Mektoub: The role of predetermined destiny in North Africa
Since childhood, whether I would tell my grandma that I found ten euros on the street, that I missed a flight or that I wasn’t accepted into my dream university, she would always reply saying the same thing: Mektoub. This word, also a concept which literally translates to ‘it is written’, takes its origin from the Quran and refers to the notion of destiny.
For many Muslims, it is believed that fates are predetermined, and that God wrote down in a sacred book everything that will happen during the span of each person’s lifetime.
The term encourages gratitude and acceptance for the things that happen (good or bad), but some would argue that mektoub has also served to prevent North Africans - avid users of the expression - from taking control of their reality.
''I have always believed in the concept of mektoub, that God has a mission for each one of us and will put exactly what we need on our paths to fulfil it. Even beyond that, I am convinced that whatever happens to me is always for my own growth. Nevertheless, what concerns me, is the interpretation of the term by many North Africans I have known across my life, who use it to justify their lack of action, forgetting that with destiny, also comes free will.''
A familiar story across the Maghreb
During the summer of 2013, Amel, who was fifteen-years-old, went for a drive with her family. She was sitting in the left back seat. Suddenly, in the middle of the road, a weird feeling stirred in her body and she begged her dad to immediately drop her off at her grandma’s house. Her dad refused, but she continued to insist. Shortly after she got out of the car, the rest of the family had an accident, and the seat she was occupying a few minutes prior was completely destroyed. “Had I stayed” Amel told me, “I would've been severely injured or dead. And I feel like this is mektoub… it wasn't my time to die.”
North Africans everywhere have dozens upon dozens of these stories. It feels like not a conversation goes by amongst the community, without hearing someone mentioning mektoub, which constitutes a strong pillar of the culture and faith in the region. Whether sad or happy, every event has been decided by God, and thus, should be accepted and embraced.
It doesn’t matter if it looks unfair: it was written, and so, it was inevitable, and was also the best thing – the only thing - that could happen.
I have always believed in the concept of mektoub, that God has a mission for each one of us and will put exactly what we need on our paths to fulfil it. Even beyond that, I am convinced that whatever happens to me is always for my own growth. Nevertheless, what concerns me, is the interpretation of the term by many North Africans I have known across my life, who use it to justify their lack of action, forgetting that with destiny, also comes free will.
This mindset has real consequences. I’ve witnessed it with my own family who are migrants from Morocco who settled in Belgium. Having arrived from Tangier in the 70s, my grandparents are still living in an uncomfortably small flat they'd settled in 50 years ago, and are illiterate.
Undoubtedly the Belgian state’s unfair access to housing and a lack of adequate facilities that could provide education to illiterate immigrants remains the most significant reason for their circumstances. I must admit, I’ve always felt that their fatalist belief that ‘this was meant to be’ has also played a role in their circumstances.
Despite being a beautiful notion of Islam, “believing in the mektoub tends to limit us. We are so grateful for what we have and are so convinced that it is what God wanted for us, that we do not try to aim for better,” remarked my mother when I brought up the subject with her.
A young Algerian-Libyan acquaintance living in the UK similarly shared with me that mektoub “is a double-edged sword”. She summed up the contradictory role of the expression, especially amongst older generations: “It can provide hope in times of struggle and help people buffer the stress of pain and loss, but it can also prevent us from taking charge of our fate.”
A tale as old as colonialism
Renowned anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon drew a negative conclusion of the expression in The Wretched of the Earth (1961) when referring to French colonial rule of Algeria. According to him, the colonised people have used mektoub as a coping mechanism to face the inhumane colonial system.
‘A belief in fatality removes all blame from the oppressor; the cause of misfortunes and of poverty is attributed to God: He is Fate. In this way the individual accepts the disintegration ordained by God, bows down before the settler and his lot, and by a kind of interior restabilization acquires a stony calm,’ he wrote.
While finding the Fanonian analysis limited on a number of aspects, I feel it is important to understand how mektoub has and continues to influence social groups and political action in North Africa. The fear installed by the brutal French colonial machine and its military might made it impossible for the colonised to successfully liberate themselves from the ‘disintegration ordained by God’, at least in the immediate. It would take over 100 years for the imperial power to be defeated by their resistance.
Today, the struggles of North Africans might take a different shape, but they are still facing tremendous injustices, from repressive regimes, financial crises and unemployment, the weakening of civil liberties and of freedom of expression. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Mediterranean, the diaspora still tries to navigate deeply racist European societies where they deal with day-to-day islamophobia, police brutality, poverty, unemployment, and inhumane borders. In these contexts, trying to take control of the mektoub is undoubtedly extremely difficult, but urgently needed.
Words can have immense power. And although in North Africa the young generation tries to distance itself from the fatalist lecture of mektoub, it still holds on to ‘destiny’ as the centre of their faith. And once we understand that acceptance and ambition can go hand in hand, we will be unstoppable: finding the grace in difficulties and the strength in the certainty that God never lets us down.
Sania Mahyou is a Belgian-Moroccan freelance journalist and a student at Sciences Po Paris. She writes about political struggles, culture and minorities rights in the MENA region.
Follow her on Twitter: @MahyouSania
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