Osama: Let’s begin by connecting this conversation to our previous one, in which we talked about the purpose of life. My first question is: Is it the purpose of our life to truly love the Divine?
Shaykh Hamza: Yes, Allah says in the Quran:
وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الجِنَّ وَالاِنْسَ اِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُوْنِ
“I only created jinn and mankind so that they might worship Me.”
This worship (‘ibadah) of Allah is closely tied to the idea of loving (mahabbah) Allah.
To worship Him means to love Him, it means to know Him.
The acts of obedience that we do in order to worship Him are an expression of our love for Allah.
The purpose of our existence is to worship Allah, and this worship is adoration, and so the purpose of our existence is to love Allah but not in the way that many might imagine, and maybe this leads into your question about true love.
Osama: The ayah of the Koran that you cited specifically mentions the term worship (‘ibadah).
How are the concepts of knowing (ma’rifah) and loving (muhabbah) Allah related to worshipping (‘ibadah) Him?
Shaykh Hamza: In the Arabic language, the concept of worship (‘ibadah) is linguistically related to the concept of slavehood (‘ubudiyyah). Both of them share the triliteral root ‘ayn–ba’–dal. The relation between the two words is that worship (‘ibadah) is the expression of our slavehood to Allah.
I once heard Shaykh Abu Munir (may Allah Most High preserve him), the personal servant of the late Shaykh ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shaghouri, explain that there are four kinds of slaves:
This last kind of slavehood is the highest kind of slavehood. And this is how love (muhabba) is related to slavehood (‘ubudiyyah).
Love (muhabba) is also related to the idea of knowing Allah (ma’rifah), which, in turn, is also related to the idea of slavehood (‘ubudiyyah).
The Companion Ibn ‘Abbas (Allah be pleased with him) explained the verse, “I only created jinn and mankind so that they might worship me.” as, “I only created jinn and mankind so that they might know me.” He explained worship, in other words, as knowledge of Allah Most High.
Knowing Allah (ma’rifah) means to experientially realize that He is the Master of every single atom in the universe, that He created the universe from nothing, and that He needs nothing, and that everything else needs Him. This is not just a conceptual realization in the mind, but a realization in one’s heart that pervades one’s soul. So when one knows Allah as He really is, there’s a beauty to the being of Allah that the heart perceives and falls in love with.
The Sufis have a famous saying:
مَنْ عَرَفَ نَفْسَهُ عَرَفَ رَبَّهُ
Whoever knows himself knows His Lord.
This means that whoever knows that he is a needy, indigent slave, will realize thereby that he has a Lord who doesn’t need anything, is Powerful, and everything that he has comes from His Lord.
The scholars of Sufism describe and teach that the deepest knowledge of who Allah is does not come through the mind but through the heart. He is known through realizing one’s neediness to Him. That’s the knowledge of Allah–it’s a realization. This knowledge can only exist if there is submission and slavehood, if there is a feeling of one’s neediness, and a realization of His Power, His Might, His Will, His Kindness, His Generosity, His Forgiveness, and–ultimately–His Godhood. It can only come if those things are realized in the heart.
Conceptually, slavehood (‘ubudiyyah) to Allah is different from loving (mahabbah) Allah, which is different from knowing (ma’rifah) Allah, but whenever one is there, the other two are also there, and each enriches the others. Since they are always found together, one can use them interchangeably, and one can say that the purpose of our life is to know Allah, to love Him, or to worship Him.
Osama: In simple terms, could you kindly provide working definitions for each term?
Shaykh Hamza: The scholars of tafsir define the worship of Allah as the utmost expression of lowering and humiliating oneself to the object of one’s worship. The best outward expression of it is the prostration. When we prostrate, we take the most honorable parts of our body–the face and the head–and we put them down on the ground before Allah. By doing this, we are lowering and humiliating ourselves completely before Allah. This is the essence of worship.
To a modern humanist reader, the idea of humiliating oneself before God might sound unpleasant, but it is, in fact, extremely pleasant. As I explained above, submitting to God is sweet but submitting to a human being is bitter. In the same way, humiliating oneself to God is sweet, but humiliating oneself to another human being is bitter.
When we humiliate ourselves before God, we fulfill the purpose of our existence, which is to worship Allah, and in return, Allah Most High honours us because He is the Most Generous. When we humiliate ourselves before Allah, He raises our rank. When we realize our weakness, He aids us with His Power. When we realize our ignorance, He aids us with His Knowledge.
This is worship.
As for the knowledge of Allah (ma’rifah), Ibn ‘Ajibah in his lexicon of Sufi terms, defines it as perpetually witnessing Allah with a heart that is madly in love. The “perpetual witnessing” (mushahadah) that Ibn ‘Ajiba has mentioned in his definition of love also has a definition, but the challenge with Sufi definitions is that they describe a reality that is not shared by everyone, and so as we go from definition to definition, we might find that we don’t really get anywhere. The way to understand the realities that the Sufis are defining is to undergo a spiritual development and then experience them for oneself.
Definitions work for concepts that are in the public domain, meaning concepts that can be understood by everyone regardless of their spiritual development. For example, the human being is commonly defined as a “rational animal.” We all understand the meaning of “rational” and we all understand the meaning of “animal. Therefore we all understand what a “rational animal” is and the definition of “human being” helps us understand what a human being is.
But spiritual experiences are personal experiences that are not shared by everyone. When someone who has had an experience tries to define it for someone else, the definitions will only be useful for someone who has had the same experience, or, perhaps, someone who is on the verge of having that same experience. For the rest of us, they don’t lead to a full understanding of the term that is being defined, but only an approximate understanding. This is something we should keep in mind when defining these terms.
Let’s return to the definition of the knowledge of Allah, which used the term “perpetual witnessing” of Allah (mushahadah). Elsewhere in his dictionary of Sufi terms, Ibn ‘Ajibah defines “perpetual witnessing” as the witnessing of the heart as a result of one’s indigence, which is only realised vis-a-vis Allah Most High’s being completely free of need from everything besides.
Osama: Could one potentially say that knowing Allah (realization of one’s indigence to Allah) leads one to loving Him?
Shaykh Hamza: Yes, one could understand it like that.
Osama: Now that we have gone over the distinction between the ideas of knowing, loving, and worshipping Allah, I’d like to return to the main question of this conversation: What is true love?
Shaykh Hamza: Right, so you’re asking me about what “true love” is. However, before we get into that discussion, I’m interested in knowing why you have used the adjective “true” here. It seems to imply that there is a kind of love that is false. I agree with this distinction, but I’d like to know what, in your mind, is the concept of “false love”?
Osama: Well, when I think of love, what immediately comes to mind is human love, an example of which is the kind that exists between a man and a woman. Often, however, one sees that a person may claim “love” yet still harm their “beloved.” One naturally wonders in such a situation about the genuineness and truth of such a person’s “love” for their “beloved” — this then brings up the distinction of “false love” versus “true love”.
You are probably better aware than I of the distinction that scholars make between a lustful sort of attraction to another as opposed to one that is grounded in love for the other. The lustful sort of attraction for the other often superficially adorns itself with the outward mantle of love yet is empty of its inward reality. This might explain why a person claiming love can harm their beloved; it is probably because they have mistaken lust for love.
“True love”, it seems, has the element of effacing the ego, prioritizing the happiness of the beloved over the self, and self-sacrifice, whereas “false love”, or lust in this case, is a type of aggrandizement of the ego, prioritizing the happiness of the self over the beloved, and an objectification of the other.
This is what comes to my mind when I think of the distinction between “true love” and “false love”.
Shaykh Hamza: That’s very good! The Sufis talk about human emotions. They talk about emotions like love, gratitude, envy, and anger. These emotions have been placed within us because they find their true meaning in relation to Allah.
A righteous person, like any other human being, feels love, anger, good envy (wishing for something good without wishing that it be taken away from anyone else), gratitude, but the way in which those emotions are realized for a pious person is different to the way in which they are realized for the common person. The point here is that we can understand what these emotions mean with respect to Allah if we step back for a moment to understand what they mean in relation to other human beings.
I once heard from Shaykh Abu Munir that someone came to one of the great spiritual guides of recent times to take the Sufi path from Him in order to draw close to Allah. So the spiritual guide asked him, “Have you ever loved something in your life, even if only a cat?” to which the man replied, “No.” and the spiritual guide ordered him to leave and not return until he had loved something because if someone who seeks Allah Most High doesn’t know what it means anything, then he won’t be able to learn what it means to love Allah.
One of the things that this story shows is that Allah Most High created all of our emotions within is for a great wisdom. We need all of them. Someone who is close to Allah Most High isn’t someone who is devoid of emotion. Rather, someone who is close to Allah is someone who has all of his human emotions, but attaches them to Allah Most High. His emotions are all for the sake of Allah. When that happens, our full human potential is realized, and we flower. This is how the human being finds the purpose of his existence.
Osama: So what is true love with respect to other human beings?
Shaykh Hamza: The global monoculture has done away with true love. Most of us no longer understand what it means to truly love another human being. This was, however, understood very well by the ancient Arabians, even before the advent of the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace). The ancient Arabians were a people who loved poetry, and in their poetry, they loved to write about love. We’ll read some of their poetry today.
In ancient Arabian poetry, there is a kind of love that is called “the love of the tribe of Bani ‘Udhrah” (al-hubb al-‘udhri). Let’s call it, “‘Udhrian love.”
There’s a famous line in the Burda of al-Busiri towards the beginning of the poem where the author of the Burda describes what his love for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) has done to him–he says that his has turned pale and that he is crying tears of blood. He has an imaginary conversation with someone who blames him for wasting his life in this kind of love, so he says to his blamer:
O you who blames me, in ‘Udhrian love, I ask you to excuse me.
But if you were fair and objective, then you would never blame me.
In other words, if you understood what I was going through, then you wouldn’t blame me, but rather, you would feel sorry for me, help me, and support me.
Osama: Could you please describe what you mean by ‘Udhrian love?
Shaykh Hamza: Bani ‘Udhra were a tribe from Yemen. Now, there is a sahih hadith in which the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) said that the people of Yemen have very tender hearts. Perhaps one of the manifestations of this tenderness was the love of Bani ‘Udhra.
They say that when the men of the Bani ‘Uzrah tribe fell in love with a woman, they would wither away and die. This often happened when they were unable to marry the woman they loved because, for example, her father had accepted the proposal of some other suitor. There are stories about people from Bani ‘Udhra dying in this manner from the time of the Companions. They would become silent, not speak to anyone for a year, lie in bed, be immobile, compose poetry (often cryptic except to those who knew what they were suffering from), and, eventually, die. This long illness and death was the mark of ‘Udhrian love.
You might wonder how true love and death are related. Someone who is truly in love doesn’t want anything for himself. If there is anything that he wants for himself, then he is an impostor, he is someone making a false claim, and he is someone who has a selfish motive, he is someone who is trying to take advantage of another person.
The Sufis use imagery of human love as a metaphor to describe the love that a human being has for Allah. So they tell the story of a man who went to a woman and told her that he loved her and that he finds her very beautiful. She replied that he should turn around and look in the other direction where her sister is standing because her sister was even more beautiful than her. When the man turned around, there was no one there. When he turned back to the woman, she slapped him and told him to get lost. It turned out that there was no sister. She had only been testing the genuineness of his love.
The lesson of the story is that someone who is truly in love doesn’t even turn to look at anyone else. This goes back to the definition of knowing Allah that we just talked about–we read that someone who knows Allah Most High is perpetually witnessing Him. His witnessing is perpetual because he doesn’t turn to look at anything else.
Now, I’m just describing what the Sufis say because I find it beautiful, not because I am actually realized in any of it. Imam al-Shafi’i used to say:
أُحِبُّ الصَّالِحِيْنَ وَلَسْتُ مِنْهُمُ لَعَلِّي أَنْ أَنَالَ بِهِم شَفَاعَه
وَأَكْرَهُ مَنْ تِجَارَتُهُ المَعَاصِي وَلَوْ كُنَّا سَوَاءً فِي البِضَاعَه
I love the righteous, even though I’m not one of them,
It maybe that because of them I will find on the Day of Judgement that they will intercede for me,
I hate the one who trades in acts of disobedience
even though we trade in the same kinds of goods.
The only thing they want is the beloved, and they’ll give up everything they have–even themselves–for the beloved in order to express their love, even if it means that they wither away and die, because the point of life is the beloved and nothing else. Giving your soul out of love for the beloved is the ultimate expression of love.
The Sufis have many different definitions for love. One of these definitions is that love is when you prefer the one you love over yourself. That’s why when someone truly loves Allah, their love will reveal itself as outward obedience to Allah Most High. They will do what He has commanded and shun what He has forbidden:
تَعْصِي الإِله وَأنْتَ تُظْهِرُ حُبَّهُ هذا محالٌ في القياس بديعُ
لَوْ كانَ حُبُّكَ صَادِقاً لأَطَعْتَهُ إنَّ الْمُحِبَّ لِمَنْ يُحِبُّ مُطِيعُ
You disobey God while showing to others that you love Him,
This is something that is outrageously impossible,
If your love for Him was true, then you would have obeyed Him,
Verily, the lover is utterly obedient to the one who he loves.
If a lover hears what their beloved wants, they rush to go and do it. They prefer what their beloved wants to what they themselves want.
By the grace of Allah Most High, I haven’t listened to modern pop music for a long, long time. But sometimes when you walk into a store, there’s something playing, and when you listen to what’s being said, it’s usually about what the singer imagines to be love. The singer sings about kissing, hugging, and needing the beloved, etc. This is not true love! Love is not what you want the other person to do for you; love is when you want to do everything for the other person, and this is what ‘Udhrian love illustrates.
Nobody understood love except for the ancient Arabians, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons why Allah Most High chose them to be the people who would carry His final revelation all over the world.
Osama: You mentioned that the lover wants to give up everything for the Beloved, in other words, a lover has unconditional love for their beloved. Now, on this point, modern Christian philosophers like William Lane Craig, point out that Islam’s God is not as loving as the God of Christianity because the God of Islam hates disbelievers, sinners, and transgressors. People like that point out that if a human being can have such great capacity for unconditional love, of which many examples were cited in our conversation, why does the God of Islam not have such a capacity? If He did, they argue, there would be no suffering, nor would there be people who would be destined to go to the Hellfire forever and ever.
Shaykh Hamza: Someone who asks these questions is really far from being in love.
Let’s return to the example of human love, if you were to talk to a marriage prospect and tell her that they don’t really love you, and that you expect her to love you because women these days don’t love their husbands, and that if they women truly loved their husbands, then they would take care of them and listen to them (smiles) … You then go on to tell her that you were recently in a conversation with [Shaykh] Hamza who told me that the lover is the one who listens to everything that her husband says, and I won’t stand for it if you don’t listen to me and love me (laughs). What do you think she will say? She will probably say, “Go to Hell!”
Now Allah Most High is not like a human being, so you have to delete the example of your prospective wife from your mind, but if someone goes to Him and tells Him that they expect Him to love them, then Allah Most High will not just tell them, “Go to Hell!”, he will actually throw them into Hell!
The type of thinking that you have described comes from having the idea of love all wrong.
The starting point is not going to God and saying that you don’t love me, and you must do such and such thing for me. This is how this ties in with knowing Allah and worshipping Him. True love for Allah is this selfless love that is like the love of people of Banu ‘Udhra. It is a giving of oneself completely to Allah, wanting Him, and doing anything for Him.
The imagery that the Sufis use for this is a lover who is wooing his beloved. There is a woman who you are in love with, you say to her that you will do anything for her, and you want her to marry you, but she says that she’s not interested. When women say that they are not interested, this is not what they mean, what they’re really doing is that they are testing you.
Here’s a marriage tip for you: if your wife decides not to show much interest in you, it means that she wants you to chase after her. Women love to be chased after and wooed. And the act of chasing after one’s wife (or wife-to-be) and wooing her is something that Allah Most High has made natural to men.
This is why the imagery that the Sufis use for our loving Allah Most High is a that of a lover who is wooing his beloved.
There is a qasidah (poem) ascribed to Shaykh Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi (Allah have mercy on him), in which he says:
أَيُّهَا العَاشِقُ مَعْنَى حُسْنِنَا مَهْرُنَا غَالٍ لِمَنْ يَخْطِبُنَا
جَسَدٌ مُضْنَى وَرُوْحٌ فِي العَنَا وَجُفُوْنٌ لَا تَذُوْقُ الوَسَنَا
O you who are in love with our beauty, the bride price is high for the one who is proposing to us:
an emaciated body, a soul that is in longing, and eyes that will never taste sleep.
The beauty of Allah, here, is a reference to His necessary existence, the fact that He is need of no one while everyone is in need of Him.
The emaciated body, here, is a mark of ‘Udhrian love, as the lover (that’s us!) is withering away in love because of the long nights of worship and days of fasting that he knows Allah Most High loves.
The soul in longing, here, is one in difficulty and distress because it is longing for the Beloved, and because the Beloved is not coming, the soul is begging, longing, and pleading by vowing that it will do anything just to be with the Beloved.
The eyes that don’t taste sleep, here, they say that when somebody is in love like that, then they are thinking of their beloved all night and for those who are seeking Allah this finds expression in worshipping Him at night.
This is the price that we need to pay: we give something, and Allah asks for more, so we give more, and He asks for more, and we are constantly knocking at His door, and this is a test from Allah to see whether or not we truly love Him or not. If we are like that man who looked away to look at the more beautiful sister, then we are turning away from Allah, and we have shown Him that we don’t deserve to be with Him. But, if we persist, then eventually the door will be opened, and we will be with Allah. This is the ultimate quest for the seeker: to be with the beloved.
Now, going back to your question, that question is asked by someone who doesn’t deserve the love of Allah. If you were to talk to any other human being like that, they would tell you to get lost. The same applies, with greater force, to Allah.
Allah Most High says in the Qur’an:
Allah loves the godfearing. (Qur’an, 3:76)
Godfearingness entails that one protects oneself from the wrath of Allah Most High. So the love of Allah is connected with His fear. We love Him, yet we fear Him. How can you love someone that you fear?
We fear Him because He is dangerous, He can send us to the Hellfire.
We love Him because despite the fact that we deserve nothing, He still showers us with His blessings and promises us with paradise even though we don’t deserve to go there, and also because He is Beautiful so we love Him. Within this love there is a sense of undeservedness.
In the question that you cited, however, there is no sense of undeservedness. To the contrary, there is every sense of deservedness.
To summarize, the answer to this question is that it is what logicians call a “loaded question”. For example, if Allah loves us, then why is there suffering? This question assumes many things: it assumes that Allah loves us, it assumes that if He loves us then there will be no suffering, and it assumes that we don’t need to do anything, that all we need to do is sit back and wait to be loved by demanding it. All of these assumptions are false, and we don’t agree with them. We hope that Allah loves us, but we need to earn His love.
The love of Allah is not a given; it is something that needs to be earned, and so in the famous hadith of wilayah in the Forty Nawawi, Allah says:
My servant doesn’t draw closer to Me with anything more Beloved to me than the things that I have made obligatory, and He continues to draw closer to Me with non-obligatory acts until I love Him.
This hadith tells us how to be someone who Allah loves. If we want Allah Most High to love us, then we must do what He has made obligatory on us and then do even more than that. The hadith continues and then describes the experiential knowledge of Allah that comes when the love is there. That is why knowledge, love, and worship are related.
Allah created us to love Him, and He described to us how we tread that path to love Him. When we tread that path to love Him, then He loves us, but people who don’t tread that path to love Allah and turn away from Allah by being arrogant and by being at war with Him, these people Allah doesn’t love.
So does Allah love us? Well, none of us will know until we die, and if we complete our lives as people who Allah loves, then the answer is yes, and if we die as people who Allah doesn’t love, then the answer is no. That’s how we need to look at the problem.
The type of thinking in your question is a result of the Humanist and Enlightenment thought that we have talked about in our previous conversations. This type of thinking is human-centered and focused on “I, Me, My, Now, and My terms”, and somebody who does that cannot fulfill the purpose of their existence because they don’t know themselves. We saw that the one who knows himself, knows his Lord. So this person, he thinks that he is something great whereas we are not something that great; as long as someone thinks that they are someone great, then they won’t know Allah because to know Him they need to feel that they are nothing, and only then will they see that Allah is everything.
The God-centered view is not “I, Me, My, Now, and My terms”; it is “You, You, You, and You”, and when we look at the world like that, then we find the purpose of our existence.
Osama: I have some lines here in which a lover expresses his love for his beloved:
Whether you accept,
Whether you love,
with a gift,
I’ll always remain standing,
by your door,
yearning for nothing,
but a gaze.
my failings have shattered countless times,
yet I hold onto it despite it’s imperfection.
I have nothing to give,
besides this gift of which I speak:
‘tis my heart.
Now, in these lines which were inspired by a song, the writer admits his failing of not being able to express his love in just the right way, but he says that he will always keep trying and hoping that maybe one day the beloved will accept him despite his imperfection. This, it seems, is an expression of the indigence and neediness of the lover in front of the beloved. Is this the type of indigence that we want to have in front of Allah?
Shaykh Hamza: Yes, absolutely. The lines are a beautiful expression of true love, and that is exactly what we need to do in front of Allah’s door to keep on trying to show our love. The Sufis would use lines such as these to express their relationship to Allah. This goes back to what we said earlier about human emotions; the spark needs to be there through one’s relationship with other human beings, and this then gets redirected to Allah. That spark is there in these lines, and when one sees that and feels it, then one needs to come to the realization that this can truly be realized with respect to Allah.
Osama: Good actions, it seems, like the gift of which the lines speak, should not be looked at as a means that entail and justify Allah’s love. Rather, it seems that when one does good outward actions, it must be coupled with knowledge of one’s imperfection, and too with complete indigence to Allah in hope that He may accept one’s worship as an expression of one’s love and slavehood.
Often we find that we as people practicing religion, instead of viewing our actions as imperfect, and having hope in Allah that He will accept them despite their imperfection, we sometimes look upon our actions with pride.
How can we correct this?
Shaykh Hamza: Worship has an inward element (knowing and loving) and an outward element (doing something with the limbs). When we talked about knowing and loving Allah and their relation to worshipping Him, we saw that they are all related and are found together.
So what I think you are trying to describe is that when there is outward worship but the other two inward elements aren’t there, then it is not true worship — there is something that is off. It might appear to be worship but it is not.
Someone might have a long beard, they might recite Quran, they might give religious lectures, they might appear to be religious, they might tell others to be religious, they might be a religious figure, and they might be calling people to worship Allah, but, even though they are doing all of these things, it may be that they don’t know what it means to worship Allah because their actions are making them proud and causing them to look down on others. Perhaps they feel entitled, or that other people should respect them, or that they should give them deference because they feel that they are people of God. This happens, and has been happening for a long time.
Imam al-Ghazali, when he wrote his magnum opus, one of the best books ever written in Islam, Ihya ‘ulum al-din, which means, “Bringing the religious sciences back to life,” when he wrote this book, he gave it this name because he believed that people like this had caused the religious sciences to die. So somebody who studies Sacred Law or tafsir or some other religious science, but their study doesn’t humble them, nor is their studying and teaching an expression of loving Allah, then what they are doing is just an outward form without the inner reality. The people who they teach feel and see that the inner reality is missing, and they are driven away from such people. This is what happened in an extreme form to the Christian Church before the Enlightenment, as we discussed in our previous conversations. That’s why people were driven away from religion. The people of religion were people they hated and detested because they were using religion for their own selfish motives. So when a religious person uses worship and obedience for his own selfish motive in order to be high in the eyes of other people, or for him to be higher in his own mind over other people, then the worship is not there — it is outward movement but the inward reality is not there. The inward reality of worship is that it is an expression of one’s love to Allah, one is giving one’s self up for Him. So when that is missing, then something is off.
Imam Malik has a famous statement:
Whoever studies Sacred Law and doesn’t study Spirituality becomes a transgressor, whereas someone who studies Spirituality and doesn’t study Sacred Law becomes a heretic. The one who joins between them both is realized.
The person who studies Sacred Law and doesn’t study Spirituality disobeys Allah inwardly through the outward actions that he is doing that seem to be obedience, whereas the one who studies Spirituality and doesn’t study Sacred Law disobeys Allah outwardly because he doesn’t keep to the limits that Allah has set. The one who joins between them both is realized; this is what you were referring to when you spoke about “balancing” the letter and the spirit.
We need the outward form with the inner reality. That’s what the line of poetry was in reference to:
تَعْصِي الإِله وَأنْتَ تُظْهِرُ حُبَّهُ هذا محالٌ في القياس بديعُ
لَوْ كانَ حُبُّكَ صَادِقاً لأَطَعْتَهُ إنَّ الْمُحِبَّ لِمَنْ يُحِبُّ مُطِيعُ
You disobey God while showing to others that you love Him,
This is something that is outrageously impossible,
If your love for Him was true, then you would have obeyed Him,
Verily, the lover is utterly obedient to the one who he loves.
The one who has inward love has outward obedience. This means that if love is there, then the outward will be there. If the outward is not there, then it means that the love is not there inside. And if the outward is there, that doesn’t guarantee the love, but you need to take the means to bring that about as well.
Osama: Love, it seems, is more of a continuum as opposed to an attainment that one achieves. Can one ever claim to have attained unto the absolute love of the Divine?
Shaykh Hamza: I certainly don’t know the answer to that question.
Osama: We’ve established that when one inwardly knows and loves one’s beloved, then the outward sign of it is obedience, and this obedience can sometimes even make one wither away like the people of Bani ‘Udhra because of the selflessness that it entails. Related to this, the Sufis point out in their poetry that in reality Allah is both the Lover (muhibb) and the Beloved (mahbub); if this so, how does Allah’s Love manifest itself for His Beloved creation?
Shaykh Hamza: Theologically, this question is problematic because when you ask a “how” question with respect to Allah, then what you are seeking to do is understand Allah in human terms. That is why frequently, theologians, when they talk about Allah they say “bila kayf”, which means “without any modality”, which means that He doesn’t resemble anything that we have experienced.
As an example, we will see Allah in Paradise, but bila kayf, without modality, without “how”, because the meaning of the question “How?” is, “Of the things that I have experienced, which one does this resemble?” So when someone asks you, “How does honey taste?”, you say “Like sugar.”, and your response is only understood by someone who has experienced the taste of sugar, otherwise they won’t understand. So what you are trying to do is that you are giving an analogue, you are giving something similar. The answer to a “How?” question is: “Like something else.”. So with regards to Allah, the “how” is not something that we can understand with the mind.
Let’s start with theology: in the science of ‘aqidah, there are two approaches.
Allah, He says in the Quran:
Allah loves the godfearing. (Qur’an, 3:76)
What does it mean for God to love?
The theologians, they will say that the reality of love is a change that comes about in the heart. So, when you fall in love with somebody, there is a pain that you feel in the heart, there is an emotional change that happens in the heart. Then, when this emotional change happens, then it drives you to do for the beloved, for the one you love, whatever it is that they love.
There are a number of divine attributes that are described in human terms. Take, for example, His Mercy. Mercy for us is a tenderness of the heart that you feel when, for example, you see a poor man that passes by. When that happens, your heart becomes tender, and this emotional change, i.e. your heart becoming tender, drives you to put your hand in your pocket to give that poor man some money. He is also described as being Grateful (al-Shakur). You become grateful as a result of an emotional change that comes about in your heart when somebody does you a favour, and this drives you to return their favour.
When Allah is described in these terms, we subtract the emotional change aspect from the description because Allah is perfect and therefore He does not change. We interpret these things to mean the consequences, the end-result of the emotional change. So, when you love someone, then you do for them what they love. When Allah loves us, then He does for us what we would love for Him to do to us, but there is no emotional change on His part because Allah is Perfect and does not change. When Allah has Mercy on us, He fulfills our needs, but there is no emotional change. When Allah is Grateful to us, He rewards us for the good deeds that we do, but there is no emotional change.
This is what the theologians do. They are good at telling you what Allah is not. At the end, then, what you’re left with is not a lot of difference between Allah’s Love, His Gratitude, and His Mercy because all of them return to giving us things that we desire so you might as well use one name for all of them.
So what I just described was the approach of ta’weel, figurative interpretation. This is a particular type of figurative interpretation called majaz mursal, which is explained in detail by the scholars of balaghah, or Arabic eloquence.
Another approach to such names that seem to describe Him in ways that seem to imply that He resembles His creation is to start off by denying that He resembles His creation (so you deny that there is any emotional change), and to then consign the meaning to Allah Most High. You say, “Allah knows what it means; I don’t know what it means.” This is called tafwid.
The Sufis like this approach because, they say that as one comes closer to Allah, one experiences the meanings of these Names in an inexpressible way, one comes to understand the meaning of Allah’s love in an inexpressible way.
You alluded to something about Allah being the Beloved and the Lover in your question. This is how some Sufis express their experience of Allah’s Love in their poetry. What they say is that our Love for Allah transforms into a realization of our complete dependence on Allah. It transforms into a realization that the love we have in our hearts is something that Allah has created within us; it transforms into a realization of forgetting about oneself and focusing only on the Beloved; it transforms into a realization in which one loses one’s identity. So when one loses one’s identity, one forgets about oneself and focuses on Allah alone, and all one sees is Allah and His Love, and one doesn’t see oneself. The Sufis describe this experience in various lines of poetry.
I don’t have the qualification to explain these lines of poetry but that’s what they say.
Ibn al-Farid, possibly the most eloquent poet to ever talk about loving Allah Most High, described the same experience as follows.
أنتمْ فروضي ونفلي
أنتمْ حديثي وشغلي
You are my obligations and my supererogatory actions.
You are my conversations and my occupations.
يا قِبْلَتي في صَلاتي،
إذا وَقَفْتُ أُصَلّي
O my direction in my prayer
when I stand to pray:
جَمالُكُمْ نَصْبُ عَيني
إليهِ وجَّهتُ كلِّي
Your Beauty is before my eyes;
To it I direct my entire being
Osama: How are the ideas of pain and sacrifice related to the idea of love? They say that love is a painful path that demands a sacrifice of the self.
Must one necessarily face pain and sacrifice in order to attain unto love? Christians often allude to the sacrifice of Jesus when they talk about the love of God.
Shaykh Hamza: The idea of sacrifice is in us, it is not in Allah.
The Christians got it wrong because they say that God sacrificed Himself in order to show His love to us. This is completely wrong! Allah doesn’t need us. He doesn’t need to sacrifice Himself. We are the ones who need Him. He doesn’t need anything.
For Him to have a son, and the son to be God, and for that god to die is completely senseless. Who would worship a god that dies and is killed by other people? You wouldn’t feel very needy of that God. This is also ascribing a defect to Allah.
لَقَدْ كَفَرَ الَّذِيْنَ قَالُوا اِنَّ اللَّهَ ثَالِثُ الثَّلَاثَة
Those who say, “Verily, Allah is the third of the trinity,” have surely disbelieved. (Qur’an, 5:73)
There are many other verses that describe such a belief as associating partners with Allah. To hold such a belief is to ascribe defects to Allah; it’s an insult to Him.
Allah’s love for us doesn’t involve any sacrifice because for Him to sacrifice something for us would be an expression of His neediness, which is a defect for Him because it would imply some kind of human power over God.
This idea of the crucifixion, the divinity of Christ, all of these are foreign Greek pagan intrusions upon the true monotheism of Prophet Jesus Christ upon him be peace.
What we need to ask is: What do we need to do in order to show our love for God?
This does involve sacrifice.
It involves sacrifice because it entails preferring the one who we love over ourselves.
I really want to do something, but I will show God that I love Him by preferring not to do what I really want to do. You can think of that as a sacrifice.
Osama: How can a loving God be Vengeful (al-Muntaqim) to His creation, and why would He want to Abase (al-Khafid) His creation?
Shaykh Hamza: The theologians explain that Allah Most High’s names are divided into two categories: those that have an opposite, and those that don’t. Both the names that you’ve mentioned–al-Muntaqim and al-Khafid–have opposites. The opposite of al-Muntaqim–the One who “takes vengeance” (I’ll explain shortly why I’ve put the translation in quotation marks)–is al-Shakur–the One who is “intensely grateful” (again, I’ll explain shortly why I’ve put the translation in quotation marks). The opposite of al-Khafid–the One who lowers–is al-Rafi‘–the One who raises.
Examples of names that don’t have an opposite are al-Qadir–the All-Powerful–and al-Qawiyy–the Almighty. The opposites of these names are impossible for Allah Most High. For Him to be unable to do something or for Him to be weak would be a defect that conflicts with His godhood.
Names that have an opposite describe what Allah Most High does. They are descriptions of His actions. Theologians call these attributes sifat al-af‘al. Or, in other words, they are descriptions of His acts of creation. Since Allah Most High can do absolutely anything, since His actions are unconstrained by any limitation, He can do an action and its opposite: He can create and destroy; He can reward and punish; He can support and abase. The absolute freedom of Allah Most High to do anything, regardless of whether it is in our interests or against our interests, is what it means for Him to be God and for us to be His slaves. That is why we worship Him: we seek His mercy, His forgiveness, His gentleness, and we seek refuge from His wrath, His punishment, His rigor.
Names that don’t have an opposite describe who He is. They are descriptions of Allah Most High Himself, descriptions of His perfections. Theologians call these attributes sifat al-dhat. His knowledge, His power, His will, His life are all descriptions of Allah Himself.
Now, in order to answer your question, we need to note three things.
The first is that Allah Most High’s “vengeance” and His abasing His creation are both descriptions of His actions, not of Allah Most High Himself. He is, in other words, someone who “takes vengeance” and someone who abases His creation, just as He is also someone who is “intensely grateful”, and someone who honors and raises His creation. In your question, you asked, “How can a loving God be vengeful?” The way that you’ve used the adjective “vengeful” suggests that it’s a permanent attribute that describes who He is rather than an attribute of what He sometimes does. Remember that Allah Most High does whatever He wills and when He tells us that He can harm us (such as with the two names that you’ve mentioned), He is reminding us that He is God and we are His slaves, that He doesn’t need us and that we need Him, that He deserves our worship and submission and we shouldn’t approach Him with a sense of entitlement. This returns to the question about slavehood and love that we began this conversation with.
The second thing to note is that human language falls short of the majesty of Allah Most High. This returns to an earlier part of this conversation in which we asked what it means for God to love. We saw that when we say that Allah Most High has mercy, gratitude, or love, then we need to strip these words of the accompanying emotional changes. Once we do that, we have two options: we can either give the words a figurative interpretation (ta’wil) or we can consign their meaning to Allah Most High.
The same applies to Allah Most High’s “vengeance”. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi explains that “vengeance” in human beings comprises three things: (1) extreme anger, (2) a severe chastisement that is delayed (an immediate chastisement is not normally called “vengeance”), and (3) that the chastisement lead to the quenching of some kind of thirst for revenge. When we use “vengeance” with respect to Allah Most High, we need to subtract this third meaning because it is an emotional change and Allah Most High is perfect and transcendently beyond any kind of change. So we understand Allah Most High’s vengeance as a severe chastisement that does not befall immediately, but after some time, without there being any quenching of some kind of thirst for revenge. When you problematized vengeance for Allah Most High, you were assuming that it comprises the quenching of some kind of a thirst for revenge. You can now see that it doesn’t.
As for Allah Most High’s abasing His creation, recall that the meaning of worship returns to a voluntary abasement of oneself to Allah Most High. There is a general theme in the Qur’an that someone who does not voluntarily lower themselves before Allah Most High through worship in this life will be forcibly lowered before Him in the afterlife, whereas someone who does voluntarily lower themselves before Allah Most High will be raised by Allah Most High in the afterlife. This raising doesn’t just happen in the afterlife; it even happens in this life. The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “No one humbles himself for the sake of Allah except that Allah Most High raises him.” (Muslim)
The third and final thing to note is that your question–“How can a loving God be …”–assumes that God loves everyone. That is a false assumption. Allah Most High says in the Qur’an, “Allah does not love those who do wrong.” (Qur’an, 3:57) He also says, “Allah does not love any vain and arrogant person.” (Qur’an, 31:18) He also says, “Allah does not love any utterly ungrateful and sinful person.” (Qur’an, 2:276) Those who receive Allah Most High’s vengeance–in the meaning that I have just described above–are those who Allah Most High does not love.
If you think about it, it should make sense that God does not love everyone–why else would He send people to the Hellfire? Would you really think it fair that a criminal who had mercilessly tortured and killed millions of other human beings should be someone who God loves and sends to Paradise?
Osama: We began our conversations with a discussion about the relevance and significance of religion; that made us realise that true religion is a path to felicity. This path to felicity, which we established as the purpose of our life in our second conversation, is the path to knowing, loving, and worshipping God. In this conversation, we’ve described what it’s like to be in true love, in other words, we’ve talked about what it means to fulfill our purpose. Now, from hereon, what do you think is the next step, where do we go from here? I would think that these discussions should spark within us the desire to know how to fulfill this purpose, and reach unto the love of the Divine.
Shaykh Hamza: Allah sent us Messengers to call us to Him, to call us to love Him, and to explain to us the way to loving Him.
When we worship Allah everyday, we pray five times a day, we recite surah al-fatihah, we praise Allah:
أَلْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ رَبِّ العَالَمِيْنَ
Praising Him is an expression of our love for Him.
We bring to mind His Mercy, this is again something that drives us to love Him.
مَالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّيْنِ اِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَاِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِيْنَ
The core of the Fatiha is asking Allah to show us the straight path.
What is the straight path? The straight path is the path of guidance.
The idea of a “path” is a common Qur’anic metaphor. I didn’t understand this metaphor until I started taking my sons on hikes in beautiful forests and canyons here in Jordan. When you enter a forest and you’re trying to find your way, then you are looking for a path to follow. What is a path? It is something that other people have walked on. It’s ground that you can see is well-trodden and then you can discern that people have walked here and it took them somewhere so you walk on the same path.
Sometimes when I go on hikes with my family, we say that we don’t need a guide and that we will figure out the way ourselves. When we do that, we often get lost because the path is sometimes not that clear. If you have a guide, the guide can show you where to go so that you don’t get lost.
Allah Most High calls His Prophets guides and He calls His Quran guidance. The Qur’an is, in other words, ia map that’s showing the way, and He calls the trajectory of our lives, the choices that we make He calls it a path, and so the guides are there to show us where to go. The path is a straight and wide path, and so it is very difficult to get lost; it is not veering this way or that; it doesn’t lead you into the bushes, and behind the trees — on such a path you can get lost.
The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) came as a guide on a clear straight path, and our goal is to listen to him, to listen to revelation, to learn the beneficial religious knowledge that he brought.
Beneficial religious knowledge is knowledge that teaches us how to make choices in our lives that will help us reach the afterlife with felicity, that will help us love Allah and fulfill the purpose of our life.
The Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:
I have left you on a clear, straight path, it is as clear at night as it is during the day. Nobody veers from it except somebody who is destroyed.
You have to be really bent on turning away from God to veer from the path; it is clear, the evidence is there: God exists, the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) is the messenger of Allah, the path is here but we have to learn about it. That’s what the messengers came to teach us. Their teachings were preserved by the scholars who followed him.
That is why the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:
العُلَمَاءُ وَرَثَةُ الأَنْبِيَاء
Scholars are the heirs of the prophets.
Prophets don’t leave behind money, dinars or dirhams, but they leave behind religious knowledge, so whoever takes religious knowledge has taken a great share.
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:
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.
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.
Mufti Taha Karaan is a Shafi‘i scholar born in Cape Town, South Africa, to a family renowned in both its maternal and paternal lineage for Islamic scholarship. His father, the late Mufti Yusuf Karaan, may Allah have mercy on his soul, was one of the most distinguished Islamic scholars in the Cape.
Mufti Taha completed his Qur’anic memorization in one year at the Waterfall Islamic Institute, the oldest Islamic seminary in South Africa. During his stay, he assisted in the editing of the Qur’anic prints that the Institute has become famous for the world over. After finishing four years of the ‘alim course in two years, he journeyed to the Indian sub-continent and Dar al Uloom Deoband, graduating from there in 1991 with the highest of distinctions, as did his father, in a class of over 700 students. He then travelled to the Middle East and completed a two-year graduate diploma at the Higher Institute for Islamic Studies in Cairo, Egypt.
Mufti Taha is the recipient of numerous chains of transmission (ijazaat), from well-respected scholars in India, Pakistan, South Africa, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, among others, in numerous fields of the Islamic sciences.
Currently, Mufti Taha is the Mufti of the Muslim Judicial Council. He is a sought-after speaker at Islamic symposia and conferences but attends them sparingly, preferring to spend most of his time at the Islamic seminary, Dar al Uloom al Arabiyyah al Islamiyyah, that he founded in 1996. The educational thrust of the seminary reflects Mufti Taha’s own pioneering vision and commitment to squarely interface with the challenges of the modern age through the twin objectives of preservation and progress.
In his teaching, writing and legal verdicts (fatawa), Mufti Taha regularly addresses contemporary issues such as the challenges of post-modernity, feminism, Islamic economics and finance, the old and new Orientalisms, and fiqh issues affecting Diaspora Muslim communities.
His students describe him as divinely-gifted with encyclopedic knowledge; possessed of a near photographic memory; an insatiable bibliophile within the Islamic sciences and without; a teacher that never ceases to inspire; endowed with an elegant calligraphic hand and a penchant for poetry; thoroughly unassuming, pleasant, brilliant and tender-hearted.
How do Muslim minority communities in various parts of the world create meaningful spaces and environments to flourish as religious communities, and as beneficial members of their societies? The intersection between religious identity and citizenship is a nuanced and complex topic for many Muslims living in Non Muslims countries.
In this lecture, Mufti Taha Karaan provides an insightful overview of how Muslim minority communities engaged with the geo political realities of their times in order to consolidate their presence and growth in various locations around the world. By analyzing and discussing the critical topics of migration, citizenship and the preservation of faith, in a coherent historical chronology and context, Mufti Taha Karaan proffers a refreshing and inspirational approach of understanding the Fiqh of Citizenship and Minorities in contemporary times.
The Muslim community of South Africa, specifically Cape Town, has a rich and dynamic history which spans more than 300 years. Mufti Taha Karaan proposes that Muslim minority communities around the world should scrupulously analyse how the Muslims of the Cape preserved their faith when confronted with the various challenges of slavery, colonialism and apartheid, and how they succeeded in developing into a vibrant, confident and socially contributing community within South African society.
Link to podcast:
Muslim Minorities and the Fiqh of Citizenship in the Modern World.
Since the enlightenment period, belief in God and organized religion has come under significant attack. The unremitting question regarding the compatibility of revelation and reason continues to plague us in current times. Atheism as a “belief” system or worldview is on the rise, and many individuals feel obfuscated and confused amidst the high levels of intellectual skepticism.
How should Muslims face and immunized themselves from these ideological challenges? How did our luminous scholars of the past respond to the various intellectual and doctrinal quagmires of their age so that they were able to preserve sound belief in the integrals of Islam?
In this lecture, Mufti Taha Karaan succinctly articulates a systematic overview of the various components that contribute to the Islamic science of belief (Aqida) and dialectical theology (Kalam). By contextualizing the various challenges that historically confronted Islamic doctrine, he provides a lucid methodology in comprehending the integral epistemic avenues that contribute to correct belief in Islam.
Answered by Ustadha Zaynab Ansari
Question: What do Muslims live and die for and how do they get to heaven? How does Islam differ from Christianity in regards to Prophet Jesus, peace and blessings be upon him?
Answer: In the Name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Thank you for your question.
I would suggest looking into taking an Islamic theology class with SeekersGuidance. Your questions go back to the very foundations of this religion.
Muslims, like all other human beings, were created to live purposeful lives so that when death overtakes them they leave this world in a state of obedience to God. In the Qur’an, God has promised an eternal reward for those who believe in Him and follow His guidance. Jesus, peace and blessings be upon him, was an honored prophet and messenger who brought a message whose essence was later reflected in the teachings of Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.
May Allah reward you,
“Our interaction with nature is clearly constrained and directed by such foundational ethical precepts as mercy, moderation, and gratitude, which, when systematically understood and applied, result in ecological health. But ethical precepts refer ultimately to human nature, and therefore ecological health is rooted in psychological health. From this deep-level perspective, environmental degradation is less a resource-problem than an attitude-problem. This psycho-ecological approach toward preserving and enhancing environmental health is explored by considering some pertinent aspects of Islamic socio-intellectual history and their relevance for re-articulating and re-applying authentic Islamic environmental ethical values in today’s world….”
The Inner Dimension of Going Green: Articulating an Islamic Deep-Ecology – Adi Setia – Sunna Theologica (pdf)
While in Gambia for a conference, Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah (biography) was interviewed for Gambian television. In it, he discusses evidence of Muslims visiting the Americas before Columbus, how he entered Islam, modernity as an economic system, how to deal with sectarianism, and the distinction between Shari’ah and haqeeqah.
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