Question: What is the most pernicious doctrine in Islam, at odds with human freedom and responsibility, in need of greater recognition and critique?
It is the doctrine of theological fatalism, i.e. the idea that human life and all temporal events are ultimately determined by God`s unrelenting decree or will.
Psychologically and existentially, there is something appealing in the doctrine of fatalism in that it can provide one who is nervous and skittish about the future and the contingency of life a sort of consolation that emerges from the view and belief that someone all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-knowing (omniscient) is overseeing one's temporal life process and the course of human history. In other words, belief in fate can work as a coping strategy that tends to reduce experiences of existential anxiety or angst or the burden of responsibility for how we shape our lives as it presupposes a fixed futurity and a closed universe with predetermined events.
Nevertheless, the effects of the belief in fatalism, along with other misguided and misrepresented beliefs, has created in many a Muslim an attitude of "soul apathy" and a fatalistic submission to unjust political and religious authorities. This notion tends to generate a slavish and defeatist mentality, reducing the human subject as dynamic and capable of free conscious behaviour to an incapacitated, helpless creature. As Muhammad Iqbal argues, “far from reintegrating the forces of the average man`s inner life, and thus preparing him for the participation in the march of history, it has taught him a false renunciation and made him perfectly contented with his ignorance and spiritual thralldom.”
Fortunately, intra-Islamically, counter-narratives are being developed that challenge mainstream theological understandings related to the nature of God, the relationship between human and divine power, the interplay of science and faith, the importance of theological humanism, the significance of process in the legal structure of Islam, and the challenges of ethical decision-making. Nevertheless, it is disturbing that most of the religious education in madrassas and mosques continues to instill fatalistic modes of thinking, and furnish little support for our awareness of freedom, accountability and responsibility. The youth are especially likely to excuse themselves for their defeatism and failures rather than strive for personal and societal advancement.
Given our religious tendency and drive to correspond with the Reality, and to accentuate those aspects of our existence which we perceive as connecting us with the depths of reality, it is not surprising that most of Islamic culture has been characterised by a fatalistic mode of being. And, as mentioned above, even though there have been various forms of interventions against the ideal of theological fatalism, reducing human beings to passive agents, the notion of humans as passive objects to God`s unrelenting decree by and large still seems to evoke more religious passion than that of human freedom (Hurriya/Ikhtiyar al-amali) and responsibility (taklif). On this crucial point, Muslims are in dire need of anti-fatalistic interpretations of Islam in order to create a new story, a new hope, a new narrative to the ongoing movement of Islam in a world of perpetual emergence and global challenges.
However, we need to recognize that this hope has little if any chance of being approximated unless; first, we do not acknowledge the sin of fatalistic culture. Intra-Islamically, this sin is among our most pernicious shadows. Once we recognize this sin, acknowledging its tragic outcomes, our active repentance lies in re-understanding Reality as including an open future and taking responsibility for our own lives. It lies in recognizing that we do not live from unrelenting decrees from a dictator-like God, but from the fresh possibilities of a God with whom we co-create.