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The nature of human free will


Our free will is not visible and does not have material existence. However, such factors do not render its existence impossible. Everyone has two (physical) eyes, but we also can see with our third (spiritual) eye. We use the former to see things in this world; we use the latter to see things beyond events and this world. Our free will is like our third eye, which you may call insight. It is an inclination or inner force by which we prefer and decide.


Man wills and God creates. A project or a building’s plan has no value or use unless you start to construct the building according to it, so that it becomes visible and serves many purposes. Our free will resembles that plan, for we decide and act according to it, and God creates our actions as a result of our decisions. Creation and acting or doing something are different things. God’s creation means that He gives actual existence to our choices and actions in this world. Without God’s creation, we can do nothing.


To illuminate a magnificent palace, we must install a lighting system. However, the palace cannot be illuminated until we flick the switch that turns on the lights. Until we do so, the palace will remain dark. Similarly, each man and woman is a magnificent palace of God. We are illuminated by belief in God, Who has supplied us with the necessary lighting system: intellect, reason, sense, and the abilities to learn, compare, and prefer.


Nature and events, as well as Divinely revealed religions, are like the source of electricity that illuminates this Divine palace of the human individual. If we do not use our free will to flick the switch, however, we will remain in darkness. Turning on the light means petitioning God to illuminate us with belief. In a manner befitting a servant at his lord’s door, we must petition the Lord of the Universe to illuminate us and so make us a “king” in the universe. When we do this, the Lord of the Universe treats us in a way befitting Himself, and promotes us to the rank of kingship over other realms of creation.


God takes our free will into account when dealing with us and our acts, for He uses it to create our deeds. Thus we are never victims of Destiny or wronged by Fate. However insignificant our free will is when compared with God’s creative acts, it is still the cause of our deeds. God makes large things out of minute particles, and creates many important results from simple means. For example, He makes a huge pine tree from a tiny seed, and uses our inclinations or free choice to prepare our eternal happiness or punishment.


To better understand our part, and that of our will power, in our acts and accomplishments, consider the food we consume. Without soil and water, air and the sun’s heat, none of which we can produce or create despite our advanced technology, we would have no food. We cannot produce a single seed of corn. We did not create our body and establish its relationship with food; we cannot even control a single part of our body. For example, if we had to wind our heart like a clock at a fixed time every morning, how long would we survive?


Obviously, almost all parts of the whole complex and harmonious universe, which is a most developed organism, work together according to the most delicate measures to produce a single morsel of food. Thus, the price of a single morsel is almost as much as the price of the whole universe. How can we possibly pay such a price, when our part in producing that morsel is utterly negligible, consisting of no more than our own effort?


Can we ever thank God enough for even a morsel of food? If only a picture of grapes were shown to us, could all of us work together and produce it? No. God nourishes us with His bounty, asking in return very little. For example, if He told us to perform 1,000 rak‘as (units) of prayer for a bushel of wheat, we would have to do so. If He sent a raindrop in return for one rak‘a, we would have to spend our whole lives praying. If you were left in the scorching heat of a desert, would you not give anything for a single glass of water?


How can we thank Him enough for each bodily limb? When we see sick and crippled people in hospitals, or when we ourselves are ill, we understand how valuable good health is. But can we ever thank Him enough for this blessing? The worship God Almighty orders us to perform is, in fact, for our personal benefit and spiritual refinement, and well as for a good personal and collective life. Furthermore, if we believe in and worship God, He rewards us with infinite happiness and bounties in Paradise.


In sum: Almost everything we have is given to us for practically nothing, and our part in the bounty we enjoy here is therefore quite negligible. Similarly, our free will is equally negligible when compared with what God Almighty creates from our use of it. Despite our free will’s weakness and our own inability to really understand its true nature, God creates our actions according to the choices and decisions we make through it.




Is Islamic viewpoint of Destiny and human free will compatible with fatalism?




Most Western Orientalists accuse Islam of being fatalistic. Whereas, except a small sect-Jabriya-no one in the history of Islam has defended fatalism. Almost all the Western philosophies of history and, to some extent, Christianity with all its sects, are, by contrast, fatalistic and based on the irresistibility of what they call historical laws. The outlines of those philosophies of history may be summed up as follows:


*Mankind are in a continuous progress towards the final happy end.


*This progress depends on the fatalistic, irresistible laws of history which are completely independent of humanity, so humanity must, in any case, obey these laws, otherwise they are certain to be eliminated.


*All the stages, primitive, feudal or capitalistic, through which mankind inevitably pass in the course of time to the final happy end should not be criticized, because mankind have nothing to do other than passing through them.


What is implied concerning the political conditions of time by all such philosophies of history may be this: The present socio-economic and even the political conditions of the world are inevitable, because they were dictated by nature, which decrees that only the able and the powerful can survive. If the laws of history dictated by nature are in favor of the West, the communities that choose to survive must concede to the dominion of the West.


What distinguishes the Quranic concept of history from other philosophies is that, first of all, while philosophers of history or sociologists build their conceptions on the interpretation of past events and present situations, the Quran deals with the matter from the perspective of unchanging principles. Second, contrary to the fatalism of all other philosophies, the Quran lays great emphasis on the free choice and moral conduct of the individual and community. Although Divine Will, emphasized by the Quran, could be regarded as, in some respects, the counterpart of the ‘Geist’ in the Hegelian philosophy and of absolute, irresistible laws of history in other philosophies, the Quran never denies human free will. God, according to the Quran, tests humanity in this life so that humanity should sow the ‘field’ of the world to harvest in the next life, which is eternal. For this reason, the stream of events-successes and failures, victories and defeats, prosperity and decay-all are the occasions which God causes to follow one another for mankind, to the end that the good may be distinguished from the evil. Testing must evidently require that the one who is tested should possess free will to choose between what is lawful and unlawful or what is good and bad. Thus, according to the Quran, what makes history is not a compelling Divine Will, rather it is humanity’s own choice, the operation of which God Almighty has made a simple condition for the coming into effect of His universal will. If this point is understood well enough, then it will be easy to see how groundless are the Western philosophies of history especially with respect to their conception of some “inevitable end.”


Destiny and human free will can be reconciled in the following seven ways:


This subject is quite difficult and has long been discussed by exacting scholars who have attached to it great significance.The Divine Destiny and man’s free will can be reconciled in seven ways.


First way


The absolute order and harmony displayed by the whole of creation bear witness that God is All-Wise and Just. Wisdom and Justice demand that man should possess free will so that he may be chastised or rewarded for his acts. Although we cannot know the exact nature of this free will, and we may not be able to reconcile it properly with Divine Destiny, this does not mean that free will does not exist.


Second way


Every person feels himself to possess free will, and perceives it to exist. Knowing the nature of something is different from knowing that it exists. There are many things the existence of which is obvious to us while their nature is not understood. Man’s free will may be one of them. Also, existence is not restricted to the number of the things of which we know, so our ignorance of something does not indicate that it does not exist.


Third way


Man’s free will does not contradict Divine Destiny, rather, Destiny confirms the existence of free will. Divine Destiny is in some respects identical with Divine Knowledge, which goes parallel with man’s free will, in determining his actions, thus it confirms free will, and does not nullify it.


Fourth way


Divine Destiny is a kind of knowledge, and knowledge is dependent on the thing known. That is, conceptual knowledge is not fundamental to determine the external existence of what is known. The known in its external existence is dependent upon the Divine Power, acting through the Divine Will.


Also, past eternity is not, as people imagine, just the starting-point of ‘time’ so that it becomes essential for the existence of things. Past eternity is in fact like a mirror in which the whole of time, past, present and future, is reflected. People tend to, excluding themselves from the passage of time, imagine a limit for past time which extends through a certain chain of things, and they call it azel-past eternity. But to reason according to such an imagining is not right and acceptable. For better understanding of this subtle point, the following example may help:


Imagine that you are standing with a mirror in your hand, that everything reflected on the right represents the past, while everything reflected on the left represents the future. The mirror can reflect one direction only since it cannot show both sides at the same time as you are holding it. If you wish to reflect both directions at the same time, it would be necessary to rise high above your original position so that left and right directions are united into one and nothing remains to be called first or last, beginning or end. As already mentioned, Divine Destiny is in some respects identical with Divine Knowledge. It is described in a Prophetic saying as containing all times and events in a single point, where first and last, beginning and end, what has happened and what will happen, are all united into one. And we are not excluded from it so that our understanding of time and events could be like a mirror to the space of the past.


Fifth way


‘Cause and effect’ are not separable in the view of Destiny, that is, it is destined that this ‘cause’ will produce that ‘effect’. It cannot therefore be argued that, for example, ‘killing a man by shooting him’ should not be regarded as a crime because the slain was destined to die at that time anyway so he would have died even had he not been shot. Such an argument is baseless since that man is actually destined to die as a result of being shot. The argument that he would have died even if he had not been shot would mean that he died without a cause, and in this case we should not be able to explain how he died. It should be remembered that there are not two kinds of destiny-one for the cause, and the other for the effect. Destiny is one. Having been deceived by such a paradox, the Mu’tazili school of thought concluded that ‘the man would not have died if he had not been shot’ (forgetting that it was his destiny to be shot) while the Mujabbira (Fatalists) argued that he would have died even if he had not been shot. The Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jama‘a follow the correct view by judging that ‘we do not know whether he would have died or not if he had not been shot’.


Sixth way


The followers of Imam al-Maturidi, one of the sub-schools of the Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jama‘a, regarded man’s inclination upon which his free will is based as having nominal value and existence, and accordingly originating in man himself, while the Ash‘arites do not ascribe that inclination to man because they consider it to have a real existence. According to them, man has, however, a nominal or theoretical disposal of that inclination and, because of this, the inclination and man’s disposal of it are a relative matter, not having a definite external existence. Something of nominal and relative existence does not require a perfect efficient cause which would annul man’s free will in his actions; rather, when its cause acquires the weight of preference, it might have an actual existence. In which case, where the Qur’an says, ‘Do not do this, because this is evil’, he may refrain from committing it. If man were the creator of his own actions, then he would himself be the ultimate cause of them, and his will would be cancelled. According to the science of established principles or methodology and logic, if a thing is not necessary, it will not exist. That means there has to be a real complete cause before something can exist, but a complete cause makes the existence of something compulsory so there will be no room for choice.




Man’s actions are the result of his preference between two alternatives, which is of nominal significance. If a necessary cause does not exist which forces him to make a preference, then this means that the act of preference takes place without a necessary cause. Is it not a logical impossibility which contradicts one of the most important principles of theology?




It is not an impossibility that man makes a preference without a necessary cause, it is an attribute of his free will to do such things. It is, however, an impossibility that something can be preferable by itself without a necessary cause for its preference.




Since it is God Who creates the act of murder, why is he who kills called a murderer?




According to Arabic grammar, the active participle functioning as the subject is derived from the infinitive, which denotes a relative affair or deed, not from another word derived from the infinitive which expresses an established fact. Therefore, since it is man himself who does the deed denoted by the infinitive, he is the murderer.


That is, man wills to do something and accordingly does it, so he is the doer or agent of his acts. It is the man himself who does the act of killing, so he should be called the murderer. God creates man’s acts in that He gives external existence to them; He does not perform those acts. It would have been meaningless for man to have free will if God had not created the acts which are the outcome of that free will.


Seventh way


Although man’s free will is too inefficient to cause something to happen, Almighty God, the absolutely Wise One, has made its operation a simple condition for the coming into effect of His universal Will. He guides man in whatever direction man wishes by the use of his free will so that he remains responsible for the consequences of his choice. As an example, if you were to take a child upon your shoulders, and then leave him free to decide where he would like to go and he elected for you to take him up a high mountain, and in consequence he caught cold, he would have no right to blame you for that. Indeed, you might even punish him because he wanted to go up the mountain. In like manner, Almighty God, the Most Just of Judges, never coerces His servants into doing something, and He has accordingly made His Will somewhat dependent on man’s free will.


In sum: As man, you do possess free will, which makes almost no contribution to your good acts, although it can cause deadly sins and destruction wherever it operates. Therefore, exploit your free will for your own benefit by praying to God continuously, so that you may enjoy the blessings of Paradise, a fruit of the chain of good deeds, and attain to eternal happiness. Further, you should always seek God‘s forgiveness for your sins in order to refrain from evil deeds and to be saved from the torments of Hell, a fruit of the accursed chain of evil deeds. Prayer and putting one’s trust in God greatly strengthen the inclination to good, and repentance and seeking God’s forgiveness cut the inclination to evil and break its transgressions.


We may summarize the discussion so far in seven points:


*Divine Destiny, also called Divine determination and arrangement, dominates the universe but does not cancel our free will.


*Since God is beyond time and space and everything is included in His Knowledge, He encompasses the past, present and future as a single, undivided point. For example: When you are in a room, your view is restricted to the room. But if you look from a higher point, you can see the whole city. As you rise higher and higher, your vision continues to broaden. The Earth, when seen from the moon, appears to be a small blue marble. It is the same with time. So, all time and space are encompassed by God as a single, undivided point, into which the past, present and future are united.


*Since all time and space are included in God’s Knowledge as a single point, God recorded everything that will happen until the Day of Judgment. Angels use this record to prepare a smaller record for each individual.


*We do not do something because God recorded it; God knew beforehand we would do it and so recorded it.


*There are not two destinies: one for the cause, the other for the effect. Destiny is one and relates to the cause and the effect simultaneously. Our free will, which causes our acts, is included in Destiny.


*God guides us to good things and actions, and allows and advises us to use our willpower for good. In return, He promises us eternal happiness in Paradise.


*We have free will, although we contribute almost nothing to our good acts. Our free will, if not used properly, can destroy us. Therefore we should use it to benefit ourselves by praying to God, so that we may enjoy the blessings of Paradise, a fruit of the chain of good deeds, and attain eternal happiness. Furthermore, we should always seek God’s forgiveness so that we might refrain from evil and be saved from the torments of Hell, a fruit of the accursed chain of evil deeds. Prayer and trusting in God greatly strengthen our inclination toward good, and repentance and seeking God’s forgiveness greatly weaken, even destroy, our inclination toward evil and transgression.

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