Answered by Shaykh Hamza Karamali, SunniPath Academy Teacher
We are taught that Allah brought us into existence, placed us on this earth, gave most of us the ability to choose how to spend our lives. We are told that Allah created us to test us, and we will be rewarded or punished as a result. Also we are taught that Allah created us so that we would worship Him.
In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate
May Allah bless you for your question. There is no need to worry about causing offense: your question was sincerely posed and politely phrased. It is obligatory to remove one’s doubts by acquiring true knowledge, and it would have been blameworthy for you to hold back your question.
“There is nothing like unto Him”
A fundamental tenet of our belief is that Allah is completely dissimilar to everything besides Him. He tells us in the Qur’an, “There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him.” (42:11) A consequence of this belief is that unlike human actions, divine actions are not driven by motives, because motives only make sense in the context of someone who is weak and needy.
To clarify this further, consider the following. When humans perform actions, it makes sense to inquire what drove them to do so because, being the indigent beings that they are, they always act to fulfill certain needs. For example, Zayd will put on a coat because the weather is cold and he needs warmth. Aisha will eat food because she is hungry and needs nutrition. Ali will go to university because he needs to earn a living through the degree that he will obtain. As you can see from these examples, the motives that people have behind their actions betray their fundamental neediness.
Allah is the creator of everything and needs nothing. This is easy to state but not so straightforward to comprehend. One of the implications of this absolute freedom from need of anything is that Allah is not driven by motives when He acts. Someone who needs nothing can have no motives. To ask “why” Allah did something makes no sense at all. In the words of the Qur’an, “He is not questioned regarding what He does, but they are questioned.”
Allah has no need for our obedience and our disobedience does not harm Him. He does not need to reward us if we obey Him. And had He chosen to, He could have rewarded us for disobeying Him. This is why classical manuals of orthodox Sunni belief teach us that whenever Allah rewards someone, He does so out of His pure generosity; not because He is driven to do so by a need or because we have a right to His reward. The question, “Why?” is inapplicable.
Similarly, Allah does not need to punish us if we disobey Him. And had He chosen to, He could have punished us for obeying Him. This is why the same manuals also teach us that whenever Allah punishes someone, He is not wronging them, for they have no right over Him (recall that our obedience or disobedience does not affect Him). He punishes out of His pure justice. The question, “Why?” is inapplicable.
Qur’anic verses that seem to imply motives
This is the backdrop against which we understand statements that seem to imply that Allah did a certain act for some reason. For example, when the Qur’an tells us that He created us to worship Him, this does not mean that He needed to be worshipped and therefore created us to fulfill this need. Instead, what He is telling us is that he created us with the capability to worship Him by giving us the ability to choose our actions (Hashiyat al-Jamal `ala al-Jalalayn).
Similarly, when Allah tells us that He created us to test us, this does not mean that He needs to test us in order to find out whether we will do good or evil. He already knows what we will do. Rather, our playing out the actions of this life is merely a proof for or against us on the Day of Judgment.
The Practical Upshot
Allah created us and decreed that those of us who choose the actions of the people of Paradise will enter Paradise and those who choose the actions of the people of the Fire will enter the Fire. Because Allah is completely unlike everything else that exists, it does not make sense to ask why He did this. Rather, this is just how things are, and it is up to us to choose where we want to go.
In reality, the entire Sacred Law is a tremendous blessing for us in this life and the next. Obligations that initially seem difficult to fulfill have a polishing effect on the heart until eventually the one’s entire perspective changes. Outward submission leads to inward submission and heart fills with love and gratitude for Allah. Obligations are not meant to be hammered out reluctantly; they are meant to be offered in the spirit of heartfelt gratitude to Allah for the myriad blessings that each of us has been given. Someone who is realized in this state will do everything for Allah; “worldly” activities such as eating, drinking, and conversing with friends are all performed with the intention of drawing closer to Allah. Such a person will not worry over possible future problems, nor will he grieve over past difficulties, for he is busy with the One he loves. This is true happiness and anyone who misses out on it will never know the meaning of contentment.
And Allah knows best.