By MuslimAnswers.net Team (checked by Mufti Aadiel Moosagie, Council of Ulama Eastern Cape)
بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيم
Certain atheists say something along the lines of: “Alright, suppose I accept that God exists and that He provides everything for us. But His giving us life, shelter, etc., does not necessitate our worshipping Him, or obeying Him. There is no connection between God giving us life and us being obliged to worship and obey God.”
In discussions with atheists, we believe that this is in fact a diversionary tactic, or that the atheist has not carefully considered what his overall paradigm is. The question becomes, does he say that the proofs and evidences for God’s existence are not satisfactory, or does he simply not want to worship and be humble towards God. Our answer below supposes that the atheist in fact does not want to worship God, even if the proofs for God’s existence satisfy his intellect and he is internally convinced of them.
When a question like the one above is posed, we say that there is a difference between “moral obligation” and “legal obligation”. The “moral obligation” is the one that is wholly related to thankfulness for the favors which have been bestowed upon us; there is no punishment or reward connected to this type of pure “moral obligation”. But the “legal obligation” on the other hand is a compelling type of situation, which gives rewards and punishments for the ones who carry it out or refrain from carrying it out.
Now, there are some people who will be thankful and humble, and will worship Allah out of total thankfulness once they recognize Him as their Creator and recognize the true message He has revealed to us; for such people the worshipping itself is the ‘reward’, since their condition is close to angels, who do not receive any material reward for their acts of worship.
But most people will not be in this category, for the simple reason that human beings have to fight their lower selves, and they have a body which does require some support and care, even if that support and care is minimal. Also, there is normally some stain of arrogance and selfishness within most people, and this is what the threat of punishment and the promise of reward seek to move within the person. So in this case the “legal” aspect of it comes in: If you do not want to worship Allah out of thankfulness for Him (you consider yourself too important for that), then remember that you will be subject to punishment for your acts (bringing the person’s mind back to himself, since he is arrogant and selfish, at least he will think of himself).
Of course, even in this last case, what would normally happen is that if the person does start to follow the correct path initially in order to avoid punishment, eventually he will come to the “moral” side of understanding, and the “legal” portion (the reward of his actions) will not become his main focus. At the time of his death, he will not be thinking of the reward he will attain, but rather of meeting his Lord, who by that time should have become Beloved to this servant.
As another way for people to understand this issue consider that in the current world-order people have rights granted to them by virtue of being members of “sovereign countries”. This is crucial, because if someone is kept stateless, it is relatively easy for a belligerent country or people to take away their livelihoods and even their lives. Why is this so? Because the ‘moral imperative’ to respect and honor other people will not necessarily be enough to deter a great majority of people (even supposedly rational and sober world leaders) to stay away from harming a stateless people. But if such people are part of a “sovereign state” (with the legal rights that flow from this) then the belligerent party will have to think deeply about whether it wishes to go ahead with this trampling of the other side, at the cost of loss of lives, ruining its own reputation, and so forth. So we see that even in this supposedly obvious case of people respecting the lives and properties of others, the ‘legal framework’ is necessary, and it is embedded as part of human nature to respect the ‘forcing law’ more than the ‘moral law’.
What we see then, is that both at the personal as well as the public level, people generally make a decision to do that which is best for them, weighing all the potential benefits and risks involved in their decisions. This applies to matters of this world as well as those of the Afterlife.
It is for this reason then, that the primary Islamic texts emphasize both the moral, love-based aspects of worshipping Allah, as well as the legalistic-based system of punishments and rewards. Each person can weigh their relationship with Allah and choose what they want this relationship to be based on: Thankfulness or Legalism. Accordingly, each person will receive his ‘recompense’ from Allah for what he sets out to do, with the intention that he sets out to do it.
Finally, we should remember that Allah the Exalted, solely out of His Mercy, has promised rewards of many different types, both on the spiritual and material levels, for those who fulfill their duties and abstain from the prohibitions due to the ‘moral imperative’ rather than the ‘legalistic’ one, and this should be taken as an added impetus for all those who love Allah to remain steadfast upon His revealed way.
May Allah grant us all clear vision and perseverance upon His religion, and may the blessings and peace of Allah be upon Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, His Family and Companions. Ameen.