We have a trend in our community to equate struggle with piety. The idea is that if we have two paths to reach a destination, the more “pious” is the more difficult of the two choices. That approach is a mistake. Not only is it a mistake, but it also runs counter to our tradition. Not only does it run counter to our tradition, it is an approach that cannot sustain itself in the long run.
Some of the misunderstanding is explainable. When populations perceived themselves to be under threat, a common reflex has been to retreat into a strict, almost isolationist conservatism. Some survival instincts involve lashing out, while others — in this case — involve retreating into an almost fetal-position-like culture. Various Muslim movements in history were formed to “protect” Islam and Muslims from seemingly unstoppable external forces by pushing for a retreat from society intellectually and culturally. As those movements survived beyond their original generations, the original motivations were forgotten, and the defensive practices were then regarded as authentically Islamic. Such is the case with this tendency to promote self imposed struggle; it is a legacy we have inherited from a generation of people seeking to fight off British Imperialism.
On the contrary, the general approach in the tradition is that if two legal choices lead to the same destination, the *correct* choice is the easier choice. The easier of the two legal choices is, generally speaking, the more *pious* choice. The ethos of Islamic law itself is facilitation. The job of Islamic law is to work as a conduit toward connection with the Divine, by way of simplifying many of the struggles of our world.
More importantly, this method of imposing struggle on the self cannot be sustained in the long run. Meaning, if you embrace a personal ethos of struggle, it will not last. Chances are that you yourself will give up. If you somehow are able to sustain this lifestyle of self-imposed-struggle, then the next generation (your children) will reject you. How rare is it that we find children embracing the zeal of their parents. More often, we find children as zealous in rejecting their parents’ outlooks as the parents were in embodying those outlooks. In these cases, the parents are quick to blame society, not realizing that they themselves ignited the flame. And, just as often do we find that those who are ultra-militant in their outlook and practices quickly shed those physical and metaphorical costumes and become ultra-apologetic. The best place to find apologists is to look in the circles of the radical militants, for most of them will eventually give up their self-imposed struggles and/or their own children will abandon them. Because, this method of religiosity does not last.
Now, we should not confuse this criticism of self-imposed struggle with the experience of struggle itself. We are taught that we will definitely be hit with struggle. We are taught that a believer is not hit with any struggle, except that sins are dropped. We are taught that if God loves you, you will be tested. But, we are not invited to impose struggle upon ourselves, beyond anything that God has literally prescribed for us.
Further, there is a role for asceticism, as a temporary treatment. There will be times when self-imposed struggle is actually necessary in a controlled, limited dosage so as to help us to grow. But, as an overall outlook, it does not work. Imagine taking some sour medicine to cure an illness, and then continuing to do so with some misplaced notion that continued consumption of illness will keep us healthy. It will not. Rather, it will make us sick and might make us more resistant to further treatments.
This is a world full of all kinds of struggle. It is a huge mistake to use religion to add to those struggles. Rather, use religion as a source of relief.
And God knows best.