Allah Almighty created the human being for devotion to Him, sending down scriptures and dispatching messengers for that objective. However, He also created them with different leanings, as well as a considerable degree of free rein by which the righteous ascend and the wicked plummet. Within this autonomy granted by Allah, one group engages in Ibadah, leading to their salvation, and another group rejects Ibadah, leading to their doom. As az-Zamakhshari (d. 1143) said, Allah has enabled people “to have a choice, which is the fundamental basis [necessary] for accountability. For that reason, He said, ‘They will not cease to differ—except those whom your Lord has granted mercy,’ meaning except those whom Allah has graced and guided, and so they agreed upon the true religion and did not differ regarding it. [Allah then said] ‘and for that He created them’… so that He may reward the choosers of truth for their good choice, and punish the choosers of falsehood for their evil choice.”
However, it is clear in the Qur’an that Allah desires mercy for His creation, not punishment. Allah says:
وَأَمَّا ثَمُودُ فَهَدَيْنَـٰهُمْ فَٱسْتَحَبُّوا۟ ٱلْعَمَىٰ عَلَى ٱلْهُدَىٰ
“As for Thamud, We guided them, but they preferred blindness over guidance” [Fuṣṣilat 41: 17].
Reflecting upon the many and varied means of attaining forgiveness in Islam, it is clear that Allah wishes to give bounties to His servants for the slightest reason, and accepts nearly any excuse to forgive them. The Prophet ﷺ informs us that saying “subḥanAllahi wa biḥamdih” a hundred times forgives one’s sins even if they are as numerous as the ocean’s foam,
عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ ـ رضى الله عنه ـ أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ “ مَنْ قَالَ سُبْحَانَ اللَّهِ وَبِحَمْدِهِ. فِي يَوْمٍ مِائَةَ مَرَّةٍ حُطَّتْ خَطَايَاهُ، وَإِنْ كَانَتْ مِثْلَ زَبَدِ الْبَحْرِ
Allah’s Messenger ﷺ said, “Whoever says, ‘Subhan Allah wa bihamdihi,’ one hundred times a day, will be forgiven all his sins even if they were as much as the foam of the sea. [Bukhari 6405]
and that saying “subḥanAllah” a hundred times earns one a thousand good deeds.
عَنْ مُصْعَبِ بْنِ سَعْدٍ، حَدَّثَنِي أَبِي قَالَ، كُنَّا عِنْدَ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم فَقَالَ ” أَيَعْجِزُ أَحَدُكُمْ أَنْ يَكْسِبَ كُلَّ يَوْمٍ أَلْفَ حَسَنَةٍ ” . فَسَأَلَهُ سَائِلٌ مِنْ جُلَسَائِهِ كَيْفَ يَكْسِبُ أَحَدُنَا أَلْفَ حَسَنَةٍ قَالَ ” يُسَبِّحُ مِائَةَ تَسْبِيحَةٍ فَيُكْتَبُ لَهُ أَلْفُ حَسَنَةٍ أَوْ يُحَطُّ عَنْهُ أَلْفُ خَطِيئَةٍ
Mus’ab b. Sa’d reported that his father told him that he had been in the company of Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) that he said: Is one amongst you powerless to get one thousand virtues every day. Amongst those who had been sitting there, one asked: How one amongst us can get one thousand virtues every day? He said: Recite:” Hallowed be Allah” one hundred times for (by reciting them) one thousand virtues are recorded (to your credit) and one thousand vices are blotted out. [Muslim 2698]
How then can anyone have a negative opinion of Allah? Realizing that every moment of Ibadah, even a momentary reflection or forgotten whisper, will be rewarded perpetually in Paradise is a striking reminder of Allah’s ultimate Benevolence and Grace.
Ibadah is the gauge by which people’s virtue is tested. Testing requires a degree of challenge to filter those being evaluated, and Ibadah often requires resisting the inborn fondness for relaxation and ease.
With continuous effort expended in worship, the door of sweetness of worship is opened for him such that he nearly cannot get enough of it; he finds in it much greater pleasure and comfort than he had found in the pleasures of distraction, play, and fulfilment of desires. Because Allah wishes for humanity an easier climb, and sweeter returns, He asked them to worship Him.
There is no method of assessment that can ever compare with Ibadah. First of all, Ibadah carries within it an intrinsic reward system: recognition of Allah leads to adoration, which leads to willing servitude, which then increases recognition and adoration, leading to even more acts of servitude, creating a positive feedback loop that results in greater and greater spiritual advancement. Second, the rational appeal of Ibadah lies in its intrinsic meaning.
Had the test of life been to carry an enormous boulder from the lowest point in a valley to the apex of a mountain, and then return it there whenever it tumbled downwards, human beings would naturally rebel against such a pointless and painful mission. The difficulties involved in Ibadah are actually blessings in disguise, subtle in their sweetness. The Ibadah of Islam is unique in that it grants worshippers bursts of divine mercy, is intrinsically valuable, and fuels productivity by combining a firm footing on the earth with a firm gaze towards the heavens and the life to come.