Q: May I start by saying that I adhere to Islamic teachings as much as I can. However, I am bothered by the thought that I have no choice as to the very basic step of coming into existence. It may be that my parents wanted so much to have a baby, but why should I be responsible for my birth? May I give the analogy of obeying one’s superiors in one’s job. We all do this because we do not wish to lose our jobs.
A: There is nothing wrong with thinking about one’s existence. Indeed, we are invited to do so by Allah because such thinking is conducive to strengthening our faith. When sometimes our thoughts do not seem to fit in with our beliefs, we should be a little careful. We should examine our premise and how our thoughts develop. There may be something wrong in the process.
What seems to trouble you, in the line of thinking you are following, as you have explained it to me, is the thought of choice which you seem to desire before coming into existence. But this is the thought of a mature human being about a stage of existence which is very different from his own. May I ask: At what point in time you think a human being should be given this choice at the beginning or end of adolescence? In childhood? Immediately at birth? At the time of conception? Or should the choice be given to the male sperm or female egg separately? If anyone suggests that the choice should be given to the sperm, then would it be fair to give it to every single sperm, although any one in billions is destined to become a full human being? If one suggests that the choice should be given at the time of conception, would a zygote be able to make a rational choice?
Perhaps it is more reasonable to suggest that the choice should be given sometime during one’s life, when one has known enough about human life to determine whether to continue with it or not. One could then choose whether to continue with one’s life, obeying Allah’s rules and taking the risk of punishment in the hereafter if he fails to do so. Otherwise, one is immediately and finally obliterated.
Suppose that such a choice is given, what sort of result would be expected from it? Would you not think that every human being will opt for a continued existence, giving every pledge to follow divine guidance? The love of life makes every single one of us cling to it despite going through very difficult circumstances. We always hope that our situation would improve and we would be able to enjoy a better life. On the other hand, if we say that the choice should be given to us before we are born, would we be able to make a choice based on mature judgment without ever being aware of the outcome of the choice we make?
The fact is that we have a choice at every moment in our lives. While it is true that the choice is not whether to live or not, but what sort of life we should lead. We should not portray the choice in the way you have, as something we have to give in order to avoid future suffering. That is certainly a grim picture if it was true. It is not. What is wrong with the way you describe the choice is that it implies that we will be saved from suffering in the life to come if we are willing to pay a price now, in the form of obeying certain rules. That makes the benefit of our compliance accrue to someone else or indeed to Allah. This is wrong because Allah does not benefit at all by our obedience or compliance of His rules. If our worship and compliance with Allah’s orders does not benefit Him, why are we then required to do it? The answer is: For our own benefit, Allah has created us the way we are, and has sent us messengers to show us how to lead a happy human life. Their role is to point out to us what benefits us and what spares us problems and misery. What they have conveyed to us is a complete message which outlines an integrated system, devised by Allah, who has created man and who knows what benefits us and suits him, to be implemented in human life and to bring man happiness. Thus, when we obey Allah’s rules, we are beneficiaries. The benefit is immediate, because the rules are made so that they spare man affliction, contradiction and confusion. You say that you try to live by the Islamic code. Have you asked yourself: What benefit to Allah are your prayers and your fasting? When you think deeply about it you are bound to conclude that they can benefit Him in no way. But prayers certainly benefit you by keeping you always on your guard against temptation and falling in sin. Fasting also teaches you self-discipline. When a human being puts Allah’s constitution behind his back, it is he who suffers. He does not harm Allah in any way. So the choice we have in this life is whether to do what is right and enjoy its benefits immediately in this life, or to reject it and suffer the consequences of this rejection.
Moreover, complete obedience to Allah is not possible, not even by the best human beings. Everyone is liable to error and every one errs. But when we do, we seek Allah’s forgiveness and it is forthcoming when our request is genuine. Let us not forget that a human being may be in error throughout his life, but then he realizes his mistake and repents for them, seeking Allah’s forgiveness. He may die shortly after that, but he is forgiven everything he has done in his past. If you take this example and that of a person who lives the most pious life and put them together, what do you get? You will find that even the most pious person slips often enough to incur punishment. He cannot thank and praise Allah enough for His blessings, yet he disobeys Him. If Allah were to treat him according to the merits and demerits of what he does, he would throw him in hell., But Allah does not do that. He forgives everyone who turns to Him in genuine repentance, even the most wicked of mankind.
Therefore, we must not view our obedience of Allah’s message as something which is sufficient to ensure our salvation. Our salvation is attained only through Allah’s grace. But the choice is ours throughout our lives. The choice is to adopt a responsive or defiant attitude. Although when we make the right choice, we do not live up to it, Allah’s grace is so great that our choice ensures our salvation.