The Sinai Peninsulais awesome. During my many visits to Egypt I usually take a trip through Sinai to Hurgada, Sharm el-Shaikh, or Nuwaiba, where some of the best coral reefs in the region can be enjoyed. It is in Sinai that you can hear singing dunes, see turquoise waters and stand in the shadow of towering desert mountains. You can visit the tombs of prophets, climb Moses’ mountain and tour the site of the burning bush. No less impressive are the oases of Sinai – luxuriously green places in the starkness of sand and sky all around – and the people who live there, a few families coexisting as if they were the only inhabitants on earth.
For years, when I drove through the peninsula, I marveled at the beauty and at the history of the location. I would be deep in thought, meditating on its significance, when suddenly I would spot an oasis in the distance, and immediately feel a jolt of confusion and distress. There was something profound in the oasis with its simple people, something I couldn’t understand, something I couldn’t even express in the form of a question or problem. This continued for many years. Each time I would pass by bewildered, as the issue escaped me.
Then one summer I realized the source of my anxiety. I looked at the people there and realized that they live in utter isolation and seeming insignificance. This presented somewhat of a problem to me, since it clashed with the ideals and principles on which I was raised. As an American girl born during Kennedy’s presidency, I was taught, “ask not what America can do for you, ask what you can do forAmerica.” I was taught that each person has a contribution to make, and that the purpose of life is to “make a difference.” I grew up searching for my calling and wondering how I would make a positive change in the world. It was a concept that permeated my thinking and had a profound influence on my outlook in life.
I’ve been a Muslim for a long time and well aware of the “purpose of Life” according to the Quran: God said, “I have created jinn and men to worship me.” (51:56) And yet, I was unsettled by life in an oasis. I soon realized that these people challenged my deep-seated beliefs that we are all here to do something useful. What if someone wasn’t useful? What if the resources, relations, or opportunities he had were not sufficient for him to enact positive change in the world? What if he merely survived, living day to day, and then died. Was his existence useless? Was he a mistake? Was it his fault? What was the purpose then, of his life? And by extension, what was the purpose of my life?
I thought long and hard about the verse, “I have created jinn and men to worship me.” I thought about living in a modern city, and I thought about the people in the oases. About people on islands and in forests, about nomads, prisoners, and hermits. “I have created jinn and men to worship me.” We were not created to enact good. We were created to worship God. And I wondered, what is worship? How can people from such varied locations and manners of living realize their purpose, the purpose of their creation, which is worship?
Again, the Quran had the answer. It tells us how to worship our Creator:
With remembrance: “I have chosen you, so listen to what is revealed. I am God [alone]! There is no god but Me, so serve Me and keep up prayer to remember Me by.” (20:14)
With gratitude: “You who believe, eat any wholesome things We have provided you with, and thank God, if it is He whom you serve.” (2:172) “He is the One Who has furnished you with hearing, sight and intellect; yet seldom are you grateful.” (23:78)
With glorification: “Have you not seen how everyone in Heaven and Earth glorifies God, even to the birds lined up in flight? Each knows its prayer and how to glorify Him. God is Aware of whatever they do.” (24:41)
With supplication: “God is the One Who has granted you the Earth to settle down on, and the sky as a canopy, and has shaped you. He has made your shapes handsome and provided you with wholesome things. Such is God, your Lord; so blessed is God, Lord of the universe. He is the Living; there is no deity except Him, so appeal to Him sincerely, making religion exclusively His. Praise be to God, Lord of the Universe!” (40: 64-65)
With obedience: “Say, I have been forbidden to serve those you appeal to instead of God, since clear proofs have reached me from my Lord, and I have been ordered to commit myself to obey the Lord of the Universe.” (40:66)
With love: “Yet there are some people who adopt partners beside God whom they love just as they should love God. Those who believe are firmer in their love of God.” (2:165)
With reliance on Him: “If God supports you, there is no one who will overcome you; while if he should forsake you, who is there to support you? On God should believers rely.” (3:160)
With sincerity: “O mankind, worship your Lord, who created you and those before you, that you may become righteous. He Who made for you the earth a bed [spread out] and the sky a canopy and sent down from the sky rain, and brought forth thereby fruits as provision for you. So do not attribute to God partners while you know [that there is nothing similar to Him].” (2:21-22)
With total dedication: “Say, ‘My prayer and my devotions, my living and my dying, all belong to God, Lord of the Universe; no partner has he; with that I am commanded, and I am the first of the Muslims (i.e, those who submit to Him).’” (6:163)
If the purpose of life is worship, and if remembrance, gratitude, glorification, supplication, obedience, love, reliance, sincerity and total dedication are parts of worship, then the Arabs in Sinai could fulfill the purpose of their lives completely. And so could the people on islands and in forests, as well as nomads, prisoners, and hermits. And if someone without the resources, relations, and opportunities to enact positive changes in the world could at least worship his Creator, then he would have lived fully, and he would be acknowledged by the only Power that really matters. I realized that mere survival with worship is meaningful, yet “changing the world” without worship has no lasting value.
And so when I pass by the oases of Sinai, I feel content that among them are people who worship God and live full, rich lives because of it. And interestingly enough, I realized that their lives in the oases of Sinai made a difference.