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God as King, Man as Trusted Servant: An Exploration of Islam, Part V

May 21, 2012

V.  Man’s Purpose

            The question “What is humanity created for?” in the Islamic view is admittedly complex, and should best be answered by pointing back to the dialectical tension of “mud” and “spirit” that we have discussed previously.

 

Man as Servant: The “Mud” Purpose

In one sense, the answer is quite straightforward:  Allah in the Quran clearly states, “I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me” (Surah 51:56).  This might be called the “mud” purpose.  As the creatures of Allah, mankind is placed in the position of worshipper and servant.  However, we must nuance our understanding of the idea of “servant” in order to more fully appreciate the Islamic narrative and avoid misrepresenting it.

Though we usually assign a negative connotation to the word “servant,” Kung suggests that we avoid such a superficial understanding:

In the Qur’an as in the Bible, the word ‘servant’ must not be misunderstood.  The Arabic ‘abd becomes and extremely positive designation because it is associated with God:  ‘abd allah, servant not of another human being, and therefore unfree, but of God himself and therefore free and set in creation with dignity.[1]

Just as in the legend of King Arthur, to be one of Arthur’s servants would be a privilege and an honor, so in the Islamic view, a servant is not an insignificant role for humanity.  It is, indeed, the rightful place of a creature.  It is certainly true that man’s ultimate purpose in Islam is to serve and worship God, as attested to by numerous Islamic scholars.  For example Mohamed Baianonie states, “He [man] should know the purpose of this temporary life that he lives, and the good that must be the one which he makes all his effort to achieve which is pleasing Allah.”[2]  ‘Abd al Majid Najjar writes, “The ultimate purpose [for humanity in Islam] is to be close to Allah and to work for his pleasure.”[3]  However, this role of servant must be placed in the context of the exalted status of “viceregent” that Allah assigns to mankind, signified by his breathing his Spirit into humanity—what we might call the “Divine purpose.”  This tension between ‘servant’ and ‘viceregent,’ ‘clay’ and ‘spirit’ is, again, aptly stated by Kung:  “The paradoxical anthropological statement of the Qur’an is grounded in the fact that as a servant of God, the human being is at the same time God’s khalifah, his ‘succession,’ ‘representative’ on earth.”[4]

 

Man as Viceregent:  The “Divine” Purpose

Though humanity is God’s servant, it is no less true that all of creation, according to Islam, is placed under the authority of man.  Humanity is given the noble responsibility to be God’s viceregents (khalifah) and work with him in His plan:  “Man’s mission on earth is to fulfill God’s creative work in the universe.  Therefore man’s first superiority is that he represents God on earth.”[5]  In the Islamic understanding of humanity, the doctrine of viceregency emerges as the central teaching regarding mankind.  It is very similar to the Biblical teaching that mankind has been created in the image of God and given the task of stewarding and exercising dominion over creation.  This is so much the case that Allah commands the angels to pay obeisance to human beings.  It is, in fact, for this reason that, according to the Quran, Iblis (Satan) rebels against God and seeks to bring about humanity’s downfall.

Again, if we return to the King Arthurian analogy, we may understand Allah as the King of the universe.  Now, it must be acknowledged that Allah is in no need of any help, so it would be his sheer will that would call into creation and appoint servants and coworkers for Him.  Even so, humanity is created with a very special purpose in Allah’s kingdom:  they are his trusted advisers so to speak—His ambassadors given authority to work in his name.  Now, I must confess, I am not sure what Allah’s purposes are in making humanity his viceregents.  In other words, it seems that the Islamic metanarrative is missing ultimate explanation as to why Allah would do it this way.  When asked, “What is the purpose of humanity?” Islam answers:  “To serve as Allah’s viceregents in the world.”  Yet one could press the issue:  “Why does Allah choose to do it this way?”  The best answer according to Islam is that Allah need not offer any explanation as to why; it is simply his will.[6]  It is enough to conclude our understanding of this section by saying that, far from the critiques of Islam that suggest that man is utterly insignificant in Allah’s eyes, Islamic teaching states exactly the opposite:  mankind is given the most sacred task of being Allah’s vicergent—his representative on earth.  It is in this light that we should understand the seriousness of the responsibility given to mankind, and thus, the sternness with which Allah promises to judge human beings for their failure to obey Him, but also the greatness of His promise to reward obedience with paradise.


[1] Kung, Islam, 83.

[2] Mohamed Baianonie, “The Islamic View of the Human Being.”  Islam1. http://www.islam1.org/khutub/View_of_Human_Being.htm.  Accessed March 19, 2012

[3] Najjar, The Viceregency of Man, xx.

[4] Kung, Islam, 83.  Murrata and Chittick make an interesting connection between the relationship between servant in viceregent in the following way:  “In short, Adam, was created to be a viceregent of God.  But in order to be God’s viceregent, he first had to be God’s servant.  In other words, people were created to represent God on the face of the earth…Servanthood must precede viceregency.  You cannot represent someone until you follow that person’s commands,” in, The Vision of Islam, 126.  In this view, man is placed on earth and commanded to obey Allah as a testing of sorts.  The idea of humanity being given a test is a significant aspect of Islamic doctrine that will be explored shortly.

[5] Shariati, “Man and Islam.”

[6] Harold Spencer summarizes this well:  “We must first remind ourselves that, although Allah is said to have created man and the Jinn in order that they may worship him (Surah 51 v. 56), yet Muslim theology will not admit that Allah has any fixed purpose which might contradict the operation of his will.”  In, “Man and His Destiny,” http://www.answering-islam.org/Books/Spencer/God/chap4.htm

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. kat permalink
    May 24, 2012 12:26

    impressive that you have tackled such a complex subject. It is natural that this will raise questions because you are only tackling one aspect of the “purpose” which is framed as King/servant relationship—this is a much wider subject in actuality.

    In the Quran—the word “Islam” is not the name of a religion but a spiritual level. It is actually the lowest spiritual level out of the 3 levels mentioned in the Quran. It is the outward expression of “submission”/Obeying God’s will—and Khalifa/trusteeship is one expression of this. At this level, to “worship” God means the daily prayers, Charity, following the law and Guidance….etc.

    Another level of spirituality is Iman—roughly translated as faith/trust (in God). It is defined as—the use of reason and intellect to arrive at conviction. At this level—one does not just “do” God’s will, but uses ones intellect and reason to discern God’ purpose (intention) so as to do his will to the best of one’s ability. Therefore, “worship” such as charity can be transformed from simply an act of giving to become a force for social justice. The characteristic of this level of spirituality is “Taqwa” or God-awareness(love of God). That is, all actions of a Muslim are governed by Taqwa—which helps to guide him towards right intentions that lead to right actions for the benefit of all of God’s creations.

    while the previous spiritual level speaks of the idea of God’s trust in Man, and Man’s responsibility—the other level brings about the idea of Man’s trust in God…. and God’s promises. What this means is that we have been created with the ability to enact God’s will with our intellect and our autonomy(free-will) therefore we are fully capable of fulfilling our responsibilities—if we so choose.—-and that is the main point—-that we have been empowered with the liberty to decide for ourselves what path to take. In the Quran, the concept of liberty (freedom) is tied to the concept of responsibility. (freedom comes with responsibility—-so, for example, when the Quran talks about freedom of speech—it also talks about the responsibility that comes with such freedom)

    ….In other words—King/servant relationship speaks to one aspect of a Muslim’s relationship with God—but there is also another aspect—that of a personal relationship. This cannot be addressed within the framework of King/servant relationship—but to give you an idea—the Quran is Guidance for all human beings—but for a Muslim it is also a personal letter from God to ME—the individual Muslim.

  2. kat permalink
    May 24, 2012 12:33

    forgot to answer your question—why did God structure things this way?—the simple answer is—-for the benefit of our souls……………………..can eleborate if needed but as with other stuff of this nature—it is also complex………….

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