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Imam Sohaib Sultan Headshot

An Islamic Reflection on Living Life with a Purpose

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As a child, I was blessed to grow up around a remarkable human being by the name of Ale Nabi. He was one of my father's closest friends and someone who I came to embrace just like an uncle. What was remarkable about him was not the status or wealth that he came from, but the nobility and content of his character. As a professor of English he was always admired by his students. As a husband and father of three, he was always loved by his family. As a friend of many, he was always known for his kindness and generosity. He was constant in his devotion to God, through times of ease and difficulty.

Three years ago, Ale Nabi returned to his Lord and Creator after a long and difficult battle with Alzheimer's. A couple of weeks ago, I finally had the chance to visit his family in Canada and to visit his grave, to bid him farewell in person. As I stood there in prayer at Ale Nabi uncle's gravesite under the cold rain, what struck me the most was that his grave was completely unmarked -- no name, no dates, no lasting words, nothing. Yet, the feeling of angelic presence around his grave was so powerful and overwhelming. It was a reminder that our true legacy as human beings is not found in what is inscribed on our tombstones when we die, but, rather, in the way that we live life and in the way we make a difference in the lives of people around us.

The Prophet Muhammad taught us that when we die, the wealth and children we have amassed will not go with us in our graves nor will they be of any benefit to us. How true. Yet, too often we work so hard for wealth, status, glory and so much more, believing that our salvation and happiness lies in these accomplishments. But, the Prophet then added, "There are three things that continue to benefit you while you are in the grave: beneficial knowledge you leave behind; the continuously beneficial acts of charity; and a child who prays for you." This prophetic teaching (hadith), sums up how we can live life with a purpose, a purpose that is greater than our own self and ego.

We are all bearers of knowledge and wisdom, some learned through ancient books and sacred manuscripts, others through life experiences. In the last sermon that the Prophet delivered during the Great Pilgrimage (hajj), he said, "All those who listen to me shall pass on my words to others and those to others again; and may the last ones understand my words better than those who listen to me directly." We, therefore, have the responsibility to share whatever knowledge and wisdom we have with others through writing, speaking, teaching or simply imparting it in conversation with loved ones.

We all have the capacity to give of ourselves -- financially and otherwise. These acts of charity have the capacity to change people's lives, and often reach even those we least expected to reach. The man we embraced with a smile and hug goes on to embrace others with the same warmth and kindness; the hospital we donate our money or time or services to, saves the life of a child who goes on to do great things; the depressed woman we offer a listening ear to discovers life is actually worth living, and goes on to give that same inspiration to her children at home. Charity is not an act; it is a way of life. We are called to live lives that are in service of others, and in doing so, we find purpose and meaning in our own.

And following right behind us in our footsteps is the next generation -- whether our own children or those of others. The Quran says, "O you who have attained to faith, remain conscious of God; and let every human being look to what he sends ahead for tomorrow." People who live life with great purpose, live with one eye on the present and one eye on the future, knowing that much of what they work toward will be realized only after their own lifetime. When Martin Luther King Jr. laid down his great vision for an equal and just society, shortly before his assassination, in the "I have a dream" speech, he said, "I may not get there with you," sensing that his own life was coming to an end. Yet, he strived for civil and human rights till the last breath of his life and much of what he inspired the nation to was enacted after his death. So, we too find purpose in life when we work for the generations that are to come after us.

Rumi was once asked to describe a righteous person. Rumi replied that a "righteous person is one who comes out of his mother's womb crying while everyone around him is happy; and goes to his grave happy while others around him are crying." Life is not about what we achieve, but about what we leaving behind in the way of good for others. May we all find our life's purpose and live it out with sincerity and greatness. Amen.