The successful life as measured in this world does not secure safe passage into the favour of God in the hereafter. The good or virtuous life as measured in this world does not secure safe passage into the favour of God in the hereafter. In both matters, safe passage in the hereafter can only be secured by a near-constant awareness of the quality of our personal relation to the only God. We have to build a relationship as constant as possible between our selves, individually and personally, and the only God who created our selves. Nothing other than this or less than this can suffice in this life to hope confidently for that safe passage to the favor of God.
Why is this so? Why does hard work and honestly-earned success not suffice? Why does virtue, the effort to avoid harming others, of caring for them, even at cost to oneself, not suffice?
Why does God demand that we worship Him exclusively? What need can God have for our worship, since He is the Creator and Sustainer of all existence and all life in all their diverse forms stretching across an immeasurably vast universe? The answer is none. By definition God is without need. So the need for worship concerns existing and living beings, and is for their benefit. Typically, most of the time we think of worship in its formal expressions: praise and glorification of God, and supplication to Him in respect of our many wants or needs, notably sustenance and forgiveness. However, these expressions of worship are specific to us, to human beings. The Qur’an explicitly says that whatever is, seen or unseen, is glorifying Him in the heavens and in the earth, above and below ground, in the light and in the dark. From this we should understand that, in its simplest and most natural form, worship is existence appreciating itself, valuing itself, as owed to God, as having come from God, as being determined by God. By means of such appreciation every existent and living being expresses its dependence and gratitude. For human beings, what gets in the way of this natural worship, this natural contentment with being alive at all, this natural praise and glorification of God, is our distinctively human nature.
The degree of human ability to calculate, to reason, to imagine, to express and store the whole of our mental world in language, in signs, is so much greater than that of other creatures that it becomes, in practice, a difference not of degree but of kind. Only humans can adapt their environment to their needs or desires, and this give us an illusion of creative power, of being able to bring something new into the world. For example, as far as I know, among all creatures, only humans cook, which enables a vast increase in the varieties of foodstuffs we can stomach. Moreover, we experience this power as an independent creativity, which seems to be limited only by the level of energy, imagination and technical skill available to us in any given situation. And it is there, in that feeling of independence, of having done something without God, that humans are placed in the grave danger of self-dependence, of believing that they know best, individually or collectively, what is best for them to do. And from that false belief, the natural expressions of worship, the appreciation of what is God-given, of being indebted to God, fades and weakens.
One of the hardest things for people who have reverted to Islam and who, both before and after they found Islam, have admired their parents and brothers and sisters as the kindest and most decent of people, about whose intentions and actions they know and remember only good things – it is the hardest thing for converts to accept that these good people (parents and siblings and friends), whom they still admire, love and care for, will not find safe passage in the hereafter, simply because they do not worship the only God. So it was for the Companions, the first-comers to Islam, and indeed for the Prophet himself, salla-llahu `alayhi wa-salam. He had been loved and protected by his uncle, but he could not get any assurance that, hereafter, his uncle would be safe from rejection by God. Any and every connection you have in this life – the Qur’an says this most vividly – will be severed, and you will encounter your Creator alone. This is a hard thing to contemplate, to prepare for. Indeed, it is so hard, so bleak, that it is enough to cause some people to reject religion and to reject God: some of them will say (may God guide them and forgive them!) if God demands to be worshipped exclusively he does not deserve to be worshipped.
By itself a virtuous life – a life lived from first to last doing only good and avoiding knowingly doing harm – does not suffice to yield success hereafter. The human effort to be good must be oriented to the hereafter, when no judgment matters other than the judgment of the only God, and when no voice has any say except by His permission. It is not enough to affirm that such and such action is good or kind or beneficial, unless the processes of reasoning and feeling that led to that affirmation happen in an alert, vivid consciousness that your capacities for reasoning and feeling are owed to God and are dependent on His compassion and His care. Any behaviour that we are not compelled to do, which we have some degree of choice to do or not do, must be motivated by a conscious desire and need for God’s blessing and approval. If our behaviour is not so motivated, if, instead, we desire only our own satisfaction or the approval and satisfaction of some being other than God, then that behaviour will make no direct contribution to our success hereafter. To expect otherwise is like expecting to get the wages for your efforts, not from the employer for whom you made those efforts, but instead from someone else.
The problem of human nature is our disposition to believe that we can determine what is right by the exercise of our reason guided by our experience of the consequences of similar choices or actions in the past. In reality, there can be, at best, only a tentative determination of what is right either in itself or in its consequences. We know from experience that what we thought was good sometimes turns out to lead to something bad, and conversely something we thought bad turns out to be beneficial further on in life. The final determination, the final reckoning, as to what was or was not a virtuous life, a successful life, is the prerogative of God exclusively. To the extent that we can believe that, and live by that, we will be able to accept that success and virtue in this life must be deferred, not to our human judgement, but to the judgement of our Creator. That acceptance is islam, the voluntary and conscious submission to God.
It is very difficult indeed to hold oneself in this state of submission. Sometimes we can do no more than resort to the familiar formulas, like bismi-llah, in sha’a Allah, ma sha’a Allah, al-hamdu li-llah, and the like. By such expressions, we seek protection from the absence of conscious submission when (which is most of the time) we are caught in the run of events, in complex chains of circumstances, allowing us only brief moments of respite to reflect and return to our awareness of being dependent on God. That is why the beginning and end of the best of human worship is penitence, the seeking of God’s forgiveness, because, in respect of further consequences of our actions, we do not know with certainty what we have done, and we never have full command or full knowledge of our motivations. It helps to remember that God has said He is eager and ready to forgive, that His mercy is the supreme attribute. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that there would be any existence or life at all, still less any conscious self-aware life, a life motivated by the need to return to Him, if forgiveness and compassion were not the attributes that prevail. A successful life is one that has desired God’s forgiveness and compassion with such sincerity that, if it is permissible to say so, it has deserved God’s forgiveness and compassion.