Does Islam Teach Fatalism?
Question: Fate or destiny seems to be very complicated for me to understand. From what I have read about destiny and fate, this is my finding: Allah has control over everything we do and Allah knows what we are going to do. The question that first arises is: Why are we held accountable on the Day of Judgment for our actions, as Allah has control over what we do?
Doing further research I discovered that humans have freedom of choice, and there is a right way to achieve your destiny and a wrong way. But this contradicts with the statement “Allah has control of everything we do.” Doesn’t this also mean that Allah has control on the freedom of choice we have?
Furthermore if we are destined to fail, then why do we pray to Allah to achieve success? For example, being a student, why should I try studying for my final exams, as the grades I will get have been written in my destiny? The result will be the same no matter how much I study and how much I pray for success. Why bother praying for success when Allah has already decided my fate? Why don’t we just sit back and watch our fate unfold?
In the name of Allāh, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful;
All the praise and Thanks is due to Allāh, the Lord of al-`ālameen. I testify that there is none worthy of worship except Allāh, and that Muhammad, Sallallāhu `alayhi wasallam, is His Messenger
There are two extreme points of view about what we call fate or destiny. One is that we are completely helpless and our decisions have no impact on what is going to happen to us. This approach to life is usually called fatalism. If you hold this belief, it is reasonable to ask the question: Why can’t we just sit back and wait for the events of our future to unfold?
The second point of view is that things happen according to our plan and execution and that we are to get the credit or the blame for them. This is the point of view expressed by Cassius in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar: “Men at some time are the masters of their fates. The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.…”
Islam teaches a third view, which is somewhere, the middle path between the above two:
The Islamic point of view, Allah is the All Mighty – undoubtedly has control of everything. This means that Allah knows everything and that it is according to His will that things happen here. But this does not mean that Allah interferes in everything that He has set in motion. He created everything, and set down laws we usually call laws of nature, by which the universe functions. We human beings have no way of changing these laws of Allah as well as the many “givens” in life such as our race, nationality, mother tongue, etc.
But at the same time, out of His infinite wisdom and mercy, Allah Almighty gave Man power and freedom—within limits—which enable him to enjoy freedom of choice. Now your question is: If Allah is completely in control, how can He punish us for our wrongdoings, when He could have prevented them?
Allah could have made us automatons or robots that are completely free from doing wrong. But in that case, we would be mere machines without any freedom of choice or intelligence of our own.
According to the Qur’an, Man has been appointed as the khalifah (vicegerent or ambassador) on earth. This actually means that Man is given many of the qualities of course within limits. Everything on earth has been created for Man; and it is his duty to make use of all the blessings Allah has given him for his progress and development.
This is possible only if he is free and has faculties like intelligence, imagination, etc. By bestowing all these on Man, Allah wants to test Man about his performance here on earth. Allah knows the outcome of this test beforehand because He knows the future; but for Man it is a test, as he feels he is a creator in his own right. Man can get a lot of satisfaction from using his planning skills and creative urge as long as he is here on earth.
Allah says in the Qur’an:
“Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth.” They said: “Wilt Thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood?- whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy [name]?” He said: “I know what ye know not” [Al-Baqarah, 2:30]
The question asked by the angels is about “the risk involved” (I say this just to make things clear; and May Allah forgive me!): that the freedom given to Man would mean mischief and bloodshed. This suggests that when humans are given freedom, there is the chance of their misusing that freedom for doing wrong. It is because of this freedom that Allah can punish us. If He had not given us freedom, then there is no question of punishment because Allah is All-Just. It is clearly said in the Qur’an that Allah will not do the least bit of injustice. The Qur’an says:
“The word changes not before Me, and I do not the least injustice to My servants” [Qaf, 50:29].
“Whoever has done an atom’s weight of good shall get its reward and whoever has done an atom’s weight of evil shall meet with its consequences” [Az-Zalzalah, 99:7-8]
Everything is accounted for, and nothing is wasted in Allah’s scheme of things. Allah, out of His infinite mercy, has given Man guidance too, to help him use his freedom and faculties to his own benefit and live a meaningful life here. Allah wants Man to use the freedom given in accordance with His guidance. In other words, the scope and potential of Man’s freedom is within the framework of God’s jurisdiction and control. For this reason, we may say that Man is not a master of his fate; nor is he a mere cog in the wheel of destiny.
You ask, “If we are destined to fail, then why do we pray to Allah to achieve success?”
The answer is: Allah knows what is going to happen in your case. But as far as you are concerned, your success or failure depends on so many factors. Some of these factors are at your disposal; Allah has willed it to be so. Some other factors are out of your control. You pray to Allah because Allah would hear your prayer and answer it, and if He wills it, He can remove those factors that may cause your failure so that you will be successful. It is not reasonable for you to say that the results will be the same whether you study or not; and you do not know the results in advance. Allah has said in the Qur’an that He will not waste the good work done by anyone. Allah is Ever-Active and Watchful; remember that.
Also note that Allah says in the Qur’an:
“Allah will never change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” [Ar-Ra'ad, 13:11]
This underscores our role here on earth. In fact, taqdir as used in the Qur’an stands for the latent possibilities Allah has invested in the nature of things; and it does not imply denying human beings the freedom of will or action. We must be humble enough to acknowledge our need for divine guidance to protect ourselves from doing wrong things, to keep ourselves upright and steady in times of trials.
Thus from the Islamic point of view, it is our willful choice of the right actions from a number of inherent possibilities that earns us our reward from Allah Almighty. And the right actions are exactly those actions in conformity with divine guidance. So we must always strive to make our choices and actions be in harmony with the guidance of Allah Almighty.
And Allah Almighty knows best.
[Excerpted with minor modification from Q&A published in Islam Online -- Ask about Islam, 17 Aug 2004.]