God’s Preordained Encounters Versus Man’s Free Choice




The Qur’an teaches us that Allah (swt) may preordain onto us situations in life that are beyond our control; i.e. not a consequence of our work.  Sickness, natural disasters, unexpected wealth, non-privileged family origin are all examples of such situations. But, by His Wisdom, Allah (swt) has also empowered us with intelligence, free will and an ability to judge so that we can respond wisely to such unexpected and undesirable situations. 


In that sense, we are responsible for our reactions and behaviors and we should not blame the “other” or the “bad luck” for the consequences of those decisions and reactions.


Stephen Covey, an American author, consultant and family expert, developed what is known as the 10/90 principle.  It entails that 10% of what we encounter in life is made up of what happens to us beyond our control, while the remaining 90% is determined by our conscious response to those 10% encounters. 


This principle, which conforms to the Islamic view of man’s responsibility for his reactions, can be illustrated by the following example, which is included in Covey’s book.


Someone is eating breakfast with his family.  His daughter knocks over a cup of coffee onto his business shirt.  That is an incident that he is not responsible for and has no control over (i.e. part of 10% of incidents we encounter in life).  What happens next will be determined by how that person reacts.  


He reproaches his daughter harshly so that she breaks down in tears.  After that he turns to his spouse and criticizes her for placing the cup too close to the edge of the table.  That triggers a short verbal battle.  He would then storm upstairs and change his shirt, then back downstairs to find his daughter still crying.  She also misses the school bus.  His spouse must leave immediately for work, so, he has no choice but to rush to the car and drive his daughter to school.  


Because he is late, he exceeds the speed limit.  The police officer stops him and gives him a traffic ticket.  After a 15-minute delay he arrives at school.  His daughter runs into the building without saying goodbye.  Then he drives to his office.  He is 20 minutes late.  He finds that he forgot his briefcase at home.  His day has started terrible.  As it continues, it seems to get worse and worse.  He is now looking forward to coming home.  When he arrives home, he finds small wedge in his relationship with his spouse and his daughter.  Why? Because of how he reacted in the morning!


Now, why does this person have such a bad day?  Does his daughter cause it? Does his wife cause it? Does the policeman cause it? The answer is: none of the above. Actually, he himself causes it.  The coffee splash, which was beyond his control, took only 5 seconds.  But his angry reaction in those 5 seconds is what caused the ruining of his whole day.  Alternatively, he could have reacted mildly and show self-restrain.  When the daughter was about to cry, he could have gently said, "it's ok my dear, you just need to be more careful next time".  The daughter could have left home smiling happily, and he could have arrived to his work cheerfully to start his day in a good mood.


In this story we can see that Allah (swt) has predetermined for the man a 5 second of undesirable incident (coffee spell) but the ill response of the man triggered a whole day of bad consequences.  That is the essence of the 10/90 principle.


This principle conforms with the Qur’anic theme of man’s responsibility based on his free will that is granted to him.


This is asserted in several verses in the Qur’an: “And say: the Truth is from your Lord, then whoever wills, let him believe, and whoever wills let him reject the faith.” (19:29). “Read your record (in life).  On this Day of Judgment, your soul will be sufficient to make out an account against you.” (17:14).


It is widely known among Muslims that Allah (swt) had predetermined the entire course of life and the final destiny for each and every one long time before his creation.  According to this notion, everything is predetermined.


The fact that nothing can happen to us without the Knowledge of Allah (swt) does not mean that 100% of what is happening to us in life is beyond our control.  It is true that Allah’s knowledge is comprehensive Allah says in the Qur'an “And nothing is hidden from your Lord (so much as) the weight of an atom on the earth or in the heaven” (10:61) but this knowledge does not negate our freedom to think, decide and act.  And it does not eliminate our responsibility for our actions.


After all we are free to decide and act because this is also the Will of Allah (swt) for us.


Allah (swt) knows what we will do in the future but that does not mean that He dictates this future on us.  He just knows what we will do.  But we do it out of our free will, which is His choice for us (by His Wisdom and Grace).


Muslim scholars have explained this concept through an analogy.  They say if you stand before a mirror while you are smiling, then you will see your image smiling.  If you stand with a frowning face, then you will see your image frowning. The knowledge of Allah (swt) is like a mirror.  It exposes your expression, but not forces it on your face. 


The 10% of what happens to us in life beyond our control can be seen as stimuli from Allah (swt) for us to develop the 90% of the consequences. 


The Qur’an draws similarity between human life and growth of the seeds into trees.  If we plant our life with good deeds, then the Mighty Hand of Allah (swt) will turn it to be a perfect flowery field.  If, on the other hand, we plant it with bad deeds, then the Mighty Hand of Allah (swt) will turn it to be a perfect spiky field. 


We are the one who can make our life flowery or spiky.  Allah (swt) will make it perfect in any either case; perfectly flowery and rewarding or perfectly spiky and unrewarding.  The choice is ours and the result is from Allah (swt).  “And say (O Muhammad to the believers): do your work, for Allah will see your results and so will His Messenger and the believers.” (9:105).



By Mohammed Shokr



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