THE MEANINGFULNESS OF LIFE
By: Kassim Ahmad
[The first of four parts]
This is a daunting subject I am choosing to discuss. Most writers today would consider it an irrelevant topic. Mankind has asked this question of the meaning of life since the beginning of his existence on earth. Religions, arts, and philosophies testify to man’s quest for meaning. Yet are we any nearer to solving the mystery than those ancient theologians, artists and philosophers in the
Alija Ali Izetbegovic, now president of Bosnia-Herzergovina, in his profound book1 reminds us that Islam is the middle way between asceticism (religion in the narrow sense of the term) and materialism. Islam is a harmonious blending of the spirit and matter. It does not reject the world, as mysticism does, nor does it reject the spirit, as the materialist does. He writes:
There are three integral views of the world: the religious, the materialistic, and the Islamic. They reflect three elemental possibilities -- conscience, nature, and man, each of them manifesting itself as Christianity, Materialism and Islam. All variety of ideologies, philosophies and teachings from the oldest time up to now can be reduced to one of these three basic world views. The first takes as its starting point the existence of the spirit, the second the existence of matter, and the third the simultaneous existence of spirit and matter. If only matter exists, materialism would be the only consequent philosophy. On the contrary, if the spirit exists, then man also exists, and man’s life would be senseless without a kind of religion and morality. Islam is the name for the unity of spirit and matter; the highest form of which is man himself. The human life is complete only if it includes both the physical and the spiritual desires of the human being. All man’s failures are either because of the religious denial of man’s biological needs or the materialistic denial of man’s spiritual desires. 2
The materialist concept, by rejecting the spirit, denies an important aspect of life and hence distorts it. Thus, a social system based on the materialist philosophy, like communism, is bound to deny morality, creativity and freedom since these belong to the realm of the spirit. This philosophy carries its own death warrant, and the collapse of the communist system testifies to this fact. Capitalist liberalism is no less materialistic than communism. In fact, they are twins, born of the same materialist philosophical parentage. However, since Western liberalism has been tempered with social responsibility of the state, (a legacy of the American Revolution), it was able to prolong its life. In spite of this, unfettered individualism, which is the essence of liberalism, will inevitably lead it to its destruction. The present period in history seems to be the death throes of liberalism. We are seeing the last gasps of a philosophy destined to collapse.3
The collapse of Marxism and liberalism, however, is not due to any cycle of life and death of any society or civilization, as propounded by Ibn Khaldun 4 and Arnold Toynbee.5 Both postulated and described the cycle of birth, development and degeneration of societies and civilizations. The birth and development are due to the creative spirit embedded in that society; the degeneration and death to the loss of that creative spirit. Liberalism and Marxism are two universal materialist philosophies of the modern era, and their collapse is now complete and final due to their inherent error. It is not due to mismanagement or fatigue. Therefore, there is no such thing as a revival of liberalism or communism, except in the sense of a temporary backward step in history in the absence of a better alternative. When the Quran states a term for every nation, 6 it is referring to the first phenomenon of historical cycles. The second phenomenon refers to an error of philosophical conception.
What is life, then? What is the purpose of our being here? Denying the spirit, the materialist does not believe in any purpose. One modern materialist philosopher, Bertrand Russell, describes this meaninglessness poignantly and almost poetically:
Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world in which science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the need they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the aspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins -- all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of those truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be built 7
On the other hand, Islam teaches the purposefulness of life. In one of its clearest statements, the Quran declares:
We did not create the heavens and the earth and everything between them just to play. If We needed entertainment, We could have initiated it without any of these, if that is what We wanted to do. Instead, it is Our plan to support the truth against falsehood in order to defeat it. 8
Thus, the whole universe has been created by God in accordance with the laws of truth in such a way that all falsehoods that temporarily pervade life will be ultimately exposed and defeated. Man, therefore, has a moral duty to fight against evil and falsehood in order to establish the good and the truth 9 in accordance with the divine plan to establish the truth. Studying the entire history of mankind, we can see the evolution of human society, definitely progressing, if at most times all too slowly, sometimes regressing, yet definitely moving forward from stage to stage: from primitive society to civilized society, localized in the beginning and leading to the formation of an international scientific-technologically-based society in the 20th century. The philosophies guiding these stages are the same: materialist, ascetic and Islamic. When the Islamic philosophical element is predominant or strong, the evolution is fast; otherwise it is slow and society may even regress. 10
It is often complained by non-believers and sceptics that a suffering human being or child did not ask to be born: why then did God create him and put him into this suffering? To answer this question, one has first to define the concept of suffering. Two types of suffering have first to be identified, that is physical and spiritual suffering. Being materially poor, one may suffer from material deprivation like hunger or lack of other material goods. Yet spiritual deprivation, a feeling of loneliness, aimlessness, hopelessness and despair is surely more painful. A spiritually strong person not only will not suffer spiritually; he also may not suffer materially, because being spiritually strong, he is resourceful enough to earn his living. A spiritually strong society will also be able to look after its deficient children, like the poor and the physically-handicapped. So the question of suffering really does not arise.
As to man’s consent to come into this world, no man refuses to benefit from the joys of this world, like wealth, position, power, love, friendship, reading, food, conversation, music, literature, family life and so on. Although some extremely spiritual men, like Buddha and Jesus Christ, may forgo some of these pleasures, most of them do not; neither is it normal for human beings to do so. Therefore, we can conclude that symbolically man agrees to be born into this world and is pleased to be in it, although under certain conditions some of his kind would commit suicide.
This brings us face to face with the question of man’s mortality or immortality. If a man’s life ends with his death, then life is meaningless. On the one hand, man propagates himself physically, intellectually, morally and spiritually. His children and grand-children not only continue his physical life but also intellectual, moral and spiritual live. There is continuity throughout. On the other hand, death only takes away the physical man; his spirit does not die with him, because spirits belong to the realm of the divine. 11 According to the Quran, this spirit will get resurrected in another world on the Day of Judgement. This spirit will get a new body and continue the man’s journey of life. 12 This will continue until God’s plan of separating truth from falsehood and making the truth prevail is fully realized.
Since man dies on this earth and will be resurrected on this earth 13 and since Heaven is as wide as the universe 14, it can be postulated that in the coming decades, three more decades at most, man will live on other planets and in outer space. As changes on earth was made with man’s participation, so we can expect that future changes, including the Final Judgement, will be made with man’s participation. 15
1 Islam Between East and West, American Trust Publication,
2 Ibid., p.1.
3 The liberal truimphalism announced by Francis Fukuyama after the collapse of communism in 1989 is obviously illusory. The system is being kept alive largely through usury and the moral apathy of Western societies. See his book, The End of History and the Last Man, Penguin Books,
4 The Muqaddimah, 3 vol., 1958 (trans. by F. Rosenthal).
5 A Study of History, 10 vol., 1934, 1939 & 1954. Abridged edition made by D.C. Somervell, 1960.
6 “For each community, there is a predetermined life span. Once their interim comes to an end, they cannot delay it by one hour, nor advance it.” (Quran, Al-A’raf: 34) This occurs when a community, after going through the stages of growth and prosperity, forgets the moral law and abandons itself to decadence, as often happens.
7 Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, Allen and Unwin,
8 Al-Anbiya: 16-18.
9 “The human being is utterly lost, except those who lead a righteous life, exhort one another to uphold the truth, and exhort one another to be steadfast.” (Al-`Asr: 2-3)
10 “The One Who created death and life for the purpose of distinguishing those among you who would do better.” (Quran, Al-Mulk: 2)
11 Man’s distinction from the other orders of created beings is his possession of the divine spark of creative reason within him. For this reason he is superior to all other beings, including the angels. “Your Lord said to the angels, `I am creating a human being from aged mud, like the potter’s clay. Once I perfect him and blow into him from My spirit, you shall prostrate before him.” (Quran, Al-Hijr: 28-29) Of all created beings, only man has this divine spirit in him. Thus he is God’s vicegerent, and the whole of creation, including the angels, are commanded by God to serve him.
12 “On that day, We shall fold the heavens like the folding of a book. Just as We initiated the first creation, We shall repeat it. This is Our promise; We shall certainly carry it out.” (Quran, Al-Anbiya: 104)
13 “He said, `On it you will live, on it you will die, and from it you will be brought out.’ ” (Quran, Al-A’raf: 25)
14 “You should eagerly race towards forgiveness from your Lord, and a
15 15. Man’s participation in the divine creative work of perfecting the world can be deduced from the Quranic concept of man’s vicegerency on earth as well its concept of the divine subjection of universal forces to man’s purpose. (See notes 11 and 19.) Man’s self-judgement on Resurrection Day is indicated in such verses as this: “We have recorded the fate of every human being; it is tied to his neck. On the Day of Resurrection, We shall hand him a record that is accesible. Read your own record. Today you suffice as your own reckoner.” (Bani Israil: 13-14)