The role of meaning is of paramount importance in human life (Frankl, 1963). Human beings have a natural inclination to understand and make sense out of their lives and experiences. It is one of those attributes that make us distinctively human. As Dewey wrote (1933), "Only when things about us have meaning for us, only when they signify consequences that can be reached by using them in certain ways, is any such thing as intentional, deliberate control of them possible," (p. 19). Meanings are the cognitive categories that make up one's view of reality and by which actions are defined. Meanings are also referred to by social analysts as culture, norms, understandings, social reality, definitions of the situation, typifications, ideology, beliefs, worldview, perspective or stereotypes (Lofland and Lofland, 1996). Life experience generates and enriches meanings, while meanings provide explanation and guidance for experiences (Chen, 2001).
A person draws meanings from, or gives meanings to, events and experiences. That is, experiencing starts to make sense as the person performs his or her psychological functioning of translating it into how he or she thinks and feels. It is the individuals' subjectivity, or phenomenological world, that forms the very core for meaning origination and evolvement. People have the freedom to choose meaning (McArthur, 1958) through their interactive experiencing with various internal and external contexts (Chen, 2001). As such, meaning is the underlying motivation behind thoughts, actions and even the interpretation and application of knowledge. Meaning is also arrived at through the learning process.
As a convert to Islam, how I construct meaning represents perhaps the greatest difference between my worldview prior to Islam and my post-conversion Islamic worldview. My Islamic worldview facilitates meaning through the tawhidic (God's Unity) paradigm by connecting everything in life - every word, act, thought, and event - to the highest source of all, the ultimate reality, God. This means that everything that happens in life is to be responded to according to that which is pleasing to God and in line with His revealed laws. We do not make decisions based solely on our feelings, desires and appetites. Rather, we employ the intellect, which is grounded in knowledge of religion and God, to decide that which is pleasing and acceptable to the Creator, and, as such, optimal for us on all levels. The goal, the ultimate success, the ultimate happiness, and contentment, is transformed into a spiritual one and is manifested in a life of closeness and intimacy with the Divine, detailed by God-consciousness in every act and thought.
How this differs from my pre-Islamic worldview is that it, ideally, removes the lower self as a guide, so decisions are not made according to appetites and selfish desires, but according to that which we believe is best for us, for our lives both here and in the hereafter. We cease following the direction of the lower self and instead open our hearts to the guidance of our higher self, the one in tune to the divine will. For what is best for us cannot be left to the lower self to decide; that self can only lead us to spiritual destruction. Thus, all of our trust and hope is placed in God and our conviction that He is the best one to guide us as the Creator of all things, the Loving, the Merciful, and the one who wants the best outcome for us, an outcome which is closeness to Him in this world and a direct vision of Him in the life after death.
The making of meaning, therefore, takes on a whole new form from this worldview. The lens - our cognitive schema - of how we see the world changes. We begin to see with the eyes of the spirit, the eyes of the heart. We judge not according to what we find pleasing or desirable, but according to the knowledge of what God finds pleasing and desirable. As such, we begin the striving, the journey toward the acquisition of the divine attributes. We live a life of effort to reform our own personalities to reflect the attributes. As a real-life example, the one who most perfectly manifested these attributes, we follow the way and life of Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, and his successors. In so doing life becomes one of ongoing self-purification, self-perfection and self-improvement. The making of meaning, therefore, is spiritualized. We become highly tuned to everything happening around us. When I came to Islam, however,I learned that even eating could be a spiritual activity when undertaken with the right intention. According to the Islamic world view, every morsel of food is a blessing, a gift, sustenance that comes from God.
We find meaning and make meaning of every experience through self-examination. We start by looking inwardly at ourselves and examining how we react to situations around us. We take stock of our feelings, our frustrations, our likes and our dislikes. We examine our minds and look at what we spend time thinking about. We constantly look for ways to improve ourselves. In sum, everything means something because according to our worldview, God sees everything, knows everything, and everything we do is counted either for us or against us. Every moment thus contributes to our success or failure. This means that as Muslims, we must acquire the attribute of awareness, of always knowing what is happening around us and within us at all times.
Islam helps us to construct meaning on the premise that everything is purposeful because it directly determines our fate both in this world and in the eternal world after death. We approach life as an opportunity having been given the knowledge that every moment can either help us or hurt us, depending on what we choose to do with it. In this way, the Islamic worldview puts the making of meaning in our own hands through the gift of free will, and links the process with the development and refinement of the self.
The spiritualized Islamic worldview brings energy to life and a balance that I did not previously have. The key to it is consciousness and remembrance of God. When we are conscious of God, of His omnipotence, greatness and mercy, we are always aware of ourselves. We are constantly in a state of humility because of the knowledge that He created us out of nothing for no other reason than that His love be known, He be worshipped and trusted by us. We are also aware that God's mercy will always help us along on our path when we make a sincere effort to dedicate ourselves to Islamic self-improvement. This awareness includes the belief that heaven is not only the goal for the hereafter, but for this life as well, achieved by closeness to God. As such, by remaining conscious of God, we invite and invoke goodness from both the earthly and spiritual realms, and light a way for ourselves to engage in continuous self-refinement.
An example of how Islam contributes to the making of meaning is my initial understanding of how a Muslim is to approach something as seemingly mundane as eating. According to my pre-Islamic worldview, eating was an activity undertaken to satisfy hunger. It was never much more than that. Although I understood food as a blessing, I did not approach eating as a spiritual act. How could I? The only knowledge I had of it was that it was an activity undertaken to satisfy a physical need. When I came to Islam, however, I learned that even eating could be a spiritual activity when undertaken with the right intention, in accordance with Islamic law, by way of the Prophet's example and with a deeper understanding of the act itself.
According to the Islamic worldview, every morsel of food is a blessing, a gift, sustenance that comes from God. The food we eat is usually also a blessing for those who grow it, manufacture it, process it and sell it - those who derive their livelihood from it. Food, when consumed with consciousness of God can be a source of barakah, blessings and divine grace. Therefore, we are more inclined to be less wasteful in our eating, to take less and think of others who also want to eat. Through the spiritual practice of fasting, the Islamic worldview also teaches us what it is like to be unable to find food. This alone is enough to make most people appreciate food and increase their gratitude to God when they eat. In addition, there are so many forms of etiquette (adab) of the Prophet on how to approach and eat food that help us to understand its spiritual role in our lives, such as the proper way of sitting, chewing, handling food, passing it to others, the prayers to recite before eating it, while eating it, after eating it, the way to conduct oneself while eating, the way to wash ourselves after eating, etc. As we can see, something as fundamental to our lives as food, or eating, when approached from the Islamic worldview becomes a highly meaningful activity that is intimately linked to our personal sense of mission as Muslims.
So what about something as spiritually rich as formal worship? If eating as an activity can be approached with spiritual intelligence, an act of God consciousness and worship, then what about something like our prayer (salat), which to the Prophet was not only a comfort, but an ascension to heaven every time he engaged in it? What does prayer mean to us? Do we approach it as a heavenly ascension, so powerful as to move us to a higher state, or is it just something we have to get through to achieve a place at the heavenly table when it is all over?
Meaning of Islam is cultivated in us through the knowledge and wisdom found in our tradition, and through teachers that have been blessed with it and continue to pass it on. We must seek them and their works to help us develop meaning in our lives as Muslims. It is an important time for us to make meaning from this way of life. All around us meaninglessness and its culture are fueling the spiritual suicide that is engulfing the world and victimizing people from every race and religion.
Ultimately, meaning of Islam must be individualized and owned by each of us uniquely, based on our individual relationship with God. We must find intimacy with Him, strive to love Him, rely on Him, to seek Him, and depend on Him, trusting Him completely. Lasting and real meaning of Islam cannot come from a movement or someone's agenda it can and must come from the knowledge of Truth, and submission to it through the way of life based on it. It must be spiritual, not political. Our uniqueness as an ummah is that our purpose, our basis for deriving meaning in all of life is spiritually grounded in heavenly laws and aspirations. When we read the beautiful supplications of our Prophet to his Lord, we can feel the intimacy that he had with the All-Merciful. This is the spring of meaning for those who have surrendered themselves, and an important element of our way of life that helps us persevere through difficult times.
- Chen, C.P. 2001. On Exploring Meanings: Combining Humanistic and Career Psychology Theories in Counselling. Counselling Psychology Quarterly 14:4.
- Dewey, J. (1933). How We Think. New York, NY: Heath Books.
- Frankl, V. 1963. Man's Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Lofland, J. and Lofland, L. 1996. Analyzing Social Settings. Third Edition. Wadsworth
- McArthur, H. 1958. The Necessity of Choice, Journal of Individual Psychology, 14, 153-157.