How fatalism serves the rulers
You must have heard about the latest disaster in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, on Sept. 24. More than 700 pilgrims died in a stampede on the way to the ritual of “stoning the devil.” And this was only a repetition of similar disasters that happened again in Mecca, and again during the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage that millions of Muslims come from all around the world to do.
Besides the painful human tragedy, there are many theological implications of this disaster. One wonders, for example, whether we Muslims would defy the devil better by throwing less stones at him, and also by causing fewer deaths among ourselves. In other words, perhaps we should think better about the meaning of Islam’s centuries-old rituals, rather than trampling on each other to observe them literally and blindly.
Another key aspect of the disaster is the way it was interpreted by Saudi Arabia’s top religious leader, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh. Two days after the incident, the 74-year-old cleric visited Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, who is both the interior minister and head of the Saudi Hajj committee. “You are not responsible for what happened,” the sheikh said to the prince. He added:
“As for the things that humans cannot control, you are not blamed for them. Fate and destiny are inevitable.”
When I read this, I said, “Wow.” For this was a perfect example of the deep trouble in the Muslim world that I have been writing about: Fatalism used as an excuse for ridding humans of responsibility — especially humans in power. For when you declare something as “God’s will,” it becomes impossible to ask further questions. All you are left with is the duty to accept and obey; and not just God, but also the ruler.
In fact, this political benefit was the very reason fatalism was initially established in Islam, decades after the Qur’an and the Prophet, by the Umayyad dynasty. Most Umayyad sultans, who also claimed to be “caliphs,” were corrupt despots who faced both political and religious opposition. In return, they promoted “Jabriyyah,” the fatalist school that argued every human action is predetermined by God. The political implication was that the Umayyad rule was predetermined by God as well — and questioning it would be tantamount to blasphemy!
Meanwhile, the Umayyads also made sure to suppress the dangerous idea of free will. Scholars who defended this view, arguing that humans who have the freedom to make decisions are thus responsible for their actions, were persecuted. One of them, Ghaylan al-Dimashqi, who proclaimed that rulers cannot regard their power as “a gift from God,” was executed.
It is possible to see the echoes of that Umayyad-serving-fatalism in the Saudi sheikh’s blessing of the Saudi crown prince. Some ideas persist, as the purposes that they serve.
However, it is good to see that this is not the only line of thought among the Saudi ruling elite today. In fact, the crown prince himself was not sufficed with the “fate and destiny” argument and ordered an investigation.
Moreover, King Salman also stepped in, ordered a “revision” of the pilgrimage organization and dismissed three senior officials: the minister of the Hajj, the mayor of Mecca, and the city’s police chief.
These are positive steps. Apparently in Saudi Arabia, as elsewhere, there is both an archaic notion of religion that serves nothing but nurturing blind obedience, but also a more rational, responsible approach that also has its grounds in the very core texts of Islam. The latter is the only way forward.