Why Am I Sick? An Islamic Contribution to Pastoral Care
Why am I sick? 
We face many challenges in life. We lose our time, money, and property. Our family and friends are taken from us. Although distressing, we can overcome most of these trials. We can always buy another car or understand that a loved one passed on because it was better for him or her.
Perhaps the most difficult challenge we face is sickness. Unlike most other things in life, we cannot simply replace our health with money, time, or effort.
Pain and disability make it hard for us to find reason in our suffering.
However, we must admit that it is not the pain that troubles us so much. After all, we can endure a tremendous amount of pain caused by an operation because
we believe it will help us. But illness seems to come without benefit. As some philosophers have observed, it is not the suffering itself that is intolerable, but rather
it is our belief that the affliction is meaningless.
In many cases, we can do very little about our illness. Exercise will not cure our cancer and no amount of vegetables will eliminate our arthritis. From a very young age,
our bodies start a slow but irreversible process of deterioration. With time, we develop a greater number of increasingly severe health problems. Aside from treating our illness, the only way we can reduce our suffering is to seek understanding.
In our culture, illness is often seen as “bad luck” or “misfortune.” Scientists attempt to explain illness in terms of chemical reactions. A sick person may ask his
or her doctor “Why do I have cancer?” The doctor may correctly respond “The genetic code of some of your cells was altered, causing them to reproduce in a harmful way.”
This explains how, but not why.
How can we make sense of this complex world of health when all traditional explanations still leave us asking “why?” Why do some people smoke for 80 years
and never get sick? Why do some newborn babies die of heart problems?
We can break down the process of understanding and adapting to illness into multiple steps. First, we must develop a foundational understanding of our purpose
in this world. Second, we must understand the various functions of illness. Third, we must address certain issues in order to better cope with illness.
Understanding Our Purpose
The Myth of Chance
Even the most advanced medical technology and research can only report to us in terms of “chances.” Given certain conditions, there is a known probability that we will have a stroke or that a certain medication will help us, etc. The best we can hope is to improve our “chances.”
In popular culture, “chance” or “fate” is often depicted as a human being who uses his or her tremendous power to do good or cause harm. Although this amusing ploy may sell lottery tickets and insurance policies, we must recognize that it contradicts the reality we see in this world and in ourselves.
If we accept an all-powerful creator, we cannot also believe that chance is another independent, secondary creator. Rather, we must reject all concepts of “chance”
and work to free our reason from this burden.
All events, including ones we dislike, are deliberately created specifically for us. As a result, we must search for the treasure God has hidden in our painful times.
After all, an infinitely compassionate Creator would not cause us to endure pain for no reason.
In addition, we can take comfort in knowing that God has determined that we are worthy of being tested and instructed through this trial. Illness is like a surgical
operation in which our Creator removes spiritual sickness from the selected people. Pain carries many important messages and acts as an invaluable guide for us.
Respecting the Gift of Life
In order to understand the meaning of illness, we must first think about the purpose of our lives. Our lives are like tools that are given to us. We are given the freedom
to use them in numerous ways. If we misuse the tools, they will produce nothing for us and they will be wasted.
On the other hand, if we employ the tools in their intended way and to their full potential, they will produce fruitful results for us. For example, if we have a truck,
we can choose to drive it only for fun and end up with nothing but lost opportunity. We can also use it for work and produce great benefit.
Furthermore, we must consider not only the gift, but also the giver. If a loved one gives us a precious and meaningful gift, we would be too ashamed to misuse
or complain about it. Common decency tells us that if we are to respect the giver, we must treat the gift accordingly.
Our culture tells us that we deserve constant pampering and comfort. What did we do to earn this right? How can we assert that we are the master of our existence
when we did not create a single cell in our bodies? Rather than asserting our “rights,” we should acknowledge that we are the humbled recipient of the invaluable gift of life.
Illness can remind us that we owe our existence to our Creator. In this way, sickness orients us to our status as needy recipients of our Sustainer’s gifts.
Furthermore, we can reinforce this understanding by deliberately treating this gift of life with the respect that its bestower deserves.
Our False Ownership
Modern society teaches us to “stand up for ourselves” and assert our rights. Although this may be good advice in legal and interpersonal areas, it impedes our spiritual progress and will prevent us from understanding illness.
We must admit that we did not make our bodies or our abilities. As a result, we do not own them. Rather, they are created and directed by our Sustainer. We are like models hired by the most skilled tailor. For the period of our employment, the tailor changes our clothing requiring us to endure the minimal inconvenience of sitting and standing in different poses.
In life, our beautiful garments are our senses and abilities. We do not own them and therefore we have no right to complain if our Maker changes their form including
their creation in a state of illness. Although it may be difficult for us to see, sickness is among the beautiful states in which we may be created to teach us about our true nature.
Looking Back on Pleasure and Pain
We cannot deny that illness often brings tremendous pain. However, as we look at our past, our pleasures and pains become reversed. That is, our past pleasures give us pain when we mourn their passing.
By contrast, thinking of our past pains brings us pleasure in that the difficulty is gone. Thoughts of expired pleasure scar our spirit with regret. In this way, brief pleasure brings never-ending pain. By contrast, the thought of past pain should cause us to thank God for our relief. As a result, brief pain can deliver continuous pleasure and benefit.
In times of sickness we can say "Praise be to God for this too will pass, leaving me with great pleasure and benefit."
Some people with a chronic or terminal illness may counter that their pain will never end. Although their pain may extend until their death, we would be
short-sighted to think that their pain will last throughout their existence, which goes beyond death. The pain we experience must end at our deaths.
Functions of Illness
The Speed of Life
A life of constant ease passes in boredom, losing its value and beauty. We can observe the rich seeking endless means of distraction from skiing by helicopter
to “space tourism.” Their days go by slowly and they feel compelled to find never-ending pleasurable activities to “pass the time.”
By contrast, a life full of challenges seems to pass quickly. A poor farmer will constantly lament that the short day did not allow him to finish his work. He is more likely to appreciate the value of his life and not wish it to pass rapidly in meaningless distraction. Illness slows life down and gives us a chance to benefit from it. In this way,
our lives will not pass and leave us empty-handed.
We can understand that one of the purposes of illness is, in fact, prayer itself. If we strive to remain patient, illness makes prayer easier for us. Prayer is its own blessing,
so we should not be discouraged if our requests seem to go unanswered for a period of time.
God fulfills our requests in the way that is best for us, not in the way that we, in our limited understanding, believe is best. We may ask to be healed in this world,
seemingly improving our condition for twenty or thirty years. However, God may answer our prayer in the hereafter, improving our condition for an infinitely longer
period of time and to an infinitely greater degree.
From a wider point of view, we can divide our religious actions into two groups. What we may call active worship consists of actions such as prayer and contemplation. Latent worship, on the other hand, consists of enduring challenges such as illness.
Latent worship allows us to glimpse the tip of our powerlessness, inviting us to seek refuge with our Creator. It perfects our worship, makes it sincere, and frees it of hypocrisy. In this way, if we do not complain, our illness becomes powerful worship. Our duty is only to remain patient and thankful in times of trial.
Illness promotes respect and compassion. It relieves us of our delusion of self-sufficiency, which impairs our interactions with other people. Perpetual good health
leads our souls to believe that they are self-sufficient. In this state, our souls can feel no respect or compassion for others. Illness facilitates humility and assistance from others, fostering human connection. In this way, we feel the reflection of Divine compassion in the form of human kindness.
Illness serves to awaken us from the sleep of everyday life. We can understand this process by observing people around us. We can see that young people challenged
by illness are often very different from their friends. Many of them become more serious and think about their existence. Having seen through the emptiness of transitory pleasures, they focus on the eternal.
By contrast, most of their friends in good health seek only the fleeting amusements of this world. In this way, many so-called “fortunate” people sell the foundations
of their eternal life for the most flimsy of rewards while many so-called “unfortunate” people lay unshakable foundations.
We should understand that illness is intended to bring us to full consciousness. If an illness continues, perhaps it has not fully awakened us and we can benefit from its continuing presence. Illness that awakens us is, in fact, good health. By contrast, good health that allows us to sleep our lives away is actually sickness.
Pleasant times cause us to forget the hereafter—they cause us to hate death and lead us to waste our lives on transitory things. Illness shakes us back to reality and tells us “You are not immortal and you have not been left to your own destructive soul. You have a duty. Abandon pride and think of your Creator. You know you cannot avoid the grave so prepare yourself for it.” In this way, illness is a guide—here to help us on our way.
Experiencing the Divine
One purpose of illness is to help us experience our Creator. In our lives, we reflect the attributes of God like a mirror. We can observe that the best mirrors are those
that reflect most completely and perfectly. By extension, our beauty as a mirror of God's attributes depends on our ability to reflect as many of the attributes as completely as possible.
Illness is one of the essential varieties in creation that teach us about our Sustainer. We can observe that in many aspects of this world, we can only understand
something by contrasting it to its opposite. Light without darkness, heat without cold, food without hunger, and water without thirst would all be meaningless to us.
In addition, without sickness, we could never grasp the true bounty of healing and health.
We dislike illness but it is invaluable in teaching us about our relationship with our Creator. Since we are unable to experience God overtly through our senses,
we require variety in creation to help us understand ourselves and connect with our Lord.
A life without challenges such as illness would leave us deficient in our experience of God’s power and attributes. For example, we would know nothing of God’s healing nature. As a result, our mirrors would reflect incompletely and, as a result, shine with very limited beauty. It would be as if our mirrors possessed numerous blank areas.
Preparing for Death
In part, illness is frightening because it sometimes leads to death. However, one of the benefits of illness is precisely that it is a reminder of our inevitable future.
Sickness warns us not to attach ourselves too tightly to this world because we are destined to leave it. We must abandon this world before it abandons us. Illness
tells that in contrast to our wishes, our bodies are not invincible and eternal. We are powerless and our bodies are in a constant state of death and departure. As a result,
we must leave our pride, embrace our powerlessness, and recognize our Creator if we are to understand our purpose in this world. Pain will bring us unlimited pleasure
after death. If we strive to truly embrace this affirmation, it will bring us great comfort.
In reality, death is the relief from the challenging duties of this life and is the time to receive what we have earned. If we accept only the apparent physical reality we see around us, we make death into a pit of everlasting darkness. However, if we are conscious of our nature, death is the door to absolute divine mercy. In this life, we are like a seed planted in the ground. The seed slowly dies in the ground but flourishes above the ground into a flower. Hence, our death is not an end, but a beginning, a birth into the next world.
Coping with Illness
Patience and Worry
The ever-present nature of illness, death, and separation in this world is not without meaning. These essential parts of life tell us that we have not been sent here only
for pleasure and amusement.
Our exclusive focus on pleasure and our intellect unite to consume our patience very quickly. We grieve the absence of past pleasures and worry about future pains.
In this way, our intellect becomes a great burden.
We worry about an illness that may come and the pain that it may cause. We create suffering for ourselves over something that does not exist and, in many cases,
never will. In this way, we create senseless agony for ourselves.
God has created us with sufficient patience to endure our present challenges. However, in our foolishness, we take this precious capital and try to extend it over the past, present, and future. In our utmost act of ignorance, we then complain to our Creator that our patience is insufficient.
From what we can observe, most animals seem content with the present, indicating no ability to worry about the past or future. A dog may suffer the amputation
of a leg, but will almost certainly start playing as soon as he or she is permitted to do so.
We humans, by contrast, are consumed by the regret of separation from our past activities. We also agonize over the thought of future challenges. However,
we need not suffer if we strive to understand our purpose. We must see that we are here to trade our transitory lives for life everlasting.
Worrying about an illness and that it may become more severe only causes the illness to increase. Medical studies have shown that anxiety greatly increases
our perception of pain. Relaxation, biofeedback, imagery, and massage are effective treatments for pain because they reduce anxiety. In addition, medications to relieve
anxiety are often used to reduce pain.
Worry extends the physical illness to include illness of the heart. True illness rests in doubting Divine wisdom, criticize Divine mercy, and complaining about our compassionate Creator. Worrying is its own illness, but the cure is to understand the wisdom in the creation of our challenges. Contentment, understanding, and patience
protect the heart from anxiety.
It is especially important for us to maintain a positive outlook and not despair during times of sickness. Many studies have shown that negative thoughts facilitate
and speed the progression of disease, most notably in the form of reduced immune system function. On the other hand, positive thoughts improve immune system function, thereby protecting our health.
If we recognize that we have been created, these findings have even deeper meaning. When we despair, we are actually questioning our Creator’s infinite wisdom, power, and mercy. If we place ourselves in such a state, how can we expect any positive outcomes?
When we maintain a positive outlook, we are affirming Divine wisdom, power, and mercy. If we open ourselves to the divine embrace of our Creator, how could our situation do anything but improve?
We should avoid complaining about illness because complaints arise from an unfulfilled right. Our creation is a blessing to us and we have no right to be created
in a certain form at every moment of our existence. Furthermore, we should offer thanks for the blessings in our lives.
If we understand our lives in context, it becomes easier for us to be thankful even in times of illness. For example, we can observe that there are always people in a worse condition than us. Those who have a broken hand can remember that others are missing a hand, who can remember that others are missing an arm, and so forth.
We must be careful, however, when we compare ourselves to other people. We should not look at people who appear to be in a better condition than us and complain.
No matter how well we know a person we can have no real understanding of his or her actual situation. For example, a person may appear to have a wonderful and easy life,
yet he or she may endure constant abuse in private.
When we complain, we become like an ignorant man who is taken up a tall building and given a present on each floor. When he reaches the top floor he protests "If only this building were taller!" We should accept both good health and sickness with grace whenever they are granted to us.
For some of us, illness is compounded by the negative reactions of people around us. Many people have a strong dislike for sickness and are repulsed by places such as hospitals and nursing homes. We may find that some of our friends and family become more distant from us and this can hurt tremendously.
However, we should seek consolation by understanding our connection with our Creator. We should see that even if we had the love and admiration of everyone on earth, this would be nothing next to the compassion of our Creator.
As a result, we can take comfort in knowing that no matter what other people do, our greatest source of support will never fail us but rather only increases in times of difficulty. The only way that we could become distant from our Lord is if we sever the connection ourselves. Even in such a case, we should always remember that it is never
too late to reestablish the connection.
We have now completed, to some degree, the first three steps laid out in the introduction. We have discussed understanding our purpose in life, understanding illness,
and several issues to help us cope with our conditions. Lastly, we must apply our understandings of illness so that we can transform our lives into a constant energy reinforcing our connection with our Creator.
This final step, although the most important and challenging, must be an individual quest. Each person has a different situation and particular understanding. This text, however, should serve as a general guide and introduction. It can also be used as a reminder of principles that are easily forgotten in difficult times.
We cannot hope to fully know which bounties will be given to us, in what form, and at what time. However, no matter what our present condition, we can always take comfort in at least one fundamental blessing: that we have been created human and thus blessed with the capacity to strive for connection with our Creator.
In addition, we should take comfort in remembering that our Lord has infinite knowledge and compassion. Although our limited understanding may prevent us
from fully comprehending, God will provide us with what is ultimately best for us at every moment of our existence.
The development of understanding is a long and gradual process, but it yields benefits at every step of the way. As we progress spiritually, our eyes will open to
innumerable signs of infinite wisdom. We will come to understand that illness, just like health, is a great bounty created for us by our Lord of infinite compassion.
 Based on Said Nursi’s “Treatise for the Sick,” 25th Flash: http://erisale.com/index.jsp?locale=en#content.en.203.277