Q. I have a question on the subject of predestination. Many Muslims believe, based on some of the traditions, that everything in our lives is preordained before we are born, whether it is misguidance, misfortune, accidents, death, etc. Is this the case?
A. The ahadith stating that everything about a person's life being written down while still a fetus are dubious. As Muslims, we do not believe in predestination, it is against the Qur'an. As Zamakhshari noted, it would be illogical for God to will man to go astray, and then punish him for it. Regarding misfortune, there are some Qur'anic verses that show it may be a test from Allah, and others that state it may be what we have brought upon ourselves by our actions. As Allah says in the Qur'an, we are given but little knowledge and know very little of His way.
As for accidents and death, again certain things are beyond our comprehension. It would seem that based on the Qur'an, in such a case it was just the laws of cause and effect that Allah has ordained. To cite an example, Ghazali's take on a burning paper was not that the law of nature dictated that fire burn; he felt that there was fire, and there was paper. It was only by God's will that the fire burnt the paper. Now Fazlur Rahman would go differently, he would say that God has decreed a natural law that fire burns, and therefore it will burn anything that can be consumed -- this is its "taqdir" -- its capability and limit. Every time we see this, we should know that it is a law of God. If we see a paper that for all reasons should burn, and yet the flame does not harm it, we know then that this is a miracle. Of course, all investigation must be done to show that there are no scientific explanations for the phenomenon.
Using the above analogy, if a plane with 300 people crashed because of air turbulence, as Fazlur Rahman shows, the true miracle would be if the plane went against the laws of nature and did not crash. If there was an air turbulence or engine failure, and the plane did not act "normal," then it would be defying the laws of causality that Allah has put in place. We cannot always comprehend why these things happen. As for the 300 people, the good ones will be rewarded for their good, presumably with extra compensation, etc. As for the bad ones, we can assume conversely. It is just the law of causality, and something that we cannot fully understand. This is the most difficult question for the scholars of all the religions to answer in a truly convincing manner, except us fortunate ones who simply say: "We do not know enough."
[Webmaster's note July 5, 2014:] The Syrian scholar Muhammad Shahrur explains in his book "The Qur'an, Morality and Critical Reason" that to know the outcome of an act beforehand, before the act has been carried out, would mean that Allah can work Himself through history from the end towards the beginning, against the flow of history, regressing in time. But this is, according to Shahrur, a logical impossibility, since even God has to obey the law of evolution and progression of time. The imam mubin (clear record), Shahrur says, stores the events in history in a kind of historical archive, but nowhere are future events and developments recorded. Acts are not predetermined, only determined after they have been done. Strictly speaking, the notion of the divine predestination of human acts and events in nature and society contradicts Allah’s objective law of existence and is, hence, to be rejected both theologically and empirically.
Posted May 7, 1999