Dr. Moin Qazi is a well-known banker, author and journalist. He holds doctorates in Economics and English. He received an Honorary D Litt at the World Congress of Poets at Istanbul in 1991. He is author of several books on Islam including bestselling biographies of Prophet Muhammad and Caliph Umar. He writes regularly for several international publications and was a Visiting Fellow at the University of Manchester. He is also a recipient of UNESCO World Politics Essay Gold Medal and Rotary International’s Vocational Excellence Award. He is based in Nagpur and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org [/symple_box]
It has become a commonplace for many to believe Islam is a fatalistic religion which teaches that everything is determined in advance and that man has no power over the consequences of his actions. But it is not as well known what this “fatalistic” attitude really means, what place it occupies in the totality of Islamic religion, and how it originated and has developed. Some critical Western scholars contend that this doctrine leads to a kind of passive fatalism, but Islamic theologians strongly deny that qadar (divine will) negates a person’s freedom to act. It merely means that when some misfortune befalls us, we resign ourselves to it as something coming from God, instead of despairing. Those who reject the theory of fatalism argue that if we are to accept this position then there should be no accountability of disasters which in many cases are attributable directly to human negligence. Also the victims of these tragedies should desist from filing suits and claiming damages against the labeled wrongdoers by accepting the event as a divine ordainment of fate.
Pre-Islamic Arabs believed that humanity was left to an inexorable fate that determined the course of life, regardless of human desire. Islam replaced impersonal fate with a sense of divine direction of all of life, as well as of personal moral accountability. Nonetheless, affirmations of God’s absolute power in the Quran and traditions led some to affirm a different kind of fatalism, sometimes called predestination, in which God’s foreknowledge supersedes human free choice. The prevailing theological compromise posited a middle position whereby God’s created actions are acquired by humans. Contemporary Islam stresses the Qur’anic support of human potential and responsibility under God’s guidance. The doctrine of fate holds that the overall fate of human beings is governed by the foreknowledge of God. The individual makes meaningful choices between good and evil, so that individual fate is a matter of ongoing and continuous interaction between human will and God’s will. The laws of nature are the laws of God. God has given us the ability to understand these laws and asked from us to act accordingly. What is suitable for God’s will is to take the necessary precautions against the physical causes for disasters. Producing excuses about “divine power” for human guilt and responsibility is wrong. The laws of nature are the laws of God. God has given us the ability to understand these laws and asked from us to act accordingly. What is suitable for God’s will is to take the necessary precautions against the physical causes for disasters
In the present age, at least in the West, the notion of justice and, in particular, of rights has taken on a coloring that is specifically modern. People are unwilling to accept that misfortunes are a part of life and not necessarily the fault of someone else or of the system. Earlier generations in the West were taught the virtue of resignation, as are Muslims still to this day. The cry “It’s so unfair!” is heard now on every side and the subjective conviction that one has suffered injustice or that one’s rights have been infringed is a source of bitterness and unhappiness. The Muslim, while he must uphold justice so far as he can, has no right to such self-indulgence or to suppose that he can be judge in his own case. To complain against destiny is, in effect, to enter a complaint against Him who holds all destinies in His hand and whose justice is beyond questioning.
Clearly the question of balance arises once again: on the one hand the obligation to strive for justice in this world, on the other to accept the injustices which are woven into our earthly life in a spirit of resignation. Circumstances dictate which of these alternatives is appropriate. The story is told of a merchant in Muslim Spain who, when told that his ship had sunk with all his goods aboard, looked down for a moment before exclaiming: “Praise be to God!” Later a man came to tell him that the ship had been saved. Once again he looked down before exclaiming: “Praise be to God!” He was asked why he had looked down. “I wanted,” he said, “to be sure that my heart was untroubled.” Equanimity is a basic virtue in Islam. Here, perhaps, there is a clue to the reconciliation of the alternatives with which we are so often faced – to take up arms against injustice we have suffered or to accept it with resignation. The right choice can only be made if we detach ourselves from our emotions and from all subjectivism.
There is a good summary of the attitude of Islamic fatalism in the following words in the story of Khalfah the fisherman:
“I seek refuge with God the great, beside which there is no deity, the everlasting. I turn unto him, for there is no strength nor power but in God, the high, the great. What God wills comes to pass, and what he wills not does not come to pass. Subsistence is to be bestowed by God, and when God bestows upon a servant, no one prevents him, and when he prevents a servant, no one bestows upon him “. (The Thousand and One Nights, transl. by E. W. Lane, new ed. by A. S. Poole, London 1889, III p. 485..)
Here the religious aspect of belief in the great and good God is combined with the fatalistic aspect of God’s unalterable decree. Finally, an interesting observation can be made in the Shāhnāmah of Firdausi, the national epic of the Persians. Here we find a great number of instances where ‘Destiny’ plays the role of retributive power rewarding virtue and punishing evil. In this case we might, of course, think of an “order” or a kind of justice inherent in the nature of the world, but in the context it seems clear that Destiny is here simply a manifestation of God’s justice. (Ringgren, Fatalism in Persian epics, Uppsala 1952, pp. 17 f., 61 ff)
It is pertinent to quote here the great Indo-Muslim poet-philosopher Mohammad Iqbal, who in one of his last poems tells a praying person that even though his prayer might not change his destiny, yet it can change his spiritual attitude by bringing him in touch with the Absolute Reality:
“Your prayer is that your destiny be changed.
My prayer is that you yourself be changed.“