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Balancing materialism and fatalism

Do we as Muslims count on what is written/ decreed by Allah for us, and not worry about anything? Or do we ourselves need to take action due to the free will granted to us by Allah Subhanahu Wa Ta'ala, even if that might involve risk? My question is, to what extent do we take matters in our own hands or leave it to Allah in order for them to happen? What if you've waited a long time for something to happen and it didn't? Is it because it wasn't decreed or because we didn't take action?

Many have blamed Islam for being fatalistic, meaning that Muslims are supposedly made intellectually lazy and inactive due to their belief that whatever happens happens because of God. This is generally said by people who take a few verses of the Quran out of context and do not take the trouble of appreciating the message of the book as a whole. It is true that many Muslim cultures until the past few centuries were fatalistic, but that was a cultural belief that was given an Islamic justification. As the beliefs and practices of modern cosmopolitan Muslim societies shows, fatalism has nothing to do with the realities of Muslim life and thought today.

Islam teaches us a balanced creed between fatalism and materialism (self-reliance). The Quran, for example, says:

Then after the setback, He sent down security upon you. Slumber overcame some of you, while others cared only for themselves, thinking of God thoughts that were untrue—thoughts of ignorance—saying, “Is anything up to us?” Say, “Everything is up to God.” They conceal within themselves what they do not reveal to you. And they say, “If it was up to us, none of us would have been killed here.” Say, “Even if you Had stayed in your homes, those destined to be killed would have marched into their death beds.” God thus tests what is in your minds, and purifies what is in your hearts. God knows what the hearts contain.1

This verse sounds completely fatalistic; it says that life and death is in the hands of God and that regardless of human actions, those destined to die at a certain hour will die in that hour.

Yet the Quran also says things like this:

The Hajj is during specific months. Whoever decides to perform the Hajj—there shall be no sexual relations, nor misconduct, nor quarreling during the Hajj. And whatever good you do, God knows it. And take provisions, but the best provision is righteousness. And be mindful of Me, O people of understanding.2

In the above verse, the Quran asks Muslims to “take provisions” when going on the Hajj, instead of saying “everything is in the hands of God, so even if you take no provisions God will provide for you.”

It also says:

And do not keep your hand tied to your neck, nor spread it out fully, lest you end up liable and regretful.3

The Quran, instead of saying “give away all your wealth, God will replace it”, tells us not to give away too much wealth and bring poverty on ourselves. The Quran teaches us to be sensible and pragmatic on the one hand, and to keep in mind that God is always in charge and has complete power over everything.

The reason for these two seemingly contradictory teachings is what I call the Principle of Plausible Deniability. God does not want His existence to be proven beyond doubt, because that would make faith needless. The Quran says:

Are they waiting for God Himself to come to them in the shadows of the clouds, together with the angels, and thus the matter is settled? All things are returned to God.4

If God showed Himself to us, “the matter” would be settled, meaning there would be no purpose for the existence of this universe anymore. The purpose of the universe is to be a testing ground of faith, in which humans, without being given physical proof of God’s existence, obey Him faithfully and deserve great rewards in the process.

In other place the Quran says:

Are they waiting for anything but for the angels to come to them, or for your Lord to arrive, or for some of your Lord’s signs to come? On the Day when some of your Lord’s signs come, no soul will benefit from its faith unless it had believed previously, or had earned goodness through its faith. Say, “Wait, we too are waiting.”5

Atheists may say that they will wait for physical proof for God’s existence before believing in Him. The Quran tells them “then keep waiting, the faithful will wait too.” If God performed miracles for our benefit, that would be physical proof of God’s existence and it would change the nature of our relationship with Him. This is what happens to the Disciples of Jesus when they request that God send down a feast from heaven:

112. “And when the disciples said, 'O Jesus son of Mary, is your Lord able to bring down for us a feast from heaven?' He said, 'Fear God, if you are believers.'“

113. They said, “We wish to eat from it, so that our hearts may be reassured, and know that you have told us the truth, and be among those who witness it.”

114. Jesus son of Mary said, “O God, our Lord, send down for us a table from heaven, to be a festival for us, for the first of us, and the last of us, and a sign from You; and provide for us; You are the Best of providers.”

115. God said, “I will send it down to you. But whoever among you disbelieves thereafter, I will punish him with a punishment the like of which I never punish any other being."6

God agrees to show them a miracle, a physical proof that He exists, but in return He says that anyone who disbelieves after that will be punished in a way so horrible that no other being will be punished.

If a Muslim goes on top of a mountain and throws himself off it, saying God will save them, God will not reveal Himself for the sake of that person and perform a miracle to save them. He will instead let them plunge to their death. While the Quran teaches us that God has the power to do anything, it also teaches us not to try to force God’s hand. We should never put ourselves in a situation where a miracle would be needed to save us. God has made it a rule of this universe that His existence should be hidden; asking Him to do a miracle is asking Him to break His own rule.

There is no virtue in obeying God if He and His power was visible to us. We would be forced to obey Him. What God wants from us is to obey Him out of our own free will, without seeing Him or having physical proof of His existence. That is the whole point of this universe, producing true believers in God, worthy people who love Him and serve Him although they cannot physically affirm His existence.

As Muslims, we should do our best but know that God is ultimately in charge. If you are in charge of a business, you should be as shrewd and practical as an atheist in managing it, while keeping in mind that your success or failure is in God’s hands; He can inspire you to do something you would have never thought of otherwise that make you very successful. Or He may protect you from various calamities that other businesses suffer from.

Our relationship with God is dynamic. We make decisions and we act, and God makes decisions and He acts. He is totally in charge of our world, but He gives us the freedom to act and watches what we will do, then He may respond to our actions by decreeing good or bad things for us and watching us what we will do next. We are like actors in film that is directed by God. As actors we are free what we do, but the Director is in charge and can do anything He wants to us or those around us.

It is also like being in a ship. Inside it, we are free what we do. But the ship itself and the ocean in which it sails are both controlled by God. We may do everything in our power to get something we want, but God may decree something else for us. Others may do everything they can to prevent us from getting something we want, but if God decrees that we should get it, no one can get in the way of His decree.

The Quran teaches us to neither be proud of our accomplishments nor sad about our failures:

22. No calamity occurs on earth, or in your souls, but it is in a Book, even before We make it happen. That is easy for God.

23. That you may not sorrow over what eludes you, nor exult over what He has given you. God does not love the proud.7

Anything good we accomplish was accomplished through God’s support, and any calamity we suffer, God had complete power to prevent it but did not. The Quran wants us to reach a state of true submission to God’s decrees. While we act intelligently and pragmatically, our hearts rely on God and submit to His decrees, knowing that it is He who is really in charge. We are not attached to the worldly life like materialists are, who are so eager for success that some of them start to almost worship money and power. We are attached to God, knowing that all good things come from Him and that if He protects us no one can harm us. But we do not ask Him to do miracles for us; we respect His decree that He should be hidden from us until the Day of Judgment.

For more on this topic please see: Islam’s theory of free will versus physical determinism: Why humans are responsible for their actions even though God operates the universe

Footnotes

  1. The Quran, verse 3:154.
  2. The Quran, verse 2:197.
  3. The Quran, verse 17:29.
  4. The Quran, verse 2:210.
  5. The Quran, verse 6:156.
  6. The Quran, verses 5:112-115.
  7. The Quran, verses 57:22-23.
And God knows best.

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