Destiny and Choice

Syed Sharfuddin

The debate on the question of divine destiny and choice (Qada wa Qadr) also known as Jabar wa Qadr goes back to the period of the Ummayads and fascinates the student of Islamic history about the possibilities of philosophical interpretation in this area. The debate still goes on and I am not sure if it is everyone’s cup of tea.

As far as I have understood the complicated relationship between destiny and choice, it is like a train which is rolling on the tracks bound for its destination. Its passengers will end up where the train is heading. These passengers can’t change the direction of the train nor can they pull the emergency chain to stop it. However, they are free to choose their coach number and decide where they want to sit or not sit at all. If they want to sit by the window, they will have the advantage of the view outside. If they take the isle seat they will have more leg room and the ease to get in and out quickly. If they decide not to sit at all they can move between one coach to another and meet more passengers.

The train also has a system of announcements. The last three coaches will not open when the train arrives at the destination. Therefore those who do not move to the front coaches closer to arrival will not be able to get down at the station. Ironically, the last three coaches of the train are first class and have free tea/coffee service. They also have reclining chairs for more luxury. The announcement also says that a guard may or may not check their travel rickets but anyone found without ticket or a pass will be heavily fined.

So passengers have a lot of choice to exercise in their journey but their final destination is already decided. They can’t go anywhere else other than where the train will take them. It is now up to the passengers how they want to spend their travel time. Do they befriend everyone or develop divisions amongst those who are seated by the window or by the isle; those who are taking a nap or those who are sitting up; those who are engaged in a conversation and those who are not; and those who are having cakes and ale and those who are saving their appetite for the train to arrive at its destination.

I believe faith is somewhat like this. Our destinies are sealed by the master who is controlling the train but we have the chance to make our journey comfortable through mutual respect and accommodation of our different choices. And we do want to be in the front coaches to get down at the station as soon as the train reaches at its final destination.

The raises two fundamental questions. Is there such a thing as independent choice; and, if so to what extent it is predetermined by destiny. To find an answer let us go to the Quranic text itself instead of relying on philosophical hypothesis.

The style of Quran is to illustrate by contradiction. In the statement “there is no god but God” there is a contradiction. The first four words of this sentence constitute a negation which is tantamount to apostasy. The addition of two further words at the end of the sentence gives an affirmation of God by contradiction. This is done to put emphasis that there is God and He is indeed the only God. Take another example. In Surah Al-Ankaboot (Chapter 29, Verses 2-3) Allah says He tests human beings so that He can distinguish between the truthful and liars.

أَحَسِبَ ٱلنَّاسُ أَن يُتۡرَكُوٓاْ أَن يَقُولُوٓاْ ءَامَنَّا وَهُمۡ لَا يُفۡتَنُونَ • وَلَقَدۡ فَتَنَّا ٱلَّذِينَ مِن قَبۡلِهِمۡۖ فَلَيَعۡلَمَنَّ ٱللَّهُ ٱلَّذِينَ صَدَقُواْ وَلَيَعۡلَمَنَّ ٱلۡكَـٰذِبِينَ • أَمۡ حَسِبَ ٱلَّذِينَ يَعۡمَلُونَ ٱلسَّيِّـَٔاتِ أَن يَسۡبِقُونَاۚ سَآءَ مَا يَحۡكُمُونَ

Do people think that they will be left alone because they say: “We believe,” and will not be tested. And We indeed tested those who were before them so that Allah will indeed know those who are true, and He will know those who are liars. Or think those who do evil deeds that they can outstrip Allah. Evil is that which they judge!

On the face of it this is a major contradiction. Does Allah, who is omniscient and possessor of all knowledge in the past and in the future need to put human beings to test so that He can know who is truthful and who is deceiving Him. But this is the style of the Quran. What Allah wants is evidence of what humans do so that on the day of resurrection they cannot say they were under duress to do or not to do certain acts for which are being held accountable. In the same way when we discuss the topic of destiny and choice, we usually get side tracked by the contradiction that since Allah has fixed destiny for man, there is no room for free will. This logic leads us to conclude that whatever good deed or sin human beings perform is out of the clockwork that was ordained for them. If a person is a believer or non-believer, criminal or law abiding, peace loving or trouble maker, it was his destiny and he had no role in it. It is the same logic as saying why do we need to say there is no god but God. Why can’t we just say there is God and stop there.

This is not denying the fact that fate and predestination also work in life but when this is played out human beings are not held accountable. For instance, someone who gets murdered in a robbery or is born blind falls in the category of destiny, not choice. Allah tells us in Surah Kahf (Chapter 18 – story of Moses and Khizr) that there are things that happen in the world with His Will in which human beings have little say or control. But for these acts, they will not be held accountable and if at all, they will indeed be compensated in the long run.

As for the choice of birth which includes the choice of family, time, place and the socio-cultural exposure which makes a baby grow up as a Jew, Christian or Muslim, or follower of another religion or no religion, I accept that there is no choice. But Adam was also not given a choice to come or not to come to the earth. His fall was the result of the wrong choice he made in Paradise of eating from the forbidden tree. Likewise, the result of our birth is not our choice but that of our parents meeting and consummating. Therefore, the absence of choice absolves us of any accountability on this score. Our account book opens only when free choices are made by us in life, or to put it in the context of the present discussion, when we have come to the realisation that we are aboard a train heading toward a place from where no one ever returns to repeat this journey.

In the grand scheme of things of universe what we consider free will may not be free will. Comin back to the analogy of the train, a passenger walking from East to West while the train is headed toward East will make no difference to the speed or direction of the train. But there will be evidence in the CCTV camera of the coach that the passenger did try to walk toward East even if it meant nothing in the grand timetable of the train operator. After all, we are all passengers in this short journey of life.