Author Archives: philologue

The Purpose of Life

by Elisabeth Strout

As I read through Surah Al-Mu’minoun (Chapter of the Believers) in the Qur’an the other Saturday evening, and read for the hundredth time the promise of heaven to the believers and hell for the disbelievers, the following thoughts came to me, tumbling over themselves all in a rush.

As human beings, the single purpose of our existence is to worship our Creator. That’s it. The Muslim worldview could be said to consist entirely in this single ordinance. Every last thing about Islam revolves around it. When you take this concept, and start applying it to each aspect of Islam, each teaching of the Qur’an, spoken by God, and each teaching of His final prophet, everything falls quickly into place, and moves slowly into view as a comprehensive system which takes every aspect of life on earth, and fits it into our singular purpose, the worship of our Creator.

Yet in my discussions with Christians, I’ve often heard expressed the concern that with the Qur’an’s apparent over-emphasis on the horrors of hell and the sensual pleasures of heaven as the goal of the afterlife rather than God Himself, and with the description of sin as “merely” the failure to worship God (as opposed to the Christian view of sin as some evil force which, without outside redemption, holds us all in its grasp and doom us all to hell, believer or unbeliever, righteous or unrighteous, in its infinite offense against God), Islam is missing the mark. As Thabiti Anyabwile, an Evangelical pastor who flirted with the Nation of Islam (a black supremacist movement founded in 1930) during his college years, puts it in his book, The Gospel for Muslims, “Sin rests lightly on the Muslim conscience because Muslims… fail to see how it dishonors God” [1].

The implicit claim of this statement, is that Christians do understand how deeply sin dishonors God, perhaps because they, unlike us, have the brutal crucifixion to look to. If someone had to suffer such excruciating pain in order to deal with sin, then sin must be an awful thing. But I’d beg to differ. Christianity can’t have a more accurate understanding of sin, nor does the Qur’an’s emphasis on heaven and hell detract from its emphasis on the worship of God. And the reason for both is one and the same.

The Christian frame of reference for the gravity of sin lies in atonement by blood. In brief, sin is so horrible, that it demands eternal death [2], and can only be forgiven if blood is shed [3], and the only satisfactory blood is God’s own blood [4]. The reasoning seems to be that sin is infinitely offensive, and therefore requires infinite punishment – either by the infinite suffering of our finite selves (in hell), or the finite suffering of an infinite individual (Christ’s ostensible crucifixion).

The problem with this, beyond the absurdity of God Himself being punished for our sin, effectively stripping the word ‘justice’ entirely of any meaning, is that while it appears to make sin a very grave thing indeed – infinitely grave – by the same logic, we are finite and therefore cannot comprehend the infinity of our offense against God. So we’re right back where we started – unable to grasp the weight of sin, of not fulfilling the purpose of our existence.

The difference in the Islamic perspective, is that it gives a frame of reference that we can relate to – not the vicarious suffering of another that took place 2,000 years ago, but the very personal and future experiences of our own selves. It speaks of heaven and hell, not as our ultimate goals, but as our ultimate destinations. The vivid Qur’anic descriptions accompanying these destinations are not there to scare us or motivate us to worship, but to enable us, as physical, sentient beings, to grasp the weight of our actions.

The detail with which the fires of hell are recounted and ascribed to those who disbelieve and work evil, and the wonder with which the gardens of paradise are described and promised to those who believe in God and His messenger, and fulfill their salah and zakaah, are not meant to take the focus off God. Rather the pleasure of heaven speaks to our senses of the beauty of worshiping God, and the pain of hell speaks of the foulness of dishonoring Him.

Again, the distinction is clear: the outcomes assigned to our actions are the natural results of them, and therefore frames of reference, while the goal to which we aspire is our Creator and the unfathomable privilege of gazing upon His face. [5] Surah Al-Qiyamah, the chapter of the Resurrection, is a short and eloquent testimony to this, telling us “some faces that day will be brilliant, gazing at their Lord”. [6]

But God did not simply inform us of the purpose of our existence, and leave it up to us to figure out how to fulfill it. Islam provides a clear set of guidelines for doing so, starting with five pillars, and reiterating those constantly in the Qur’an, as the foundation of our life of worship.

The first, the ‘shahada’, or bearing witness that there is no deity but Allah, and that Muhammad is His messenger, set us apart intellectually from those who fail to accomplish the purpose of their life, by attributing divine attributes to other than God, or by attributing human attributes to Him (known as ‘shirk’), or by denying His existence outright (known as ‘kufr’). Even Thabiti Anyabwile recognizes this. Contradicting his earlier statement that Muslims fail to see how sin dishonors God, he ascertains that, “the highest blasphemy in Islam is… making partners with God. To the Muslim mind nothing could be more foul and dishonoring to God.” [7]

The four remaining pillars are equally important. Time, sleep, money, food, sex, and social status – these are fundamental needs and desires we have as human beings, and each pillar helps purify and re-focus them, so rather than becoming idols, they can be turned into acts of worship. ‘Salah’, the five daily ‘prayers’ at dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, evening, and night, and the second of the pillars, governs the time and the sleep we consider so precious, reminding us that they also belong to God. We are forgetful beings – the very word for mankind in Arabic comes from this root – and we need frequent reminding of our purpose. Salah is this constant reminder, refocus on the glory of God.

The three remaining pillars, ‘zakah’, ‘sawm’, and ‘hajj’, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage, govern our worldly desire for money and social status, and our earthly need for food and intimacy. Just like the call to prayer at dawn reminds that “salah is better than sleep”, zakah reminds us that God is more worthy of our desire than money, by enjoining on us generosity, giving from what God has provided us, to those who have less. Sawm reminds us He is more worthy of our desire than food or sex, by reining in those desires from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan. And hajj reminds us that we are all equal before God, rich and poor, brown and white, king and servant, by bringing us all together in the same location, in the same dress, in the same language, in the same state of ihram, performing the same acts of worship, bowing shoulder to shoulder before our Creator.

These pillars are a daily, monthly, and yearly reminder that we are not the sum total of our physical needs and wants, our ultimate goal here is not to fulfill them. But Islam doesn’t stop there. Through the Qur’an, the final revelation of God, and through the example and teaching of Muhammad, His final prophet, Islam reaches out to all aspects of life, from waking up in the morning to going to bed at night, from giving birth to choosing a spouse to preparing a body for burial, from going to the bathroom to eating food, in health and sickness, and provides guidance, so that there is a right and a wrong way to do everything.

In this way, “Islam provides a means of turning each and every human act, no matter how insignificant or mundane it may seem, into an act of worship.” [8] In fact, any act, “consciously done for the pleasure of Allah alone and done according to the sunnah of the messenger of Allah, can turn into an act of worship and man’s whole life can enter completely into the service of Allah.” [9] Hence the vast and far-reaching body of regulations in Islam, are not an interminable list of arbitrary rules assigned by God merely to test us, but wise guidelines designed by Him that fulfill a purpose, and at the same time, make us more peaceful, successful, happier individuals.


[1] Anyabwile, Thabiti, The Gospel for Muslims, p. 45-46

[2] Romans 6:23

[3] Hebrews 9:22

[4] Romans 3:25

[5] Al-Munajjid, Sh. Muhammad,

[6] Qur’an 75:22-23

[7] Anyabwile, p. 27

[8] Philips, Dr. Bilal, The Fundamentals of Tawheed

[9] Ibid.