Quranic perspective: pain and suffering and how to deal with it.
The most powerful example for human pain and suffering particularly due to illness and disease mentioned in the Quran was that of Prophet Ayyoub. His story was mentioned in more details in the Old testament and in the Biblical traditions. The Quran however aluded to it briefly but it was constructed in the most powerful style which would resonate through any reader. The story of Ayyoub (as) offered great lessons in human sociology in respect to how to deal with hardship, pain and suffering. In addition to these positive teachings and socio-psychology human behavior in response to hardship, unfortunately this verse may have offered a negative stereotype against women due to misinterpretation of it. This issue will be explained in this short essay.
Was Ayyoub’s wife ever mentioned in this verse or else where in the Quran?
Now let examine the main verse under discussion:
وَخُذْ بِيَدِكَ ضِغْثًا فَاضْرِب بِّهِ وَلَا تَحْنَثْ إِنَّا وَجَدْنَاهُ صَابِرًا نِّعْمَ الْعَبْدُ إِنَّهُ أَوَّاب 38:44
“And take in your hand a green branch and beat with It and do not break your oath; surely We found him patient; most excellent the servant! Surely he was frequent in returning (to Allah).38:44″
The meaning of this above verse have been given by all classical Quran exegesis that God had offered Prophet Ayyoub a way out in abandoning an oath he had taken, during his illness, to punish his wife one hundred lashes for a sin she committed. Quran commentators differed in the specific type of sin that Ayyoub’s wife committed which was the primary reason for her presumed punishment, according to them. It is worth noting here that none of these reported reasons are mentioned in the Quran let alone in the verse above. These accounts states that God asked Ayyoub instead delivering such punishment to his wife, to simply take a bundle of grass blades and beat his wife with it as a symbolic gesture which would free him from the bondage of the oath he had taken during his illness. As interesting this proposed explanation as it seems there is a major problem with it for various reasons. First, most importantly that there is no mention of Ayyoub’s wife in the original Arabic text of the verse above . This opinion solely relied on the biblical accounts of this story. Second, the above verse does not state that God asked Prophet Ayyoub in order to maintain the honor of his oath he should beat his wife with a bundle of grass. Third, the verse does not make reference of what was the reason of the oath that Prophet Ayyoub had taken. Forth, this verse did not make any mention of the object of which the act of beating should be directed against. These facts are very detrimental to the essence of the meaning of this verse. I ask now, if we are expected to take such explanation to be true then would it not be more appropriate for this verse to mention some of these reasons. However here I can focus only on two crucial elements, the wife and the reason of his oath. And how could these respected commentators would allow themselves to borrow these two crucial elements from the biblical stories to complete the meaning of this verse. This act may suggests that the Quran was not perfect and that it needed another source outside itself that some folktale stories to perfect itself. This is very serious mistake and a disrespectful to the final revelation of God. This borrowed aspect of the story had projected a stereotype of teaching which is very negative and demeaning towards women. This kind of assumption further substantiate the approach which is adopted by the majority of Muslim scholars in reference to the infamous verse, called the verse of women beating 4:34. The sad thing here is we see that most English translation of this verse of Prophet Ayyoub add the word “her” which is reference to Prophet’s Ayyoub’s wife. It is important to know that there is no mention of the word “her” or “his wife” in the original Arabic text of the verse and that the only thing is there is the article proposition “bi” and the pronoun “ha” which is represented by the word “bihi” which literally means “by it or with it” and that there is no mention of the female pronoun “ha-her” after the verb “beat.” In other words the Arabic text states as; “beat with it or beat by it” and the pronoun “it” denote for the bundle of grass blades which preceded the verb “beat-ithrib.”
Based on above I can say with absolute certainty that these verses do not involve Ayyoub’s wife simply because she is not mentioned at all. The only reference to Ayyoub’s wife can be seen in the following verse:
وَوَهَبْنَا لَهُ أَهْلَهُ وَمِثْلَهُم مَّعَهُمْ رَحْمَةً مِّنَّا وَذِكْرَىٰ لِأُولِي الْأَلْبَابِ 38:43
And We gave him his family and the like of them with them, as a mercy from Us, and as a reminder to those possessed of understanding. 38:43
In verse his wife was only mentioned not in separate rather along with whole family of Ayyoub. Therefore these is no connection between these verses and the alleged sins if his wife.
What is the meaning of this verse?
Now, what is really the meaning of this verse if we rely solely on the Arabic text without resorting to biblical historical details of this story, outside the Quran. What is obvious from the main theme of this verse that God wants to teach prophet Ayyoub (as) how to get out of his ordeal and to neutralize the influence of the whispering of shaitan and to prevent him from entering into a “sinful or shameful situation” as clearly stated in Arabic; “wala ta’hnath” Looking closely to the original Arabic text we see that God has asked Ayyoub to do two tasks, in response to his plea, to cure him from his sickness and and to free himself from entering to a sinful or shameful situation. The first task is to “run or move his legs” as stated in the previous verse “war-ku’th birijlika-run or move your legs” and the second task is to grab a bundle of fibers or grass and beat with it. Furthermore, the verse does not state the reasons for taking these recommendations but we can however sense something from the following words which may shed some light on the purpose of these recommended steps. These words in the original Arabic text are “wala ta’hnath” the English rendition for it, seems to be unanimous and it is rendered as “do not break your oath” but the question I ask here is this the only meaning to the word “ta’hnath”?
Well it is not, however we see here that the common rendition of it is one of its meaning and it seems to be the prevalent meaning among the Arabs but this does not mean that it is the only meaning which can be rendered. I think we should examine the original meaning of the word “ta’hnath” from the original Arabic sources. The word “ta’hnath” in this verse is derived from the root word “‘hanitha-حنِثٓ” When examining “maqayyees allugha” by the renown Arab linguist Ibn Faris, he states that the original over all meaning of the root word “‘Hanitha” which is to mean “al-ithim & i’hraaj” theses two meaning literally means;
-Al-ithim; الاثم: sin, violation.
-al-i’hraaj; الاحراج: defeat, embarrassment, shamefulness”
Now based on the original meaning of the root word ” ‘hanitha” as shown above, it seems that the common meaning which is “breaking the oath” is really a derived meaning and applied on the situation of breaking an oath, because breaking an oath merits a sin which is in line with the original meaning of the root word “‘hanitha” as mentioned above. In other words the word “‘hanitha” and having the meaning stated herein have existed before the situation of breaking an oath . Then people borrowed the word “‘hanitha” to express the situation of breaking an oath because it may incur a sin or cause an embarrassment or shamefulness which is in line with general meaning of the root word stated above. What has really happened here is that the usage of the word “hanitha” in relation to breaking the oath had become very prevalent over the original meanings shown above to the point such meaning has become synonymous with the notion of breaking the oath.
We can also compare this new meaning herewith from the following verse:
”وَكَانُوا يُصِرُّونَ عَلَى الْحِنثِ الْعَظِيمِ 56:46″
“And they persisted in the great violation. 56:46”
In this above verse 56:46 clearly employed the same word in question “hanitha” in verse 38:44 but it came in the noun form as in “al-hinthi- الْحِنثِ” here its rendition was to mean as “violation” which is in line with original meaning shown above and this adopted meaning in verse 56:46 has nothing to do with breaking an oath.
Now based on these findings we look at this verse from a whole different perspective. This follows that when God said to Ayyoub “wala tahnath” could very well mean “do not be defeated or do not be embarrassed of his ordeal, etc…” or could also mean that do not enter into a sin in respect to satanic thoughts of which he thought of them to have contributed to his “toil and torment” as it is projected from his plea. This is a positive message of encouragement to help Ayyoub in his ordeal of sickness. In other words God is warning him from allowing the satanic negative thoughts to influence him and may ultimately break his will power to fight on and maintain his desire to live, in such case it may ultimately would earn him a sin. Those meanings “defeat, sin” are in line with the original meaning of the root word “hanitha”, these concerns can be seen in the following verse:
“And remember Our servant Ayyub, when he called upon his Lord: The Shaitan has afflicted me with toil and torment. 38:41″
Clearly this above verse allude to something very important and that is Prophet Ayyoub has acknowledged to God that shaitan has attempted to infiltrate his thoughts during his ordeal and suffering due to his illness. He stated two concerns caused by the negative thoughts of Satan and that is “nu’sbin wa ‘Athaab” which may literally means “toil and tourment” What is remarkable here we can vividly feel the intensity of Ayyoub’s pain and suffering. It is worth mentioning here that we are dealing with a prophet of God whose perspective on the material world is not as that of an average person. A prophet’s outlook on the various events of life as inevitable things imposed on life and people in this ephemeral world. Furthermore they have no real attachments to the amusements of this world which inevitably make them cope with test and trials befalls upon them in better way than others. Despite these crucial characteristics they posses we see Ayyoub pleaded to God in the most sincere way, as stated:
“And remember Our servant Ayyub, when he called upon his Lord: The Shaitan has afflicted me with toil and torment. 38:41″
Notice this verse began with “And remember our servant Ayyub” this clearly was a reminder to prophet Muhamad difficulty with his people but God told him if you think your ordeal is very difficult then let me tell you what my servant Ayyub had to go through. This is clearly indicate that the pain and suffering of Ayyub had far exceeded any of that in respect to any other prophet. So, mentioning this ordeal to prophet Muhammad was to comfort him and as a reminder to go on and continue with his mission. It is also as reminder to all of us that hardship, pain and suffering befalls on all of mankind.
Two simple human tasks brought Ayyub ordeal to an end!!!!
What is really interesting here is that God recommended to Ayyoub to perform two tasks only which is equal to the two things the shaitan inflicted on him as he stated “nu’sbin wa ‘Athaab-toil & tourment” and that those things turned out to be remedies for Ayyub’s cure. The first remedy is to move his legs or to run. And the second remedy is to grab a bundle of fiber or grass and to beat with it. These two acts have nothing to do with Ayyoub’s wife. Rather these recommendations are to do with him alone and related directly to his plea to God which is expressed in two verses, the first plea is expressed in verse 38:41 and the second plea is in verse 21:83:
“And Ayub, when he cried to his Lord, (saying): Harm has afflicted me, and Thou art the most Merciful of the merciful. 21:83”
In both verses there were no details of these situations and the reason for this I believe is whatever it is they aught to be irrelevant to the purpose of these verses. These verses focused only on the main issues and that is we should seek God’s help in times of hardship particularly during illness and that we should be aware of the satanic negative thoughts which may shaken our faith in God’s omnipotence.
What do draw from these two symbolic gestures; move his legs and grabbing a bundle of fibers!!!
Furthermore, looking closely at these symbolic gestures of acts recommended by God it may allude to something very important and that is the first remedy was to run or move his leg, this can be understood that God is inviting man kind to explore nature which is His divine book to search for cures of diseases in our world. The verse states that upon moving the legs of Ayyoub immediately a spring of water gushed out for him to enjoy:
“Urge with your foot; here is a cool washing-place and a drink. 38:43”
There are two messages here one is for Ayyoub and the second one is for all of Mankind. The first one is to show Ayyoub that God is in charge of nature and that He is the Al-mighty and that all of nature’s secrets and cures are within His authority and that Satan has nothing to do with them and that he has no authority over them, Satan can only whisper negative thoughts and falsehood. So when he performed the two acts he was cured completely and he is well again after years of the most horrible experience someone could endure. Then he realized that he is completely cured after all of these horrible years, and he may have said to himself, “is that it”. He just moved or walked by his legs and water gushed out as well as he grabbed a bundle of fiber and beat with it then he was cured. It must have been shocking for him to see how simple it was for God to bring us out of our misery. Of course God could have cured him without asking him to perform those two acts but God wanted to tell Ayyoub how easy it is for God to cure him in response to the satanic thoughts. The second message is to give mankind a profound message and that is nature has all the answers for all of our miseries, diseases and hardship. Simple move and explore and study the book of nature to find what we need. Someone may say that God had answered Ayyoub’s plea because he is a Prophet and God may not response to an average human being.. I say to that let examine the verse again where it began with “and remember our servant Ayyub” here God said our “servant” this reiterate a very important fact and that is from God’s perspective we are all “His servants” prophets or farmers or any human being. Here God said “our servant” and He also said else where:
“And if my servants ask you concerning Me then I am very near; I answer the plea of anyone who calls on Me.” 2:186
And May Allah knows best