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What does Islam say about the meaning of life?

To explore the meaning of life, one must first discover oneself and grasp what it means to be human. What kind of being is a human with their physiological structure, consciousness, perception, emotions, abilities, weaknesses, aesthetic tastes, pleasures, and intuitions? What distinguishes humans from other creatures? What kind of connection and relationship exist between humans and existence? What satisfies a human being? What are their desires and needs, weaknesses, and voids? Does the world in which they live suffice to satisfy a human’s desires and needs? Does a human have the power and capacity to fulfill their desires? Where does the sense of eternity come from in humans? As a living being aware of their mortality, how does a human endure the feelings of non-existence and emptiness?

First and foremost, it must be emphasized that until now, satisfying answers to questions about oneself, existence, being, life, and the Creator have been provided primarily by religions. It can even be said that the primary purpose of religions was to provide these answers. Therefore, in the pre-modern era when revelation was seen as the primary reference source, there was no widespread questioning of the meaning and purpose of life. Because, thanks to revelation, they saw existence correctly, read it correctly, and understood its meaning correctly, guided by the light it shed on their minds and eyes. They never settled for the world of appearances but, through divine scriptures, reached from the visible to the invisible.

Isn’t what we call meaning essentially an inner truth hidden beneath the surface of things, a spiritual essence, a hidden mystery? Modern humans may miss the meaning because they are concerned only with the visible aspects of things, such as their function, utility, production and consumption, and their function. Could it be that they are experiencing a crisis of meaning because they see scientific knowledge as the only measure of truth and have eliminated revelation as a reference source?

Without further ado, let’s first take a look at the reality that the Qur’an presents about human, worldly life, and existence, and try to discover the meaning of life based on this: Contrary to the claims of some philosophers, humans are neither talking animals nor biological beings; on the contrary, they hold a lofty and exceptional position. They are a creation that God has elevated above other beings, endowed with honor, dignity, and respect. (Qur’an, 17:70) Humans are created in the most beautiful and perfect form. (Qur’an, 95:4) Moreover, they are the vicegerents on earth, to whom all of creation is subjected. (Qur’an, 14:32-34) They are beings on whom God has breathed His spirit. (Qur’an, 38:72-75) Such is the elevated position of humans that even when they were first created, the angels were commanded to prostrate to them. (Qur’an, 2:34)

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One of the recurring themes in the Qur’an is the assertion that there is no emptiness or futility in the creation and existence, that everything is created with wisdom and for a purpose. Verses like “We did not create the heavens, the earth, and everything in between them without purpose” (Qur’an, 38:27) and “We did not create the heavens, the earth, and everything in between them without purpose and with no end in sight” (Qur’an, 15:85) are repeated in many places. These verses declare that the earth, the heavens, and everything in between are created as “true” (haqq). Thus, every entity has a truth, a meaning, and a purpose. There is nothing futile or absurd in existence. Existence is not devoid of meaning and purpose. Existence has wisdom, an operational order, and harmony. Because every entity comes into existence as a work of infinite knowledge, will, and power.

The Qur’an elaborates on the fact that everything in creation, from rain, clouds, plants, and animals to celestial bodies, is created with truth, wisdom, and purpose through numerous examples. Subsequently, it invites people to reflect on existence by stating, “Do they not look at how the camel is created, how the heavens are raised, how the mountains are set firm, and how the earth is spread out?” (Qur’an, 88:17-20) It encourages individuals to contemplate existence and to see the subtleties, beauty, harmony, meaning, and purpose within it, inviting them to recognize the Creator who endowed existence with these attributes. Just as with the Qur’anic verses, it commands reading and understanding verses about existence and creation.

According to the Qur’an, those who reflect upon the creation of the heavens and the earth, who contemplate existence, conclude that there is no hollowness or absurdity, that everything is in its place, created with wisdom and directed towards a purpose. These reflective minds appeal to God with words like, “Our Lord, You did not create all this without purpose; exalted are You above such imperfection. Protect us from the torment of the Fire!” (Qur’an, 3:190-191)

If all living and non-living beings are created with a purpose, can a human’s life be empty and meaningless? The Qur’an poses the question, “Did you think We created you without purpose?” (Qur’an, 23:115) (a rhetorical question of denial), indicating that the situation is not as it is assumed to be. It suggests that human existence in this world has a meaning and purpose by asking, “Does man reckon he will be left uncontrolled?” (Qur’an, 75:36) In other verses, the purpose of human creation is summarized as follows: “He is the One Who created death and life in order to test which of you are best in deeds.” (Qur’an, 67:2) “I have only created the jinn and humans to serve Me.” (Qur’an, 51:56)

To understand the meaning of life, one must also grasp the nature of the world in which they are born and live. This is one of the most emphasized themes in the Qur’an. The Qur’an highlights that worldly life is quite beautiful, attractive, tempting, and enjoyable, but it is also deceiving. Many have been captivated by its allure, knowingly and willingly preferring the world to the hereafter and forgetting their true duties. In reality, the world is just a temporary stop in the long journey of a human, a short stay in a hostel. Its blessings are limited, and its benefits are temporary. It is finite and limited. It consists of entertainment, games, distractions, boasting, and competing for abundance. Compared to the eternal blessings of Paradise, it is like a shadow, a dream, or an illusion. The true destination for humans after this world is the eternal life of the hereafter. (For related verses, see https://www.kuranmeali.com/Fihrist.php?konu=Dünya%20Hayatı)

The Qur’an criticizes the world for its aspect that distracts people with its desires and aspirations and causes them to forget the hereafter. The world is yet to be seen as insignificant and simple when compared to the eternal blessings of Paradise that eyes have not seen, ears have not heard, and even the imagination cannot grasp. Therefore, in the context of worldly life, it is not possible to find the real meaning of life between birth and death. As Bediüzzaman expressed, “In this miserable world, in the midst of the transient creatures, in a life without fruits, in a form without a protector or guardian, in the form of a weak, helpless person, even if one were the sultan of the whole world, what value would that have?” (Letters, 20th Letter)

When a person recognizes their Lord, they find the meaning of life. Worldly life gains meaning through eternal life in the hereafter. Deeds, both good and bad, oppression, injustice, evil, and murder find their meaning only in an eternal life where the consequences of even the slightest goodness and evil will be seen. When viewed from a broader perspective, it becomes possible to endure hardships, illnesses, disasters, aging, and losses in this world. Because what makes bearable the things that appear to be unbearable is the meaning attributed to them. Bediüzzaman’s Treatise on Illness or Treatise on the Elderly will provide a better understanding of what is meant here.

All of this shows that finding life meaningless or searching for its meaning within the limited and short life span between birth and death is one of the greatest misconceptions of humanity. The purpose of life cannot be found in material, worldly, or instrumental things. As Bediüzzaman expressed, those who say that the purpose of life is to live comfortably, enjoy leisure in heedlessness, and indulge in worldly pleasures belittle not only the blessing of life but also subtleties such as reason, consciousness, and perception. The reality of being human is much greater and deeper than these.

Some may think that they will construct their own meaning and strive to find meaning in their subjective goals. This is essential for a person to hold on to life and struggle. These individual and limited goals can satisfy and make a person happy to some extent. However, what we are addressing here is not this. As mentioned earlier, we are focusing on an objective, final, and inner meaning that is not subject to specific conditions and is valid for everyone.

Balancing the world and the hereafter, fulfilling what needs to be done for the world and worldly pursuits, in a way that is compatible with the afterlife, is also a way to approach the meaning of life. Imam Ghazali stated that the order of the afterlife would be established through the order of the world. The life of someone whose world is chaotic, lazy, and indolent, and whose worldly pursuits are not carried out in accordance with their religious duties, is meaningless. Bediüzzaman also reminded that the world should be abandoned not physically but in terms of attachment to it. In other words, a person should perform their duties such as working, producing, pursuing a career, achieving success, and establishing a family properly, but should see these as means and utilize them for the afterlife.

A person who knows their place in the world, understands their responsibilities, and is conscious of the purpose of their creation, will free themselves from the selfish urges and desires of the ego and will live a more meaningful, conscious, peaceful, and satisfying life in this world. The secret and truth of being human lie here.

In summary, expressing the meaning of life in a single word is not easy. Based on the statements of the Qur’an on the subject, it can be understood that the meaning and purpose of life are hidden in the ability of humans, created as servants by necessity and with conscious will, to become aware of this servitude and responsibility voluntarily.

From this point of view, we can expand the topic a bit more and say that, since it is emphasized repeatedly in the Qur’an, the meaning of life is faith and righteous deeds (or thought and action).

We can see the purpose of life in righteousness (taqwa), as superiority is with taqwa.

Based on the Hadith of Gabriel, we can summarize the meaning of life with the concepts of faith, Islam, and ihsan.

We can relate the matter to faith in God, knowledge of God, love of God, and spiritual delight, as Bediüzzaman expresses it.

In line with the approach of some Sufis, we can condense the meaning of life into two points: worshipping God and showing compassion to creation.

The meaning of life can be expressed as adorning oneself with divine ethics and being a beautiful mirror for God’s names.

We can say that the meaning of life is to attain the horizon of the perfect human (insan-ı kâmil).

The meaning of life can be seen as establishing a harmonious relationship between human, life, existence, and God.

In addition to these, we can also relate the matter to gratitude, passing the test of servitude, attaining eternal life, gaining the pleasure of God, or championing the cause of spreading the word of God.

All of these are correct, and they all revolve around the same core concept.

Here, a question may arise: What about the worldly pursuits and activities? Where do they fit into this discussion about the meaning of life? Could approaching the meaning of life in this way lead to a neglect of the world? Essentially, balancing the world and the hereafter is also a part of finding the meaning of life. Imam Ghazali stated that the order of the afterlife would be established through the order of the world. A person should perform their duties such as working, producing, pursuing a career, achieving success, and establishing a family properly, but should see these as means and utilize them for the afterlife.

A person who knows their place and responsibilities in the world and is conscious of the purpose of their creation will free themselves from the selfish desires of the ego and live a more meaningful, conscious, peaceful, and satisfying life in this world. The secret and truth of being human lie in this understanding.

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YUKSEL CAYIROGLU
YUKSEL CAYIROGLU
Professor Yuksel Cayiroglu is a scholar focusing on Islamic Law and Religous Studies.
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