How does the Quran deal with the purpose of life?
Salam Dear Reader,
Thank you so much for this very interesting question and for contacting Ask About Islam.
Indeed, among the issues that intrigue the reader of the Quran is how it encourages him/her to think, reflect and ponder on his/her own position and purpose in this world.
Allah says in the Quran:
“Does man think that he will be left neglected?
Had he not been a sperm from semen emitted?
Then he was a clinging clot, and [Allah] created [his form] and proportioned [him]
And made of him two sexes, the male and the female
Is not that [Creator] Able to give life to the dead?” (Quran 75: 36-40)
And he says:
“And We did not create the heavens and earth and that between them in play.” (Quran 44: 38)
Interestingly, the purpose of life according to the Quran was the topic of a lecture delivered by Jeffery Lang, American professor and author who was an atheist before accepting Islam.
Lang narrated his experience reading the Quran and understanding the purpose of life through it in the aforementioned lecture. It is worthwhile to share his reflections here as it highlights how the purpose of life in the Quran could be deeply understood even by a non-Arab, a religious person. With the right intention, sincerity and objectivity, however, one can always see the wisdom.
In his reflections reading the Quran, Lang referred to the scene of man’s creation described in Chapter Two of the Quran in which Allah Almighty says:
“And mention, when your Lord said to the angels, “Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority.” They said, “Will You place upon it one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we declare Your praise and sanctify You?” Allah said, “Indeed, I know that which you do not know.”And He taught Adam the names – all of them.
Then He showed them to the angels and said, “Inform Me of the names of these, if you are truthful.”They said, “Exalted are You; we have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, it is You who is the Knowing, the Wise.”He said, “O Adam, inform them of their names.” And when he had informed them of their names, He said, “Did I not tell you that I know the unseen [aspects] of the heavens and the earth? And I know what you reveal and what you have concealed.”And [mention] when We said to the angels, “Prostrate before Adam”; so they prostrated, except for Iblees.
He refused and was arrogant and became of the disbelievers.And We said, “O Adam, dwell, you and your wife, in Paradise and eat therefrom in [ease and] abundance from wherever you will. But do not approach this tree, lest you be among the wrongdoers.”But Satan caused them to slip out of it and removed them from that [condition] in which they had been. And We said, “Go down, [all of you], as enemies to one another, and you will have upon the earth a place of settlement and provision for a time.”Then Adam received from his Lord [some] words, and He accepted his repentance. Indeed, it is He who is the Accepting of repentance, the Merciful.”(Quran 2: 30: 37)
In this scene, one sees God as the Creator who created man and honored him by making him vicegerent on Earth. We see forces of good, the angels that will be in help and service to man in his life journey. We see forces of evil, Iblees who deludes Adam and tempts him to be ungratefulness to his creator.
Lang realized that those verses show Adam- and mankind- as learning creatures. The verses show that Adam is being taught by God, and in life all sons of Adam will continue to learn through all life experiences. Through language and communication, man can learn, not only through personal experiences, but through the experiences of others of different times and locations.
Lang noticed that “time and time again the Quran calls upon man to use his intellectual faculties, and swear by his intellectual faculties and to use them correctly, because they play a fundamental role in guiding him to truth” (Lang).
Lang found that the Quran repeatedly asks the readers to think and reflect. He observed that the word ‘ilm’- which means knowledge-, is mentioned around 854 times. In many locations, the Quran asks the readers “‘have you considered this or that” “Did they not ponder.”
He also found that the Quran stated over 100 times that it was revealed to make things clear, and over 21 times that in the Quran there are signs and lessons for those who are wise and use their reason.
He realized, accordingly, that “to gain truth or faith we need to free ourselves from inherited notions and examine our beliefs rationally. Learning plays a key role in human development. ‘Read!’ the Quran exhorts the reader. God taught us the use of the pen and taught human kind what it otherwise could not know. In life, nature and history there are signs and lessons for those who are wise. God teaches humanity both directly and indirectly and sometimes so subtly that we are unaware of his instruction. Thus, He touches us in multifarious ways.” (Lang)
But it’s not solely an intellectual quest. The thoughtful reader of the Quran would realize that, in essence, the Creator wanted to develop a loving relationship with the human beings, “He loves them and they love Him” (Quran 5:54).
Man is also a moral creature. He/she is created with forces of good and evil, and they have to make a choice.
Unlike angels who are created to be good and obedient, man has a choice. And because of this, he could experience a real sincere loving relationship with His Creator. He could choose to turn away, or he could choose to turn with love to His Creator. He could hate and neglect or he could prove commitment, sincerity and desire of The One who created him.
“It’s very clear when you read the Quran that what [mankind] will achieve in this life- to so much greater degree in the next- is that they will experience a relationship of love with God. They will turn to God in love and God will turn to them in love,” Lang said.
He explained that God’s mercy, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, warmth and all the things associated with God are freely given to all mankind. That is the nature of the name of Allah “ArRahman”, The Continuously Merciful. But when the Quran speaks of God’s love, it’s referring to a more special state. Love is a relationship between two. How can one claim to love someone whom he doesn’t really know or spend time with?
So, Lang realized that if one did not turn to God in love, then he/she receives His mercy, forgiveness, generosity and all that while being in a state of ingratitude and rejection of the Giver. Everything in the human being, everything that keeps him/her alive; the air they breathe, food, sustenance… all of this is a gift from God- whether the human being thanks and acknowledges or not.
“So, we never really experience the love if we didn’t turn to it and open ourselves up to it. It is always there for us, but unless we enter into that relationship and that love that give and take, the relationship is never developed. We reject it, and that’s what the word kufr (disbelieve) mean in Arabic, it means to reject, to turn your back” (Lang).
“O You who believe, if any from among you should [turn back from faith] then Allah will assuredly bring a people He loves and who loves Him…” (Quran 5: 54)
To love someone, you need to know him. We find that throughout the Quran, passages usually end with dual attributes increasing one’s knowledge of Allah. Like; “He is the Beneficent The Merciful,” He is the Forgiving, the Gentle” “He is the Subtle, The All-Knowing” these and the rest of the 99 names of Allah continue to be manifested for the created being in the Quran and in life in order to let him know and experience a relationship with His Creator, sense His presence and grow in faith and longing to Him.
Experiencing love could involve physical nearness. But there is a deeper sense of nearness. The Quran tells the reader that God is closer to man than his/her own jugular veins (50:16), and that He is with them wherever they are (57:4). He is constantly Seeing, Hearing and Knowing of what they do, what they reveal and conceal. He doesn’t sleep, slumber or forsake them.
It is their task, then, to remember Him…. “To worship God as though you see Him, and if you do not see Him, know that He Sees you,” this is what Prophet Muhammad said about the excellence in remembering God.
And the relationship includes sharing. In the prayer, for example, the person recites and remembers the words of His Creator in the Quran. Then, he asks Him for whatever he/she wants. One listens to what God says, and then speak to Him, in a communication of intimacy between God and every single human being who seeks Him.
The Quran further reflects what we share with The Creator.
“We share with Him exactly what He gave us. The Quran tells us that when we came into this life, Allah ‘breathes’ into our ‘spirit’ something of His Spirit. ” “[… ] We come into this world with a sea of these qualities [Truth, Mercy, Forgiveness, Purity, Justice…etc], and we can either stunt them, or cause them to grow.
When we grow in these, we grow in our ability not just to experience its beauty in our life, but to experience the infinite Source of these qualities; beauty, peace, truth, compassion, mercy…which is Allah! The more we grow in our ability to receive and experience His attributes of perfection, the more we grow in our ability to experience His Being. It’s more than just physical nearness, it’s more than just a convergence of ideas, it’s more than just a convergence of feelings … it’s a convergence of essential beings. It’s the closest type of nearness one can feel or experience.” (Lang)
 The significance of Lang’s account is that it confirms that the Quran that was revealed 14 hundred years ago in the Arabian Desert- can be deeply understood and explained in an American university, by an American mathematician. This confirms that the Quran is a message from The Creator to mankind irrespective of time, place and ethnicity.
And Allah knows best.
I hope this helps.
Salam and please keep in touch.