One of the most controversial issues of Islamic theology has been the idea of qadr, commonly translated as predestination. Immediately one comes to think that God has already predetermined one’s eventual outcome thereby suggesting that God knew and planned the actions of man. It is not a particularly comfortable, or for that matter, rational concept. God says in the Quran, “We created you and that which you do” implying actions are the creations of the divine puppeteer. Moreover, in a saying of the Prophet “Each one of you collected in the womb of his mother for forty days, and then turns into a clot for an equal period (of forty days) and turns into a piece of flesh for a similar period (of forty days) and then Allah sends an angel and orders him to reveal four things: his provision, his age, and whether he will be of the wretched or the blessed (in the Hereafter).” Each one of these four things cannot be taken in isolation. One’s provision depends on how hard one works; his age depends on his health; his final destination is predicated on his behavior by himself and with other people. All in all, his every outcome is preceded by an action, so if God knows the outcome, then he must know the actions, and if he has determined these four things, in some ways he has also determined his actions. A hard working man is likely to earn more than the sloth.
The debate on qadr is a complex one and Islamic intellectual history demonstrates that the preceding evaluation is a quite simplistic and shallow interpretation. Nevertheless, the Quranic world view is indeed paradoxical: on the one hand it suggests unconstrained free will, while on the other it provides a more deterministic vision. The dominant theological opinion is offered by the Ashari school of thought which postulates the idea of kasb, or acquisition. God creates the actions but man has the free will to acquire the action. He chooses to punch a man but the punch is created by God.
Understanding qadr is complicated further when considering man’s own rational proclivities which rally against the idea of a divine hand planning and executing. It is not a comfortable idea especially as our sensory perceptions do not see a controller, and we certainly do not feel a God is compelling us to do anything. Generally, if history has taught us anything, man does not like to be imposed upon. The American Constitution is based on furthering life and liberty; the Enlightenment was about man following the God of himself; the Cold War was a conflict of freedom and state authority. Today freedom is a hallowed aim in speech, sexuality, occupation, movement, etc. It is that sacred goal that both the Left and the Right desire.
Yet we all know freedom has its limits. We are also well aware freedom does not mean arbitrariness. We are all constrained by our morals, our culture, our jobs, and our community. Freedom unrestrained is an aspiration no-one really aspires for. There are always implicit and explicit rules to regulate behavior, and by regulating behavior we make actions easier to predict and forecast.
In physical and social sciences, explaining and then predicting human behavior has become a fundamental preoccupation. Advances in biology have allowed us to see that every individual is made up of genes which define a person’s physical and occasionally behavioral countenance. There are organisations that can map out our genes, and biotech companies are looking at ways to manipulate genes of children. You want your child to have blond hair, look we found the gene, lets change it because you want him to have green hair. You do not want your child to get angry too often; we found the hormones that cause that, lets change the amount of that hormone in its body. By being able to change these building blocks of our being, we are presupposing that there is a determinism that has taken place.
But in predicting behavior, the social sciences play a dominant role. The mere fact that it is called a science suggests that behavior can be explained and subsequently predicted and this is precisely what is taking place though the utilsation of copious amounts of data and statistical techniques. Economists and financial analysts have become the prophets of our age producing reports that are reamed full of data. Economists study data and then offer policy advice; governments and institutions react and create policies based upon some desired goal. Financial analysts study meticulously the movements in the market, formulating predictions by which investors will determine their decisions. Today there are numerous analysts offering assessments of the market, some bullish, others bearish, but the investor can be swayed by how the analyst assesses future behavior. We even have forecasts that predict the prices of bonds and shares in 5 years or in 10 years.
No one states that an economist or analyst can be definitive and true in their forecasts, but their mere articulation would imply that the idea of determinism and qadr in its more restrictive sense may not be as irrational as many would like to believe. They are assuming human behavior follows definable rules.
However, in predicting, there are ways of ways of manipulating human behaviour. Forecasts of future government and institutional action can be interpreted by policy makers in a way that satisfies their own aims. For instance, the now infamous Rogoff and Reinhart analysis of financial crisis was the impetus behind austerity measures throughout the world. An even more egregious example would be how banks viewed the performance of collateral debt obligations: it was assumed everything was on the up. Even the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, was buoyant before the tumultuous decline. There was a profitable cycle: reports that showed profitable outcomes, more investment, more money into financial products, prices increase, more reports showing increased performance, etc. One could define the outline as a bubble, and bubbles are very much a phenomena of the modern financial economy.
When the bottom fell out, the financial crisis taught us that human behavior is not easy to predict although we may try. It also taught us another lesson. We can push people into making decisions by showing them the profitable outcomes of previous behavior. Preceding the financial crisis, the goal was high return, and that was enough to motivate a herd mentality. This fundamental goal then allowed behavior to be more explicable. Financial markets generalize the profit maximizing motive; it is assumed that people will always be looking to increase their return. But there is always a limit. The problem is knowing that there is a limit and where that limit is. It is very difficult to know if what you only see financial products, like equities, for their financial benefit (this fund will give you a 7 percent return) and not for its consequence on society. We might invest in Walmart because it offers a good return, but pay little to no attention to the sweatshops it generates.
Analysing and forecasting are necessary. However, we need to step back before we make decisions that pursue a self-satisfying certain goal. Human behavior can only be predicted by presupposing this goal, whatever this goal may be. Then we can say there is some determinism as what this goal is will determine how societies, markets, communities and individuals will be directed. So perhaps qadr and the idea of kasb is not as irrational as many would like to believe. We have a goal, we make the choice, God executes the action, and the consequence for a whole community can be determined. Having the freedom to choose altruistic goals will lead to a more altruistic and, dare I say it, socialist economy. Having the freedom to choose more selfish goals will lead to a more cutthroat economy. Today society is a bit of both; where society goes is unclear although it depends on the values and goals of society’s constituents. Indeed, as God says in the Quran “ God will not change the condition of a people until they change themselves”. Free will does work with determinism it seems.