Is Islam a Religion of Fatalism?
Consultant to IslamOnline.net
Professor Shahul Hameed
According to an article published on 30-Days Muslim Prayer Focus, "Muslims worldwide often live in a cloud of fatalism and uncertainty about their future . While the Quran also lays great emphasis on the free choice and moral conduct of individuals and communities, popular Islamic thinking and practice are often very fatalistic."
The above pseudo-objective observation is typical of the kind of misinformation spread by certain circles about Islam and Muslims.
Before any attempt to explain the Islamic position on the subject, we need to understand what "fatalism" is.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines fatalism as "The doctrine that all events are predetermined by fate and are therefore unalterable." And the Philosophy Pages offers a fairly simple definition: Fatalism is the "belief that every event is bound to happen as it does no matter what we do about it."
Fatalism is usually confused with determinism. Determinism says that every event has a cause that necessarily precipitates the event. In the concept of determinism, there is no human free will. So any decision taken is viewed as the natural and inevitable result of influences like bio-chemical conditions, desires, passions, and external circumstances beyond the control of the individual.
But to fatalists, preceding events do not cause the events that follow, nor does a fated event take place according to a natural law. Events happen because of a decree of God or of some supernatural power. From both points of view, there is no question of a person freely choosing a course of action (Paregian).But we know that people's responsibility depends on freedom of choice and moral judgment. If humans had no freedom of will or choice, none would deserve praise or blame for any action; hence, all penal codes would become instruments of injustice!
From a logical perspective, the idea of free will is closely linked to human responsibility for moral action. A person's deciding to do something is an exercise of the mind, and the mind is neither a physical object nor a part of the human anatomy. It is a metaphysical phenomenon that somehow exists in the realm of the soul. Materialists do not believe in the existence of the soul or even the (non-material) mind, and therefore they are bound to deny free will (Carroll).
To most fatalists, events are determined by blind forces before whom humans are utterly powerless and helpless. Therefore, bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people, or just inexplicably terrible things happen. In such a context, many people tend to become fatalistic. So they blame everything on forces beyond control and reject all responsibility and initiative. This may serve as a way of avoiding blame for immoral behavior or as an excuse for failure, inaction, or despair.
From the Islamic view, the events of the world take place within Allah's knowledge and will.
In this way, fatalism may be used as an excuse by many for their indifference to the world around the feeling that "things will happen the way they happen, no matter what I do." This may serve as a justification for the passive acceptance of injustice and evil, such as racist violence, genocide, tyranny, oppression, and war.
Likewise, fatalism can become a form of nihilism: a belief that nothing has meaning, nothing is worth striving for, and nothing is worth living for (Scott).
Close to fatalism, there is also a view called predestination. In general terms, predestination stands for the belief that an omniscient and omnipotent God has determined all events. According to The Cults and Religion Website of the University of Calgary , the term "predestination" is used in Christian theology, in which it is "often identified with God's foreknowledge that connotes the idea that before the creation of the universe, God determined and foreordained all that would come to pass. In a narrower sense it refers to God's eternal decree respecting the salvation or damnation of individuals."
Throughout history, Christian theologians have struggled to reconcile predestination and free will. One argument goes thus: All creation by an omniscient and omnipotent God is perfect as He wills. God wills the concept that each of us will have free will, life after death, etc. Your attitude and concepts will change as He wills. In God's plan, there is purpose for each and every individual and a reason for every event no matter what you will. We will see changes in the world according to God's purpose and pleasure. Peace and harmony will occur according to God's timetable, not ours (Paregian).
Though the question of fate and free will has baffled people for many centuries, Islam has given a fairly clear answer. The first point to be noted in this respect is that the Islamic concepts of qadaa' and qadar are quite different from fatalism, determinism, and predestination; however, this is not understood by most people. In Arabic, the words qadaa' and qadar are often used for predetermination and destiny. The word qada (as from qadaa') as a verb means to decide, to settle, or to judge. The word qadi as a noun is a judge who decides a matter between disputants. The word qadar as a verb means to measure, to assess, and to determine. This word has been used in the Qur'an frequently.
Allah has given us freedom, not complete freedom, but freedom within the boundaries He has set.
From the Islamic view, the events of the world take place within Allah's knowledge and will. Because, the when, where, and how of those events are fixed by Allah's plan.
Read the following verses:
[And not an atom's weight in the earth or in the sky escapes your Lord, nor what is less than that or greater than that, but it is (written) in a clear Book.] (Yunus 10:61)
[No misfortune can happen on earth or in your souls but is recorded in a decree before We [Allah]. That is truly easy for Allah. In order that you may neither despair over matters that pass you by, nor exult over favors bestowed upon you. For Allah loves not any vainglorious boaster](Al-Hadid 57:22-23)
[No female conceives nor does she bring forth a child save with His [Allah ] knowledge. And no one is granted long life, nor is anything diminished of its life, but it is all recorded in a book] (Fatir 35:11)
[To Him belong the keys of the heavens and the earth. He enlarges the provisions for whomsoever He pleases and straitens it for whomsoever He pleases. Surely He knows all things full well] (Ash-Shura 42:12)
[And say not of anything, "I shall do it tomorrow," unless Allah wills] ( Al-Kahf 18:23-24)
The above verses speak of Almighty Allah's power and control over His creation, as well as of His will and plan. This is one aspect of His qadar. There is also another aspect of qadar, which is concerned with human free will:
On human freedom and responsibility, read the following verses:
[Corruption has spread on land and sea on account of what people's hands have wrought] (Ar-Rum 30:41)
[Whatever misfortune happens to you, is because on the things your hands have wrought, and for many (of them) He grants forgiveness. ] (As-Shura 42:30)
[If any do deeds of righteousness, be they male or female, and have faith, they will enter Heaven and not the least injustice will be done to them] (An-Nisaa' 4:124)
[It is the truth from your Lord; wherefore let him who will, believe, and let him who will, disbelieve ](Al-Kahf 18:29)
[O our people, respond to God's summoner and believe in him ](Al-Ahqaf 46:31)
From the Islamic point of view, freedom is part of the amanah (Arabic for "trust") that Allah has placed upon us. And it is by the proper use of that freedom that we become qualified to be His Khulafaa'.
The above verses speak of the special status of humans as beings with a role and mission. Allah's power over His creation and His foreknowledge of all our actions and their results do not preclude that status. Because, Allah has given us freedom not complete freedom, but freedom within the boundaries He has set. Allah's qadaa' and qadar which could be loosely rendered as "divine decree and human destiny" include a certain amount of freedom for humans. This is part of Allah 's scheme. We may say that Almighty Allah has willed that we must have the freedom to choose between good and bad, and to take the course of action we decide, i.e. to the extent we are permitted.
Allah's knowledge of what we are going to choose or what consequences our choice would entail, does not negate this freedom. It is Allah Who created us with all our talents and gifts, and if we do not have the freedom to use them, what would be the meaning of those blessings? And remember that Allah gave us, not merely our intellectual faculties, but also the power of moral judgment. And what is more, He sent us His guidance through His chosen prophets and books, to help us make the right choices; additionally, He does not use force in this matter.
So, from the Islamic point of view, freedom is part of the amanah (Arabic for "trust") that Allah has placed upon us. And it is by the proper use of that freedom that we become qualified to be His Khulafaa' (vicegerents) on earth. It is an honor that Allah has given us, by which He makes us the best of His creatures. And it was for this honor that angels were asked to bow in respect to the first of humankind, Adam (peace be upon him)
[ And when thy Lord said unto the angels: Lo! I am about to place a viceroy in the earth, they said: Wilt thou place therein one who will do harm therein and will shed blood, while we, we hymn Thy praise and sanctify Thee? He said: Surely I know that which ye know not. And He taught Adam all the names, then showed them to the angels, saying: Inform Me of the names of these, if ye are truthful. They said: Be glorified! We have no knowledge saving that which Thou hast taught us. Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Knower, the Wise. He said: O Adam! Inform them of their names, and when he had informed them of their names, He said: Did I not tell you that I know the secret of the heavens and the earth? And I know that which ye disclose and which ye hide. And when We said unto the angels: Prostrate yourselves before Adam, they fell prostrate, all save Iblis. He demurred through pride, and so became a disbeliever.] (Al Baqra 30-34)
To Muslims, salvation and damnation arise from the deeds and motives of people, not from matters that lie beyond their will or from natural phenomena.
This means that there is a balance between Allah's qadar and a human's freedom. The freedom we enjoy is certainly limited, because we cannot choose the place of our birth, our parents or family, our physical and mental characteristics, the time and manner of our death, and so on. Indeed, our choice is a reality only in a very limited sphere. Even where we claim to have made a free choice, can we say that we were fully free, and not under any kind of compulsion, to make those choices? For instance, consider the influences that must have led us to choose our present job: Did we choose it freely, or did we choose it because there was practically no other option?
Isn't it quite possible that Allah has a plan for each individual and as people make their "free" choices, they are willy-nilly falling in line with Allah's decrees? That is to say, a human's conscious exercise of will falls within the unlimited purview of Allah's qadar, and Allah's qadar does not, for all practical purposes, invalidate human freedom of choice.
So in Islam, there is no contradiction between belief in divine preordainment on the one hand, and the freedom of humans on the other, because Allah's will and plan are universal in scope, within which there is provision for a free and active role for humans, enabling them to consciously fashion their own destiny:
[ We have shown the path to humans, and they are free to choose the right path and be thankful or to choose the path of ingratitude ] (Al-Insan 76:3)
To Muslims, salvation and damnation arise from the deeds and motives of people, not from matters that lie beyond their will or from natural phenomena. Neither environmental and hereditary factors nor the natural capacities present in people have any effect on people's salvation or damnation. The critics of Islam imagine that the Islamic belief in qadaa' and qadar causes stagnation and inactivity in society. They may point to the social decline and backwardness in some Muslim countries as evidence.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. First, social decline and backwardness are present in several non-Muslim societies too. Second, their causes, if analyzed, can be seen to have nothing to do with the Muslims' religious beliefs. And above all, the Islamic belief in qadar, as explained above, does not prevent people from striving to reach their goals in life. Anyone who studies Islam can clearly see that there is nothing in Islam that encourages passivity and inaction. Both the holy Qur'an and the Sunnah are full of commands and exhortations for action, as has already been made clear from the Qur'anic verses that I mentioned. What is more, the history of Islam itself is an object lesson for any society as to how it can rise through concerted action from the depths of decadence to the height of glory:
The Muslims spread their empire at lightning speed. Within half a century after Prophet Muhammad Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam's death, three continents had come under the Muslim rule and both super powers of the time, the Persian and the Roman, had been defeated. It was their [the Muslims'] faith, character, and courage that was responsible for this phenomenal achievement. (Albalagh; an Islamic e-journal and website)
Was this astounding success possible for a society steeped "in a cloud of fatalism and uncertainty"?
The foregoing means that any social decline or backwardness in certain Muslim countries, is not due to Islam, but in spite of Islam; hence, its causes must be sought elsewhere.
Allah Almighty in the holy Qur'an says,
[Allah changes not the condition of a folk until they (first) change that which is in their hearts] (Al-Ra`d 13:11)
This verse clearly tells us that: First, it is Allah Who changes the condition of a people; second, it is the people who should first effect a change in their own souls if they wish to have their condition changed for the better. That is to say, humans are not entirely powerless and helpless in this world; rather, they have a clear role in shaping their lives. So, the salvation of humans is not dependent on causes beyond their control, but on their own willful choice and effort. That is His will too.
And Allah knows best.
Carroll, Robert Todd. "Free Will." The Skeptic's Dictionary. Accessed 16 Aug. 2007.
"Fatalism." Definition from The American Heritage Dictionary of English Language on Bartleby. Accessed 21 July 2007.
"Fatalism." A Dictionary of Philosophical Terms and Names Online Edition on Philosophy Pages. Accessed 20 Aug. 2007.
"Muslim Fatalism and Its Consequences." 30-Days Muslim Prayer Focus. Accessed 18 July 2007
Paregian, Philip. "Will of God Commentary." Accessed 16 Aug. 2007.
"Predestination." Nurelweb: The Cults and Religion Website. Accessed 16 Aug. 2007.
Scott, Alex. "The Implications of Fatalism." Accessed 16 Aug. 2007.
"The Rise of Islam During its First 50 Years." Albalagh. Accessed 28 June 2007.
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