This article first appeared on Muslim Matters.
‘And We created not the heavens and the earth, and all that is between them, for mere play.’ [The Qur’an]
A popular view about life is that it is “just a game”. We have one life and we should make the most of it. However, is life just for mere play? This belief ignores or denies the Divine, and any form of Divine accountability. Even if some people “believe” in a religion or God, many still ignore the implications of holding such views. This is the crisis of a secularised mind, you can believe in God and religious values, but will practically ignore the implications of these beliefs in your life. This type of person has a de-compartmentalised mind, on occasion they hold on to some religious or spiritual ideas (usually at a funeral, when they lose their job or when their partners decided to move on), but most of their lives is premised on: you only live once, so make the most of it.
This article will focus on the existential implications of believing life is just a game. Please note, just because a certain worldview has negative implications, it doesn’t imply it is false. My discussion here is not about the rational foundations of belief; I’ll leave that for another article.
Ignoring or denying God and any Divine accountability leads to an existential nightmare. Rationally speaking, holding on to such views, leads to absurd conclusions (known as argumentum ad ignoratium). When you play a game, you either win or lose, and then you eventually die; game over. This irrational and unintuitive view on life is not simply a worldview that exists in a bubble. If its claims are true, then one would have to make some inevitable existential conclusions that are very bleak. Under this view, life is ludicrous. The formula is simple: denying or ignoring God, Divinely given purpose and accountability equals no ultimate hope and no true happiness (as well as many other things, but I have a word limit). This conclusion is not an outdated religious cliché; it is a result of thinking logically about the implications of this world view.
Hope is defined as the feeling or expectation and desire for something to happen. We all hope for good lives, good health and a good job. Ultimately, we all hope for an immortal blissful existence. Life is such an amazing gift that no one really wants his or her conscious existence to end. Similarly, everyone desires that there will be some form of ultimate justice where wrongs can be made right, and the relevant people will be held accountable. Significantly, if our lives are miserable, or experience pain and suffering, we hope for some peace, pleasure and ease. This is a reflection of the human spirit; we hope for light at the end of the dark tunnel, and if we have tranquillity and joy, we want to keep it that way.
Since believing life is just a game denies or disregards Divine accountability, it also rejects or ignores the concept of an afterlife. Without that, there can be no hope of pleasure following a life of pain. Therefore, the expectation for something positive to happen after our lives is lost. Under this view we cannot expect any light at the end of the dark tunnel of our existence. Imagine you were born in the third world and spent your whole life in starvation and poverty. According to this worldview, you are merely destined for death. Contrast this with the Islamic perspective: all instances of suffering that happens in our lives are for some greater good. Therefore, in the larger scheme of things, no pain or suffering we undergo is meaningless. God is aware of all our sufferings, and He will provide recompense and reprieve.
However, according to the belief that life is just a game, our pains are just as meaningless as our pleasure. The immense sacrifices of the virtuous and the distress of the victim are all falling dominoes in an indifferent world. They happen for no greater good and no higher purpose. There is no ultimate hope of an afterlife or any form of happiness. Even if we lived a life of pleasure and immense luxuries, most of us would inevitably be doomed to some form of evil fate or an incessant desire for more pleasure. The pessimist philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, aptly described the hopelessness and ill fate that awaits us:
“We are like lambs in a field, disporting themselves under the eye of the butcher, who chooses out first one and then another for his prey. So it is that in our good days we are all unconscious of the evil fate may have presently in store for us—sickness, poverty, mutilation, loss of sight or reason…No little part of the torment of existence lies in this, that Time is continually pressing upon us, never letting us take breath, but always coming after us, like a taskmaster with a whip. If at any moment Time stays his hand, it is only when we are delivered over to the misery of boredom…In fact, the conviction that the world and man is something that had better not have been, is of a kind to fill us with indulgence towards one another. Nay, from this point of view, we might well consider the proper form of address to be, not Monsieur, Sir, mein Herr, but my fellow-sufferer, Socî malorum, compagnon de miseres!”
The Qur’an alludes to this hopelessness. It argues that a believer cannot despair, there will always be hope, and hope is connected to God’s mercy, and God’s mercy will manifest itself in this life and the hereafter: ‘Certainly no one despairs of God’s Mercy, except the people who disbelieve.’
Under believing life is just a game, justice is an unachievable goal—a mirage in the desert of life. Since the afterlife is ignored or denied, any expectation of people being held to account is futile. Consider Nazi Germany in the 1940s. An innocent Jewish lady who just saw her husband and children murdered in front of her has no hope for justice when she is waiting for her turn to be cast into the gas chamber. Although the Nazis were eventually defeated, this justice occurred after her death. Under this ludicrous worldview she is now nothing, just another rearrangement of matter, and you cannot give reprieve to something that is lifeless. Islam, however, gives everyone hope for pure Divine justice. No one will be treated unfairly and everyone shall be taken to account,
‘On that Day, people will come forward in separate groups to be shown their deeds: whoever has done an atom’s weight of good will see it, but whoever has done an atom’s weight of evil will see that.’
‘God created the heavens and the Earth for a true purpose: to reward each soul according to its deeds. They will not be wronged.’
The belief that life is just a game is like a mother giving her child a toy and then taking it back for no reason. Life, without a doubt, is a wonderful gift. Yet any pleasure, joy and love we have experienced will be taken away from us and lost forever. Since this worldview denies or ignores the Divine and the hereafter, it means that the pleasures we have experienced in life will disappear. There is no hope of a continuation of happiness, pleasure, love and joy. However, under Islam, these positive experiences are enhanced and continued after our worldly life,
‘They will have therein whatever they desire and We have more than that for them.’
‘The people who lived a pious life will have a good reward and more…’
‘Verily, the dwellers of Paradise that Day, will be busy in joyful things… (It will be said to them): ‘Salamun’ (Peace be on you), a Word from the Lord, Most Merciful.’
‘And a happy future belongs to those who are mindful of Him.’
The pursuit of happiness is an essential part of our human nature. All of us want to be happy—even when sometimes we cannot pinpoint exactly what ‘happiness’ is. This is why if you were to ask the average person why they want to get a good job, they would probably reply, ‘To earn enough to live comfortably’. However, if you questioned them further and asked why they want to live comfortably, they would more than likely say ‘because I want to be happy’. But happiness is ultimately an end, not a means. It is the final destination, not necessarily the journey. We all want to be happy, so we endlessly seek ways to help us achieve that final happy state.
The journey that people seek varies from one person to the next. The list is endless. However, those who believe life is just a game will pursue an existence focused on pleasure and having fun. This begs the question: What is true happiness?
To help answer these questions, imagine the following scenario: While reading this, you are sedated against your will. Suddenly you wake up and find yourself on a plane. You’re in first class. The food is heavenly. The seat is a flatbed, designed for a luxurious, comfortable experience. The entertainment is limitless. The service is out of this world. You start to use all of the excellent facilities. Time starts to pass. Now think for a moment, and ask yourself the question: Would I be happy?
How could you be? You would need some questions answered first. Who sedated you? How did you get on the plane? What’s the purpose of the journey? Where are you heading? If these questions remained unanswered, how could you be happy? Even if you started to enjoy all of the luxuries at your disposal, you would never achieve true happiness. Would a frothy Belgian chocolate mousse on your dessert tray be enough to drown out the questions? It would be a delusion, a temporary, fake type of happiness, only achieved by deliberately ignoring these critical questions.
Now apply this to your life and ask yourself, am I happy? Our coming into existence is no different to being sedated and thrown on a plane. We never chose our birth, our parents or where we come from. Yet some of us do not ask the questions or search for the answers that will help us achieve our ultimate goal of happiness.
Where does true happiness lie? Inevitably, if we reflect on the previous example, happiness really lies in answering key questions about our existence. These include, ‘What is the purpose of life?’ and ‘Where am I heading after my death?’ In this light, our happiness lies in our inwardness, in knowing who we are, and finding the answers to these critical questions.
Unlike animals, we cannot be content by reacting to our instincts. Obeying our hormones and mere physical needs will not bring happiness. To understand why, reflect on another example:
Imagine you were one of 50 human beings locked in a small room with no means of exit. There are only 10 loaves of bread, and there is no more food for another 100 days. What do you all do? If you follow your animalistic instincts, there will be blood. But if you try to answer the question ‘How can we all survive?’ it is likely that you will, as you will devise ways to do so.
Extend this example to your life. Your life has many more variables, which can result in almost an infinite number of outcomes. Yet, some of us just follow our carnal needs. Our jobs may require Ph.D.s or other qualifications, and we may wine and dine with our partners, but all of that is still reduced to mere procreation. Happiness cannot be achieved unless we find out who we really are.
However, under the view that life is just a game these questions do not have any real answers. Why are we here? Just for fun. No profound reason at all. Where are we going? Nowhere. We will just face death; the game will soon be over. Even some philosophers understood life was not just a game. For example, Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, ‘I do not know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.’
In order to achieve true happiness, we all need to answer the fundamental question of why we are here. In Islam, the answer is simple yet profound. We are here to worship God.
‘And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.’
But worship in Islam is quite different from the common understanding of the word. Worship can be shown in every act that we do. The way we talk to each other and the small acts of kindness we do each day. If we focus on pleasing God by our actions, then our actions become an act of worship.
Worship is a comprehensive concept in Islam. It refers to loving God, pleasing Him, knowing Him and singling out all acts of worship to Him alone, such as prayer and supplicating to Him. Worshipping God is the ultimate purpose of our existence; it frees us from the ‘slavery’ to others and society. God, in the Qur’an, presents us with a powerful example:
‘God puts forward this illustration: can a man who has for his masters several partners at odds with each other be considered equal to a man devoted wholly to one master? All praise belongs to God, though most of them do not know.’
Inevitably, if we do not worship God, we end up worshipping other ‘gods’. Think about it. Our partners, our bosses, our teachers, our friends, the societies we live in, and even our own desires ‘enslave’ us in some way. Take for example social norms. Many of us define beauty based on social pressures. We may have a range of likes and dislikes, but these are shaped by others. Ask yourself, why am I wearing these trousers or this skirt? Saying you like it is a shallow response; the point is, why do you like it? If we keep on probing in this way, many will end up admitting ‘because other people think it looks nice’. Unfortunately, we’ve all been influenced by the endless adverts that bombard us.
In this respect we have many ‘masters’ and they all want something from us. They are all ‘at odds with each other’, and we end up living confused, unfulfilled lives. God, who knows us better than we know ourselves, who has more mercy for us than our mothers, is telling us that He is our true master, and only by worshipping Him alone will we truly free ourselves.
The Muslim writer Yasmin Mogahed, in her book Reclaim Your Heart, explains that anything other than God is weak and feeble, and that our freedom lies in worshipping Him:
“Every time you run after, seek, or petition something weak or feeble… you too become weak or feeble. Even if you do reach that which you seek, it will never be enough. You will soon need to seek something else. You will never reach true contentment or satisfaction. That is why we live in a world of trade-ins and upgrades. Your phone, your car, your computer, your woman, your man, can always be traded in for a newer, better model. However, there is a freedom from that slavery. When the object upon which you place all your weight is unshaking, unbreakable, and unending, you cannot fall.”
From an existential perspective, worshipping God is true liberation. If worship entails knowing, loving and obeying God, then in reality many of us also have other gods in our lives. For example, many of us know, love and obey our own egos and desires. We think we are always right, we never want to be wrong and we always want to impose ourselves on others. From this perspective, we are enslaved to our own selves. The Qur’an points out such a debased spiritual state and compares the one who takes his desires, passions and whims as a god worse than an animal,.
‘Think of the man who has taken his own passion as a god: are you to be his guardian? Do you think that most of them hear or understand? They are just like cattle – —no, they are further from the path.’
From self-worship, sometimes we can worship various forms of social pressures, ideas, norms and cultures. They become our point of reference, we start to love them, want to know more about them, and it leads us to ‘obey’ them. Examples abound. Take for instance materialism. We have become so preoccupied with money and material belongings. Obviously, to want money and possessions is not necessarily a bad thing, however, but we have allowed these things to define who we are. Our energy, time and efforts are on devoted to the accumulation of wealth, and making the false notion of material success the primary focus in our lives. From this perspective, material things start to control us, and they control us to serve the culture of avid materialism, rather than serving God. I appreciate that this does not apply to everyone, however, but this form of excessive materialism is very common.
Essentially, if we are not worshipping God, we are still worshipping something else. This can be our own egos and desires, or ephemeral things like material possessions. In the Islamic tradition, worshipping God defines who we are, as it is part of our nature. If we forget God, and start to worship things that do not deserve worship, we will slowly forget our own selves,
‘And be not like those who forgot God, so He made them forget themselves.’
Our understanding of who we are is dependent on our relationship with God, which is shaped by our servitude and worship. In this sense, when we worship God we are freed from the servitude, slavery and submission to other ‘gods’, whether they are our own selves or things that we own.
The next question is: where are we going? We have a choice: to embrace God’s eternal, unbounded mercy, or to run away from it. Accepting His mercy, by responding to His message, and obeying, worshipping and loving Him will facilitate our eternal happiness in paradise. Rejecting and running away from God’s mercy necessitates that we end up in a place devoid of His love, a place of unhappiness—hell. So we have a choice. Either we decide to embrace His mercy or try to escape from it. We have the free will to choose. Even though God wants good for us, He cannot force us to make the right choices. The choices we make in this life will shape our lives after we die:
‘… and when that Day comes, no soul will speak except by His permission, and some of them will be wretched and some happy.’
‘There they will stay—a happy home and resting place!’
Since our ultimate purpose is to worship God, we must establish our natural balance and to find out who we really are. When we worship God, we free ourselves, and find ourselves. If we do not, we are forgetting what makes us human.
‘And be not like those who forgot God, so He made them forget themselves.’
In conclusion, believing that life is just a game cannot provide an intellectual foundation for our sense of ultimate hope. This view cannot give us profound answers for our existence, and therefore real happiness can never be achieved. If someone argues that they are happy under this view, I would argue it is a drunken type of happiness. They only sober up when they start thinking deeply about their own existence.
 The Qur’an, Chapter 44, Verse 38
 Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Sufferings of the World. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/On_the_Sufferings_of_the_World.
 The Qur’an Chapter 12, Verse 87
 The Qur’an, Chapter 99, Verses 6 to 8
 The Qur’an, Chapter 45, Verse 22
 The Qur’an, Chapter 50, Verse 35
 The Qur’an, Chapter 10, Verse 26
 The Qur’an, Chapter 36, Verses 55 to 58
 The Qur’an, Chapter 7, Verse 128
 The Qur’an, Chapter 51, Verse 56
 The Qur’an, Chapter 39, Verse 29
 Yasmin Mogahed. Reclaim Your Heart. FB Publishing. 2012, p. 55.
 The Qur’an, Chapter 25, Verses 43 to 44
 The Qur’an, Chapter 59, Verse 19
 The Qur’an, Chapter 11, Verse 105
 The Qur’an, Chapter 25, Verse 75
 The Qur’an, Chapter 59, Verse 19