Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Are Muslims Fatalists?

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Are Muslims Fatalists?

Article excerpt

"According to God, your age is written on your forehead."

- An Arabic proverb

"Sit on a beehive and say this is fate."

- Another Arabic proverb1

After a building crane fell into Mecca's Grand Mosque on Sept. 11, 2015, killing 114 and injuring 394, the mosque's Imam Abdul Rahman al-Sudais visited the injured and, as he met each one, told them, "This is God's will."2

Likewise, in February 2004, after a stampede killed at least 244 hajjis (pilgrims) in Mina, a town near Mecca, Saudi hajj minister Iyad Madani oxymoronically responded: "All precautions were taken to prevent such an incident, but this is God's will."3

And, when in July 1990, pilgrims fell from a bridge over the crowded alMu'aysim Passageway, a panic ensued, and about 1,400 hajjis lost their lives, King Fahd (r. 1982-2005) neither assumed responsibility for the bridge's faulty construction nor apologized to the families. Instead, he attributed the event to "God's irresistible will."4

Saudi and Iranian Views

These Saudi leaders responded as fatalists- meaning those who wait for change to take place "without doing anything to bring about such change" or believing that what will be must be, regardless of what a person does about it. They precisely fit the Muslim belief in maktub (Arabic for "It is written") and qisma (Arabic for "fate foreordained by God"5 or "the portion of fate, good or bad, specifically allotted to and destined for each man").6

It bears noting that fatalism is mainly used negatively, only explaining what is un-wished for. "It is written" justifies farmers failing to prepare for drought, parents for polio, or merchants for fire. However, Saudi officials do not invoke God's will to explain, say, the abundance of inexpensive-to-extract oil reserves on their territory.

But official Saudi fatalism does not end the story. Iran's no less pious leaders dismissed this fatalism with bitter scorn. "This is not the will of God," President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani responded to Fahd; yes, an earthquake fits the description of "God's irresistible will" but not the collapse of a man-made bridge.7 The head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Mohammed Yazdi, mocked Fahd's statement while Iranian media competed in scoffing at the Saudi authorities. Kayhan International pointed to criminal intent behind the event, calling it "not an accident but a pogrom,"8 and asked whether the tragedy was the will of God or that of the Great Satan (i.e., the U.S. government).9 An editorial in the newspaper Resalat, echoing traditional Shiite resentment of Sunnis, ridiculed the whole notion of fatalism:

Fahd has attributed an incident stemming from his impiety, incapacity, and inefficiency to "divine will," saying that "they were very fortunate to have died in this holy place, for their hour had come and they could have died in an unholy place (?!)." This reminds one of the "fatalism" in the philosophy concocted by the clergymen of the royal courts to justify the crimes perpetrated by corrupt Muslim leaders throughout 1,400 years [of Muslim history].10

In the Iranian leadership's reading, then, fatalism is a tool concocted by self-interested Muslim despots, not something inherent to the religion.

Responding to these attacks, a Saudi government spokesman feebly retorted: "Has any human being since the creation been able to prevent a time of death willed by God and engraved on the eternal tablet? It was God's will. His judgment and decision cannot be warded off."11 The Saudis even asserted that those seeking a human explanation for the bridge disaster "do not believe in God's will."12

This antagonism among two Muslimmajority countries with Islamist rulers raises a broader question: Are Muslims recognizably more fatalistic than non-Muslim? Or is fatalism just a convenient excuse, as Tehran claims, "to justify crimes"? Or perhaps, it is an Orientalist stereotype?

Philosophical and Theological Debate

The question of man's control over his destiny has been a topic of philosophical debate since ancient Greece. …

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