Affliction, Patience, Prayer: Ayyub /Job (AS) in the Qur’an
And [remember] Ayyub (Job), when he cried out to his Sustainer, “affliction has befallen me: but Thou art the most merciful of the merciful!” Whereupon We responded upon him and removed all the affliction from which he suffered; and We gave him his family, doubling their number as an act of grace from Us, and as a reminder unto all who worship Us.
The aim of this paper is to reflect on the Qur’anic account of Ayyub (Job) (AS)2 in the light of a contemporary Muslim exegete, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (d. 1960). Nursi’s approach is interesting in that through an attentive reading of Ayyub’s (AS) story in the Qur’an, he redefines evil and patience. My other reason for choosing Nursi’s interpretation is that he focuses on the turning point in the story, i.e. Ayyub’s prayer. In what follows I will first give a general introduction to the story of Ayyub (AS) in the Qur’an and then analyze Nursi’s interpretation of Ayyub’s (AS) prayer.
Ayyub (Job) (AS) in the Qur’an
Like many other narratives in the Qur’an, the story of Job or Ayyub (AS) is spread over the Qur’an, and only certain episodes of his venture are depicted. Hence, the Qur’anic account of Ayyub (AS) is quite brief compared to the biblical one. The fact that many details of biblical Ayyub (AS) are not mentioned in the Qur’an need not mean that the biblical background is totally rejected in Islam. In fact, many classical Muslim commentators accepted additional information, which overlaps in many points with the biblical narrative.3 Nevertheless, the silence of the Qur’an on these details is also significant. Hence, it will be helpful to keep in mind what is explicitly mentioned in the Qur’anic account.
In the Qur’an, Ayyub (AS) is described as among the ones who received revelation from God, alongside messengers such as Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jesus, Jonah, Moses, etc. – peace be upon them all. They were, including Ayyub (AS), sent as “heralds of glad tidings and as warners” so that “humankind might have no excuse before God after their coming” (4:163). Ayyub (AS) is mentioned as one of the “righteous”, “elected” and “guided unto straight path” (6:84).
Specific mention of Ayyub’s “affliction” is made in two other passages:
83 And [remember] Ayyub, when he cried out to his Sustainer, “affliction has befallen me: but Thou art the most merciful of the merciful!” 84 Whereupon We responded upon him and removed all the affliction from which he suffered; and We gave him his family, doubling their number as an act of grace from Us, and as a reminder unto all who worship Us. (Qur’an 21:83-84)
41 And call to mind Our servant Ayyub, [how it was] when he cried out to his Sustainer, “Behold, Satan has afflicted me with [utter weariness and suffering:– 42 [and thereupon was told:] “Strike [the ground with thy foot: here is cool water to wash with and to drink!” 43 And We bestowed upon him new offspring, doubling the number as an act of grace from Us, and as a reminder unto all who are endowed with insight. 44 [And finally We told him:] “Now take in thy hand a small branch of grass, and strike therewith, and thou wilt not break your oath!”– for verily, we found him full of patience in adversity; how excellent a servant [of Ours], who, behold, would always turn unto Us! (Qur’an 38:41-44)
From these, it is quite clear that (1) Ayyub’s affliction involved his body as well as his family; (2) he prayed to God, noting his distress, as well as complaining about Satan; (3) God answered his call graciously; he fully recovered and was rewarded double the number of offspring; (4) his story is to be “a reminder to all who worship God”; and Ayyub (AS) deserves praise as one who “proved to be patient,” and who was an “excellent servant”, “continuously turning toward [God] (awwab).”
I find it interesting that Ayyub’s patience and his cry unto God are mentioned side by side in the text: “for verily, we found him full of patience in adversity; how excellent a servant [of Ours], who, behold, would always turn unto Us!” (38:44) – and from 21:83 and 38:41 it is clear that Ayyub’s turning to God involves complaint. Ayyub’s patience does not seem to be incompatible with his complaint about his situation. Another significant point seems to be the difference between Ayyub’s prayers. In one passage Ayyub (AS) cries unto God by saying, “affliction has befallen me”, while in the other he says, “Satan has afflicted me with weariness and suffering.” Given that the Qur’an denies any creative power to Satan, and both good and evil are said to be from God,4 why would Ayyub (AS) blame Satan for his situation? Does he not know that even the sickness is created by God? These are some of the points worthwhile considering. Nursi’s exegesis will be helpful in unpacking them.
Nursi on Ayyub’s Prayer
Nursi sees the prophet stories in the Qur’an as “tips of iceberg”, i.e. as particular cases under which universal lessons are concealed.5 In line with the tradition, Nursi takes Ayyub’s prayer in 21:83 as one of the prayers that needs to be incorporated in a believer’s life. Besides, he regards the fact that Ayyub’s prayer is graciously accepted by God as a clue that it was an “effective” and successful prayer.6 In his exegesis, Nursi first gives a brief narrative background to Ayyub’s story. Then he moves on to discuss the implications for the reader.
1. Narrative Background
Nursi keeps his background to the Qur’anic episode to the minimum, for he thinks that there is a meaning even in “lack” of details in the Qur’an. Nursi summarizes the story of Ayyub (AS) as follows. Ayyub (AS) remains afflicted with an awesome sickness for a long time. Yet thinking of its great reward, he shows perfect patience and does not complain. He only complains to God when this sickness poses a threat to his connection with God. That is, when “the worms generated from his wounds” reaches to Ayyub’s heart and tongue and threaten his worship, Ayyub (AS) cries for help, saying, “O my Sustainer, verily affliction has befallen me: but Thou art the most merciful of the merciful!” Here, Nursi notes Ayyub’s intention in prayer: ayyub does not cry out in a manner accusing God nor is he primarily concerned about himself. Rather, in his prayer Ayyub (AS) is primarily concerned about his worship of God. Here lies the secret of Ayyub’s prayer according to Nursi. And, since it forms the turning point of the story in the Qur’an – bringing about a radical change in the situation – Nursi directs his attention to deciphering it.
2. The Secret of Ayyub’s Prayer
According to Nursi, Ayyub’s prayer was readily accepted by God because it was a “pure sincere, disinterested and devout supplication.”7 The lack of any direct request in the prayer supports Nursi’s interpretive move: Ayyub (AS) only mentions that he is in distress and that he trusts in God’s mercy. He makes no direct demands about regaining his health or his family.
Yet, what does it mean to be unselfish or disinterested in praying during distress? How can one be disinterested about one’s pain? And even if it were possible to achieve insensitivity about one’s situation, why would that be a virtue? Does Nursi really think that one should not care about being in physical pain or about losing one’s family? If so, this sounds quite inhuman. Fortunately, Nursi does not mean this.
In fact, Nursi regards human sensitivity and vulnerability as humankind’s greatest talent.8 For this constitutes the perfect background against which bounties and gifts of God shine. That is, what makes the human being the “best of creation” is her ability to receive a whole spectrum of physical, emotional and spiritual pleasures and pains.9 This is a great privilege because it enables the human being to be an excellent mirror of the Divine Names:
God Almighty, in order to display His infinite power and unlimited mercy, has made inherent in man infinite impotence and unlimited want. Further, in order to display the infinite variety of the impress of His Names, He has created man like a machine receptive to pain and pleasure perceived from an infinite variety of directions.10
On the one hand, the human being has the ability to sense and enjoy a vast range of pleasures, both spiritual and bodily: “beneficial matters like good health, well-being, and pleasures cause man to offer thanks and prompt the human ‘machine’ to perform its functions in many respects, and thus man becomes like a factory producing thanks.” On the other hand, the human being is susceptible to misfortunes, anxieties and pains which reminds her of her utter weakness and makes her turn to God with her whole being.
Hence, Nursi would not suggest that the secret of Ayyub’s (AS) supplication lies in being indifferent about one’s affliction. After all, if one is neutral about being sick, one cannot love the manifestation of God’s Names such as Healer, Provider, and Helper. What, then, does Nursi mean by “disinterested” prayer?
It seems that even though Nursi affirms the innate wish for health and comfort, he is concerned about the misuse of this inclination. The dislike of misfortunes is justified only so long as one does not forget that it is God who makes one dislike the misfortunes.11 For this dislike is given for a purpose, i.e. so that we realize our need for God’s mercy and admit this in honesty and praise. The moment we disconnect this wish from the One who gave us that wish in the first place, we will imagine a clash between our own will to get well and God’s will who gives the affliction. In other words, we will be deluded in thinking that while we want healing, God opposes us by decreeing sickness, and therefore that God is against us. Once the situation is couched in these dichotomous terms, there emerges the insoluble “problem of evil.” That is, it appears that one has to choose between oneself and God: either to demand comfort despite God’s will, i.e. to be “selfish,” or to ignore suffering, which is quite contrary to one’s nature.
According to Nursi, there is no way out of this impasse. For if God is against me there is no way I can win. Nursi likens the one who criticizes God’s mercy to someone who “strikes his head against the anvil and breaks it.” Nothing happens to the anvil; I only destroy myself. To imagine a clash between my need and the One who gave me that need is “to use a broken hand to exact revenge[; and this] will only cause further damage to the hand.”12
Needless to say, within the terms of this dichotomy, one cannot talk of “unselfish” prayer, and indeed, Nursi’s notion of Ayyub’s (AS) “disinterested” request is not intelligible at all. Yet, it is precisely this dichotomy that Nursi sees being transcended in Ayyub’s prayer. In order to make that prayer, Ayyub (AS) must have been aware that his situation did not mean that God was against him. Indeed, according to Nursi, such a dichotomy is too absurd to be real. Nursi notes that if we are deprived of God, we are deprived of everything, and hence our fuss about our loss of health becomes absurd. If we are wretched orphans on earth with no merciful maker or protector, if our lives do not have any permanent value or meaning and we are condemned to a death with no hereafter, we are already in huge trouble – even if we have the best health and wealth in the world. Hence Nursi reminds us: “if thou findest him not, then the whole world is one endless cruel image. Thou who dost suffer from a worldful of woe – why complain at one pain?” The solution to this conundrum is only to be found through turning to God like Ayyub; hence Nursi advises: “make God thy refuge! Smile thus in the face of thy woe; woe itself then shall smile, and smiling, shrink and quite change!”13
It seems that in his profound prayer, Ayyub (AS) is seeking refuge in God in this way. Ayyub (AS) turns to God not in accusation of Divine mercy but in patience, which comes from trusting in God’s mercy.
But, how is this patience really possible? And how does such patience truly manifest itself? As Nietzsche rightly said, what really hurts is not the suffering itself but the meaninglessness of suffering. ayyub (AS) could ‘endure’ suffering (which, to repeat, did not mean enjoying it or being unaffected by it, but meant rather refraining from falling into despair) because he knew that it could neither be meaningless nor cruel. Nursi goes into insightful explanations of how, even though one would not long for suffering per se, one can, once it befalls one, come to terms with it by trusting God’s mercy and wisdom. I will not be able to go into these details, but will mention one of his metaphors. Nursi gives the metaphor of a great tailor who hires a poor man as his model so as to display on him his wonderful art of dressmaking. The tailor swiftly dresses the model with a beautiful garment and then starts to change the dress to display other beautiful styles. In this situation, asks Nursi, does the model have the right to complain by saying, “why are you changing my beautiful garment and giving me discomfort by making me stand up and sit down?” Surely he does not. Similarly, in order to display the impresses of His Most Beautiful Names, the All-Glorious Maker, the Peerless Creator, alters within numerous circumstances the garment of existence He clothes on living creatures, bejewelled with senses and subtle faculties like eyes, ears, the reason, and the heart. He changes it within very many situations. Among these are circumstances in the form of suffering and calamity which show the meanings of some of His Names, and the rays of mercy within flashes of wisdom, and the subtle instances of beauty within those rays of mercy.14
Thus, whatever befalls humankind, including calamities, serves a great purpose of making Divine art known.15 For instance, the Divine Name Healer necessitates sickness, while the Divine Name Provider calls for hunger and thirst. Hence Nursi concludes, “since life is a mirror to Beautiful names of God, whatever comes to life is beautiful.”16 Hence, there is no real evil but only apparent evil.
There is one exception, however. It is the affliction that is brought upon one by one’s ill will. This brings us to the crux of Nursi’s interpretation of Ayyub’s prayer: the real affliction and the real evil is the one that damages the servant’s relationship with her Creator.
As alluded to earlier, one is in serious trouble when one’s relationship with God is harmed. This is the only affliction that is really evil. According to Nursi, Ayyub’s prayer is primarily meant to remedy this evil more than any apparent evil, such as bodily or emotional discomfort. Indeed, Nursi emphasizes that in our emulation of this great prophet, we need to incorporate his prayer especially for overcoming this evil.
Nursi notes that corresponding to Ayyub’s “outer” bodily sicknesses, we have “inner” spiritual sicknesses: “If our inner being was to be turned outward, and our outer being turned inward, we would appear more wounded and diseased than Ayyub (AS). For each sin that we commit and each doubt that enters our mind inflicts wounds on our heart and our spirit.” That is why, according to Nursi, we need Ayyub’s prayer even more than Ayyub (AS). For his physical wounds were threatening merely his worldly life, while our spiritual wounds threaten our eternal life. And just as the worms reached Ayyub’s heart and tongue, threatening his physical worship, “the wounds that sin inflicts upon us and the temptations and doubts that arise from those wounds will—may God protect us!—penetrate our inner heart, the seat of belief, and thus wound belief. Just as the worms that arose from his wounds penetrated to his heart and tongue, so too penetrating to the spiritual joy of the tongue, the interpreter of belief, they cause it to shun in revulsion the remembrance of God, and reduce it to silence.”17
The danger in sinning is not that it readily obliterates one’s faith. To be sure, the sinner is still a believer. Yet, the door of unfaith has opened before him. For, one may be misled by one’s feeling of guilt, just as, as mentioned earlier, one can be misled by one’s innate dislike of misfortune. Nursi notes, for instance, that when one commits a shameful deed secretly, one’s feeling of guilt, if not channeled to repentance, may make one dislike the idea that there is a hereafter, or that there are angels that record one’s deeds, or even the idea that there is a God toward whom one is accountable.18 In turn, “there will arise from this [dislike] a desire to deny God, and bear enmity toward Him. If some doubt concerning the existence of the Divine Being comes to his heart, he will be inclined to embrace it like a conclusive proof.” If one does not seek remedy for one’s pain of guilt by turning to God, one may eventually end up denying God. This, however, only exacerbates one’s trouble, as pointed out earlier: “The wretch [who, for instance, had failed to do his rituals] does not know that although he is delivered by denial [of God] from the slight trouble of duty of worship, he has made himself, by that same denial, the target for millions of troubles that are far more awesome. Fleeing from the bite of a gnat, he welcomes the bite of the snake.”19 The person, having lost God in his heart as well as in his tongue, will find himself in utter emptiness and insecurity. This loss, indeed, is the real affliction according to Nursi. If this is real danger, the prayer should be directed toward it. The main concern of one’s prayer should be about this threat to one’s relationship with God. Hence the secret of Ayyub’s prayer: it was “effective” because Ayyub (AS) was primarily interested in maintaining his connection with God.
By making this analogy between inner and outer sickness, Nursi not only appropriates Ayyub’s prayer for the contemporary reader’s context, but he also helps us to understand Ayyub’s reference to Satan in the Qur’anic passage: “And call into mind Our servant Ayyub, [how it was] when he cried out to his Sustainer, ‘Behold, Satan has afflicted me with weariness and suffering!”20 It seems that in turning to God, Ayyub’s primary concern is the danger posed by the whisperings of Satan, who was probably trying to convince him that his Sustainer has abandoned him or perhaps that he was being wronged by God. Satan was trying to portray Ayyub’s affliction as evil, while the real evil in fact lay in believing in Satan’s suggestion that God is against the servant. When Ayyub is complaining about Satan, he must be complaining about these troubling suggestions. Hence, as Nursi notes, it is for the sake of his worship of God that Ayyub (AS) cries out for help. Unlike the vicious model of Satan in which one has to choose between God’s decree and one’s own comfort, Ayyub (AS) seems to realize that his comfort lies in trusting God’s decree.
Thus, to sum up, real patience expresses itself in impatiently crying out to God and complaining about narrow concepts of evil. The “narrow concept” involved here, as explicated above, is Satan’s version of evil, which takes affliction to be real evil – perceiving it as a Divine attack. Yet “real” evil consists precisely in this misperception of affliction. Hence, as Nursi notes, the Qur’anic passage on Ayyub teaches us to redefine evil, and thus patience, from a true perspective. It is not that Nursi sees a shift here simply in the content of evil or of patience. The redefinition of evil does not simply involve a distinction between the things that befall Ayyub, namely sickness and Satan’s whisperings. Similarly, patience is not simply a choice between endurance and crying out. Rather, the redefinition of evil comes with the recognition that nothing that befalls us, including Satan’s evil whisperings, can really hurt us as long as we realize that the Merciful cannot be against us and we seek refuge in God – which is what Ayyub does. It is thus for good reason that the Qur’an notes, “for verily we found him full of patience in adversity: how excellent a servant [of Ours] who, behold, would always turn to Us!” (38:44).
1. Throughout this essay I have used Muhammad Asad’s translation of the Qur’an, The Message of the Qur’an (Dar al Andalus: Gibraltar, 1984).
2. “P” stands for the shortened form of the traditional Islamic phrase “peace be upon him”, evoked after mentioning the name of any prophet.
3. Ibn Kathir, for instance, mentions even “the heavenly assembly” as a prelude to Ayyub’s affliction.
4. See, for instance, Qur’an 4:78; 16:99.
5. Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, The Words, from the Risale-i Nur Collection, trans. Sukran Vahide (Istanbul: Sozler Publications, 1998), p. 376. (All of his works that are translated into English are available online at <http://www.sozler.com.tr>)
6. Nursi, Fruits of Belief, from the Risale-i Nur Collection, trans. Hamid Algar (Ankara: Ihlas Nur Nesriyat, n.d.), p. 21. [2nd Flash]
7. Ibid., p. 22.
8. Cf. “O humankind! You are in need of God.” (Qur’an 35:15)
9. Cf. “and that it is He alone who causes [you] to laugh and weep.” (Qur’an 53:43)
10. Nursi, Fruits, p. 33.
11. Cf. Qur’an 7:94.
12. Nursi, Fruits, p. 32.
13. Ibid., p. 32.
14. Nursi, Words, [26th Word], p. 488, italics added.
15. Nursi also explains how the person is paid for being model of Divine art, both in this world and in the world to come.
16. Nursi, Words, p. 488.
17. Nursi, Fruits, pp. 22-23.
18. Nursi gives examples: “For example, a man who secretly commits a shameful sin will fear the disgrace that results if others become aware of it. Thus the existence of angels and spirit beings will be hard for him to endure, and he will long to deny it, even on the strength of the slightest indication. Similarly, one who commits a major sin deserving of the torment of Hell, will desire the non-existence of Hell wholeheartedly, and whenever he hears of the threat of Hell-fire, he will dare to deny it on the strength of a slight indication and doubt, unless he takes up in protection the shield of repentance and seeking forgiveness” (ibid., 22-23).
19. Ibid., pp. 22-23.
20. Qur’an 38:41. Muhammad Asad in his explanation of verse 38:41 also notes that here in this prayer Ayyub (AS) is complaining about “Satan’s whisperings.”