Sheima Salam Sumer, a trained counsellor, is the author of How to Be a Happy Muslim Insha’Allah and The Basic Values of Islam.
In this section on Our Dialogue, she reflects on the purpose of life – among the most basic and important questions that we could ask ourselves.
Q: Despite their differences at the level of dogma and ritual, all religions believe in the Hereafter and insist that life does not end with the death of the body because human beings are not their bodies. This is in sharp contrast to all materialistic ideologies, that, despite their differences, claim that everything ceases with the death of the body.
How do you think this basic distinction between religions, on the one hand, and all materialistic ideologies, on the other, is reflected in how they see the purpose of life?
A: I think that religions emphasize the eternal, “real life” after our worldly life. Religions teach that this worldly life is simply a testing ground in which we plant the seeds of good deeds that will be harvested in the next life. Materialistic ideologies may view this world as the only goal. They do not believe that we will be accountable for our deeds in the next world.
Q: What difference(s) do you think belief in the Creator God makes in people’s understanding of the purpose of life?
A: Belief in the Creator helps us to understand that we are accountable for our actions. Belief in the Creator engenders gratitude to Him for giving us life. Belief in God also engenders a desire to know God and be closer to Him.
Q: Many people just don’t want to talk or even think about death. This reluctance to face the reality of death shapes their worldviews in a distinct way. It might, for instance, lead them to try to build up ‘heaven’ on earth (as, for instance, Marxist utopians). Or, it could lead them to become cynical and think that life is ultimately meaningless because death, they claim, puts a final end to everything. How do you think these people’s reluctance to think of death might shape how they look at the purpose of life?
A: Reluctance to think of death can lead to a lack of morality because people may not see the importance of good conduct. It can lead to a purely pleasure-seeking life in which all of one’s hopes are placed in this temporary life. It may lead to a lack of purpose.
Q: Do you agree that the purpose of human life can only be understood by bringing in the reality of death and the concept of the Hereafter (which is something that all religions talk of, sometimes in different ways) and that only then can we understand the larger picture of what is life is for and about? As a believer in God and the Hereafter, what difference do you think faith in the Hereafter—life after death—might make in the way we think of the purpose of life?
A: As a Muslim I do agree that the purpose of life is understood by remembering the reality of death and the hereafter. However, I witness that many people who don’t believe in the hereafter are able to create their own life purposes. As a Muslim I believe that the purpose of life is to please my Creator and prepare for my eternal life. However people who don’t believe in a Creator may see the purpose of life as simply being a good person or enjoyment.
Q: Growing up, no one ever talked to me about the purpose of life—not my parents, nor my friends, nor any of my teachers (even in college and university). Do you think this is a fairly widespread phenomenon? If so, do you think this is a relatively recent development?
A: I am not sure if this is widespread because such discussions depend on whether families adhere to a religion or not. My family was religious and therefore the purpose of life was discussed. I think due to the diversity of people nowadays, the purpose of life is less discussed in educational environments due to the respect for freedom of belief.
Q: While the purpose of life may not be explicitly talked about, many (most?) of us are constantly faced with the implicit message that the purpose of life is to become materially rich. So, the purpose of life comes to be seen as getting a ‘good’ job, a big house or whatever. This is something that is pervasive in society—in the education system and the media and even in our homes. Through this subtle but pervasive propaganda, we come to define the purpose of life in essentially materialistic terms. Do you agree? If so, and if you think that this is not really what the purpose of life is, how do you think we could become more aware, and also help make others more aware, of what the true purpose of life is?
A: I agree that there is a pervasive underlying message that life is about making money and buying things. I think that the more people who practice spiritual living—having a purpose to serve God—the more the message of our true purpose will spread. I think that we need more people speaking about our spiritual purpose in life. This topic needs to be in the public discourse.
Q: Some people say that life is a gift and that we ought to be grateful to God for it. On the other hand, faced with enormous sufferings or finding life meaningless, some others might think that life is a burden, something that they may not feel the need to be grateful to God for and something that they long to escape from. If you think life is a gift which we should be grateful to God for, how might you seek to convince someone who thinks life is a burden or a curse of your view?
A: First I would challenge their view that life is completely a burden or curse. The reality is that life is full of beauty as well as hardship. To just focus on the hardship is a biased, false view of life. I would also inform them that life’s hardships are meant to help us evolve as people. Hardships inspire change and self growth. So even hardships have beauty and a potential to inspire gratitude.
Q: God has bestowed each of us with a particular calling in life, and following that calling may be said to be the means for us to fulfill the purpose of our life. How do you think we might be able to discern this calling? Related to the above question: It is said that we should seek to do God’s will, not our will. This could be said to be the way to lead a truly meaningful life and to fulfill its purpose. How do you think we can discern God’s will for us?
A: Many wise people have said that our calling is related to the hardships we have faced in life. Our hardships are meant to show us our calling. Furthermore, our calling inspires us. It stirs our soul and is something we enjoy doing. As long as we are sincere and patient on the path of serving God, then God will guide us to our calling naturally.
(Sheima Salam Sumer can be reached at [email protected])