Searching for Purpose and Meaning
Group of sages in discussion, Iran, 1650
From Aga Khan Museum
Every day I meditate upon this, and every night I groan
Why is my own existence to myself the least known?
Whence have I come, why this coming here?
Whereto must I go, when will my home to me be shown?
I am in desperate awe, why was I ever created?
Jalaluddin Rumi, Diwan-i Shams-i Tabrizi
In our lives, there are times when we may ask questions such as to who we are, why we exist, and what happens after we die. Suffering, death, sickness, tragedy or crises often prompt us to reflect on the meaning and purpose of life and cause us to search for answers.
Humans have struggled with these kinds of existential questions throughout the ages. Those who seek meaning and purpose in their lives aspire towards knowing what is true, right, just and good, and what is the ultimate purpose of this earthly life.
One of the ways through which people have sought answers to such questions is through religion. The notion of a spiritual journey for truth exists in all the world’s major faiths, enabling an individual to discover meaning and purpose, and create a personal spiritual connection to the Divine.
The Prophets as Spiritual Seekers
There are many historical examples of people who have spent their lives searching for answers to such questions. Many of the Prophets, including Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family), are portrayed in the Holy Qur’an as being deep seekers who were troubled by what was happening in the societies around them. They typically were concerned with a lack of recognition of the oneness of God (tawhid) among the people, as well as concerns over the unethical treatment of the most vulnerable in the societies in which they lived.
Nabi Ibrahim destroying idols from Al-Biruni’s Al-Athar al-Bakiya
One prominent story is that of Prophet Ibrahim (alayhi-salam). He lived in a society that was polytheistic, worshipping natural objects such as the sun, the moon, and the stars. The Qur’an describes him as beginning to question these objects that people worshipped:
“When the night grew dark over him, he saw a star and said, ‘This is my Lord.’ But when it set, he said, ‘I love not things that set’… Then he saw the sun rising and said, ‘This is my Lord! This is greater!’ But when it set, he said, ‘My people, I am free from all that you associate (with Allah). Indeed, I have turned my face towards Him Who created the heavens and the earth, a man of pure faith, and I am not one of the idolaters.” (6:76-79)
This passage of the Qur’an depicts Prophet Ibrahim as a spiritual seeker who reflected deeply on the world around him. The Qur’an calls him a hanif, an upright person of pure faith. Today, he is regarded as the father of the three monotheistic Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Nasir Khusraw's Search
A well-known spiritual seeker from Ismaili history is Nasir Khusraw. He spent much time reflecting on the verse in the Qur’an that says, “Indeed, those who pledge their allegiance to you [O Prophet], in fact they pledge allegiance to Allah; the Hand of Allah rests over their hands.” (48:10)
Because the Prophet was no longer alive in his time, Nasir Khusraw wondered whose hand he could swear allegiance (bay’a) on in order to pledge allegiance to Allah. His spiritual search became a physical journey across much of the Muslim world. When he came to Fatimid Cairo, he acknowledged the Ismaili Imam as the person to whom he could pledge his allegiance. He then became an Ismaili da’i, teaching the Ismaili faith to others. This story is told in the following video:
Video: Nasir Khusraw's Search from Heritage & Homage: The Jubilees of the Ismaili Imamat
Journey of the Soul
What is the ultimate purpose of our earthly life? In the Qur’an, Allah says, “inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un” (2:156), meaning, “Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him we will return.”
This verse refers to the journey of any human. Our origin is Allah and our final return is to Him. Between the origin and the return or destination is life on earth. Mawlana Hazar Imam has often reminded us that life in this world is temporary and only the soul is eternal. Thus, din (faith) and duniya (world) are inseparably intertwined, meaning that we are responsible for both our acts of worship and submission to Allah, known as ‘ibadah, and our ethical actions towards Allah’s creation.
Jalaluddin Rumi, the Persian Sufi mystic and poet once explained that a boat needs water to ensure it can reach its destination. But, if the boat takes in too much water, if there is no balance in the boat, then the water is a detriment. In the same way, our worldly life is needed in order to make our journey, such as our efforts in education, in family life, in our work. However, it must not overcome our lives without an awareness of what is everlasting on this journey.
It is in striving to return to our origin that we engage in a search for spiritual enlightenment, seeking to draw closer to Allah.
Leaf with calligraphic composition, Turkey, 19th century. The calligrapher composed the verse in the form of a boat with the letters forming passengers and oars, perhaps recalling the journey of life.
From Aga Khan Museum
Use of the Intellect
As we saw in the story of Prophet Ibrahim, Allah asks us in the Qur’an to reflect on the signs (ayat) found in His creation: “And He has subjected to you what is in the heavens and what is in the earth, all together, from Him. Surely in that are signs for a people who reflect.” (45:13)
As one contemplates these wonders, such as the earth, the sun, the stars, the trees, the seasons, the rain, and food that grows, one becomes able to see Allah in all of these wonders. As we are told, “Wherever you turn, there is the face of Allah” (2:115).
Through this process of reflection, Allah tells us that the truth will be made clear to us: “We shall show them Our signs in every region of the earth and in themselves, until it becomes clear to them that this is the Truth.” (41:53)
In Sufi mystical interpretations of Islam, spiritual seekers (arif or murid) travel a path (tariqah) in an attempt to attain spiritual enlightenment, led by a guide (murshid). They strive towards attaining knowledge of Allah within themselves. This is reflected in a saying of Hazrat Ali (alayhi-salam): “He who knows himself, knows his Lord.”
During the extraordinary time in which we find ourselves, many people may be facing questions of an existential nature and searching for answers. Through our faith’s diverse forms of worship and ‘ibadah, and its encouragement of personal intellectual search, we have various ways to humbly seek knowledge and travel the path towards spiritual transformation and enlightenment, under the guidance of the Imam of the Time.
For Mawlana Hazar Imam’s guidance on the eternal nature of the soul and blessings for success in the search for spiritual enlightenment, the Jamat is encouraged to read his message made in Islamabad, Pakistan on December 14, 2017 (afternoon), which is published on pages 84 and 85 or the Diamond Jubilee (2017-2018) book of Farman Mubarak.
Family Chat Questions
What are some questions about human existence that you are thinking about, particularly during this current time?
What are some of the various ways in which we can search for knowledge and spiritual wisdom?
IIS Secondary Curriculum: Faith & Practice in Islamic Traditions
Speech: Evora University Symposium, Mawlana Hazar Imam, 2006
Online Readings: Human Existence and Religious Quest (Foundations of Faith series)
Video: Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition, lecture by Professor Omid Safi at the Institute of Ismaili Studies
Interactive Map: The Safar-nama of Nasir Khusraw
eBook: The Poetics of Religious Experience: The Islamic Context, Dr. Aziz Esmail
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