By Dr. Eren Tatari
“Or did you think that We created you in vain (so that you should devote all your time to play and entertainment), and that you would not be brought back to Us?” (Qur’an, 23:115).
Why was I created? What am I to do with my life? Why did God send prophets? Human beings have always been intrigued by these questions since their answers are critical to unearth numerous other mysteries. Moreover, the purpose of creation even helps explain issues related to the afterlife such as what will become of us when we die. In other words, the goal of creation is the goal of life.
There are several verses in the Qur’an outlining very clearly why God created the universe and humankind. God was the only existence, and He wanted to be known and loved by conscious beings who, unlike the angels, would have the freewill to choose to worship/acknowledge God. Thus, God created the universe in which the human beings would dwell, multiply, and go through a lifelong trial till Judgment Day when the universe would be destroyed only to turn into a different realm for the hereafter.
The human mind has the intellectual capacity to contemplate the creation and reach the conclusion that for this complexity to exist in such an orderly manner there has to be a Creator. But how can we know the reason why God created the universe, and in particular, humankind? Islam recognizes four sources to find the answers: the messengers, the scriptures, human conscience, and the universe as “the book of signs.” These sources explain that everything in the creation manifest God’s Attributes in order for us to know, to love, and to worship God.
The Arabic word khalq comes from the root kh-l-q and refers to the act of creation. Creation in Islamic terminology primarily signifies creating something from nothingness in accordance with the creatio ex nihilo (the doctrine of the theory of creation from nothingness). The ability to create belongs only to God, who is the al-Khaliq. He is the one who creates from nothing, “establishing at the same time the states, conditions, and the sustenance of all that He has created.”
Islam is built on the principal of God’s unity (tawhid), which is prevalent in every aspect and practice of the religion. Since He is the only Creator, the entire universe owes its existence to God; therefore He is the only one worthy of worship. Likewise, all Islamic principals are deduced by reason and are built on each other, and can be traced back to the fact that God is the sole Creator.
The Creator “not only has created but also governs the world according to an order that issues from His Wisdom as well as His Will.” Thus, God’s hand is present in all things at all times as is evident in the harmony and order of nature. The Qur’anic verse, “Say: “In Whose Hand is the absolute ownership and dominion of all things…”” (Qur’an, 23:88) explains this phenomenon clearly. Everything in the cosmos has a divine aspect to it since it is created and sustained by the Divine One, and also particularly because God breathed His Divine Breath into it. As described by Nasr, Ibn ‘Arabi states that “there is no property in the cosmos without a divine support and a lordly attribute” and that “The very essence of cosmos is the ‘Breath of Compassionate’ (nafas al-Rahman) while cosmic forms and all that constitutes the order of nature emanate from the archetype realities and ultimately the Divine Essence Itself.”
Thus, Islam views all animate and inanimate creatures as sacred beings that reflect the manifestations of God’s Attributes. Environmentalism and humanism (in the sense of loving human beings because of the Creator) are innate to Islam due to this principal, and are manifest in Islamic literature and the practices of Prophet Muhammad.
Islamic theology holds that creation is not without a purpose; rather it has a divine purpose. Numerous verses in the Qur’an urge humans to question and observe creation to see that it was not created in vain. God says in the Qur’an:
“We have not created the heavens and the earth and all that is between them in vain (so that people should think themselves at liberty to act each according to his own desires and inclinations). That is the mere conjecture of those who disbelieve. Woe to those who disbelieve because of the Fire!” (Qur’an, 38:27).
God’s intention in creating the universe is clearly outlined in the Qur’an and is centered on humanity. Numerous verses in the Qur’an explain how the whole universe, heavens and the earth, are arranged to provide for and to serve humanity (Qur’an, 2:22; 2:29). Thus the universe and everything within are subordinate to mankind which puts the responsibility on man to take care of nature, bringing us back to the environmentalism theme in Islam.
The universe has another, more essential role to play apart from providing for and serving humanity. Everything in the creation manifests God’s Attributes. In other words, the most important trait of the cosmos is its theophany. God has also designed it to be a “book of signs” for humankind. Human beings may recognize God’s Majesty and comprehend His Divine Attributes (Asma al-Husna) by contemplating nature. As Esposito argues, “nature, properly viewed, becomes a revealed book very much like the Qur’an is itself composed of individual signs or miracles.” God says in the Qur’an:
“But do they, then, never observe the sky above them (to ponder Our Knowledge and Power; and reflect) how We have constructed it and adorned it, and that there are no rifts in it?” (Qur’an, 50:6).
When viewed from this perspective, the universe takes on an entirely different meaning and becomes increasingly significant for human beings. The study of natural sciences becomes almost an act of worship since it leads to the knowledge of the Creator. In the verses above, God urges human beings to use the intelligence that He gave them. It is emphasized that we are given this intelligence (and are not created as a plant or an animal with limited intelligence) so that we use it in the right way and get to know God. As early Muslims took up this command, both natural and social sciences flourished in the Muslim world for centuries.
In one of the most well-known phrases on the subject of the purpose of creation, God conveyed through Prophet Muhammad (pbuh): “I was a Hidden Treasure and I loved to be known, and so I created the world.” God manifests His Attributes through His creation since He is a transcendent being that cannot be limited to time and space, and cannot be conceived directly. Also, Prophet Muhammad’s own words explain that “… the universe and its contents were created in order to make known the Creator, and to make known that good is to praise it.”
Both of these hadith refer to and require a being with freewill and intelligence to know and praise God, which brings us to the core of the matter: If the universe was created to serve man, then what is the purpose of the creation of humankind? There are three main reasons, agreed upon by a wide range of scholars, as to why God created mankind: to know God, to love God, and to worship God. All of the prophets, the revealed scriptures and the universe, as the book of signs, serve as tools through which we know God. The reason for their existence is solely to guide humanity to recognize, acknowledge, and revere God as He deserves. Only after knowing God can we begin to love God in a more conscious and appreciative manner. God says in the Qur’an, “I have not created the jinn and humankind but to (know and) worship Me (exclusively)” (Qur’an, 51:56). Then the question takes on a new form; what is really meant by serving God, or how does one serve God?
The Arabic word used in this verse is ‘ibaadah which is translated as ‘worship’ (origin is ‘weorthscipe’ which means ‘honor’). In this sense, all the prophets preached ‘ibaadah, conveying the message of what God wants human beings to do. In general, worship is defined as all those acts within the circle of halal (do not have to be physical, even an intention can be counted as worship) done for the sake of God, to please Him.
Why does God want human beings to worship him by obeying Him and His Divine Laws? Without iman (faith) in one’s heart, the immediate response to obedience and worship is “why does God need my worship?” However, it is the human beings themselves who need the worship. Islam presents Divine Laws (shari’ah) that guide all aspects of life by distinguishing right from wrong. As Philips puts it, “The Creator alone knows best what is beneficial for His creation and what is not. The divine laws command as well as prohibit various acts and substances to protect human spirit, human body and society from harm. In order for human beings to fulfill their potential by living righteous lives, they need to worship God through obedience to His commandments.” Also, the underlying purpose of the regular acts of worship is to remember God constantly.
What follows is the “trial/education”; a concept common in all three monotheistic traditions, though in Islam, it takes a slightly different connotation (Qur’an: 18:7; 67:2). Human beings will be held accountable for every single action they do in this life, good as well as the bad. Since God provided humanity with guidelines (the scriptures) and the messengers, and He gave intelligence and freewill, without accountability and the Judgment Day, creation would be in vain. God says in the Qur’an:
“He it is Who created the heavens and the earth in six Days – and His Supreme Throne was upon the water – that He might make trial of you to manifest which of you is best in conduct…” (Qur’an, 11:7).
“God has created the heavens and the earth in truth (for meaningful purpose, on solid foundations of truth and embodying it), and so that every soul may be recompensed for what it has earned (in this world), and they will not be wronged” (Qur’an, 45:22).
Another essential aspect of the creation of humankind lies in the concept of vicegerency (being a representative or agent of God on earth). What does it mean for humanity to be the vicegerent of God on earth?
“We did indeed offer the Trust to the Heavens and the Earth and the Mountains; but they refused to undertake it, being afraid thereof: but man undertook it;- He was indeed unjust and foolish” (Qur’an, 33:72).
As explain in the above verse, God has called upon the whole of creation and informed it that He has a trust to offer. All of creation, including mountains, refused to accept this challenging trust except man. Thus, man became God’s trustee on earth. There are varying arguments for the definition of the trust. Mawlavi claims that since the only unique trait that humans possess is freewill and choice, then these gifts are the basis of the trust. There are several clear verses in the Qur’an stating that God has appointed humanity as His vicegerent on earth, “He it is Who has appointed you vicegerents on the earth (to improve it and rule over it according to God’s commands)…” (Qur’an, 6:165). Philips explains this long term cycle of the role of human beings as follows:
God created human beings with the potential to be good and evil. He implanted in man the desires that need to be controlled according to the divine law. God created human beings knowing that they would disobey Him. He thus taught them how to repent and purify themselves. The story of Adam and Eve is a prototype of human beings’ repeated cycle. They forgot God’s commandment and were lured by Satan. They disobeyed God and afterwards repented and God forgave them.
The Qur’an outlines the conclusions to be drawn after one acknowledges God as the sole Creator. Since God creates and sustains everything, then His creatures are to live according to His Will. Thus, the messengers and the scriptures expound the right way of life for His creatures. God urges humans to use their intelligence and reasoning power to contemplate the universe and the scriptures so that they can recognize and acknowledge God’s wonders. Awe for and thankfulness to God naturally follows, since our existence depends only upon Him:
“Now O humankind! Worship your Lord Who has created you as well as those before you (and brought you up in your human nature and identity), so that you may attain reverent piety towards Him and His protection (against any kind of straying and its consequent punishment in this world and the Hereafter)” (Qur’an, 2:21).
Since “His being the Creator is a central reason that he is deserving of worship for the entire universe owes its existence to him,” worship is a requirement of loving and acknowledging God. Also, worshiping God “proceeds not merely from his gracious creative act in the past but from dependence upon him for existence at every instant of the present and the future.”
“And what reason do I have that I should not worship Him Who originated me with a nature particular to me, and to Whom you all (as well as I) are being brought back (to give an account of our lives)?” (Qur’an, 36:22).
As is evident from the abundance of Qur’anic verses related to the process and the purpose of creation, God did not leave too much room for interpretation. He urges us to understand our creation so that we can fulfill our purpose of creation. The answer to the crucial question “why are we created?” helps unfold numerous other religious and philosophical questions; thus it is an inclusive and important matter to study and comprehend in the context of Islam.
Conclusively, the purpose of creation can be summarized as follows: God was the only Being; He wanted to be known, loved, and worshiped by beings that have the freewill to choose to worship Him. Creation was not a necessity, but the Will of God. Human beings regard life as their most precious gift and would do anything not to lose it. He created us as human beings, even without our knowledge, and He also sustains us and makes it possible for us to enjoy this life. From this perspective, loving and worshiping God becomes more relevant and logical.
 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.
 Esposito 1995, p.474.
 “Circle of halal” is a phrase used to signify all those things, acts, and intentions within the boundaries of permissible category in Islam.
 Esposito 1995, p. 472.