Since the start of the global coronavirus pandemic, a particular hadith of the Prophet, found in the most authentic canonical Sunni collections, has been widely quoted. The Prophet is reported to have said: ‘If you hear of plague in a land, do not travel there. If it occurs in your land, do not leave, fleeing from it.’ This is extraordinary advice from the seventh century! An even more subtle insight is gained from a related story about Caliph Omar, who was travelling in an expedition to Syria from Medina. On the way, news reached the Caliph of the plague of Emmaus in Syria. He consulted his advisors. One of them testified that he had heard the above tradition of the Prophet. So, Omar announced that they would immediately return to Medina. Abu ‘Ubaydah bin al-Jarrah, one of the Caliph’s senior advisors, questioned Omar. Apparently he had not heard the hadith directly from the Prophet himself and was not convinced of its authenticity. ‘Are we fleeing from the decree (qadar) of God?’, he asked. Abu ‘Ubaydah’s fatalism was so strong that he favoured completing the journey and submitting to the will of God, even if that meant disease or death. But Caliph Omar replied: ‘We are fleeing from the decree of God to the decree of God.’

In other words, Caliph Omar understood deeply that everything is the decree of God – this is a rather obvious consequence of a monotheistic belief in One, Omniscient God who knows the past, present and future.

The concept of Qadr or Qadar is a prominent theme in the Qur’an. Variously translated as Decree, Fate, Predestination, or Predetermination, it is also one of the most contested within Islam, right from its inception. Many hadiths record questions put to the Prophet about such matters. After his death, there appeared a group called the Qadaris (Free-Willers) who denied predestination completely and believed that humans had complete free will, otherwise human responsibility was impossible and heaven and hell made no sense. Many leading Companions, such as ‘Abdullah the son of Caliph Omar, strongly condemned them as heretics. Later, a group known as the Jabaris (Determinists) appeared. They were the opposite extreme to the Qadaris and believed in total predestination: humans had the illusion of free will, but were effectively ‘forced’ (jabr or jabar) by Divine Omniscience. 

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