Issue 24 / October - December 1998
Divine Decree and Destiny From Different Viewpoints
M. Fethullah Gulen
Divine Decree and Destiny in relation to Divine Knowledge
As was pointed out earlier (in previous issues), God is beyond all comparison and whatever we conceive of Him, He is different from it. We can only acquire some knowledge of Him, not of His Divine Essence, but His Attributes and Names, by meditating on His acts and creatures and studying them. However, in order to understand His acts, sometimes we have to resort to comparisons, as is allowed in the Qurâ€™anic verse, Godâ€™s is the highest comparison. Thus, in order to get some glimpse of the relation between Divine Knowledge and Destiny and Decree, we may ponder the following comparison:
Suppose there is an extremely skilful man, who is an engineer as well as an architect and a builder. He wants to build a magnificent house. First, he must have conceived of what kind of a house he wants to build. This is the existence of the house in the builderâ€™s mind. Then, the skilful man draws a detailed plan of the house. This is the existence of the house as an actual design or plan. Afterwards, he puts this design into practice and builds the house according to it. This is the material existence of the house. The house is recorded in numerous memories, and even if it is destroyed completely, it continues to live in these memories and in the mind and plan of its builder. This is the final form of the houseâ€™s existence and has acquired some sort of perpetuity.
Another, similar comparison.
Before starting to write a book, an author must have the full content or knowledge of the full meaning of the book in his mind. This is the existence of the book as knowledge or as meaning. The existence of something (as in the examples for the book or house) as knowledge or meaning, is its essential existence. Even if this knowledge or meaning is not put into words or into practice, it exists in the mind. Therefore, although it needs â€˜matterâ€™ to be visible in the material world and known by others, knowledge or meaning is the essence in existence, upon which material existence depends.
In order to make his knowledge on a subject or the meaning in his mind visible and known by others in the material world, the author must express it in words. So, before putting it in words, he arranges it in chapters, sections and paragraphs, that is, he makes a detailed plan. Then, he writes it out and gives it material existence. Even if the book is completely destroyed and removed from the earth, it continues to live in numerous memories and in the mind of its author.
Likewise, God has full and exact knowledge of the universe as a whole and with all its parts down to the minutest particles. In order to have a glimpse of the infinite extent of His Knowledge, we can ponder the verses whose literal translations are as follows:
It may be that you dislike a thing although it is good for you, and love a thing although it is bad for you. God knows, but you know not. (al-Baqara, 2.216)
Say: â€˜Whether you hide what is in your breasts or reveal it, God knows it. He knows all that the heavens and the earth contain; and He has power over all things.â€™ (Al â€˜Imran, 3.29)
With Him are the keys of the Unseen. None but He knows them. And He knows what is in the land and the sea. Not a leaf falls but He knows it; not a grain amid the darkness of the earth, nothing of wet or dry, but (it is) in a Manifest Book. (al-Anâ€™am, 6.59)
Say: â€˜If the ocean were ink for the words of my Lord, assuredly the ocean would be used up before the words of my Lord were finished, even if We brought another (ocean) like it, for its aid.â€™ (al-Kahf, 18.109)
Even if He had not created the universe, the universe would still exist in His Knowledge. Since God Himself is beyond all time and space and all time and space is united in His Knowledge in a single point, and since His Knowledge does not depend on time and space, in relation to Him and His eternal, all-encompassing Knowledge, there cannot be things like precedence or posteriority or sequence or division of time. Time and space are only two dimensions of creation.
Everything eternally exists in Godâ€™s Knowledge. God knows all things with the exact peculiarities of each, and Divine Power clothes a thing in material existence according to Divine Will. This transference from Knowledge to the realm of material existence takes place within the limits of time and space. Knowledge and Will are two essential Attributes of Divine Being: God knows things; things exist in Knowledge, Will determines them with all their peculiarities according to a certain measure, and Power gives them material existence. The relation which we are trying to explain between Divine Knowledge and Destiny, is best expressed in the verse, the literal translation of which is as follows:
There is not a thing but with us are the stores thereof. We send it not down save in appointed measure. (al-Hijr, 15.21)
Divine Decree and Destiny in relation to registry and duplication
Everything which exists in Divine Knowledge in individualized form according to a certain measure or, if we may say so, as a plan or project, is in a Record which the Qurâ€™an calls â€˜the Supreme Preserved Tabletâ€™ (al-Buruj, 85.21) or the Manifest Record (Ya Sin, 36.12). The Qurâ€™an explicitly states that nothing befalls us save that which God has decreed or preordained for us (al-Tawba, 9.51) and there is not a moving creature on the earth, nor a flying creature flying on two wings, but they are communities like mankind, and that God has neglected nothing in the Record (al-Anâ€˜am, 6.38). This Record or the Supreme Preserved Tablet is a title for Divine Knowledge in relation to creation. We can also call it the original Register. In the â€˜processâ€™ of creation, this Register is duplicated. Its first, most comprehensive copy or duplication which comprises the whole of creation is called in the Qurâ€™an the â€˜Tablet of Effacement and Confirmationâ€™ or the â€˜Manifest Bookâ€™. While the Supreme Preserved Tablet or the Manifest Record relates to the originals of creatures in Divine Knowledge and the principles and laws of creation, the Manifest Book or the Tablet of Effacement and Confirmation is the reality and, metaphorically, a page of the stream of time. Divine Power transfers things from the Supreme Preserved Tablet onto the Tablet of Effacement and Confirmation. In other words, Divine Power arranges things on the page of time or attaches them in turn to the string of time. Nothing changes on the Supreme Preserved Tablet; everything is fixed there, but in the â€˜processâ€™ of creation, God effaces what He wills, and confirms and establishes what He wills. (al-Raâ€˜d, 13.39).
The second kind of duplication is like this:
After birth, everyone is registered in a registry of births. Then, according to the information in this state register of persons, everyone is given an identity document. Similarly, everyone is registered on the Supreme Preserved Tablet with all his personal characteristics, particularities, and future life-history down to the smallest details. This original register of everyone is copied out by angels, and the part of it which relates to the life of the body is encoded in cells as information or laws. However, for this information to be used or for the body to work and come to life, the spirit has to be breathed into the body. The other part of the copy of the original register which relates to manâ€™s life as a conscious, intelligent being is fastened around his neck as an invisible book (al-Israâ€™, 17.13). During his whole life, man enacts whatever is in that book. However, that does not at all mean that Destiny or the pre-determination of a manâ€™s life history compels him to behave in a certain way. As we are trying to explain, Destiny is some sort of knowledge. It is like this: for example, you send someone to a place to do some job. You have previously procured whatever he will need during that journey and given him necessary instructions to do the job. Since you knew in advance how he would behave in every step of his journey, you have recorded all the details of that future journey in a notebook and placed it in a secret pocket in the jacket of that man. He starts out unaware of the notebook in the pocket and behaves however he wills during the whole of his journey. Together with him, you dispatch two of your most reliable men to follow him wherever he goes, observe all his acts and record on a videotape secretly whatever he does and says and however he acts. On his return, you compare the video-tape recordings with the content of the notebook in his secret pocket and see that there is not the slightest difference between them. Afterwards, you call him to account for whether he did the job in accordance with your instructions and either reward him or punish him or forgive him.
As in the example above, God, Who knows everything in advance and is beyond all time and space, pre-recorded in registers the life-histories of all people to come to the world. Angels copy out the registers and fasten around each person his own record or register, which is what we call destiny or fate. Godâ€™s fore-knowledge and recording of whatever a man will do in his whole life never compels the man to do that. He acts of his own free will and does of his free will whatever he does. All his life is recorded by two angels, whom we call Kiramun Katibun (noble scribes). On the Judgement Day, the recordings of his life by these angels will be presented to him and he will be told to read his Book:
Every manâ€™s book of life-history (fate) have We fastened around his neck, and We shall bring forth for him on the Day of Resurrection a book which he will find wide open. (It will be said unto him): â€˜Read your book. Your own self suffices as a reckoner against you this day. (17.13-4)
Divine Decree and Destiny in relation to Divine Will
As pointed out above, God registers everything in His Knowledge in a record and gives it its own particular characteristics, appointing for it its life-span and provision. He also (pre-)records when and where one will be born and die and what one will do during oneâ€™s whole lifetime. All this takes place by Divine Will.
It is through Divine Will that everything and every event, whether in the realm of Divine Knowledge or in the realm of material existence, including manâ€™s life, is (pre-)determined and given a certain course or direction. Nothing occurs beyond the scope of the Divine Will.
Consider that, for example, there are innumerable alternatives before an embryo in the female womb: whether it will grow as an animate being or come to the world or not, when and where it will be born, how long it will live, when and where it will die, etc. All beings are different from one another in complexion and countenance, down to the fingerprints, in character, in likes and dislikes, and so on, although they are all formed from the same basic elements. Again, for a particle of food which enters a body either in the stage of embryo or full development, there are countless alternatives where it will go and be settled. If, for example, a single particle which must go to the pupil of the right eye and be settled there, were to go to the right ear, this might result in an anomaly. Thus, it is by the all-encompassing Divine Will that everything occurs according to a miraculously calculated plan, and it is again by the Divine Will that there is a miraculous order and harmony in the universe. No leaf falls, nor a single seed germinates under earth, but God wills it to do so.
Manâ€™s free will is also included in the Divine Will. Nevertheless, the relation between the Divine Will and manâ€™s free will is not the same as that between the Divine Will and the lives of other things or beings. God Almighty has endowed man with the power of choice-free will-and, taking into account his future choices in life, (pre-)determined his life down to its smallest details. As explained above, Godâ€™s (pre)determination of manâ€™s life and actions is like knowing them in advance. We should, however, add that the theistic conception of God is not correct. That is, God did not leave the universe to itself after He had created it. We are contained by time and space and therefore cannot draw exactly true conclusions about the relation between the Creator and the creation. Also, we are unable to perceive eternity; we have little true information about the material domain of existence. God is beyond all time and space; He is infinite and eternal. He holds the universe in His â€˜handâ€™ and controls and manages it however He wills. However, in order that we might catch some glimpse of His actions and acquire some knowledge of Him and His Attributes, He places on His manifestations the limits of time and space. Other-wise, life would not be, nor could we have any knowledge of Him and the universe. Therefore, all the explanations we have made so far about His Will and Destiny, should be considered in the light of the fact that we can approach the subject only from within the bounds of this life, which is limited by time, space and matter, and also from within the bounds of our very existence.
In sum, the Divine Will dominates over the whole of creation, and nothing is or occurs beyond Its scope. It is by the Divine Will that there is a miraculous order and harmony in the universe, and everything and every event is given a certain direction and certain characteristics of its own. However, the Divine Will does not exclude man from having a free will.
Divine Decree and Destiny in relation to creation
There are two aspects of the relation between Divine Decree and Destiny and creation:
1. As a determining and compelling factor, except for the realm where manâ€™s free will has a part, Destiny is absolutely dominant. Everything occurs, all events take place, according to the measure, determination, judgement and direction of Destiny. God is the absolute owner of sovereignty in the whole universe and He acts and disposes however He wills in His Kingdom. He does whatever He wills and no one can call Him to account for His acts. He is absolutely Just and Wise and also absolutely Merciful and Compassionate. Therefore, whatever He does is good and He never wrongs any of His creatures.
We cannot interfere with the operation of the universe: the sun always sends us heat and light completely independent of us, the earth rotates around itself and the sun; days, months, seasons and years come and go one after the other and we cannot do anything with respect to whatever happens in â€˜natureâ€™. There are innumerable instances of wisdom in all such acts of God, and they are all to the use and benefit of man, so what falls on man is to study and reflect on His acts and try to find the instances of wisdom in them:
In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, there are signs for men of understanding. Those that remember and mention God standing, sitting, and lying down, and reflect upon the creation of the heavens and the earth. â€˜Our Lord! You have not created this vain. Glory be to You! Protect us from the punishment of the Fire.â€™ (Al â€˜Imran, 3.190-91)
Man should also reflect on whatever befalls him in his life. God never wills evil for His creatures, so, as the Qurâ€™an explicitly states, whatever of evil befalls a man is from himself (al-Nisaâ€™, 4.79); it is because of his sins. God allows misfortunes to strike man in order to either forgive his sins or promote him to higher ranks. But this does not mean that He always punishes a man with some misfortunes because of every sin of his; He overlooks many of his sins without punishing him.
2. The second aspect of the relation between Divine Destiny and creation concerns the religious injunctions and prohibitions, which relate to human free will.
While Divine Destiny is absolutely dominant and compelling in the part of existence where manâ€™s free will has no part, such as the creation and control of all things and beings or animate and inanimate bodies, and the movement of planets and all â€˜naturalâ€™ events or phenomena, in the human realm, It takes manâ€™s free will into consideration. However, as God creates all things and events in â€˜natureâ€™, He also creates whatever man wills and does. This is so because God has honoured man with free will and prepared for him an eternal abode. Although He desires His servants to always will and do good and insistently invites them to it, He does not refrain from giving external, physical existence to their bad choices and evil acts, however displeased with them He is.