According to God, your age is written on your forehead.
-An Arabic proverb
Sit on a beehive and say this is fate
-Another Arabic proverb
The question of man’s control over his destiny has been a topic of philosophical debate since ancient Greece. The dilemma goes like this: If humans have the ability to make decisions, this diminishes God’s universal powers. But if God makes all decisions, humans have no responsibility for their own deeds, negating such concepts as justice and punishment.
Islam adopts a unique approach. It replaces 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 Qur’an 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 adopts a middle position whereby God’s created actions are appropriated by humans. Contemporary Islam stresses the Qur’anic view of human potential and responsibility under God’s guidance
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.
The Qur’an contains many fatalistic passages as do many more hadith (statements and actions attributed to Muhammad). A Qur’anic sampling:
- Nor can a soul die except by God’s leave, the term being fixed as by writing. (Q3:145).
- All people have a set term, and when the end of that term approaches, they can neither delay it by a single moment, nor can they speed it up. (Q7:34)
- Nothing will happen to us except what God has decreed for us. (Q9:51)
- Those who believe, God will strengthen with a firm word, in this world and the hereafter; but the unjust he leads astray [in this world and the hereafter]. God does what he will. (Q14:27)
- God guides those He pleases to guide. (Q28:56)
- If We had willed it, We could have brought every soul its guidance. (Q32:13)
- God allows to stray whom He wills and guides whom He wills. (Q35:8)
- No misfortune can happen on earth or in your souls but is recorded in a book before We bring it into existence. (Q57:22)
- But you do not will, except as God wills; for God is full of knowledge and wisdom. (Q76:30)
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.
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.”