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.