by Ralph H. Sidway
The concept behind Pastor Rick Warren’s bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life (now celebrating its tenth anniversary), is appealing in its simplicity, as it tackles one of the most foundational questions we all wrestle with: “What on earth am I here for?” This is a very profound question, and we can certainly accept the premise that, whether we know it or acknowledge it, or not, we all live according to how we would answer that question. From the website for the book:
The most basic question everyone faces in life is Why am I here? What is my purpose? Self-help books suggest that people should look within, at their own desires and dreams, but Rick Warren says the starting place must be with God and his eternal purposes for each life. Real meaning and significance comes from understanding and fulfilling God's purposes for putting us on earth.
The website goes on to define five distinct purposes:
We were planned for God's pleasure, so your first purpose is to offer real worship.
We were formed for God's family, so your second purpose is to enjoy real fellowship.
We were created to become like Christ, so your third purpose is to learn real discipleship.
We were shaped for serving God, so your fourth purpose is to practice real ministry.
We were made for a mission, so your fifth purpose is to live out real evangelism.
Christians of different confessions will vary in their theological understanding of what this means, and our practical applications as we probe these questions will vary as well, but the basic point is clear. For instance, as an Orthodox Christian, I would suggest that the first purpose is far more profound than Warren’s distillation might at first glance indicate. Because humans are created in the image and likeness of God Who is Love, and that Love is shown to us precisely through the voluntary Incarnation, Suffering, Crucifixion, Death, Resurrection and Glorification of the co-eternal Son and Word of God Jesus Christ, and in light of the very clear example and teachings He gave us, therefore we are called to become like Him. “Real Worship” for us would be to become (in the “fancy theological language” Fr Thomas Hopko attributes to Fr Alexander Schmemann) “doxological, eucharistic beings.” That is, with every breath and at every moment of our lives, we are called to be offering true worship (from the Greek, doxa) with thanksgiving (evcharistia) to the true God. Because God shows His love for us on the Cross, that is where we find our calling, and show our love, too.
I’ll resist (for now) the temptation to further develop an Orthodox Christian articulation of the Purpose Driven Life, as my concern here is to examine how these principles may be applied to Islam, as I think the question of “purpose” itself is a most revealing one. If we can define a person’s or group’s most deep-seated purpose, we may see from where all their motivations and actions spring. Conversely, once we look at actions in the context of ultimate purpose, much that is murky becomes clear.
- The Purpose of Islam
One of the most telling aspects of Islam concerns its calendar, which begins from a pivotal event in the life of its founder, Muhammad. Born circa 570 A.D., Muhammad, according to classical Muslim sources, began having revelations at about the age of forty, in a cave near Mecca, where he used to retreat in prayer to Allah. These powerful experiences, during which he was told by a spirit being (later to be identified as the angel Gabriel) to “Read and Recite” were frightening, yet compelling: “He pressed upon me so tightly I thought it was death!” 
Yet neither Muhammad’s birth nor the beginning of his self-proclaimed prophethood mark the start date of the Islamic calendar. It is not merely the message, nor the messenger, which defines Islam’s purpose.
Muhammad’s initial message of Allah as the only true God, and submission (“islam”) to him the only true way, did not attract many followers in Mecca, and he fled north to Medina (Yathrib) in 622 A.D. to escape persecution. This migration is called the Hijra, and it is the pivotal event in Islamic history, and in its self-understanding.
Following the Hijra, Muhammad won a series of battles against various Jewish and Arab tribes, consolidating his power and expanding his forces until returning to take Mecca in 632 A.D. These victories were taken by Muslims as divine validation of the truth of Islam and of its very purpose; Muhammad’s life became The Example for all Muslims, and the story of his victory over southern Arabia as the prototype for Islam’s goal of eventual victory over the whole world.
This new purpose may be seen in the Quran itself, as during the ten year Medinan period, Muhammad’s revelations took on a distinctly warlike, supremacist tone, with strident anti-Christian and anti-Jewish messages, and commands to wage jihad against the unbelievers until the whole world had submitted to Allah’s rule, as can be seen from these Medinan verses:
9:5. Then when the Sacred Months have passed, then kill the Mushrikun [unbelievers] wherever you find them, and capture them and besiege them, and prepare for them each and every ambush. But if they repent and perform As-Salat [the Islamic ritual prayers], and give Zakat [alms], then leave their way free. Verily, Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
8:39. And fight them until there is no more Fitnah [disbelief and polytheism: i.e. worshipping others besides Allah] and the religion will all be for Allah Alone. But if they cease [worshipping others besides Allah], then certainly, Allah is All-Seer of what they do.
9:29. Fight against those who believe not in Allah, nor in the Last Day, nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth [Islam] among the people of the Scripture [Jews and Christians], until they pay the Jizya [the poll tax for non-Muslims] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.
Islamic tradition combines the revelations of the Quran (literally, the “recitations”), together with the Hadiths (traditions about Muhammad) and the Sira (the Life of Muhammad, the most significant written by Ibn Ishaq in the mid-eight century). The Quran cannot be understood properly without the Hadiths and Sira, which form the Sunnah (or ‘Way’) of the Prophet for Muslims. The two most revered collections of Hadiths (Bukhari and Muslim) recount Muhammad as saying:
I have been commanded to fight people until they testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and perform the prayer, and pay zakat. If they say it, they have saved their blood and possessions from me, except for the rights of Islam over them. And their final reckoning is with Allah. (Sahih Bukhari 8:387, Sahih Muslim 1:33)
Thus the full weight of Islamic tradition set up an ultimate purpose for Muslims to fight, to wage jihad to spread Islam. Also according to Muhammad’s example, the Muslims were permitted to take spoils of war (“booty”) from their victories, thus adding a temporal incentive to the call to jihad. Though very little of Islamic tradition was codified in the first decades after Muhammad’s death in 632 A.D., the purpose to wage jihad and conquer in the name of Islam were clearly embraced by his followers, as the Muslim armies swept forth from southern Arabia, in less than a century conquering a vast area stretching from the Iberian peninsula in the west, to central Asia in the east. Raymond Ibrahim has concisely written about the historical reality of these early Muslim conquests elsewhere.
Thus it is Muhammad’s flight to Medina (the Hijra) and the events surrounding it which herald the transformation of Islam from a marginal religious movement into a religious-political-military community (the ‘Umma’), which soon established itself as the dominant force in the Arabian Peninsula and the world of its time. And it is from this date of the Hijra that the Muslim Calendar begins.
The calendar emphasis, which rests not on Muhammad’s birth, nor on the beginning of his so-called revelations, but on Islam’s reinvention with force, victory, wealth and dominion defines Islam’s self-awareness and its purpose. Writ large, Islam sees its purpose as bringing the whole world under submission to Allah and Islam through the practice of jihad.
To be continued . . .
 Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, trans. by A. Guillaume (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 106.