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Predestination vs. Free Will

 Night #4 - Predestination vs. Free Will

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

  The debate between predestination and free will is one of the most important in the religion of Islam. Many scholars in a multitude of religions have sought to determine whether our actions are due to our own will or if they are determined by God. This debate has both a political and social aspect. In terms of politics, it is the dictator’s dream to convince the society of predestination, as they can use the excuse that ‘God made me do it’ whenever they are spoken out against. In terms of social relevance, whenever people are irreligious, an oft-used excuse it that their actions are predestined so they are only acting out God’s plans.


Islam is divided into three fields: jurisprudence, ethics, and theology. Jurisprudence refers to the laws that govern our behaviour and actions, while ethics is the realm of our relationships with others. Theology, which encompasses our relationship with God, is the field under which free will/predestination falls.


One can examine this debate rationally or traditionally. In terms of rationale and logic, if predestination was the norm, then tyrants and other evildoers could not be placed in Hell, as it would be against God’s Justice to place those in Hell who had no control over their actions. In terms of tradition, the verse of the Qur’an can be used where Allah says: I guide whom I want to guide and I misguide whom I want to misguide. When this verse is examined at face value, one can come to the conclusion that our actions are predestined, as God chooses whom to guide. However, this verse’s true meaning can be explained using the parable of two builders.


With both of them, you agree that they will work on your house from 9 am - 5 pm. One of them always arrives at 9.30 and leaves at 4, while the other comes promptly at 8 and leaves at 6. Now, if the first, tardy builder comes to you and asks you for a favour, you wouldn’t do it because of how he was acted in regard to your contract. However, if the second builder, who works extra, asks for the same favour, you would more likely give it to him, due to all that he has done. In the same way, Allah guides whoever is looking for his guidance and misguides whoever is not interested in receiving guidance.


In the different schools of Islam, there are three opinions in the matter of free will and predestination. On the one side, there is the Mu’tazilite school, founded in 8th century Basra by Wasal b. Ata, which believes that man has complete free will in everything that he does. On the other extreme is the Ash’arite school, founded by Abul Hassan al-Ash’ari, which holds the belief that all of our actions are predestined. The third belief is that of the school of Ja’far b. Muhammad as-Sadiq (AS). The belief of the Shia school is that the true ratio between predestination and free will is in the middle of the two other schools. The Imam (AS) gives the example that a man can lift up his left leg, but cannot lift his right leg at the same time. In the same way, some of our actions are under our control, while others are controlled by God.


The reply to the idea of predestination can be examined using God’s Justice. When Abu Hanifa asked the 7th Imam (AS), who was only 5 years old at the time, whether is it man who commits sins, man and God together, or predestined by God alone? The Imam (AS) replied that if they are predestined by God, then we cannot be punished as it would be against God’s justice to punish one who is not at fault. If both man and God performed them together, then it would also be unfair for the stronger partner to punish the weaker partner. Therefore, the only just situation is that man commits sins of his own accord. As Allah says in the Qur’an, He has guided us to the right path, but it is up to us to be grateful or ungrateful.



Many others claim that since Allah knows all of our actions, he controls them. This statement is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, the claim is limiting Allah to our dimensions of space and time, which since He created, He is outside of. Secondly, it is mixing Allah’s attributes of omniscience and grace. Because of His Grace, He gave man free will. Even though He is Omniscient (All-Perceiving) and All-Knowing, it doesn’t mean that these attributes govern behaviour. It is the difference between pre-determinism and predestination. While the latter indicates that God sees and controls all, the former only means that God knows all.


This can be explained in the example of a sick man. This man was advised for many years to exercise, eat healthy, and take appropriate medication. However, he ignored all of the advice and now, he is dying because of it. His doctor knows that now, it is too late as the man did not take the chance to become healthy when it was available. Thus, the doctor knows that the man will die, but the man will not die because the doctor knows. He dies due to his own actions, or lack thereof. In the same way, Allah’s Knowledge of our actions does not limit or inhibit our own free will in any way.


Another question that has arisen is whether we can change our destiny. This can be explained in the following example. The Angel of Death has knowledge from God regarding when every human will die. However, Allah has told us that if we perform Silatur-Rahm (maintaining relations), our lifespan will be increased. This action is in our own hands, and if it occurs, we can change our destiny. It is very important to remember that Allah’s Knowledge will not change; He knew that we would increase our lifespan. However, the time when the Angel of Death was supposed to take our life away would be delayed due to our Silatur-Rahm.


Another example of changing our destiny can be seen in the parable of the people of Yunus. Yunus tried to bring them towards God for 33 years, but did not succeed. He went to God and complained about his people’s disregard to the message. God then promised a punishment for them on the wednesday in Shawwal. The Prophet Yunus, after delivering this warning, left his people. His scholarly companion, Robeel, remained behind. He constantly advocated forgiveness to the people, to the point where the people asked Allah for forgiveness. Because of this, their punishment was averted. In this case, we can see how it is possible to change our own destiny.


One man who did change his destiny was Hurr b. Yazid ar-Riyahi. He went from an army of 30,000 to join an army of less than 100 people. On the night before the battle, he disclosed that he was at the crossroads between heaven and hell, and that he would always prefer heaven. Because of this realization, he went to the side of the Imam (AS) and asked for forgiveness, as it was he who stopped the Imam (AS) in Karbala. He was then one of the first to sacrifice his life for Islam on Ashura Day, and thus successfully changed his destiny from Hell to Heaven, exhibiting the full power of the free will Allah has blessed us with. 


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