Fate not in our hands?
Only fools set out without using their heads
November 28, 2001
Stories for Young Adults, translated and adapted by Muhammad Nur
Abdus Salam. Illustrations by Bakhtiari Rose (2000, ABC International Group).
The translation is based on the Persian prose adaptation from verse by Mehdi
A ship moved away from the shore to start out on a voyage. Its passengers
were several traders who were traveling abroad to do business and some travelers
who were on a pleasure journey. While the ship moved out to sea several
of the passengers were sitting on the deck watching the coast grow smaller.
Whenever a group of people first meet each other and have nothing to
talk about, someone makes a comment and they begin to talk about that subject.
Then each person wants the others to know that he too is among them and
to exhibit his own taste and opinions.
The gaze of the passengers fell upon a small boat following their ship.
There were two people in it.
One of the company pointed to it and said, "They shouldn't
be setting out in the open sea in that tiny boat. If a storm arises, they'll
be in a lot of danger."
This observation led to a discussion of fate and free will. One of the
passengers believed in absolute predestination and said that the will of
man is an empty fantasy. A second said that a man's fate is the result of
his intelligence, knowledge, and education. Everyone wanted to offered an
The first speaker answered the second, saying, "No, brother, the
accounting of fate is not in our hands. No one knows anything. Who is to
say that our ship will reach its destination safely and the little boat
The others started to put their own two cents into the discussion. Said
"What are you saying? It's true that no man knows everything, but
he must take control of his affairs as much as he is able. Drifting thoughtlessly
will only lead to failure."
"That won't do! Every person has his own job. One is a trader who
buys and sells. Another is a scholar who follows his researches and enquiries.
If everyone were afraid of the ocean and remained at home, then the world's
trade would collapse. Certainly one must look for the best way to do anything.
When going on a sea journey, you have to choose the best ship. And that's
what we have done."
Still another said:
"A person going on a sea voyage should know how to swim."
Another: "God forgive your father! If there is a storm and the ship
breaks up in the middle of the ocean, what good will your swimming be?"
"No, no! You're speaking from your inexperience. Knowing something
is always better than not knowing something. A person who doesn't know how
to swim can drown taking a bath! The person who knows how to swim may be
able to keep himself afloat until some means of help arrives."
The former answered:
"That's what I've been saying. But a passenger in a small boat should
stay near the coast, even if he knows how to swim."
"I was saying something else. It doesn't make any difference if
you're near the coast or far away from it. If your life is not over, you'll
survive a raging inferno or the oceans waves. If not, you won't survive
even in your own bed at home."
"No, dear friend," said another. "Don't speak like that!
Your life is over, your life is not over! What does that mean? The accounting
of a man's life is not in the hands of blind and deaf fate. Most of a person's
fate is made by himself. If a man walks into a raging inferno without wearing
protective clothing he will certainly burn! If the life of a person were
entirely a matter of predestination and fate no one would bother to take
any precautions for his own safety. I myself am fearful right now for the
fate of those in that small boat."
"Don't waste your fears," said one of the men. "They may
be a lot smarter than you or I. How do we know they aren't expert swimmers?
It's said that even a mad man is aware of his own best interest. Anyway,
why should there be a storm?"
"Well, they've taken care to follow our big ship, haven't they?
If they have a problem, they can reach us."
"That's just talk! God forbid that something bad should happen.
Who knows what may happen?"
"Despite that, it's smart for everyone to consider what might happen
before it does. As the saying goes: 'a problem should be solved before it
occurs.' Life is not without calculation! We who are traders, if we were
to think that all we have to do is depend upon God for our livelihood and
not use our brains, well, we might as well carry cumin seed to Kerman to
sell, which is where it comes from! We would surely lose our money. Only
fools set out without using their heads."
As they were debating thus, a north wind began to blow and in the sea
little waves appeared. Soon the waves grew in size and began to break over
the deck of the vessel. A storm was raging and the ship was listing right
and left. The deck began to toss so much that the passengers grabbed anything
they could find to hold onto.
The little boat following the ship was thrown about by the waves. Finally
an especially heavy wave crashed against the boat and turned it over. The
two men who had been in it fell into the water and struggled helplessly
as the storm drove the capsized boat away from them.
The passengers on the ship who had been watching this terrible event
cried out together.
One of the traders who had a merciful heart but didn't know how to swim
said, "Now they'll drown! If any of you can do something, if anyone
can save those two men, I'll give him one hundred gold coins as reward,
fifty for each one who is saved!"
A sailor who had come up to strike the sails heard him and said, "I
can do it. Nobody else but me can survive those waves."
He stripped off his outer clothing and dived into the water. With a great
deal of effort he managed to save one of the two men. The other disappeared
beneath the waves.
Commented the first speaker of the previous debate, "Everything
is just as I said. Now you see!"
Two of the others replied, "We said the same thing. The destined
life of one of them was over and he drowned, but the other still has life
remaining, so he was saved. No one knows anything. Every person has his
"No, it was just as we said," said a couple of the others.
"Who is now receiving the reward of fifty gold coins? The man who knew
how to swim! No one else earned anything in the middle of this sea. The
young sailor made an effort and learned how to swim. Today he has been rewarded
for his efforts!"
"No, it's just as I said," exclaimed another. "I told
you I was afraid from the beginning. Now did you see how that man was drowned?"
The young sailor who had saved one of the two men from the capsized boat
had been listening to this discussion. He found his voice and said:
"It's true that the sea is full of danger and there are many unexpected
things that happen in life. But there is also another consideration. I got
the reward because I knew how to swim. It is the wages of knowledge and
the hire of skill. If someone else had been able to help, then we could
have saved both men. I wasn't able to bring them both back to the ship by
myself. If I had tried to take them both, they would have overpowered me
in their panic and things would have become very difficult. We all might
have drowned together.
"However, they were in fact two brothers from my neighborhood and
I knew them. As I was jumping into the water everything came back to me.
When we were children, one of them once hit me unfairly while we were playing.
But the other, when he found me one day in the desert tired and weak, let
me ride his camel home. They themselves had settled their fate today in
"I was able to save only one of them today, so I chose the one whom
I liked and went to his side. Anyone in my place would have done the same.
He would first save the person who had done him a kindness. And that is
what I did."
But the passengers persisted in their own ideas:
"If he had hadn't known them, the choice wouldn't have mattered."
"If they hadn't found themselves in the middle of the sea, one of
them wouldn't have been drowned."
"If they had been far from our ship, even that one wouldn't have