Purpose, meaning, and self-worth
Did you think that We had created you in vain, and that to Us you would not be returned?37
We are by definition lost if we do not have a destination towards which we are moving, or if the destination we are moving towards is incorrect. In that vein, imagine a world with no afterlife. The moment we took our last breath, all the suffering, pain, and toil in this world would have been for nothing. Our lives would have no consequence in the grand scheme of the universe. What then is the point of continuing to struggle, of striving for anything? The rational answer in this bleak worldview would be none at all. Belief in the next life is therefore a necessary ingredient, among others
, for the notion of purpose in life to have any real meaning. Belief in the next life endows every moment in your life with metaphysical weight as you realize the eternal consequences of your transient choices. This inspires people to the loftiest ambitions, and deters them from settling for a shallow moment’s thrill. It gives strength to those confronting hardship and trauma in their lives, and threatens the oppressors and tyrants of this world with the Day of Reckoning when they cannot escape the grip of Māliki Yawm al-Dīn
Belief in the afterlife is therefore necessary for a life worth living. Our esteem as human beings should come primarily from our belief that Allah created us for a higher purpose. In a beautiful reflection on the worth of a believer’s life, Ibn al-Qayyim writes,
When Allah said He “purchased our souls,” we have to realize that the value of the commodity is correlated to both the status of the buyer and the price. You are the commodity, and you are so valuable that Allah Himself is the buyer, and the price is Jannah, which you receive along with seeing Allah and hearing His speech in the abode of complete peace and tranquility. Allah distinguished you—and He only distinguishes that which is honored and blessed—then built for you a dwelling place close to Him, then made the angels your personal servants, ensuring that you are taken care of in this world when you are awake and when you are sleeping, throughout your life and as you die.38
Of the fruits of belief in the next life is love for Allah. Interestingly, Saʿīd Nursī (d. 1960 CE), the Muslim Turkish Revivalist writes, “The Love of an admirer condemned to permanent separation will turn to hatred once the thought of separation takes hold. Admiration yields to an ill opinion and respect yields to contempt… This is a profound reason why unbelievers hate God.”39
The fulfillment of loving God in this world can only be realized in the next one. Without belief in the afterlife, a person is left with a disfigured image of God, which turns from contempt, as Nursī puts it, to disbelief. As Allah Himself tells us, “For those who don’t believe in the next life is an evil example, but to Allah belongs the highest example and He is the Almighty, the Wise.”40
Without the next life, it would appear that evil goes unpunished in this world, suffering unredeemed, and striving unrewarded. These are the very allegations leveled by atheists against God, but all these contentions are sufficiently addressed by factoring in the otherworldly dimension of our existence.41
Conversely, love for Allah (and subsequently His Messenger ﷺ) naturally blooms in every heart that is guided to proper beliefs about Allah and the meeting with Him in the next life. This love does not only blossom from the awe that stirs in us when the revelation acquaints us with the Almighty. It also crystallizes when our sacred knowledge of the Divine is complemented by our gradual discovery of the imperfection of everything else.
Relationships form in our lives that turn out to be temporary, interrupted by separation. Every phase of our development arouses new appetites, and they too offer only a momentary fulfillment. For the rightly guided believers, these “passing positives” arouse their gratitude, sharpen their existential wisdom, and ultimately encourage them to love the Source of every favor more than the favor itself, and the Eternal more than his or her fellow creatures who rose from dust and will soon return to it. This blissful epiphany is not only a profound fruit of believing in the hereafter, but also functions as the greatest asset in preparation for the Day of Judgment:
A man once came to the Prophet ﷺ and said, “O Messenger of Allah, when will the Hour commence?” He said, “What have you prepared for it?” The man said, “O Messenger of Allah, I have not prepared much prayer or fasting for it, but I truly love Allah and His Messenger.” So the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “A person will be with those he loves, and you will be with whomever you love.” Anas (rA; the narrator) said, “Since the advent of Islam, I did not see that anything brought the Muslims greater joy than this [hadith].” In another narration, Anas (rA) said, “For I love the Prophet ﷺ and Abū Bakr (rA) and ʿUmar (rA), and I am hopeful to be with them due to my love for them, even if I have not performed the likes of their deeds.”42
Loving His Messenger
Of the fruits of belief in the next life is love for the Messenger as we learn of the expansive love he had for all of us despite never meeting us. It is reported that the Prophet once went out to the graveyard. After greeting its inhabitants, he remarked,
“I would have loved to have met our brothers.” They said, “O Messenger of Allah, are we not your brothers?” He said, “Rather, you are my Companions. My brothers are those who have not yet come.” In another narration, “Those who will believe in me without having seen me.” They asked, “O Messenger of Allah, how will you know those of your ummah (nation) who come after you?” He said, “If a man had a horse with a white blaze and white feet, situated among horses that are all solid black, do you think he would be able to tell it apart?” They said, “Of course.” He said, “Likewise, they will come on the Day of Resurrection with radiant faces, and with radiant white hands and feet, from the traces of their wuḍūʾ (ablution). And I will reach the ḥawḍ (drinking basin) before them.”43
The Prophet ﷺ was the greatest human to walk on this earth, attaining moral, spiritual, and intellectual heights that no one could ever approach. His love for humanity was so intensely powerful it would consume his thoughts and prayers. It was a love not limited to those he knew nor the time in which he lived, but rather extended to the end of time. He called us his brothers and sisters, and thereby gave us a status distinct from that of his companions. For indeed we exist at a time so distant from his, in a land so far from his, brought up with a language and in a culture so foreign to his, yet we still unwaveringly profess our belief in his prophethood and follow his way. We rush to dispel misconceptions about him, defending his honor, teaching the world about his blessed example and loving him more intensely than anyone else in this world as our eyes swell with tears at the mention of these blessed words. Such love is reciprocated by an even greater love from the Prophet ﷺ toward us, as he will not take his place in Paradise until all of us make it there with him, even those believers who may have found their fate in Hellfire. He ﷺ said, “My intercession is for the people who committed the major sins in my ummah
For most of humanity, the Day of Judgment will be a profoundly lonely nightmare in which every soul fends for its salvation alone. Yet for the believers, the reality of that fateful day strengthens their bonds to each other and to humanity in general.
This happens in various ways. Firstly, the fact of the Final Judgment nullifies any conflicts caused by envy of wealth, wisdom, beauty, status, or anything else. When an eternity of opportunity awaits, it’s easy to transcend avarice and the dog-eat-dog mentality that abounds whenever we focus on this finite world.
Secondly, the chance at being forgiven by Allah for our crimes provides an incredible incentive for forgiving those we may not otherwise want to forgive. As Allah, the Most Generous and Merciful, says,
…and let them pardon and overlook. Would you not like that Allah should forgive you? And Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.45
When a person dwells on the day they will stand before Allah and realizes that they are actually not entitled to His forgiveness, and that Māliki Yawm al-Dīn is the only One who “owns” the ability to forgive them, the emotional challenge involved in forgiving those who hurt them in this temporary life greatly diminishes.
Thirdly, the Day of Reckoning rewards those who observe the “golden rule.” The Prophet ﷺ expressly linked these two factors in the famous hadith: “Whoever wishes to be distanced from the Hellfire and admitted into Paradise must encounter death while firmly believing in Allah and the Last Day, and while extending to people that which he would love to find extended towards him.”46
Finally, the looming approach of the Hour unites humanity through a common purpose. While the dunya may temporarily bring a few people together based on circumstantial variables (common relations, locations, or ideas), belief in being a single human family that shares an everlasting goal, and a universal duty to help each other towards reaching that goal, transforms the fraternity of humanity into an eternal relationship that only begins in this temporary world. How then could people not love one another, when we are each other’s spiritual remedies?
Knowing that there is a Day of Judgment helps us better deal with the hardships that we all face in life. When we see unthinkable oppression and atrocities committed by human beings, for instance, we are able to make sense of them through the matchless justice of Allah that will leave no transgression unaccounted for. When we ourselves are enduring some personal trauma
at the hands of abusers, we recall that on that day, Māliki Yawm al-Dīn
will mend our broken hearts and exhilarate our fatigued souls in such a way that will cause others to wish they faced our adversity. The Prophet ﷺ said, “When the people who faced great tribulations are given their reward on the Day of Judgment, the people who were spared [of these hardships] will wish that their skins had been sliced with shears during this worldly life.”47
One can understand why the condition of the world globally, and our troubles individually, would cause a person to despair if this world is all there is. It should be expected that people would give up, tune out, or become bitter and resentful if this existence is simply some corridor that they are passing through. Thus, the Prophet ﷺ advised, “Be in this world as if you were a stranger, or better yet, a traveler along a path.”48
A stranger is initially vigilant, aware of his inability to discern the dangers that surround him. However, he is susceptible to eventually developing an intimacy with this foreign land and considering it home. For this reason, he ﷺ said, “...or better yet, a traveler,” for the traveler en route is intentional about reaching his destination, and thus keeps a light load in order to maintain his swift pace and avoid ambush in the open wilderness. Thus is the believer: driven forward in his journey by faith in the Day of Judgment, and undeterred by the glitter or thorns on the path towards his actual destination. In this vein, Sufyān al-Thawrī49
(d. 161 AH) said, “Once certainty takes root in the heart as it should, then [nearly all] merriment and grief fly away due to one’s longing for Paradise and fear from the Hellfire.”50
It is always marvelous and awe-inducing to recount the psychological resilience of the Prophet ﷺ despite his unparalleled pains and hardships. In one incident, the Companions noticed the Prophet ﷺ shedding tears due to the passing of his son, Ibrāhīm (rA). In this devastating moment, the death of the last of his three sons, he ﷺ watched this fragile toddler breathe his last before his very eyes. A Companion wondered about the appropriateness of weeping, saying, “Even you [cry], O Messenger of Allah?” The Prophet ﷺ said, “O Ibn ʿAwf, this is an expression of mercy.” The Prophet ﷺ continued to weep, then added, “Indeed, the eyes shed tears and the heart grieves, but we do not say anything except that which pleases our Lord. Though we are certainly saddened by your departure, O Ibrāhīm!”51
In that prophetic balance is an indication that being moved by empathy for those who suffer is praiseworthy, but so is finding solace in conviction that the hereafter is a world of reunions. In another hadith, Abū Ḥassān asked Abū Hurayrah (rA), “I have two sons who have both died. Can you share with us something from the Messenger of Allah ﷺ to uplift our spirits after experiencing their death?” Abū Hurayrah responded, “Indeed, the Prophet ﷺ told us that their young (i.e., children of bereaved parents) are roaming about in Paradise.” Nothing can soothe the wound of a parent who lost a child like certainty that they will be reunited with them in Paradise, and that their child will refuse to enter Paradise until their parents enter with them, and that Allah will grant them that.52
Everyone who chases happiness in life will forever find it eluding them, while those who accept Māliki Yawm al-Dīn as their Lord, and their meeting with Him as sufficient consolation, stumble on happiness in the form of contentment with life.
As the great scholar Ibn al-Jawzī53
(d. 597) explains,
There is nothing pleasurable in this world that is lasting except for the ʿārif (the person deeply acquainted with God) who busies himself with pleasing his Beloved, and gathering ample provisions for the journey toward Him. It is only this person who finds relief in this world due to his usage of it all as a means towards the hereafter.54
And as the Prophet ﷺ promised and cautioned,
Whoever makes this world his primary concern, Allah will confound his affairs and cause him to constantly fear poverty, and yet he will still not gain anything extra from this world other than that which was already decreed for him. And whoever makes the hereafter his primary concern, Allah will consolidate his affairs for him and keep him content at heart, and his worldly provisions will still reach him.55
Our moral integrity depends on our certainty about the Day of Judgment. One cannot believe that one will face God and still live heedlessly, selfishly, or unjustly—at least not regularly. Cognizance of Allah will necessitate holding oneself to the ethical standards He set in anticipation of meeting Him. This will keep us from entertaining the myriad of “justifications” for pursuing this world in deplorable ways. Therefore, belief in the Day of Judgment is a safety net that prevents us from falling into immorality, and emboldens us when living “by the Book” subjects us to great inconveniences. How not, when revelation has carved within us that the persevering will be given “a reward without measure”56
upon meeting Māliki Yawm al-Dīn
We currently live in a world that emphasizes being accountable to yourself first and foremost, although we are in actuality holding ourselves accountable to the ever-fluctuating norms that society has impressed upon us. However, even when overlooking the epistemological layer of morality, which identifies what is morally acceptable and objectionable to begin with, morality (however defined) is doomed to being forever negotiable due to its dependence on the buy-in of the self. When no responsibility to a Divine Lawgiver and Judge exists, and no consequence to the individual for their moral failings is feared, then imbibing any moral framework is contingent on convenience. It is famously reported that ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (rA) would exhort people to align themselves with the laws of God, and to employ introspection and self-accountability to ensure that this is a embodied and not merely a theoretical alignment. He (rA) would say,
Hold yourself accountable before you are held to account [by Allah], and weigh your deeds before they are weighed against you—for the reckoning will be easier upon you tomorrow if you hold yourself accountable today. And adorn yourselves for the Great Presentation; “On that day, you will be presented, and no hidden matter of yours will remain hidden.”57, 58
The Qur’an often reminds us that those who fail to be granted God’s grace will explain why from within the Hellfire.59
In other words, they were not oblivious to the corruption of their deeds and beliefs. All this reminds us that we have to guard ourselves against heedlessness. It is tempting to minimize our responsibilities, but understanding that the Day of Judgment is a reality should cause us to take everything we learn about this grave day seriously. In the biographies of the Prophet’s Companions and early Muslims is sufficient inspiration for this. Abū al-Dardāʾ (rA), for instance, would say, “What I fear most on the Day of Judgment is that it will be said to me, ‘O Abū al-Dardāʾ, you knew, so how did you act with the knowledge you had?’” This does not mean that they lived in a state of chronic anxiety and despair due to fear—far from it. It simply means that they gave the Day of Judgment the weight it demands, and did not think their righteousness exempted them from accountability. Indeed, ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb stated, “If a lost sheep under my care were to die on the banks of the Euphrates, I would expect Allah the Exalted to question me about it on the Day of Resurrection.”60
He felt the great responsibility he had as leader, and that sense of responsibility compelled his vigilance.
In order to avoid a type of fear that results in despair, consider a person born with a genetic predisposition to serious heart problems, such that engaging in certain unhealthy behaviors would mean undergoing a dangerous and potentially life-threatening heart procedure. However, if they live in an overall healthy way, they can more or less guarantee that they will avoid any major heart issues. This person would do their best to be conscious of what they eat and how much they exercise. They would seek advice and knowledge regarding their condition. They would put in the necessary effort to follow the guidelines, and be aware of when they slip. And when they do slip—they are human, after all—they might feel worried about the consequences, and follow up with actions to counteract the effects of the unhealthy ones. The knowledge of their condition helps them to act in the best way. This is the type of accountability that we speak of—one that enables us to live with awareness and deliberation. Our heart should be in a balanced state, such that if fear overwhelms us, we remind ourselves of the mercy and grace of Allah, and if we find ourselves absorbed in this world and belittling the Hereafter, we recall its reality and graveness.
Holding oneself accountable is therefore not about paralyzing fear or aimless self-flagellation. It is more about prosperity on a day when regret will be futile; a day when “they say, ‘If only I had taken the same path as the Messenger… Woe to me, I wish I had not taken so-and-so for a close friend!’”61
But while pursuing that prosperity, one can and should intentionally enjoy some of what has been permitted in this world, as this enables us to strike the right balance and avoid burn-out. We can and should spend time with friends and family, exercise, have hobbies, and enjoy going out. Our Prophet ﷺ once comforted one of the Companions, Ḥanẓalah (rA), when he expressed his anxiety over what he thought was “neglecting the hereafter.” He complained:
“O Messenger of Allah, when we are in your presence and you remind us of Hellfire and Paradise, it is as if we are seeing them with our own eyes. But when we leave you and attend to our wives, our children, and our properties, we forget many things.” The Prophet ﷺ said, “By Him in whose hand is my soul, if you could always remain as mindful as you are in my presence, the angels would shake your hands on your couches and on your roads. Rather, there is a time for this and a time for that.” The Prophet ﷺ said it three times.62
It should go without saying that the first step necessary for holding ourselves to account is to seek beneficial Islamic knowledge, which educates us on the standards to which we will be held. Otherwise, we are impressionable creatures that will easily be manipulated by our feelings, cultural tastes, and personal inclinations. Many times, even with good intentions, we are kept from a greater good by an inferior one, and an individual obligation by a voluntary deed. Muslims who are consistent in their observance of good works, but negligent of their five time-sensitive daily prayers, are the clearest examples of this. Had they but known, or remembered, that the Prophet ﷺ said,
The first action for which a servant of Allah will be held accountable on the Day of Resurrection will be his prayers. If they are in order, he will have prospered and succeeded. If they are lacking, he will have failed and lost. If there is something defective in his obligatory prayers, then the Almighty Lord will say: See if My servant has any voluntary prayers that can complete what is insufficient in his obligatory prayers. The rest of his deeds will be judged the same way.63
Accountability for the Muslim begins there, then extends further to evaluate their observance of the other obligations, their avoidance of misusing their limbs and tongue in ways that displease Allah, and even reaching the point where a person’s mind and heart are guarded by introspection against polluted thoughts settling therein. But none of that is possible without seeing oneself as a life-long student of sacred knowledge and spiritual refinement.
This knowledge should also orient us as to how wide the spectrum of “good” in Islam actually is. We should therefore always be scoping out opportunities, and never belittle any small deed. In fact, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “Even if the Resurrection were about to commence upon one of you while he holds a sapling in his hand, he should certainly plant it if he can manage to plant it.”64
Sometimes we assume that it is too late or cumbersome to begin on the path towards something good, especially a long-term project, such as memorizing the Qur’an, starting a charity organization, or resolving a complex dispute between people. But this hadith teaches us to simply start, and that our sincere intention materializes on the Day of Judgment as a completed deed! It also teaches us that our most gracious Lord wishes for us to become “creative” through these “ideas” and never underestimate any breath we take in this world, realizing that it could afford us fortunes in our true lives in Paradise.