An Interview with Sheima Salam Sumer
23 August 2018
Sheima Salam Sumer, a trained counsellor, is the author of How to Be a Happy Muslim Insha’Allah and The Basic Values of Islam.
In this discussion, she reflects on the purpose of life—among the most basic and important questions that we could ask ourselves.
Q: Despite their differences at the level of dogma and ritual, all religions believe in the Hereafter and insist that life does not end with the death of the body because human beings are not their bodies. This is in sharp contrast to all materialistic ideologies that, despite their differences, claim that everything ceases with the death of the body.
How do you think this basic distinction between religions, on the one hand, and all materialistic ideologies, on the other, is reflected in how they see the purpose of life?
A: I think that religions emphasize the eternal, “real life” after our worldly life. Religions teach that this worldly life is simply a testing ground in which we plant the seeds of good deeds that will be harvested in the next life. Materialistic ideologies may view this world as the only goal. They do not believe that we will be accountable for our deeds in the next world.
Q: What difference(s) do you think belief in the Creator God makes in people’s understanding of the purpose of life?
A: Belief in the Creator helps us to understand that we are accountable for our actions. Belief in the Creator engenders gratitude to Him for giving us life. Belief in God also engenders a desire to know God and be closer to Him.
Q: Many people just don’t want to talk or even think about death. This reluctance to face the reality of death shapes their worldviews in a distinct way. It might, for instance, lead them to try to build up ‘heaven’ on earth (as, for instance, Marxist utopians). Or, it could lead them to become cynical and think that life is ultimately meaningless because death, they claim, puts a final end to everything. How do you think these people’s reluctance to think of death might shape how they look at the purpose of life?
A: Reluctance to think of death can lead to a lack of morality because people may not see the importance of good conduct. It can lead to a purely pleasure-seeking life in which all of one’s hopes are placed in this temporary life. It may lead to a lack of purpose.
Q: Do you agree that the purpose of human life can only be understood by bringing in the reality of death and the concept of the Hereafter (which is something that all religions talk of, sometimes in different ways) and that only then can we understand the larger picture of what is life is for and about? As a believer in God and the Hereafter, what difference do you think faith in the Hereafter—life after death—might make in the way we think of the purpose of life?
A: As a Muslim I do agree that the purpose of life is understood by remembering the reality of death and the hereafter. However, I witness that many people who don’t believe in the hereafter are able to create their own life purposes. As a Muslim I believe that the purpose of life is to please my Creator and prepare for my eternal life. However people who don’t believe in a Creator may see the purpose of life as simply being a good person or enjoyment.
Q: Growing up, no one ever talked to me about the purpose of life—not my parents, nor my friends, nor any of my teachers (even in college and university). Do you think this is a fairly widespread phenomenon? If so, do you think this is a relatively recent development?
A: I am not sure if this is widespread because such discussions depend on whether families adhere to a religion or not. My family was religious and therefore the purpose of life was discussed. I think due to the diversity of people nowadays, the purpose of life is less discussed in educational environments due to the respect for freedom of belief.
Q: While the purpose of life may not be explicitly talked about, many (most?) of us are constantly faced with the implicit message that the purpose of life is to become materially rich. So, the purpose of life comes to be seen as getting a ‘good’ job, a big house or whatever. This is something that is pervasive in society—in the education system and the media and even in our homes. Through this subtle but pervasive propaganda, we come to define the purpose of life in essentially materialistic terms. Do you agree? If so, and if you think that this is not really what the purpose of life is, how do you think we could become more aware, and also help make others more aware, of what the true purpose of life is?
A: I agree that there is a pervasive underlying message that life is about making money and buying things. I think that the more people who practice spiritual living—having a purpose to serve God—the more the message of our true purpose will spread. I think that we need more people speaking about our spiritual purpose in life. This topic needs to be in the public discourse.
Q: Some people say that life is a gift and that we ought to be grateful to God for it. On the other hand, faced with enormous sufferings or finding life meaningless, some others might think that life is a burden, something that they may not feel the need to be grateful to God for and something that they long to escape from. If you think life is a gift which we should be grateful to God for, how might you seek to convince someone who thinks life is a burden or a curse of your view?
A: First I would challenge their view that life is completely a burden or curse. The reality is that life is full of beauty as well as hardship. To just focus on the hardship is a biased, false view of life. I would also inform them that life’s hardships are meant to help us evolve as people. Hardships inspire change and self growth. So even hardships have beauty and a potential to inspire gratitude.
Q: God has bestowed each of us with a particular calling in life, and following that calling may be said to be the means for us to fulfil the purpose of our life. How do you think we might be able to discern this calling?
Related to the above question: It is said that we should seek to do God’s will, not our will. This could be said to be the way to lead a truly meaningful life and to fulfil its purpose. How do you think we can discern God’s will for us?
Q: Many wise people have said that our calling is related to the hardships we have faced in life. Our hardships are meant to show us our calling. Furthermore, our calling inspires us. It stirs our soul and is something we enjoy doing. As long as we are sincere and patient on the path of serving God, then God will guide us to our calling naturally.
A: Many people might say that we should not bother about God and the Hereafter and that we should focus only on what we can know for ‘sure’—i.e. dimensions related to the physical world. They might argue that God and the Hereafter are unknown, unknowable and speculative and so might claim that we should focus only on this world and seeking to gain ‘fulfilment’ here. That alone, they may claim, is the way to fulfil the purpose of life or lead a truly meaningful life.
Q: How do you see this view?
A: There exist many revelations of God sent to Prophets, such as the holy books. If people choose to believe that these revelations are not from God that is their choice. However, the fact that these books have so much in common is evidence that they came from the one God. The fact that God sent revelations is proof that it’s possible to know something of God. If there was no chance of knowing God, why would God reveal His messages?
Many people who have had near death experiences attest to an afterlife. The intelligent design behind creation, such as the DNA code, is impossible to have occurred by chance.
I believe that God sent revelations to us to teach us about our real life purpose—to know and worship Him through doing good.
Q: Related to this, some people might say that in order to lead a meaningful life it is enough to be a ‘good’ person and to do ‘good’. They may say that that there is no need to believe in God or cultivate a relationship with God for this purpose, because, they may claim, there is no firm evidence of God.
How do you see this argument?
Proponents of this view think that the purpose of life is simply to be ‘good’ and do ‘good’: Do you think this is adequate for success in this world and the Hereafter? Do you think it is truly possible to be truly good (in the fullest sense of the term) without a connection with God—the Absolute Good and the Source of all good?
A: Goodness as you said comes from God. God created us with a natural inclination to be and do good. I believe that there are good people who don’t believe in God because goodness is part of human nature. I don’t believe that one can be successful in the hereafter by simply being good. Belief in God is necessary for success in the hereafter. The Holy Quran repeatedly says that we need faith and good works to attain success in the next life.
Q: Some people might say that there is no single, given purpose of life and that each one of us has to develop our own understanding of this purpose. Proponents of this view would challenge the claims of followers of religion who claim that there is indeed a definite purpose of life (which is described in their scriptures). How do you see this?
A: I believe we each have a specific, unique purpose under the umbrella of the general purpose that religion teaches—to worship and honor God. Each person can define his/her own purpose under the general purpose of pleasing God. For example, I derive great joy from writing and providing free email counselling through my blog. At the same time, I am worshipping God.
Q: Many people who are married and have children see their primary purpose in life as being to earn money for their family. After they retire from their jobs and when their children are grown up and ‘settled’, they may feel that now their lives have no purpose. They might live without any purpose at all, just waiting for death to overtake them. Or, they may do all sorts of (even useless) things just to be ‘busy’ because they have no other what to do with themselves or to ‘pass’ time. How do you envisage a meaningful old age? What do you think is the role of faith in God in this regard?
A: Meaning is created by trying to please and worship God through whatever inspires you. Doing good deeds, seeking beneficial knowledge, and growing spiritually are all ways to create a meaningful life after retirement. I believe that faith in God is the driving force for finding meaning in old age.