Our Beacon Forum

What is the most pernicious doctrine in Islam?
By:Farhan Shah, Norway
Date: Thursday, 29 October 2020, 8:49 pm

It is the doctrine of theological fatalism, i.e. the idea that human life and all temporal events are ultimately determined by God`s unrelenting decree or will.

Psychologically and existentially, there is something appealing in the doctrine of fatalism in that it can provide one who is nervous and skittish about the future and the ambiguity of life, with a sort of consolation that emerges from the view and belief that someone all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-knowing (omniscient) is overseeing one’s temporal life process and the course of human history. In other words, belief in fate can work as a coping strategy that tends to reduce experiences of existential anxiety or angst, or the burden of responsibility for how we shape our lives, as it presupposes a fixed futurity and a closed universe with predetermined events.

Nevertheless, the effects of the belief in fatalism, along with other misguided and misrepresented beliefs, has created in many a Muslim an attitude of « soul apathy » and a fatalistic submission to unjust political and religious authorities. This notion tends to generate a slavish and defeatist mentality, reducing the human subject who is dynamic and capable of free conscious behaviour, into an incapacitated, helpless creature. As Muhammad Iqbal argues, “Far from reintegrating the forces of the average man`s inner life, and thus preparing him for the participation in the march of history, it has taught him a false renunciation and made him perfectly contented with his ignorance and spiritual thralldom.”

Fortunately, intra-Islamically, counter-narratives are being developed that challenge mainstream theological understandings related to the nature of God, the relationship between human and divine power, the interplay of science and faith, the importance of theological humanism, the significance of process in the legal structure of Islam, and the challenges of ethical decision-making. Nevertheless, it is disturbing that most of the religious education in madrassas and mosques continues to instill fatalistic modes of thinking, and furnish little support for our awareness of freedom, accountability and responsibility. The youth are especially likely to excuse themselves for their defeatism and failures rather than strive for personal and societal advancement.

Given our religious tendency and drive to correspond with the Reality, and to accentuate those aspects of our existence which we perceive as connecting us with the depths of reality, it is not surprising that most of Islamic culture has been characterised by a fatalistic mode of being. And, as mentioned above, even though there have been various forms of interventions against the ideal of theological fatalism, reducing human beings to passive agents, the notion of humans as passive objects to God`s unrelenting decree by and large still seems to evoke more religious passion than that of human freedom (Hurriya/Ikhtiyar al-amali) and responsibility (taklif). The lack of human freedom and responsibility in mainstream Islam flows from a culture of submission, both religiously as well as socio-politically. This submissive culture is upheld by some metaphysical catastrophes that influence the political and social domains. As the French Muslim existentialist philosopher Abdennour Bidar argues, “A God that overpowers Man produces societies where people overpower people.” On this crucial point, Muslims are in dire need of transcending theological passivity, toward anti-fatalistic interpretations of Islam in order to create a new story, a new hope, a new narrative to the ongoing movement of Islam in a world of perpetual emergence and global challenges. This involves, among other things, to create a new story of human beings with agency and responsibility, freed from the shackles of an unrelenting Will of an omnipotent and narcissistic God. Put in different terms, Muslims need a vision of Islam without submission and, furthermore, an interpretation and understanding of the notion of an open future which is liberating rather than paralysing. Again, Bidar argues, “If we find within our foundational text a means of liberating Man from theological tutelage and producing a representation of a human who is ontologically free, then we will have succeeded in introducing Islam into a modernity whose principle is precisely the assertion of human freedom of choice.”

However, we need to recognize that this hope has little if any chance of being approximated unless; first, we do not acknowledge the sin of fatalistic culture. Intra-Islamically, this sin is among our most pernicious shadows. Once we recognize this sin, acknowledging its tragic outcomes, our active repentance lies in re-understanding Reality as including an open future and taking responsibility for our own lives. It lies in recognising that we do not live from unrelenting decrees from a dictator-like God, but from the fresh possibilities of a God with whom we co-create. Iqbal`s emphasis on human freedom, responsibility and an open future indicates to us a principle of great value: That religion is subordinate to life, not superior to it. The ultimate end of all human activity is Life. All religious interpretations need to be subordinate to this final purpose and the value of religion ought to be determined in reference to its existential life-yielding capacity. In other words, that interpretation of Islam is authentic that which awakens our will-force, and nerves us to face the challenges of life in a responsible manner. Interpretations and understandings of Islam that bring drowsiness and make us shut our eyes to the possibilities of existence, is a message of decadence. It cheat us out of life. As Iqbal would have liked to remind us, again and again: “Create thy own world if thou be amongst the living; Life is the secret essence of the Adam, the hidden truth of creation…Life is reduced to a rivulent with little water in the bondage. In freedom, life is a boundless ocean.”