A life designed for purpose

If one's heart is attached to meaningful things, then one's value is meaningful; and if to petty things then one's value is, well, petty.

If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there. - Lewis Carroll Last week I pointed to the fact that a person's worth is in direct measure to the value of the things to which he or she is attached. Not according to a gold standard, though, but instead a criterion of meaning. If one's heart is attached to meaningful things, then one's value is meaningful; and if to petty things then one's value is, well, petty. If one's heart, on the other hand, is attached to what is eternal, beginningless and endless, then his or her worth is endless and without limit.

When we scan the social landscape to look at what people have attached themselves to, we can get an idea of where they are headed in their lives. A prima facie analysis of society tells us that a great many people are attached to things that have no sustainable meaning. The word status on my credit card, is that sustainable? The word "platinum" or "premium", is a premium "what" at the end of the day? What does it mean to be titillated by celebrities today, who tomorrow will be in rehab or embroiled in a sex scandal? They are also searching for meaning. The resulting equation is a life that is meaningless, without purpose. If the goal in life is to get oneself into the business-flyer bracket, what then? Where are you flying to?

But a life without purpose is not the design that Allah prescribed for people. He has created the world for a purpose and made humankind an entity of meaning. Four seasons, one Sun, exact distances, the list is unceasing. Two constellations of universal purposes have been prescribed for humankind, one ultimate, another penultimate. The second are the aims of human action; the preservation of spiritual experience, the preservation of life, the preservation of intellect, the preservation of human dignity and the preservation of private property.

The first, and ultimate, constellation of aims is accessed through a window opened by the first aim in the penultimate set. These have been illuminated by al-Raghib al-Isphahani (an early influence on Abu Hamid al-Ghazali) as: devotion to Allah (the eternal absolute), positive development of the earth, and self-purification. Spiritual experience can be grounded in reality or not. If it is, then it will open on to the vista of devotion, development, and purification illustrated above.

Humankind has been commissioned with the stewardship (khilafa) of these two constellations in such a way that it leads to equilibrium in the natural and social environment. Otherwise, "corruption has appeared in the earth and in the sea because of what the hands of men have wrought," (Quran 30:41). An example of these constellations at play as the factors of stewardship is as follows: From the standpoint of spiritual experience the Earth is a sign (alam) reflecting the existence of its Creator. It is a horizon for the devotional contemplation of the interplay of His divine attributes. It is also the context of human experience and its preservation is the preservation of the well-being of life. This is achieved through positive and harmonious development, the condition of which is the promotion of a sound and balanced intellect.

A life without purpose is meaningless. The measure of this is to look at the meaning of one's endeavours, or lack thereof. I don't think anyone of sound constitution is content with a life without meaning. So perhaps things need a little re-calibration; but that's all part of the adventure isn't it? Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi