Free Will and Predestination: Islamic Concepts

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Free will and predestination has been a prominent topic in Islamic religious thinking. For Muslims, the basis of the discussion is found in the Qurʾān and to a lesser extent in adīth (reports from and about Muammad often called "traditions"), some of which reflect pre-Islamic Arab beliefs.

Predestination in Pre-Islamic Arabia

Something is known of the outlook of the pre-Islamic Arabs from what has been preserved of their poetry. In this we find a strong belief that much of human life, especially misfortune, is determined by time (dahr, zaman ). It has sometimes been thought that time here is the same as fate, but since the same determination of human life is sometimes attributed to "the days" or even "the nights," the idea of time must be uppermost. Time here is not something to be worshiped but rather a natural fact, not unlike "the course of events."

In particular, it was believed that a person's ajal, the term or the date of the person's death, was determined or predetermined. A person destined to die on a certain day would die then, no matter what he or she did. It was also believed that a person's rizq, "provision" or "sustenance," that is, food, was also determined. This fatalistic attitude helped the nomads to survive in the harsh conditions of desert life. In the Arabian deserts the regularities of nature experienced elsewhere tended to be replaced by irregularities. One who tried to take precautions against all eventualities would become a nervous wreck, but a readiness to accept whatever happened fatalistically reduced anxiety and thus was an aid to survival. It is to be noted, however, that in the belief of the nomads it is the outcome of human actions that is determined, not the actions themselves.

Predestination in the QurʾĀn

The belief of the pre-Islamic Arabs in the control of events by time is described in the Qurʾān (sūrah 45:24): "There is only our present life; we die and we live, and time [dahr ] alone destroys us." The conception of the ajal, or term of life, also occurs several times, but it is God who both fixes the ajal beforehand and then brings about the person's death: "He is the one who created you from clay, and then fixed an ajal" (6:2); "God will not defer [the death of] any person when his ajal comes" (63:11). There is thus a sense in which God takes over the functions of time; indeed, there is a adīth that reports that the Messenger of God said that God said, "The sons of Adam insult dahr, but I am dahr." There are also several passages in the Qurʾān in which it is stated or implied that humankind's fate is not merely determined by God beforehand but also written down: "No misfortune has happened either in respect of the land or of yourselves but it was in a book before we [God] brought it about" (57:22). A clear statement of the uselessness of trying to avoid what has been predetermined is given in a passage about those who criticized Muammad's decision, when attacked in Medina by the Meccans, to go out to Mount Uhud to fight: "If you had been in your houses, those for whom killing was written down would have sallied out to the places of their falling" (3:154). The Qurʾān also speaks of God as the source of man's rizq, or provision: "He lavishes rizq on whom He wills, or stints it" (30:37); this may be regarded as a reflection of the common experience in desert life that one tribe might have plenty while a neighboring tribe was starving.

Just as the pre-Islamic Arab did not believe that his acts were predetermined, but only their outcome, so this seems to be all that is implied by the Qurʾanic statements about ajal and similar matters. All Muslims hold that human freedom in some sense and human responsibility in acting are implied in the Qurʾanic teaching that God judges mortals on the Last Day and that their good and bad deeds are weighed in balances. Human freedom is not necessarily contradicted by such verses as: "Do not say of anything, I am doing that tomorrow, without [adding], If God wills" (18:23); " to him of you who wills to go straight; but you will not [so] will, unless God wills" (81:28). Such verses may be understood as expressing God's control of the outcome of acts. But a number of verses also speak of God guiding and aiding people or of leading them astray and abandoning them: "If God wills to guide anyone, He enlarges his breast for Islam" (6:125); "He leads astray whom He wills and guides whom He wills" (16:93), so that those whom he guides become believers and those whom he leads astray become unbelievers.

Other verses, however, assert that this guiding or leading astray is, as it were, in recompense for what the people in question have done previously: "Those who do not believe in God's signs, God does not guide" (16:104); "He leads astray none but the wrongdoers" (2:26). The phrase "leading astray" might be compared with God's "hardening of the heart" of the pharaoh and others in the Bible. One verse (18:28) specifically points to the ability of humans to choose to believe or not. It states, "The truth is from your Lord, so let him who will, believe; and let him who will, disbelieve." Verses such as 90:910, "Have we not created for him two eyes and a tongue and two lips and guided him in the highways, but he will not attempt the steep," and 4:31, "God wishes to explain to you and to guide you into the ordinances of those who were before you," also suggest human choice in responding to God's guidance. The numerous verses in the Qurʾān that exhort humans to ponder the "signs" of nature around them that reflect God's majesty and power and to draw moral lessons from the fate of previous generations are also suggestive of human choice in and responsibility for their actions.

Umayyad Apologetic and QĀDARĪ Opposition

Most modern students of Islamic history have tended to suppose that the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled from ah 41 to 132 (661750 ce), was not very religious. This view is based, however, on the acceptance of pro-Abbasid, anti-Umayyad propaganda and is not borne out by documents of the Umayyad period such as the poems of Jarir and al-Farazdaq. In these it becomes clear that the Umayyads, besides justifying their rule on traditional Arab lines, had a theological defense of their legitimacy: they held that the caliphate had been bestowed on them by God in the same way as the Qurʾān (2:30) described the bestowing of a caliphate on Adam. This meant taking the word Khalīfah, or caliph, in the sense of "deputy" rather than of "successor," which it can also mean, and from this they argued that to oppose their decisions was to oppose God.

It was because of this theological position of the Umayyads that some of their opponents adopted what came to be known as the Qādarī heresy. This includes various slightly different formulations, all asserting human free will in some form. One version held that a person's good acts came from God and his bad acts from himself. From this it would follow that the bad acts of an Umayyad caliph were from himself and not from God, and thus good Muslims could oppose such acts without making themselves unbelievers. The first to subscribe to the Qādarī heresy is usually said to have been Maʿbad al-Juhani, who participated in an armed revolt that began in 701, and who was executed three years later upon the collapse of the revolt. Many of the participants in this revolt, however, were not among the Qādirīyya. Another person frequently mentioned as holding Qādarī views was Ghaylan al-Dimashqi. For a time he was a government official and was friendly with more than one caliph, but his political program, while including Qādarī ideas, went beyond it; in 730 the caliph Hisham became suspicious of the program and had Ghaylan executed. For the next twenty years there are many references to Qādarī opponents of the Umayyad regime, especially in Syria. After the replacement of the Umayyad dynasty by the Abbasid in 750, the Qādarī movement lost much of its political raison d'être and either faded out or was absorbed into the rationalist Muʿtazili movement.

Earlier scholars attributed the belief in free will to Christian influence; Ghaylan was indeed of Coptic origin, while Maʿbad was said to have derived his views from a Christian. From what has just been said, however, it would appear that the doctrine of free will was brought into Islamic discussions not primarily because it was held to be true but because it served a useful purpose in internal Islamic political discussions.

Al-asan al-BarĪ

The most important name connected with these theological questions is that of al-asan al-Barī (d. 728). From his own lifetime or shortly afterward scholars debated whether he was a Qādarī or not, and both views were vigorously asserted. Distinguished Western scholars early in the twentieth century continued the debate. In 1933, however, there was published a long risāla, or epistle, written for the caliph ʿAbd al-Malik by al-asan in defense of his views on this topic. From this treatise it is possible to give an account of what he believed. The Qurʾān is central for him and is the source of his arguments. Against the predestinarians who quoted verses about God's leading astray, he replies with other verses that imply that those led astray were already wrongdoers and had in some form chosen evil. He also contends that the fact that God knows that some people will disbelieve is only descriptive; that is, he knows that by their own free choice they will disbelieve, but his knowledge does not predetermine their unbelief. He holds that the verse quoted above about misfortunes being in a book (57:22) applies only to wealth and material things and not to belief or unbelief, obedience or disobedience. He further holds that when the Qurʾān speaks of people acting or willing, they really do so, and their acts are not predetermined. He takes verse 33:38 to mean, "God's command [amr ] is a determination [qadar ] determined," and then argues that God determines human behavior only by commanding certain acts and prohibiting others. In this way, he can maintain that God creates only good and that evil comes from human beings or from Satan.

Politically al-asan al-Barī was critical of the Umayyads. The later scholar Ibn Qutaybah (d. 889) thought him a Qādarī in some respects and told how some of his friends would say to him, "These princes [the Umayyads] shed the blood of Muslims and seize their goods and then say, 'Our acts are only according to God's determination [qadar ].'" To this asan would reply, "The enemies of God lie." asan's remark must be understood in the light of his identification of God's determination with his command, but the Umayyads were doubtless taking qadar in the traditional sense of prior effective determination. Despite his critical attitude al-asan resolutely refused to join any insurrection against the Umayyads and urged his friends and disciples to do likewise. In view of all these facts, al-asan's position might fairly be described as moderately Qādarī.

A more extreme form of Qādarī doctrine may be encountered in the positions adopted by the Khārijī group known as the Shabibiyya about two decades after al-asan's treatise. They went as far as to say that God has no foreknowledge whatsoever of the actions of humans and their destinies and humans are left entirely to their own will and discretion. This kind of extreme position was attacked by the Umayyad caliph Umar II (d. 720) in an epistle he composed against Qādarī beliefs.

Predestination in the adĪth (Traditions)

Western scholars formerly thought that all adīth were predestinarian and saw in this the reason why al-asan al-Barī based his arguments on the Qurʾān and not on adīth. There are indeed a few adīth that express an opposite view, but the most likely reason for the absence of adīth from al-asan's arguments is that at the time he was writing they were not regarded as having the authority later ascribed to them and perhaps were not widely known and circulated. Had they been generally regarded as authoritative, he would surely have had some argument against them. It was the jurist al-Shāfiʿī, about a century after al-asan, who gave adīth an assured place in Islamic thought as one of the "roots of law," and by his time, the study of adīth had become much more extensive.

It will suffice here to mention some of the best-known predestinarian adīth. One was the report that the Prophet had said, "The first thing God created was the pen; then he said to it, 'Write all that will happen until the Last Day.'" Another group of sayings of the Prophet speaks of an angel being entrusted with the child in the womb and asking God to determine whether it is male or female, whether it is to be fortunate or unfortunate, what is its rizq and what its ajal. Again, in connection with the act of a Muslim fighter at the Battle of Uhud, who took his own life when his battle wounds became unbearable, the Prophet is reported to have said, "One man will work the works of the people of Paradise until he is only an arm's length from it, and then the book will overtake him, and he will work the works of the people of Hell and enter it," while in the case of another man the reverse will happen. Associated with such adīth were some reported remarks by early Muslims to the effect that, if one wants to avoid hell, one must believe that God determines both good and bad, and that what reaches one could not have missed one, and what misses one could not have reached one.

It will be noticed that these predestinarian adīth to some extent reflect pre-Islamic attitudes.

The Move Away from QĀdarĪ Thought

In the last half-century of the Umayyad period it seems likely that many of the religious scholars who were critical of the rulers were also sympathetic with at least a moderately Qādarī view, while those who supported the rulers inclined to predestinarian views. Among such views, however, two levels may be distinguished: (1) the belief that what happens to people is predetermined, but not their own acts; (2) the belief that both what happens to them and their own acts are predetermined. At a later period emphasis came to be placed less on God's predetermination of happenings and acts than on his present control of them.

Although something of the old pre-Islamic Arab predestinarianism was still strong among many Muslims and, because associated with God, felt to be part of Islam, it was difficult to express this sentiment under the Umayyads without seeming to approve all their actions. With the coming of the Abbasids, however, all this was altered. Belief in human free will lost most of its political relevance, and the expression of predestinarian views no longer suggested approval of an unjust government. Although those Qādirīyya who were primarily political were located chiefly in Syria, the main academic discussions took place in Basra among the followers and disciples of al-asan al-Barī, where two opposing trends can be discerned, one toward more libertarian views, the other toward predestinarianism. Just as in pre-Islamic times belief in a predetermined ajal and similar matters helped to reduce anxiety, so the belief that God was in control of all events and that no disaster could happen to one except by his will relieved anxiety and gave confidence. The trend toward predestinarianism grew stronger not only in Basra but throughout the Islamic world, and some form of belief in God's control of events became an article in Sunnī creeds.

As this happened and as Qādarī views came to be regarded as heretical, there was a rewriting of history. Those with strong predestinarian or determinist views were unhappy to think that many great earlier scholars, their intellectual predecessors, had been tainted with heresy. They therefore emphasized the role of Maʿbad al-Juhami and Ghaylan al-Dimashqi in the origination and spread of Qādarī ideas, since these were men who had been rebels and also under foreign influence. A little later stories were spread to discredit one particular member of al-asan's circle, ʿAmr ibn ʿUbayd, and to suggest that he was worse than his contemporaries: besides being the leader of the libertarians among al-asan's followers, he had been elevated to the position of a founding father of the Muʿtazilah.

The Arabic name of the sect, Qādirīyya, itself bears witness to the struggle between the two trends among religious scholars generally. Like most early names of sects it is a nickname, but the curious point is that it is those who hold that the qadar is man's and not God's who are called "qadar -people." Texts now published show that there was a time when each side in the dispute called the other "Qādarī." In his book on sectarian views, al-Ashʿarī (d. 935) mentioned that his own party had been called "Qādarī," but continued, "the Qādarī is he who affirms that the qadar is his own and not his Lord's, and that he himself determines his acts and not his Creator." There was no Qādirīyya, properly speaking, after the Umayyad period, but some scholars used the name as an offensive nickname for the Muʿtazilah.

Even in the heyday of the Qādirīyya there was never a single clearly defined Qādarī sect. What made one a Qādarī was one article of belief, either that defined by al-Ashʿarī or something like it, but this belief could be combined with a variety of beliefs on other matters. When the Abbasids came to power, many continued to believe in human free will but at the same time had views on the new political problems, and it was chiefly on the basis of these other views that sectarian names were bestowed. As a result the name Qādarī gradually died out, and after the first half-century of the Abbasid period is hardly found except as an alternative to Muʿtazili.

Muʿtazilah and AshʿarĪyah

By the time of the caliph al-Maʾmun (r. 813833), the Muʿtazilah had defined their sect as based on five principles, of which free will was only one. At the same time, some of the leading Muʿtazilah had important positions at the caliphal court. Just after 847, however, official policy changed abruptly; the Muʿtazilah fell from favor, while the government abandoned their doctrine of the createdness of the Qurʾān and on that and other points supported the central Sunnī position. The Muʿtazilah are chiefly remembered as the group that first developed the discipline of kalām, that is, the use of Greek philosophical concepts and methods of argument. Gradually, however, some scholars realized that kalām could be used also to defend more generally acceptable doctrines than those of the Muʿtazilah. The creation of a nonheretical Sunnī kalām is traditionally attributed to al-Ashʿarī, but it is now realized that in this he had several predecessors. Most of our information, however, is about the debates between Muʿtazilah and Ashʿarīyah.

Within the discipline of kalām the discussions about free will took a new direction and were chiefly concerned with God's control of human acts in the present. This did not imply abandoning the belief that God had predetermined these acts, since it could be held that in controlling them in the present he was acting in accordance with his foreknowledge of what he had predetermined. The Ashʿarī view was that God created human acts by creating in the agent at the moment of action the power to do the particular act. The Muʿtazilah agreed that the act came about through a power created by God, but held that this power was created by God before the act and was a power to do either this act or its opposite. In this way they left a place for the agent's choice.

For the Muʿtazilah in general, God's justice (theodicy) was a main concern of their discussions on free will and determinism. The notion of divine justice, influenced by Greek logic, militated against the idea that God could create and condone evil or unjust acts. Such acts are rather to be attributed solely to human choice and will. This belief was further linked to God's role as judge in the afterlife when he will reward or punish humans for their commission of good and evil deeds. The Muʿtazilah argued that if God sent people to hell as punishment for predetermined acts for which they were not responsible, he would be acting unjustly, and this was unthinkable. Their position was rooted in Qurʾanic verses such as 3:104: "God does not wish injustice to the worlds;" 22:10, "God is not unjust to His servants;" and 4:81, "Whatever afflicts you of bad is from yourself."

The Ashʿarīyah met this argument with the formula that human acts are God's creation and the agent's "acquisition" (kasb ); this term could also be translated as "making one's own" or "having credited to one." In effect the Ashʿarīyah were saying that, although the act is God's creation, it is also in some unspecified way the human agent's act. The term kasb and the derivative iktisab hark back to Qurʾān 2:286, which states, "God will not burden any soul beyond its capacity. It will enjoy the good which it has acquired and bear the evil for the acquirement of which it labored." The term's usage in the context of free will and predestination is attributed to an early figure, Dirar b. ʿAmr, one of the Muʿtazilah, who is somewhat of an obscure character. Other scholars, even Sunnī theologians like the Māturīdīyah, found the term kasb obscure and unsatisfactory and called the Ashʿarīyah "determinists" (mujbirah ). The eponym of the Māturīdīyah, Abū Manūr al-Māturīdī (d. 944) from Samarkand, Transoxiana, steered a middle path between the total predestinarian stance of the Jabriyya and the total free will of the Muʿtazilah, a position that became better known and more influential in the later period. He was essentially in favor of the doctrine of free will, with the qualification that God as the sole creator of the universe creates all acts as well. However, according to his school of thought, humans possess the freedom to choose their actions before their commission, so that they "acquire" these actions by virtue of the choices they make. This notion of "acquisition" is different from al-Ashʿarī's, since the latter proposed that humans acquire the capacity to perform their actions at the very moment of their commission. Kasb continues to have its place in general Sunnī thought and fresh generations of scholars have introduced new subtleties.

ShĪʿĪ Views

Early Shīʿī views tend to diverge considerably from later "orthodox" points of view on free will and determinism. The eighth-century Shīʿī theologian Hisham b. al-Hakam (d. 795796) maintained that human acts are created by God. He also believed that God has no foreknowledge of human actions or of things because his knowledge does not exist until the object of it exists.

An early Shīʿī belief attributed changeability to God's will, referred to in Arabic as badaʾ ("mutability"), which allowed for change in an earlier divine ruling. Such beliefs were considered by the later Imamiyya to be "extremist," particularly since the concept of badaʾ had to be squared with God's omniscience. Thus, to effect a reconciliation, mainstream Imāmī thought proposed the idea that God in his dealings with humans is motivated by considerations of what is most expedient (al-aslah ) and the best for humankind. Therefore, badaʾ can be explained as pointing to the susceptibility of the divine will to change should circumstances change, requiring a different determination.

The Imāmīs, in general, subscribe to the doctrine of divine determination with a nod in the direction of free will; Ismāʿīlī views are not dissimilar. The Zaydī Shīʿī are closer to the Muʿtazilah in their views.

Modernist Views

Modernist Muslim commentators insist that the Qurʾān should be read holistically. Taking certain verses out of context and interpreting them atomistically has been conducive to the view that the Qurʾān encourages belief in predestination. Read as a whole, the Qurʾān endorses, however, the concept of human freedom in choosing one's belief and of human responsibility for their actions. God has foreknowledge of human actions, but this divine knowledge does not compel humans to commit sin. Muʿtazili influence is detected in these positions, tempered by an acknowledgment of God's creative power over everything, including all human acts. Muammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905), and Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988), for example, were prominent exponents of the modernist view.

See Also

Ashʿarīyah; Fate; Kalām.


A general account of the Qādarī thinkers and their opponents will be found in W. Montgomery Watt's book The Formative Period of Islamic Thought (Edinburgh, 1973)in which see especially pages 82118, 232242, and 315and more briefly in his Islamic Philosophy and Theology, 2d ed. (Edinburgh, 1985). His earlier Free Will and Predestination in Early Islam (London, 1948) has greater detail but requires correction in the light of later works. Since 1973 Josef van Ess has published several important documents and discussions, notably, Zwischen Hadit und Theologie: Studien zum Entstehen prädestinatianischer Überlieferung (Berlin, 1975), Anfänge muslimischer Theologie: Zwei antiqadaritische Traktate aus dem ersten Jahrhundert der Higra (Beirut, 1977), and the article "Kadariyya," in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., edited by H. A. R. Gibb et al. (Leiden, 1960). His earlier Traditionistische Polemik gegen ʿAmr b. ʿUbaid (Beirut, 1967) is also of interest. An idea of how al-Ashʿarī argued against the Muʿtazilah may be gained from the translations in The Theology of al-Ashʿarī by Richard J. McCarthy (Beirut, 1953) and Al-Asʿarī's Al-Ibanah by Walter C. Klein (New Haven, Conn., 1940). For recent discussions of free will and predestination in the modern context, see Sarfraz Khan's Muslim Reformist Political Thought: Revivalists, Modernists, and Free Will (London and New York, 2003) and Ulrich Schoen's Gottes Allmacht und die Freiheit des Menschen: gemeinsames Problem von Islam und Christentum (Münster, Germany, 2003).

W. Montgomery Watt (1987)

Asma Afsaruddin (2005)

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