Determinism In Quran & Umm al-Kitab

article picked 4U by - Mohammad Shahrour

May 27, 2020

Determinism in QURAN and UMM AL-KITAB

In this final section an important distinction will be made between the two Arabic terms al-qadar and al-qadha”. In traditional theology the two terms were normally regarded as synonyms, both indiscriminately expressing the notion of ‘predestination’, which humans have to accept submissively since God’s predestination of all things on earth is unfathomable.

We propose to revise the alleged synonymity between the two terms and redefine them as follows: the term that expresses the notion of Allah’s ‘predestination’ is only al-qadar, whereas al-qadha” refers to decisions that are taken, or ‘determined’, by human beings. While the former characterizes God’s laws in the objective reality of the universe, the latter symbolizes the existence of free will in human activities in this world. Al-qadar belongs to al-Quran, whereas al-Qadhi” belongs to the umm al-kitab.

Let us first explore the notion of determinism in the Quran. We established that the Quran contains the objective, absolute laws of nature, the cosmos and history; explains the manifestations of the natural world; and narrates the events of human history as they had occurred in the past. The Book defines the Quran as the ‘truth’, in the sense that death is true, the sun is true, day and night are true, and so on. These things are objective because neither human knowledge nor human activities can affect or change them. Their course is ‘predestined’ by the eternal laws of the universe. The same is true for events in history: once they have happened they cannot be undone—they are real; they are true; or, better, they are determined. This is the realm of al-qadar.

In contradistinction, we defined umm al-kitab as the part of the Book that contains the legal rules of human behavior. In response to these rules, human beings can decide between acceptance and rejection, between submission and rebellion, between approval and disapproval.

Allah has granted human beings a choice which they can exercise in fulfilling His demand to ‘do good and avoid evil’. We also pointed out that the fulfilment of Allah’s rules requires ‘understanding’ of the rules as an absolute precondition. Rules have to be comprehensible,

so that both the man on the street and the country’s intellectual elite are able to follow them. Rules should not possess ‘ambiguity’ (tashabuh) but be clear, unambiguous, and precise. Once these rules have been made clear the people are able to either accept or reject them. Hence, knowledge and acceptance are the prerequisites for following the rules of the umm al-kitab. In other words, these rules are not unconditioned or objective, but conditioned insofar as they require acceptance in order to be implemented and subjective because their execution is subject to men’s consciousness and decision- making. This is the realm of al-qadha”.

Two verses from Surat al-Nisa” illustrate the distinction we have made:

Wherever you are, death will find you out, even if you are in towers built up strong and high! If some good befalls them, they say, “This is from Allah”, but if evil, they say, “This is from you” (O Prophet). Say: “All things are from Allah.” But what has come to these people that they fail to understand a single fact. (Nisa”:78)

Whatever good, (O man!) happens to you, is from Allah, but whatever evil happens to you, is from yourself. And we have sent you as a messenger to (instruct) mankind. And enough is Allah for a witness. (Nisa”:79)

The first verse, by stating that ‘wherever you are, death will find you out’, makes it clear that truth is absolute and independent from human acts, be they for or against it. Death will ‘find people out, wherever they are’. ‘What has come to these people that they fail to understand a single fact (hadith-an)’, asks the verse. Note the term hadith here, a term that we defined as relating to al-Quran. And indeed, the first verse does not talk about good and evil in human behavior but about good and evil in objective reality, the existence of life and death, of angels and the devil, which all have their origin in Allah. ‘Say: “All things are from Allah.”’ This verse talks about al-qadar.

The second verse, however, talks about good and evil in human behavior. Whereas in objective reality angels (symbolizing good) and the devil (evil) are both essential parts of the truth, and no preference exists for either of the two, angels are supposed to compete with the devil in what humans do. In saying, ‘Whatever good, (O man!) happens to you, is from Allah, but whatever evil happens to you, is from yourself’, the verse acknowledges: a) a distinction between ‘what is from Allah’ and ‘what is from human beings’, and

  1. b) an autonomy in human acts. These acts of human behavior are thought to be regulated by the rules of the umm al-kitab that are Muhammad’s messengerhood. Muhammad was ordered by God to give people instructions about His rules. ‘And we have sent you as a messenger to (instruct) humankind.’ This verse talks about al-qadha”.

The following verse will give us an indication as to why it is so significant to distinguish between the al-qadar and al-qadha”:  Thy Lord has decreed [qadha] that you worship none but Him, and that you be kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in your life, say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honor. (Isra”:23).

This is clearly an instruction that falls into the category of umm al-kitab, as people have a choice whether to follow it and treat their parents respectfully or reject it and do the opposite. It is the realm of ‘worship none but Him’ by ‘those who understand’ to which the ethical rule (‘be kind to parents’) is attached. It would be a mistake to regard this verse as part of the Quran because then the ethical demand would turn into an objective fact whether one subjectively intended to do it or not. ‘To be kind to parents would turn into an objective law of human behavior which exists absolutely and independently of what human beings actually do.

Even if people began to abuse their parents, disobey them, or starve them to death, it would still count as ‘being kind to parents’ because, objectively, people cannot but ‘be kind to parents’ regardless of their subjective intentions. In analogy, if ‘to worship none but Him’ became objective law, it would not matter whether someone subjectively worships idols, pagan gods, or political despots such as Pharaoh, because all of these would count, objectively, as worship of Him. This is the big error that we find in Ibn ‘Arabi’s Fusus al-hikam where the author announced a ‘unity of worship’, implying that since God had decreed (qadha) to ‘worship none but Him’, humans are predestined to do exactly that (in whatever manner and regardless of their individual intentions).

In Ibn ‘Arabi’s notion of the unity of worship, free will to accept or reject a ‘worship of Him’ does not exist. The rules of Islam became an inescapable fate—heedless of what someone actually intended to believe or practice—a determined destiny that releases people from being responsible and in charge of their religious and ethical deeds. Because of Ibn ‘Arabi’s huge influence the verb qadha was seen as synonymous with qadara, and this has had a disastrous effect on the Arab-Muslim mind.

Finally, let us look again at the verses that we cited at the beginning: That is indeed a Quran most honorable, in a book well-guarded, which none shall touch but those who are clean.

(Waqi ‘a :77–79) These verses have been the subject of another fatal confusion between matters of al-Quran and the rules of umm al-kitab. The verb la yamassuhu was not understood in its indicative form (they do not touch) but rather as an imperative (they shall not touch).

What was a descriptive narrative about the angels who did not touch the Quran, became a proscriptive rule and a ban for the ritually impure not to touch the Book. A statement of the Quran turned into a statement of the ummal-kitab, and something from the realm of al-qadar was transformed into something of al-qadha”. As a consequence, menstruating women, women in childbirth, and people of impurity are today not allowed to touch a copy of the Quran, only ink on white paper (!), which is, to say the least, simply outrageous.