What We Need Versus What Want:

A Qur’anic Perspective

The following anecdote supports an important theme in the Qur’an: to grow in morality of the faith we need to experience difficulties and suffering in life. Tough trials and Tribulations are essential to our development, while coping with them courageously and wisely are expressions of our commitment to the faith. This is the wisdom of Allah (swt) in creating human suffering on earth. Here is the story of “The man and the butterfly”.


“One day, a small opening appeared in a cocoon; a man sat and watched for the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole.  After some time, it appeared as if it could not move any further.  So the man decided to help the butterfly: He took a pair of scissors and opened the cocoon.  The butterfly then emerged easily but it had a withered body.  It was tiny with shriveled wings. The man expected that the wings would soon open and expand to be able to support the butterfly’s body.  He waited and waited but nothing happened!  In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a withered body and shriveled wings.  It never was able to fly.  What the man, in his kindness and his goodwill, did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening, were God’s way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings, so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon.  Sometimes, struggles are exactly what we need in our life.”


The Qur’an portrays painful experiences in life as being essential for human growth in morality, behavior and most importantly in faith.  Most assuredly We will try you with something of fear, hunger, and loss of wealth, lives and fruits of your labor.  But give the good news to those who are patient at time of adversity.” (2:155). This verse asserts that human suffering can be seen as a test from Allah (swt) in order foster the best qualities in us; in this case patience.  Another verse (6:42) bears the same meaning.   “And We sent messengers to many nations before you (O Muhammad), and We afflicted them with suffering and adversity so that they might learn (grow in) humility.”  Here, the Qur’an presents suffering and adversity that falls on nations as being a way for a blemished community to amend its morality and its bond to Allah (swt); a character that triggers many other virtues.


Paradise is promised to those who prevail through life’s trials. In (2:214) Allah (swt) says: “Do you think that you could enter paradise without having suffered like those who passed away before you?  Misfortune and hardship befell them, and they were so shaken that the messenger and the believers with him would exclaim, ‘When will God’s help come?’ Truly, God’s help is always near.” 


This verse reassures the believers that their response in the face of adversity, however large or small the test maybe, will allow them to surpass their struggles with the help of Allah (swt).  The difficulties faced may not necessarily be beyond the believer’s control, such as loss of health, wealth or life.  They may also include difficult challenges that the believers must face in order to defend their faith in Allah (swt).  Allah (swt) has planned for us various situations, whereby we are confronted by temptation, which we must resist.  By conquering these hurdles, we can rise above our own greed, ego, fear and self-interest.  Suffering, according to this verse, is an essential ingredient for the believers to emerge as stronger, wiser and more compassionate individuals towards others.


The Qur’an’s attitude towards human suffering is positive and progressive.  Many of us view hardship and suffering in life as a form of divine punishment for disobeying Allah’s commands.  This is perhaps true if suffering is a consequence of wrong behavior.  But even in this case the Qur’an still portrays suffering as a means of learning.  When addressing those who belied the Message of Allah (swt), the Qur’an mentions that they will suffer in this life, not in a way of punishment but in order to reconsider what they are doing and perhaps to provide the will for them to change themselves.  “And verily, We will make them taste of the near torment (difficulties in this life) prior to supreme torment (in the Hereafter) in order that they may turn to Allah in repentance” (32:21).


It should be emphasized that patience is not the only recommended quality in response to hardship and adversities.  The Qur’an also encourages more active responses: speaking the truth, fighting for a just cause, resisting worldly power and temptation, etc.  That is how the believers can improve their situation and rectify their wrong or passive attitudes.


So, let us reiterate the wisdom from the story of the “man and the butterfly”.  The restricting cocoon symbolizes obstacles, ordained by Allah (swt), in life.  The struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening symbolizes the struggle that man needs to achieve freedom and develop the qualities that are essential to faith. If God allowed us to go through our life without any obstacles we would not be as strong, patient or wise as we could have been.  We ask Allah (swt) for strength and He gives us obstacles to overcome in order to make us stronger.  We ask Him for wisdom and He gives us problems to solve in order to make us wiser.  We ask Allah (swt) for courage and He gives us challenges to confront in order to make us braver.  We ask Him for love and He gives us troubled people to help.  We ask Allah (swt) for favors and He gives us opportunities.  In short, we may not receive all that we want, however we do receive all that we need in order to make us better people.


By Mohammed Shokr


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