Quranic Reflection No. 438. Āyat 11:9 – Despair

وَلَئِنْ أَذَقْنَا الْإِنْسَانَ مِنَّا رَحْمَةً ثُمَّ نَزَعْنَاهَا مِنْهُ إِنَّهُ لَيَئُوسٌ كَفُورٌ
Walain adhqnāl-insāna minnā rahmatan thumma naza‘nāhā minhu innahu layūsun kafūr
If We let man taste a mercy from Us and then withdraw it from him, he becomes despairing, ungrateful.
(Sūrat Hud, No 11, Āyat 9)

One of the weaknesses of human being is his inclination to fluctuate between extremes of emotion. When he is granted a blessing by the Lord, he becomes overly excited. His happiness can border the extreme. If he lacks belief in God that happiness can turn into arrogance and illusions of self sufficiency. When the blessing is discontinued or if he suffers an affliction, he becomes depressed and loses hope. His small inner capacity makes him intolerant of loss. The low threshold for tolerance only becomes manifest when he goes through unpleasant situations after experiencing comfort and ease. This is how human beings are tested. If they are wise and able to reflect, they can recognize their own incapacities. It could spur them to strive for improvement and perfection which is the goal of life.

Amīrul Mu’minīn Imam Ali ‘alayhis salām explains the emotional weakness of the human being in Nahjul Balāgha: In man there is a piece of flesh attached to him with a vein and it is the strangest thing in him. It is the heart. It has a store of wisdom and things contrary to wisdom. If it sees a ray of hope, eagerness humiliates it and when eagerness increases, greed ruins it. If disappointment overtakes it, grief kills it. If anger rises in it, a serious rage develops. If it is blessed with pleasure, it forgets to be cautious. If it becomes fearing, it becomes heedless. If peace extends all round, it becomes neglectful (Hadith 108). Note the word ‘adhaqnā’ in the verse above means: We let them taste[for a moment]. This could refer to the fact that the human being only experienced the blessing briefly. It was just a taste of what blessings and comfort could be like. Even then he cannot bear the loss of it.

The verse says that the human being is like that, referring to human beings who have not trained themselves to control and regulate their emotions. Verse 11 of the same sūra makes an exception to the people who fluctuate between extreme emotions – Except those who are patient and do righteous deeds. For such there will be forgiveness and a great reward (Q 11:11). There are those who work on themselves and rise above such emotional weaknesses.

What helps to prevent the self from falling into despair is to understand that both blessings and difficulties are from God as means of growth for the soul. These are the necessary equipment which stretch our soul in different directions. Both should lead to strengthening of the muscles of the soul and purifying it from the toxins that pollute it. When we realize that the experiences of life are an exercise for the soul the dream goal becomes the fit soul. Circumstances are the means not the goal itself. It is when man forgets the goal and attaches himself to the means only that he sets himself up for disappointment.

Another strategy to help ward off despair is to be grateful for whatever blessings that have been granted. Even though a blessing has been taken away, life has numerous uncountable blessings. We fail to see them and focus on the missing one. This lack of gratitude is linked to despair in the verse above.

Let this verse remind you not to lose hope when going through misfortune. Despair is one of the greater sins and a believer is always hopeful and grateful. Although easily affected, the heart can be controlled through reminders like this verse. As we continue to commemorate the unprecedented difficulties faced by Imam al-Husayn’s family members, let us learn from their strong resolve and deep faith in God. Despite huge pain and grief faced by Sayyida Zaynab bint Ali ibn Abī Tālib on the Day of Ashura and thereafter, she never despaired of Divine Mercy. Rather she pleaded to the Almighty, while holding the beheaded body of her dear brother Imam al-Husayn (a), saying: Allāhumma taqabbal minnā hādhal-qurbān – O Allah, accept from us this sacrifice!

Sources: Imam Ali (a), Nahjul Balāgha; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh; Aghā Muhsin Qarā’atī, Tafsīr Nūr.