What We Can Bear

Updated: May 4, 2020

Today’s snowflake is al-Sabur, the Patient One. And it’s got me thinking about patience, and about a particular verse of the surah al-Baqarah:

“God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear” (Qur’an 2:286)

I’ve been hearing this verse of the Qur’an a lot lately. In so many of the sessions and blogs and feeds that I follow, it has been used as way to remind us that even though things feel heavy and unmanageable, we can make it through this strange and difficult time. But, to be honest, I have never been especially fond of this ayat. As a psychotherapist who sits with young Muslim women that have been through incredible traumas, and as someone who has herself had depression for a couple decades now, it has never sat well with me.

Part of that is because my perspective on the world, even my depression, is deeply shaped by the reality that far too often, certain people, certain groups, bear a disproportionate burden. This is something we know, arguably something that has always been true. It was certainly true at the time of the Prophet (SAWS). But especially now, with COVID 19, the toll this virus is taking is clearly disproportionate. Communities of colour, the poor, the marginalized are more likely to get sick and die; rates of racism against various groups (Asians, Muslims, Jews in particular) have increased; women are disproportionately on the front line (as nurses, health care workers, mental health practitioners, etc.) and struggling with managing the increased demands of homeschooling and caring for elderly and infirm family, on top of facing an increased risk of domestic violence.

How then can Allah say that we are not burdened beyond what we can bear. Every day in my practice and in my life, I see how much trauma some people have to carry, how much more they have had to bear. I know how much this crisis has impacted my own life and mental health, and I am relatively privileged and insulated. And that reality has made every single utterance of this verse chafe my heart and hurt my spirit.

But I also, fundamentally, at the core of my being, believe that Allah is Truth, and that the guidance we are given always makes sense, even if that is not immediately clear. So, I did what I always do when I struggle with any part of the Qur’an, or even with some part of the faith more broadly - I went digging. I read various translations and commentaries, looked into the interpretations of scholars and the sayings of the Imams, and I reflected on what I know to be true about this tradition that I love.

The first thing this helped me with was context. So often, we quote a single phrase of a verse, or even a single verse that is meant to sit within a broader set. While this can result in lovely, shareable quotes and images, we also sometimes risk losing the meaning of the whole. Here’s the rest of the sentence:

“God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear: each gains whatever good it has done, and suffers its bad-”

For me, this is a promise of justice - that a soul is not burdened beyond what it can bear. It means that we have to think of the burden of the soul, of the balance of what we carry, not in terms of linear, human time, but on the scale of the Divine. So while this human world might subject us to systems that impact us in ways that are unfair and unequal, Allah promises us, here and elsewhere, that justice works at levels beyond that. On yawm-e-deen, when we have to account for ourselves and our actions, we will only be judged on our own good and our own mistakes. And I truly believe that if we, as human beings, can recognize the impact that the systems we live in have had on those choices, can respond with compassion and understanding, can find paths to justice that are equitable and restorative, then Allah, whose Rahma is all-encompassing, would be the source of a justice so true and real that ours would pale in comparison.

So maybe this verse is a way to shift our perspective, to give us hope – hope that we often lose in the face of intractable systems and a seemingly chaotic and uncontrollable world. It is a reminder that Allah sees and knows all of itall the injustice, all the burdens we carry in this worldand promises ultimate justice will come. This gives us a way to understand and cope with suffering, a way to make sense of what is happening to us.

I want to be clear that this is not meant to be a spiritual bypassing, a way to alleviate our responsibility for what is happening in this world. Because really, the way in which we are disproportionately impacted by situations like this pandemic, that’s a human failing. It tells us that we, as human beings, are not caring for one another. When an earthquake in Kashmir kills thousands, but the same magnitude earthquake in California kills none, that is not an act of God, that’s a statement about infrastructure, access, and wealth. It tells us, very clearly, that far too often, we are not striving for equity and justice for one another; it tells us that we forget one another, especially when we have more. The burden we carry as a result of those choices is not an act of God in the strict sense, but an act of humanity. And we have to be responsible for that, and work to change that, because those choices too, will burden our souls and be accounted for in the ultimate balance.

But in the end, that balance is what this verse is about. Allah, the All-Seeing, All-Knowing, promises us that the burden we carry because of that human failing is temporary. And that as we wait for that burden to be lifted, we can turn to our faith as a source of solace and light and hope; which is perhaps why the verse ends with a supplication.

“God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear: each gains whatever good it has done, and suffers its bad- ‘Lord, do not take us to task if we forget or make mistakes. Lord, do not burden us as You burdened those before us. Lord, do not burden us with more than we have strength to bear. Pardon us, forgive us, and have mercy on us. You are our Protector, so help us against the disbelievers.’” (Qur'an 2:286, trans. Abdel Haleem)

None of us is perfect. We will all err and make mistakes. I, as much as anyone else, am absolutely fallible. And no matter how hard I try to help ease the burden for those who carry more than they should, I know I fail constantly. I know what I do is not enough. I know I could always be doing more. I know my privilege blinds me to the point where I am even unable to see the places that need my help.

In those cases, we rely on Allah’s compassion and mercy. We ask for leeway, for grace, for understanding, for protection. And we pray, in this verse and elsewhere throughout the Qur’an, that even in this world, we not be burdened beyond what we can bear. It is a recognition that we are human - frail and imperfect and, in the end, ever dependent on Divine love and on our relationship with Allah. And maybe that’s the point.

Patience my loves – justice will come.

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