For those of us living in the West, qadar (divine will or destiny) is a difficult topic to grapple with.
The Western world is based on the idea that we make our own destiny and that we should push to reach our goals no matter what it takes. And this attitude has led to some amazing advances and discoveries that benefit mankind greatly.
But, as Muslims, should we consider this attitude impetuous?
How should we understand the destiny Allah has ordained for us?
And how do we explain the fact that we have free will?
As Muslims, we know that whatever is written for us will unerringly come to us; whether it is fortune or calamity. But we also know that we must put forth the effort to try to reach our goals. Islam does not prohibit the Western “go get ‘em” attitude, it only tempers it with wisdom.
Destiny and Free Will
Some of the wisdom Islam affords us is in knowing that: “What comes to us would never have missed us and what misses us would never have reached us.” And understanding that means we should not grieve for or exceed the limits set by Allah for something that is not meant for us.
So how do we understand free will if Allah has already ordained everything?
First, we have to understand that Allah is all aware. It is a grave mistake to try to apply our limitations to Allah, the Limitless. We have a linear understanding of time. We move along in time not seeing what will come next. But time, a part of the creation, does not apply to the creator – Allah.
Allah has created the future and understands intimately what it holds, just as He has created our past and present. Even though Allah knows and has ordained what will happen in the future, we still have free will in the present. We have the will to choose our good or bad intentions and actions whether or not they attain the intended result.
For us, not knowing what the future holds motivates us to act, to take advantage of our free will. if we already knew what the future held, we would never use our free will to strive for anything. And our striving to do good is what we are rewarded for.
Allah tells us in the Quran:
Whoever works righteousness — whether male or female — while he (or she) is a true believer (of Islamic Monotheism) verily, to him We will give a good life (in this world with respect, contentment and lawful provision); and We shall pay them certainly a reward in proportion to the best of what they used to do (i.e. Paradise in the Hereafter). (16:97)
Futility of Exceeding the Limits
At the same time that we have free will to strive for the good in the future, we should not over step the limits set by Allah. If we are to strive to build an orphanage, we will be rewarded for our intention and efforts to do that righteous deed; even though the end result is from Allah.
But what if we steal money to build that orphanage?
It was the will of Allah that the orphanage would be built, with or without the stealing. What was the use in mixing bad intentions and deeds with good?
There is benefit in Western mentality of “get it done” but there is wisdom in leaving off the “at all costs”. This is where the Islamic attitude lies. It is a balance of knowing you can try your best to do your best while not exceeding the limits set by Allah; because the result is already written.
In hindsight, we can see the truth of “what is written will come to you” in parts of our lives where the opposite has happened. That is to say we all have times in our lives where we worked toward something but did not attain the end result no matter what we did.
The Story of the Shrimp
As I look back through my life, I can find many examples. Like the time my husband and I invited a sister and her family over for dinner. The dish I was planning to make was my favorite from my Creole culture and it called for shrimp. I was hoping to share the delicacy with the sister and her family.
As I prepared for the meal I intended to serve, I made a list and went to the store. When I got to the cashier to pay for my selections, something very strange happened. As the cashier rang up all my items, she could not ring up the shrimp.
The cashier tried and tried and tried again to ring up the shrimp so that I could pay for it, but the register would not recognize the purchase. In fact, the computer recognized all other items but when the cashier tried to ring up the shrimp…
In the end, I had to put the shrimp back and quickly think of something else to make that didn’t require shrimp.
When I told the sister what I had planned to cook for her family and what had happened at the store, she informed me that she was deathly allergic to shrimp. I had no idea about her allergy; looking back on the strange event, what happened made complete sense. I was never meant to cook that meal, to serve it to her, and she was never meant to be harmed by it. It was the will of Allah and nothing could have changed that.
Allah willing, I will still be rewarded for my intention and efforts in trying to make the meal that I loved for the sister and her family. But Allah had written that I would not serve that meal and nothing I could have done would have changed that, even if I had exceeded the limits set by Allah to obtain the shrimp.
What is meant for us will come to us. What is not meant for us will never come to us. And there is no error in what we have missed out on or what we have received. This is the will of Allah. But it is up to us to strive with good intentions obeying the limits set by Allah.
There is wisdom in taking a path between “fatalism” and “at all costs”.
The wisdom of Islam lies in the middle path.
(From Discovering Islam’s archive.)