Riḍā in Islamic Spirituality
“Allah tasketh not a soul beyond its scope. (Lā yukallifu Allāh nafsan illā wusʿahā) For it (is only) that which it hath earned, and against it (only) that which it hath deserved. Our Lord! Condemn us not if we forget, or miss the mark! Our Lord! Lay not on us such a burden as thou didst lay on those before us! Our Lord! Impose not on us that which we have not the strength to bear! Pardon us, absolve us and have mercy on us, Thou, our Protector, and give us
victory over the disbelieving folk.” (2:286)
The Qur’ān teaches its readers that God does not impose upon the soul what is beyond its “capacity” or its “breadth” or “scope” (wusʿahā). This is prima facie an enigmatic statement when considering how human beings have often been unable, throughout history, to sustain the blows of fate in keeping with a sense of faith. The hardships of existence have made many, especially in the modern world, feel overburdened with the weight of life and its trials, or overwhelmed by the power of inner and outer adversities, to the point of calling into question the very reality of God. Whereas many traditional religious paths tended to consider those hardships as either intrinsic concomitances of cosmic existence, or testing grounds for higher realms, contemporary mankind, since the advent of modernity, has rather taken the position that they constitute a primary stumbling block in any theodicy. Voltaire’s “Poem on the Lisbon Disaster”, in which the French philosopher takes the 1755 Lisbon earthquake as a major objection to the justice and goodness of the Supreme Being is, in this respect, a most eloquent case in point.
The term wusʿahā, which could literally be translated by “her width” derives from the same Arabic root as that of the Divine Name al-Wāsiʿ, the Abundant, the One Whose Capacity is Without Limits, the All-Encompassing. Several verses from the Qur’ān include derivations from this same root, among which “My Mercy encompasses (wasiʿat) all things” (7:156) and “He encompasses (wasiʿa) everything in His knowledge” (20:98).
As mentioned by Ghazālī1 in his commentary of the Divine Names, we might see that, although the name al-Wāsiʿ remains the prerogative of God, mankind is not unable to deserve the predicate of wāsiʿ inasmuch as it has the ability to open itself to the Divine vastness. Along the same lines, another verse from the Qur’ān connects God’s consideration of the wus’a of man with the Book of Destiny—kitāb, in asserting that no human will be wronged by it (23:62). Here again, the proportionality between human capacity and Divine decree is clearly asserted, and cuts short any attempt at “accusing” God of injustice, as it were. Considering this Quranic emphasis on the just proportion between Divine existentiation and human scope, it may come as a surprise that the Qur’ān adds the prayer “Our Lord do not bring upon us what we do not have the power to bear.” Does not the need for such a prayer contradict the very principle that has been asserted above? This imploration becomes quite intelligible, however, when considering the gap between the metaphysical and spiritual principle enunciated by the Qur’ān and the moral maturity or self-understanding of the soul. In other words, although the soul knows, theoretically, that God cannot overburden it, practically it must pray to Him that He would not do so. This invocation opens the channels of grace and inner relief by contact with the source of All-Powerfulness. Prayer is, in that sense, less a request than a means of realization through the request. It amounts to coming to realize concretely that one has indeed the capacity to bear with what He has sent upon one, a capacity that is, it must be noted, ultimately none but His, since it coincides with His Wisdom and Foreknowledge. In other words, it is through what God imposes upon it that the soul comes to know its real capacity in God and only in God, by contrast with what it imagined its own wus’a to be for lack of self-knowledge. Thus, the rigor of destiny is a way through which one’s limited awareness of God and oneself in God, as it were, is deepened and expanded. The Qur’ān, by taking the form of a prayer, teaches human beings a way to realize how much more they are when they turn to God, and “die” to themselves in Him, than in their ordinary and self-reliant ego. This realization does not come without suffering, however, because it draws the soul—sometimes abruptly and violently, away from its usual, natural self-satisfaction in order to open it up to a wider and deeper region of satisfaction that it was a priori reticent to embrace. In the Quranic view of reality, this process is as rigorous as death, but its full and sincere acceptance is a central door to Mercy.
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