By Craig Phillips
In thinking about this short article, I struggled with the question: How do I make meaning out of life? It can be read and answered in many ways from one person to the next. What is meaning, exactly? Still, I admit to being pleased at the invitation, at being acknowledged for the six-year journey since converting to Islam, the journey to find and define what brings meaning to my life.
As a person aiming to be faithful, my thinking begins within a religious worldview. I assume that anything that makes my life meaningful must be eternal; I assume this because if this thing/person/idea were to stop existing, life would lose all meaning. A life without meaning, to me, is a serious crisis; therefore personally I feel meaning should placed in something eternal and secure.
This sense of an eternal existence, for most theists, is found in God alone. In the Qur’an we read, “All that is on it (i.e. earth) will perish, but the face of your Lord will last forever…” (55:26-7). It is then, through a personal relationship with the everlasting God, al-Baqi, that a secure meaning is established, a sense that can only be shaken by a loss of faith. Further we read in the Qur’an, “And I did not create the jinn and humankind except to worship” (51:56), which gives the most straightforward statement on the purpose of human life from the theocentric worldview of Islam. Though I most certainly subscribe to these systems of meaning, they are shared by many around the world, and are not particular to myself as an individual.
The meaning of God’s existence in the life of a believer finds its way into every dimension of our lives, making meaning out of all we think and do. Being a good, moral person can make life meaningful, which is often, whether implicit or explicit, learned from religious values nurtured in one’s particular community or family. For me, religious experience and belief lead me to change course, to seek the betterment of the world, rather than purely personal interest and enjoyment.
Thinking more about meaning making, I ask, What makes me who I am? Or rephrased, What would compromise who I am, were I to lose it? The answer is simply– experience. As a student in India, a Turkish friend told me that with every new language you become a new person. I feel that the same is true with every experience, every new insight, whether gained through travel, education, or human relationships.
This truth is a testament to how I construct a meaningful life. I cannot imagine myself being who I am today without the places I’ve been, people I’ve met, and experiences I’ve had. And in order to construct a meaningful future I am happily obliged to continue on this path as long as I am breathing. Though by no means is it unique to hold experience as the personal meaning maker, all of our experiences are completely unique to us. Experiential meaning is surely more than intellectual, but it certainly becomes richer and more satisfying through learning and personal development.