PREDESTINATION & FREE WILL
What Islam says
To put it in a nutshell, Islam holds to both predestination and free-will. Both of these have a place in the divine scheme of things. Both these notions, though seemingly contradictory, must of necessity have a place in the heart of the believer, co-existing like the soul in the body. Why, because they both serve a purpose. One drives in man the need to be humble by totally submitting oneself to the Divine Will and accepting one’s lot with a sense of resignation while the other gives one a platform through which to exert oneself to do good and earn God’s Pleasure.
Belief in fate is a human need which is why almost all cultures have some idea of it. It serves as a spiritual cushion, so to say, giving one an inner peace and helping one come to terms with the trials one has to face in the course of life without looking back and regretting one’s past actions. There is no need to fret over what you had done or not done like “If I had not been there, this would not have happened?” and sink into despair. Nor is there any good living in daily dread of what will or will not happen. Rather what is important is to face life’s challenges positively with hope for the future. Why, because this worldly life is such that there can be only one course of action. Say you meet with an accident, you cannot undo it, nor change it into something else. it is fixed in time, or in other words written down. So is everything in this world. And so you accept it saying Que Sera Sera, what must be will be!
The Ways of God
To resign ourselves to the ways of God was, after all, what all the great prophets taught. In the Bible for instance we have numerous instances of the overriding power of God’s Will. In the Old Testament we find God speaking through the Prophet Isaiah:
I am God, there is no other. I am God, there is none like Me. At the beginning I foretell the outcome; in advance, things not done. I say that My Plan shall stand. I accomplish My every Purpose
Likewise the good Christian says after Jesus in his Lord’s Prayer:
“Your Will be done on Earth as in Heaven’.
and calls to mind the words Jesus spoke to his disciples:
All of you will have your faith shaken, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be dispersed’. Peter said to him ‘Even though all should have their faith shaken, mine will not be’. Jesus said to him ’Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows twice, you will deny me thrice’ (and so it came to pass)
Paul, an early church father regarded as the founder of Christianity as we know it today had this to observe about the Irresistible Will of God:
When Rebecca had conceived children by one husband, our father Isaac-before they had been born or done anything, good or bad, in order that God’s elective plan might continue, not by works but by His Call- she was told: “The older shall serve the younger”. As it is written:”I loved Jacob but hated Esau”. What then are we to say? Is there injustice on the part of God? Of course not! For He says to Moses: “I will show mercy to whom I will, I will take pity on whom I will”. So it depends not upon a person’s will or exertion, but upon God, who shows mercy. For the scripture says to Pharaoh: “This is why I have raised you up, to show My Power through you that My Name may be proclaimed throughout the earth”. Consequently, He has mercy upon whom He wills and He hardens whom He wills. You will say to me then: “Why does He still find fault? For whom can oppose His Will? But who indeed are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Will what is made say to its maker: “Why have you created me so?” or does not the Potter have a right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for a noble purpose and one for an ignoble one? What if God, wishing to show His wrath and make known His Power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction? This was to make known the riches of His Glory to the vessels of Mercy, which He has prepared previously for glory, namely, us, whom He has called, not only from the Jews, but also from the Gentiles” (Romans 9:10-24)
What Paul is saying is that everything happens the way God wills it. He chooses whom to favour and whom to cast away even before they are born and their deeds seen to men; He chooses whom to guide and whom to condemn just as the potter fashions his clay, creating something useful or something useless at his own discretion. He does not stop there. He plainly tells us that it is only those whom God has determined beforehand to show His Mercy will be saved while the rest whom he has destined to be damned will rot in hell.
If we are to go by this view, God is the author and we his magnum opus, His greatest work which He wrote the way He wished from beginning to end; God is the painter and we are his painting, pictured precisely the way he planned, every colour, every shade, every splotch in it, exactly the way He wanted it; He is the Singer and we are His song, sung according to the tune of His liking.
This is of course a rather hard way of looking at fate; it naturally led to some Christian cults adopting it as a cornerstone of their faith, like the Calvinists who taught that only God’s Elect whom He had previously chosen for salvation would be saved while the damned whom he had destined to take the wrong path would suffer an eternity of torment. Even strict Catholics who uphold human free-will are wont to hold that God, owing to His infallible prescience of the future, has appointed and ordained from eternity all events occurring in time, including those that directly proceed from the exercise of man’s free will.
An Idea shared by all faiths
It is not only the Abrahamic faiths that have a strong view on the divine decree. Almost every belief on the face of the earth has an idea that men’s fates are determined by forces beyond their control. The Eastern faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism equally held to the idea, though in a rather grotesque form, holding that the fate of men was predetermined by the deeds committed in a previous life. The Sinhalese Buddhists of old according to an Englishman named Robert Knox held that man’s good or bad fortune was predetermined by God even before he was born for which they had a proverb Ollua cottaula tiana (It is written in the head). Likewise the ancient Greeks believed that men’s fates were spun by three old hags and even in little children’s stories we find that the idea of fate is strongly entrenched even in our fondest fairy tales.
Stars too were thought to determine men’s fates, which is why we have astrology even in these enlightened times. Nay, even atheist scientists now claim that man has no freewill. Why, because man is merely a “biochemical puppet”. People’s thoughts and intentions, they argue, emerge from background causes of which they are unaware and over which they exert no conscious control. Every choice people make is made as a result of preceding causes. These choices they make are determined by those causes, and are therefore not really choices at all, so the argument goes.
Thus it could be seen that the notion of predeterminism serves an important function in human societies, which is why almost all faiths on the face of this earth have some idea of it.
How Islam Views Predestination
Islam strikes a delicate balance between predestination and free-will. It tells us that whatever happens to man is not the result of an arbitrary blind play of natural forces, but the outcome of God’s Conscious and purposeful Will so that it all becomes one integrated whole in keeping with a universal plan. As Einstein said God does not play dice with the universe. Yes, God’s Creation has a unity of purpose and the sooner we understand this the better. It helps us realise that whatever we do, it will not necessarily be the way we plan it. There exists a Higher Plan to which it must of necessity conform or perish in the process, hence the saying: Man proposes, God disposes.
Such a plan is not for man to comprehend, it is one above and beyond human understanding, As Goethe said of the death of his friend Duke Carl August: “God brings about what he finds good, and nothing remains for us poor mortals but to endure it”. Indeed he felt that such an attitude of submission to the divine will was the greatest strength of Islam When his daughter in law fell dangerously ill, Goethe wrote to a friend “I can say no more than that, here too, I seek to abide within Islam”
This is evident everywhere, nothing always goes the way we plan it and when we do we must always bear in mind that it will be so only if God Wills it to be, which is why good Muslims always say Insha Allah ‘God Willing’ when speaking of the future. What’s more, if something good happens, say the birth of a child we say Masha Allah ‘As God has willed’. This is as much a teaching of Islam as it is of Christianity, as we read in James (4:14-15):
Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that”
Such an attitude of resignation before the Divine Will helps us to come to terms with reality and hence with ourselves. We cannot undo the past and hence must come to terms with our fate. Such an attitude helps us understand that whatever comes our way is from God and that it must be for our Good though we cannot understand why. We accept it as such, knowing that whatever trials we go through is just a fraction of a whole to which it must conform just as nature runs its course with its endless cycles of bloom and decay, where the end of one spells the birth of another.
Everything after all ultimately depends on the Will of God. All that was, that is and that will be takes place as He wills. God, after all, is the ultimate cause of all things. What say you explains the difference between a lovely nightingale and an ugly crow, each having natures as distinct from one another as sky is to earth? They are thus because God created them as such. We are thus because God created us as such, ensconced in our bodies in a form we never chose, a colour which we had not the slightest inkling of when we were born. Why, because God willed it so. His Will was in operation even before we entered the world, so how is it possible that it should end with it?
Free Will at play
Thus it is clear that God’s Will is Irresistible and Overriding, and must be so. However at the same time, this does not mean that man is not a free agent. Man does have free-will to choose between right and wrong. God gave us free will when He Created Adam, and this free-will all men and women inherited from him. Such free will seems to have originated with Adam who according to the Qur’an was given life by God’s breathing into him a spirit or soul from himself – or in the words of the Scripture: nafakhtu feehi min roohi (The Rocky Tract: 29). Man, by this means obtained a soul and some measure of free-will which was seen when Adam chose to eat of the forbidden fruit.
In the Qur’an we are told that God offered freewill to the rest of his creation, but only man accepted it. Thus when Adam chose to exercise his free-will he accepted the trust on behalf of his descendants as well. It is called in the language of the Qur’an Al-Amaanat ‘The Trust’:
We offered the trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they refused to take it, and were afraid of it; but man undertook it
Thus we may suppose that God created man different from the rest of creation in that He also gave him freewill. However, it may be asked, how could this freewill be exercised in the face of the all-encompassing will of God. To this we may answer that God has created us in such a way that makes it possible for us to do so. He has given man the freedom to think and choose freely between good and evil, which marks him apart from the rest of creation. Thus when we say that everything is dependent on the will of God it may not necessarily mean in the definite sense , for that would be like saying that whatever we do is performed by God. God enables such actions, but does not perform them. To say that God performs our deeds will be nothing but heresy!
Again, suppose everything is predetermined because of God’s All-Encompassing Will, why then does He want us to believe in it if our very thoughts are preordained? Why does He want us to freely believe in it using our free-will? What this shows is that our thoughts are not necessarily predetermined by God and that there’s a deeper meaning to why God wants us to believe in fate. It seems that He wants man to believe in it, so as to bring man’s nature with the free-will He has given him in line with His All-Embracing Will so as to achieve the desired equilibrium with the rest of nature that irresistibly submits to his Will. In other words. it is a call to be angelic by humbly submitting to God like the angels do, and not to be haughty like the devil by rebelling and arrogating to oneself things that are not rightly ours.
By doing so, God knows we will have peace of mind, trusting in His Will and readily resigning Oneself to it. So just as a stream freely moves towards the sea to lose itself in the ocean, so do the minds of men find comfort in submitting to a higher will. As God says in the Qur’an:
Whoever submits his whole self to God and is a doer of good has grasped the most trustworthy handhold, for with God rests the final outcome of all affairs
Why, because at the end of the day, it is God’s will that is Supreme, not ours. Because finally everything is dependent on Him. Our very heartbeats obey His Commands. Our very sustenance depends on Him. This is why we need to place our trust in God in every moment of our lives. This is what all the great prophets taught. Did not Jesus tell his disciples:
Notice the ravens. They do not sow or reap; they have neither storehouses nor barn, yet God feeds them. How much more important are you than birds! Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your life-span? If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest? Notice how the flowers grow. They do not toil or spin. But I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of them” (Luke 12:22-27)
And did not Muhammad teach his followers:
If you put your whole trust in God, as you ought, He most certainly will satisfy your needs, as He satisfies those of the birds. They come out hungry in the morning,but return full to their nests.
Limitations of Free Will
Thus though the soul may have free will, the body, as all of nature, is subject to God and though our thoughts be free, our actions depend on God. Thus free will is like a ship in the sea of predestination, a great sea with whose ebb and flow our fates go. It is like tumbleweed driven by the wind hither and thither.It is limited in that it is subject to the Divine Will in each and every affair just as a ship is at the mercy of the sea with its storm tossed waters. But a light can guide it to safer waters and that Light is God. We are guided by that Light when we trust Him in every affair of ours.
God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The likeness of His Light is as a niche wherein is a lamp, the lamp in a glass, the glass as if it were a brilliant star, lit from a blessed tree, an olive tree, neither of the East, nor of the West, whose oil is very nearly luminous though fire touched it not. Light upon Light. God guides whom He Wills to His Light
This verse clearly drives home the fact that God is the Light and if it were not for His Light we would not be able to find the Path. Ask yourself, what good would our eyes be if there were no light? God gave us light so we can find our way, even in the night. Now think of that light that gives not just eyesight to your world, but insight to God’s Work. That light He gives only to those who earn His Grace.
Have you not turned your vision to your Lord? How He prolongs the shadow! If He Willed, He could make it stationary! Then do We make the sun its guide. Then We draw it in towards Ourselves- a contraction by easy stages
Here we are told how shadows are guided by the sun, and how as the sun rises higher and higher the shadows contract, till when it reaches its zenith at noon when there is no shadow, and when it is in a sense closest to God- the Light of Light. So God is the Light and the rest of creation are but shadows depending on His Light. He guides everything to its final destination including our lifespan as he does the shadows. Just as plants sense sunlight and grow towards it, so we go along with God with the assurance of a sleepwalker going for a door leading to the light, following the light like a sunflower.
God’s Law at Work
But to understand this idea better, let’s look at how Islam views nature. In Islam everything is Muslim in that they all submit to God’s Laws, whether willingly or unwillingly, whether knowingly or unknowingly. Take your heartbeat. Does not it function beyond your control. Can you as much as skip a beat or prevent it from stopping when your time is up? The same holds true of animals who are creatures of instinct, eating and mating by an instinct they cannot resist. Nay even non-living things are Muslim because they are all subject to the laws of God. Say you throw a rock in the air. It won’t stay put but comes down, drawn by the force of gravity created by God. That too is Muslim. Or take a tree. However much you water it, it will give fruit only in season. So that too is Muslim as it obeys the Laws of God. In short, everything in nature obeys the Law of God, everything in nature is designed to happen in its own good time as willed by the Lord of All Creation.
This is why God asks:
Do they seek for other than the religion of God? While all creatures in the heavens and on earth, have, willingly or unwillingly, bowed to His Will, and to Him shall they all be brought back
Thus animals and plants are in a sense natural Muslims as they surrender to God’s Will wholly without having a free choice. They express God’s Will in every moment of their existence following their God-given instincts.
There is not an animal on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (are) communities like you. Nothing have We omitted from the Book, and they (all) shall be gathered to their Lord in the end
Here we are told that everything in the universe is recorded in the Book, in other words, God’s archetypal plan.
With Him are the Keys of the Unseen, the treasures that none know but He. He knows whatever there is on the earth and in the sea. Not a leaf falls but with His knowledge. There is not a grain in the darkness of the earth, nor anything fresh or dry, but is (inscribed) in a Record Clear
Thus everything in life is ordered and regulated by the Almighty according to a plan. Won’t you agree that every good thing has to have a plan? When you build a house, you need a plan. When you build a city you need a plan. So it is with predeterminism; It is God’s plan for creation, the divine Blueprint so to say. Nothing operates outside it, nay not even the tiniest microbe. Just imagine, if a microbe reproduced out of control with nothing to check it, could it not wreak havoc on the world, even destroy it. There is a check on everything, a controlling mechanism that ensures the world and the universe operates smoothly. In other words, life as we know it would not be possible if God did not predetermine certain things in life.
Thus man, despite his free will, is subject to God’s All-Encompassing Will. This is evident from the creation story of our archetypical parent Adam of whom God told the angels “I will create a vicegerent on earth”. This was told by God before Adam and Eve’s fall to earth from paradise after they had eaten of the forbidden fruit. This idea of divine destination is known by Muslims as Qadar or ‘Determined’ or ‘Measured’ which is to say that whatever God has ordained must come to pass. The term occurs in the Qur’an in the sense of ‘measure’ as in the verse:
Verily, all things have We created with measure, and Our Command is but one, as the twinkling of an eye
(The Moon: 49-50)
It also occurs in the form taqdeer in the sense of ‘measurement’:
Verily ! It is God who causes the seed-grain and the fruit-stone to split and sprout.
He brings forth the living from the dead and He it is who brings forth the dead from the living. Such is God, then how are you deluded away from the truth ? (He is the) Cleaver of the Day-break. He has appointed the night for resting, and the sun and the moon for reckoning. Such is the measuring of the All-Mighty, the All-Knowing
(The Cattle: 95-96)
Taqdeer is therefore the law of measure working throughout the whole of creation, governing life and the universe and operating as much in the case of man as in the rest of nature, beginning with his creation and culminating with his final destination. Take a good look at us humans, changing from time to time, from one form to another, from tender infancy to frail senility. We are so mutable if we only have a closer look at ourselves. Thus taqdeer could also mean the latent potentialities with which God created man, with this latent freewill unfolding as he passes his days:
Glorify the Name of Your Lord, the Most High, Who has created and then proportioned; and Who has measured, then guided
(The Most High:1-3)
The word used for ‘measured’ here is qaddara, the past sense of the verb for ‘measure’. Qadar encompasses a good part of human life, determining one’s provision, term of life and perhaps even one’s ultimate destiny. Whatever befalls man is said to be already written for him by God in a Book known as the Lauh Al-Mahfooẓ or ‘The Preserved Tablet’:
No misfortune befalls on the earth or in yourselves but is inscribed in a Book (i.e. Lauh Al-Mahfooẓ) before We bring it into existence. That is truly easy for God. In order that you may not despair over matters that pass you by, Nor exult over favours bestowed upon you
This includes his lifespan which is determined by God and He alone:
Nor can a soul die, except by God’s leave; the term being fixed as by writing
It is not just men, but whole nations that are subject to the law of Qadar:
Every nation has its appointed term; when their term is reached, not an hour can they delay
(The Heights: 34)
The True Spirit of a Muslim
This belief in one’s qismat or the lot God has allotted to one is not such a bad thing really. The belief in the fate that God has willed will come to pass naturally leads one to an attitude of resignation in the face of adversity and inculcates in the believer a spirit of patience and forbearance. Acceptance of one’s lot after all is a sign of piety. When Umm Salamah once remarked to the Prophet that the pain of the poisoned mutton given by a Jewess had not ceased to trouble him, he replied:
Nothing affected me therefrom but it was already decreed upon me and Adam (was created) from his soil
So you will see that belief in a fate beyond man’s control is a human need, a necessity, to accept one’s lot with resignation. This is why almost all human cultures have a belief in fate to the point that it is even reflected in little children’s tales. Islam came as a palliative to this universal belief, holding that ultimately all that happens takes place in a way such as is allowed by God to happen or is more definitely wrought by Him. We see such an idea expressed in the lines of Qoheleth in the Bible:
There is an appointed time for everything, And a time for every affair under the heavens; A time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot. A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to tear down and a time to build
He adds to it as if expanding on these lines:
“I have considered the task which God has appointed for men to be busied about. He has made everything appropriate to its time, and has put the timeless into their hearts, without man’s ever discovering, from beginning to end, the work which God has done” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-11)
Thus, what we must always bear in mind is that God’s Will has a purpose and is not haphazard. If we can accept whatever God wills for us in humility, He will reward us for it and show us a better way. His Mercy is after all, All-Encompassing, and even encompasses whatever He has willed for us, however bitter it may seem at first sight. And at no point will His Mercy be so apparent as in the hereafter. As for man’s ultimate destiny, the Holy Book has two things to say- firstly, that God determines their fate and secondly, humans choose for themselves and have to answer for it. Thus we are told that faith is written in the hearts of the true believers:
For such He has written faith in their hearts and strengthened them with a spirit from Himself. And He will admit them to gardens beneath which rivers flow to dwell therein. God will be pleased with them, and they with Him. They are the party of God. Truly it is the party of God that will achieve felicity
(She Who Pleads:22)
That God’s Will is Supreme is also indicated in other verses of the Qur’an:
Whither go ye? Verily this is no less than a Message to the worlds; to whoever among you wills to go straight. But ye shall not will except as God Wills
(The Folding Up: 26-29)
Verily this is an admonition, So whoever will, let him take a path to his Lord. But you cannot will, unless God wills. Verily, God is Ever All-Knowing, All-Wise
Whomsoever God wills to guide, He expands their bosom unto the Surrender (Islam), and whomsoever He wills to leave straying, He makes their bosom close and constricted as if they had to climb up to the skies
Even if We sent unto them angels, and the dead spoke unto them, and We gathered all things before their very eyes, they are not the ones to believe, unless it is in God’s Plan
The import of these verses is profoundly powerful, impressing on man that his very guidance ultimately depends not on himself, but on Divine Grace. Particularly telling in these modern times is the verse that says that whomsoever He wills to leave straying, He makes their breast close and constricted as if they had to climb up to the skies. We know today, in this age of aviation that the higher we go up the atmosphere, the less oxygen we can take in, which combined with atmospheric pressure at its upper levels, will make it hard to breath, which is exactly what the Qur’an means when it says that the misguided ones would have their breasts close and constricted as if they had to climb up to the skies.
We also have the Chapter of the Flame speaks of Abu Lahab literally ‘Father of Flame’, an uncle of the Prophet who was nicknamed as such due to his fiery temper. When the Prophet gathered his kinsfolk together to listen to his newly commissioned mission, he flared up and burst out in a mix of anger and arrogance inspired by Satan himself, crying out “Perdition to Thee!” and broke up the gathering. But as the old saying goes: “The Causeless Curse will not Come” and so it was that as Islam shone day by day, Abu Lahab burned inside, and died consumed by his own fiery a week after the decisive Battle of Badr.
Ten years before Abu Lahab actually died, the Prophet was revealed a few verses forming the 111th Chapter of the Qur’an that more or less came in the form of a curse:
Perish the hands of the Father of Flame! Perish he! No profit to him from all his wealth and all his gains! Burnt soon will he be in a fire of blazing Flame!
The verses affirmed as a fact that Abu Lahab would never become a Muslim and would burn in the hellfire because of his arrogance. For all that time, Abu Lahab had the chance to discredit the Prophet’s mission. Here was a man who would have said black whenever the Prophet said white or white whenever the Prophet said black. All that time, all he had to do was simply say: “I have come to know that Muhammad was sent down some verses from God that I will never change, that I will never become a Muslim, that I will go to hell! Well I want to become a Muslim now, I want to be saved from the Fire. I declare that I am a Muslim! What have you to say!”.
That was all he needed to discredit the Prophet. That was what could have been most expected of him, as he always sought to contradict what the Prophet said. He could have simply declared he was a Muslim to discredit the Prophet and throw doubt on the accuracy of the Qur’an. He could have for a while become a nominal Muslim, for had not some of the Prophet’s most rabid opponents become devoted Muslims. That was all he needed to do to crush Muhammad’s claims, sow doubt in the heart of the believers and extinguish the light of Islam before reverting to the faith of his forefathers. But he didn’t!
During the Battle of Badr, the Prophet took a handful of sand from the ground and threw it at the enemy. It struck their eyes and caused so much irritation that it played a major role in their defeat. God revealed about it: “When thou threwest, it was not thy act, but God’s, in order that He might test the believers by a gracious trial” (The Spoils of War:17). The Prophet was therefore an instrument of Divine action, just as the enemies of Israel, the Babylonians and Romans were, when the Jews had invited God’s wrath upon themselves. Though we may not know it, we ourselves could become vehicles to implement God’s Will on earth for He has power over all things including our hearts, which is why the Prophet often used to supplicate God as Muqallibul Quloob (Changer of Hearts).
According to a saying of the Prophet, our fates are written, not in ink, but in some unseen code by an angel upon one’s life spirit:
Each one of you is put together in the womb of his mother for forty days, and then turns into a clot for an equal period (of forty days) and then turns into piece of flesh for a similar period (of forty days) and then God sends an angel and orders him to write four things, i.e. his provision, his stated term (to die), and whether he will be of the wretched or the blessed. Then the soul is breathed into him. And by God, a person among you may do deeds of the people of the (Hell) fire till there is only a cubit or an arms length distance between him and the fire, but then that writing precedes, and he does the deeds of the people of paradise and enters it; and a man may do the deeds of the people of paradise till there is only a cubit or two between him and paradise, and then that writing precedes and he does the deeds of the people of the fire and enters it” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari).
There is also the saying of the Prophet that when God having extracted from Adam all of his descendants who would be born until the end of the world, He pointed to some of them and said:
“I have created these people for paradise and they will do the deeds of the people of paradise”.
He then pointed to the rest and said:
“I have created these people for the hellfire and they will do the deeds of the inhabitants of hell”
When one of his companions asked the Prophet what then was the point of doing good deeds, he replied:
Verily, if God created one of His servants for paradise, He helps him do the deeds of the people of paradise until he dies doing one of their deeds, then He places him in paradise because of it. But if He created a man for the hellfire, He helps him to do the deeds of its inhabitants until he dies doing one of their deeds, then He puts him in the fire because of it
A similar tradition saying has the Prophet declaring at a funeral in the graveyard of Gharqad:
“There is not one amongst you whom a seat in paradise or hell has not been allotted and about whom it has not been written down whether he would be an evil person or a blessed person”
A person, upon hearing this asked:
“Should we not then depend on our destiny and abandon our deeds? ”
The Prophet replied:
Acts of everyone will be facilitated in that which has been created for him so that whoever belongs to the company of the blessed will have good works made easier for him and whoever belongs to the unfortunate ones will have evil acts made easier for him
It would seem from all the above, both from the passages of the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet that man’s destiny has already been decided by God, or to put it in religious terms written down. However what they all indicate is that the evil-doers will have their evil deeds made easier for them, not that they will be compelled by God to commit them. Further, there are Qur’anic verses that indicate that men do have some measure of free-will:
He causes not to stray, except those who forsake (the path)
Verily never will God change the condition of a people until they change it themselves
God will keep firm those who believe, with the Word that stands firm in this world and in the hereafter and God will cause to go astray those who are evil
No kind of calamity can occur, except by the leave of God. And if anyone believes in God, (God) guides his heart, for God knows all things
(Mutual Loss and Gain:11)
The worst of all beasts in the sight of God are the deaf and the dumb – Those who understand not. If God had found in them any good, He would indeed have made them listen. If He had made them listen, they would but have turned back and declined (faith)
(The Spoils of War:22-23)
What all these verses suggest is that God will guide those who believe in him and do good and that he would lead astray those who are evil, that he will harden the hearts of those whose hearts are hard. As God alone knows what goes on in our minds, it is only He who can best judge who is worthy of being guided to the light and who deserves to be left groping in the dark. Thus He knows fully well beforehand what choices humans are going to make and allows the actualization of those choices so that they reap the consequences of their thoughts, whether good or evil. In other words, when God creates a human, He Knows Well – and indeed how can He not know- even before creating him, how he is going to use his free will. Such prescience or foreknowledge is recorded and registered in the Book of Destiny. So when it is said that something is written, it may merely mean it is fixed and none can alter it.
As for the sayings of the Prophet in this connection, they do not necessarily suggest that man is a mere puppet in the face of destiny. Words such as “that writing (of destiny) precedes” may not necessarily mean that man is forcibly misled from the path that he has been already treading, but rather that he is merely pursuing his chosen path known to God even before he was born and which is thus written for him. The moral of this is that nothing can be said of one’s ultimate end. A wicked person might enter paradise after sincere repentance and choosing a pious life thereafter while an apparently good person can get into hell by committing a serious sin and taking an evil course at the end of his life.
Thus it is not upto man to decide whether such and such a person would be in hell or heaven. They are all within the ken of God. What this drives home is that that salvation depends ultimately on God’s Grace. To assume that just because we do good deeds we will go to paradise is to be arrogant, arrogating to ourselves something that is not ours, but rather God’s domain, not to mention the fact that it could also contribute to a ‘holier than thou’ attitude with regard to others. Likewise we cannot condemn a man to hell just because he is a sinner. That is up to God to judge. Heaven is God’s Domain and He admits to it whomsoever He Pleases.
Moreover, descriptions such as God’s Creation of a people for paradise or hell or good or evil actions being made easier for them, does not necessarily imply that man has absolutely no free will or choice between good and evil. If that were so, we’d be like some characters in a storybook that begins with a man and woman in a garden, doing everything which the author has them do. If that were indeed so, there would be no point in holding man responsible or accountable for his deeds. The teachings of Islam like the judgement of men’s deeds and the reward and punishment to follow would then be meaningless.
It is thus possible that God’s creation of a person for paradise or hell is His creation of a person knowing fully well before His creation that he would be among the people of paradise or hell due to his free choice in choosing faith over unbelief and good over evil or vice versa. That God’s Knowledge can comprehend the future and this is clear from the Qur’an:
And He is God in the heavens and on earth. He knows what you hide and what you reveal
From God verily nothing is hidden on earth or in the heavens. He it is who shapes you in the wombs as He pleases
He knows that which is in front of them, and that which is behind them, while they encompass out of His Knowledge nothing except what He Wills
God alone knows all that was, that is and that will be. His knowledge is timeless and limitless and encompasses all things, every event in nature, every sphere of activity from cradle to grave is within His ken. The Prophet was once asked about the destiny of the children of the unbelievers who died before reaching the age of adolescence when they could distinguish right and wrong. He replied “It is God alone who knows what they would be doing” (Saheeh Muslim). Could this suggest that God knows not just the real future, but also the potential or possible future of His creatures?
Also relevant to our question is the Qur’anic story of the unnamed Servant of God related in Surah Kahf or the Chapter of the Cave whom Moses encounters near The Junction of the Two Seas. The Holy Book simply describes him as:”One of Our servants on whom We had bestowed Mercy from Ourselves and whom We had taught Knowledge from Our Own Presence. This mystic being is popularly known as Khidr or ‘The Green One’. One day, Moses and the Mystic proceed together, until they are in a boat. Khidr scuttles it, only to have Moses react: “Have you scuttled it in order to drown those in it? Truly a strange thing you have done!”. They proceed again, until they meet a young man whom Khidr slays. Moses says: “Have you slain an innocent person who had slain none? Truly a foul thing have you done!” Then they proceed until they came to a town and ask its inhabitants for food, but they refuse them. They find that a wall is about to fall down, but Khidr sets it aright., only to have Moses cry out: “If you had wished, surely you could have got some recompense for it!”.
Khidr answers him:“This is the parting between me and thee. Now will I tell thee the interpretation of (those things) over which thou wast unable to have patience. As for the boat, it belonged to certain men in dire want. They plied on the water, I but wished to render it unserviceable, for there was after them a certain king who seized every boat by force. As for the youth, his parents were people of faith, and we feared that he would grieve them by obstinate rebellion and ingratitude (to God and man). So we desired that their Lord would give them in exchange (offspring) more pure and affectionate. As for the wall, it belonged to two youths, orphans, in the town, there was beneath it a buried treasure, to which they were entitled. Their father had been a righteous man, so thy Lord desired that they should attain their age of full strength and get out their treasure – a mercy from thy Lord” (The Cave: 60-82).
What all this drives home is that destiny is beyond the realms of human understanding. God alone knows all, with the past, present and future spread out before Him as a single vista so to say. There is no difference in time before God, so that in a sense everything is in the present tense. Why, because He is not bound by time. It is we of this temporal finite world who are unable to comprehend outside the bounds of time. We are in no position to lift the curtain of time and experience reality outside the bounds of space-time. God’s knowledge is timeless. Man’s is time bound.
Verily, the knowledge of the hour is with God (alone). It is He who sends down rain, and He who knows what is in the wombs, nor does anyone know what it is that he will earn on the morrow. Nor does anyone know in what land he is to die. Verily, with God is full knowledge and He is acquainted (with all things.)
But then it may be asked, if God knew what His creation would be doing, why then did He embark on His creation, destining it for Hell? This is of course a difficult question to answer and as futile as to argue which came first – the egg or the hen? We know that God existed prior to His Creation. He was the Primal Source of Creation. Thus He knew well what He would be creating before He even set about the act of creation. He could have set about a different course, a different creation had He Willed. But His was the Primary Will and all else flowed from that point. If at all man was to have some measure of free-will, then it was He who bestowed it of His own Volition.
There are still more limitations on man’s exercise of his free will. It is limited in that it is subject to the All-Encompassing Will of a Higher Being since ultimately there is no power except with God. Thus, man’s individual will may be likened to the flame of a candle melting under the light of the sun which is the Divine Will, to ultimately disappear. It may be likened to a ship in storm tossed waters, swaying to and fro or even turning over depending on the ferocity of the waves, which is the Divine Will.
Freewill is also limited by the limitations placed upon man’s corporeal existence which makes him susceptible to the influences of the evil hosts who themselves are the creation of the One True Lord. The very nature of man bears this out. All men are not alike. Although all men are created equal, they are different as far as their proclivities and abilities are concerned, which explains why people behave the way they do. Ever stopped to think why people have quirks we cannot rationally explain, like why some are Sadists and others Masochists? What Western atheistic science attributes to ‘chaos’, Islam attributes to a Higher Design that works in the most mysterious ways.
There are some interesting sayings of the Prophet in this connection:
Acts of everyone will be facilitated in that which has been created for him so that whoever belongs to the company of the blessed will have good works made easier for him and whoever belongs to the unfortunate ones will have evil acts made easier for him
Verily God has fixed the very portion of adultery which a man will indulge in, and which he of necessity must commit. The adultery of the eye is the lustful look, and the adultery of the tongue is the licentious speech, the heart desires and yearns, which the parts may or may not put into effect
This would suggest that the inclination to do good or bad or even something seemingly trivial as sexual lust has been created according to a certain measure and that it is this that determines one’s yearnings, which is in a sense beyond one’s control. At the same time it depends on the will of the person concerned, whether he would avoid the sin or yield to his lust. Thus we may conclude that man has limited free-will, but that a good part of his life is determined by forces beyond his control.
At the same time, this does not mean that one should adopt a fatalistic view of life, leaving everything to God, like not taking medicine when you have an illness. There is an old Arabian adage: Trust in God but tie your camel. This is exactly what is expected of the believer. The moral is something like this – if you were to eat some bad meat, fully aware of its ill effects, that is carelessness; but if you were to meet with an accident in which you had no control, that is fate. That is why God will question you about those matters you could have done something about, not about those things you could do nothing about.
The companions of the Prophet understood this well. It once happened that the Caliph Umar was informed that a plague had broken out in the land of Sham (Syria and thereabouts). This was in the course of a conquest and so he consulted his companions who unanimously agreed that they should not expose themselves to the plague. At this, one of his army commanders Abu Ubaidah said: “O Umar! Are you running away from the decree of God!” Pat came Umar’s reply: “O Abu Ubaidah! I wish someone else had said this. Yes, we do run from the decree of God to the decree of God. What if you had a herd of camels and you took them to a valley that had two slopes, one green pasturage and the other dry and barren. Would you not be fulfilling the decree of God if you let your herd graze on the green pasture rather than keeping them on the dry barren land?” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari).
On another occasion Umar while going around the Kaaba in Mecca was seen weeping and praying: “O God if you have written me among the blessed ones, then keep me firm with them, but if you have written me among the wretched sinners, then change it o the blessed ones and to whom you bless them with your pardon, as it is you who blots out what you will and with You is the Mother of the Book” (Tafsir Al Qurtubi). Umar was obviously invoking a verse from the Qur’an: God blots out what He Wills and confirms (what He Wills). And with Him is the Mother of the Book (The Thunder: 38) in the understanding that Everything in life is prewritten, but with prayer it can be rewritten.
What all this shows is that the early Muslims understood the notion of predestination in a very positive way. They knew that everything happens as God Wills, but did not dispute the fact that they too had free will, even to the extent of exercising their good judgement to safeguard their lives and beseeching the Almighty to change their destiny if it were not in favour of them. This is why Muslims hold that while one’s provision is fixed, how one earns it, whether by good or evil means, is determined by man himself who exercises limited free-will in this respect.
Finally, all we can say is that man need not delve too deeply into the ways of God. He simply treads the path ordained for him by God in His Wisdom, leaving everything to Him and to Him Alone while at the same time trusting in His Mercy, that all that He has in store for him is for his own good. In other words, one must surrender oneself to God completely as the rest of creation:
To Him has surrendered whatsoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly, and to Him shall they all be brought back