The idea of everything being predetermined by God is one that exists in all Abrahamic faiths. It is a source of much discussion, contemplation, and in the case of non-believers, a major point of contention. How, they argue, is it possible to have both free will, and fate; no control over our actions, yet judgement on them.
However, if we consider the way decisions are made, and how situations unfold, it starts becoming clear that the concept of predestinations is not quite as crazy as it might at first seem.
One may consider the universe from a number of different perspectives. One of these is the concept of layered hierarchy. This acknowledges that the universe consists of several layers, from the basic building blocks of all matter at the bottom, to the increasingly complex products of these base-units at incrementally higher levels.
At the bottom are the smallest known entities; the (as-yet-theoretical) Higgs-Boson particle, electrons, protons, neutrons, and the resultant atoms. The next level up, there are the elements that these atoms comprise, such as Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, and so on. Going up another level are molecules, which are compounds made up of different elements, such as water which is the product of two hydrogen atoms combining with one oxygen atom (H20). These molecules then combine to form the next level of the hierarchy, and so on.
An example of this can be seen in the human body. Basic elements (such as Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Sodium, Potassium, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium, Zinc, Phosphorus, and many more) make up various molecules, which eventually form cells and tissues and organs and organ systems and then whole humans. Taking this a step further, humans form social networks (including family, friends, work colleagues), which form communities and societies, at local, national and international levels. Similar hierarchies exist in the plant and animal kingdoms, as well as in other domains. The whole of the living and non-living matter forms the ecosystem, which is the Earth. The Earth, plus its moon, and other planets, plus the sun form the galaxy, and so on until at the top level we have the entire universe itself.
The universe can thus be considered as consisting of innumerable systems, organised by a hierarchy of complexity. The key to understanding the concept of predestination is to recognise that these systems are all linked via complex processes and interactions, and that all activity, all events, occur on the basis of cause and effect. Activity at one level of this hierarchy results in activity in that level, as well as at other levels.
A simplified version of this concept can be demonstrated using dominoes. Imagine that we have five dominoes, and we line them up as below:
Notice that the distance between each domino is such that if one falls in the direction of an adjacent domino, then the adjacent domino will also fall. For example, if we pushed domino 1 in the direction of domino 2 (in this example, to the right), it would cause 2 to fall, which would cause 3 to fall, which would cause 4 to fall, which would cause 5 to fall as below:
It would be easy to conceive that by pushing domino 2 towards domino 3, only 2, 3, 4 and 5 would fall and 1 would not. Also note that if we pushed a domino in a direction away from an adjacent domino, it would not cause any other dominoes to fall. For instance, if we pushed domino 1 in a direction away from 2 (in this example, to the left) then only domino 1 would fall, and none of the other dominoes would be affected.
We could also push domino 1 in other directions, without affecting domino 2 (although the left and right directions are the most likely due to the physical properties of the domino.
Now consider what would happen if we placed the dominoes much further apart such as below:
If we pushed one of the dominoes towards its neighbour, because the distance between them is too great, only the domino directly pushed would fall. For example, if we pushed domino 1 towards domino 2, then only domino 1 would fall.
Thus we can see that there are numerous criteria or rules or laws that govern whether activity in one domino (i.e. falling) would lead to activity in other dominoes. These criteria include the relationship between the dominoes (i.e. their arrangement, such as the distance between them, and individual alignment), the direction of activity (i.e. the direction of pushing force) as well as many other factors, including the surface on which they are placed, the physical properties of the dominoes themselves, and so on.
The crucial point is that if someone knew and understood these laws, then they would be able to predict whether activity in one domino would lead to activity in another, and so on, such that they would be able to predict what the end result would be.
If we had an arrangement as below and were told that domino 1 would be pushed towards domino 2, then we could predict that the end result would be that all the dominoes would fall.
If we were told, using the same arrangement as above, that domino 3 would be pushed towards domino 2, we could predict that dominoes 3, 2 and 1 would fall, while dominoes 4 and 5 would not.
Suppose we wanted to play a trick on a friend and we set up the dominoes as above, but we also used super-glue to fasten dominoes 2, 3, 4 and 5 onto the surface. We then asked our friend what they thought would happen if domino 1 was pushed towards domino 2. Because they did not know that we had super-glued some of the dominoes they would assume (wrongly, but seemingly correctly according to what they knew) that all the dominoes would fall. But because we had the extra information that our friend didn’t we’d be able to predict (completely correctly) that only domino 1 would fall and the others wouldn’t.
Now imagine that we have a complex arrangement of dominoes, as below:
We could predict, by knowing which domino is being pushed and in which direction, as well as the relationship between each domino and its neighbours, what the end result would be. So if we pushed domino 1 to the right, only dominoes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 would fall. The rest would remain standing.
The universe can be seen as a much more complex version of dominoes. Each domino may represent an entity or a system at different levels of our layered hierarchy. One domino can represent a molecule, or an organ, or an organ system, or one individual, or a society, and so on. The thing to remember is that all these entities and systems within the universe are interlinked. The laws governing the relationship between them are the laws of the universe. Activity in one entity can affect other entities at the same level (depending, as with the dominoes above, on the type of activity, direction of activity, relationship with other entities, as well as countless other conditions). For instance, ‘activity’ in one individual can lead to ‘activity’ in other individuals, depending on their relationship. And activity on one level of the hierarchy can lead to activity on other levels (again depending on type of activity, direction of activity, relationship with other hierarchies, and so on). As an example, ‘activity’ in an individual may lead to ‘activity’ at the societal level. And, just like dominoes, if one were to understand how each constituent element within the universe was related to others (i.e. understand all the laws of the universe), then they would be able to predict the effect of one event (i.e. activity in one entity at one level) at every level, including the top, universal, level.
This is the concept underlying, for example, the weather forecast. The weather in different places (London, Manchester, Edinburgh) at one time can be known (through direct experience by those living there, as well as by other means by those not living there). Using satellite images of the British Isles, changes in the pattern of weather over hours and days can be noted. By gathering information on winds and pressure fronts, and combining all this with current knowledge and understanding of how they affect the climate, weather forecasters attempt to predict what the weather will be like for the whole of the British Isles in the near future. Thus, in essence, by directly observing current weather activity, and using current understanding of the laws of the weather system, one can attempt to predict (or forecast) the weather over a period of time in the future. The reason that not all weather forecasts are accurate (just ask Michael Fish) is because our understanding of the laws governing weather is not (and probably never will be) complete – we are as clueless about some of the laws of nature as our poor friend was about the super-glue trick.
As Muslims, we believe that Allah created the whole of the universe, and gave it laws within which to function. And because Allah created these laws, only Allah completely and truly understands them. So it would be easy for Him, given His intimate understanding of causal and resulting effects, to Know exactly what events would occur and when, from the beginning of time till the end. It was with the creation of the universe itself with which Allah set the ball rolling (or pushed the first domino), which resulted in a complexly intertwined series of events, related through the system of cause and effect, which is continuing to this day, and will continue till the end of time. And Allah had written down all these events, from the small, seemingly insignificant, activity in an atom, to the great cosmic changes in the galaxies, before the universe had even been created.
It is important to note that the above is a very simplified explanation – the actual system created by Allah takes into account many other factors; which factors and how exactly they fit into the grand scheme of things may never be known to us. But one important factor is that of justice, where people’s actions result (somewhere down the line) in justice being served. The difficulty for our limited understanding is how this is determined. But this just goes to show that the laws of the Universe are frighteningly complex, and what we know of them is like a drop of water compared to an ocean.
It also serves to highlight an area which most people find confusing: the apparent paradox of free will and predestination. Careful examination of the factors affecting people’s actions will actually show that these concepts are not, in fact, diametrically opposed, but completely compatible.
The fact is that all our thoughts, ideas, attitudes, behaviours, etc, are governed by our prior experiences. Ask any paediatrician and they will tell you that the experiences of a child in the first few months of life go on to determine their future traits, be they physical, emotional, behavioural or social. Countless factors act to shape who we are, how we think, what we say or do. For example, in any given situation, what we say or do is a reflection of our past (including genetics, early formative experiences, education, social situation, similar previous encounters, as well as many other factors from every sphere of influence, most of which we cannot even think of).
Take an example of a book you are reading. Why are you reading that book? There may be many reasons (e.g. you have to for academic study, a friend recommended it, you happened across it and it caught your interest and many more).
Let’s focus on one of those – you happened across it and it caught your interest. Now, this depends on factors determined in the past: where you happened across it, and on what things you are interested in. If you saw it in a shop, then this depends on what brought you to that shop, e.g. need to do some shopping, which depends upon why you needed to go shopping, e.g. ran out of groceries, and so on. What interests you similarly also depends on past experiences, e.g. education, family, friends, and so forth.
The same applies to the other reasons for reading the book – academic and recommendation. Try it yourself. You can very easily start a retrospective train of thought which, if taken back far enough through all its various routes, will eventually go back to factors during birth and before, to factors affecting your parents and their parents and their parents and so on until the beginning of the universe. The obvious limitation preventing going back so far is lack of knowledge of events prior to a certain point in time.
The above process starts from an identifiable event at the present time and works backwards in time to identify causal factors (similar to a case-control study). If we had absolute and complete knowledge of all the factors that have ever affected us, and are affecting us, and will affect us, as well as a flawless understanding of how they will affect us, we could use similar reasoning in the opposite direction to work forwards from the ‘casual’ or ‘risk’ factors to predict an event in the future (similar to a cohort study). This can either be working forwards from a point in the past (like a retrospective cohort study) or from the present (like a prospective cohort study).
Let us assume that someone did have complete knowledge of all the factors that have affected you in the past, as well as a full understanding of how they affected you. They would thus be able to predict what you were interested in. They would also be able to predict when (and why) you would need to go shopping, and when (and why) you would go to that shop and when (and how) you would chance across that book. Therefore, they could predict when, where, why and how you bought that book.
This serves to demonstrate how all our actions can in fact be predicted according to events in the past, with the ultimate source being Allah when He created the universe and set its laws in motion. This also explains why Allah is the acknowledged originator and creator of everything, even items manufactured directly by humans, and Allah is ultimately responsible for all that happens on this Earth – when you breathe, it is Allah that has caused you to do so, when you walk, it is Allah that has caused you to do so.
Some may argue that this does not explain situations where there is a choice between two or more options. Let us use the example of a man on a horse riding through the forest. Up until now, the path through the forest had been straightforward, as there was only one way to go. But up ahead, the path forks into two, and the knight must choose whether to choose the right or left path. How does he choose? And can this choice be predicted?
Firstly, let us consider the different factors affecting his choice: He knows the route to his destination, random choice, his gut feeling, advice he had received before, does he have a map. Again, all these have antecedent factors, as above, even ‘random choice’ and ‘gut feeling’. Are ‘random’ choices truly random? Let us look as some methods of choosing randomly: “eenie-meenie-minie-moe”, coin toss, etc. Firstly, his choice of which method to choose is dependent upon antecedent factors, e.g. does he have a coin? Let’s think about each in turn.
“Eenie-meenie-minie-moe” – why did he choose this method instead of tic-tac-toe or some other similar method? This depends on his previous experiences. Thus we can predict him choosing this method. “Eenie-meenie-minie-moe” is simply a method of numerical elimination, where the nth number gets eliminated. Thus it is easy to predict, based on this method, which would be his choice, as long as we knew which side he would start with (i.e. right or left). This again depends on prior experiences, prior attitudes or beliefs about right or left (e.g. Muslims generally start on the right) and other factors (such as neuronal and muscular).
Coin toss – This is supposedly the most random method. If one were able to predict this (and dice throws) then one could become very wealthy indeed. But let’s examine what factors determine which way the coin lands. When you throw a coin, it undergoes several revolutions in the air before falling and spinning on the ground and finally coming to a rest on either heads or tails. Now it is logical to assume that if we threw a coin in exactly the same way, starting with it in exactly the same position, then it should undergo exactly the same number of revolutions in the air, spin exactly the same number of times on the ground and come to rest not only on the same face but also in exactly the same position. But how likely is it that we can do this? We may try to hold the coin in the same position, with the same fingers of the same hands held in the same position, and the arm in the same starting position as before. But this is almost impossible, given the nature of human motor activity, with an oscillating quality intrinsic to cerebellar activity (i.e. the physiological tremor). Thus, if we knew exactly how the cerebellum was functioning at a given time, using the size of its effects on motor function, in combination with the intended posture, we could predict exactly what position a person would be in, and in what way they would throw the coin. This consequently could be used to predict the way the coin would spin through the air and on the ground and thus its final resting position (and thus what side it would land on). If we then knew which path (i.e. right or left) was assigned to which coin face (again determined by prior factors), we could predict which direction he would choose.
Allah, being the All-Knowing, is the only One Who knows every factor that has influenced, is influencing, and will influence a person’s life. These factors, after all, also follow the rule of cause and effect and can therefore be predicted.
Bear in mind that the above are simply my thoughts and ruminations on the topic. The reality of the situation is probably much more complex and is known only to Allah, the Lord of the universe.