Do we have free will? Do we decide about our fate and future? Everyone desires to have free will and choose the path of his life. No one likes to reach a predestined fate. People hate calamity and disaster, but they do not know why God created people in hardship or why they are struck by disaster. You may see many people who give false answers to the aforementioned questions but God the All-Compassionate has a good philosophy behind hardship in the life of mankind. In addition, He has given free will and many options to people in life so that they can choose their own fate. Now, the question is: what does Islam say about destiny and providence? In this article, we will discuss the following topics:
- Calamities and Disasters: The Fruit of Destiny and Providence
- Destiny and Providence: The Reason for Calamities and Disasters in Life
- Man’s Duty
- Destiny and Providence Explained
Calamities and Disasters: The Fruit of Destiny and Providence
God has created the human being and placed him in difficult conditions.1
لَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا الْإِنسَانَ فِي كَبَدٍ ﴿٤﴾
Indeed, We created man in hardship.2
This is so that those who honor themselves strive towards prosperity and those who lay back and neglect, lose. Stress and the vicissitudes of life enable proper testing, so those who are challenged in difficulties and follow divine law in all conditions make a good future for themselves.3 This is where the concept of destiny and providence comes into the picture. That is, God measures our deeds and changes our destiny accordingly.
However, if God is merciful and just, and if He has created the universe to bring benefit to human beings, why does He let human beings suffer? Why is life full of evil, calamities, and disasters? Why do earthquakes happen? Why is there famine, why so much destruction? Are these all the by-products of destiny and providence?
Destiny and Providence: The Reason for Calamities and Disasters in Life
Human Knowledge Is Limited
A thousand years ago, people may have thought they know almost everything and there is not much more to life. Fast forward a thousand years and our knowledge and technology are beyond their imagination. However, we still do not know everything.
We do not correctly comprehend the benefits of hardships. We may hate something that is good for us (so many communities in history have hated the very person who was the most benevolent and useful to them). Imagine bitter medicine. It is bitter, but it is for our own good. A child will only understand the bitterness and will complain and refuse to take the drug. That child is unaware of the benefits of that bitter drug. This also explains the issue of destiny and providence. We do certain things and suffer from certain calamities. We must know that these calamities are for our own good. In other words, they help us grow and gain more experience in life.
We should not be quick to dismiss the troubles of life as pure evil and make unfair judgments. There may be benefits we are unaware of. Take a look at the story of Moses and Khiḍr in the Qur’an and you will understand that some things seem evil but are actually good and purposeful.4
Evils and Calamities Are the Outcomes of Man’s Mismanagement and Sins
Have you ever thought about our role concerning the troubles of life? Destruction going on somewhere; who dropped the bomb? Who waged the war? Who executed a blue flag? A theft occurs; who is the thief and which community raised that thief?
A lot of our problems emanate from our deeds. Our mismanagement, illiteracy, laziness, and our sins are the reasons for so many of our problems. We cannot blame others. We should find the solution and strive to fix our mistakes. If you build your house in a dangerous place, it is your fault if it is ruined. Those who decide without knowledge make things worse.
Does Destiny and Providence Cause One to Receive Punishment?
Some calamities are divine punishments. God sometimes punishes the sinful with calamities, disease, poverty, and starvation. These come as warnings, but if they continue their disobedience, they may be given blessings in life and it may be that they do not suffer from worldly calamities or punishments and they may completely forget God, however, they should know that they will suffer from heavy eternal punishment in the afterlife and on the Day of Judgment. (Qiyamah).5
Evils Are Useful in Their Place
Most of us can remember events in our life that seemed terrible but later proved to be useful. You could say that later you feel that it was good that it happened.
Sometimes we consider some things as evil because it harms us or does not bring immediate benefits but when we consider them as a part of the Creation, we see that not only are they not evil, but they are good for other things, though they may not be good for us. Consider the snake, for instance. Its venom can be both good and bad. Many antidotes and medicine are made from snake venom.
Even though human beings have been created within difficulties and hardships, if the human being faces challenges and tries to handle them properly and manages his life and its difficulties correctly, he will grow and reach perfection.
Earthly life is a test. We take the test and move on. Life is temporary. We will leave the world one day. Therefore, it is typical for it to have ups and downs, difficulties and challenges, and successes. God has created this earthly life mixed with problems because it is in stressful situations that the value of each person is known.6
Turning to God
For man to reach prosperity, he has to turn to God and follow His guidance, otherwise, he will lose the permanent life to come. This is why God strikes human beings with calamity; to awaken them from the routines of life and neglectfulness and to make them humble that they may be prosperous.7
Successfully passing through life’s difficulties increases one’s spiritual rank. God strikes us with various difficult situations but if we manage to keep our belief and act according to the divine law, God will increase our rank, as He did with His messengers and true believers.8
God is just and fair. He has created mankind to lead him to perfection and help him receive divine mercy. No one is given a burden beyond his ability. God never oppresses. If He has charged human beings with a duty or difficulty, they are the means for a divine test. God will help those who manage difficulties based on God’s law, patience, and taqwā to grow further in their spiritual journey. Indeed, God does not charge the human being with a duty beyond his capacity.9 Therefore, His commands are in accordance with man’s nature and capability. Only those deeds are compulsory which God, as our creator, knows we can perform.
God will judge us, but He will consider the capacity each of us has. Each of us is judged according to the situation we have because God never oppresses anyone. God is All-Knowing, He knows those who slip for a moment and those who eagerly decide to violate God’s commands.
Man has the free will to change his fate, therefore, predestination, fatalism, and predetermination are not confirmed in the Quran. Thus, those who have the belief that God has determined everything already and that nothing can be changed, are speaking against the teachings of the Quran because if we have no choice, then why should God send prophets and books?!
From where do these thoughts originate?
a) Wrongdoers who want to legitimize their bad deeds, what better way than frame it as if you had no other choice. They hold this belief to freely perpetrate wrong deeds.
b) Illegitimate rulers who said it was God’s order that they became the king and thus their injustice and crimes could not be opposed because he who opposes a king chosen by God has opposed God’s command. They convinced their people that they are forced to accept their rule.
There are two groups of verses regarding our discussion: the first group of verses directly and explicitly says that the fate of a human being is in his own hands and he can change his fate, lifestyle, and so on.10 These verses also say that God helps those who make a decision and take steps to reach it. According to these verses, God’s knowledge about the future and the fate of mankind does not prevent us from exercising free will. This is similar to the knowledge of a teacher about his students that does not force the students to pass or fail. Even though the teacher knows about the skills, talents, and qualifications of his student, he does not force him to use or not use those skills, talents, and qualifications. God, on the other hand, has perfect knowledge of all human beings and this knowledge is exclusive to Him, but at the same time, He has given us free will to choose the right or wrong path, even though He knows what our choice is.
The following verses explicitly say that man is responsible for his/her deeds:
وَإِذْ قَالَ مُوسَىٰ لِقَوْمِهِ يَا قَوْمِ لِمَ تُؤْذُونَنِي وَقَد تَّعْلَمُونَ أَنِّي رَسُولُ اللَّهِ إِلَيْكُمْ ۖ فَلَمَّا زَاغُوا أَزَاغَ اللَّهُ قُلُوبَهُمْ ۚ وَاللَّهُ لَا يَهْدِي الْقَوْمَ الْفَاسِقِينَ﴿٥﴾
And when Moses said to his people, “O my people! Why do you hurt me, while you know that I am the messenger of God that has been sent to you?” But when they (decided to) deviate (from the straight path) God deviated their hearts (as they wanted themselves). Indeed, God does not guide the transgressing people.”11
عَسَىٰ رَبُّكُمْ أَن يَرْحَمَكُمْ ۚ وَإِنْ عُدتُّمْ عُدْنَا
“God may show mercy on you; if you return, We will return (too)”12
The second group of verses conveys the meanings of monotheism in belief to show that it is God who is the All- Performer of all things; nothing can happen without God’s help because all things are under His power and will and it is He who has given free will and power to others; thus, all things need Him.13 However, it does not mean that human beings are not free to change the directions of their fate. None of these verses negate man’s free will.
Destiny and Providence Explained
Now, let us see what we mean by destiny and providence. Qaḍā and qadar, in Islamic terminology, is usually translated as destiny and providence, but we should know that there is a substantial difference between the meaning of qaḍā and qadar in the teachings of the Quran and their translations (destiny and providence) because destiny and providence can also mean that there is a force which controls what happens in the life of human beings and that the human being is being forced, so he is not able to do anything regarding his future; this meaning has been attributed to these two concepts (qaḍā and qadar) by the dictators in history to legitimize their dictatorship over people, that is, they claimed that God desires that they rule over people and people cannot change the conditions because it is what God wants. However, the meaning of destiny and providence in the Quran and narrations teaches us that the human being can change his fate through his free will. If it was not such he would not be punished for his evil deeds nor would he receive rewards for his good deeds.14 This is indeed the correct meaning of destiny providence.
According to the Quran qaḍā and qadar or destiny and providence are clarified as follows:
Qadar means size, measure, amount, and so forth. Qaḍā means becoming, accomplishment, and carrying out. In other words, it means measurements and achievement. If the measurements are right, the goal will be achieved. This is why God has provided human beings with intellect so that he learns what he needs to build, to improve his future and life, and to decide and thus direct his fate. The fate of human beings is within the frame of his power and decision and he is responsible for his decision; this is why God emphasizes in the Quran that human beings only get the outcome of their deeds:
ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّ اللَّهَ لَمْ يَكُ مُغَيِّرًا نِّعْمَةً أَنْعَمَهَا عَلَىٰ قَوْمٍ حَتَّىٰ يُغَيِّرُوا مَا بِأَنفُسِهِمْ ۙ وَأَنَّ اللَّهَ سَمِيعٌ عَلِيمٌ
“God never changes (or destroys) the favors which He has given to the people unless they change themselves”15 So this was the true meaning of destiny and providence in Islam and the Quran.
God is merciful and has given free will to mankind to choose his fate and future, so a human being is not a predestined creature. Calamities and disasters pave the way for man to improve himself. Moreover, they are a means for divine test for mankind that God may see who does right or wrong. We should know that destiny and providence are the experimental and spiritual laws placed in nature. For example, if you do your best and are prepared for all the conditions you can achieve your goal.
- An introduction to Quranic theology, p 53.
- Quran 90:4 (Foroutan).
- Quran 18:65-82 (Foroutan).
- Quran 42:30 (Foroutan).
- Cf. 21:35, 2:155.
- Quran 7:94, 32:21 (Foroutan).
- Quran 2:124, 20:40 (Foroutan).
- Cf. The Quran: New English Translation and Commentary 2:286.
- Quran 13:11 (Foroutan).
- Quran 61:5 (Foroutan).
- Quran 17:8 (Foroutan).
- Cf.The Quran: New English Translation and Commentary 81:29.
- An Introduction to Quranic Theology, p. 60.
- Quran 8:53 (Foroutan).