The Meaning of the Universe & Divine Purpose

From Jawdat Said

Jump to: navigation, search

The meaning of the universe is evasive. It is something beyond our comprehension. Nevertheless, we can see pmpose in everything from the nucleus to the Galaxy, and in every creature and moment in the evolution of the human species. We can see how the universe is progressing towards an end that is neither arbitrary nor wrong According to the Qur'an, God is beyond human perception: "And there is none like unto Him." (Surah 112 A1 Ikhlas: 4) "[T]here is nothing whatever like unto Him." (Surah 42 A1 Shura: 11) "No vision can grasp Him. But his grasp is over all vision . . . ." (Surah 6 Al An'am: 103) God is the essence of existence, and the meaning of the universe. Faith in God is the secret of existence.

Nevertheless, we sometimes conceive of the universe as lacking w purpose because of a fragmented worldview, one that does not conceive of existence sequentially, nor sees it through time. Many perceive existence as arbitrary and worthy of rejection. When this sense that the world is arbitrary overshadows the glory and beauty of existence, we live disconnected with the world.

Did you then think that We had created you in jest (arbitrarily), and that you would not be brought back to us (for account). Therefore exalted be God, the King, the Reality: there is no god but, the Lord of the throne of honour! (Surah 23 A1 Mu'minun: 115-116)

Consequently, we should reject not existence itself but those who impose upon others the belief that the world is arbitrary. This is what the Qur'an and Bible do. Many respected thinkers advocate such nihilistic ideas and so make others lose their sense of purpose in life and forego any hope of finding a meaning to existence. Both the Qur'an and the Bible warn of such tendencies:

`[B]ut who does more wrong than one who concocts a lie against God, to lead astray people without knowledge . . . .' (Surah 6 Al An'am: 144) `[A]nd hinder them from the path of God ....' (Surah 9 Al Tawbah: 34)
The Bible confirms this warning: `Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of Heaven in people's faces; you do not enter yourselves, and when others try to enter, you stop them.' (Matt 23:13) Jesus goes on and calls them the `Blind guides (who) strain off a midge, yet gulp down a camel!' (Matt 23:24)

Yet, even those who deny that there is a purpose to the universe live in ways that contradict their very own ideas. For example, once one of my visitors argued that the universe is arbitrary. I said to him: "If what you are saying were true and you believed in it, you would not have visited me and you would not have discussed this with me. Your own strife shows your faith in a truth for which you are searching." The Qur'an contends that unlike most human behavior, which is learned by human beings after they come into the world, faith in God is something that a human being is born with, something that he or she is imprinted with, just as other creatures are imprinted with the behavior appropriate to their species. The searching and yearning that my visitor experienced is always present because the human body, by design, requires purpose. Genes in the human nervous system demand meaning. Thus, humans come to life with a profound curiosity that challenges any nihilism and loss of purpose1;' a human being is innately a creature in search of meaning and order in the universe, a creature who instinctively responds to the demand of monotheism.

Belief in God implies a rejection of the notion that the universe is arbitrary, even though it permits a wide and open range of views about the meaning of the universe that still give honor to God2:

Those 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 have You created (all) this! Glory to You! Give us salvation &om the penalty of the Fire.' (Surah 3 Ali `Imran: 190¬191)

Justice and the word of equity are not nihilistic notions, nor is compassion arbitrary. Nihilism lies in the attempt to conceal or the inability to see the demands of justice, piety and compassion throughout history. While people despair out of the long whimsical lives they lead and "many false prophets will rise, and will mislead many; and as lawlessness (inequity) spreads, the love of many will grow cold," (Matt 24:11-12) the longing and yearning for knowledge, from which love grows, does not die. It is true that human beings are willing to give away their lives and fortunes for the sake of self actualization, and the yearning for self actualization is a flame that never dies. Yet, it is possible for us to mistake the movement of the sun, and still we are capable of correcting such wrongs and of moving beyond them once and for all.

History imposes purpose and meaningfulness. Any understanding bereft of history is disconnected and arbitrary. History teaches us this. But history is a vision that includes the present, past and future. Any person capable of seeing this reality is in perpetual prayer and in touch with the sacred. S/he is "involved" with the universe, driven to pursue the best.

History, without weariness, is like a patient instructor and humanity is like a clever student who finally understands its lessons. At the end, humanity comes to the call of history and moves forward to economize and invest in resources. Humanity comes to learn about its capacities through history. Thus, it is perhaps possible to see why that . which brings the best out in a human being is never the result of coercion. Human beings have a longing for the meaning of their own lives and the world around them, and we must be skilled in investing in this longing, rather than bludgeoning it with coercion. History exemplifies God's investment in human understanding and His stand against the waste of coercion: "Soon will We show them our signs in the horizons, and in their own selves, until it becomes manifest to them that this is the truth . . . ." (Surah 41 Fussilat: 53)

The signs in our selves and in the horizons (or universe) reveal the truth, tempting human intelligence to perform its meaning-making role by reaching for the best outcome with the least effort and energy. The constant law of history has as its goal keeping that which is the largest benefit for the greatest number of people who live on earth, and not that which benefits some of them. This is a significant law; it is what distinguishes truth from evil in the Qur'an:

"Thus does God (by parables) show forth truth and falsehood. For the foam (scum) dries out (disappears) like forth cast out; while that which is for the benefit of humankind remains on the earth . . . ." (Surah 13 Al Ra'd: 17)

This law is the decisive point of reference. It does not spare those who slack behind: it will abrogate them. That which is more beneficial to humankind will supersede that which is less beneficial, whether in technology or human understanding. "None of our revelations do we abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something either better or similar: do you not know that God has power over all things." (Surah 2 Al Baqarah: 106)

The Qur'an confirms this through a dialogue between Abraham and his people:

`Behold,' he said to this father and his people: `What worship you?' They said: `We worship idols, and we remain constantly in attendance on them.' He said: `Do they listen to you when you call (on them), Or do you good or harm?' They said: `Nay, but we found our fathers doing thus.' (Surah 26 A1 Shu'ara': 71-74)

Abraham is demanding a good outcome, benefits that his people would reap from their pious belief and behavior. In fact we might consider Abraham the first pragmatist in the sense that he sought the public good and not private privilege. However, his nation did not share his view; they followed their fathers' examples. The Qur'an, in contrast, presents the prophetic standard as a regime of permissions and prohibitions which are based on whether the outcomes of human behavior are beneficial or harmful:

[F]or he [the Prophet] commands them what is agreeable and forbids them what is disagreeable (unseemly); he allows them as lawful what is good (and healthy) and prohibits them from what is vile; he releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them. (Surah 7 Al A'raf 157)

The Qur'an stresses and relies on this standard in deciding what is permissible and what is taboo3.

The Qur'an presents the laws given for human benefit as the crux of the call of all the messengers. Monotheism, which is the essence of these laws, is the message of all prophets, all people of knowledge and all those who call for justice. The Qur'anic recitation of the prophetic message, "Worship God and eschew evil" demands that the people come to the word of equity. The cause of all prophets has thus shifted from the theological and metaphysical to the social and political, and the religious issue becomes the secular issue. This movement is an important one to which we must pay attention, so that we will not separate the sacred from the profane, the divine from the secular, the world from the hereafter.

The core of the relationship between law and religion, and the mission of all prophets, is in the solution of the problem of violence and subjugation. Throughout history we see that the main problem with the human condition is humanity's rejection of the call for equality, or in the Qur'anic language, the word of equity4. Those who reject the word of equity have assumed superiority over all humanity, exalting themselves as gods above others and assuming for themselves all the sacredness and transcendentalism of the divine5. In these examples, we see that the common message of all prophets was to bring people to worshipping God and taking them away from obeying wicked tyrannies (taghut) even while the subjugated ones accept this domination rather than throwing it off. The prophets demanded an end to this repeated rotation of roles between oppressors and oppressed because they understood that such a polarized relationship is based on violence and subjugation. It is easy to argue that the major conflict in human existence is between theological and humanistic visions, but in fact, the major problem human beings face is social. It is about oppression and justice, equality and privileges, an oppressor imposing his earthly divinity and slaves oppressed by their own ignorance, succumbing to power and accepting domination.

History, too, presses for a solution. So, if we can respond to the problem of violence and history together, we will give humanity a forcible push toward solving its greatest dilemma, the schizophrenic disease of all civilizations. The birth of healing and the end of the crises is near. Our challenge lies in how to turn the relationship between law and religion from being destructive and painful to being constructive and healing6.


1 "When your 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?' They said: `We do testify' (This), lest you should say on the Day of Judgement: `Of this we were never mindful."' Surah 7 A1 A'raf: 172.

2 For instance, the Qur'an says: "Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, And the alternation of Night and Day . . . there are indeed signs for those of hearts (understanding)." Surah 2 A1 Baqarah: 164.

3 For example, the Qur'an mentions the reason behind forbidding wine by using the standard of weighing harms and benefits: "They ask thee concerning wine and gambling. Say: `In them is great sin, and some profit for people; but the sin is greater than the profit . . , "' Id at 219.

4 Surah 3 Ali `Imran: 64.

Christ described the difficulty of the path that leads to life: "[N]arrow is the gate and constricted the road that leads to life, and those who find them are few." Matt 7:14.

5 The Qur'an quotes Pharaoh's superiority and assumed divinity as we saw above in verses: 79 An-Nazi'at: 24; 28 Al-Qasas: 38; 26 Ash-Shu'araa: 290. Pharaoh even threatened those who believed in Moses.

(Pharaoh) said: `Believe you in him before I give you permission? Surely this must be your leader who has taught you magic! I will certainly cut off your hands and feet on opposite sides, and I will have crucified on trunks of palm trees: so shall you know for certain which of us can give the more severe and the more lasting punishment!' Surah 20 Ta Ha: 71.

And we see the same in the dialogue of Abraham with the pharaoh of his age. "Abraham said: `My Lord is He who gives life and death.' He said: `I give life and death . . ."' Surah 2 Al Baqarah: 258.

6 Christ described the difficulty of the path that leads to life: "[N]arrow is the gate and constricted the road that leads to life, and those who find them are few." Matt 7:14.