The World is a Place of Testing
As with all living things, Allah created human beings for a purpose and explains that purpose in the Qur'an, which He sent down to guide all people: "Did you suppose that We created you for amusement and that you would not return to Us?" (Surah Ghafir, 115) and "I only created jinn and man to worship Me" (Surat adh-Dhariyat, 56). In other words, all people were created to serve Allah.
Human beings have a lifespan of roughly 60 to 70 years. But like an hourglass, time is constantly running out. Everyone will stay in this world for a length of time that is known only to Allah, for it follows the destiny that Allah has determined for it and which no person or thing can change.
Everything in this world will end when its time comes, for "the life of this world, compared to the Hereafter, is only fleeting enjoyment" (Surat ar-Ra`d, 26). Everything here grows old and diminishes as it rushes headlong toward destruction. Time destroys everyone and everything, and those who attach themselves to this transitory life stand to lose everything. That is why our Prophet (saas) recommended to people to think about death and said: "Those who are most aware of death and prepare themselves for it. They are the wisest of people." 1
In his works, the great Islamic scholar Bediuzzaman Said Nursi constantly reminded his readers that this earthly life is transitory and that everyone must work hard to attain the life of the Hereafter:
The world is a guest-house, and as for man, he remains there only a short time. He is a guest with many duties and in a brief lifetime is charged with preparing all the necessities for eternal life. 2
Bediuzzaman describes the shortness of human life as a temporary visit and, in another example, says that "human beings, like animals, have been given existence to perpetuate their life in the world." He then adds:
O my soul and my friend! Come to your senses! Do not spend the capital and potentialities of your life on pleasures of the flesh and this fleeting life like an animal, or even lower. Otherwise, although you are fifty times superior with regard to capital than the highest animal, you will fall fifty times lower than the lowest.3
As he says, human beings are endowed with such superior qualities as intelligence, conscience, and common sense. Thus, the purpose of their creation is clearly not to chase after the temporary pleasures of this short and highly deficient worldy life, but to attain the beauty of eternity by using their superior qualities to pass the tests in this world.
People are tested according to how they respond to what they encounter in the world, as well as how they exercise their moral characters and intentions. It is definitely not enough for them to say "I believe"; rather, they must show their faith through their actions and words. On the Day of Judgment, everything they have done, both public and private, will be revealed and they will have to give a detailed account. While doing so, they will not suffer any injustice, for the Qur'an says "They will not be wronged by so much as the smallest speck." (Surat an-Nisa', 49). Those whose good deeds weigh heavy in the balance will be received into the eternal beauties of Paradise, while those who chose the way of evil and oppression will find their reward in the eternal torment of Hell. Allah created this short life as a testing place, for:
He Who created death and life to test which of you is best in action... (Surat al-Mulk, 2)
Exchanging Eternal Life for the Life of This World
One of the greatest errors of non-religious people is the idea that the life of this world is permanent. Unaware that they are being tested, this world's beautiful things mislead them into thinking that what they acquire comes about as the result of their own effort and that they are, therefore, self-sufficient. People who live in unbelieving societies forget about the life in the Hereafter and so busy themselves with trying to attain those things that they think are so beautiful and valuable. In the Qur'an, Allah tells us about the desire for these baubles that bind people to this world:
To humanity the love of worldly appetites is painted in glowing colors: women and children, and heaped-up mounds of gold and silver, horses with fine markings, livestock, and fertile farmland. All of that is merely the enjoyment of the life of this world. The best homecoming is in the presence of Allah. Say: "Shall I tell you of something better than that?" Those who guard against evil will have Gardens with their Lord, with rivers flowing under them, remaining in them timelessly, forever; purified wives; and the Pleasure of Allah. Allah sees His servants. (Surah Al `Imran, 14-15)
As this verse makes quite clear, people have many desires. But obtaining only these objects of desire is of no benefit to them, for their real life is the Hereafter, where they will remain for all eternity. The Qur'an explains this truth in the following verses:
Make a metaphor for them of the life of this world. It is like water that We send down from the sky; the plants of the ground combine with it, but then become dry chaff scattered by the winds. Allah has absolute power over everything. Wealth and sons are the embellishment of the life of this world. But, in your Lord's sight, right actions that are lasting bring a better reward and are a better basis for hope. (Surat al-Kahf, 45-46)
As this passage says, all of this world's riches, wealth, spouses, jewels, homes, fame, career, and other values are nothing more than a short and transitory dalliance, for they will end at a particular time.
But a large number of people do not realize that these things are transitory, and so immerse themselves in gathering more material goods, gaining more respect, finding the most attractive spouse, or becoming known as the most successful person in their respective professions. They are so passionately attached to these things that they completely forget about the eternal life. Perceiving death as destruction, they make no preparations for the afterlife.
However, as Bediuzzaman said, death is not a separation or a destruction; rather, it is the end of the trials of this world and the place where people receive the reward for what they have done:
Death is not terrifying as it appears to be superficially. Through the light afforded by the All-Wise Qur'an, in many parts of the Risale-i Nur we have proved in completely certain and indubitable fashion that for believers death is to be discharged from the burdensome duties of life. And for them it is a rest from worship, which is the instruction and training in the arena of trial of this world. It is also a means of their rejoining friends and relations, ninety-nine out of a hundred of whom have already departed for the next world. And it is a means of entering their true homeland and eternal abodes of happiness. It is also an invitation to the gardens of Paradise from the dungeon of this world. And it is the time to receive their wage from the munificence of the Most Compassionate Creator in return for service rendered to Him. Since the reality of death is this, it should not be regarded as terrifying, but on the contrary, as the introduction to mercy and happiness. 4
In other words, it is a big mistake to think that this world is our true homeland. Compared to eternity, this life does not even last a minute. In another place, Bediuzzaman gives an example of how senseless it would be to choose this world instead of the world to come:
Also, he speaks truly about a future in comparison with which the future in this world is like a tiny mirage. And he tells most seriously of a happiness in comparison with which all worldly happiness is but a fleeting flash of lightning in relation to an eternal sun. 5
So, unlike those who are far removed from the Qur'an's morality, Muslims do not rebel when confronted with death; rather, they welcome it with eager expectation, hoping to receive in the Afterlife the rewards for the good they have done in this world. They live in the joyful hope of entering Paradise, which is filled with fine and beautiful things.
The following verse reveals the state of those who focus only on the transitory life of this world:
Those are the ones who have sold guidance for misguidance and forgiveness for punishment. How steadfastly they will endure the Fire! (Surat al-Baqara, 175)
These people, described in another verse as having "purchased disbelief at the price of faith," have fallen into great error. We can give another example to show how much these people have lost:
Think of two individuals, each of whom is given a lot of money to spend as he or she pleases. One of them spends this money carelessly and soon has nothing left, while the other person spends it in such a way that it provides permanent benefits for himself and humanity as a whole. When the first person is called to account, what will she feel, other than great sorrow?
So, all of the property, possessions, culture, renown, respect, beauty, and all other blessings given to human beings in this world are opportunities for a person to prepare for the afterlife. Realizing this, believers take full advantage of these opportunities.
Unbelievers are like those people who spent their money for nothing. They spend their short lifespan carelessly and then suffer a great loss in the eternal afterlife. The Qur'an describes their state, as follows:
Say: "Shall I inform you of the greatest losers in their actions? People whose efforts in the life of this world are misguided while they suppose that they are doing good." Those are the people who reject their Lord's Signs and the meeting with Him. Their actions will come to nothing and, on the Day of Resurrection, We will not assign them any weight. (Surat al-Kahf, 103-105)
Those who are not fulfilled by this life and are aware that only the life to come is eternal know that this world's pleasures are transitory and, therefore, strive to attain the beauties of Paradise. So, they gain much in the trade they make with Allah, for:
Allah has bought from the believers their souls and wealth in return for the Garden. … (Surat at-Tawba, 111)
...Rejoice, then, in the bargain you have made. That is the great victory. (Surat at-Tawba, 111)
Allah Tries People with Good and Evil
As we mentioned earlier, all people are tested throughout their lives in various ways. The Qur'an tells us that these trials may be by means of good or evil:
We did not give any human being before you immortality. And if you die, will they then be immortal? Every person will taste death. We test you with both good and evil as a trial. And you will be returned to Us. (Surat al-Anbiya', 34-35)
People may be tested by all sorts of things. For example, while enjoying the blessings of abundant wealth, they must be careful to practice the kind of morality that earns His good pleasure, turn toward Him in all of their intentions and actions, obey His commands, and follow His advice. If they become caught up in the world's transitory pleasures, wealth can make them oblivious to reality. But believers, no matter how many blessings they may enjoy, remain forever grateful to Allah.
People may also be tested by illness, disaster, pressures from the unbelievers, hurtful words, slander, entrapment, and cruel ridicule. But Muslims realize that all of these things are part of their testing, and so hold on to patience which ultimately leads to good.
As we said earlier, these individuals have made a good trade in exchanging the life of this world for the life of the Hereafter. According to the Qur'an, "Know that your wealth and children are a trial, and that there is an immense reward with Allah" (Surat al-Anfal, 28), they are aware that their lives and possessions all belong to Allah, and so any gain or loss never alters their moral character, their worldview, or their faithfulness to our Lord. Many verses describe this quality, among them the following:
But the Messenger and those who believe along with him have striven with their wealth and with themselves. They are the people who will have the good things. They are the ones who are successful. Allah has prepared Gardens for them with rivers flowing under them, remaining in them timelessly, forever. That is the great victory. (Surat at-Tawba, 88-89)
The believers are only those who have believed in Allah and His Messenger, then have had no doubt and have striven with their wealth and themselves in the Way of Allah. They are the ones who are true to their word. (Surat al-Hujurat, 15)
We see in these verses that for Muslims, this world is a place where they must strive in the way of Allah to earn His good pleasure. Bediuzzaman tells us that this world is only a place of service, that people will pass through it being tried with difficulties and enjoyments, and that the reward for those who patiently endure frustration and disaster will be great.
This worldly realm is the field of testing, the abode of service. It is not the place of pleasure, reward, and requital. Considering, then, that it is the abode of service and place of worship, sicknesses and misfortunes—as long as they do not affect belief and are patiently endured—conform fully to service and worship, and even strengthen it. Since they make each hour's worship equivalent to that of a day, one should offer thanks instead of complaining. Worship consists in fact of two kinds, positive and negative. What is meant by the positive is obvious. As for negative worship, this is when one afflicted with misfortune or sickness perceives his own weakness and helplessness, and turning to his Compassionate Sustainer, seeks refuge in Him, meditates upon Him, petitions Him, and thus offers a pure form of worship that no hypocrisy can penetrate. If he endures patiently, thinks of the reward attendant on misfortune and offers thanks, then each hour that he passes will count as a whole day spent in worship. His brief life becomes very long. There are even cases where a single minute is counted as equal to a whole day's worship. 6
It is very important to ponder these wise words. As we said earlier, people are responsible for serving Allah and for submitting and remaining attached to Him in all circumstances. One way to show this attachment is to be patient in all difficulties and frustrations in this world. Moreover, such times may come along when least expected and last, or seem to last, for a long time. For example, a rich person may become poor, a successful person may encounter sudden failure, and another person may lose a loved one, become ill, or handicapped. But regardless of the test, Allah promises endless good things to those of His servants who patiently endure them.
For this reason, people must make the best use of every moment of time allotted to them in this world. Before doing any act or saying any word, they must ask if what they are about to do is the best way to earn Allah's good pleasure. But most importantly, they must avoid getting caught up in this world and forgetting that there is an Afterlife, and must not trade eternity for the sake of some transitory enjoyment. The way to attain endless good things is to turn to Allah:
Everyone will taste death. You will be paid your wages in full on the Day of Resurrection. Anyone who is distanced from the Fire and admitted to the Garden has triumphed. The life of this world is just the enjoyment of delusion. You will be tested in your wealth and in yourselves, and you will hear many abusive words from those given the Book before you and from those who are idolaters. But if you are steadfast and guard against evil, that is the most resolute course to take. (Surah Al `Imran, 185-86)
1. Fiqh as-Sunnah, vol. 4, no. 13
2. Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Risale-i Nur Collection, The Words, The Second Station of the Twentieth Word
3. Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Risale-i Nur Collection, The Words, The Eleventh Word
4. Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Risale-i Nur Collection, The Flashes,The Twenty-Fifth Flash, Ninth Remedy
5. Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Risale-i Nur Collection, The Words, The Nineteenth Word, Tenth Droplet
6. Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Risale-i Nur Collection, The Flashes, The Second Flash, Third Reason