By Dr. Eren Tatari
Religion means different things to different people. God uses the word deen in the Qur’an to refer to religion. Deen literally means path. By default, everyone has a path. An atheist’s path is atheism. A hippy has his path; a workaholic has her path, etc. So even if we consciously choose not to have a religion, we have one: that of not having a religion. Given this, the question is why should we consciously choose a path (deen/religion) that “claims to be” revealed by God?
God creates us with certain physical needs to survive. For instance, God gave us the feeling of hunger and sleepiness so that we eat and sleep to maintain our metabolism. Likewise, God also creates us to believe and to worship Him. Practicing religion is the food of our souls. He creates us, and He knows best what we need. For instance, when a scientist produces a medicine, he also includes the prospectus explaining how to use it. He knows the best way that we can benefit from that pill and what not to do to avoid any harm. If we decide to take all the pills at once, it will harm us instead of helping. Likewise, God creates us and all the things in this universe. He gives us physical and spiritual foods and explains us how to benefit from them and which ones to avoid. He teaches us how to pray to Him and how to follow the straight path to reach Him.
History reveals that corrupt political and religious leaders have repeatedly distorted religion and abused it to serve their interests. As a result, some people are prejudiced against organized religion and avoid it at all costs. However, we need to realize that a medicine is intrinsically good, and if used properly, it helps to cure the illness. This fact remains true regardless of those who abuse it and harm themselves or others. Hence, when sound religious doctrines are distorted by ill-intentioned individuals, this does not annul the validity or value of that religion. When studying any faith system, it is necessary to distinguish the religion (its principles outlined in the scriptures) from its imperfect followers.
As imperfect beings, we can only try to achieve the ultimate goals outlined in the scriptures. For example, in the days of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the several centuries following his life, Islam was implemented justly, resulting in an era of enlightenment and unprecedented improvements in human values, social conduct, arts, and sciences. However, as people became decadent and strayed away from the Qur’an, social conflicts, injustices, and other atrocities emerged. The religion stayed the same, but the followers changed, leading to completely different results.
If we want to know what Islam really is, we are to look at the Qur’an to learn why God creates us, what is waiting for us in the hereafter, and what we are supposed to do with our life. The Qur’an provides clear answers for these issues and the Qur’an and the example of Prophet Muhammad (sunnah) are the only criteria to assess the message. Judging any religion based on those who misuse it is misleading; for all religious doctrines tell people to be humble and just.
Another major reason why some people today refuse to submit to God’s guidance is the mentality instilled in us under the guise of humanism: “believe in yourself.” We are bombarded by TV, self-help books, and friends to have self-confidence, to take control of our own lives, live by our rules, and decide our destiny. We talk about spirituality only when it fits into our other, more important plans. In all the Divine Scriptures, God warns against this ego-trap and advises us to discipline our egos with humility. Just because we are given the limited capacity to reason, we deceive ourselves into thinking that we know better than God. This mentality is a grave mistake that leads us to rebel against God’s guidance. For instance, as explained in the Qur’an, God created Adam (pbuh) and ordered all the angels and the jinn to bow down in front of him. However, Satan, who is a jinn, “reasoned” that since he was created of fire, and Adam was only made of clay, he was superior than Adam. Therefore, he disobeyed God’s command and obeyed his own deduction. Isn’t our attitude very similar to this? We assume that we know better than God. Even though He created this universe and us and is All-Knowing, we obey our egos and try to justify our disregard for God’s guidance.
This is exactly why God sent the Divine Scriptures and the prophets to guide us. Since God creates us and knows our weaknesses as well as the medicine to cure these weaknesses, He sent the medicine (the scriptures and the prophets) out of His compassion. God created the ego and offered us the medicine to cure it. But He also gave us the choice (partial-freewill) to take the medicine or not! This is where things get really exciting and challenging.
Our souls were created long before we were sent to this world with a physical form, and in the realm of the souls we made a promise to God. He asked all the souls: “Am I not your God?” We all answered: “Yes, you are and we bear witness to this.” God has created us in a unique way different from the angels and animals. We have been given partial-freewill plus faculties (such as mind and heart) to help us use it correctly. Angels have intelligence but no freewill; they do what they are programmed to do. Animals, on the other hand, act by instinct (i.e. the way they are created/programmed) and cannot reason extensively. Yet we can use our logic to find God and to believe. At the same time, we have partial-freewill to obey or not obey Him. This is why we are responsible for our actions, and we will be held accountable for our beliefs and deeds. This is the toughest challenge in the universe. The angels worship and are not even capable of sinning, thus they are not going to be held responsible for anything. As for us, we have the noblest and most difficult responsibility among all creatures.
It is important though to remember that God is the Just and Compassionate Judge of the Day of Judgment. He does not hold us accountable for what He has not given us. Hence, everyone will be judged according to their capacity, intelligence, and willpower. Since “There is no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an, 2:256), everyone is responsible for their own faith and deeds. Faith is between us and God, and no one can change what is in our heart by force. But what about those people who do not believe in God or worship false idols, like their egos? God says in the Qur’an:
“Those who believe (i.e. professing to be Muslims) or those who declare Judaism, or the Christians or the Sabaeans (or those of some other faith) – whoever truly believes in God and the Last Day and does good, righteous deeds, surely their reward is with their Lord, and they will have no fear, nor will they grieve” (Qur’an, 2:62).
Those who do not believe in God or follow His guidance will be rewarded for their good deeds in this world, but not in the hereafter. For instance, if an atheist helps out in a soup kitchen, his reward is the inner peace he feels by helping others, yet he will not be rewarded in the afterlife (which he denies) for this act.
Thus, the ultimate goal of religion is to guide us to acknowledge our reality (that we are created beings), to discipline and humble our ego, and to submit to God’s Will by following His guidance in all aspects of our life. This means affirmation by heart and confirmation by actions. In other words, God has given us intelligence and freewill. It is our duty to seek Him and to lead our lives accordingly.
 Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age (Tughra Publications, December 2012). She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.
 Prophet Muhammad explained the existence of a species called jinn that are made of fire, are given partial-freewill and other faculties to choose between right and wrong, and will be held accountable in the hereafter. Conversely, angels are made of light (nur) and are not accountable since they do not have freewill and perform what they are programmed to do.