Disclaimer: I read the Quran in the light of science, philosophy, ethics, and public policy. This is not a theological discussion, but some rational thinking shaped by the Quran.

“O humanity! Worship your Lord, Who created you and those before you, so that you may become conscious of Him.” (Al-Quran 2:21)

“This is the Book! There is no doubt about it – a guide for those conscious of Allah.” (Al-Quran 2:2)

“I did not create jinn and humans except to worship Me.” (Al-Quran 51:56)

“And hasten towards forgiveness from your Lord and a Paradise as vast as the heavens and the earth, prepared for those conscious of Allah.” (Al-Quran 3:133)

When I read these verses, I take following notes:

  1. Here Allah addresses not only Muslims but whole of mankind and orders them to worship Him.
  2. We must worship Him because He has created us and the people who came before us.
  3. Allah created jinn and humans only to worship him.
  4. The purpose of worships is to become God conscious.
  5. The God consciousness is the precondition to get the guidance from Him through the Quran
  6. The paradise is prepared for the God conscious people.
  7. Allah asks us to run towards his forgiveness and paradise spread over earth and heaven.

I find here two interesting tangents:

First, according to the Quran, the sole purpose of human creation is to worship Allah.  However, nowhere in the Quran it is said that paradise is prepared for those who worship Him. But who is mindful and conscious of Him. I don’t think it is only a semantic thing, rather it shows a value chain from worship to conscious behavior to paradise. If we worship Him, we will be God conscious. If we can lead our life God consciously as it should be, we will receive His forgiveness and His forgiveness will take us to the paradise.

There is a prophetic (a) saying that nobody will go to paradise by virtue of his own good deeds alone. Not even Prophet Muhammad (s). We all, including the Prophet (s), will need His infinite mercy and forgiveness.

Aisha (r) reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Follow the right course, be devoted, and give glad tidings. Verily, none of you will enter Paradise by his deeds alone.” They said, “Not even you, O Messenger of Allah?” The Prophet said, “Not even myself, unless Allah grants me His mercy. Know that the most beloved deed to Allah is done regularly, even if it is small” (Source: Sahiḥ al-Bukhari 6464, Sahih Muslim 2818).

In general, it takes our lifelong work to pay off one mortgage. It is no brainer that one human life of good deeds will never be enough for a paradise as vast as heaven and earth.

Secondly, we all do our religious duty for the eternal bliss of paradise in the hereafter. As a reader of the Quran, I wonder sometime, if there were no hereafter, should we still have to pray and fast and do all other religious obligations. My reading gives me the answer yes. Our obligatory rituals are first and foremost for here. In fact, the primary purpose of belief and righteous deeds are to lead a blissful life in this world.

Whoever does good, whether male or female, and is a believer, We will surely bless them with a good life, and We will certainly reward them according to the best of their deeds (Al-Quran 16:97).

Allah said to Adam (a) when He sent him and his wife to the world:

We said, “Descend all of you! Then when guidance comes to you from Me, whoever follows it, there will be no fear for them, nor will they grieve (Al-Quran 2:38).

A life without fear and grief does not mean a life without tests and tribulation. Islam does not promise a painless life rathe a harmless life. A very simple example maybe that raising a family is not often easy and sometime even painful. But having no family is harmful. It does not promise a comfortable life but a happy life with meaning, purpose, and fulfilment. It promises less to our desire but more to our dignity.

The question is how we go through those difficulties with dignity. It requires lots of patience. It is a behavior that we don’t gain only through knowledge, but by developing habits. In our real life we see that many medical doctors smoke. Their knowledge does not help to overcome their lifestyle habits.

To understand why knowledge alone is not enough to develop the right lifestyle choices, we need to know how does our brain functions. It’s a very expensive organ. Our brain is only two percent of our body mass. However, it absorbs around 20% of our energy. It works with utmost economy fashions.

Recently, I read Daniell Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. He is a Nobel Laureate Psychologist. According to him, we have two systems or modes of thinking:

  • Fast thinking or system I: it does not require any effort. We do it automatically or unconsciously. To maximize our energy savings, our brains prefer those tasks that require minimum or no thinking, for example answering the question like two and two makes four.
  • Slow thinking or system II: it requires decision making and effort. We do it consciously. For example, to solve how much it is 27 plus 36, it will need some mental work and conscious effort.

When we start something new, it takes a lot of thinking and brain energy to complete the work. But if we do it again and again, our brains will get used to the task. Thus, after some time, it will become effortless. It should remind us of all when we started driving. At the beginning it was very tiresome exercise, always stressed and constantly looking around carefully. After some time, driving becomes like walking with four leg-wheels. Like driving, if we want to have a life with meaning, purpose, and fulfilment, we need to have the routines that make the doing of the good deeds our second nature. It requires regular and constant practice.

Religious rituals are the mechanisms to practice those routines.  For that reason, rituals are repetitive like daily five-time prayers, yearly month long fasting, regular benevolent charities and yearly obligatory charity for the rich and once in a lifetime pilgrimage for the capable. All these lifelong routines have the goal to develop the habit of conscious behavior between material versus moral, desire versus dignity and what feels good versus what feels right.

For the same reasons, in the West, where people are leaving the organized religion en masse, the new atheists are proposing to build secular churches and organize organic meditations. Global atheist personality like Sam Harris is now offering daily sessions for meditations (i.e., Waking Up with Sam Harris). Recently, I attended a two-day corporate workshop where there was an afternoon mental wellbeing session each day.  Wellbeing sessions are becoming a norm in the corporate culture. Religious rituals are back only without the religions.

However, if the rituals become routines, it may create its own paradox. When we do something again and again like five-time daily prayers, it becomes difficult to do so consciously. It becomes an automatic exercise. Thus, our rituals lose their primary goals of training our conscious behavior. Our rituals get empty, creating a risk of disconnect between our prayers and behaviors. We can be very pious in the masjid but very practical in the office. We can be very loyal to our families but only opportunistic to society.

An opportunistic pragmatism without conscience and principles will only lead to politics of greed and power at the expense of the common good. Often, we observe the paradox in the Muslim world that people are individually righteous but collectively fail to deliver rule of law and justice.

We must practice our rituals regularly but consciously. It’s a constant struggle as it is said in the Quran: “Indeed, we have created humans in constant toil (Alquran 90:4).

But this is the only way to carry on with the burden of our brain toward a life with dignity and fulfilment.