If you have ever been on a plane, you may recall the pre-flight safety announcements and their mention of cabin pressure. They typically state something along the lines that if we experience a sudden drop in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will fall down to supply you with oxygen. This is required since, at higher altitudes, the air is thinner, so there is not enough oxygen for us to function, and the supplemental oxygen supplied through the masks keeps people from passing out.
This is because the Earth’s gravity pulls air molecules closer to the surface at lower altitudes. So at higher altitudes, the air is thinner and, therefore, less oxygen. This is why it is more difficult to breathe at higher altitudes. Consider if you ever go for a hike in the mountains or a trip to a place like Peru; you may notice that you get more winded the higher up you go.
The human body needs oxygen to function. When you breathe, your lungs take in oxygen from the air and deliver it to your blood. Your blood then carries oxygen to all of the cells in your body. The cells use oxygen to produce energy. If you do not get enough oxygen, your body will not be able to function properly. This can lead to hypoxia, where your tissues cannot get enough oxygen. This lack of oxygen causes shortness of breath and makes breathing difficult. To compensate, the lungs work harder to try to extract the oxygen that it desperately needs. This only exacerbates the problem causing even more fatigue and discomfort.
Understanding this is pertinent to the following metaphor in the Quran, which compares those who choose God’s guidance to those who choose to go astray.
[6:125] Whomever GOD wills to guide, He renders his chest wide open to Submission. And whomever He wills to send astray, He renders his chest intolerant and straitened, like one who climbs towards the sky. GOD thus places a curse upon those who refuse to believe.
فَمَن يُرِدِ ٱللَّهُ أَن يَهْدِيَهُۥ يَشْرَحْ صَدْرَهُۥ لِلْإِسْلَـٰمِ وَمَن يُرِدْ أَن يُضِلَّهُۥ يَجْعَلْ صَدْرَهُۥ ضَيِّقًا حَرَجًا كَأَنَّمَا يَصَّعَّدُ فِى ٱلسَّمَآءِ كَذَٰلِكَ يَجْعَلُ ٱللَّهُ ٱلرِّجْسَ عَلَى ٱلَّذِينَ لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ
A person may read this and consider that it may seem unjust that God would guide one person yet send another person astray, but this is only God’s system that He created, much like the effects altitude has on one’s ability to breathe and operate. Just like if a person chooses to go to higher altitudes and their breathing gets heavy, they can’t blame God for designing the laws this way. Similarly, we can’t blame God if we choose to go astray and suffer the outcomes. The decision about which outcome we experience is up to us and is determined by which path we select, either the path of belief or disbelief.
God created a system that the ones who choose belief condition themselves to be able to withstand the metaphorical higher altitudes it requires to be closer to God. Consider that when climbers attempt to climb Mount Everest, they train rigorously and don’t just show up expecting to make it to the top.
God’s system works in a similar manner. The Quran informs us that we are created weak and that we are designed to work hard to redeem ourselves, and that with pain, there is gain.
[4:28] GOD wishes to lighten your burden, for the human being is created weak.
(٢٨) يُرِيدُ ٱللَّهُ أَن يُخَفِّفَ عَنكُمْ وَخُلِقَ ٱلْإِنسَـٰنُ ضَعِيفًا
[90:4] We created the human being to work hard (to redeem himself).
(٤) لَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا ٱلْإِنسَـٰنَ فِى كَبَدٍ
[94:1] Did we not cool your temper?
[94:2] And we unloaded your load (of sins).
[94:3] One that burdened your back.
[94:4] We exalted you to an honorable position.
[94:5] With pain there is gain.
[94:6] Indeed, with pain there is gain.
[94:7] Whenever possible you shall strive.
[94:8] Seeking only your Lord.
(٩٤:١) أَلَمْ نَشْرَحْ لَكَ صَدْرَكَ
(٩٤:٢) وَوَضَعْنَا عَنكَ وِزْرَكَ
(٩٤:٣) ٱلَّذِىٓ أَنقَضَ ظَهْرَكَ
(٩٤:٤) وَرَفَعْنَا لَكَ ذِكْرَكَ
(٩٤:٥) فَإِنَّ مَعَ ٱلْعُسْرِ يُسْرًا
(٩٤:٦) إِنَّ مَعَ ٱلْعُسْرِ يُسْرًا
(٩٤:٧) فَإِذَا فَرَغْتَ فَٱنصَبْ
(٩٤:٨) وَإِلَىٰ رَبِّكَ فَٱرْغَب
The Quran doesn’t specify who this is in reference to. Most people assume that it is Muhammad, but let’s consider how this could apply to Moses. Moses told God that he had a problem with his temper and that he bore the sin of killing someone, but despite this God exalted him to an honorable position. Additionally, through Moses, we have many examples of how, through the pain, he grew. If we speculate that his mission to Pharoah was his Everest, we can see the conditioning he underwent to prepare for this monumental task. A clear example of Moses’s conditioning can be seen through the lessons learned between Moses and his teacher.
[18:66] Moses said to him, “Can I follow you, that you may teach me some of the knowledge and the guidance bestowed upon you?”
[18:67] He said, “You cannot stand to be with me.
[18:68] “How can you stand that which you do not comprehend?”
[18:69] He said, “You will find me, GOD willing, patient. I will not disobey any command you give me.”
(٦٦) قَالَ لَهُۥ مُوسَىٰ هَلْ أَتَّبِعُكَ عَلَىٰٓ أَن تُعَلِّمَنِ مِمَّا عُلِّمْتَ رُشْدًا
(٦٧) قَالَ إِنَّكَ لَن تَسْتَطِيعَ مَعِىَ صَبْرًا
(٦٨) وَكَيْفَ تَصْبِرُ عَلَىٰ مَا لَمْ تُحِطْ بِهِۦ خُبْرًا
(٦٩) قَالَ سَتَجِدُنِىٓ إِن شَآءَ ٱللَّهُ صَابِرًا وَلَآ أَعْصِى لَكَ أَمْرًا
How did that work out for Moses? The man bore a hole in a ship, killed a child, and patched a wall without charging a wage, and after each event, he was made uncomfortable and objected. He could not stand that which he could not comprehend, but despite this, he persevered through all three events. Even though they had to eventually depart from one another, Moses took these lessons and applied them to his own life.
Now there is some debate about when in Moses’s life this encounter with the teacher took place, but I am of the opinion that this was before he spoke to God. The reason is that when Moses’s teacher patched the wall in the town of the inhospitable people, Moses’s response can be seen in the following verse.
[18:77] So they went. When they reached a certain community, they asked the people for food, but they refused to host them. Soon, they found a wall about to collapse, and he fixed it. He said, “You could have demanded a wage for that!”
فَٱنطَلَقَا حَتَّىٰٓ إِذَآ أَتَيَآ أَهْلَ قَرْيَةٍ ٱسْتَطْعَمَآ أَهْلَهَا فَأَبَوْا۟ أَن يُضَيِّفُوهُمَا فَوَجَدَا فِيهَا جِدَارًا يُرِيدُ أَن يَنقَضَّ فَأَقَامَهُۥ قَالَ لَوْ شِئْتَ لَتَّخَذْتَ عَلَيْهِ أَجْرًا
But when Moses fled Egypt after committing manslaughter, we read about the following encounter.
[28:22] As he traveled towards Midyan, he said, “May my Lord guide me in the right path.”
[28:23] When he reached Midyan’s water, he found a crowd of people watering, and noticed two women waiting on the side. He said, “What is it that you need?” They said, “We are not able to water, until the crowd disperses, and our father is an old man.”
[28:24] He watered for them, then turned to the shade, saying, “My Lord, whatever provision You send to me, I am in dire need for it.”
[28:25] Soon, one of the two women approached him, shyly, and said, “My father invites you to pay you for watering for us.” When he met him, and told him his story, he said, “Have no fear. You have been saved from the oppressive people.”
وَلَمَّا تَوَجَّهَ تِلْقَآءَ مَدْيَنَ قَالَ عَسَىٰ رَبِّىٓ أَن يَهْدِيَنِى سَوَآءَ ٱلسَّبِيلِ
وَلَمَّا وَرَدَ مَآءَ مَدْيَنَ وَجَدَ عَلَيْهِ أُمَّةً مِّنَ ٱلنَّاسِ يَسْقُونَ وَوَجَدَ مِن دُونِهِمُ ٱمْرَأَتَيْنِ تَذُودَانِ قَالَ مَا خَطْبُكُمَا قَالَتَا لَا نَسْقِى حَتَّىٰ يُصْدِرَ ٱلرِّعَآءُ وَأَبُونَا شَيْخٌ كَبِيرٌ
فَسَقَىٰ لَهُمَا ثُمَّ تَوَلَّىٰٓ إِلَى ٱلظِّلِّ فَقَالَ رَبِّ إِنِّى لِمَآ أَنزَلْتَ إِلَىَّ مِنْ خَيْرٍ فَقِيرٌ
فَجَآءَتْهُ إِحْدَىٰهُمَا تَمْشِى عَلَى ٱسْتِحْيَآءٍ قَالَتْ إِنَّ أَبِى يَدْعُوكَ لِيَجْزِيَكَ أَجْرَ مَا سَقَيْتَ لَنَا فَلَمَّا جَآءَهُۥ وَقَصَّ عَلَيْهِ ٱلْقَصَصَ قَالَ لَا تَخَفْ نَجَوْتَ مِنَ ٱلْقَوْمِ ٱلظَّـٰلِمِينَ
Notice that when it came to the teacher, Moses wanted to demand a wage for their efforts, but in the scenario with the women, he fulfilled a need without asking for a wage and then went to God and asked for provisions. If we are to believe that the watering event happened later in his life than the lesson he had from his teacher, this shows that he reached a level of understanding that he did not have before. He could not only handle the discomfort but acted appropriately despite it.
Consider again the person training to climb Mount Everest; in addition to their training, a person will also bring oxygen tanks to survive the reduced oxygen in higher altitudes. Additionally, they will find themselves a guide to help them along the way.
The interesting thing about the sherpa guides who help these climbers is that they do not require many of the aids that the new climbers require. This is because they spent their life on the mountain and don’t require these kinds of things. The reason is that their bodies have been conditioned to operate in high altitudes, and their lungs can extract oxygen more efficiently from the thinner atmosphere than people who are not accustomed to higher elevations.
This isn’t limited to sherpas who spent generations living at higher altitudes. Average people can condition themselves to be able to endure this as well with the proper training. They can increase their aerobic exercise. They can wear elevation training masks that reduce oxygen intake. They can spend time in altitude chambers that reduce the amount of oxygen in the room. These mechanisms reduce the amount of oxygen a person can get in each breath to condition their lungs to work more efficiently.
This teacher was serving as Moses’s guide so that he could bear that which he did not comprehend and reminding him of patience to serve as his metaphorical oxygen tank during his ascent. But the goal is not to be a tourist but to eventually be as capable as the guide. Note that after this endeavor with his guide, Moses was able to apply these lessons in his life without the teacher’s aid.
When he was first called upon God to carry on his mission and go to Pharoah, he voiced his fear of carrying through the mission.
[26:12] He said, “My Lord, I fear lest they disbelieve me.
[26:13] “I may lose my temper. My tongue gets tied; send for my brother Aaron.
[26:14] “Also, they consider me a fugitive; I fear lest they kill me.”
[26:15] He said, “No ( كَلَّآ ). Go with My proofs. We will be with you, listening.
(١٢) قَالَ رَبِّ إِنِّىٓ أَخَافُ أَن يُكَذِّبُونِ
(١٣) وَيَضِيقُ صَدْرِى وَلَا يَنطَلِقُ لِسَانِى فَأَرْسِلْ إِلَىٰ هَـٰرُونَ
(١٤) وَلَهُمْ عَلَىَّ ذَنۢبٌ فَأَخَافُ أَن يَقْتُلُونِ
(١٥) قَالَ كَلَّا فَٱذْهَبَا بِـَٔايَـٰتِنَآ إِنَّا مَعَكُم مُّسْتَمِعُونَ
Now contrast this after he deliverd his message and became confident in the way of God.
[26:60] They pursued them towards the east.
[26:61] When both parties saw each other, Moses’ people said, “We will be caught.”
[26:62] He said, “No ( كَلَّآ ). My Lord is with me; He will guide me.”
(٦٠) فَأَتْبَعُوهُم مُّشْرِقِينَ
(٦١) فَلَمَّا تَرَٰٓءَا ٱلْجَمْعَانِ قَالَ أَصْحَـٰبُ مُوسَىٰٓ إِنَّا لَمُدْرَكُونَ
(٦٢) قَالَ كَلَّآ إِنَّ مَعِىَ رَبِّى سَيَهْدِينِ
This shows that we all start off not being able to stand the path of God, but if we are steadfast and persevere, we will not only endure, but we will thrive.
Here is the link to Part 2 of this article.
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