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NewsID : 62651
Date of publication : 11/12/2014 5:46:38 PM
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Decree and Destiny: How much control do human beings have over their lives?

The limits of human free will and determination have long been discussed by theologians and philosophers, and at times some extreme views have been put forward. Theological and philosophical arguments about fate vs. freewill can be quite difficult to understand. Julia Khadija Lafene explains with simple and rational examples how it all works.

Some Muslim philosophers (Ash’arites) came to the conclusion that since God is all-powerful, we have no will of our own and therefore no control over our destiny (In Europe this was what the Calvinists believed, concluding that only a pre-destined number of believers would be admitted to heaven.). Another group of philosophers (Mu’tazilites) argued that human beings do indeed have some control over their own destiny through the exercise of God-given free will. Otherwise how could we be judged for our deeds if we were not responsible for them? Decrees are the laws of the Creator, which are perfect and unchanging, and whose outcomes are already decided. Most of us understand this through the laws of physics – an egg will break if you drop it – something my sister found out at the age of five. She was told, ‘If you drop that, it will break’, and she did drop it, just to see if it was really true! Later, astronauts found that there is no gravity in space, and that it is subject to different laws. There are still laws wherever we look. The Holy Qur’an is quite clear on this (6:34; 17:77; 33:62; 35:43). We do not always recognise these laws so clearly, however. We think we can do what we like and get away with it, but our higher-self commands that we act appropriately and in an elevated way so as not to be consumed in the fire of agitation and unhappiness. So if I commit a wrong act, or even a foolish act, the eventual outcome will not be good for me nor for others because I have transgressed a decree of God (36:19). The Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt(a) were constantly emphasising upon the need to be ‘content with His decree’, which means aligning ourselves with the laws of God. The Holy Qur’an and the examples from the Prophet’s 32 life give us plenty of guidance on how to do this properly. So, if I have chosen to act in a certain way, then I can choose my destiny, and it will be one in which I will experience one type of outcome or another. If I had chosen the right course of action, the eventual outcome would have been different had I not chosen the wrong one. It’s not always easy to choose, but when we experience the outcomes which follow our choices, we learn how to choose more wisely. A typical foolish act might be to overeat something you usually enjoy eating. The outcome is indigestion; so you chose your destiny. Equally, if you simply ate in moderation, you would experience the enjoyment but not the indigestion, so your choice is in line with the decree. A more serious act might be exceeding the speed limit while driving and somehow crashing into a child as a result. All our life choices added up will lead us to the state we will experience in both this life and the one to come (17:13). What about illness, natural disasters and other hardships which might threaten our happiness? Why do some people seem to live healthy and content while others suffer trouble after trouble? Is it their ‘fault’? First of all, in regard to natural disasters – we all know that if there is an earthquake under the sea, there will probably be a tsunami; if there is a typhoon at sea, there will be a flood on the coast. So if we live in an area where these natural phenomena are prevalent, we do have to take precautions. God will not suspend the laws of nature just because we do not take the right actions in response to something. His power encompasses the whole universe, and we are just an insignificant part of it. But he has given us intellect and many means to avoid the worst disasters. Regarding illness and personal disasters, these fall into two categories: those caused by our own behaviour, and those caused by the behaviour of others. In many cases, the causes may go back generations due to inappropriate or ignorant behaviour by our ancestors, which in turn then leads to genetic weaknesses in the present generation. Supposing, for example, someone is suffering from cancer. The cause may be the person’s own lifestyle, or it may be genetic. If everyone always lived their lives according to God’s laws, ate moderately and healthily, and behaved properly, there would be less illness. There is a tribe in the Himalayas called the Hunza who live to more than 100 because of their simple and healthy lifestyle. Illness and disasters are of course also caused by the ‘collective self’ or the bad behaviour of others. Such behaviour includes wars, famines, pollution and simply selfishness. Since all human beings are from ‘one soul’, and have the same needs, they are inextricably bound up with each other. Like ripples on the surface of a lake, a small action by one individual can seriously affect people in other parts of the world. As the famous English poet John Donne says: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main, ..., any man''s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee’. Thus, not only do we have a certain amount of choice in our own individual destinies, but we also have responsibilities for shaping the destinies of others. This was brought home to me very powerfully when I heard of the death of hundreds of garment workers in Bangladesh when their factory caught fire. These people were being exploited and working in hazardous conditions because of the demand for cheap garments. The owners of the factories were equally to blame for reducing the workers’ health and safety precautions in order to make maximum profit. Some of them have been prosecuted and punished, thus suffering the outcome of their greed; but even worse was their lack of care for their workers, whose destinies were seriously affected. However, one thing is clear – the FINAL destiny will be according to what we have earned, just as God has promised. Therefore, the factory owners’ stained record will now separate them from the mercy of God (unless they repent and make amends), while most of the poor workers will be in His blessed company. Whatever situation we are in, there is only one preferred way in which we can act. It is our task to acquire as much knowledge of any situation as we can. We need to be in a state of gratitude at all times, to know the state we are in at each specific moment and be fully at one with that state. For Imam Al-Sadiq(a) has said: ‘As for the Muslims, God does not decree anything for him without there being good in it contentment with the decree is the most noble of conditions’.


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