وَمَا أَصَابَكُمْ مِنْ مُصِيبَةٍ فَبِمَا كَسَبَتْ أَيْدِيكُمْ وَيَعْفُو عَنْ كَثِيرٍ
Wamā asābakum min musībatin fabimā kasabat aydīkum waya‘fū ‘an kathīr
Whatever affliction that may visit you is because of what your hands have earned, and He excuses many [of them]
(Sūrat al-Shūrā, No 42, Āyat 30)
Human beings often ask why they are afflicted with so many difficulties. If Almighty God is so merciful why is there so much suffering in this world? This verse explains a reason behind the difficulties people face. Sometimes it is due to what they have done. The corruption, oppression, evil etc. that human beings unleash in the world causes suffering for many people.
According to Tafsīr Majma‘ al-Bayan although the verse seems to apply generally, the application is relative. There can be exceptions. Not all afflictions are caused by sins of human beings. The suffering of children and those who are not in a state to be responsible for their actions, and the sufferings of Divine leaders who were sinless, all show that some suffering is due to the decree of God. Allah ‘azza wajall says in another verse: No affliction visits the land or yourselves, but it is in a Book before We bring it about—that is indeed easy for Allah (Q 57:22). When these two verses are put together, we can deduce that difficulties are of two types: those that human beings create for themselves and those that are decreed by God. Each of these two types have a different philosophy and meaning behind it.
After the tragedy of Karbala when the prisoners were brought before Yazīd, he quoted the above verse to say that their suffering was of their own doing. Imam Ali Zaynul ‘Ābidīn ‘alayhis salām replied that that verse was not revealed about them. He then quoted invoked Quranic verse: No affliction visits the land or yourselves but it is in a Book before We bring it about—that is indeed easy for Allah (Q 57:22) showing that it was a decree written for them by God to suffer at the hands of the tyrants.
This verse brings out a few points:
1) Human beings cause a lot of suffering in this world, for themselves and for others. Thus, the hardship borne by humans is often (not always) a consequence of human action, committed through the free will granted to them by God. The bitterness borne is a warning to desist from the type of actions that bring about the hardship, if people understand and heed the warning. Imam Ali (a) narrates the following Hadith from the Prophet (s) about this verse: O Ali, this is one of the best verses revealed in the Book of God. There is no bruise from a stick nor any slip or fall except that is the result of the sins of the human being. And whichever sins God overlooks in this world, He is greater than to punish for it in the Hereafter. And whichever sin He allows people to suffer for in this world, He is more just than to punish for it again in the Hereafter (Tafsīr Majma‘ al-Bayān).
2) Although the world is a place for action and the Hereafter is the place for reward and punishment, sometimes God gives human beings the bitter taste of the consequence of their actions. They receive the penalty for their sins in the world and will have to account for less in the Hereafter.
3) Sometimes difficulties are caused by the actions of a group. Because human beings are all connected, the repercussions of the action of some can impact others. This can be seen very clearly in the verse: Corruption has appeared in land and sea because of the doings of the people’s hands, that He may make them taste something of what they have done, so that they may come back (Q 30:41).
The free will, intelligence, and abilities that have been granted to the human being by Allah subhānahu wata‘ālā are blessings for growth and perfection. But humans abuse these and create difficulties in life for themselves and others. Let this verse remind you that actions have consequences, both in this world and the Hereafter, and we should be careful about the consequences of our actions.
Sources: Shaykh Fadhl b. Hasan Tabrisī, Tafsīr Majma‘ al-Bayān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh.