More often than not, we find ourselves facing certain afflictions and tribulations in life and cannot help but question the purpose behind them, which puts one in a constant state of restlessness and frustration. “Is God displeased with me?” “Is it a consequence of something that I did?” “Is it a test?” are only a handful of questions that run through our minds day in and day out at times of calamity.

Here, the concept of a trial and a punishment come in. It is of the utmost importance for every Muslim to be able to distinguish between the two – it’s fairly simple but is often lost sight of. Punishments are a consequence of certain sinful acts carried out by an individual, whereas trials are certain tests ordained by Allah (SWT) to assess the behavior and choice of the servant in the face of that trial. 

“He Who created Death and Life, that He may try which of you is best in deed: and He is the Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving” (Quran, Al-Mulk:2)

Allah (SWT) tests His servants in hardship and in ease. These trials are a means to increase a believer’s rewards and to elevate their ranks in Paradise. According to Sheikh Muhammad Iqbal Nadvi, a renowned Muslim scholar, there are essentially three types of trials and tests:

Test of Commitment and Faith

Allah (SW) tests individuals to re-affirm their faith and bring them back towards the realm of Islam. He puts His believers in various situations, difficulty and comfort alike, in order to assess their dedication to Islam. He tries them so that they may turn to Him and seek His help above all else. These trials are a mean to strengthen one’s faith in Allah (SWT) and submitting to His Divine will. The Prophet (PBUH) is known to have said:

“If Allah loves a people, He tries them, and whoever has patience will have patience, and whoever is anxious will be anxious.” (Reported by al-Imam Ahmad; Saheeh al-Jami’, 1706).

Test to increase reward and elevate their ranks in paradise

Allah (SWT) also tests His servants and afflicts them with troubles in order to raise their ranks in Paradise. The degree and extent of the trial depends on how committed the believer is to Islam. These trials then become a means through which their status is elevated and their rewards are doubled. The best examples are all the messengers and Prophets of Allah (SWT). They were afflicted with the highest order of sufferings and tribulations during their lifetimes so they would reach the highest levels of Paradise in the hereafter. In the words of the Prophet (PBUH):

“The extent of the reward will be in accordance with the extent of the trial. If Allah loves a people, He tries them, and whoever is content will have contentment, and whoever is angry will have anger.” (Reported by al-Tirmidhi, 2320; Saheeh al-Jami’, 2210).

Test to remove sins

These trials are aimed at removing an individual’s sins and evil deeds during the course of this lifetime. These trials may come in the form of loss, sorrow, injuries, and all sorts of calamities which are Allah’s (SWT) way of cleaning a believer’s slate of his/her sins. The Prophet (PBUH) said:

"No fatigue, nor disease, nor sorrow, nor sadness, nor hurt, nor distress befalls a Muslim, even if it were the prick he receives from a thorn, but that Allah expiates some of his sins for that." (Sahih al-Bukhari 5641-2, Vol. 7)

A punishment, on the other hand, is essentially ‘reaping what you sow’ in this world. All humans fall short in their obligatory Islamic duties, one way or the other. Hence, the hardships that befall them are a result of their own sins at the hands of Allah (SWT). As stated in the Holy Quran:

“Whatever of good reaches you, is from Allah, but whatever of evil befalls you, is from yourself…” (Al-Nisa 4:79)

However...

We also come across many people, who despite having led sinful lives, are seen living a life devoid of suffering and hardships as they continue to live in extravagance and worldly comforts. That, in essence, is not a blessing but a curse; Allah( SWT) adorns them with all worldly treasures and comforts and lets them commit sins freely in this world without any redemption up until the day of judgment, where they will have to pay for each and every evil deed committed.

Sometimes Allah (SWT) tests His servants in this world in order to ease their suffering in the next world and hastens their punishments in this lifetime so His believers won’t have to face the tremendous and torturous punishments in the hereafter.

"If Allah intends good for His slave then He hastens his punishment in this world, and if Allah prescribes evil for His slave, then Allah holds back his sins until He recompenses them for him on the Day of Judgment." [Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2396)

However, in both trials and punishments, it is expected of the believer to observe patience and seek refuge and comfort from Allah (SWT). A sign of a punishment is when an individual is restless and complains throughout the tribulation as opposed to a trial, where the individual practices calmness and contentment through reliance on Allah (SWT), for He is the only one who can pacify and eradicate our suffering and hardships.