By Dr. Eren Tatari
How are we going to submit to God’s decree, which is destiny? Belief in destiny is one of the pillars of faith in Islam, which is to believe that everything is God’s predetermination. The word determining may be problematic because it reminds us of a philosophic school of thought known as determinism, referring to natural determinism. When we talk about destiny, it means divine determination.
Kitabun mubin is an expression that is used in the Qur’an and interpreted by Nursi as referring to the explicit form of God’s knowledge in this world. Another term used in discussing destiny is Imamun mubin or Levh-i mahfuz, which literally means “the preserved tablet.” This term refers to eternal knowledge of God. As far as our perception of creation is concerned, pre-eternal knowledge means the One who created this universe obviously knew before He created it. He has pre-knowledge of what He will do. Yet it is crucial to understand that even the term pre-knowledge is from our perspective, not from God’s perspective, because we perceive things in time. There is no past, present, future for God.
The Qur’an states that things in any form are inscribed in a clear book. We can find the traces of knowledge which proves that the One who creates things knows beforehand. If we look at the creation, we will see the signs illustrating that everything is known before it is created. A perfect example would be the seed of a tree that preserves in it the plan of the tree, or the human DNA that contains their genetic code.
Everything is determined before it comes into existence, during its existence, and after it passes. We understand that things are determined during their creation since we observe that creation is taking place, not accidentally, but through absolute knowledge. We witness that the Creator knows what He is doing (everything is orderly, purposeful, etc.). What is more is that it is determined, or rather, preserved before and after.
When something is happening in this world, are we really sure that the Creator knows it or does it just happen? Say, I “accidently” drop and break my glasses. I did not know that they would break before it happened. Is it also the case with the Creator? No. The One who creates “the breaking of my glasses” knows it beforehand. It means that it is within His knowledge. Whoever is creating the action, knows it will happen. So if we know who is purposefully creating the event, and that He knows it would happen, then we start to evaluate everything accordingly. Because we know that what happened is in His knowledge who is the Most-Just, the Most-Compassionate, and the All-Knowing, our reaction changes. For instance, we do not curse when our glasses “accidently” break. We pose and contemplate why God is creating this event, because I know that nothing is “accidental.”
We do not know what will happen five minutes later. If we know that creation is known by the Creator before and after, it changes our perception of everything. It will make a great difference in our life to know that the Creator knew it before and knows it after. If the Creator is a dictator who enjoys practicing his own whims, we would say he knows what he is doing but he is just terrorizing us. But if we know that the Creator is infinitely compassionate, then we would see the compassion in whatever happens to us. It is happening to me deliberately by a merciful sustainer, designer. Therefore, these two perspectives are completely contradictory.
Depending on how we “know” the Creator, and our awareness that all is coming from a Most Compassionate Creator, we would understand that whatever is happening with us is coming purposefully from the will of the Most Compassionate One. We “know” that the Creator is the All-Wise and the All-Compassionate not because the Qur’an tells us so, but by observing the creation. I witness that this Creator never does something unwise or in vain. Only after going through this confirmation (tasdiq; the Qur’anic iman education), when something that I do not like happens to me, I would not rebel saying “why is it happening to me?” With this perspective the world would become unbearable for us. The more we are aware that all is under the control of the Wise and Compassionate Creator, the more relaxed we would become in our daily lives.
Divine determining refers to the divine, God is determining. Depending on our understanding of God, it has a positive connotation. God does not harm His creatures. Why would He have created us anyway to torture or harm? Do we make a computer to break or smash it afterwards? There is no evidence or sign of despotism in the creation. Some people, whatever they are living through, they see nothing but torture and suffering. But the negative things that happen to us are a result of our negative perceptions and misuse of our partial-freewill and covering our mirror not to reflect the manifestations of God’s Attributes, and people want to accept that they are the source of the mistakes.
We cannot just say “because God says so.” The Qur’an urges us to turn to the creation in order to confirm the revelation, because creation, the revelation, and the prophets say the same thing. Still, some people may say: “I do not experience what the revelation says.” Then, we must check ourselves, why we do not perceive things the way the revelation explains. There may be something wrong with our perception. The verse explains that God never hurts or oppresses His creatures, but His creatures harm themselves. Take an example from the creation – sunlight. The sun’s rays are full of dangerous elements, yet it gets filtered through the ozone layer, and only the beneficial rays reach us. However, we have damaged the ozone layer, so it is not able to filter the sunlight as it was intended to do. How can we claim that God is harming us when we, with our freewill, harm ourselves?
Have we ever observed anything in the creation that is out of order? God says in the Qur’an: “We have created everything in pairs” (Qur’an, 51:49). The first example of this that comes to mind is the creation of man and woman. As if the pot and the pot lid are both there but created separately; when we put them together, they complement each other perfectly. Even if they have been developed in different conditions in different places they are perfect for each other. Everything is in perfect balance. The structure of the planets and the atoms are exactly the same. They are both in perfect balance.
If after observing this perfect order and balance, we still see something wrong, we must turn to ourselves and ask: “Why do I see it this way? Am I looking at this the wrong way?” When we lose something, we get furious. We do not want to admit that we are to blame. If you put your keys in a place and do not touch them, they stay there forever. They cannot get lost on their own. Yet we do not want to admit our mistakes. If we do not like something, we blame other things rather than us. If I burn myself, I blame the fire; I do not blame myself even though I have used my freewill wrongly and brought the harm to myself.
God creates things with differentiation, making everything different than the other. No human being resembles the other. They have been made different deliberately. So whoever created this world, completely knows what He is doing. Nothing is exactly identical to another thing. The Creator has a deliberate choice in everything He creates. When we understand this, it strengthens our willpower (iradah) and conscious to silence our ego/nafs when it attributes God’s Attributes to itself (i.e. I am intelligent, I did a good job, etc.). We can tell our nafs “You are wrong; the Creator definitely knows what He is doing.” If we are convinced that the Creator knows what He is doing, then we check ourselves. This is a fight between the human being and his nafs. We think that we are fighting with God. This situation is similar to the position of a mosquito in relation to a mountain. The mosquito can get angry with the mountain, but the mountain does not care. We can get mad at God, yet God does not mind. Not to say that it is a ridiculous position to take.
If we do not heed the revelation or pay attention to the signs in the creation, the fight between us and the ego/nafs goes on around the clock. But as we begin to get educated and transformed by the revelation, we are able to silence the whisperings of the nafs.
The Qur’an does not give information or list facts. It educates us. The Prophet (pbuh) performed the daily prayers five times a day within the community for more than 15 years. After his death, the community still could not agree on how exactly he prayed. This means there was no focus on how it was done. It is a very important pillar of Islam, but he did not instruct the people how to do it. From this we understand that the core of the teaching of religion is not the dos and don’ts. If we listen to the Qur’an as much as we heed the news on TV, we would learn and practice the path of submission. It is not information; it is training and education. The Qur’an does not give factual information. It says, “…believe and do good…” (Qur’an, 2:25). However, we have something inside of us (ego/nafs) that tries to keep us from doing good.
Nafs is the personal representative of Satan in our life. If we give importance to it, it reigns over our feelings, thoughts, and decisions. Our fight should be to blame the nafs rather than the Creator when we face something we do not like. Our own wrong interpretation of the event results in harm. We have been given partial-freewill: if we cut our finger; it is our mistake. We cannot blame God or the causes He has created, like the sharp knife. Our duty is to train our self to realize how God is creating everything in balance, in a perfect way. When we confirm this, it becomes more and more difficult to conclude that “the entire universe is in perfect balance and order, yet in this small event of me cutting my finger, God has not created compassion and balance.” After looking at the evidence in the universe and confirming that God is the All-Compassionate and the All-Wise, then we would trust in the Creator that He never makes a mistake nor harms any of His creatures. Observing the universe to find evidence in the creation is the method of the Qur’an (usul). First we observe the creation; then we confirm that the revelation is absolutely right.
So is being created with this nafs like an original sin, a punishment for the human beings? In Islam, Prophet Adam’s sin is not original sin and is not contagious! The responsible serpent that lured him to err is not Eve. Having a nafs is not a fault in our creation. It is purposefully given to us by God and its creation is perfect. But we are infected with the materialistic philosophy of this age, which does not accept God’s Wisdom and Compassion but attributes everything to “nature” or to “chance.” We have been taught and poisoned not to see the purpose behind creation. Yet our minds and hearts beg answers about the meaning of life and sink deeper and deeper without fulfilling this need for meaning. Only when we heed the teachings of the prophets and strive to be trained/educated by their message do we find some solace. Anyone can see that there is an apple on the table (as positivist science simply describes), but why is there an apple (whey has it been created?) and what do I do with it (how to relate to the creation and how to use it)? The real teaching is how to be the agent of God on earth, how to control ourselves and reach our highest potential. This is true education (tarbiyah). Everything we do must be in the name of the Creator. Belief then is the indispensable component of our education. Without belief, our actions have no importance. We would keep praying while also criticizing God. We would continue to be unhappy with God’s creation, our life, and all that happens to us. Yet, iman and stress/depression cannot exist in the same heart, at the same time.
Although belief in destiny seems to be a theoretical issue, it has many practical implications in our daily life. It is to practice our faith in our life. In recent centuries, Muslims have been over-emphasizing practice and jurisprudence/fiqh at the expense of belief and theology.
Islamic scholars have begun to concentrate on jurisprudence/fiqh and the practical side of worship, because it is concrete and not open to much discussion. Decisions on these issues were based on the Qur’an, the sunnah (actions and sayings of Prophet Muhammad), and the consensus of the scholars or analogy method. It was easy to judge what to do according to this verse or that sunnah of the Prophet. The rules outlined in the blessed Qur’an are marvelous. The inheritance law is prescribed in half a page of the Qur’an, and out of this half page, scholars wrote volumes of books on inheritance law. In other words, the Qur’an is so concise that it summarizes these volumes in half a page. Yet in the Qur’an, only about 280 verses are related to practice, and about 6350 verses are related to faith and the meaning of our existence. This should make us rethink the relative importance of faith and practice.
The Qur’anic iman education is difficult. There are no easily achieved and tangible results that you can “show off.” You may spend years and years and may not see any results. Moreover, matters related to belief are not concrete as; they are open to debate. If I go through spiritual training for years, my children have to start from scratch for themselves. However with rules on practice, I study and write them down, my children have to only read and apply them as dictated. Or I do not even have to study the rules myself; for others have studied and recorded them, so when I need them in my practical life, I defer to them. It is far more challenging with iman education. The more you learn faith, the more humble you become. The nafs fights to keep up its arrogant reign. To study religion from belief perspective is difficult.
When are becoming more interested in “religion,” we tend to start adopting the dos and don’ts faster than we comprehend the meaning behind these rules. In other words, we find it easier to dress more modestly or give to charity, then to give up our ego’s false pride, false claims to ownership of our qualities, feelings, success, beauty, kids, etc. Hence, we end up with many “observant” people who are not more humble, peaceful, relaxed, etc.
Islam (submission) is a deen/path/religion, which educates us to live by our faith. Belief in destiny means we put our belief in practice. If we want to live according to our belief in God, this is the subject of belief in destiny. If we want to live according to our belief in God, in angels, in the afterlife, in the revelations and in the messengers, this can only be done through our belief in destiny. Belief in destiny is an aspect of belief which covers all other pillars of faith, and itself has no object. You believe in the angels, the object is the angels. You believe in the afterlife, the object is the afterlife. You believe in destiny, what is the object of belief? Nothing. It means you believe in destiny, you live accordingly. The object of destiny is living according to your belief in God and angels…etc. In our daily life, when things happen to us, we react, perceive and interpret them according to our belief in all the pillars. This is the belief in destiny. In Islam (the path of submission), what makes one a muslim (submitter) is not the ritual practice. It is our belief in God and our way of living according to our belief. You treat the things around you according to your belief that everything is represented by angels, that there are angels everywhere. In conclusion, “I believe in destiny” means, “I believe everything is from God.”
 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.