Posted by: Dawud Israel | May 16, 2013

Islam and Existentialism

I find existentialism interesting for a few reasons. Not so much because of what it says, but what it attempts to say. To me it seems like a lens for spotting certain occurrences or scenarios in Islam. I won’t pretend to understand it completely, but I will try and explore its connection to Islam here.

Existentialism and North American Muslims

Jean-Paul Sartre said, “existence precedes essence” in Existentialism is a humanism but I will try and interpret it in my own way to make some connections to the Muslim worldview. I think ‘existence precedes essence’ is how we feel sometimes, where we are here, but aren’t sure as to who we are, our identity, what defines us, and what mould to fit into. “We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world — and defines himself afterwards.” We are here, as Canadian or American Muslims, and there is no essentialism to define us with regards to what we do. Precisely because we can’t figure out our identity as Muslims, all we have is existence and so essence remains a mystery, though the media may try and define our essence for us. For Muslims, we try and resemble the Prophetic actions and behaviors, but we don’t always fulfill that. What we do, how we organize our time, defines us: ‘I don’t know how to do anything else.’ We do things on auto-pilot and what matters, isn’t what we feel this says about God or Muslims, or even our personal life, because often those aren’t really on our mind, but that we actually do these things. Yes we did this, and no it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. We do righteous actions, but after a while, the ‘righteous’ essence of those actions fades and it just becomes yet another thing we do and only its existence remains.

I think when it comes to things like extremism, people believe Muslims do things very consciously though in reality, it might just be the violent actions of a Muslim terrorist have no meaning or intent to them – its the mere existence of destruction that justifies it, not the essential meaning of that destruction and what its intended to symbolize. But then where does the responsibility lie? The existence of a Muslim committing a crime, and the rejection of its essential meaning means Muslims will really struggle to take responsibility for a violent act, individually and collectively. This is probably why Muslim extremism is so difficult to understand…

Another play where existentialism is relevant is when Muslims are tempted to cheat on final exams, so if they see someone’s exam sheet they decide to go against that cheating temptation and purposefully select another answer (a wrong answer presumably). Here, full responsibility is taken, but some could say here essence (right/wrong) precedes existence (a choice). For pious Muslims who have memorized the Qur’an, the fact they have memorized it is seen as having more merit, than the fact they understand it. The existence of the fact they have memorized the Qur’an is more important than them knowing the essence of the Qur’an.

Guiding people to Islam can be aided by better understanding existentialism. The person whom you are speaking to may see themselves as a sinner. This is there essence in their mind. Their existence and lifestyle has gone against whatever you may preaching to them. They don’t see themselves in that religious world. But mere existence precedes essence, so you can utilize the fact they exist to help them understand what their essence might be. I think this is where existentialism can explain how one can use their free-will to liberate themselves from what they may see as their sinful essence, and be empowered by a new existence that their free-will can lead them to.

Existentialism and the Prophets

Yet another example I can think of is in the Qur’an when the angels came to Abraham to tell him that they are there to destroy the nation of Lot (Sodom). What is important to recall is that Ibrahim argues with the angels to not destroy the sodomites. Here, is a Prophet of God going against the decree of God mentioned by God, and yet he is described as the Friend of God — and this is perhaps why he is described in the Qur’an as tender-hearted and forbearing. (Qur’an, 9:114). The existence of his mercy precedes the essence of its originating in God’s will.

Another example we can think of is when the Prophet (salallahu alayhi wasalam) consulted the Sahabas about going to war in Uhud (if I remember correctly that was the battle). He did not want to go to battle but some of the Sahabas persuaded him to. When they learned later that he was initially inclining to not go to battle, they came to him to revert to his decision. But by this time, the Prophet of God had already donned his battle armor and he said (paraphrased), “Once a Prophet wears his battle armor he doesn’t take it off until he has gone to battle.” Here, the existence of the Prophetic decision is more important than the essence of Prophetic decision – what that essence is, God knows best.

Miracles too play oddly into the dichotomy of existentialism/essentialism, since the existence of a miracle is unlikely but possible. What then is its essence if its existence is rare, if not impossible in the mind of an atheist? If it does exist, then the miracle existing has essence at the same time as it has existence. See below for an image of Japan’s first mosque standing tall even after bombings in World War II – something which many Muslims would say is a miracle.


Subhana kallahumma wa bihamdika ash-haduana la illaha illa ant astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk, ameen.


  1. Brother Israel, you may not understand the dangers of dabbling in philosophy. And please, do not compare it with the deen of Allah, the perfect way of life to some idea created by a man (and kufr). “…hence philosophy, as defined by the philosophers, is one of the most dangerous falsehoods and most vicious in fighting faith and religion on the basis of logic, which it is very easy to use to confuse people in the name of reason, interpretation and metaphor that distort the religious texts. ” Source:

    • If Islam is true, it should stand up to philosophical inquiry.

      I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use. – Galileo Galilei

      • Assalamualaikum

        Philosophy is inherently flawed. Therefore it’s meaningless to say that Islam should be able to stand up to philosophical inquiry. It’s already won the battle because philosophy is too weak to be of any worth.

  2. Reblogged this on UmmMittu.

  3. As-salaamu-alaykum. In view of the above argumants by brother Israel and An Alien, there is a need to find a suitable solution for our divisions in all aspect of our lives both secular and religious. Furthermore, since Islam is not a religion but a way of life where the dichotomy of the secular and religious does not occur, such a union between the secular and religious cannot be established without sound reason, logic, proof,etc. For example, Allah (SWT) does not subject us to believe in His existence just on blind faith of religion. He gives us proof of His existence in the same way that a creationist argues His existence to an evolutionist. Hence, according to the Qur’an knowledge and reasoning outside this intersection of the secular and religious is harmful to human life.

  4. […] Islam and Existentialism […]

  5. I would like to ask a question to confirm the occurence of the mentioned incident of Hazarat Abraham…. when did that happened… secondly i would disagree to some extent to the saying that existence precedes essence said by Satre on following grounds….
    Existence is simply what exists but the essence is difficult to understand. Literal meaning of essence is The central meaning or theme of a speech or literary work. So for some thing to exist there should be its essence first. For eg if i give an exam the main theme before the existence of my exam is to pass hence ot reuftes the statement of Satre. In islamic prospective if essence and existence are taken in to account this life in big picture is an essence and life here after is exisitence as that would be the true existence either existence on heaven or hell the essence would be planted in this life.

    • It can get a little confusing to understand it and thats what I struggled with. I may not even understand it fully…

      One example of existence preceding essence is when Allah created Adam’s form and then later placed his soul into him peace be upon him.

      The story of Sayyidina Ibrahim is in the Qur’an:


      • So do u agree with what i mentioned above that is disagreement of original writer.. thanks for the link though

  6. Somewhat. Another example of existence preceding essence is music or poetry where each sound is connected to the previous sound and the next sound to form the essence of a complete tune.


  7. As Salaamu Alaykum,

    I think the verse you’re referring to about Ibrahim Alayhi Salaam is Hud:75. That’s when the context of Lut Alayhi Salaam is mentioned.

    May Allah reward you for your iman and perseverance and keep our hearts guided, ameen, ameen, ameen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: