Followers of the Abrahamic religions-Muslims, Christians, and Jews in general-believe in an eternal life after death, in one form or another, and that the righteous will be rewarded for their good deeds in the hereafter and the wicked will be punished. (The definition of righteousness and wickedness vary from religion to religion, and even from sect to sect within the same religion, but the overarching theme of eternal life after death is common to all three religions.) Given that the average human life is around sixty to seventy years, it perhaps does not make absolute sense at first how one can be rewarded or punished for an infinite amount of time as a consequence of a life lived for such a short time span (compared to eternity), no matter what the actions might be. The purpose of this article is to attempt to provide a logical explanation for this finite-to-infinite dilemma through the notion of “intention,” from the point of view of Bediüzzaman Said Nursi, one of the most prominent Islamic scholars of the twentieth century. The article further elaborates on sincerity of intention, describes its fundamental characteristics and importance for eternal salvation, and explains how it might practically be achieved in our daily lives. The article then briefly outlines a second line of reasoning regarding denial and recognition of the infinite attributes of God. The discussion is concluded with a word of caution that this article merely tries to scratch the surface of these critical, yet deep, issues of faith and that eventually it is a matter of personal choice for one to believe or not to believe in any specific matter related to faith.
Intention and sincerity
Excluding childhood and the time spent in sleep, an average person has about thirty years in total for everything else during his or her lifetime. Out of these thirty years, we spend most of our time on eating, school, work, family commitments, and other essential, but non-religious activities. As a matter of fact, in today’s world where everybody is busy, even a person who deems himself or herself “religious” might be considered lucky if he or she can spend an hour a day on traditional religious activities such as reading religious books, praying, and so on. Assuming an hour a day for thirty years, we would spend about fifteen months in total on traditional religious activities, and this is perhaps the upper limit for most people. So, the finite-to-infinite dilemma becomes even more interesting: keeping in mind that even one trillion years is nothing compared to eternity, how can one earn eternal paradise in all its beauty that is far beyond human imagination by spending not more than fifteen months to earn it? The answer is what Bediüzzaman Said Nursi describes as one of the four culminations of his life: intention.
The intention of an action can simply be defined as the true motive behind that action. A “sincere and pure” intention, in a religious context, can perhaps be defined as the true motive of drawing closer to God, and drawing closer to God only. Nursi states that “Intention changes ordinary acts and customs into acts of worship. It is a penetrating and pervading spirit through which inanimate states and deeds acquire life and become ‘living’ acts of worship. It is also through a special quality of intention that evil changes into virtue or good deeds. Intention is a ‘spirit’ that causes ordinary deeds and customs to become ‘living’ acts of worship.” Our intentions are indeed the soul of our actions and, provided that we believe in God, what makes our actions worthy of earning eternal paradise solely lies in the sincerity of our intentions. In a sense, our actions are a sequence of zeros and a sincere intention is a positive 1 in front of those zeros, whereas an insincere intention is a negative 1. That being said, we must pay particular attention not to act against well-established principles of the religion and claim that our actions still carry a good intention. For instance, under no circumstances is one allowed to harm an innocent civilian, even during war, and therefore there can be no good intention behind this crime.
By striving to achieve purity and sincerity in our intentions (known as ikhlas), we can expect the Most Compassionate and Most Merciful God to treat our activities as if we spend our entire life worshipping Him while still leading a regular, balanced life-provided that we respect the basic principles of the religion and avoid committing major sins. Throughout the Risale-i Nur collection, Nursi places tremendous emphasis on sincerity of intention. Nursi describes the fundamental characteristics of ikhlas in the Twenty-first Gleam: “[I]n this world, and particularly in the services done for the afterlife, a most important foundation, and a greatest power, and a most acceptable intercessor, and a firmest point of reliance, and a shortest way to the truth, and a most answerable prayer, and a most blessed and marvelous means of achieving one’s goal, and a most sublime virtue, and a purest form of worship is sincerity, or doing something good or any religious deed purely for God’s sake.” Nursi points out the relationship between actions, intentions, sincerity, and salvation as follows: “[Intention’s] ‘soul’ is sincerity or acting solely for God’s sake. Salvation is found only in sincere actions done in His way. Sincerity multiplies an action’s worth, and through it one can reach Paradise with a little action and in a short life.” Obviously, we can do only a finite number of good deeds during a finite lifetime. Thus, at least from a technical point of view, we cannot earn eternal paradise unless infinite reward is given to our finite actions. God is so merciful that He promises Heaven to believers with the good deeds of a short lifetime, and in order for this to happen, He demands purity and sincerity in the intentions of those good deeds. In other words, the secret component in this finite to infinite transformation is nothing but sincerity of intention.
So it turns out that ikhlas, that is, sincerity of intention, is not optional: it is mandatory, and it is of the utmost importance. So, how do we achieve ikhlas? Nursi defines the first rule for gaining and preserving ikhlas as follows: “You should pursue God’s good pleasure in your actions. If He is pleased with you, even if the whole world is displeased, it is of no consequence. If He approves, it has no effect even if all others reject your ideas and actions. When He is pleased and approves, even if you do not seek the approval of others, should He will it to be so and His Wisdom requires it, He will make others accept it and be pleased with you.” In our daily lives, we might be performing daily prayers, reading religious books, and performing other traditional worship activities. During these activities, it is critical that we make sure that our intention is to draw closer to God and nothing else. A prayer performed to make others think one is pious, a fast observed for health benefits, a Pilgrimage made to enjoy the journey, or wealth distributed to obtain good reputation will not only dishonor the owner of these deeds in the hereafter, but also be rejected as the intentions behind these actions are impure, insincere, and have no ikhlas in them.
There are numerous other activities in our daily lives that are essential to our well-being and social lives, but nonreligious in nature. We go to school or work every day, we eat, we sleep, we love our parents, spouses, and children, we spend time with our families and friends, we brush our teeth, and so forth. God the Most Merciful tells us that he will treat these activities as worship, but only if they are done with good, sincere intention (again, conditioned upon respecting the basic principles of the religion and avoiding major sins).
The key to being rewarded for simple, regular activities such as those above and achieving ikhlas in our daily lives is to ensure that our sole intention in every one of our activities is to draw closer to God and to draw closer to God only. Every individual can achieve ikhlas in different ways in different situations, but the ultimate goal is always the same: to have good intention and be sincere about it. For example, a man might work late every day so that he earns halal money to provide for his family and still has enough money to make donations for just causes. Another person might go to school to study, thus recognizing the names of God, the All-Knower and All-Wise. One might eat in order to be grateful for the food and be healthy enough to perform the daily prayers. Another person might sleep to rest and be more productive at work so as to really earn his or her wages honestly. A person might brush his or her teeth because he or she knows the body is a gift from God and he or she is responsible for taking good care of it. Another way to achieve ikhlas in our lives, as Nursi suggests, is to make sure that love for worldly things, such as delicious foods and fruits, parents, spouses, children, and friends, is for the sake of God and that all this love is given to God Almighty's essence, attributes and names. Again, from an ikhlas perspective, perhaps we should reconsider plans to buy a huge flat-screen TV, or a luxury SUV, or a house by the lake with ten bedrooms and start asking ourselves how things such as these that we intend to do in the future will help us draw closer to God, if they ever will.
As argued above, good intention is able to convert daily activities into worship through sincerity and therefore earn its owner eternal paradise by the mercy of God. A second critical dimension of sincerity in intention is its continuity. That is to say, if a sincere believer lived not sixty or seventy years, but a thousand years, he or she would still be doing what he or she was doing all along: trying to respect the basic principles of the religion, avoid major sins, and do as many good deeds as possible with pure and sincere intention. This would not change if he or she lived five thousand years, or even fifty thousand years, and thus, he or she would still be seeking ways to draw closer to God even he or she did live in this world forever. This is why it makes sense that eternal paradise can be earned within a short lifetime.
If God is pleased with our intentions in our activities and if He wishes to do so, He might bestow upon us worldly rewards as well, such as success in career, health, or blessed offspring. A potential pitfall here is that the person might start expecting these rewards to continue and see his or her actions as a prerequisite for them, losing the purity in his or her intention as well as those worldly rewards. Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, “If anyone’s intention is to seek the hereafter, God will place his sufficiency in his heart and order his affairs, and the world will come to him submissively; but if anyone’s intention is to seek worldly good, God will place poverty before him and disorder his affairs, and only so much of it as has been ordained for him will come to him.”
Nursi warns that believers should avoid things which would harm sincerity the same as they would avoid snakes and scorpions. One should, however, keep in mind that achieving sincerity in each and every one of our actions is a process and might not happen right away. Yet we also should keep in mind that nothing done for His sake shall go unrewarded.
Denying or recognizing Infinite Attributes of God
All the attributes of Almighty God are infinite, although what we see in this world is a finite projection of those infinite attributes, as the world itself is a finite domain in all respects. For example, God is the All-Knower, but what we know about God’s knowledge is very limited. God is the All-Wise, but we do not know the reason behind many things. God is the Absolute Ruler, but the universe that God rules is finite. God is the All-Powerful Creator, but there are only a finite number of creatures in this world. All these examples illustrate that what we experience in this three-dimensional world is a vague shadow of God’s true attributes.
A nonbeliever who claims that there is no Creator and that things just happen by themselves therefore ignores God’s attribute of being the All-Powerful Creator. Someone who claims that there is no God and that there is nobody who rules this universe thus ignores the Absolute Ruler attribute of God, and so on. Denying God’s existence and ignoring God’s infinite attributes is the biggest sin that can ever be committed and it deserves infinite punishment-the fact that this sin is committed in only a short lifetime is irrelevant. (This is the case in worldly affairs too: punishment is determined according to the nature of the crime, not on how long it takes to commit the crime. For instance, a person can commit a murder in one minute, but the murderer may spend the rest of his or her life in prison.) Similarly, consider someone who believes in God, recognizes His infinite attributes, and tries to do good deeds with pure and sincere intention. It makes sense for this person to be rewarded with eternal paradise. From a similar point of view, it can be argued that even one hour of adult life spent with the firm belief in God and in His attributes is sufficient for paradise, and even one hour spent denying God’s existence and his infinite attributes suffices for eternal hellfire.
The intentions argument can also be used to explain how a nonbeliever deserves eternal punishment. As in the case with a sincere believer, a nonbeliever has the intention to continue to commit the sin he or she has been committing: if a nonbeliever lived not sixty or seventy years, but a thousand or five thousand years, or even infinitely many years, he or she would still be doing what he or she was doing all along: denying God’s existence and ignoring God’s infinite attributes, and this is why it makes sense for a nonbeliever to deserve eternal punishment.
A word of caution
It should be noted that this article does not claim to provide a complete logical explanation of why there is an afterlife, why the afterlife is eternal, or why some people will go to Heaven and some people will not. This article simply attempts to illustrate that all these concepts are reasonable and they make sense. Lastly, these are issues of faith and the author believes that matters related to faith and religion cannot be confined within the boundaries of logical, physical, or mathematical principles. After all, it was God who created the universe and everything in it, including the rules of logic, physics, and mathematics. Matters of faith are just that, and it is by our free will that we choose what to believe in. That being the case, one should still keep in mind that if there is indeed eternal life after death, paradise, and hellfire (which we believe there is), disbelief in them will not make them just disappear (just like closing our eyes will not make the sun disappear).
Vedat Akyuz has a PhD in applied mathematics and statistics.
- Nursi, Bediüzzaman Said. Al-Mathnawi Al-Nuri, NJ: Tughra Books, 2007, p. 113.
- Nursi. The Gleams, NJ: Tughra Books, 2008, p. 225.
- Nursi, 2007, p. 113.
- Nursi, 2008, p. 226.
- Nursi. The Words, NJ: Tughra Books, 2005, pp. 649–650.
- Tirmidhi 5320.
- Holy Qur’an, Al-Zalzalah 99:7.