It is that time of year where millions of students across the country are receiving their exam results, realising how they did in their GCSEs, A-levels and degrees. It is that time of year when the mystery and uncertainty of the harvest of their efforts abruptly comes to an end, with the opening of an innocent envelope. Some tore into that envelope, like ripping off a bandage. Some could not bear to open it. There were tears, there was delight, there was disappointment, there was relief, there was anger; there was gratitude and ingratitude. No doubt, all of us have been through this or something similar, and for those that reflect, as Believers sensitive to Signs around them ought to, this is an important reminder, and a mercy from Allah. Why? It is because this entire life is an exam. And there are no retakes.
Allah and His messenger (SallAllahu ‘alayhi wasallam) left no doubt in our minds, that the primary purpose of this life is that of an examination, from your first breath to your last.
“Exalted is He who holds all control in His hands; who has power over all things; who created death and life to test you [people] and reveal which of you does best––He is the Mighty, the Forgiving.”
“We have adorned the earth with attractive things so that We may test people to find out which of them do best, but We shall reduce all this to barren dust.”
The exams and tests that we experience during our lives, are miniature versions of the real test we are going through right now, and the emotions we feel when we open that envelope, are mild reminders of the intense joy, delight, relief, regret and sorrow (may Allah protect us), that people will feel on the Day of Judgement, where the Final Results will be given.
“Anyone who is given his Record in his right hand will say, ‘Here is my Record, read it. I knew I would meet my Reckoning,’ and so he will have a pleasant life in a lofty Garden, with clustered fruit within his reach. It will be said, ‘Eat and drink to your heart’s content as a reward for what you have done in days gone by.’ But anyone who is given his Record in his left hand will say, ‘If only I had never been given any Record and knew nothing of my Reckoning. How I wish death had been the end of me. My wealth has been no use to me, and my power has vanished.’ ‘Take him, put a collar on him, lead him to burn in the blazing Fire, and [bind him] in a chain seventy metres long.” 
“You humans, toiling laboriously towards your Lord, will meet Him: whoever is given his record in his right hand will have an easy reckoning and return to his people well pleased, but whoever is given his record from behind his back will cry out for destruction–– he will burn in the blazing Fire. He used to live among his people well pleased. He thought he would never return [to his Lord]–– indeed he will! His Lord was watching him.”
These ayat do not require much explanation. We probably all know how it feels when you get a good result; how you want to share it, show your loved ones. Likewise we probably all know how it feels to fail an exam or test in this life; how we try to hide it, and even wish we never received it. But can you imagine failing an exam so badly that you wish you were destroyed? This is why these tests and exams are a blessing for those that reflect. Looking backwards now from results day, the whole concept of examination and testing itself can also be used to draw many important reflections from.
I have been around students (and therefore exams) for most of my life, and whenever we enter or even draw close to ‘exam season’, I am absolutely amazed at the ability of the student to completely turn his or her life upside-down. Not just students but many of us can relate, whether it be a project deadline at work, or a particular important task to be done at home. The entire daily routine changes, everything revolving around getting the work done. We sleep less, if at all, and if we do we dream about our work. No socialising. No TV. No Facebook. No going out. We might even forget to eat between cans of energy drink. What’s most amazing, perhaps, is that all of this happens, for something we probably don’t even like!
The lesson that immediately comes to mind when we consider this, is that if I can transform my entire daily routine for something like an exam, which may determine what job I get or what university I go to, then I can—no, I must—also transform my life for the real exam, which will determine where I remain for eternity. And that’s a hell of a long time. Therefore a successful person is one who is aware of (and continually reminding others of) the nature of this life, and the need to work towards the Final Result. Making small changes in one’s routine, such as waking up early to pray the night prayer, or praying in a masjid, can have a monumental effect on one’s final grade.
The purpose of exams
Another fruit of reflection is harvested when we look to the spirit of exams. The main objectives of an examination, arguably, can be summarised as: (i) to drive you to do better as a student; (ii) to prove yourself as worthy of being in that institution or receiving the honour of that qualification; and (iii) to distinguish between better and worse students—to sort the men from the boys, so to speak. And it is no surprise then, that Allah says:
“Alif Lam Mim. Do people think they will be left alone after saying ‘We believe’ without being put to the test? We tested those who went before them: God will certainly mark out which ones are truthful and which are lying.”
Just like we do not expect any student worth his salt to assume that he deserves to belong to a high-ranking university without earning it, we similarly must not expect that the gates of Paradise will beckon our names, just because we say, “we believe”, without going through some kind of effort to walk the walk. Rather we must strive and struggle, to manifest our sincerity and submission to Allah, and commitment to His lofty Cause. Of course, Allah already knows what is in the hearts of His servants better than they do, but He loves to see them worship Him and obey Him, and struggle to distinguish themselves in servitude to Him. If we do not spend effort and focus on our servitude to Allah, then we have no right of assuming that He will grant us Paradise through His Mercy.
As for the third objective of exams, the amount and quality of the servitude we each strive for, leads to what Allah has so eloquently stated:
“When that which is coming arrives, no one will be able to deny it has come, bringing low and raising high. When the earth is shaken violently and the mountains are ground to powder and turn to scattered dust, then you will be sorted into three classes. Those on the Right––what people they are! Those on the Left––what people they are! And those in front––ahead indeed! For these will be the ones brought nearest to God in Gardens of Bliss: many from the past and a few from later generations. On couches of well-woven cloth they will sit facing each other; everlasting youths will go round among them with glasses, flagons, and cups of a pure drink that causes no headache or intoxication; [there will be] any fruit they choose; the meat of any bird they like; and beautiful companions like hidden pearls: a reward for what they used to do. They will hear no idle or sinful talk there, only clean and wholesome speech.”
“Those on the Right, what people they are! They will dwell amid thornless lote trees and clustered acacia with spreading shade, constantly flowing water, abundant fruits, unfailing, unforbidden, with incomparable companions. We have specially created––virgin, loving, of matching age–– for those on the Right, many from the past and many from later generations.”
“But those on the Left, what people they are! They will dwell amid scorching wind and scalding water in the shadow of black smoke, neither cool nor refreshing. Before, they overindulged in luxury and persisted in great sin, always saying, ‘What? When we are dead and have become dust and bones, shall we then be raised up? And our earliest forefathers too?’ Say [Prophet], ‘The earliest and latest generations will all be gathered on a predetermined Day and you who have gone astray and denied the truth will eat from the bitter tree of Zaqqum, filling your bellies with it, and drink scalding water, lapping it like thirsty camels.’ This will be their welcome on the Day of Judgement.”
Within those groups that will make it to Paradise, there are further distinctions, as the Prophet (SallAllahu ‘alayhi wasallam) also conveyed in a beautiful way:
“In Paradise, there are a hundred levels, between every two levels is (the distance of) a hundred years.”
“The people of Paradise will look at the people dwelling in the chambers above them in the same way that people look at a brilliant star shining far away on the horizon, in the East or West, because of their superiority [in reward] over them.”
An amazing aspect of these levels of Paradise, is that the difference between one degree and the next is not merely one person having one garden, whilst another having two. It is like how we on earth see the stars! Since the distinction in the reward is so mind-boggling, surely there must be a distinction in the quality of the servitude of those distinguished. Far greater is the difference than that between getting an A and a B in your GCSEs or a 2:1 and a first class degree!
The Merciful Examiner
Allah, out of His unimaginable Mercy, has made a few key differences between the exams we subject each other to, and the test of this life. Firstly, exams in schools and universities are often criticised for not providing a faithful enough representation of the quality of a student. Many may have studied long and hard, only for a small percentage of their revised subjects to make an appearance on the exam (and often in my case, the one topic I would tactfully—and unsuccessfully—try and avoid revising). The sincere servant can rest assured, that every iota of effort he or she spends towards the test of this life, will be securely recorded, and even multiplied!
“On that Day, people will come forward in separate groups to be shown their deeds: whoever has done an atom’s-weight of good will see it, but whoever has done an atom’s-weight of evil will see that.”
Another significant difference related to this is that there is no uncertainty when it comes to what is expected of us. Unlike a school or university exam, we already know the questions. And we already know the answers. All we have to do is bother to put the effort in. We know that we will be asked in our graves, ‘Who is your Lord? What is your Religion? Who is your Prophet?’ And we know that the way to answer these questions correctly, is to live a life of being pleased with Allah as our Lord, with Islam as our way, and with Muhammad (SallAllahu ‘alayhi wasallam) as our Messenger and primary role model.
The intelligent and the heedless
When asked to pay lip service, each and every one of us will probably agree that this life is a test, and the most important test we will ever face. However, actions speak louder than words. The intelligent person has no choice but to try his or her best to strive and struggle to get the highest mark possible, and to encourage others to do the same. They will not be satisfied with doing the bare minimum, but rather they will try continually to do better and better as they travel through this life. After all, if the pass mark for an exam is 50%, you don’t answer only half of the questions; you try your absolute best, to answer each and every question to the best of your ability, because you know that you will invariably make mistakes along the way, and you want to aim higher than just the threshold. Likewise the servant is not satisfied by doing the bare minimal obligations in his or her relationship with Allah and His creation, but at least wishes to excel past the pass/fail boundary.
That is the intelligent person, though. As for the heedless person (may Allah protect us), he is preoccupied with the relatively trivial smaller tests and trials, whilst ignoring the main test of life. As he reduces the quality of his servitude to Allah when he is revising for exams, instead of increasing it, and he lets his relationship with Allah suffer, I can’t help but imagine the analogy of a final year undergraduate student, throughout the revision season before the biggest exams of his career, occupied by playing Angry Birds.