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The Meaning of Destiny in Islam and its Relationship to Free Choice.



Sermon Of  Imam A. M. Khattab

Jan.11, 1932---Sept.15, 2001

Imam and Director

Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, Ohio





Allah, Subhanahu wa-Ta'ala, created man in a unique fashion. If we look into the human body we find it is a complex of factories; I call them factories. The medical profession refers to them as systems: there is the digestive system, a nervous system, a hearing system, a sight system, a comprehending system and so on. Every system is like a factory performing its job and with the totality of all these factories, man functions in a perfect way. When one or more of these systems develops some defect or sickness, it influences the rest of the systems. At that time we say this man is sick and he needs to be treated.


All these systems function under two powers: iraadah and qudrah as we call them in Arabic. Qudrah is the power or ability to do things, while iraadah means choice. For example you could perform certain actions with your hands or your legs, your eyes, and so on: every system, every part of your body has the power to do something – some action – by virtue of its qudrah. That action can be like a double-edged sword – it can be good or it can be evil. The power of choice has been given to man to channel his behavior and by this it is implied that man is free. Man is free: it means nothing external is pushing him to do things in a certain way, except his own choice – his own iraadah.


We frequently utilize certain terminology, especially in Arabic such as maktoob or Allah katabah ‘alayka meaning “it is something written”. For example “it is something written that you will be this way or you will be that way”. That is referred to in Islamic philosophy as Destiny or Al-Qadā’ wa- al-Qadar. And that is a question which puzzled the ulama for many years of the Islamic history: If God has “written” for me that I'll be, say, a thief then why does He punish me? That’s the puzzling question.


Philosophically speaking, we talk about iraadah, ‘Amr, and ‘Ilm. Iraadah means choice. 'Ilm means knowledge. Amr means order. God ordered (‘Amr) man to be good. Man is accountable before God as to whether he follows His orders or not (iraadah); he is not accountable for His knowledge (‘Ilm). ‘Ilm refers to the knowledge of God and the knowledge of God is all-encompassing: God knows who is going to be born in the year 2020, if it will be a male or female, whether tall or short, polite or not, and if he or she will abide by the orders of God. So, although God ordered him to be a good man He knows that this person will be disobedient in spite of the orders and will not follow the rules of God. That is what we call “written”. It does not mean that God is forcing us to do things. Everything in this life could be good and could be evil. For example, some people say music is haram. That is wrong. Music could be good; it could! If it is good it is halal if it is bad it is haram. Otherwise having a hand is haram because you could extend it to another person with a pistol and put a bullet in his head or you could extend it to a poor person with a charity or zakat. So, it depends upon your choice – your iraadah – and how you utilize that article which Allah created for you.


We are always between al-Qudrah and al-Iraadah. Al-Qudrah is the power of action or saying or thinking while al-Iraadah is the power of choice.


Everything in this life confronts us with alternatives. When you want to buy a suit or a dress you go to Hudsons, you go to JC Penny, you go Wards, you circle around visiting several stores and comparing the price and the material in order to select the best and the cheapest. Then you decide to buy that which you deem better for you. That is the choice. In the science of Sociology they say Oh, this man bases his decisions upon rationality. It means that he thinks, weighs the alternatives then decides on what to do. In the area of religion this is called reasoning; it has the same meaning as rationality.


In this life everything we have is a bounty from God. Everything in this universe is ni’amah; God created it for the service of man. God created big powers to serve man. Jamal – the camel – in Arabia it is something we don't think of although we see it by our eyes and we never think of it. A huge animal. And we find a kid seven years old pulling that camel and beating it with a stick and directing it to a certain place and the camel is obedient, even though it could stomp the child to death if it wanted. Why and how is this possible? Because God created that huge animal for the service of man and subjected or harnessed it for his service. And we find this depicted in the Qur'an when it says: Imam quotes: 36:71, 72, 73: “Are they, then, not aware that it is for them that We have created, among all the things which Our hands have wrought, the domestic animals of which they are now masters? And that We have subjected them to men’s will, so that some of them they may use for riding and of some they may eat, and may have yet other benefits from them, and milk to drink? Will they not then be grateful?” If these animals are under our control then we have the choice to mistreat them or to treat them kindly. So that will show how we can exercise our power of choice with regard to the bounties of God. Similarly all the bounties of God will be the alternatives where we have to choose.


The sun gives us warmth and light. It is the taqdeer (written law) of Allah that the sun follows a certain pattern 365 days so that the temperature on this earth is maintained and commensurate with the existence of human beings and other creations on this earth. Nowadays the whole world is scared. Why? They say there is some trouble with the ozone and that if this persists it will increase the earth’s temperature. This year is a case in point. We did not see too much snow this year. Today is March 1, (1997 or 98), and we were supposed to have a big storm today but it is 50 degrees outside. This means that there are alternatives we can choose from and the choice that Man has made was the wrong choice because it resulted in the imbalance of the ozone. Human beings have relationships with all the bounties of God and these relationships constitute our religion and that is Islam. You have a relationship with yourself, you have a relationship with your brother, your family, the society around you, and you have a relationship on an international level between states and governments – what they call nowadays political science or international law. Islam organized all these relationships and we have to follow rules and laws. All these areas present to us alternatives to choose from and to exercise our iraadah. We have a relationship with the sun and the moon, we have a relationship with the water, we have a relationship with the air we have a relationship with the land and all this is Islam. And we have alternatives, and we have choices.


The plants were created to complement man: human beings utilize oxygen from the air while producing carbon dioxide and the plants utilize the carbon dioxide, so the two complement each other. That is a precision of the creation as the Qur'an says to us: “We have created everything according to a law” – taqdeer – a precise law that is to be followed exactly.


When someone comes to an area where there is scarcity of water and urinates in that water it is a sin in Islam. Why? Because you are playing a detrimental role in contaminating that water and your relationship with the water is supposed to be a certain way so as to keep it wholesome for the benefit of the people. That is a type of relationship. You have a relationship with the air and look at what we are doing to the air nowadays. As soon as you arrive in Detroit you are in trouble. This is because the choices we have made are detrimental. And we are accountable for that. Materialism has conquered the immaterialism or spirituality.


All these relationships – with the environment, with one another, with the animals, the water and so on – form the basis of the alternatives from which man makes his choices. On this basis the ulama of Islam came up with five categories which define our behavior towards the choices to be made.


Wajib. Means a duty or an obligation. Obligation means you have to do it. If you don't do it there is a punishment.


Haram. Means forbidden or prohibited; something you should not do and if you do it you will be punished for it. In some prohibitions the punishment is twofold: a punishment in this life and a punishment in the Hereafter. For example, if you kill someone there is a punishment for it in this life and there is a punishment for it in the Hereafter.


Mustahabb. It is preferable to make that choice.


Makrūh. It is preferable not to make that choice.


Mubah. Mubah means halal.


Mustahabb and makruh are equal in the sense that it is equal whether you do it or don’t do it or vice versa and there is no punishment for it.


So the general rule in Islam is that everything is halal unless declared haram. Therefore, we eat a cow because it is halal, but if that cow is not slaughtered but dead, we cannot eat it because the Qur’an prohibits the consumption of carrion. And the difference between halal and haram is very easy to determine: “If you accept it for yourself it is halal, if you cannot accept that action for yourself it is haram” that is what the Prophet said. Islam, I think, is the exercise of common sense.


If we examine these prohibitions we find them, in the final analysis, protective medicine for the individual and protection for the environment; before you get sick, before you upset the balance of the universe, Islam is looking out for you. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: “The strong believer is better before God than the weak one.” Some people interpret that hadith as meaning “stronger in his īman”. But even if we take it that way if you are strong in your īman you are strong in everything else because īman and Islam is everything, it is every minute of your life.


Imam quotes 5:4. Yuhillo la-hum min at- tayyibaat (He legitimized for them everything good). Wa yuharrimu ‘alayhim-ul-khabā’ith (and prohibits for them everything bad). See the general rule?


What's good and what's bad? Smoking. In the olden times – and I was of that opinion also – smoking was considered makruh (frowned upon) but not haram. But with the new discoveries and knowing that smoking can cause lung cancer, I’ll call it khabeeth (bad) and it will be under al-khabā’ith. And some sheiks will not agree with that now because they smoke. And maybe I say this because I don't smoke. But this is how the Qur'an can be interpreted based upon new knowledge. Fifty years ago no one knew about lung cancer but, nowadays, with increased knowledge and sophisticated equipment, we can see its effects with our eyes on a screen or a monitor. The danger associated with smoking puts it in the area of khabā’ith. Characterization of actions as mubah or makrūh can be changed with the passage of time and increase in knowledge. What is legislated by Allah cannot be changed because He knows the past, the present and the future. But things which are governed by general rules can be categorized as halal or haram based upon new knowledge. New converts to Islam were eligible for a share of the zakat as stipulated in the Qur’an. But Omar bin Khattab in his time stopped that practice saying: “This was legislated when Islam was weak but, nowadays, we are strong, and if someone is coming into the fold of Islam for the sake of Islam itself, he is welcome, but if he is coming to receive some zakat, we don't need him”. That's the opinion of Omar bin Khattab. See how things are interpreted – the Qur'an itself – since that time?


posted 12/12/2004

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