Predestination is a concept found in both Christianity and Islam. Those who believe in predestination argue that events are determined long before they take place — even before the foundation of the world. This idea is often debated and discussed in relation to free will, because there is disagreement concerning whether predestination and free will are logically compatible concepts.
I wrote a book about predestination in Christianity and why I believe it is a crucially important doctrine that we must understand if our theology is to make sense. The book I wrote, if anyone is interested, is entitled The Only Question You Ever Need Ask. In this article, I will be focusing on the idea of predestination as it appears in Islam, though I will draw some parallels with Christian theology towards the end of the article.
In Islam we find the idea that all events in creation are written in a ‘clear record’. Here are two verses that indicate this:
He has the keys to the unseen: no one knows them but Him. He knows all that is in the land and sea. No leaf falls without His knowledge, nor is there a single grain in the darkness of the earth, or anything, fresh or withered, that is not written in a clear record.Surah 6:59
In whatever matter you [Prophet] my be engaged and whatever part of the Qur’an you are reciting, whatever work you [people] are doing, We witness you when you are engaged in it. Not even the weight of a speck of dust in the earth or sky escapes your Lord, nor anything lesser or greater: it is all written in a clear record.Surah 10:61
As well as from the verses quoted above, it is apparent from several other surahs in the Qur’an that the records God keeps are almost incomprehensibly vast and detailed. Here are a couple of verses that reflect this:
Say [Prophet], ‘If the whole ocean were ink for writing the words or my Lord, it would run dry before those words were exhausted’—even if We were to add another ocean to it.Surah 18:109
If all the trees on earth were pens and all the seas, with seven more seas besides, [were ink,] still God’s words would not run out: God is almighty and all wise.Surah 31:27
A very interesting idea found in the Qur’an which is related to the subject of predestination is that God apparently records events as they unfold. Here are two verses which evidence this (emphasis added):
They say, ‘We obey you,’ but as soon as they leave your presence, some of them scheme by night to do other than what you said. God records what they scheme, so leave them alone, and put your trust in God: He is sufficient protector.Surah 4:81
God has certainly heard the words of those who sneer, ‘So God is poor, while we are rich’. We shall record everything they say—as well as their killing of prophets in defiance of all that is right—and We shall say to them, ‘Taste the torment of the scorching fire.Surah 3:181
The use of the phrases quoted above is significant because it gives the impression that human deeds are recorded as they happen, rather than being predestined. If you think about it, it would make little sense for God to record our deeds as they happen if they have already been predetermined.
I would like at this point to quote a passage which is a transcription of a video recording of the well-known Muslim scholar and apologist Shabir Ally. I believe Shabir’s comments are interesting for a number of reasons, which I will discuss following the quotation.
Shabir was asked the following question: It seems like every man’s fate has already been written. Is it possible to change your fate by doing good deeds? Here was his response (emphasis added):
The classical conception about this is that God has so decreed everyone’s final outcome, and written it down, that no one can really change that outcome. We can only change what is apparent to us, like it appears to us that a certain person is heading towards hell, but if we give him the right message we can turn him around and now it appears to us he is heading towards heaven. But this was in God’s plan from the beginning, and God forbid, this same person may actually turn back and go towards hell again because that is really his final destination prescribed by God for him, and we don’t know what that destination is.
But if we think of it this way then it becomes difficult to justify the action of God, like would it be justified to put this person in hell? The classical scholars just said it doesn’t matter, God is our creator and he has the right to create some people for heaven and some people for hell. And a similar answer is given in the New Testament as well in one of the writings of Saint Paul, he said God has the right, like any potter, he can create some things for good purposes and other things for bad purposes, God has that right to create some creatures for heaven and other creatures for hell.
But the Qur’an does stress the justice of the entire created scheme and so it must be that God so created human beings such that their final outcome will be not devised by God, and so it is really up to the individual to choose his or her path. In which case, when we talk about the final outcome there is no sense of changing one’s fate, because there is no fate hanging over your head like a sword ready to chop your head off… but it is an open path of possibilities that God has created for his servants, and we can choose either possibility, and our final outcome then will be according to what we have actually chosen. To me this is what all Muslims actually do believe in their minds and in their hearts, even if some scholars of Islam have written differently. And the reason they have written differently about this is because they were trying to protect the majesty of God from any suggestion… they thought that if they left matters open to the choice of individuals in that clear manner, then that would mean individuals are bringing into the universe things of their own choosing without God wanting that to happen… so they try to preserve his omnipotence and his omniscience by arriving at that conclusion.
But I believe we can preserve both, his omnipotence, his omniscience, and also at the same time preserve human freedom, and in which case we show that the whole system is just, God has created people such that their final outcomes are not predetermined, and that these are open possibilities for the human beings and it will be according to their own choosing.”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PGIfT06HBA
What I find notable about the above quotation is that Shabir appears to be a compatibilist, as he states that he finds the idea of predestination to be compatible with the idea of free will. This is something that many Christians also believe, but my personal view is that it is logically contradictory to argue both that God determines events and that we determine those same events freely. My book God’s Grand Game was written to discuss every aspect of the divine sovereignty versus human free will predicament, and the conclusion I came to is much more in line which what Shabir describes as the ‘classical’ Islamic understanding, which is that God is absolutely sovereign over all events, and that a correct view of God’s sovereignty necessarily leaves no room for human freedom.
Interestingly, in the Qur’an we do find scriptures which suggest that God preordains all events, and in both Christianity and Islam we find the idea that before He created the world, God wrote a book which detailed how everything would unfold in accordance with His sovereign will. Below are two quotations from the Qur’an, and one from the Bible, that support this idea:
“God decrees that there are twelve months—ordained in God’s Book on the Day when He created the heavens and earth—four months of which are sacred: this is the correct calculation.Surah 9:36
“The torment of your Lord is much to be feared: there is no community We shall not destroy, or punish severely, before the Day of Resurrection— this is written in the Book.Surah 17:58
And all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.Revelation 13:8 (in the New Testament)
The idea that, 1) God has written a book (or books) ordaining our destiny before the foundation of the world and that, 2) God records our deeds in books as time progresses, are two ideas that I find hard to reconcile. As I mentioned above, if there is a book which is like a kind of script for creation, reflecting God’s plans, this would seem to make the idea of God keeping records of our deeds as our lives unfold rather redundant.
Having studied this issue in some depth, I’m not certain that I fully understand the role that these kinds of books play in God’s plan for creation. But because the idea that God keeps records and books appears in the sacred Scriptures of both Christianity and Islam, it seems highly likely to me that there really are books in the realm of the unseen which contain certain records related to our lives.
Thank you for reading! You’re welcome to comment with any related thoughts, especially if you’re able to provide any insights related to the books and records God keeps that I may have missed. Thank you for reading!
To see all posts in this series, click here.