This is, perhaps, the most important question that has ever been asked. Throughout the ages, philosophers have considered it to be the most fundamental question. Scientists, historians, philosophers, writers, psychologists and the common man all wrestle with the question at some point in their lives.
Is reason a sufficient guide?
Why do we eat? Why do we sleep? Why do we work? The answers we would get to these questions would be similar. I eat to live. I sleep to rest. I work to support myself and my family. But when it comes to what the purpose of life is, people are confused. We see their confusion by the type of answers we receive.
Youths may say, I live for booze and bikinis. The middle aged professional might say, I live to save enough for a comfortable retirement. The old man would probably say, I have been asking why I am here most of my life. If there is a purpose, I do not care anymore. And perhaps the most common answer will be, I really don’t know!
How, then, do you discover the purpose of life? We basically have two options. The first is to let human reason – the celebrated achievement of the Enlightenment – guide us. After all, the Enlightenment gave us modern science based on careful observation of the natural world. But have post-Enlightenment philosophers figured it out? Camus described life as “absurd”; Sartre spoke of “anguish, abandonment and despair.”
To these Existentialists, life has no meaning. Darwinians thought the meaning of life was to reproduce. Will Durant, capturing the predicament of post modern man, wrote, “Faith and hope disappear; doubt and despair are the order of the day… it is not our homes and our treasuries that are empty, it is our hearts.”
When it comes to meaning of life, even the wisest philosophers are just guessing. Will Durant, the most noted philosopher of the last century, and Dr. Hugh Moorhead, a philosophy professor at Northeastern Illinois University, both wrote separate books titled The Meaning of Life. They wrote to the best-known philosophers, scientists, writers, politicians, and intellectuals of their time in the world, asking them, “What is the meaning of life?” Then they published their responses. Some offered their best guesses, some admitted that they just made up a purpose for life, and others were honest enough to say they were clueless. In fact, a number of famous intellectuals asked the authors to write back and tell them if the purpose of life was discovered!
Let the heavens ‘speak’
If the philosopher has no definitive answer, perhaps the answer can be found within the heart and mind that we ourselves possess. Have you ever looked at the open sky on a clear night? You will see an incalculable number of stars. Look through a telescope and you will see gigantic spiral galaxies, beautiful nebula where new stars are being formed, the remnants of ancient supernova explosion created in a stars final death throes, the magnificent rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter.
Is it possible not to be moved by the sight of these countless stars in the night sky shining like diamond dust on a bed of black velvet? Multitudes of stars beyond stars, stretching back; becoming so dense that they appear to merge into delicate wisps of sparkling mist. The grandeur humbles us, thrills us, inspires a craving for investigation, and calls for our contemplation. How did it come into being? How are we related to it, and what is our place in it? Can we hear the heavens “speak” to us?
“In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day,- there are indeed Signs for men of understanding, men who celebrate the praises of God, standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and contemplate the wonders of creation in the heavens and the earth, With the thought: “Our Lord! not for naught Hast you created all this! Glory to you! Give us salvation from the penalty of the Fire.” (Quran 3:190-191)
When we read a book, we accept that an author exists. When we see a house, we accept that a builder exists. Both of these things were made with a purpose by those who made them. The design, order, and complexity of the universe as well as the world around us are evidence of the existence of a supreme intelligence, a perfect designer. All the heavenly bodies are controlled by precise laws of physics. Can there be laws without a lawmaker? Rocket scientist Dr. von Braun said:
“The natural laws of the universe are so precise that we have no difficulty building a spaceship to fly to the moon and can time the flight with the precision of a fraction of a second. These laws must have been set by somebody.”
Paul Davies, a professor of physics, concludes that mans existence is not a mere quirk of fate. He states: “We are truly meant to be here.” And he says regarding the universe: “Through my scientific work, I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact. There must, it seems to me, be a deeper level of explanation.”
The universe, the earth, and living things on the earth all give silent testimony to an intelligent, powerful Creator.
If we were made by a Creator, then surely that Creator must have had a reason, a purpose, in creating us. Thus, it is important that seek to know Gods purpose for our existence. After coming to the realization of this purpose, we can choose whether we want to live in harmony with it. But is it possible to know what is expected from us left to our own devices without any communication from the Creator? It is natural that God Himself would inform us of this purpose, especially if we are expected to fulfill it..
Alternative to speculation: Ask God
This brings us to the second option: the alternative to speculation about the meaning and purpose of life is revelation. The easiest way to discover the purpose of an invention is to ask the inventor. To discover the purpose of your life, ask God.
Can Christianity answer the question?
In Christianity, the meaning of life is rooted in faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, in finding Jesus as Savior. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
However, the proposition is not without serious problems. First, if this is the purpose of creation and the precondition for eternal life, why was it not taught by the prophets to all the nations of the world? Second, had God turned into man close to the time of Adam all mankind would have had an equal chance to eternal life, unless those before the time of Jesus had another purpose for their existence! Third, how can people today who have not heard of Jesus fulfill the Christian purpose of creation? Naturally, such a purpose is too narrow and goes against divine justice.
Islam is the response to humanities search for meaning. The purpose of creation for all men and women for all times has been one: that is to know and worship God the Only One. He teaches us that every human being is born conscious of God:
“When thy Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam – from their loins – their descendants, and made them testify concerning themselves, (saying): ‘Am I not your Lord (who cherishes and sustains you)?’- They said: ‘Yea! We do testify!’ (This), lest ye should say on the Day of Judgment: ‘Of this we were never mindful’: Or lest ye should say: ‘Our fathers before us may have taken false gods, but we are (their) descendants after them: wilt Thou then destroy us because of the deeds of men who were futile?’” (Quran 7:172-173)
The Prophet of Islam teaches us that God created this primordial need in human nature at the time Adam was made. God took a covenant from Adam when He created him. God extracted all of Adams descendants who were yet to be born, generation after generation, spread them out, and took a covenant from them. He addressed their souls directly, making them bear witness that He was their Lord. Since God made all human beings swear to His Lordship when He created Adam, this oath is imprinted on the human soul even before it enters the fetus, and so a child is born with a natural belief in the Oneness of God.
This natural belief is called fitra in Arabic. Consequently, every person carries the seed of belief in the Oneness of God that lies deeply buried under layers of negligence and dampened by social conditioning. If the child were left alone, it would grow up conscious of God – a single Creator – but all children are affected by their environment.
Prophet Muhammad said “Each child is born in a state of fitra, but his parents make him a Jew or a Christian. It is like the way an animal gives birth to a normal offspring. Have you noticed any young born mutilated before you mutilate them?”
So, just as the child’s body submits to physical laws, set by God in nature, its soul submits naturally to the fact that God is its Lord and Creator. However, its parents condition it to follow their own way, and the child is not mentally capable of resisting it. The religion which the child follows at this stage is one of custom and upbringing, and God does not hold it to account for this religion. When a child matures into an adult, he or she must now follow the religion of knowledge and reason. As adults, people must now struggle between their natural disposition towards God and their desires in order to find the correct path.
The call of Islam is directed to this primordial nature, the natural disposition, the imprint of God on the soul, the fitra, which caused the souls of every living being to agree that He Who made them was their Lord, even before the heavens and earth were created: “I have only created Jinns and men, that they may worship Me.” (Quran 51:56)
The basic message which God has revealed through all prophets, from the time of Adam to the last of the prophets, Muhammad was the same one “For We assuredly sent amongst every People a messenger, with the Command, ‘worship Allah, and eschew Evil’: of the People were some whom Allah guided, and some on whom error became inevitably established”. (Quran 16:36).