- Syazwan Zainal Shah from ELEVEN
A Short Commentary: Discovering Ourselves through the Lens of Existentialism and Islam
Contemporary media and popular culture perpetually highlight the need to “discover ourselves”, in line with other common maxims such as finding our ‘passion’ or ‘purpose’ as the central theme of our existence. This idea of free will, agency, and freedom to decide our identity and meaning in life seems to resonate with proponents of Existentialism.
Existentialists propound that it is up to us to decide who we are through our choices and actions. They argue that we have free will to make decisions and thus, should be accountable for our actions. Existentialists also believe that our identity is also figured out by our ability to ascribe meaning to our situation based on one’s choices and actions. Here, it is important to acknowledge that existentialists do not believe in fate, contrary to what many religions espoused. Instead, existentialists contend that individuals have complete freedom to decide who we are and our life’s purpose.
As opposed to Existentialism, Islam supplies a contrasting view on fate and divine decree, where all matters (e.g., identity, purpose, etc.) have already been decided by Allah s.w.t.. In fact, in Islam, our purpose in life is to worship Allah s.w.t. and we have a guided set of principles to abide by as we tide through life. Nonetheless, Muslims believe that all of us have a degree of free will to decide who we want to be, and Allah s.w.t. has the power to change our destiny based on our actions. In this brief commentary, I would argue that certain aspects of existentialism should empower us, Muslims. With careful deliberation and agency, we should strive to discover ourselves in the pursuit of His favor.
Reconciling between Islam and Existentialism
For some, the journey of discovering oneself is a passive process where one is simply "going with the flow”. This could mean following traditions, customs, trends, and norms. Often, this has little to do with one’s own conscious decision to choose a preferred path but instead, it is more associated with the pressure to conform. Conversely, the act of discovering one’s identity can be a more active and deliberate process, guided by one’s own interest and curiosity to shape the experiences one may have.
I, for one, believe that we should be more active and deliberate with deciding who we are. We should expose ourselves as much as we can to a wide range of religiously permissible activities and experiences to find out who we truly are. To me, this concept of self-discovery is in line with existentialism, except that our ability to decide our course of action is already governed by His wisdom. In other words, I assert that the opportunities presented to each of us in each juncture of our lives are pre-determined nudges to discover who we truly are that are actualised through our actions.
However, as Muslims, I would also caution against over-emphasizing free will and agency in this journey of discovering ourselves. Although we are endowed with a degree of free will, our knowledge of ourselves and our foreseeable future is still inadequate, and we may not always pursue opportunities that may be beneficial for us in the long run. Furthermore, while all matters have already been decided by Allah s.w.t., there are still matters that can be changed through supplication and various deeds. Thus, we should also always seek Allah s.w.t.’s blessings so that we only engage in activities that will enable us to be the best version of ourselves.
Apart from Existentialism, there exist other popular schools of thought propagating principles on how a meaningful life should be lived. Examples include hedonism, which refers to the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, while stoicism advocates for moral excellence as the goal in life. As a matter of fact, we may have already been exposed to such principles in the shows that we watch and the characters we aspire to emulate. Or perhaps, we are already embodying their values in our day-to-day life without us realizing.
Despite the prevalence of philosophical discourses in this modern age, much of the discussion about identity, fate and divine decree within Islam is upon trust and faith in Allah s.w.t., rather than our agency, logic and intellect. I believe there is certainly wisdom in our limited knowledge in providence and it is in our interest to do the best that we can and to surrender all our affairs to Allah s.w.t..
Each day, I am still discovering more and more about myself and my place in this temporary abode. Whoever I am and whatever I become, I only pray that God makes the best use of me as a form of His mercy for the community. God knows best.
“Oh Allah, I want to be an instrument of Your mercy. I want to be a vessel that You will use to bring goodness, happiness, and joy to other people. So, Allah make me of those people.”