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Talk about Islam with Shaykh Hamza Karamali (Episode 2) – What is the purpose of life?

Dear Readers, welcome back to the 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: Salam ‘alaykum Shaykh Hamza, As always, it’s a great blessing to be talking to you. In our previous conversation, we talked about the concept of religion, it’s relevance, and the experiential and logical proofs for it. Today, as a follow-up to that conversation, I’d like to pose a more practical question to you: What is the purpose of life?

Shaykh Hamza: Wa ‘alaykum salam Osama. I’m happy to be talking to you again! Let’s start in the same way as our last conversation: define your terms! When you ask, “What is the purpose of life,” what, in your mind, do you mean by purpose and and what do you mean by life?

Osama: Of course, that is a pertinent reminder. When I use the term purpose, I mean: the reason for which something is done or created, or, the reason for which something exists.

Shaykh Hamza: Okay great, let’s start with purpose; so you’ve defined the word purpose as, the reason for which something is done, created, or for which something exists. Now, someone who asks what the purpose of life is, and uses purpose to mean what you have just said, often doesn’t realize that he thereby presupposes many things. For example, someone who asks the question, “What is the purpose of life,” and means by purpose, “the reason for which something is done,” this person presupposes that life is something that has been done by someone for some reason. In the back of his mind, he is accepting that there is someone, a doer, a volitional agent who made the the phenomenon of life for some reason. Someone who says purpose is “the reason for which something is created,” (the second part of your definition) goes even further to presuppose that this doer, or volitional agent who made the phenomenon of life is God. The latter part of your definition, however–“the reason for which something exists”–does not explicitly reveal this presupposition. People who have this latter part of the definition of purpose in their minds may or may not presuppose that there is a Creator or Maker of life. Aristotle, for example, believed that all things exist for a reason that is embedded within them and that this reason drives them towards a particular end. He called this reason the “final cause” (telos) of things, and it was one of four kinds of causes that he postulated drove things in the world to change. I won’t dwell on these four causes now, but I will may have to return to some of them later as we will try to understand why a scientific understanding of the universe is often incorrectly equated with a purposeless understanding of the universe. So Aristotle believed that it was these final causes within things that gave them their purpose, not God. Aristotle did believe in God, but not in the same way that we do. More on that at a later point in our conversation, in sha’ Allah.

Osama: Sidi, these days a lot of people in the West do not believe in God, and most have not read anything about Aristotle. Don’t you think the presuppositions of modern people about the term purpose will be different to the ones that you have highlighted so far?

Shaykh Hamza: Yes, most people today would have different presuppositions about the term purpose because we live in a post-Enlightenment and postmodern world that is heavily influenced by a worldview grounded in modern scientific reasoning that seeks to explain the universe without any reference to God.  So today, when people ask the question, “What is the purpose of life?” they are most likely  not asking from the perspective of someone who believes in God, nor are they asking from the perspective of Aristotle, rather they are probably asking from the perspective of modern science. But I think that Aristotle is still important because people’s perspective today has its roots in a reaction to a Christianized Aristotelianism.

Osama: Can you elaborate on the relationship between modern science and this “Christianized Aristotelianism”?

Shaykh Hamza: Good question! To answer this properly, I’ll need to give you a brief history of modern science so that you can appreciate how we got to where we are now. Modern science came out of a period in the history of Western Europe called the ”Enlightenment.” I am saying quote-unquote “Enlightenment” in quotation marks because true “Enlightenment” comes from the light of Allah Most High that He sends through His prophets–”Allah is the protector of the believers: He takes them out of the darknesses into light.” (Qur’an, 2:256) “Into light”–in other words, He enlightens them. I think I talked about this period in our previous conversation, right?

Osama: Yes, I recall that you mentioned to me that this was a period in Western history in which oppressive and corrupt religion was displaced, through revolution in some places and gradual movements in other places, because oppressive religious state structures in Europe wronged people by denying them property rights, trapping most of them in a life of serfdom in which they were bought and sold with the land they belonged to, wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few people, and religious people would use religion to become wealthy.

Shaykh Hamza: That’s right, and in this conversation, I want to tell you something else about this period. Not only was this a period when the Christian Church was corrupt, it was also a period when it forcibly imposed a view of the universe that was, scientifically speaking, wrong. It taught by religious and political writ that the earth was at the center of the universe and that everything else–the sun, the moon, the planets, the stars–revolved around it. It took this position of Aristotle and “Christianized” it. (We’ll talk more about that later.) A number of scientists (most notably Copernicus and Galileo) challenged this view based on empirical evidence, but the Christian Church used its political authority to persecute and silence them. When, during the Enlightenment, the political power of the Church was taken away, scientists gained the freedom to use their minds and do science, and so science began to flourish. That’s what brought us to the world that we live in today.

Osama: I see, so from the perspective of the scientists, it seems that the Age of Enlightenment truly was, to a certain degree a period of “enlightenment” because it allowed intellectuals to reasonably question and critically examine the dogmatic teachings of the Church in order for the truth to prevail, right?

Shaykh Hamza: Yes, it was “enlightening” from the perspective that it sought to critically evaluate the dogmatic teachings of the Church, but the reactionary nature of the Enlightenment movement led to a hyper-correction in which things went from one extreme to another one. So they took steps towards enlightenment, but they never got there.

Osama: I learned from your “Introduction to Logic” course how Aristotelianism became a part of Christian theology by passing first through the Muslim world, and then from there to Christian Europe. I think that the introduction of Aristotelianism into Christianity–what you just called a “Christianized Aristotelianism”– led to the downfall of the state-sponsored Church in the Enlightenment. I think that Christian scholars, despite their intention to prove as valid the beliefs forwarded by their religion through rational means, failed to recognise the false-truths that were “unprovable” through rational means, like for example, the Trinity, which Christians to this day have a tough time explaining.  This type of blind imitation that rejects the rules of correct reasoning, I estimate, is exactly what the Quran asks us to abandon, when God urges us to use our intellects. I would argue that this type of intellectual reasoning, which sought to prove the validity of a religion that had admixed within it falsehood, and that had no access to preserved revelation, must have been what led to the development of tension between the Christian theologians and empirical scientists; and this is probably what brought about the Age of Enlightenment in the West. Scientists like Copernicus and Galileo must have justifiably been opposed to the authoritative imposition of incorrect intellectual and scientific positions. Now, I think that in their zeal to rid their society of false, corrupt, and oppressive religion, the Enlightenment scholars must have opposed anything that sought to justify it; hence Aristotelianism too must have become a victim of their justifiable and long overdue intellectual onslaught of false and unjust religion, namely Christianity.

Shaykh Hamza: Exactly! Alright, now that we understand why a non-religious scientific perspective has become the prevailing worldview that modern people–sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously–ascribe to, let’s return to our discussion of what pre-modern Western intellectuals would have presupposed of the term purpose. You should keep in mind that the incorrect scientific positions that the Church upheld were actually directly taken from the natural philosophy of Aristotle — that is why I mentioned him at the beginning of our conversation. One of the aspects of this natural philosophy that the Church found theologically useful was its emphasis on final causes (teleos) –the purposes of things, which I explained to you at beginning of our conversation too. We saw earlier that Aristotle believed that the purposes of things were embedded within them, and drove those things to change and realize their purposes. The Church appropriated this view of the universe from Aristotle and it interpreted the final causes of things in a way that was consistent with its own belief in God, which was very different from the way Aristotle believed in God. For Aristotle, God was like an inanimate cause that didn’t have a will, that didn’t have any volition, that couldn’t choose to do anything, from which the universe necessarily followed just like burning follows from fire. For the Church, on the other hand, God actually created the universe, so He was someone who acted out of His free-Will (this is also what we believe and also what Jews believes). So the Church took Aristotle’s natural philosophy, and the universe was interpreted to be a universe that God had designed with purposes that it was meant to fulfill. Now, Aristotle also believed that the earth was at the center of the universe, so they appropriated that, too, and made it part of their religious belief that the Earth’s being at the center of the universe reflects the fact that human beings are the most special creation of God.

Osama: Is this an illustration of why the science-versus-religion debate began in the Western world? It seems that the scientists were at odds with Christianity, and by extension Aristotelianism too, as it was used as a tool by the Church to prove its own theology and philosophy.

Shaykh Hamza: That’s right, so when scientists challenged the Church on scientifically incorrect beliefs like the earth being at the center of the universe, science and the Church became enemies, and that’s why the science-religion debate exists in the Western world. Aristotelianism, too, became an enemy of the scientists by both virtue of its conflict with science and by virtue of its historical association with the Church that forced its natural philosophy on others. Because of this enmity with the Church and with its accompanying Christianized Aristotelianism, scientists sought to understand the world in a way that was devoid of God and final causes. They said that they wanted to understand things not in terms of their final causes, the purposes that the Church had taught were embedded by God within them, but instead in terms of what Aristotle called the efficient cause.

Osama: I understand what you mean by the term final cause, but what do you mean by efficient cause?

Shaykh Hamza: The efficient cause was another one of the four causes that Aristotle believed in, and scientists sought to emphasise the efficient causes of things in the universe over their final causes in order to remove God and final causes from the philosophical–or, in a modern idiom, the scientific— analysis of the universe. Let me explain the difference between the efficient cause and the final cause. The efficient cause comes before its effect whereas the final cause comes after. Let’s say, for example, that I feel cold and so, in order to become warm, I wear my warm coat. The efficient cause of my wearing my warm coat is my feeling cold. My feeling cold (the efficient cause) comes before I wear my coat (the effect). My final cause, or purpose, or the reason why I wear my coat, however, is so that I can thereby become warm. My becoming warm (the final cause) comes after I wear my coat (the effect). The efficient cause drives me to wear my coat and if I am driven by a purpose (as all sane human beings are), then my purpose in wearing the coat (the final cause) is realized by doing the action, by my wearing my coat. So the final causes come after, and reflects the motive of the doer, and the efficient cause reflects the thing that drives someone to do it. In Aristotelianism, everything in the universe is alive and driven by purposes, similar to the way that human beings are. The seed has a purpose, a final cause, embedded into it. Its purpose, its final cause is to become a tree. And it has efficient causes that drives it towards becoming a tree–water, soil, and sunlight. Scientists who studied the universe sought to rid our analysis of the universe from these final causes, which were emphasized by the church in order to highlight the action of God, and focus solely on efficient causes. They thus got rid of both the oppressive Church and the irrational Aristotelianism.

Osama: This is an important discussion because one can definitely notice these subtleties when one studies science in college. We are not taught why the sun shines, or why flowers grow, or why it rains, but rather the emphasis is always on how the sun shines, or what makes flowers grow, or how it rains. The “why” question seems to be either ignored, or left for you to figure out for yourself, or is left for philosophy or religion. It seems like, as you pointed out, this is due to science focusing only on the efficient causes behind phenomena as opposed to its final cause.

Shaykh Hamza: Correct, and the reason for this is that modern science was formed in the crucible of all these tensions in the Enlightenment period. To illustrate the point you made about the way science is taught in classrooms today, you will notice that when you learn that plants grow through a chemical reaction called photosynthesis, in which chlorophyll converts sunlight into energy that drives an endothermic chemical reaction between carbon dioxide and water to produce glucose and oxygen, you don’t learn that God created plants so that livestock could graze on them so that, in turn, humans could benefit from the milk, meat, skin, and wool of those livestock (which is what the Qur’an, for example would tell us). You learn about efficient causes, but you don’t learn about final causes. Another example. When you study fire in your school science class, you learn that it is the visible effect of a chemical reaction called “combustion”, in which a flammable gas is ignited to begin an exothermic chemical reaction between that gas and between oxygen to produce water, carbon dioxide, and heat. You don’t learn that God made fire so that we could warm ourselves in the cold (as the Qur’an would tell us), cook food, and drive cars, trucks, and airplanes. You learn about efficient causes, but you don’t learn about final causes. This is what we do when we study science. We focus on efficient causes and try as best as we can to ignore final causes, to ignore any kind of purpose in the universe. (We are not always successful in this. Biology is a prominent example of our failure–it is impossible to understand the organs of the human body, for example, without reference to purpose.)

Osama: Shaykh Hamza, it seems like we have come to agree that the reason why modern people have presuppositions of the term purpose, which are grounded in an atheistic worldview influenced by scientism, is the because of the outcome that ensued due to the tension that existed between a Christianised Aristotelianism and the western scientific community prior to the Age of Enlightenment. We also seem to agree that the Enlightenment, was to a degree, enlightening because it freed western civilisation of false and oppressive religion, and allowed the western scientific community to finally pursue their intellectual endeavours without fear of persecution. I don’t see anything wrong with what happened in the Age of Enlightenment so far, what do you think went wrong?

Shaykh Hamza: Well, this modern scientific view of the universe is wrong, just as the preceding Christianized Aristotelian view of the universe was wrong. They are wrong in different ways, but they are both wrong. Deep down inside us, we all know that this modern scientific view of the universe is wrong. Despite the fact that our science classes teach us–sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly–that the things in the universe don’t happen for any purpose, that they just happen because a bunch of a atoms and molecules randomly (whatever that means!) bumped into each other, we still find ourselves asking the question, “What is the purpose of life?” The fact that we insist on asking this question despite our modern education reveals that we know deep down inside us that there is something fundamentally wrong with this view of the universe. The search for purpose is embedded into what Muslims call the fitra; it is embedded into our souls and primordial natures. Because of our fitra, our souls, our primordial natures, we instinctively search for purposes, and when science tells us that there is no purpose in the universe, only efficient causes, we know that there is something missing. That is why we ask about the purposes of things. That is why we ask about the purpose of life. My reading of the Enlightenment is that it  was also , in reality, motivated by a search for purpose because the Christianity of that time wasn’t doing its job for people–it wasn’t giving them purpose. So people saw in their fitra, in their souls, and in their primordial natures, that their purpose wasn’t being fulfilled and they were moved by the Enlightenment to discover the true purpose of their life. The trajectory their search for purpose took, however, went off-course. They missed Islam and hence missed discovering the purpose of their life. They went from one state of purposelessness (Christianity) to a state with even less purpose (modernism) to another state with even less purpose (postmodernism). Their search for purpose took them farther and farther from their purpose because they weren’t enlightened by the light of revelation.

Osama: There is a lot to unpack in what you  have said here. Why do you think the Enlightenment was motivated by a search for purpose?

Shaykh Hamza: Living in the Age of the Enlightenment wasn’t pleasant. It was a period of revolution and civil strife. One of the reasons why that strife happened was that people knew within them that the societies in which they lived didn’t fulfill the purpose of their lives. They knew that the dogma of the Church wasn’t fulfilling their purpose, so they sought to fulfill it themselves through their reason. That’s why the Age of Enlightenment is also called the Age of Reason, in which we were to free ourselves of religious dogma by not doing things because God told us to do them, but because we wanted to do them, This is what we call humanism.

Osama: Right, so civil strife and revolution was a symbolic of a deeper problem, which was that the dogmatic religious teachings of the Church weren’t fulfilling the purpose that human beings sought to fulfill, so in their search to fill this void, they resorted to humanism. What is humanism, what is its relation to the post-Enlightenment world, and to the larger question of purpose?

Shaykh Hamza: Humanism is centered around the human being. It is the idea that things should be seen from the perspective of “me” and “I” and how “I” as the human being in general can maximise my own benefit by using my reason. I use my reason to find prosperity, eliminate poverty, to spread tolerance, to attain happiness, good health, and longevity, to reduce the infant mortality rate, and so on. This is humanism. It produced the dreams of the Enlightenment. We went from an oppressive Church-oriented society, in which we felt upset, to this world, to the pursuit of these dreams. Now, these dreams are good, but they are not the purpose of our lives. As religious people, as Muslims, we want these good things, too. However, we were not created to achieve these dreams. We were created for God. When we look at our existence in this world through these dreams, we look at the world as though there is no afterlife. This leads to societies in which, once again, we know within us that the purpose of our lives is not being fulfilled. And, once again, we feel oppressed. This is how humanism relates to our larger question about purpose. As for the relationship of humanism with other post-Enlightenment ideas, let me give you a few reasons why it failed, and how western intellectuals resorted to other ways of thinking. Events of the 20th century have rudely woken us up from our dreams to reveal the senselessness, the purposelessness, and the oppression of our post-Enlightenment world of “reason”. 20 million people died in the four years of World War I, 80 million in the six years of World War II, and two nuclear bombs destroyed the entire cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All of the deaths of the two world wars and the dozens of modern conflicts since then have shown that as a result of human reason, as a result of the science and technology that was born out of the Age of Reason, the Age of “Enlightenment”, as a result of that, “enlightened” human beings have killed more people in the last one hundred years than they have in thousands of years before that. We all know this. We recognize this. And the rude awakening that the dreams of the Enlightenment are not meant to be, has left us disappointed and pessimistic about the Enlightenment project. From this disappointment has come a way of thinking that we call Postmodernism. Modernism  is the Enlightenment. Postmodernism is after the Enlightenment when we lost confidence in the Enlightenment project.

Osama: Before you go on, let me confirm my understanding here with you. So what you have argued thus far is that the Enlightenment produced various expressions of thought like humanism that were broadly grouped under modernism, and the dreams and ideals modernity called us to, through the use of reason, weren’t fulfilled because these ideals too were not the purpose of our life. Instead, because we didn’t pursue the actual ideals that were meant to fulfill our purpose, we ended up with events like World War I and II, which eventually caused the western civilisation to lose hope in the project of the Enlightenment and Age of Reason, as a result of which we find ourselves in a postmodern world, wherein the project of Enlightenment has been deemed to have failed. Am I following correctly thus far? If so, can you please explain what is postmodernism, and how does it relate to the larger question of purpose that we are investigating?

Shaykh Hamza: That’s right, you’re with me so far. Now, postmodernism is a pessimistic view of human beings. It’s the view that anybody who has power is corrupt and must always be suspected of harboring a desire to benefit at the expense of those under his power. (Sounds like pre-Enlightenment Europe, doesn’t it? Can you see how we’ve come full circle?) The goal of postmodernism is to curb the power of anyone who has power, to never trust anyone who has any authority, and to have the individual freedom to do whatever you want, to say whatever you want, and to interpret things any way that you want. Postmodernism is explicitly non-rational (the opposite of the reason-oriented spirit of Enlightenment modernism) and also explicitly purposeless. That makes it very difficult to have a reasoned dialogue with a postmodernist. It also breeds a non-rational anger, frustration, and vindictiveness in its most ardent adherents. That anger, frustration, and vindictiveness becomes its purpose. It has many different manifestations. Feminism is a manifestation of Postmodernism. Post-colonialism is a manifestation of Postmodernism. The LGBTQ movement is a manifestation of Postmodernism. Many kinds of strange art and music are manifestations of Postmodernism. The list goes on. Enlightenment humanism sought purpose in the abandonment of religion under the guise of reason. That failed to fulfill the purpose of our lives because it focuses on this world and turns away from God and the afterlife. Postmodernism was an offshoot of Enlightenment humanism and sought purpose in the critique of power and the promotion of an extreme individualism that seeks to disturb the norms of surrounding societies and seeks to stand out, but that, too, hasn’t helped us find the purpose of our lives because it, too, focuses on this world and turns away from God and the afterlife. Our purpose is found in true religion, in the submission of our souls to God through the guidance of the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace), and living this life for the afterlife. Where do we go from postmodernism? Maybe we are going to go to post-postmodernism (laughs) or maybe we will finally discover the revelation of Islam as being true (smiles).

Osama: Now, by mentioning that the revelation of Islam truly presents the world with a solution to its philosophical problems and  lack of purpose, you are bound to have many who are going to doubt this notion by pointing to history to say that religion has already failed us in the West, why should we trust it again?

Shaykh Hamza: Well, when we look back at the history of Western Europe and refer to the Age of Enlightenment as the Age of Reason we are saying that the Christian Church suppressed our reason and that we found enlightenment by using our collective social will to put an end to oppression and our minds to decide for ourselves what is best for us. The idea that the false dogma of the Church should not be accepted on authority, and that we find enlightened by using our reason is correct. But the idea that this happened in the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason is not correct. It didn’t happen then. It actually happened a thousand years before that time in the age of the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace), who called the ancient Arabians to turn away from the false dogma of the Qurashite idolatrous establishment, and to become enlightened by shining the light of divine revelation onto their lives and then using their enlightened reason (enlightened by divine revelation, in other words) to make choices that fulfilled the purpose of their lives. There are many, many verses in the Qur’an that tell us that the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) was sent to take believers out of the “darknesses” of disbelief into “light” of belief (e.g., Qur’an, 2:257, 5:16, 6:39, 13:16, 14:1, 14:5, and many others). There are also many, many verses that command us to use our minds. “Won’t you use your minds?”–afala ta‘qilun–is a common expression of censure that is mentioned at the end of more than a dozen verses. And the Arabian polytheists are frequently censured for clinging mindlessly to the customs of their ancestors and refusing to use their reason to discern the truth and follow it. There is not a single verse in the Quran that tells people not to use their minds, not to reason, not to think. Thinking and reasoning is what our religion is based on, and the first obligation of every human being is to use their mind, their reason to discern that God exists, that the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) is His messenger, and that God will resurrect us and bring us to judgment after we die. The first obligation of every human being, in other words, is to discover the purpose of their lives. Now, the Enlightenment thinkers also used their minds, but not to discover the purpose of their existence. They used their minds to expose the hypocrisy and contradictions of the Church institution and its beliefs. But they didn’t go all the way. They didn’t go on to use their minds to rationally show what the purpose of our lives is. They didn’t do that because their rational inquiry was not enlightened by the light of genuine divine revelation.

Osama: So you’re arguing that reason, when used correctly, is bound to lead human beings to recognise God and His true message to humanity?

Shaykh Hamza: Yes, that is correct. A common analogy that Imam al-Ghazali and other scholars used to describe the relationship between revelation and reason is that revelation is like a light and reason is like the eyes. So if you go into the entrance of a dark cave and shine a light, then you can use your eyes to find your way, but if you enter without any light, then you will grope around in the dark and get lost. Allah sends us prophets and messengers to bring us revelation, which is a light that enlightens our minds to help us reason clearly. He tells us that that the Torah that He gave to the Prophet Moses (upon him be peace) contained “light” (Qur’an, 5:44), that the Evangel that He gave to the Prophet Jesus (upon him be peace) contained “light” (Qur’an, 5:46), and He tells us that he revealed a “light” to the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) (Qur’an, 7:157), and that the Qur’an takes us out of darknesses into “light” (Qur’an, 14:1, 57:9, and 65:11). The Quran is a light because when you read it, it illuminates the way, and when you examine it, it makes sense. The Quran is guiding you to use your mind without any coercion and when you use this guidance and think correctly, you will independently come to the conclusion that Islam is true, Allah exists, and that He sent the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) as the last messenger. The Enlightenment thinkers were unable use their reason to discover the purpose of their lives because they weren’t enlightened. They didn’t have the light of revelation to enlighten their thinking and reasoning. You need the light of revelation in order to use your reason properly otherwise you will make mistakes. You might be correct on many conclusions, but you will make mistakes, not on every point–you might reach many correct and valuable conclusions–but on the things that really matter, the things that give purpose to our lives, you will make mistakes. There’s many good things that came out of the Enlightenment, just as there were good things that came from Aristotle before the Enlightenment. But enlightened thought requires revelation, and it is not possible for us to discover the purpose of our lives without recourse to revelation. In conclusion to our discussion about the Enlightenment, what I am saying is that calling what happened in Western Europe the “Age of Enlightenment” is a misnomer.

Osama: Why do you call the Age of Enlightenment a misnomer, especially, when it took the western world out from the dogmatic teachings of the Church?

Shaykh Hamza: It’s a misnomer because true enlightenment only comes through a mind that is enlightened by revelation. So when the mind is enlightened by revelation, the conclusions that it comes to will move a person to turn his soul towards the worship of Allah. It will move him to the fulfill the purpose for which he was created. In contrast, a mind that turns away from revelation and tries to be independent will grope about in the dark and make mistakes. Because it hasn’t been enlightened by revelation, it won’t see the light, it won’t know what it is supposed to go towards. This will end up destroying the soul by turning it towards the pursuit of worldly possessions — the “here-and-now” — and that pursuit is a feature of the Age of Enlightenment. The Age of Enlightenment has turned human beings away from focusing on God and the afterlife to focusing on the here-and-now, away from God to focusing on the human being, not as he was meant to be — someone who fulfills purpose of his life — but as someone who is focused on maximising pleasure and prosperity in this life.  Just look at the statistics: Canada, for example, is set to lose 9000 churches over the next decade because religion is no longer important to communities (link to: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/losing-churches-canada-1.5046812). Even though we believe that Christianity has been corrupted and has strayed from the original teachings of the Prophet Jesus (upon him be peace), it still officially promotes the ideal of living for God, for others, and for the afterlife, and goes against the Enlightenment ideal of the here-and-now, and the decline of those ideals in Canadian society is moving people even further from fulfilling the purpose of their lives.

Osama: If you hold the Age of Enlightenment to be a misnomer, do you have a different name that better describes that period in history?

Shaykh Hamza: A better name for what happened in Western Europe in this period is the “Age of Escape from the Oppression of False Religion”. So the Age of Enlightenment, in reality, was the “Age of Escape from the Oppression of False Religion”. If we, as Muslims, were to write a history of Europe, that is what we would call it. When “Enlightened” societies turned away from God, religion, and from focusing on the afterlife, they did this because false religion was being used to oppress people. They saw this and they turned away from it. They didn’t find enlightenment through false religion so they left all religion. The path to true enlightenment would have been to leave false religion and adopt true religion, enlighten the mind with the light of revelation to take the soul towards the purpose for which it is created, namely to love, adore, and worship Allah, and to focus on the afterlife. But that path–on a large-scale, at least–has not yet been taken. I want to emphasize here that the Age of Enlightenment–as Western historians would call it–or the Age of Escape from the Oppression of False Religion–as we would call it–wasn’t bad or evil. It was an escape from something bad and it was a step in the right in the direction because it threw off the shackles of blind faith and sought to discover the truth through the mind. These are all admirable things that we agree with. But just as the false and oppressive religion of western Europe didn’t give us the purpose of life, humanism and modernism, as I explained just a little while ago, also didn’t give us the purpose of life. That’s why people disappointed in the modernist project have turned to postmodernism. But postmodernism, too, doesn’t give us the purpose of life because it is anti-reason, and it is anti-purpose–that is the reality of the postmodern age and postmodernism. Postmodernism is, in many ways, even more entrenched in worldliness and even further from God and the afterlife than modernism was. So if we want the purpose of life, we need to turn to revelation, and to use that to turn with our souls towards Allah and the afterlife. Allah Most High says, “You prefer the life of this world even though the next life is better and more lasting.” (Qur’an, 87:16).

 

To be continued…


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.


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What Is the Reason for Our Being Created?

Answered by Shaykh Jamir Meah

Question: Assalamu alaykum

The purpose of our creation is to worship Allah. But He does not need our worship. So why did Allah create us in the first place?

Answer: Wa’alaykum assalam. Jazakum Allah khayr for your question.

Allah Most High says in the Qur’an, ‘I created the jinn and humankind only that they might worship Me’ [51:56].

It is true that God does not need our worship, but this does not negate the purpose of our existence. The question you have asked is common: If the purpose of our creation is to worship God, and God does not need our worship, then why did God create us in the first place?

The very brief answer to the question is that God’s Knowledge, Will, Power, and Wisdom are absolute and perfect. He willed to create us to know Him, and commanded us to believe in Him and to worship Him, and He willed that if we do so, we will attain to eternal bliss in the Hereafter, and this reward is from His Generosity and Favour towards us. All of this, is because God has willed it to be so and that it be done in this manner.

This question can also be delved into in great detail. We will try to summarize the most important points to elucidate the matter for you, as well as others who have the same question, insha’Allah.

1. Elements of Actions

In regards human actions, all acts return to 1) a motivation, reason, or need (‘ilatun gha’iyyah / al daf’i), 2) the purpose sought after to fulfil the need or desire (al gharad), 3) the actual fulfilment or conclusion of the act (al ghayah), and sometimes, 4) the benefit of the act (al Fa’ida).

Take for example, a person who makes a sandwich. They are motivated by a need or a desire (‘ilatun gha’iyyah / al dafi’); either hunger, to feed someone else, or for mere enjoyment, comfort etc. The purpose sought after from performing the action (al gharad) is a feeling of satiety or satisfaction. Once eaten, one has concluded the act and has a sense of fulfilment from the act, which in this case, they experience the actual feeling of satiety, satisfaction, pleasure etc. [al ghayah]. The benefit of making and eating the sandwich (al fa’ida) could be many; satisfaction, gaining strength and energy, feeling better emotionally, feeling restful, fulfilling another’s need or right, and so on.

Human acts comprise of the first 3 elements, and usually the 4th element (benefit). A person who acts without a need, purpose, or motivation is either fooling around (‘aabith) or not fully sound of mind (safih). For example, we could say that a person could make a sandwich just for the sake of making a sandwich, not due to a need or desire. They could even make it and throw it away, and do this throughout the day. However, no sensible person would do this, so it is not worth considering.

In regards God, we should know that His actions do not comprise of the first three elements; a motivation, reason, or need, a purpose sought after, or conclusion of the act [al ghayah].

What this means is that Gods actions are purely from the Divine Will. Why did God create you and me? Purely because He wanted to. Why did God create this world? Purely from the Divine Will. Why does He ask us to worship Him? Purely because He willed it to be so. Why will God punish some people and reward others? Simply because He willed and Purely because He is able to. Why do we pray 4 cycles of prayer in Dhur? Because that’s what God willed, and so on.

God is a volitional agent, meaning the Divine Will is affirmed, and this Will is Absolute. However, there is no motivating factor, need, or desire that drives Him to act and judge, and there is no actual end conclusion to His acts and commands that comes about from a purpose being fulfilled.

In fact, for God to act due to these reasons is an imperfection, and imperfections are impossible for a true God. The reason being is that a person who acts due to a need, to fulfil a desire within them, or are forced, or experience a sense of conclusion and fulfilment from an act, all of these are deficiencies or imperfections. They act to feel complete. On the other hand, a being who is absolute perfection can never be motivated by a desire or need to complete them. They are the total and full meaning of perfection and completeness, and therefore, they require nothing more to perfect them or complete them.

However, because God is All Knowing, All Wise, and Most Generous, element 4, the benefit of an act (al Fa’ida), holds true for God’s acts, and the benefits of Gods actions are immeasurable.

We should also note, that just because God’s actions and commands are void of a motivating factor, it does not mean in any way that His acts are void of Wisdom. Rather, like the immeasurable benefits to God’s acts and commands, there is perfect and absolute Wisdom in them also, and this Wisdom is perfect.

Because God’s knowledge, Will and Wisdom are perfect, there can be no better way of things happening, even if created being cannot perceive it. If created beings knew the reality of matters, they would not wish it in any other than the way that God has willed them.

This is Allah, our Lord, ‘Doer of whatever He wills’ [85:16]. He Wills and does as He pleases, and His Sovereignty of all things is absolute. ‘He cannot be questioned about what He does, but they will be questioned’ [21:23].

In summary, we should know that God has absolute Knowledge, Will, Power and Sovereignty over all things, to do as He pleases. This is the nature of a True God.

2. Cause and Effect

Out of His Absolute Knowledge, Wisdom, and Will, the Sunna of God (God’s way) is that things have a cause and effect. To earn money, we must work. To start a fire, we must rub wood together or light a match. In the same way, God has made it that in order to enter Paradise (effect), we must believe and worship Him (cause). However, we affirm that none of these cause and effect relationships are necessary in of themselves, and had God willed differently, He could have made these matters revolve around different relationships or no relationship at all. He could make have made everyone a believer and enter them into Paradise without struggle or test.

Because of this cause and effect relationship, if we want to succeed in the Hereafter, we have no choice but to work and do righteous deeds.

3. The Verse in Context and it’s Full Meaning

Now, in regards the verse, I created the jinn and humankind only that they might worship Me’, the first thing we can mention is that God created us and has ordered us to worship Him purely out of his Will. He was not motivated by a need or desire, nor in order to gain a sense of purpose or fulfilment, nor is He forced, all of which we have mentioned before. Our creation and the command to worship is first and foremost because God has willed it to be so in this way.

Secondly, to fully understand the verse, وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ, ‘I created the jinn and humankind only that they might worship Me’, it is important to read the chapter, al Dhariyat, in full. Previous to this verse, Allah Most High discusses, in order:

1. The disbelievers of Mecca who denied the Quran, the Hereafter, and He warns them of the grievous punishment that awaits them should they continue.

2. In contrast to disbelievers, Allah Most High then mentions the God-fearing believers, and reminds them of the promise of the pleasures and bliss of the Hereafter, in order to increase them in their faith and their desire for doing righteous works in this life.

3. Then, Allah informs man of His Omnipotence (al Qudra) and the Oneness of His Absolute Power, Ability, and Might, telling man to look for the signs of his Power and Ability that are manifest in the universe; the heavens and skies, mountains, land and seas, in the creation and form of man and jinn etc.

4. He Most High then mentions stories of the Prophets and their struggle with the rulers and disbelievers of their nations.

5. The chapter ends with the purpose of our existence, including the verse in question, which is to know Allah, to believe in Him as the One True Deity, and to worship Him alone with sincerity.

So in most of this chapter, God discusses and compares the disbelievers and the believers, threatening those who do evil with eternal perdition and reassuring those who do good with everlasting felicity.

Then, as a reminder to both groups, but particular to those who deny the Message, God is also is saying in the verse we are discussing, ‘I created the jinn and man to realise their full potential and be true believers, which entails affirming and worshipping the True God only. You were not created to worship other deities other than your One True Creator, and nor did I create you to be content, chase after, or be preoccupied with this world.

As Imam al Razi states, ‘After having described the state of the disbelievers, God mentions this verse to highlight the evil of their actions, in that they abandoned the worship of Allah while they were [in reality] created to only worship Him alone.’

Thirdly, as some of the Quranic commentators have mentioned, the first letter لِ in the words لِيَعْبُدُونِ , outwardly, and in regards Arabic grammar, indicates the Lam al Ta’lil,, the Lam of Motivation or Justification, taking the meaning of ‘to’ or ‘for’. For example, ‘I ate the sandwich to satiate my hunger’ ‘I made the sandwich for my lunch’. However, the reality of this letter Lam, according to Arabic rhetoric, is that it is the Lam al ‘Aqiba, the Lam of Conclusion or End Result, giving the meaning of ‘realisation’ or ‘attaining to’.

In this sense, the verse also takes on the meaning of ‘I created the jinn and humankind only that they may attain to being true believers and worshippers’. Mujahid stated that ‘Only that they might worship me’ means ‘Only that they may know Me’.

With these meanings, we further understand that ‘attaining to being those who Worship God’, and ‘knowing’ God is a way of perfecting ourselves and becoming complete, pure, and noble enough to enter into the Divine Presence, and see Him Most High, and enjoy His everlasting bliss in the Hereafter.

In conclusion, God is not simply saying to us, ‘The only reason why I created you all is so I can be worshipped by you’, but rather, He Most High is saying, ‘I created you all that you may know Who I am, Who it is that created you, and through this knowledge, belief, and worship of your One True God and Creator, you can attain to the lofty state of being true and complete believers and be of those who I will honour in the next life.’

All of these layers of meanings, and more, are present in this one small verse.

Now that the verse has been understood more fully, the question remains, why create us in the first place? We will discuss this now by referring to everything we have mentioned.

4. Why create us in the first place?

To answer this question, we may recall three points that we mentioned earlier:

1. That God has created us and ordered us to worship Him alone purely out of his Will. Therefore, on God’s behalf, there is no need or motivating factor behind His acts of creating or His commands, no purpose sought in of itself, and no conclusion or fulfilment that arises from His acts. At the same time, God’s Wisdom is Perfect.

2. God has created our existence on the basis of cause and affect relationships; do good and you will enter Paradise, do evil and you will enter Hellfire. This is how God has willed it. If He so willed, he could have entered the disbelievers in Paradise and the believers in Hellfire.

3. We mentioned that the fourth element of actions is the benefit of the act (al fa’ida), meaning the beneficial consequences that come about from actions, and that the benefits of God’s actions and commands are countless.

Whether we like it or not, we must do good to succeed in the next life. Our acts in this brief life on earth, namely our belief and worship, has been placed as a condition for our admission into the realm of perpetual and unimaginable bliss. Therefore, the ‘benefit’ of our actions are that we will enter paradise and earn God’s Pleasure. Unlike worldly benefits from actions, there are no benefits comparable to the eternal pleasures that await the people of Garden.

Yet, while our entering Paradise has been conditioned by doing good works on earth, the reality is that our works are a paltry payment for the inconceivable benefits, rewards, and pleasures of the Garden. More importantly, these meagre works of ours are not what will actually enter us into Paradise or earn the rewards therein. Rather, as the Prophet ﷺ said, ‘None of you will enter Paradise because of his deeds alone.’ [al Bukhari, Muslim]

So what is that will enter us into Paradise and grant us its benefits, if not our worldly actions?

The answer is that we will enter and enjoy Paradise purely due to the Mercy, Favour, Generosity, and unrestricted Bounty of God.

Further considerations

Given all the above, it is still common for a person to ask or wonder, ‘But why did He create me if He has no need for me? Is it only because He wanted to or He willed to? What if I didn’t want to be created? I didn’t have a choice in the matter, how is this fair?’ and many more questions of this nature.

A summary of my answers to these types of questions is as follows:

1. First, let us recall the verse, ‘Remember when your Lord said to the angels, “I am going to place a successive authority on earth.” They asked Allah, “Will You place in it someone who will spread corruption there and shed blood while we glorify Your praises and proclaim Your holiness?” Allah responded, “I know what you do not know”.’

This sentence, “I know what you do not know”, applies not only to angels, but to the jinn and to mankind, to you and me. God knows what we do not know. We have mentioned already that Allah’s Knowledge and Wisdom is Perfect.

2. If we could see with our eyes the ‘benefits’, blessings, and gifts descending upon us, or we saw the angels around us, or God spoke to us, no person would deny God or worship other than God. However, in this world, by means of a test, there are veils between us and God, between us and the Unseen, whether the veils be preoccupation with world affairs, wealth, ego, satan, or other matters.

Because people experience these veils and cannot see beyond them, and are instead commanded to have faith and persevere, we ask these types of questions. Because we experience a life of struggle, ups and downs, uncertainties, and upheaval, we ask these types of questions. If God granted everyone on earth a life of opulent, luxury, happiness and pleasure, and other gifts close to one’s heart’s desires, even if they could not actually see God and the Unseen, no one would be asking the question, ‘Why did God have to create me?!’ or complain that ‘I didn’t choose this existence’!!

3. It is common for people who have gone through struggles in this life to look back and say, ‘even though it was hard, I would not change the past.’ Of course, this may not be the case with severe suffering, trauma, particularly violence and abuse etc., but these statements are common. The point is, suffering and hardship is very often a means to appreciate and experience life in a new and meaningful way, that would not have been possible before the suffering, and is a chance to return to God with all our focus and devotion, which ultimately benefits us, and not God. These struggles are not in vain, and are in accordance with God’s Knowledge and Wisdom. He knows what we do not know about the reality of our burdens.

4. While in this life we struggle, when a person enters Paradise and sees what eternal pleasure, delight, joy, happiness, spiritual and physical bliss they have been given, even the person who suffered the most in this life, would not say ‘Why did you create me in the first place?!’ or ‘I did not ask for this!’.

Rather, the unimaginable bliss they will feel, which will be far above and beyond any equal compensation for their worldly suffering, will only make them say, in true sincerity and conviction, ‘Praise be to God, who created me and granted me all this for eternity, out of His Pure Generosity and Favour!’

At this point, we will realise what we did not know, and we would not prefer our existence to have been any different than it was, and we will know for certain that Allah’s Wisdom, Will and Decree are perfect.

Conclusion

In conclusion, God did not create us simply because he wanted beings to worship Him, nor without Divine Wisdom, Love, and Generosity.

Rather, we were created in order to live up to our full potential and noble rank as Gods representatives on earth (khalifah), which necessarily means knowing and believing in God, worshipping the One who created and sustains us, and in so doing this, God will enter us into eternal felicity, through his Generosity and Favour. For jinn and man to worship other than the One who created them and sustains them in every moment of their existence, is not what they have been created for and is a grave deviation from the truth.

God created us in accordance with His Divine Knowledge and Wisdom (‘I know what you do not know’), and has chosen to honour and raise the rank of the righteous amongst His creation, by entering them into an everlasting abode, in order that He may bestow His Favours upon them, grant them with perpetual pleasure and delight, and host them in a life ever-lasting. All of this, purely out of his Bounteousness and Generosity, and not because we have earned it. No person who enters Paradise will wish that they never existed or that their existence was any different to what God had willed for them.

Therefore, from our initial inception into existence to our final settlement in the Lasting Abode, it is exclusively because God has willed it to be, that it be done in this specific way, and this is out of His Love, Generosity, and Mercy for us, as well in accordance with His Infinite Knowledge, Wisdom, and Absolute Perfection in all things.

And all Praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.

[Hashiyat al Susi, al Bahr al Muhit, Tahdhib Sharh al Sanussiya, al Iqtisad fil I’tiqad, Tafsir al Razi, Tafsir al Badawi, Tafisr al Qurtabi, Safwat al Tafasir].

Warmest salams,

[Shaykh] Jamir Meah

Shaykh Jamir Meah grew up in Hampstead, London. In 2007, he traveled to Tarim, Yemen, where he spent nine years studying the Islamic sciences on a one-to-one basis under the foremost scholars of the Ribaat, Tarim, with a main specialization and focus on Shafi’i fiqh. In early 2016, he moved to Amman, Jordan, where he continues advanced studies in a range of Islamic sciences, as well as teaching. Jamir is a qualified homeopath.

Rethinking Islamic Education – Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad

Cambridge professor Shaykh Abdul Hakim Murad, an expert on Islamic education discusses the idea of intellect and its connection to religious thinking.

What is a good Islamic education? Is religion a series of beliefs simply memorized and passed down from generation to generation? Is it a Scripture and doctrine that is pliable and can be molded to our intellect and desires? What role does reasoning and intellect play in our religious practices? What role does practices and tradition play in our religious reasoning?

Resources for Seekers

The Concept of Faith in Islam – by Habib Ali al-Jifri – Full book (English and Arabic) in PDF

The Concept of Faith in Islam – Habib Ali al-Jifri

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Download the pdf of The Concept of Faith in Islam by Habib Ali al-Jifri: English // Arabic

 

Habib Ali al-Jifri states in the introduction:

 

We will consider the topic of the concept of faith by means of the following points:

1. Faith (iman) in its lexical and technical meanings.

2. The meaning of faith, and its articles.

3. The levels of surrender (islam), faith (iman) and excellence (ihsan).

4. The relationship between excellence and surrender and faith.

5. The increase and decrease of faith.

6. Aspects of the effect of faith on actions and vice versa.

7. An explanation of the six articles of faith.

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Other titles published by Mabda, and available in PDF:

http://www.rissc.jo

Download the pdf of The Concept of Faith in Islam by Habib Ali al-Jifri: English // Arabic

The Role of the Intellect with Respect to Revelation & Religion – Shaykh al-Bouti

“The intellect is the instrument of determining the soundness of transmission; of understanding its content; of reaching understanding of the meanings being indicates. The intellect is, thus, like a lamp that illuminates the milestones of the path for the traveller.” [Shaykh Bouti .. الدكتور البوطي :

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https://www.fikr.com/bouti/ftwa.php]

 

إن العقل أداة للوثوق بصحة ورود النقل، ثم هو أداة لفهم مضمونه، وإدراك المعنى الذي يدل عليه. فهو كالمصباح إذ ينير معالم الطريق أمام السائر.

Faith & Reason: Emotion is not Enough by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Faith & Reason: Emotion is not Enough

By Faraz Rabbani

“When those bombs exploded in London, I felt my faith itself rocked,” confessed a friend of mine. Many people find their beliefs shaken by the flow of events, in their own lives or in society. Why? It would appear that most people’s religious commitment is based largely upon emotion— rather than knowledge, understanding, or spiritual realization. The danger with emotions is that they are fickle. The “heart” is termed qalb in Arabic because it is given to taqallub— “turning over completely”. Thus, a heart only emotionally attached to religion can suddenly find itself swept away by worldly concerns, or shaken and left without religious inspiration.

The Prophet Muhammad (May God him and give him peace) said that, “Whomever Allah wishes well for, He gives deep understanding (fiqh) in matters of religion” (Bukhari 71, Muslim 1037). This fiqh (deep understanding) is knowledge that is coupled with understanding —‘ilm is to know something; fiqh is to know something deeply, with understanding. Imam Nasafi, the great Hanafi jurist and exegete, explained that this deep understanding has a transformative effect—if true, it invariably results in action, for the one who truly understands acts in accordance with their realization. This acting—with the hearts and limbs —is likely to be consistent and steadfast, because it results from deep understanding. On the other hand, action based on the impulses of emotion is like student activism—one sees a flurry of activity for a period of time, and then it ends when one “moves on” in life with marriage, a career, and related concerns.

Even more dangerous than loss of religious commitment is the losing of one’s very faith. Laqani says in his creed, fa kullu man qallada fi’t tawhidi / imanuhu lam yakhlu min tardidi, or “Whoever believes through mere following / Their faith is not safe from creeping doubts.”



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