The Purpose of Life in an Hour and a Half
Given the choice, I would rather read a book than listen to a lecture. Books are wonderful companions: they offer their opinions, and if you disagree, they don’t seem to mind. I can reread when I find difficulty with what is written, and the book doesn’t think I’m stupid or get annoyed that I’m asking it to repeat itself, sometimes again and again. From a great author, I can acquire in a few hours what took him or her a lifetime of reflection and insight to realize. Despite that, on occasion, I have heard lectures that have moved me deeply. Recently, someone sent me a lecture insisting that I watch it. It was by an American convert to Islam (I don’t like the word “revert,” as we don’t revert to Islam; we convert – unless one was a Muslim, left it, and then returned), Dr. Jeffrey Lang, about the purpose of life. I found this lecture to be the most powerful I have ever heard from an American Muslim.
After listening to his lecture, I have to conclude that Dr. Lang is bold, honest, a truly brilliant and original thinker, and, in reality, a proof of the Qur’an. Let me explain this last statement: while on the one hand, the Qur’an needs no proof, on the other, one of its greatest proofs is that if you do what the Qur’an challenges you to do – to reflect on it deeply – you will arrive at the conclusion that it could not be from other than God. Moreover, if you act upon that realization, you will get its results, first in this world but foremost in the next. Dr. Lang did exactly what the Qur’an asks of us: he reflected upon its meaning deeply, and he came to the conclusions that the Qur’an tells us we should reach if we ponder deeply its message. In that way, he is a proof of the Qur’an.
The Qur’an is not an easy book, especially for Western readers, many of whom complain that they can’t understand why it isn’t like the Bible in its linearity, one of the main reasons being that the Qur’an uses a rhetorical device not found in Western tradition known as iltifat – shifts in perspective – which can be very disorienting for the Western reader. (This phenomenon occurs less so for educated Asiatics more familiar with supra-rational modes of thought.) Rooted in the message of the Qur’an is the momentousness of life. Life is serious business – not a play or a pastime. Hence, thinking about the purpose of life is something everyone should do, and those of us committed to a religious belief should have a good understanding of why we hold that belief and what the ultimate purpose is of that belief. If Christians who have been to catechism were asked what is the purpose of life, most would respond, “to know, love, and serve God.” This response resonates well with Muslims given the verse, “I have created spirit-kind and humankind only to worship Me” (Qur’an, 51:56). However, while an accurate answer, it leaves a question unanswered: why humans, with all of their foibles and follies, let alone their sometimes heinous failures? Why would God, who needs nothing, create us to worship God, especially given that God has angels to do so and do so flawlessly?
Dr. Lang has done a truly extraordinary service in explicating, in easily understandable terms, the very question of why God created human beings. This topic is pure metaphysics at a layman’s level. In the Christian tradition, one of the deadly sins (“deadly” or “mortal” here means those sins that place the soul into a state of perdition) is the sin of acedia, sometimes referred to as sloth as well. Sloth here, however, is not the sloth of laziness but rather the spiritual inertia that prevents people from actively seeking to understand why they are here. Early Christianity’s pre-Islamic Desert Fathers called it the Noonday Devil. They enumerated certain “daughters” of this sin, i.e. its effects: blindness of mind, distraction, inconstancy, rashness, narcissism, hatred of the Divine, love of the world, and abhorrence of the future realm – all qualities clearly seen in this modern age. If people ignore God or those things related to the sacred, they are guilty of the sin of sloth, and the result is a spiritual blindness that prevents them from seeing the truth; this is coupled with a constant search for distractions. These distractions, whether films, music, sports, or any other type of entertainment – which is defined as “the mild occupation of the mind” – are pursued constantly to keep us preoccupied from more important matters.
The rulers of this world have always known how easily distracted the masses are and hence have used bread and circuses to occupy their minds so that they didn’t reflect on the complete number being played upon them. The fundamental difference between the past rulers – for instance, the Romans with their bread and coliseums – and our rulers today is the sheer vastness of the entertainment apparatus at their disposal whereby the bread of old has become fast-food outlets at every corner not to mention junk food snack machines enabling constant bovine grazing for the herd, while the circus has morphed into handheld devices allowing an obsessive state of distractedness at all times that ensures no thought impinges on the dazed diurnal states of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad people we now see everywhere lost in inner space in what can only be deemed an autistic state of utter human alienation coupled with complete and utter spiritual degradation. Interestingly enough, the original billboards and advertisements for the iPod showed shadow people, in other words, insubstantial vacuous people, holding their hand-held devices while dancing with their earplugs prominently displayed. Hulu has a frighteningly accurate set of commercials making fun of our new reality – “Hulu, an evil plot to take over the world,” as they put it. These distractions, which result from the sin of acedia, however, like every film, every song, and every sports game, must inevitably come to an end when our earthly lives do: and then the accounting begins!
Those who use life as an opportunity to search for the truth are those not guilty of acedia. Furthermore, the Qur’an promises that those who search sincerely will find what they are looking for – the Truth. Dr. Lang, a real seeker of the truth, in this lecture, tells of his journey from atheism to belief and specifically belief in the revelation of the Qur’an. As a professor of mathematics, he has the logic of his trade. His story is honest, at times painful, profound, and one of the most gratifying explanations of why we are here that I have ever heard. While I am sure Dr. Lang was unaware of it, his conclusions have a startling resemblance to the interpretation of the verses of khilafah that Imam Sam’ani wrote centuries ago giving credence to the phrase, “Great minds think alike.” Most commentators of the Qur’an were influenced by the Jewish and Christian versions of the narration, which considered the expulsion from the Garden a punishment meted out to Adam and Eve for the sin of eating from the Forbidden Fruit. However, Imam Sam’ani arrived at a very similar conclusion long before that of Dr. Lang’s presented in this lecture. I really believe there are some original insights here worth considering, especially for those struggling with their faith or lack thereof. I hope you will give it a listen. If you do and are tempted to turn it off after a few minutes, you might consider asking yourself how is it that we can so easily get lost in a two-hour film that demands nothing of our intellects and not listen to a former Christian-turned-atheist Ph.D. in mathematics explain how the Qur’an convinced him it was revealed by his Creator. Perhaps the answer is acedia or its daughter, distractedness.
Please watch: The Purpose of Life by Dr. Jeffrey Lang