Talk about Islam with Shaykh Hamza Karamali (Episode 2 continued) – What is the Purpose of Life?
Dear readers, welcome back to the continuation of our second episode of our periodic conversations with Shaykh Hamza Karamali as part of the “Talk About Islam” series. Shaykh Hamza Karamali is the Dean of Academics at SeekersGuidance, and is one of our senior teachers.
Osama: You have forwarded the idea that Islam is an enlightened religion because it has the light of true revelation that other religions like Christianity and Judaism don’t possess. I would like to discuss this point in greater detail with you in another conversation, but for now, how do you respond to those who argue that, in reality, what Islam is lacking is an Enlightenment similar to one that Christianity went through?
What is your take on this?
Shaykh Hamza: The reason why people say that Islam needs an Enlightenment is that they look at the Muslim world and they see congestion on the roads, litter in public spaces, pollution in the air, grime on buildings, and rust and dents on cars.
They compare this image with the image of a modern Western city with fast-moving highways, clean streets, fresh air, tall steel skyscrapers, and shiny new cars.
When they think of the Muslim world, they think of unemployment, no industry, no science or technology, and when they look at the modern Western city, they think of the opposite.
So you have this contrast, and when people in the media say that Islam needs to be enlightened, what they are really looking for is the worldly prosperity that is associated with the Western world.
This worldliness is, after all, the lens of the Enlightenment (or as we decided to call it, the Age of Escape from Oppressive Religion) because when in this age people moved away from oppressive religion, which used the idea of afterlife, God, and spirituality to oppress other people, they also turned away from the ideas of afterlife, God, and spirituality that were associated with oppression, and focussed instead on the here-and-now.
Their goal is for us to use our full human potential in this life. That is the lens that they look through when they bring the two opposite images to mind. The idea of the Muslim world needing an enlightenment is driven by a desire to have these things in the here-and-now, and that is really the question that is being asked.
We have two responses to this question.
The first is that, whereas in the case of Europe, there was a collusion between an established Church and a corrupt government to oppress people in the name of religion, that is not the case in the Muslim world today, nor has it ever been the case in our history.
Oppression in the Muslim world in recent times has not happened because of religion, but because of socialist dictatorships, and socialism is a child of the Enlightenment, not a child of Islam.
The corruption that has beset many Muslim countries, too, is a child of the Enlightenment because it comes from worldliness, a focus on the here-and-now, even at the expense of religious principles. If Muslim societies were religious, there wouldn’t be any corruption–corruption is religiously forbidden in the strongest of terms.
If Muslim societies were religious, we wouldn’t litter and we would be conscious of pollution–cleanliness, as we all know, is a part of our faith.
If Muslim societies were religious, they would excel in everything they did, in industry, in science, in technology, everything–the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) is narrated to have said that Allah loves for us to perfect everything that we do.
So even if we look through the lens of the here-and-now, the way to achieve it is to become more religious, not to become more worldly under the false pretext of an enlightenment that seeks to overthrow a nonexistent oppressive religiousness.
The second response is that being Muslim means that we look at the world through a different lens. For example, an illiterate old woman in the middle of Africa who lives in a small mud hut, who wakes up at night to prostrates to her Creator, who adores Him, loves Him, reveres Him, and cries before Him in prostration every night, but who is not surrounded by skyscrapers, nor does she have a shiny car, nor does she know anything about science or technology — from our lens, this woman is enlightened because she has found the purpose of her life, whereas someone who has all of the trappings of modern life and is pursuing the pleasures of this world while forgetting about God, forgetting about their soul, forgetting about the afterlife, forgetting about the purpose of their existence — they are not enlightened.
Being Muslim means that your whole perspective changes. And if you look at the world from this perspective, if you look at the congested city with old cars and dirty streets, and then, in the middle of all of this, you hear the adhan (call to prayer) from mosques all over the city, then that adhan drowns out the negativity associated with the congested city and old cars and dirty streets because the adhan drives us to the purpose of our lives.
This is not to say that streets shouldn’t be clean; they should be clean.
It is not to say that traffic shouldn’t be regulated; it should be regulated.
It is not to say that there should be no prosperity in this world; that is something that Allah gives us when we turn to Him sincerely. That’s not the point.
The point is: is our purpose the here-and-now, as those who ask this question imagine, or is our purpose with Him and with the afterlife? It’s with Him and with the afterlife.
Osama: Great, now I’d like to request of you to summarise for us, how do Muslims understand the term purpose when asking the question: what is the purpose of life?
I ask this question now because we have discussed in a lot of detail what the presuppositions of pre-enlightenment Christian intellectuals influenced by Aristotelianism were, and what the presuppositions of post-enlightenment modernist and post-modernist intellectuals influenced by scientism were, about the use of the term purpose, and would now like to know what the presuppositions of Muslim scholars would be about the use of this term.
Shaykh Hamza: We believe based on evidence that God exists and that the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) is His final messenger. Based on this evidence-based belief, we see that this universe is created by a doer, a volitional agent, that is God.
God created this universe for a purpose. Everything in the universe is created for a purpose. He tells us these purposes in the Quran.
The locus of the entire universe is the human being, and the human being stands out because the purposes of everything else are found in relation to the human being, and the purpose of the human being is found in his relation to God.
Allah tells us why He created us in the Quran:
“I only created jinn-kind and mankind is so that they might worship me.” Qur’an, 51:56
The original Arabic of this verse has the letter lam before the verb, “to worship” — illa li ya‘budun. This lam is normally translated as “because”. With this translation, the verse would mean, “I created jinn-kind and mankind because I wanted them to worship me.” This is an incorrect translation here and it is not what this verse means.
Let me explain.
Allah created the universe with wisdom. The idea of purpose in the universe, for us, returns to the wisdom of Allah.
Allah’s wisdom is something that He creates in the universe.
To say that He creates everything with a wisdom is different than saying that He created everything with some motive. This is important to understand.
What’s the difference?
Well, when I explained Aristotle’s idea of the final cause, I gave you the example of the coat that I wear in order to become warm. The final cause, in this case–in order for me to become warm–is my motive. It is, in other words, a need that drives me to do something to fulfill that need–I need to become warm, so I wear my coat.
Behind every motive lies a need.
Needs move us, motivate us, to undertake certain actions.
This is how human beings work, and this is how Aristotle formulated his thought.
Now, when we ask about the purpose of the universe, then we have to look at the question in a different manner because Allah doesn’t need anything.
Everything needs Him; He doesn’t need anything.
That, in fact, is the meaning of the Qur’anic verse that all of us know: Allahu al-Samad (Qur’an, 112:2). This means that Allah is al-Samad, which means that He is the one who everything needs but who Himself needs no one.
Allah Most High exists necessarily; everything else is contingent. He doesn’t need anything; everything needs Him. He is the absolute King and Master. He is the Sustainer and Lord of everything.
Since He doesn’t need anything, He cannot be driven by motives.
But everything that He creates has a purpose.
But that purpose is not a motive that drives Him to create that thing.
So the purposes that He creates in the universe aren’t things that drive Him.
If you return to the verse I cited above–”I only created jinn-kind and mankind so that they might worship me,”–you will notice that I translated the lam before the verb, “to worship” as “so that they might…” If I had translated it as “because he wanted ..” then it would mean that Allah Most High needs jinn and humans to worship Him. But that is not what the verse means.
The verse does not mean that Allah Most High needs us to worship Him.
He created us to worship Him?–Yes.
He created us because He needs us to worship Him?–No.
He tells us many times in the Qur’an that no one who disbelieves in Him does Him any harm whatsoever because, “Allah is completely free of needing anything in the universe.” (Qur’an, 3:57) He tells us many times in the Qur’an that, “whoever does good only benefits himself, and whoever does good only harms himself.” (Qur’an, 41:46) And the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) told us that Allah Most High says, “O My servants! You will never be able to harm Me, nor will you ever be able to benefit Me. O My servants! Were every single one of you, humans and jinn, to be as Godfearing as the one with the most Godfearing heart among you, that would not increase My Kingdom in the slightest. O My servants! Were every single one of you, humans and jinn, to be as wicket as the one with the most wicked heart among you, that would not decrease My Kingdom in the slightest.” (Muslim)
So Allah Most High doesn’t need our worship.
When He says that He created us in order to worship Him, He doesn’t mean that He needs our worship; He means that the purpose for which He has created us–our purpose that lies within us, the purpose of our lives, in other words–is for us to worship Him.
Let me give you an example.
If I were to take your cell phone and try and play baseball with it, I may or may not do well. I may hit a home run with it (unlikely!), or I might break your phone in my attempt to hit a home run (likely!). If it works, however, it is not going to work that well. Pretty soon, I will give up using the cell phone as a baseball bat, and go find an actual bat whose purpose is to be played baseball with.
Why doesn’t a cell phone work like a baseball bat? It doesn’t work because that is not the reason, the purpose that the maker of the cell phone made it for.
Similarly, Allah created us for the purpose of worshipping Him. That means that if We worship Allah, then it’s like we are playing baseball with a baseball bat, but if we turn away from that and stop worshipping Allah, then it’s like playing baseball with a cell-phone — life won’t seem to work for us because that is not what we were meant to do.
You might break, just like the cell-phone if it is used to play baseball.
You are going to find frustration, you are going to find depression, the world won’t make sense, the world will be pointless, and you will have all of these feelings because you are not fulfilling your purpose.
You will have a spiritual void, a sense of meaninglessness, a sense that things are right and that you aren’t doing what you should be doing. Much of what we discussed in our previous conversation, the spiritual void that people feel in their lives as a result of a lack of genuine religious company and practise, it stemmed from this lack of purpose.
But when you do what you were created for, when you worship Him in prostration, when you cry, when you recite the Quran, when you give charity, you will find within yourself a happiness that a million dollars won’t give you.
That’s what we mean by “purpose”.
Osama: Okay, it seems that we are now done with our discussion about the meaning of the term purpose when the question what is the purpose of life is asked by following three groups of people:
- Pre-enlightenment Christian scholars who were influenced by Aristotelianism: we discussed that the meanings that they gave to the term purpose were grounded within Aristotle’s conception of the four causes, in specific the final cause.
- Post-enlightenment atheist scholars who were influenced by Scientism, which grew as a response to the dogmatic teachings of the Church: we discussed that the meanings that they gave to the term purpose were grounded in a rejection of Christian theology and Aristotelian thought, which was used to justify those Christian teachings.
- Muslim scholars, who believe in the truth of the revelation of the Quran: we discussed that the meanings that they gave to the term purpose were grounded in the Quranic view that the wisdom behind the creation of mankind and jinnkind was that they may prosper and attain happiness as a result of their adoration, love, and worship of their Creator, Allah.
Now that we have gained a deep and strong appreciation of what the meanings of the term purpose are of these various groups of scholars, I’d like to turn your attention toward the second term that was used in the question, life.
Shaykh Hamza: Sure, though I would like to remind you that you haven’t shared your definition of the term life with me yet (smiles).
Osama: Thank you for reminding me to define my terms (smiles).
If I were to put on the hat of a pre-Enlightenment Aristotelian thinker, then I would most likely define life as being a term that refers to the existence of an individual human being or animal.
If I were to put on the hat of a post-enlightenment scientistic thinker, then I would most likely define life as the condition that distinguishes “living things” [animals and plants] from “non-living things”.
I am interested to know how you, as a Muslim, define the term life?
Shaykh Hamza: I don’t like your definition of life (laughs), and I don’t think that that is what people mean when they ask “what is the purpose of life?”.
I would like to say two things here.
The first is that the idea of “life” is related to the idea of “purpose”.
There is a field in science called biochemistry. Biochemists study the chemical processes of life. The emergence of biochemistry was very exciting for people who wanted to explain the world without any reference to God because it contains the idea that life can be explained through a series of chemical reactions.
Now, chemical reactions do have a relation to life. That they are related to life is undeniable–all of modern medicine is based on this. But is life a series of chemical reactions? No it is not. And anybody who asks the question “what is the purpose of life” knows deep down within them that life is more than a series of chemical reactions, it is more than what the biochemists say.
Animal life (we’ll put plant life aside for a moment) is historically associated with the idea of voluntary movement. An animal is anything that moves voluntarily. When a lion roars, it roars voluntarily. There is some sort of volition involved: he can roar or not roar. Likewise, I, as a human being, when I speak, my speech is voluntary–I can choose to speak or not speak.
Animal life thus is associated with voluntary action.
Note that this is a very different kind of definition of “life” that you will get in biology because biology examines life from the perspective of efficient causes, from the perspective of chemical reactions, not from the perspective that I am bringing, which was there in the Christian tradition as well as the Muslim one, and it probably has its roots in Aristotle.
Any sensible human being would look at things like this. And so I guess that when I say “any sensible human being would look at things like this”, this is a jab in the ribs of scientists who want to do away with a God-centered perspective of the world, life, and everything. Because when they say that life is just a series of chemical reactions, they are not sensible.
Just look inside and ask yourself: if they were to publish volumes and volumes of books with chemical reactions and tell you that this is life, would you believe it? No you won’t!
Life has to do with volition and voluntary movement.
That is life with respect to animals but with respect to human beings, it is something more.
Because human beings have a mind and a soul, and they can use their minds to reflect on the universe to see that it was created by God, and they can see that they are responsible to God, and they can see that their life has a purpose and that the purpose of their life is to worship Allah (Glorified is He) so that when we are resurrected and we meet Him on the Day of Judgement that we will be successful forever in our life to come. These are things that we as human beings can see. (Remember, this is all based on evidence because we have evidence-based belief in our religion.)
So human life is characterized not just by voluntary motion, but by voluntary motion that is governed by mind rather than instinct.
Animals act, however, is based on instinct.
Human beings, on the other hand, can reflect, decide to go one particular way or another, discern right from wrong, and they can choose to do the right, and choose to turn away from the wrong.
I would say that somebody who asks, “What is the purpose of life?”, they are not asking about the purpose of some bacterium, but they are asking about the purpose of human life, because they are searching for purpose, we are searching for purpose, and we feel that we know that there is a greater purpose for which we are created.
So I will rephrase your question: Instead of asking, “What is the purpose of life?” we should ask, “ “What is the purpose of my life?” or we should ask, “What is the purpose of the life of human beings?”
In these questions, life is not a chemical reaction. In these questions, “life” means the choices that we make to do things based on our mind.
This question is revealing; it is actually asking: “what kinds of choices should I make?” or “what kinds of things should I do in my life?”
That’s the question, and that what I think is being asked.
Osama: I must say that I truly admire what you have said with regards to life, and how the human mind and soul is what differentiates human life from animal life.
I have an important question though; considering that we live in a world dominated by materialistic and scientistic thought, how is one able to prove the existence of the soul, which seems to be an abstract and immaterial reality?
Shaykh Hamza: Well, the Enlightenment has created a materialistic worldview. It has created, along with modern science, a way of looking at the world in terms of matter–things that you can touch, feel, sense, measure, and do experiments.
It seeks to understand everything through this lens, including the human being.
The human being is not matter, the human being is more than matter. Matter makes up the body of the human being. What makes the human being alive, what gives the human being life, what makes the human being who he is, is not the matter that we can sense. What makes the human being who he is, is his soul.
If you were to ask me, “How do we know that the soul exists?” I would say that the soul is “you” — it is known through introspection. All of us know that there is an “I”.
If you were to ask me, “What is “I”?” I would say that “I” am not the cells in my body. The cells die and they are regenerated. After so many years, almost every cell in your body is replaced with a new one. This means that you are not your cells, that is not who you are — that comes and goes.
If you were to ask me: “Who are “you”?” I would say that the physical “you” changes. You were a child, and then you grew up to become an adult. You grow old and everything about you changes but you are “you”, you remain “you”, and you know that “you” haven’t changed.
If you were to ask me: “What is the “you”, the “I”, the thing that gives you your identity, the thing that makes you alive by virtue of which you have volition, and gives you the ability to choose?”
I would say that this is your soul.
We all know that it is there.
It is the unchanging “I” as the physical and material aspects of the body change but the “I” aspect doesn’t.
Science is materialistic, so it doesn’t explain things using the soul, it explains things using biochemistry, chemical reactions, electrical impulses — that is how it explains the phenomenon of life.
Science explains life with reference to reproduction and metabolism but it doesn’t actually explain what life is — life is consciousness.
There is a problem that philosophers and scientists grapple with and it hasn’t been answered yet, it is called the problem of consciousness.
The problem of consciousness is that none of these things explain what it means to be conscious. When we are conscious, we feel pain, happiness, sadness, and we make choices — we have experiences. These experiences, we know, they are not chemical reactions. My happiness is not a chemical reaction, my sight is not a chemical reaction — this is consciousness. I am conscious of something, I know, I choose, and I do.
If you were to ask me: “What’s the locus of consciousness and all of these experiences?” I would say that the locus is the human soul.
It is the human soul that feels happy, pained, sad, and that has love, and it is the human soul that knows God. Empirical observations don’t take you there.
Finally, if you were to ask me to summarise in exact terms: “What is the reality of the soul — what is it exactly?” I would say, well, we don’t know (smiles).
We know it is there but we don’t know what it is.
Allah tells the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) that:
قُلِ الرُّوحُ مِنْ أَمْرِ رَبِّي وَمَا أُوْتِيْتُم مِنَ العِلْمِ اِلَّا قَلِيْلًا
Say: The spirit is from the tremendous affair of my Lord, and you’ve only been given a little bit of knowledge.
In other words, the soul shows human weakness and incapacity, and that is who we are. We are incapable and weak and so we need Allah. The fact that the very thing that we are — the “I” — we can’t fathom it, it shows how weak and incapable we are.
The fact that we can’t fathom it, however, doesn’t mean that it is not there.
We can’t fathom God, but we know that He is there, we have evidence that He is there.
How can we fathom God when we can’t even fathom ourselves?
The ruh, or the human soul, is a tremendous creation of God, He swears by it in the Quran:
وَنَفْسٍ وَمَا سَوَّاهَا
By the great soul, and the tremendous One who fashioned it.
Whenever Allah swears an oath by something, it means that it is tremendous, and this is one of the greatest creations of Allah.
This is the soul and that is how we know that it exists.
Osama: That seems to be a fair explanation of the soul though I’d be very interested to talk about in detail with you in one of our future conversations. You said that the soul is what feels love, happiness, and sadness etc. I’d be interested to find out how this ties in with our purpose, which is to love God. I wonder how the soul “loves” God? I won’t ask you to answer this question now, let’s leave it for another conversation because we have had a pretty long conversation thus far (smile).
Let’s conclude Shaykh Hamza, if I were to ask you to please answer the question “what is the purpose of life?” directly after having considered the meanings of the individual terms purpose and life, how would you answer this question?
Shaykh Hamza: Well, the first step towards answering this is to understand the concept of life, which we discussed in great detail just now, and in order to understand that concept, we need to understand who you are. The question of what life is revolves around who you are, and as we discussed, you are your soul.
A great Muslim poet, an early Afghan Shafi’i called Abul Fath al-Busti, who lived almost a thousand years ago wrote:
يَا خَادِمَ الجِسْمِ كَمْ تَشْقَى بِخِدْمَتِهِ
أَتَطْلُبُ الرِّبْحَ فِي مَا فِيْهِ خُسْرَانُ
أَقْبِلْ عَلَى النَّفسِ وَاسْتَكْمِلْ فَضَائِلَهَا
فَأَنْتَ بِالنَّفْسٍ لَا بِالْجِسْمِ اِنْسَانُ
O servant of the body, how miserable will you be by serving your body?
Do you seek profit in that in which there is loss?
Turn to the soul and complete its perfections,
for it is by virtue of your soul that you are a human being, not by virtue of your body.
So, what is the purpose of your existence as a soul?
As a soul that has the capacity to discern the fact that Allah created it, and sent messengers who it can discern are genuine, to call you to the worship of Allah?
Allah created souls before He created bodies.
We had a life before the life of this world — it was called the universe of souls (‘alam al-arwah).
Allah mentions in the Quran:
وَاِذْ أَخَذَ اللَّهُ مِنْ بَنِيْ آدَمَ مِنْ ظُهُوْرِهِمْ ذُرِّيَّتَهُمْ وَأَشْهَدَهُمْ عَلَى أَنْفُسِهِمْ أَلَسْتُ بِرَبِّكُمْ قَالُوْا بَلَى شَهِدْنَا
Allah brought out all of the souls that would ever exist, He then addressed them: Am I not your Lord? They said, Indeed we witness [your Lordship].
We know Allah, we knew Him before we came into this world, we spoke to Him and recognized Him, and remnants of this conversation are imprinted in us. As we come into adulthood from childhood, this yearning for the knowledge of Allah, which is the purpose of our existence, drives us as we search for our purpose in life, and we find that purpose when we use our mind that is enlightened by the light of revelation to discern our Creator and what He wants from us by listening to the messengers, and living our lives according to what they convey from Allah — worshipping Allah and making Him our sole goal in our lives.
وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الجِنَّ وَالاِنْسَ اِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُوْنَ
I only created jinn-kind and mankind so that they might worship me.
This is the purpose and wisdom for which Allah created us, and then He placed within us a recognition of this wisdom. This is why when we incline towards this world for the fulfilment of our desires, we do not find within ourselves happiness and we don’t find within ourselves that we are living a purposeful and meaningful life.
Our purpose is realised by looking beyond this world into the world through which we, through our soul, will persist. If we worship Allah in this life, it gives us eternal felicity in the next life and we fulfill the purpose for which we were created.
All of this is not because Allah needs something — because there is a difference between a motive and wisdom — and purposes with respect to Allah are wisdoms not motives.
Allah did this out of sheer generosity so that we could be happy in this world and attain to eternal felicity in the next world, and that is the purpose of our existence and life.
Osama: I ask God to increase you, to grant you the best of both worlds, and to grant all of us, all human beings, the ability to be able to fulfill their real purpose for being alive in the most resplendent of ways that pleases the One who made them the way they are.
Thank you, and I look forward to our next conversation.
al-Salam ‘alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu.
Shaykh Hamza: Amin!
Wa ‘alaykum al-salam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu.
Osama Hassan is an Australian of Pakistani descent who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Finance from Curtin University. He is currently pursuing studies in the Islamic sciences and Arabic in Amman.