Fate, Faith, and the Night of Decree
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Monotheism recognizes that consistency between natural law and revelation, science and religion, proves the oneness of the Creator. This means there is an important relationship between acts of worship and the overall development of life and our destiny. The force that compels natural phenomena to submit to universal physical laws is the same force that compels people to worship God:
أَلَمْ تَرَ أَنَّ اللَّهَ يَسْجُدُ لَهُ مَن فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَن فِي الْأَرْضِ وَالشَّمْسُ وَالْقَمَرُ وَالنُّجُومُ وَالْجِبَالُ وَالشَّجَرُ وَالدَّوَابُّ وَكَثِيرٌ مِّنَ النَّاسِ
Do you not see that to Allah prostrates whoever is in the heavens and whoever is on the earth and the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, the moving creatures and many of the people?
Surat al-Hajj 22:18
In this context, divine revelation highlights the interconnected relationship between nature and spirituality through which true monotheism must be understood. As we have noted, the five pillars of Islam are not merely rituals, but extend the philosophy underlying them as a foundation for social life and development.
Allah has asked us to look deeper into the subtle meanings of the Quran, to look beyond a literal surface reading. By parsing the words in the Arabic language in which it was revealed, connections can be made between prophetic pronouncements and natural truths. Indeed, just as the Quran has no internal contradictions within it, it also does not contradict truths we observe and experience in life:
أَفَلَا يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ ۚ وَلَوْ كَانَ مِنْ عِندِ غَيْرِ اللَّهِ لَوَجَدُوا فِيهِ اخْتِلَافًا كَثِيرًا
Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’an? If it had been from other than Allah, they would have found within it much contradiction.
Surat al-Nisa 4:82
Toward the end of the month of Ramadan, an important insight is alluded to by one night deemed so important that it is better than 1,000 months. It is the night when the Quran first descended and a night in which divine forgiveness is in abundance. Diligence in worship during this night is certainly a virtue and its purpose, although we should pay attention to what this night represents overall. This night has been named “the Night of Decree” (laylat al-qadr).
What it is about qadr (power, measure, capability, decree) that is so important that a specific night of worship should be singled out for it? As it turns out, qadr is related to our ability to make decisions, or “decrees,” for without choices there would be only cruel fate. Life as we know it, imbued with moral responsibility, would become meaningless. There would be no meaning to the belief in Paradise and Hell, no meaning to words like compassion, honesty, and charity. Even though the Creator has power over everything past, present, and future, we will have free will to choose how to act. Hence, believing in the fullness of the divine decree, also referred to as qadr, is one of the six essential articles of faith.
The divine decree is expressed in two important words: qaḍā’, which signified the final destiny, and qadr, which signifies choices or options. The direction of destiny is completely beyond our control. When Allah decrees something to come into existence, no one can stop it:
بَدِيعُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ ۖ وَإِذَا قَضَىٰ أَمْرًا فَإِنَّمَا يَقُولُ لَهُ كُن فَيَكُونُ
He is the Originator of the heavens and the earth. When he decrees (qaḍā) a matter, he only says to it to be and it is.
Surat al-Baqarah 2:117
In this verse, the word qaḍā is used to emphasize that Allah will not accept an alternative to what he has determined. This refers to events in the universe, blessings or calamities. A believer comes to accept what occurs in the universe by being grateful for good times and patient in bad times, knowing that the wisdom of the Creator permeates all things even if we cannot perceive it. There is no option to reject the final decree of destiny.
Likewise, the same word is used to describe how Allah has decreed moral values and good deeds. As believers, we have no option but to apply them:
وَقَضَىٰ رَبُّكَ أَلَّا تَعْبُدُوا إِلَّا إِيَّاهُ وَبِالْوَالِدَيْنِ إِحْسَانًا
Your Lord has decreed (qaḍā) that you worship none but him, and to be good to your parents.
Surat al-Isra 17:23
In any case, the believer has no choice but to accept the decrees of Allah and submit to them willingly.
Additionally, the presence of qadr implies that we have free will to choose from an available list of options. Allah has given us free will and the ability to make choices, so we will be held accountable for them. We might have a bad destiny lined up for ourselves, but our good choices make Allah rewrite destiny in our favor:
يَمْحُو اللَّهُ مَا يَشَاءُ وَيُثْبِتُ ۖ وَعِندَهُ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ
Allah eliminates or confirms what he wills (of destiny), and with him is the foundation of the Book.
Surat al-Ra’d 13:39
Everyday Allah is making changes to destiny based upon the choices people have made:
كُلَّ يَوْمٍ هُوَ فِي شَأْنٍ
Every day He brings forth a matter.
Surat al-Rahman 55:29
From this we can infer that the Night of Decree is about the opportunity to make those good choices. Those who sincerely commit themselves to worship during this night, pledging to move forward as a better person and to grow closer to Allah, will have the bad consequences of their sins erased:
وَمَنْ قَامَ لَيْلَةَ الْقَدْرِ إِيمَانًا وَاحْتِسَابًا غُفِرَ لَهُ مَا تَقَدَّمَ مِنْ ذَنْبِهِ
Whoever stands in prayer during the Night of Decree due to faith and seeking reward, then Allah will forgive all of his previous sins.
Understanding how both of these ideas (qaḍā’ and qadr) fit together has important consequences for our lives. We have to distinguish between our circle of concern and our circle of influence, between what we cannot change and what we can change. We should never confuse or mix up these two realities.
It would be a disaster if we tried to change things that Allah has decreed to be fixed and constant. We might imagine we can change the moral values of Islam, which are in fact universal moral values rooted in natural law. Or we might waste our time and effort trying to influence what we have no power to change. Either way we would come up with bad results.
One needs to look no further than the reality of death as an example. Death is something that every creature will go through. Both human experience and divine revelation confirm its inevitability:
كُلُّ نَفْسٍ ذَائِقَةُ الْمَوْتِ ۖ ثُمَّ إِلَيْنَا تُرْجَعُونَ
Every soul will taste death, then unto Us you will be returned.
Surat al-Ankabut 29:57
The natural law of death is something we cannot change. Humans engaged in research activities to eliminate death is a futile attempt to solve a problem that is unsolvable. This entails a waste of human effort and resources allocated in the wrong direction. We all have to accept that one day we will die and we must prepare for it.
Once something has been firmly decreed by Allah, then our only choice is to accept it. If something bad happened to us, dwelling upon the past and saying “if only” again and again leads to depression and waster effort.
As the Prophet ﷺ said:
وَإِنْ أَصَابَكَ شَيْءٌ فَلَا تَقُلْ لَوْ أَنِّي فَعَلْتُ كَانَ كَذَا وَكَذَا وَلَكِنْ قُلْ قَدَرُ اللَّهِ وَمَا شَاءَ فَعَلَ فَإِنَّ لَوْ تَفْتَحُ عَمَلَ الشَّيْطَانِ
If something befalls you, then do not say: If only I had done something else. Rather say: Allah has decreed what he wills. Verily, the phrase ‘if only’ opens the way for the work of Satan.
It is good to reflect on the past if it is to learn from an experience, but to constantly think negative thoughts about our past actions is fruitless and harmful. Once Allah has made the final decree, we must surrender to it.
Although we may not have the power to change the universe’s destiny, we still have a measure of control over our personal destiny through the future choices we make. If people do not appreciate the significance of their choices, they might despair with life’s hardships and sink into pessimism, learned helplessness, fatalism, or even suicide.
Some people might even blame destiny for their poor choices and absolve themselves of any responsibility for their fate:
وَقَالَ الَّذِينَ أَشْرَكُوا لَوْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ مَا عَبَدْنَا مِن دُونِهِ مِن شَيْءٍ نَّحْنُ وَلَا آبَاؤُنَا وَلَا حَرَّمْنَا مِن دُونِهِ مِن شَيْءٍ
Those who associate others with Allah say: If Allah had willed, we would not have worshiped anything other than him, neither we nor our fathers, nor would we have forbidden anything through other than him.
Surat al-Nahl 16:35
Allah rejected the argument of idolaters who blame their misguidance on Allah himself. Their free will to believe or disbelieve was part of qadr, although they pretended as if it was the qaḍā’ itself.
Understanding the difference between destiny and decision-making is a critical component of sound faith and monotheism. Not only that, but it can improve our mental health as well. Research shows that people who generally believe they have control over their choices and the course of their lives end up more successful and better off than people who believe everything in their lives is already decided and they cannot change anything.
However, for the more subtle problems within the complexities of life, it takes wisdom and insight garnered through reflection upon experience and revelation to know the difference between what we can and cannot change.
The companions understood this difference and they did not try to change things that Allah made permanent, nor did they try to use destiny as an excuse for inaction.
In a famous story, a companion of the Prophet named Umar, the second Caliph in Islam, had refused to enter a town that had been struck by disease. He implemented a quarantine upon the town to prevent further infection. Then he was asked by a Muslim if he was attempting to escape the decree (qadr) of Allah by doing so, to which he replied:
نَعَمْ نَفِرُّ مِنْ قَدَرِ اللَّهِ إِلَى قَدَرِ اللَّهِ
Yes, we are fleeing from the decree of Allah to the decree of Allah.
Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 5397
Now, what does the name qadr in the Night of Decree signify for us? As we spend our time in this night asking Allah for solutions to our problems, relief for our suffering, and guidance in our lives, this means that Allah will respond by making available more options, more decisions, and more possible destinies available to us that can lead us in a better direction.
However, those options are as good as acting on them. An option that is not pursued is as if does not exist at all. Contrary to what many Muslims believe, we shouldn’t simply sit back and wait for our prayers to be answered. We have to realize that through the prayers come more decisions to make, more deeds to do in fulfillment of our prayers.
Many of us have already received direct responses to our prayers, yet we choose not to exercise the options that Allah made available in answer to our supplications. We then start to wonder, ironically, why Allah did not answer our prayers. Let us forgot that this night derives its name from qadr, decisions or choices, and the wise thing to do after it is to start a journey of discovery by exploring the new alternatives that Allah has made available.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.