By Dr. M. Nazir Khan
What is it that makes my life worth living? Some people have the luxury of approaching this question as a mere philosophical exercise; for others, this question continues to haunt them, driving them to the depths of depression.
Is life really just the pursuit of transient pleasures and accumulating material wealth? What happens then when life becomes filled with challenges and hardships? Why bother continuing with such a life? In this article we explore a unique perspective that logically connects our spiritual journey with the reality of existence.
What constitutes a meaningful and prosperous life? Undoubtedly, this is a question that has plagued the minds of philosophers, scholars, and laymen alike throughout the course of human history. Some have questioned whether there should be any purpose at all. After all, if the universe is nothing more than shifting gooey soup of particles, the existence of worlds, organisms, and you, is purely incidental and ultimately, meaningless (read more in this article). Your existence really does not matter at all, and you just have to live with that, as the nihilists preached.
The Islamic message however, presents something very different. The Qur’an is very direct in confronting the question of meaning:
“Do you really think that We created you without purpose, and you would not return to Us?” (Qur’an 23:115)
So what is the purpose of life in Islam? The Qur’an articulates a vision of humanity’s purpose that merges moral, spiritual and intellectual dimensions. Human beings were created to develop their relationship with the One true God (Qur’an 51:56), but this spiritual journey is also tied to the moral duty to enjoin good and forbid wrong (Qur’an 3:104). It is a very comprehensive and very persuasive worldview, and it all begins with Tawheed.
What is Tawheed?
Monotheism is not simply a theoretical doctrine in Islam – belief in God is not like believing earth is the third planet from the sun, or that the molecular composition of water is H2O. Rather, the Islamic concept of God’s oneness – known in arabic as Tawheed – acts as paradigm for viewing life with meaning, and serves as a transformative force in every aspect of life. Tawheed entails that God alone is the priority in one’s life, the ultimate aim of one’s striving, devotion, obedience and adoration, that He alone is worthy of worship, and there is nothing comparable to His Divine Majesty and Power.
“That is Allah, your Lord; there is no deity except Him, the Creator of all things, so worship Him. And He is the Guardian of all things.” (Qur’an 6:102)
Tawheed can be simply divided into two components, with separate questions tied to each:
1. Tawheed al-Ma’rifah wal-Ithbat (Tawheed of knowledge and affirmation) – Who is God? What are His Divine Names and Attributes? How has He described Himself in His revelation and what does He want us to know about Him?
2. Tawheed al-Qasd wal-Talab (Tawheed of devotion and seeking) – How do I come closer to God? What does He want from Me? How can I live my life according to His Divine Guidance?
The two categories are fundamentally connected. Everything that a person learns about God guides him or her towards the right course of action to take in life. When you learn that God is the Most Merciful and Most Compassionate (Qur’an 1:1), you are motivated to show mercy and compassion to others to get a deeper understanding of what it means to show mercy and compassion. Once you do, you come closer to God in a very profound way. When you learn that God is Most Generous, you are motivated to show gratitude towards God and increase in generosity towards others. When you learn that God is the Most Just, you appreciate the value of striving to establish justice. The famous scholar of Islamic theology and spiritual psychology, Imam Ibn al-Qayyim (d.751H), wrote:
“God loves His Names and Attributes, and He loves to the consequences of His Attributes and their manifestations upon the servants. Just as He is beautiful, so He loves beauty; As He is Most Forgiving, He loves forgiveness; as He is Most Generous, He loves generosity; as He is All-Knowing, he loves the people of knowledge… So because God loves those who emulate His Attributes, He is with them according to how much of these qualities they reflect, and this is a special and unique type of companionship…”. 1
Therefore, establishing Tawheed plays a fundamental psychological role in motivating the human being to undergo moral development and strive to maximize one’s potential as a vehicle of God’s Divine Mercy to others (read more in this article on mercy in Islam).
The Journey of journeys
Being a human being on this planet evidently presents us with multiple opportunities, of which one can choose to take advantage, or simply ignore. On one hand, there is the intellectual journey – there is so much about the world and ourselves which we can analyze, explore, discover and learn about. There is no obvious empirical reason why the world should be comprehensible or lend itself to our explanatory endeavours, but that’s the way things are, and there is a tremendous amount we can learn. Secondly, there is the moral journey of bettering ourselves as human beings and becoming kinder, more compassionate, more generous, more just, more honest, and more loving in the way we interact with those around us. Again, there is no obvious empirical reason why we shoulddevelop those those traits, but the presence of this opportunity in the lives of human beings is indisputable. Thirdly, there is the spiritual journey which is the natural human craving for purpose, meaning, value and worth, which remains entirely inexplicable to the materialist or nihilist paradigm.
Any philosophy of life, or ideology or religion, must sufficiently render these aspects of human life meaningful and unify the intellectual, moral and spiritual domains. If a person hasn’t found such a way of life, he or she continues to search until one is found. What does Islam teach about these fundamental dimensions of human life?
These three dimensions of human life – spiritual, intellectual, and moral – were conferred on the father of all human beings, Prophet Adam (peace be upon him). Ibn al-Qayyim cites the following story as an evidence in his work Rawdatul-Muhibeen:
“Some of the people of knowledge have said: When God placed Adam to the earth, he sent Jibreel with three things: Deen (spirituality), Khuluq (Morality), and ‘Aql (Intellect) and he said, ‘Allah has given you the choice between these three.’ Adam responded ‘O Jibreel, I have not seen anything better than these except in Jannah.’ He then extended his hand and took the intellect for himself and he told the others to ascend back up. They responded, ‘We have been commanded to be with the intellect, wherever it goes.’ So all three came to Adam. “ 2
Thereafter, Ibn al-Qayyim comments that these three traits bestowed upon humanity are the noblest traits with which God has honoured any of His creation. In order for them to develop however, there must be opposing forces and thus, in opposition to these three Adamic qualities (intellect, morals, spirituality), God has made worldly desires (al-Hawa’) which compromises one’s commitment to faith/spirituality, Satanic whisperings which compromises one’s commitment to morality, and the dark tendencies of one’s psyche (Nafs al-Ammarati bi-Su’) which compromises one’s commitment to rationality/intellectuality. Islam is the only path that provides a fully-integrated system of guidance that can successfully account for all these three dimensions of human life. Islam does this as follows:
1. The Intellectual journey – this is the concept of `Ilm (knowledge) in the Qur’an. There are over seven hundred and fifty verses of the Qur’an which call upon the human being to engage in rational contemplation, investigation, intellectual analysis, and sincere reflection.3 The Qur’an presents all knowledge as two fundamental types – ayat al-Qur’aniyah (signs of God in revelation) and ayat al-Kawniyyah (signs of God in nature). The human consciousness fundamentally serves an interpretative role in seeking meaning in the external reality of the cosmos and the revealed reality of Divine scripture. In this sense, the entire scientific enterprise acquires sacred significance as a hermeneutics of the ayat of nature. The more one becomes knowledgeable of nature and scripture, the more cognizant one becomes of the Divine reality.
“Do you not see that God sends down rain from the sky, and We produce thereby fruits of varying colours? And in the mountains are tracts, white and red of varying shades and [some] intensely black. And among people and moving creatures and grazing livestock are various colors similarly. Only those reverently fear God, from among His servants, who have true knowledge. Indeed, God is Exalted in Might and Forgiving.” (Qur’an 35:27-28)
2. The Moral journey – this is the concept of `Birr (righteousness) in the Qur’an. The Islamic message is necessarily aimed at cultivating moral development in individuals and community, as the Prophet Muhammad said, “I have only been sent to perfect the traits of moral character” (read more in this article on the value of values). A person’s faith in God must manifest itself in one’s moral behaviour towards others. If a person fails to do this, they have failed to actualize the Islamic message. The Prophet said, “A servant does not achieve the reality of faith until one loves for all humanity the same goodness which one loves for oneself” (Musnad Ahmad). The famous Islamic polymath Ibn Taymiyyah stated, “The entire religion revolves around two foundations: sincerity to God, and mercy to His creation.”
3. The Spiritual journey –this is the concept of Taqwa (consciousness of God) in the Qur’an. The Qur’an summarizes the entire message of Prophet Muhammad as one of spiritual purification (Qur’an 2:151). Purifying the soul entails the elimination of traits which are hindrances on the path towards God and the cultivation of traits which bring the heart closer to God. To this end, a person must explore one’s own phenomenology and scrutinize one’s thoughts, ideas, emotions, and aspirations, thereby aiming to remedy any diseases of the heart. Arrogance is a spiritual disease which can divert one from God and undermine moral and intellectual pursuits (Qur’an 7:146). The goal of all human experiences in life is to purify one’s heart and meet God on the Final Day with a pure and clean heart (Qur’an 26:87-89).
Tawheed blends spiritual, moral and intellectual – the spiritual goal of coming closer to God entails the moral goal doing good towards His creation, and the intellectual goal of analyzing the signs of God in scripture and nature.
1.↑Ibn al-Qayyim, Uddat al-Sabirin, p.85 Dar ‘Alam al-Fawaid, 7th ed.
2.↑Ibn al-Qayyim. Rawdatul-Muhibeen (Dar Alam al-Fawa’id), p.14. This narration is related by Ibn Abi al-Dunya in his work Kitab al-`Aql wa Fadlahu. Hadith no. 27. (Beirut: Dar al-Rayah, 2004) p.44. Since the chain of transmission cited by Ibn Abi al-Dunya does not qualify as sahih, Ibn al-Qayyim does not attribute this story to the prophet but instead says ‘some people of knowledge have said’. Arabic text: وقال بعض أهل العلم لما أهبط الله تبارك وتعالى آدم إلى الأرض أتاه جبريل عليه السلام بثلاثة أشياء الدين والخلق والعقل فقال إن الله يخيرك بين هذه الثلاثة فقال يا جبريل ما رأيت أحسن من هؤلاء إلا فيالجنة ومد يده إلى العقل فضمه إلى نفسه فقال للآخرين اصعدا فقالا أمرنا أن نكون مع العقل حيث كان فصارت الثلاثة إلى آدم عليه السلام
.3.↑al-Rabah, A. Makanat al-Ulum al-Tabi’iyyah fi al-Tarbiyyah al-Islamiyyah, Umm al-Qurra, 1998.