The Islamic Concept of Life
By Abul Ala Maududi
The chief characteristic of Islam is that it makes no distinction between the spiritual and the secular in life. Its aim is to shape both individual lives as well as society as a whole in ways that will ensure that the Kingdom of Allah may really be established on earth and that peace, contentment and well-being may fill the world. The Islamic way of life is thus based on a unique concept of man’s place in the universe. That is why it is necessary that, before we discuss the moral, social, political and economic systems of Islam, we should have a clear idea of what that concept is.
1. Allah, who is the Creator, the Ruler and the Lord of the universe, has created man and provided him with a temporary home in that part of His vast kingdom which is the earth. He has endowed man with the faculties of thinking and understanding, and has given him the power to distinguish right from wrong. Man has also been invested with free will and the power to use the resources of the world however he likes. That is, man has a measure of autonomy, while being at the same time Allah’s representative on earth.
2. Before assigning to man this vicegerency (Khilafat), Allah made it clear to him that He alone as the Lord, the Ruler and the Deity. As such, the entire universe and all the creatures in it (including man) should submit to Him alone. Man must not think himself totally free and must realise that this earth is not his permanent abode. He has been created to live on it only for a probationary period and, in due course, he will return to his Lord, to be judged according to the way he has spent that period. The only right course for man is to acknowledge Allah as the only Lord, the Sustainer and the Deity, and to follow His guidance and His commands in all he does. His sole objective should be to merit the approval of Allah.
If man follows a course of righteousness and godliness (which he is free to choose and follow) he will be rewarded in this world and the next: in this world he will live a life of peace and contentment, and in the Hereafter he will qualify for the heaven of eternal bliss, al-Jannah. If he chooses to follow the course of godlessness and evil (which he is equally free to choose and follow), his life will be one of corruption and frustration in this world, and in the life to come he will face the prospect of that abode of pain and misery which is called Hell.
3. After making this position clear, Allah set man on earth and provided the very first human beings (Adam and Eve) with guidance as to how they were to live. Thus man’s life on this earth did not start in utter darkness. >From the beginning a bright torch of light was provided so that humanity could fulfill its glorious destiny. The very first man received revealed knowledge from Allah Himself, and was told the correct way to live. This code of life was Islam, the attitude of complete submission to Allah, the Creator of man and the whole universe. It was this religion which Adam, the first man, passed down to posterity.
But later generations gradually drifted away from the right path. Either they lost the original teachings through negligence or they deliberately adulterated and distorted them. They associated Allah with innumerable human beings, material objects and imaginary gods. Shirk (polytheism) became widespread. They mixed up the teachings of Allah with myths and strange philosophies and thus produced a jumble of religions and cults; and they discarded the God-given principles of personal and social morality, the Shari‘ah.
4. Although man departed from the path of truth, disregarded or distorted the Shari‘ah or even rejected the code of Divine guidance, Allah did not destroy them or force them to take the right course. Forced morality was not in keeping with the autonomy He had given to man. Instead, God appointed certain good people from among the human society itself to guide men to the right path. These men believed in Allah, and lived a life of obedience to Him. He honoured them by His revelations, giving them the knowledge of reality. Known as prophets, blessings and peace be on all of them, they were assigned the task of spreading Allah’s message among men.
5. Many thousands of these prophets were raised throughout the ages, in all lands and in all nations. All of them brought the same message, all of them advocated the same way of life, (din), that is, the way which was revealed to man on the first day of his existence. All of them had the same mission: they called men to Islam ¾ to submit to Allah alone, asked those who accepted the Divine law, and for putting an end to all deviations from the true path. Many people, however, refused to accept their guidance and many of those who did accept it gradually drifted away from their initial commitment.
6. Lastly, Allah raised the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be on him, in Arabia to complete the mission of the earlier prophets. The message of Muhammad, blessings and peace be on him, was for the whole of mankind. He presented anew the teachings of Islam in their pristine form and provided humanity once again with the Divine guidance which had been largely lost. He organised all those who accepted his message into one community (Ummah), charged with living in accordance with the teachings of Islam, with calling humanity to the path of righteousness and with establishing the supremacy of the world of Allah on earth. This guidance is enshrined in the Holy Qur’an.
Man: Its Nature and Character
The Qur’an deals in many passages with man’s relationship to Allah and the concept of life which naturally follows from that relationship. Its message is epitomised in the following verse:
Verily Allah hath bought of the Believers their lives and their properties for the price that theirs shall be the Paradise: so they fight in the way of Allah and slay and are slain. It (i.e. the promise of Paradise) is a covenant which is binding on Him in the Torah and the Injil and the Qur’an. And who is more faithful unto his covenant than Allah? Rejoice then in your bargain that ye have made, for that is the supreme triumph. (al-Tawbah 9: 111)
In the above verse the nature of the relationship which comes into existence between man and Allah because of Man (the belief, trust and faith in Allah) is called a ‘bargain’. This means that Man in Allah is not a mere metaphysical concept; it is in the nature of a contract by which man barters his life and his possessions in exchange for the promise of Paradise in the Hereafter. God as it were, purchases a Believer’s life and property and promises, in return, the reward of Paradise in the life after death. This concept of a bargain and a covenant has important implications, and needs to be clearly understood.
Everything in this world belongs to Allah. As such, man’s life and wealth, which are part of this world, also belong to Him, because He has created them and has entrusted them to every man for his use. Looked at from this angle, the question of ‘selling’ or ‘buying’ may not seem to arise at all; Allah does not need to buy what is already His and man cannot sell what is not really his.
But there is one thing which has been conferred on man, and which now belongs fully to him, and that is free will which gives him freedom to choose between following or not following the path of Allah. This freedom of will and choice does not automatically make man the real owner of all the power and resources over which he has command, nor does it give him the right to use them just as he likes. Yet, because of this free will, he may, if he likes, consider himself free of all obligations to the Lord and independent of any higher authority. It is here that the question of bargain arises.
This bargain thus does not mean that Allah is purchasing something which belongs to man. Its real nature is this: all creation belongs to Allah but He bestowed certain things on man to be used by him on trust. Allah wants man to willingly and voluntarily acknowledge this. A person who voluntarily renounces his freedom to reject Allah’s supremacy and instead acknowledges His sovereignty, and, in so doing, ‘sells’ his ‘autonomy’ (which, too, is a gift from Allah) to Allah, will get in return Allah’s promise of eternal bliss in Paradise. A person who makes such a bargain is a Mu’min (Believer) and Man (faith) is the Islamic name for this contract; a person who chooses not to enter into this contract, or who, after making
such a contract, does not keep to it, is a Kafir. The avoidance or abrogation of the contract is technically known as Kufr.
Such is the nature of the contract. Now let us briefly study its various aspects and stipulations.
1. Allah has set us to account for ourselves in two areas:
(a) He has left man free, but nonetheless wishes to see whether he will remain honest and loyal to Him, or whether he will rebel against his own Creator, whether he will behave nobly or start ‘playing such fantastic tricks as make the angels weep’.
(b) He wants to see whether man is prepared to have enough trust in Allah to offer his life and wealth in return for a promise about the next world.
2. It is a principle of Islamic law that Man consists in adherence to a certain set of doctrines and anyone who accepts those doctrines becomes a Mu’min. No one has the right to call such a man a disbeliever or drive him from the fold of Ummah, unless there is clear proof that faith has been abandoned. This is the legal position. But in the eyes of the Lord, Man is only valid when it entails complete surrender of one’s will and freedom of choice to the will of Allah. It is a state of thought and action, coming from the heart, wherein man submits himself fully to Allah, renouncing all claim to his own supremacy.
A man may recite the Kalimah, accept the contract and even offer Prayers and perform other acts of worship, but if in his heart he regards himself as the owner and the master of his physical and mental powers and of his moral and material resources, then, however much the people may look upon him as a Mu’min, in the eyes of Allah he will be a disbeliever. He will not really have entered into the bargain which the Qur’an says is the essence of Man. If a man does not use his powers and resources in the way Allah has prescribed for him, using them instead in pursuits which Allah has forbidden, it is clear that either he has not pledged his life and property to Allah, or has nullified that pledge by his conduct.
3. This aspect of Man makes the Islamic way of life the very opposite of that of the non-Muslim. A Muslim, who has real faith in Allah, makes his entire life one of obedience and surrender to His will. He never behaves arrogantly or selfishly or as if he were master of his own destiny, save in moments of forgetfulness. And as soon as he becomes conscious of such a lapse, he will submit himself to his Lord and ask forgiveness for his error.
Similarly, a group of people or a society which consists of true Muslims can never break away from the Law of their Lord. Its political order, its social organisations, its culture, its economic policy, its legal system and its international strategy must all be in tune with the code of guidance revealed by Allah. Any unwitting contraventions must be corrected as soon as they are realised.
It is disbelievers who feel free from Allah’s guidance and behave as if they were their own master. Anyone who behaves like this, even though he may bear a name similar to that of a Muslim, is treading the path of the disbelievers.
4. The will of Allah, which it is obligatory for man to follow, is the one which Allah Himself has revealed for man’s guidance. It cannot be determined by man himself. Allah has Himself explained it clearly and there is no ambiguity about it. Therefore, if a society sticks honestly to its contract with Allah, it must shape its life in accordance with the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of the Prophet, blessings and peace be on him.
It is clear from the foregoing discussion why the payment of the ‘price’ has been postponed till the life after death. Paradise is not the reward for the mere profession of the bargain, it is the reward for the faithful execution of it. Unless the behaviour of the ‘vendor’ complies with the terms of the contract he will not be entitled to the reward. The final act of the ‘sale’ can only be concluded after the last moment of the vendor’s earthly life.
There is another significant point which emerges from the study of the verse quoted above when it is read in its context in the Qur’an. In the verses preceding it, reference is made to the people who professed Iman and promised a life of obedience, but who, when the hour of trial came, proved unequal to the task. Some neglected the call of the hour and betrayed the cause. Others refused to sacrifice their lives and riches in the cause of Allah. The Qur’an, after criticising their insincerity, makes it clear that Man is a contract, a form of pledge between man and Allah. It does not consist in a mere profession of belief in Allah. It is an acknowledgment of the fact that Allah alone is our Lord, Sovereign and Ruler and that everything that man has, including his own life, belongs to Him and must be used in accordance with His directives. If a Muslim adopts a different course, he is insincere in his profession of faith. Only those who have really sold their lives and all that they possess to Allah and who follow His dictates in all spheres of activity can be called true Believers.
The Scheme of Life
In Islam, man’s entire individual and social life is an exercise in developing and strengthening his relationship with Allah. Man, the starting point of our religion, consists in the acceptance of this relationship by man’s intellect and will; Islam means submission to the will of Allah in all aspects of life. The Islamic code of conduct is known as the Shari‘ah. Its sources are the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet, blessings and peace be on him.
The final Book of Allah and His final Messenger stand today as the repositories of this truth. Everyone who agrees that the concept of Reality stated by the Prophet, and the Holy Book is true, should step forward and surrender himself to the will of Allah. It is this submission which is called Islam, the result of Man in actual life. And those who of their own freewill accept Allah as their Sovereign, surrender to His Divine will and undertake to regulate their lives in accordance with His commandments, are called Muslims.
All those persons who thus surrender themselves are welded into a community and that is how the ‘Muslim society’ comes into being. It is an ideological society, radically different from those which are founded on the basis of race, colour or territory. It is the result of a deliberate choice, the outcome of a ‘contract’ which takes place between human beings and their Creator. Those who enter into this contract undertake to recognise Allah as their Sovereign, His guidance as supreme and His injunctions as absolute Law. They also undertake to accept, without question, His word as to what is good or evil, right or wrong, permissible or prohibited. In short, freedoms of the Islamic society are limited by the commandments of the Omniscient Allah. In other words, it is Allah and not man whose will is the primary source of Law in a Muslim society.
When such a society comes into existence, the Book and the Messenger prescribe for it a code of life called the Shari‘ah and this society is bound to conform to it by virtue of the contract is has entered into. It is, therefore, inconceivable that a real Muslim society can deliberately adopt any other system of life than that based on the Shari‘ah. If it does so, its contract is ipso facto broken and it becomes ‘un-Islamic’.
But we must clearly distinguish between the everyday sins of the individual and a deliberate revolt against the Shari‘ah. The former may not mean a breaking up of the contract, while the latter most certainly would. The point that should be clearly understood is that if an Islamic society consciously resolves not to accept the Shari‘ah, and decides to enact its own constitution and laws or borrows them from any other source in disregard of the Shari‘ah, such a society breaks its contract with Allah and forfeits its right to be called ‘Islamic’..
Objectives and Characteristics
The main objectives of the Shari‘ah are to ensure that human life is based on ma’rufat (good) and to cleanse it of munkarat (evils). The term ma’rufat denotes all the qualities that have always been accepted as ‘good’ by the human conscience. Conversely, the world munkarat denotes all those qualities that have always been condemned by human nature as ‘evil’. In short, the ma’rufat are in harmony with human nature and the munkarat are against nature. The Shari‘ah gives precise definitions of ma’rufat and munkarat, clearly indicating the standards of goodness for which individuals and society should aspire.
It does not, however, limit itself to an inventory of good and evil deeds; rather, it lays down an entire scheme of life whose aim is to make sure that good flourishes and evils do not destroy or harm human life.
To achieve this, the Shari‘ah has embraced in its scheme everything that encourages the growth of good and has recommended ways to remove obstacles that might prevent this growth. This process gives rise to a subsidiary series of ma’rufat consisting of ways of initiating and nurturing the good, and yet another set of ma’rufat consisting of prohibitions in relation to those things which act as impediments to good. Similarly, there is a subsidiary list of munkarat which might initiate or allow the growth of evil.
The Shari‘ah shapes Islamic society in a way conducive to the unfettered growth of good, righteousness and truth in every sphere of human activity. At the same time it removes all the impediments along the path of goodness. And it attempts to eradicate corruption from its social scheme by prohibiting evil, by removing the causes of its appearance and growth, by closing the inlets through which it creeps into a society and by adopting deterrent measures to check its occurrence.
The Shari‘ah divides ma’rfat into three categories: the mandatory (fard and wajib), the recommendatory (mandub) and the permissible (mubah).
The observance of the mandatory is obligatory on a Muslim society and the Shari‘ah has given clear and binding directions about this. The recommendatory ma’rufat are those which the Shari‘ah expects a Muslim society to observe and practise. Some of them have been very clearly demanded of us while others have been recommended by implication and inference from the sayings of the Prophet, blessings and peace be on him. Besides this, special arrangements have been made for the growth and encouragement of some of them in the scheme of life advocated by the Shari‘ah. Others again have simply been recommended by the Shari‘ah, leaving it to the society or to its more virtuous elements to look to promote them.
This leaves us with the permissible ma’rufat. Strictly speaking, according to the Shari‘ah everything which has not been expressly prohibited is a permissible ma’ruf. Consequently, the sphere of permissible ma’rufat is very wide, so much so that except for the things specifically prohibited by the Shari‘ah everything is permissible for a Muslim. And in this vast sphere we have been given freedom to legislate according to our own discretion to suit the requirements of our "time and its dictates."
The munkarat (the things prohibited in Islam) have been grouped into two categories: things which have been prohibited absolutely (haram), and things which are simply undesirable (makruh).
Muslims have been enjoined by clear and mandatory injunctions to refrain totally from everything that has been declared haram. As for the makruh, the Shari‘ah signifies its disapproval either expressly or by implication, giving an indication also as to the extent of such disapproval. For example, there are some makruh things bordering on haram, while others are closer to acts which are permissible. Moreover, in some cases, explicit measures have been prescribed by the Shari‘ah for the prevention of makruh things, while in others such measures have been left to the discretion of the society or individual.
Some Other Characteristics
The Shari‘ah thus prescribes directives for the regulation of our individual as well as collective lives. These directives affect such varied subjects as religious rituals, personal character, morals, habits, family relationships, social and economic affairs, administration, the rights and duties of citizens, the judicial system, the laws of war and peace and international relations. They tell us what is good and bad; what is beneficial and useful and what is injurious and harmful; what are the virtues which we have to cultivate and encourage and what are the evils which we have to suppress and guard against; what is the sphere of our voluntary, personal and social action and what are its limits; and, finally, what methods we can adopt to establish a dynamic order of society and what methods we should avoid. The Shari‘ah is a complete way of life and an all-embracing social order.
Another remarkable feature of the Shari‘ah is that it is an organic whole. The entire way of life propounded by Islam is animated by the same spirit and hence any arbitrary division of the scheme is bound to affect the spirit as well as the structure of the Islamic order. In this respect, it might be compared to the human body. A leg separated from the body cannot be called one-eighth or one-sixth man, because after its separation from the body the leg cannot perform its function. Nor can it be placed in the body of some other animal with the aim of making it human to the extent of that limb. Likewise, we cannot form a correct judgment about the utility, efficiency and beauty of the hand, the eye or the nose of a human being outside the context of their place and function within the living body.
The same can be said about the scheme of life envisaged by the Shari‘ah. Islam signifies a complete way of life which cannot be split up into separate parts. Consequently, it is neither appropriate to consider the different parts of the Shari‘ah in isolation, nor to take any particular part and bracket it with any other ‘ism’. The Shari‘ah can function smoothly only if one’s whole life is lived in accordance with it.