Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
And We will surely test you with some fear and hunger, and with dearth of wealth, lives and crops; and give glad tidings to those who patiently endure (Chapter 2: Verse 155)
When you hear the words: test or trial, you often think of them in negative terms. That should not be the case because a test is only a negative experience for the person who is not prepared and will likely fail. It is quite a different experience if you are prepared and pass with flying colours. Tests and trials are the tools we use to sort out the good from the bad, and the well prepared from the lazy. God says: “We will surely test you” indicating that God will present us with tough experiences that distinguish the true believer form everyone else.
Note that in the previous verse, Allah started with the toughest test of all: loss of life. He also highlighted the great reward for this test: life in the company of God. So the previous verse served as an introduction for the smaller tests mentioned here. In this way, Allah prepares you and gives you the tools necessary to manage life’s troubles; Troubles such as fear, hunger, and the loss of wealth and crops. All these tests involve things that are very dear to each one of us, but they are trivial when compared to the loss of life. Let’s take these tests one by one:
First is the test of fear. Fear is the state of apprehension and worry you feel when you are expecting that something harmful may happen. Each one of us has different abilities and skills, whether mental or physical. When fear strikes, you suffer from lack of harmony between these abilities, and the result is unnecessary fragility that robs you from the tools that you need to face harm. If you panic and surrender to your fears, you become paralysed and often fail to manage that which is causing your fear to begin with. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Solving problems, after all, requires a calm mind and steady hand. A famous adage goes: “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Constant worry and fear do not prevent harm, nor affect the outcome of life. Thus, it is necessary to preoccupy yourself with productive matters that keep fear away from your mind. Take things as they come, and do not live in the shadows of a matter before it comes to you. What impairs people most is that they live and re-live calamities before they occur. It is a sure way to prolong suffering. Take the example of a person who is scheduled for big open heart surgery in one month. He or she may fear the surgery, and worry about possible complications day and night until the day of the procedure. This worry and fear do not change anything of the outcome of the actual surgery; they only add apprehension and dread to life. Keep in mind that the moment God afflicts you with a calamity; He sends mercy along with it. Thus, if you fear and worry, you live the calamity isolated from the mercy which accompanies it, and deprive yourself from God’s help. But if you remain patient and content, you will never face a calamity without the mercy of your Lord. He says:
Have We not comforted your heart; Relieved you of the burden which had been a heavy weight upon your back and granted you an exalted reputation? So truly where there is hardship there is also ease; truly where there is hardship there is also ease. (94:1-6)
When the call to Islam was still new, it was necessary to prepare the believers to properly manage fear. They were only a few facing the many, the powerful and the elites who were using all their resources to defeat the new faith. Allah taught the believers to use fear as a pretext for improving their situation and taught them to preoccupy themselves with advancing their faith rather than worry about what others are doing.
The second test in this verse is hunger. Hunger is an overpowering desire for food which is essential for the retention of life. It is from the mercy of our Lord that He created us with the ability to retain excess food as fat so it can be utilized at the time of need. If you are hungry and there is no food around, your body will utilize fat for energy and sustenance. When the fat reserves are depleted, your body will utilize the flesh and even leach nutrients out of bone to preserve life. A Bedouin woman who did not have any scientific knowledge once said: “Tough years have passed: a year which melted fat, another year took our flesh, and a year which withered out bones.”
Here is the key point: hunger makes every food appealing to you, so if you find yourself preparing and craving different types of food, then rest assured that you are not experiencing true hunger, rather you are enticing yourself to eat. With genuine hunger, any type of food would do. Similarly, when you are exhausted, you can get a good night sleep even on concrete. But when you are not tired, you keep tossing and turning on a bed of silk. A saying goes: “the food of the hungry is delicious, and the bed of the fatigued is comfortable.”
To pass the test of hunger is to remain patient over cravings, and only eat what is essential for life: a small amount to fuel your movement, rather than overeating for pleasure. Thus, God obligated fasting so that we learn to be patient when hunger strikes, and learn the skills of sustenance eating and will power.
Allah wants you to be prepared to confront fear, and to use it to your advantage; He also wants you to face hunger with experience. Societies that are overindulgent suffer most when faced with economic hardships and austerity. So if you live a luxurious life: take some time to prepare yourself in case hard times are in your future. Ibrahim bin Adham –a mystic- once said: ‘When I want something that is expensive, I let it go from my desire, then it becomes cheaper than ever.’ In other words, once you train yourself to be above your desires and above your need for instant gratification, you become powerful and independent over all materialistic things. Our beloved prophet –peace be upon him- said: “The worst vessel the son of Adam can overfill is his own stomach. Be content with a few bites that give you energy. But if you were to over-eat, then fill a third of your stomach with food, a third with drink, and leave a third for your breath”
The third test mentioned in the verse is the loss of wealth. There will come a time in every believer’s life where he or she will have to make hard choices to preserve and uphold the values of faith. These choices may cause you to miss out on money, time, and other worldly needs. When you take time to uphold your faith, you will often have to sacrifice your time and money. Allah also warns that difficult times may cause the loss of life, and the loss of crops which are the result of an entire year’s work.
All these tests and troubles spoil the joy of life, but Allah reassures you and gives you glad tidings that if you remain patient and hold on to the values of your faith then the rewards of forgiveness, mercy and paradise in the hereafter are awaiting you. He says: “and give glad tidings to those who patiently endure”