What Allah does to his most devout slaves
In what seems to be an almost annual spectacle, over 700 Muslims have been killed, and another 800 injured, in a stampede in Mecca, on the occasion of the annual pilgrimage of hajj.
This got me thinking, not just about the tragic waste of life caused by people travelling from all over the world to worship a piece of rock, but also about the Islamic fatalism that accompanies such incidents.
Only yesterday, before the stampede, the New York Times published an article by Mustafa Akyol discussing an earlier tragedy in Mecca - the toppling of a huge crane which crushed over 100 devout Muslims to death a couple of weeks ago.
As Akyol notes, the technicians that operated the crane, the Saudi Binladen Group, had an easy way out. One of them spoke to the press and simply said: “What happened was beyond the power of humans. It was an act of God.”
This is not the first time that this metaphysical excuse has come up in such circumstances. Worse accidents have happened near the Kaaba before, during the overcrowded season of pilgrimage, the Hajj, and the blame was reflexively placed on the divine. In 1990, 1,426 pilgrims died in a stampede caused mainly by a lack of ventilation. Nonetheless, the king at the time, Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, then argued: “It was God’s will, which is above everything.” “It was fate,” he added.
This isn’t just a Saudi problem; it is a global Muslim problem. Fatalism is constantly used as an excuse for human neglect and errors. Even in Turkey, which is much more modern and secular than Saudi Arabia, “fate” has frequently been invoked by various officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as an explanation for colossal accidents on railroads, in coal mines and on construction sites.
Of course, many Christians have been known to make similarly moronic statements as well, but the fact remains that Islam continues to be a far more fatalistic ideology than Christianity has ever been, and the biggest flaw in Akyol's piece is that he is not honest about the roots of the problem.
The Qur'an says: “Allah's is the Sovereignty of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them. He createth what He will. And Allah is Able to do all things.” (5:17) It also says that “He cannot be questioned concerning what He does” (21:23). Why should we be surprised, then, if Muslims are resigned to a fatalistic view of things?
This worldview extends negatively into the field of science. A translator's note in Reliance of the Traveller, an Islamic legal manual whose English edition has been certified as confirming "to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community" by Cairo's Al Azhar University, explains: “The unlawfulness of the 'sciences of the materialists' refers to the conviction of materialists that things in themselves or by their own nature have a causal influence independent of the will of Allah. To believe this is unbelief that puts one beyond the pale of Islam. Muslims working in the sciences must remember that they are dealing with figurative causes (asbab majaziyya), not real ones, for Allah alone is the real cause.”
In 1982, the Institute for Policy Studies in Islamabad criticized a chemistry textbook by saying: “There is latent poison present in the subheading Energy Causes Changes because it gives the impression that energy is the true cause rather than Allah. Similarly it is un-Islamic to teach that mixing hydrogen and oxygen automatically produces water. The Islamic way is this: when atoms of hydrogen approach atoms of oxygen, then by the Will of Allah water is produced.”
This conforms with the traditional Islamic view: Allah is bound by nothing. He can do anything. He is not bound to govern the universe in accord with any observable or discernible laws, and he has complete agency over every little thing in His vast universe.
Akyol is also wrong when he blames individual schools of thought or sects within the Muslim world, such as the Hanbalis, for crushing rationalism in the Islamic tradition. For example, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d.1111), who is ofen regarded as the most influential Muslim thinker of all time, declared the very notion of “laws of nature” to be a heretical limitation of Allah's power. It restricted His sovereignty, and suggested that there were things that he simply could not do or change. He wrote:
According to us, the connection between what is usually believed to be a cause and what is believed to be an effect is not a necessary connection; each of the things has its own individuality and is not the other, and neither the affirmation nor the negation, neither the existence or the non-existence of the one is implied in the affirmation, negation, existence or non-existence of the other – e.g. the satisfaction of thirst does not imply drinking, nor satiety eating, nor burning contact with fire, nor light sunrise, nor decapitation death, nor recovery the drinking of medicine, nor evacuation the taking of purgative, and so on for all the empirical connections existing in medicine, astronomy, the sciences and the crafts. For the connection of these things is based on a prior power of God to create them in successive order, though not because this connection is necessary in itself and cannot be disjointed – on the contrary, it is in God's power to create satiety without eating, and death without decapitation, and to let life persist not withstanding the decapitation, and so on with respect to all connections.
Al-Ghazali was not a Hanbali. He was a Sufi and a Shafi'ite jurist, and his views on this matter were - and always have been - accepted by the vast majority of Muslim scholars.
And so in Akyol's piece, we are once again treated to the spectacle of being told that true Islam has never actually been practised anywhere in the world in fourteen centuries, with the exception of a few short-lived sects that are considered to be heretical by everybody else.
Mustafa Akyol's blind faith in the goodness of something that has never been demonstrated in the history of its existence has more in common with Islamic irrationality than he would like to admit.