New Year's Resolutions: Fate or Fortitude?

12/30/2011 03:42 pm ET | Updated Feb 29, 2012

With New Year around the corner, most of us are preparing to rattle off a laundry list of things that we plan to change in our lives in 2012. We may want to lose weight, find a better job or get married. About a month or two into the year, many of us will abandon these resolutios and simply blame it on unavoidable circumstances or "fate." If God wanted something to happen in our lives then it would, right? So the effort we put into our goals is only possible to a certain extent -- or so we may think.

I began pondering the question of free will when I was in elementary school. I used to wonder if I would get the grade that I was predestined to have regardless of whether I had studied or not. The local mullah who taught me Quran at the time said: "You don't even have the power to lift a pencil without God's will." From thereon, every time my mother asked me to finish up my homework, I would tell her that God wants me to play tennis instead.

His fatalistic teachings in mind, life seemed to be like a television drama where I needed only to wait for a fixed plot to unfold. It was not the ideal lesson to receive as an impressionable youngster because it can lead one to wonder how meaningful human action is and to what degree we should make an effort to actualize our dreams.

If the circumstances of my life are written in stone, God has left me no choice than to align my desires with what He has decreed for me. From this vantage point, I have little incentive to put in the effort to pursue my goals.

If our lives are completely scripted, obtaining a letter for a dream job or a loan to start a business should magically arrive on our doorsteps, and surely, it's only befitting to expect a serendipitous meeting with your true love. Just say "insh'Allah" (God willing) and the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of one's life will fall in place.

This perception is flawed in my view, because while God may give us the puzzle pieces, we must use the intellect and strength He has granted us to put the pieces together.

Understanding the degree of a human being's free will has been debated since the time of the last prophet. According to Islamic Scholar Abdallah Adhami, Prophet Muhammad's companions often asked, "fī-ma'l 'amal," meaning "what is the point of doing work?" or "what good are deeds?"

The importance of human action as a prerequisite for success in any intended pursuit is emphasized many times in the Quran and Hadith, teachings of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Citing an axiomatic prophetic principle, Shaykh Adhami described how the ummah (community) of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, should be "dynamic and committed to action": "'If the Hour (end of the world) were to arrive while you were just about to plant a seed into the ground, you should go ahead and plant it.'"

God does not desire us to sit around and wait for our lives to happen. We learn that it is only through our effort to change our internal disposition that we can change our lives. "God will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves" (Quran 13:11).

This gives a renewed meaning to "insh'Allah" that, in essence, counters overdependence on predestination and scientific materialism. We have the ability to pursue our goals and make decisions, but God has prior knowledge of the choices we will make using our free will and intellect.

The self-proclaimed saints, pirs and fakirs, who claim to have supernatural powers, knowledge of the future, a direct link to God or the power over genies have no real "secret formula" for divining the future or changing our circumstances. As opposed to reaching out to such charlatans -- who are in the business of selling dreams -- you are much better off asking Siri for help.

Still, while rejecting the idea of Jabr (complete predestination), I was left grappling to understand where I belong in the continuum between free will and predestination. Tim Winter, a lecturer of Islamic Studies at Cambridge University, described the "orthodox Muslim doctrine of acquisition, or kasb," to explain how our free will operates. "Our acts already exist (for God time has no reality), but we can acquire them, through the moral dimension of the ruh (human consciousness)."

So we aren't controlled by a "joystick" placed aside the Divine Thrown in the seventh heaven and, rather, human agency is needed to realize predetermined outcomes.

Indeed, why would God have created Adam and allowed Satan to freely lead men astray until eternity -- unless he was picked to play the part of an antagonist? If humans were to live on predestined commands, then who is doomed to hell or who is raised to heaven would be purely arbitrary.

Since human action is necessary to acquire the destiny, we may wonder about the role of prayer in this process. Mr. Winter explained, "the Ash'ari can and does regard his 'acquisition' of actions as a decision genuinely attributable to the human subject." Hence, humans can use prayers of petition to obtain Divine guidance of which worldly pursuits are best for us.

Rumi scholar Kabir Helminski pointed to the importance of developing will, the capacity to choose consciously in the moment, to our spiritual path. "It is what makes us human more than anything else," he wrote. "The highest development of spirituality is the development of will -- in the end we will offer that will to God. In a sense that is the end of will, but really it is the end to all the obstacles and resistances from the nafs [ego] that block true will."

Mr. Helminski's thoughtful response reminded me of the eighth century Sufi ascetic Rabiʿa al-Adawiyya, who was seen carrying a fire torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. She wanted to set fire to paradise and extinguish the flames of hell so that people would devote themselves to God for God's sake. Resigned to God's will, she was neither motivated by the desire for eternal bliss in heaven nor the fear of hell fire, and through this metaphorical act, she hoped that the people of Basra would transcend materialism and turn to Reality.

The chance that we would be able to realize our dreams -- may it be success in exams, job, weight loss or finding true love -- without putting in our heart and soul into it is next to nil.

Similarly, as much as I would have loved to see this article write itself, it didn't.

In essence, the reality that God has foreknowledge of our decisions does not negate the fact that we as humans have the free will to make those decisions.

In the end, we are responsible for our actions, successes and failures. In attaining our dreams and turning our New Year's resolutions into reality, we should put forward our utmost effort rather than blindly holding "fate" responsible for our failure to do so.

May all your dreams come true. Happy New Year!