Whether we say it or not, we tend to interpret any unusual happenings as either a punishment or a reward from Allah. “I had a bad day because I did so and so…” “Maybe I shouldn’t come here again, look what happened to my car.” Many times we misinterpret those messages; maybe there is no message at all, and what happened to you is mere coincidence. Sometimes we assume that a day is good or bad based on worldly superficial standards.
A lady called me the other day telling me about the experience of her friend, who was doing some community service work in a rough neighborhood in Detroit. On her way back home, feeling good about helping those people, she was surprised by this crazy woman who got offended somehow and started chasing her, wanting to hit her car. Panicking, the sister drove out of that neighborhood and had to cross a red light in order to get rid of her. Of course the first question the lady asked me was: “Was that a sign that I shouldn’t go there anymore? Did I do something wrong and is God punishing me for it?”
Before I answer her question, please allow me to share with you the message that I received one morning, and what I believe to be the interpretation or the “decoding” of it. That morning was the third day of `Eid al-Fitr. After a long day of Eid activities, we decided to watch a movie at home, which was our way out of the routine of Ramadan and preparation for another tedious Monday morning. The movie took too long, and we ended up going to bed at 3:00 AM, accompanied with a big feeling of guilt that we are about to miss Fajr prayer (the morning prayer before sunrise).
Knowing myself and my relationship with Allah before Ramadan, I would definitely miss the prayer. I have this open appetite for sleeping all the time (you can ask my wife about this), and I tend to believe Satan when he says (as recorded in an authentic hadith): “You have a long night ahead of you, so just enjoy your sleep.” (This hadith is mentioned in the context of those who sleep and miss the Qiyam al-Layl prayer (optional prayer in the night), so you can imagine Satan using the same trick over and over for people missing Fajr).
But this time, it was totally different. I woke up at exactly 6:15 AM. Startled and worried, like someone who is about to miss a job interview, I made my wudu’ (ablutions) and rushed to the Masjid (which is literally 2 minutes away from my home). My masjid has a long history of making the call to prayer before its appointed time, and for someone like myself who always comes late, this is really annoying. To my great surprise, I was there standing in the lines and catching takbeerat al-ihram with the Imam – the same takbeerat that the sahaba used to mourn and grieve over for days if they happened to come late to salat and miss hearing the beloved voice of Prophet Mohammad ﷺ saying, “Straighten your lines […] Allahu Akbar (God is Greater).”
With a mind full of thoughts and a heart full of thanks, I realized an important fact: I shouldn’t be there. I didn’t deserve to be in that prayer with those blessed people who slept early and prepared themselves mentally and physically for salat al-Fajr. If it had been before Ramadan, I would definitely have been hitting the snooze button more than ten times, deluded by “the masjid is only two minutes away,” only to wake up and make up my prayer after sunrise.
What was the difference? It was Him. It was His mercy that He bestows on His servants in order to pave their way towards Him, despite their sins. The message, as I read it, was: maybe Ramadan this year was different. Maybe it was the long-awaited one, the “acceptance letter” to the graduate program of “لعلكم تتقون” (“…so that you may become Al-Muttaqun (the pious).” Maybe it is an offer to join the “True God Worshippers” club and leave the “Ramadan worshippers” gang.
Some might say it is your “biological clock”, or the hormones, or the habit of waking up. If it was a habit, then it was coming from Him. If it was hormones, let it be; in the end, it is Him and His miraculous ways. It is that gentle tap coming from Him to the hearts that HE chooses to wake up at that special moment and in that private meeting. They might forget to set the alarm, or they might be very tired, but when He sends the signal, they wake up, and they rush to respond to His call. I don’t claim that I am one of these special Fajr prayer people, that my deeds were accepted this Ramadan, that I was freed from hell-fire and that I became a Mottaqi (a pious person) – but the message that I received that morning was a much needed glimpse of light. The only definite answer that we will get is when we--insha’ Allah (God willing)—take our books in our right hands, and at that moment, we will be told:
“Eat and drink at ease for that which you have sent on before you in days past!” (Qur’an, 69:24)
Some scholars mentioned that those “days past” refer to the days of fasting, as Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) will tell the believers to enjoy eating and drinking in paradise, in reward of their good deeds in general, and their fasting in particular.
Please, look for those gentle messages in your life. Maybe you are not even checking your inbox. Maybe you treat messages from your Creator as you treat spam coming from those who want you to buy their products. We always expect the wake-up call to be a harsh one—the death of a beloved one or a disaster in the family—but that’s not true at all. That harsh message was not your first one, but rather it was the first one YOU paid attention to. Allah (swt) has decreed for Himself Mercy (6:12), Allah wishes to turn to you (4:27), and He wants to lighten your difficulties because man was created weak (4:28).
For that lady who thought God was “punishing” her because of the trouble she faced in Downtown Detroit, I tried to answer her from the Qur’an, where Allah (swt) says:
“As for man, when his Lord tries him and [thus] is generous to him and favors him, he says, ‘My Lord has honored me.’ But when He tries him and restricts his provision, he says: ‘My Lord has humiliated me.’ Nay! But you do not honor the orphan and you do not encourage one another to feed the poor.” (Quran, 89:15-18)
Everything that happens to us is a test from Allah (swt), and the people who are tried the most are the prophets, then the like, then the like, meaning that after the prophets, those with the most faith are put through great trial, then believers with a degree less of faith, then less, etc. The more faithful one is, the more he or she will be tried. Interpreting hardship as a punishment might make us assume that the life of Prophet Ibrahim `alayhi assalaam (peace be upon him), for example, was the easiest and smoothest life ever. We all know it is not the case, and we all know how much Allah loves his beloved prophet “[…] And Allah did take Ibrahim as a an intimate friend.”(Qur’an, 4:125) What you should look at, after doing a good deed, is not the level of hardship you encounter, but how much this deed brought your heart closer to Allah (swt). Do you feel more humbled? Are you motivated to do more community service? Do you feel the urge to pray more Qiyam al-Layl even if Ramadan is over (rather than watching a movie, as in my case)? If you have noticed these little signs in your heart and your actions—by the way, feeling alone is not enough, they have to be reflected by noticeable actions, no matter how small the actions—then hopefully you are on the right track.
We ask Allah (swt) to accept our deeds, give us sincerity, and guide us to find and stay on the straight path.