In a dialogue I had with an atheist over the summer, we discussed the story of the Trust mentioned in Chapter 33. I explained that the Trust represents the test of this life, in which, if we succeed, we are rewarded and if we fail, punished. He mentioned that this was an aspect of Islamic thought he had been unaware of. But it only raised more questions for him.
He likened God’s presentation of the Trust to man to a teacher administering a test, with which the penalty for failure is being shot, murdered, or, far worse, tortured in hell for an eternity. He said that if he were that teacher, he would encourage – even force – his students to cheat, and if, like God, he had the power to get rid of such a testing system altogether, he would do so. While it makes sense that a teacher should give students appropriate slack in terms of failing, this analogy does not adequately capture the great stakes involved in God’s test. The penalty for failure in God’s test is being roasted in fire forever, whereas the worst that could happen to a student is dismissal from a particular educational institution and/or unemployment. I was, with my limited intelligence, unable to answer his questions. And the analogy he presented made me consider God’s Trust in a new light.
I was wondering how you would respond to his arguments.
The ‘Trust’ referred in Al-Ahzaab 33: 72, as I understand it, is not the test, but the ‘free will’, which man has been bestowed with, during this test. Explaining my point of view, I have written in one of my earlier responses:
In my opinion, the word “al-Amanah” refers to the free will in matters relating to the choice between right and wrong and good and evil, which, according to the Qur’an, humans are bestowed with. The verse actually tells us that before the creation of man in the present physical and material form and before putting him in the test of the life of this world, man, with other creations – like the heavens, the earth and the mountains – was given the option of accepting to take this test, bestowed with the quality of free will in opting for good and evil. At that time, all the creations, including man, were shown the great pleasures (during the life hereafter) that they shall receive in case of success in this test and were also shown the severe punishment (during the life hereafter) which shall befall them as a consequence of failing in this test. All the creations refused to take up the trust of being bestowed with this free will and, thus, to take the test of the life of this world, for they were scared of the consequences of failure. The only exception was man. He accepted this trust. He accepted the trust to gain the pleasures of the life hereafter and was so attracted to these pleasures that he completely ignored the consequences and the severity of the punishment in case of his failure. But man’s past and present (on the basis of which his future seems to be no different) shows that he has normally misused his free will and has generally opted for evil. Thus, man has generally failed in the trust that he himself accepted to fulfill. This is a clear evidence that his decision of taking this test and accepting the trust of free will was an emotional one (jahalah) and in doing so he crossed his limits and over-estimated himself (zulm).
As for the questions raised by your friend, they do not directly relate to the ‘trust’, but actually relate to the severity of the consequences, in case of failure.
Your friend has highlighted the severity of the punishment that man shall have to face in the Life hereafter, in case of ‘failure’ in the test of this life, without actually fully realizing what is it that shall actually constitute ‘failure’ in this test. Failure in the test of this life is not comparable to failure in a high-school test: the respective scope of the two is incomparable, their respective significance is beyond comparison and most of all the standards of success and failure in the two are poles apart.
In the test of the life of this world, ‘failure’ is not merely giving a wrong ‘answer’. On the contrary, ‘failure’ in this test is actually refusing to give the right ‘answer’, even after having full knowledge of that ‘answer’. ‘Failure’ in the hereafter is not the consequence of ignorance, mistake, inability or even being overcome by circumstances. On the contrary, ‘failure’ in this test is due to a refusal to see, even though we were bestowed with eyes; it is a refusal to hear, even after being granted ears; it is refusal to understand, even after being given the knowledge and the ability to distinguish right from wrong.
My dear brother, the severe and eternal punishment in the life hereafter would be the fate of those human beings, who preferred to act like grazing animals. Only those people would ‘roast’ in the Hellfire, who ‘refuse’ upon themselves the abounding Mercy of the Just and render themselves a target of the absolute justice of the Merciful.