Divine providence in Islam and Judaism

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Not a leaf falls without His knowledge

– Quran 6:59

Even the movement of a leaf in the wind is planned by G-d

– Baal Shem Tov (The founder of Hasidic Judaism)

In Judaism there are many schools of thought concerning divine providence and not everyone subscribes to the view quoted above. However the message the Baal Shem Tov relays predates Islam by at least 500 years and is first recorded in Talmud as a teaching of Nachum Gamzu:

This, too, is for the best

With this statement Nachum Gamzu was suggesting that nothing can happen unless G-d wills it and G-d’s will can only be for the best. In the 12th the Rambam wrote one of his most famous works, in which he put forth an alternative position:

The first view is the claim of some people that there is no divine providence at all regarding anything in existence, and everything that exists, in heaven and on earth, is merely a result of chance and happenstance. There is no organizer, director, or watchman over anything. This view is pure heresy.

The second view is the opinion of those who believe that over some things there is divine providence, and these are directed by a director and organized by an organizer, but other things are left to chance. This is the view of Aristotle.

The third view is the opinion of those who believe that nothing in existence is a result of chance, not specific individuals nor general groups; rather, everything is with [divine] will, intent, and direction…This view is held by the Muslim school [of theologians] known as the Asharites.

The fourth view is the opinion of those who believe that all divine acts are a result of a divine wisdom which can bear no injustice [even in regard to animals and inanimate objects]… The Mu’tazilites subscribe to this view…and this view leads them to believe absurdities…they will even say about a guiltless mouse that is devoured by a cat or bird that God decreed this fate for this mouse, and God will compensate this mouse in Heaven for what happened…

He then concludes with his own position:

The fifth view is our view, that is, the Torah’s view… that man is completely in control of his actions, he has complete free will and acts on his own accord…and everything that occurs to man is fitting to occur… I believe that divine providence in this lower world, that is under the lunar spheres, is directed towards the human species alone. Only [the human] species is governed [with divine providence] in every detail [of life], and all good and bad that occurs to him in accordance with what he deserves… However regarding all other animals, and even more so the plants and other inanimate objects, my view is that of Aristotle. I do not believe at all that this specific leaf falls as a result of divine providence, nor that this spider devours this specific fly as a result of a divine decree on this individual fly. Furthermore, I do not believe that when Reuven spits and the spit lands on a specific mosquito in a specific place and kills the mosquito, that this was fulfillment of a heavenly decree, nor that when a fish snatches a specific worm floating on the river that such was the will of the Lord. Rather all of the aforementioned occurrences are completely chance, as Aristotle contends.

– Moreh Nevuchim 3:17

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One thought on “Divine providence in Islam and Judaism

  1. There is some precedent in Judaism and Christianity for something closer to the Aristotelian view, but more nuanced, allowing for Divine sovereignty and Providence in addition to the existence of random phenomena. It is extremely complicated, and difficult to explain without SOUNDING like one doubts the sovereignty of God, but I assure you that this is not the case. If you’re interested in looking it up yourself, the concept is usually called “tzimtzum”. Modern Christians sometimes call it “process theology” or “open theism”.

Divine providence in Islam and Judaism