Islam free will or predestination : Throughout the ages thinkers have debated, Does humanity have free will? or are things predetermined by God? There are strong arguments for each side and this article will try to see which is the correct view.
Before any serious discussion can begin, we need to define the relevant terms;
Free will = a humans ability to make decisions completely independently.
Predestination = humanity has no free will and all events occur as planned by God.
Islam : Free Will or Predestination?
It is important to distinguish God (Allah) having complete knowledge of all that will happen, and Allah compelling man to do something. So Allah can have complete knowledge about all matters, and the individuals can still have free will to choose, there is nothing contradictory in that. The crux of the debate revolves around the issue of Allah’s Will, or rather are we separate from it? Can we act independently of it? if we can, then one could argue Allah does not have absolute power or control. If we are not separate from it, and in fact at its mercy, then our deeds are not in fact ours, as we had no control in them, and therefore the responsibility shifts from us to Allah, is it fair for a person to be punished for something that he had no responsibility for?
I will hopefully try to explained this apparent paradox and come up with the correct understanding. The argument has caused some extreme groups such as the Jabariya and the Qadariyya, the Jabariya ( lead by Jahm bin Safwan) believed that Allah’s will is absolute and everything that happens is due to Allah and nothing to do with man. This view was partly used to justify some of the political turmoil at his time, such as the battle of Karbala and the ransacking of Mecca and Medina, these events were not to be placed upon the corrupt rulers of the time, but said to be “Allah’s will, or a test”. The Qadariyya went the other way and said that Allah has nothing to do with human actions, and that whatever happens is only down to man kind and that Allah only knows a man’s actions once he has done them.
The two main groups of what we call Sunni Muslims today at that time were the Mu’tazilah, which had the view of complete free will (like the Qadiriya) and the Asharia who held a view that is unusual. The Ash’arites say that mankind does not do anything, but rather they intend to do something, then Allah makes their intention happen. The position of the Jabriya, and all those that negated free will was in fact a weak one, and only a quick glance through the sources of Islam revealed that there was not any significant textual backing for such a position :
6|148|The polytheists will say, “Had God willed, we would not have practiced idolatry, nor would have our forefathers, nor would we have prohibited anything.” Likewise those before them lied, until they tasted Our might. Say, “Do you have any knowledge that you can produce for us? You follow nothing but conjecture, and you only guess.”
18|29|And say, “The truth is from your Lord. Whoever wills—let him believe. And whoever wills—let him disbelieve”. We have prepared for the unjust a Fire, whose curtains will hem them in. And when they cry for relief, they will be relieved with water like molten brass, which scalds the faces. What a miserable drink, and what a terrible place.
The fatalist position was often the one taken by dictators or political con-men who wished to fool the masses by saying “if Allah wanted it to be any other way, it would be”, and indeed it was used in this way many times, and for that reason the mind of the rational uncompromising person inclines not to accept the fatalist view.
The Argument for Free Will
The issue of free will is firstly one from a rational perspective, the who issue of creation would seem entirely pointless as a test if the subjects are not actually being tested, but rather just acting out what has already been chosen for them. This scenario seems implausible, additionally the numerous verses from the Quran about gaining the consequences of your actions, and how mankind is graded based on their faith and decisions in life make the strong case there is at least some form of free will.
2|286|God does not burden any soul beyond its capacity. To its credit is what it earns, and against it is what it commits. “Our Lord, do not condemn us if we forget or make a mistake. Our Lord, do not burden us as You have burdened those before us. Our Lord, do not burden us with more than we have strength to bear; and pardon us, and forgive us, and have mercy on us. You are our Lord and Master, so help us against the disbelieving people.”
5|48|And We revealed to you the Book, with truth, confirming the Scripture that preceded it, and superseding it. So judge between them according to what God revealed, and do not follow their desires if they differ from the truth that has come to you. For each of you We have assigned a law and a method. Had God willed, He could have made you a single nation, but He tests you through what He has given you. So compete in righteousness. To God is your return, all of you; then He will inform you of what you had disputed.
2|253|These messengers: We gave some advantage over others. To some of them God spoke directly, and some He raised in rank. We gave Jesus son of Mary the clear miracles, and We strengthened him with the Holy Spirit. Had God willed, those who succeeded them would not have fought one another, after the clear signs had come to them; but they disputed; some of them believed, and some of them disbelieved. Had God willed, they would not have fought one another; but God does whatever He desires.
Many times we find in the Quran, “had God willed”, meaning that He hasn’t Willed something to happen, so the matter is left for humanity and its free will.
The Argument for Predestination
The main issue is that Islamically, it is known that Allah created the universe with a plan, a purpose, so inherently, there is some form of predestination, the fact anything exists at all, is not from our own will, but Allah’s. The fact that there is a plan, and Allah has a will and a wish for the universe must mean that there is a going to be some influence in it. Despite the evidence for free will, there is also evidence from Islamic texts that there are predetermined things;
4|78|Wherever you may be, death will catch up with you, even if you were in fortified towers. When a good fortune comes their way, they say, “This is from God.” But when a misfortune befalls them, they say, “This is from you.” Say, “All is from God.” So what is the matter with these people, that they hardly understand a thing?
3|145|No soul can die except by God’s leave
, at a predetermined time. Whoever desires the reward of the world, We will give him some of it; and whoever desires the reward of the Hereafter, We will give him some of it; and We will reward the appreciative.
3|156|O you who believe! Do not be like those who disbelieved, and said of their brethren who marched in the land, or went on the offensive, “Had they stayed with us, they would not have died or been killed.” So that God may make it a cause of regret in their hearts. God gives life and causes death. God is Seeing of what you do.
There is clear evidence that death is something that is definite, in that it is a property of the universe and death will happen. However does it mean that we have a predetermined life span, regardless of our deeds and actions? No, we do not find any evidence for that position, and find much evidence for the position that life is dependent on our actions, however one unavoidable or predetermined thing is death, it will happen to us all.
As for our acts, the first to believe that our acts are predestined was Satan who says :
15|39|He said, “My Lord, since You have made me fail, I will glamorize for them on earth, and I will lure them all away.”
Clearly, this line of thought is defective and hence why it is not acceptable.
This issue needs to be understood in two dimensions, the first is are humans free to choose their actions and second are we free to choose what is right. The first issue is clear, we are able to act freely within the limits God has laid down for us. For example we can not flap our arms and fly, if we do not drink water we get thirsty. These things are causal facts that are governed by God’s system which is unchanging and. The second issue is regarding the plan for humanity, are we “free” to do as we like here, or does God have a plan and a desire for us? We know there is a plan and a wish for humanities future, so we have not been left here aimless, God has instructed us to live in a certain way. The important word here is instructed, we are not forced, or compelled, but asked. Just like the law asks us not to commit crime, we are still able to choose to if we so desire.
Humanity seems limited in certain ways, we are born at a particular time, to certain parents, with unique physical attributes, these are predestined, in the sense that we had no choice in the matter. I do not have any ability to change my parents or the time I was born, or if I am born with one leg, then that is what I am.
Here are some opinions of tradition Muslim scholars:
Imam Sadiq said: “Whatever that you could blame man for it, is his action and whatever you could not blame him for it, is the act of God. God blames man for drinking alcohol, committing adultery etc. Thus, these are the acts of man. However, God does not blame man why he is sick or why his skin color is black or fair. Thus, these are the acts of God.”
Once a nomad came to Imam Ali ibn abi Talib, inquiring about freewill and determinism. Imam Ali ibn abi Talib asked him to stand up then asked him to lift one leg, which he did, then asked him to stand up then asked him to lift one leg, which he did, then asked him to lift the other one, which obviously he couldn’t do. At this juncture Imam Ali Ibn abi Talib told him that this is how much freewill there is and this is how much determinism there is.
It is also important to acknowledge that ultimately our free will is only “on loan” from Allah, and He is the possessor of the source of power, and the sustainer of creation, our existence is completely dependent on Him. So things that are outside of our ability to control, then we are not going to be asked or judged on them. So the correct view is there are some issues which have been set for us, and there are some which we can change, those that we change, we take responsibility for:
Imam Hadi quoting from Imam Sadiq said: “People with regards to ‘destiny’ are of three categories: The first is the one who assumes that Allah has given full authority to him. This (person) has weakened God in His kingdom, thus, he is perished. The second is the one who assumes that God has forced people to sin and He has held them responsible over things that they have no power over. This (person) is unfair to God in His judgment, thus he is perished. The third is the one who assumes God has held people responsible for what they do and does not hold them responsible for what they have no power over. Then when he does something good, he praises God and when he does something evil, he seeks God’s forgiveness. This (person) is a mature Muslim.”
The Imam was also asked about the meaning of ‘a matter in between’. His reply was: “The example of it is, if you see a man committing a sin and you advise him to refrain from it, yet he does not pay any heed to your advice. Surely, just because he didn’t listen to you, it cannot be said that you forced him to sin.”
So when it is said that there is a position between free will and determinism which the Muslims take, it is meant that some things are out of our hands and decided for us, eg our hair color. However our acts are also not absolutely left to us, God commands us to do good, however He is not willing us to do it, if He willed it, then we would have no choice but to do it, He is God after all, He is all powerful. However, here he is wishing us to do it, so He asks and commands by His religion in order to purify us and give us moral guidance.
An example of this system is where Allah says He will not change a people until they change themselves, thus explaining the whole concept in one line.
13|11|He has a succession; before him and behind him, protecting him by God’s command. God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is within themselves. And if God wills any hardship for a people, there is no turning it back;, and apart from Him they have no protector.
It is here that the power of prayer and good deeds can be found, by changing that which is outside of your control. When we say about the matter in between, it can be seen as a motivation, rather than compulsion or being left free. For example, if I see a lovely cake, I may have a motivation to eat it because I like its taste, but then I think further and remember I am on a diet to be healthier, if my heart accepts the argument of being healthy, then I will not eat the
cake. God’s compulsion is like that, it is a powerful motivating argument to do good.
So why is there so much confusion in the Muslim world today on this issue? Partly because of the poor choice of translated words, for example many people say “Qadar” is an article of faith, and they interpret it as “predestination”, when the Arabic word “Qadar” (قدر) actually means “measure”, eg deciding the exact specifications of something.
In the Quran it uses the word many times, for example :
I am having troubling finding a citation with the text you had shared:
“Once a nomad came to Imam Ali ibn abi Talib (a.s), inquiring about freewill and determinism. Imam Ali ibn abi Talib (a.s) asked him to stand up then asked him to lift one leg, which he did, then asked him to stand up then asked him to lift one leg, which he did, then asked him to lift the other one, which obviously he couldn’t do. At this juncture Imam Ali Ibn abi Talib (a.s) told him that this is how much freewill there is and this is how much determinism there is.”
Do you know the direct source of where I can find this?