By Dr. Eren Tatari
“Say (to the believers): “Whether you keep secret what is in your bosoms or reveal it, God knows it. He knows whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. God has full power over everything” (Qur’an, 3: 29).
“…It may well be that you dislike a thing but it is good for you, and it may well be that you love a thing but it is bad for you. God knows, and you do not know” (Qur’an, 2:216).
When we are talking about destiny and using words which are used in the other Abrahamic faiths, one thing to keep in mind is this: sometimes they might mean the same thing in Islam and Christianity but sometimes we use the same words but the content, or what we really mean, is different. Destiny (qadar) means divine measure, determination, and judgment in creation of things, to predetermine or preordain everything. Divine Decree (qadaa) means to implement or to put into effect what has been predetermined.
To give an example, it is predetermined for me to write this page. God has the knowledge of this before hand, which is destiny. Writing these words at this moment is divine decree implementing what has been predetermined. So divine decree is the things predetermined actually taking place. The extent of God’s knowledge is explained in the following Qur’anic verse:
“With Him are the keys of the Unseen; none knows them but He. And He knows whatever is on the land and in the sea; not a leaf falls but He knows it; neither is there a grain in the dark layers of earth, nor anything green or dry, but is (recorded) in a Manifest Book (Kitabun Mubin)” (Qu’ran 6:59).
Since God is beyond time and space, and since everything is included in His knowledge, He encompasses the past, present, and the future as one point. He knows everything even before they are created. No analogy or comparison would be sufficient to explain this concept since our perception is so limited.
If everything has been predetermined, where does freewill come into all this? Partial-freewill is included in Destiny; they are not mutually exclusive. We do not do something because God recorded it (predetermined it); God knew beforehand what we would do. Yet again using the past tense in reference to God is meaningless since time is nothing but God continuing to create. Time does not have a substantial or real existence. Hence pre-determination (God’s knowledge of what was, what is, and what will be) does not contradict with partial-freewill. The following analogy helps illustrate the point though: You are on top of a hill overlooking a plateau (flat terrain) on which there is a straight road. A car is speeding really fast on the road. Because you are on top of the hill, you can see that there is a barricade on the road. The driver cannot see that. Because of your position, and the fact that you see the barricade, you know that the car will hit the barricade. Surely, the car does hit the barricade. You knew beforehand that the car was going to hit the barricade. But the car did not hit the barricade because you knew it.
Partial-freewill is crucial in the overall scheme of creation. The purpose of creation is for us to know and to love God by contemplating His revelations (scriptures and the creation) and following His guidance. This constitutes our education (including the trials and examination) in this life. Only if we have the potential to choose can we be held accountable for our actions. Otherwise, there would be no point for us to be created or no logic in us being judged on the Day of Judgment (being judged means that we will face our reality: whatever mental/spiritual state we arrived in this life, we will be resurrected with that state). We deserve punishment for our own wrong decisions/thoughts/actions: if we thought that there is no God and everything happens haphazardly, and lived with this painful/hellish state of mind and heart, we will continue to do so in the afterlife. Or we will receive eternal happiness through God’s grace if we choose to follow God’s guidance: seek to submit and have inner peace=paradise, and ask for forgiveness when we err. Therefore, freewill plays a crucial role in enabling us to choose and therefore be responsible for our actions.
Now how much can we actually choose? We only have partial freewill. The first and obvious opposition is birth. We have absolutely no say in where we are born and what type of parents we have, and these factors may play a big role in determining our life trajectory. Just like birth, there are other things in our life that we cannot control.
It is as if there is a certain plot or a framework into which God places us. I was born in Turkey to Muslim parents, but someone else might have been born in China, and may have no belief in God at all due to the communist indoctrination there. Our circumstances are not the same; therefore we will not be judged with the same criteria. We will be judged according to our circumstances. One of God’s Divine Attributes is the Most-Just, and perfect justice requires just such treatment.
As there are things we cannot choose, we still can make many choices in life with our partial-freewill. Perhaps you may have seen movies where there are two plots within one movie. There is a breaking point where the actor makes a choice and depending on that decision, the rest of the movie unfolds in a certain way. Then they go back and show the actor choosing the other option and the movie unfolds to reveal the alternative plot. In a way, partial-freewill works this way.
We make a choice and God creates the path we choose to walk on. By using our partial-freewill we can potentially rise higher than angels, or go below animals in our spirituality and relationship with God. God guides us to good things and actions, and allows us to use our willpower (iradah) to choose the good. I picture our situation as follows: we are moving forward on a path that leads to the prize (inner peace/heaven here and in the afterlife). Both sides of the road are blocked with buffers and road signs warning us not to go off the road and the dangers that would befall. So all the carrots and sticks are there to make sure we stay on the right path. We must exert extra, purposeful effort to go off the road, which leads us to danger (we harm our self by doing so). In this scenario, when we stay on the right path, it is hard to claim any credit to our self! Everything is provided to make sure we do not go astray (hence we say it is by God’s grace that we find inner peace/heaven here and in the afterlife). Yet, when we go astray by ignoring all the messages and guides that God continuously places in our life, we know for sure that we are the sole responsible…
Our partial-freewill is included in Divine Will and Destiny. Our relation with Divine Will differs from that of other beings, for only we are given partial-freewill. Based on His knowledge of how we will act and speak, God has recorded all details of our life. He is not bound by our choices, and therefore, past, present, and future. What we consider predetermination exists in relation to us, not to God Himself. For God, predetermination means His eternal knowledge of our acts.
Belief in Destiny is essential because our self-conceit leads us to attribute our accomplishments and good deeds to our self. However, the Qur’an explicitly states that “While it is God Who has created you and all that you do?” (Qur’an, 37:96). It is from God’s grace that He guides us to good deeds and it is He who creates them. On the other hand, we like to deny responsibility for our sins by ascribing them to Destiny. Did you ever realize how people react differently to events: I got an A vs. the teacher gave me a C! However, God does not like such bad acts, so they belong entirely to us. God allows sins and if we choose to commit a sin, He creates our actions.
 Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age (Tughra Publications, December 2012). She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.