It’s a great question, a fundamental question, a question that is at once both mundane and existential.
What does it mean? We don’t all speak Latin. Yes, I know. Just like English has its five w’s – who, what, where, when, and why, Latin has five q’s – quis, quid, quo, quando, and quare. Quo is equivalent to “where”. The word “vadis” is a verb that comes from the same root as the English words “invade” and “pervade.” It’s the 2nd person singular present active indicative form, so it means “you are going.” So “Quo vadis?” means “Where are you going?”
This same question occurs in both the New Testament and in the Quran. But in context, it has two different meanings.
In the New Testament, it comes in John 13:36, the New International Version (NIV) puts it thus:
“Simon Peter asked him, “Lord, where are you going?”
Jesus replied, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.”
Without delving too deep into Christian lore, I’ll give you the basics. Peter, one of the Twelve Disciples, saw this vision of Jesus (alaihis salaam [peace be upon him]) after Jesus had died. The vision served to guide Peter to return to Rome, where he too was crucified.
In the Quran, the question comes near the end of Surah Takwir, the 81st surah in the Quran. The surah begins with a dramatic description of the Day of Judgment. It says, “When the Sun is shrouded in darkness (1) and when the stars lose their light (2) and when the mountains are made to vanish (3) and when she-camels big with young, about to give birth, are left untended (4) and when all beasts are gathered together (5) and when the seas boil over (6).”
This epic account stretches the limits of human imagination. How could the Sun, the source of light and heat for our Solar System, be covered in darkness? How could huge, immovable mountains just vanish? Mountains don’t just disappear. Imagine going hiking with someone who was following a map, and then you get to a point and stop and then that person says, “Hmm, there should be a mountain here. I wonder where it went.” I mean, how crazy would that be?
The example of the she-camels is a bit hard to translate from 7th century Arabia to 21st century U.S. but I’ll try. Imagine you had a brand-new Mercedes McLaren (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercedes-Benz_SLR_McLaren) and a guarantee from Mercedes Benz that as soon as you got tired of this one, you could have another brand-new Mercedes. That gives you some idea as to how much Arabs prized pregnant she-camels. And what a catastrophe it would take to get them to abandon them.
The end of the surah has Allah posing a question to all of humanity, “Where are you going?” (81:26). And this is a deep question. One could look at it as a simple duality – Am I going to heaven or to hell? But there is not just one heaven, in Islamic eschatology there are seven heavens or seven levels of heaven and seven levels of hell too.
And if one is sincerely asking one’s self that question, one must look at the sum total of his or her deeds in this life. One must examine every relationship, every decision, every promise, and more.
But perhaps that is more than we are capable of, at least right now.
So maybe a more appropriate question is where am I going today? Did my actions today lead me a little closer to heaven or did they bring me down lower? Who did I help today? Who did I hurt today?
Quo vadis? It’s a profound question.