By Roshan, New Age Islam
22 July, 2015
What Is The Ultimate Purpose Of Human Life?
This is, you will agree, about the most significant question we could ever ask ourselves. And yet, honestly, in my almost 50 years, not once did I bother to give it any serious thought—until fairly recently.
Growing up in a supposedly ‘well-educated’ and ‘progressive’ family, not once did I ever hear anyone at home ever refer to this issue.
Studying in some of the supposedly ‘best’ educational institutions in the country and abroad, not once did I hear my teachers or fellow students ever broach this subject.
In all my many years, not once did I ever read anything about this question in the newspapers or hear anyone reflecting on it on TV.
This is a measure of how many of us choose to completely shut the most basic existential question—of the ultimate purpose of human life—out of our minds.
Few of us allow ourselves to ask and deeply ponder on what the ultimate purpose of human life as such, and our own life in particular, is. This does not mean, however, that we act without purpose. Our actions are generally driven by certain purposes, about which we are usually fairly clear. For instance, I am clear that one purpose of my writing this article is to share something that I think is important and valuable with would-be readers. Another purpose of this action, I am aware, is (hopefully!) to earn some money from a magazine or newspaper that might publish this article.
In most cases—such as the case of my writing this article—the purposes that impel us to act are what can be called ‘immediate purposes’. They are not the ultimate purpose of our lives, the raison d'être of our existence, although we may think or hope that they will contribute in at least some small way towards this greater end.
Immediate purposes are purposes for which we engage in certain tasks on a day-to-day basis. Our daily lives are generally nothing but a series of such immediate purposes. For example, going to office in the morning is an immediate purpose for me, for which I engage in the action of getting out of bed and changing my clothes. Looking reasonably presentable in front of my colleagues at office is another immediate purpose for me, for which I engage in the action of combing my hair and washing my face. Quenching my thirst and quelling my hunger is yet an immediate purpose for me, for which I engage in the action of drinking a glass of water and having my breakfast. And so on.
For most of us, our entire day is a conglomeration of a vast number of such immediate purposes. We rush from one immediate purpose to another—and that’s how our entire lives are consumed. Rarely do we consider how this non-stop activity of ours, driven by the countless immediate purposes that we pursue, contributes towards an ultimate purpose that envelops our entire lives and that might have lasting consequences for us even after we leave this world—as we are all bound to, sooner or later.
Having, till recently, never given any thought to the ultimate or grand purpose of human life in general, and of my own life in particular, I allowed my life to be driven by a multitude of immediate purposes. The way I was socialized—in the family I was born into, in the educational institutions I studied in, through the media I was exposed to, and so on—the sort of life that I chose to lead and the sort of people I chose to be surrounded with moulded me in such a way that I didn’t once think that there could be anything like an ultimate purpose of life to bother about. So deeply embroiled was I in the myriad immediate purposes that I had surrounded myself with that I never once felt the desire, or even the need, to reflect on this most basic issue of ultimate import.
And What Were The Immediate Purposes That Drove My Life?
In a nutshell, these were a whole host of purposes that were shaped by the urge to maximize sensual pleasure and minimize sensual pain. These purposes were the basis of what I had come to think of as the ‘good’ life. Studying at the ‘best’ university and landing up with a ‘jet-setting’ job, totting up a fat bank balance and being a member of a ‘happening’ club, having ‘fabulous‘ sex and gorging on ‘yummy’ food, wearing ‘smart’ clothes and listening to the ‘latest’ music, living in a ‘trendy’ flat in an ‘upmarket’ part of town and treating myself to an ‘exotic’ vacation abroad every once in a while, having ‘great fun’ window-shopping in a megamall and ‘freaking out’ with friends in a ‘swanky’ hotel—all these and much more were the immediate purposes that had driven my life, through many, many decades.
It was as if I was in this world with the sole purpose of titillating my senses.
It was as if this present life of mine was all that there was, and that after I died, nothing of me would remain and I would cease completely to exist.
It was as if there was no one— any higher Authority— to whom I was accountable and whom I would have to answer one day.
It was as if there was no Creator who had brought me into existence and whose purpose in creating me I ought to learn about and seek to fulfil.
I was not alone in thinking this way, though. Almost everyone I knew—my parents, siblings and other relatives and my friends, my teachers at school and in college and my colleagues at work, the ‘intellectuals’ I read and the folks I saw on TV and in the movies—seemed to think and behave in exactly the same manner. Not once did I hear any of them refer, even in passing, to the question of the ultimate purpose of life. Like myself, for almost everyone I met or knew, maximizing sensual gratification and minimizing sensual pain seemed to be the sole purpose of life. We were all too busy in our frenzied pursuit of sensual stimulation in almost any and every which way to care about such ‘airy-fairy’ things as life’s ultimate purpose.
This philosophy of life is neatly summed up in the words of a friend of mine about his father, who recently died:
“The old man was totally in love with life! He remained a party animal till almost his last breath—when he was just a year short of 90! Can you believe it! Amazing, isn’t it! He really knew how to live—passionate about golf, his wine and his friends and all the other good things of life even at his age!”
Taking unbridled hedonism to be the purpose of human life in general, and my own life in particular, was a result of imagining that I could discern the purpose of my existence on earth unaided, by myself. Nobody but I could decide, I was adamant, how I should live and what I should live for.
And that’s how and why I made a giant mess of my life! Luckily, though, God saved me in time, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading these words. If He hadn’t intervened just when He should have, I would be now either in a mental asylum or in the grave!
That I had created havoc with my life by being driven by the sort of purposes I had chosen to follow was hardly surprising. It was absolutely inevitable and simply couldn’t be helped, because for a created being to believe that it can define its purpose by itself and that it has no need whatsoever to learn about and seek to fulfill the purpose for which it has been created by its maker is a sure recipe for total disaster.
We human beings are created beings. We have not brought ourselves into existence. It is God, the Creator of everything else, who has created us, too. And He hasn’t done so as a sport or in jest. There is a very clear purpose for which He has made us. And that purpose is the true purpose of human life. Any other purpose is deviation, which is bound to end in doom, as my life almost did. Only a life that is led according to the purpose for which God has created us is a truly successful and meaningful one.
If you want to know the purpose for which a particular thing has been created, the right person to consult is the person who created it. Likewise, it is the One who created us who knows what the real purpose of our life is. We can’t learn the purpose for which God has created us on our own, unaided. We need to turn to God to learn this.
God has communicated to us the purpose for which He has made us ever since He settled man on earth. He has sent a succession of messengers across the world, to every nation, telling them the reason for their existence, the purpose for which they have been created and to which they should devote their lives. This message that all God’s numerous messengers have conveyed all through human history has been one and the same.
The Quran expresses this message beautifully. In the Quran (51:56), God says:
“I created the jinn and humankind only that they might worship Me.”
Worshipping God, then, is the purpose of life.
Worship is not just praying to God and engaging in actions embodied in certain rituals, as is all-too-commonly thought. Every action of ours—even eating, sleeping, admiring nature, watering a plant, feeding a cat or dog, talking with a friend, singing a song or reading a book—can be a form of worship or service of God if its intention is to do God’s will and to earn His pleasure. And yes, excelling in one’s studies, getting a good job, maintaining a decent bank balance, maintaining a nice home, shopping in a mall, eating out in a restaurant, taking a vacation once in a while and meeting up with friends and having good fun—all these, too, can be forms of worship if undertaken to please God and for His sake.
Worshipping God, rather than worshipping our own selves, I’m now hopefully beginning to understand, is the purpose of human life, the reason for which we have been placed here on earth for a brief time. It is in pleasing God, rather than maximizing our sensual pleasures, that our true pleasure lies.
Although I definitely cannot say that all this new learning has completely transformed my life, if I really want that whatever little time may now remain of my life be truly well-spent and in accordance with the purpose for which I have been created, I do know that it ought to.