capacity to grow and promote. The calamities which the prophets and infallible Imams go through bear the following results:

1. The calamities strengthen their will and soul and expand their existential capacity as well as their creational guardianship.

2. They help them get spiritual promotion in the eternal abode.[1]

3. They make the prophets and infallibles further have an aversion to this world and worldly things and to further long for the next world and what has been prepared for them in proximity to God.

4. The calamities cause the nobles and divine prophets to further increase their invocation, beseeching and supplication to God to acquire more reward for the hereafter. In fact, the prophets and infallibles consent to these calamities and hardship and welcome them. That is because with these predicaments, their faith, belief and satisfaction increase and they become further interested in leaving this world for the hereafter. The fact is that passing every test entails promotion in the degree of the individual. Additionally, the short life-span in this world and the calamities which befall man are never comparable with the lasting and never-ending bounties and blessings in the next world.  If you read the story of the event of Karbala which took place in the year 61 A.H., you will find clear examples of this love game and enthusiasm.

As for those who have less capacity, they are put to test within the limits of what they can bear. If they pass the test, then they are put to other tests. The point to note is that all people are not put to test in the same way and manner. Different people are tested in different ways and with different things. Some are tested by poverty, some by riches and wealth, some by health, some by sickness, some by prosperity, some by adversity, some by a loss and an affliction, some by abundance; some by the gift of children, others by being deprived of having a child, some by knowledge and scientific success and others by success in worship and ascetic life. It is possible that one might be tested sometimes by one thing, other times by another thing. It depends on what he has prepared himself for. There is no doubt that this preparation emanates from his past actions. The trials and tribulations mentioned are prevalent and that every individual may somehow be inescapably implicated in them.[2] In fact, some tribulations come into being as a result of one's offense or disobedience and they are meant to make him notify his mistake. Such tribulations are only for the fallible, not the infallibles who are inerrant and immune to all kinds of mistakes and sins.

When it comes to others also, the divine test takes place in several ways:

A) The tribulations are short and meant to notify him; keep him off arrogance and steer him towards invocation, supplication, beseeching and remembrance of God.[3]

B) Punishment, respite and graduation for those who are haughty, proud and arrogant and who never seem to give up haughtiness and arrogance.  They, seeing themselves in the abundance of divine bounties, forget God, resurrection, death and their human dignity.[4]

C) Punishment and desperation: Divine punishment and afflictions befall them when they are at the peak of haughtiness and arrogance; they are taken straight to the Fire so that they taste the bitterness of divine punishment in the hereafter.[5]

The first type of the trials and tribulations are in fact divine bounties which lead to man's vigilance and consciousness throughout his faith-based life.  His patience against the hardship, his seeking divine forgiveness, supplications and invocations cause his bad deeds to be removed and get replaced with good deeds (or virtues) which will earn him reward and proximity to God. Consequently, he will be protected and saved from divine wrath and punishment. As for the other two types of tests, they are in fact divine punishments which befall the arrogant and haughty in this world, though they might seem apparently to be at the peak of happiness and welfare.

As the Holy Quran states "man is evidence against himself, though he puts forth his excuses"[6] he knows himself and is better aware of his intentions than anyone else. If he looks at his intentions and what he does fairly and avoids justifying his mistakes and putting blames on others, he can easily find whether he is on the right path or on the wrong one. Therefore, if after holding an evil intention or making an evil attempt or committing an offence, a calamity befalls him, it is a clear indication of God's benevolent intention towards him because God wants to make him notice his mistake and desist from evil deeds. If he becomes vigilant and is grateful to God for this bounty, thereafter abundant divine blessings and bounties will be bestowed upon him, and he will be guided and inspired by the Lord for the rest of his life.[7] In case, however, he is negligent and heedless towards divine commandments, prohibitions and warnings, God will also leaves him to himself depriving him of His warnings, giving him wealth and affluence until he completely separates from God and His blessings and becomes entitled to eternal punishment (graduation or istidraj).

In a nutshell, the world, its glamour, charm and all the events in it are divine tests and tribulations that are meant to make a human being become vigilant and to lead to the formation of his character and identity and finally his promotion to higher levels human excellences, if he makes good use of them and of the guidance of prophets and demonstrates appropriate reaction against them. If goes wrong, he will be punished several times to stop him from further act of defiance and grudge. If he does not mend himself, he will be put to either immediate or gradual punishment as was explained above.

Further reading:

1. The Holy Quran

2. Tafasir of the Holy Quran under the verses mentioned in the footnotes.

3. Imam Khomeini, Sharh-e Chihil Hadith, pg. 589 and 236 – 246, The Centre for Preparation and Publication of Imam Khomeini's Works, Tehran, 1376 (1997).

4. Mesbah Yazdi, Muhammad Taqi, Maaref Quran (Rah wa Rahshenasi), vol.5 & 5, pg. 115 – 153.


[1] - See index: The Meaning of Wilayah, question 128 (site: 1068).

[2] - Muhammad, 31; al-Anbiya, 35; al-Baqarah, 155

[3] - al-A'raf, 68, 90 – 94.

[4] - al-Muminoon, 53 -56; Al-A'raf, 182 -183.

[5] - Fusselat, 50, 16, 27.

[6] - al-Qiyamah, 14,15.

[7] - al-Anfal, 26; al-Ankabut, 69; al-Baqarah, 282.


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