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Acton University Lecturer: Islam’s Fatalism

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Longtime Acton University lecturer (and author of “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty”) Mustafa Akyol discusses the recent tragic deaths at Mecca in The New York Times. More to the point, Akyol talks about the fatalism which seems inherent in Islamic theology.

More than 100 people died when a crane collapsed in Mecca earlier this month. While Saudi Arabian authorities spoke of negligence on the part of the crane operators, the company itself seemed to be absolved of guilt:

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.’

Is this type of fatalism inherent in Islamic doctrine? Akyol:

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.

In almost every case, however, closer scrutiny has revealed the cause to be Turkey’s poor work safety standards and the government’s sluggishness in improving them. Only in February 2015, after hundreds of tragic accidents that killed more than 13,000 workers in 12 years, did Turkey become a party to the International Labor Organization’s conventions on work safety, which were drawn up more than two decades ago and adopted long ago by many other nations.

Accidents, of course, happen everywhere. Yet in the Muslim world, fatalism often serves as a cover for inadequate safety measures or greedy bosses unwilling to pay for them.

So, is this a theological problem or a matter of lack of knowledge on the part of believers?

Today most Muslims have little knowledge about these old debates, but they live within cultural codes largely defined by the dogmatists, who gained the upper hand in the war of ideas in early Islam. In these codes, human free will is easily sacrificed to fatalism, science and reason are trivialized, and philosophy is frowned upon.

Consequently, ‘God’s will’ becomes an easy cover for intellectual laziness, lack of planning, and irresponsibility. Muslims in positions of power often refer to ‘fate’ to explain away their failures, while never hesitating to take pride in their successes.

Akyol calls for an “intellectual revival” in the Muslim world to combat such uninformed and lazy thinking.

Read “Islam’s Tragic Fatalism.”

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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