Determinism, Theological

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Theological determinism or predestination is the belief that events are determined or necessitated by God. One form of the traditional belief insists that owing to his omnipotence, God controls the occurrence of things. Another form asserts that his omniscience, making possible his foreknowledge of future events, affects the occurrence of such events. There are also nontraditional forms. Throughout the history of Islamic and Jewish philosophy, the debate over predestination was central.

When Islamic philosophy emerged in Baghdad in the ninth century CE, the religious and intellectual circles in the city had been witnessing a heated debate over the issue of predestination (al-qadar ). There were three main Islamic views at the time: events in the universe, including human actions, are not predestined (Muʿtazila); all such events are predestined (Jabriyya); some aspects of such events are predestined, whereas others are humanly "acquired" (Ashʿariyya). In treating this issue, Muslim philosophers tried to reconcile Greek rationalism with Islam.

Abū Yūsuf al-Kindī (c. 801873) and Abū'l-Walīd Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 11261198) denied predestination. They interpreted the Islamic revelations to assert that God does not, for example, control human actions. They both believed that at the moment God desires or wills something to happen, it happens. However, neither God's power nor his knowledge necessitates that he desire or will everything that happens to happen. If one reads Ibn Rushd carefully, though, one discovers that for him, God determines all events, because his omnipotence means that he fulfills all possibilities. Such fulfillment includes that of the natures of things and the laws that govern them. The conduct of any being is consequent upon its nature and its laws. In some of his writings, Ibn Rushd also stresses that God's knowledge of things is the cause of those things.

Abū al-Nar al-Fārābī (870950) and AbūʿAlī al-Husayn ibn Sīnā (Avicenna, 9801037) adhered to neoplatonic tendencies, according to which everything necessarily follows from God's nature. Even God's nature itself is necessitated to act in certain ways. There is no room for God's will or choice, let alone the will or choice of any other being. This is despite the fact that al-Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā speak of God's omnipotence and omniscience, and even of human free will. However, they do not use these terms in the traditional sense. "Omnipotence," for example, is the ability to fulfill all possibilities, and omniscience is knowledge of universals.

Abū āmid al-Ghazālī (10581111) attacked such philosophical views in his famous work The Incoherence of Philosophers (1184). He considered such ideas non-Islamic and classified some of them, for example, God's inability to know particular events, as heretical. In the absence of such knowledge, reward and punishment, which are essential to Islam, become meaningless, especially in light of the Islamic concept of God's absolute justice.

Reward and punishment did not pose a problem for al-Kindī, because he believed that human beings have free will and that God knows particular events. Therefore, reward and punishment are not in conflict with his justice. The other three philosophers mentioned were not concerned about the issue either. For them, God does not reward and punish people. According to al-Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā, following death, bodies eventually disintegrate and souls become close to or distant from God, based on their degree of knowledge. Their closeness is their reward; their distance is their punishment. Reward and punishment are necessary consequences of the souls' conduct in life. To Ibn Rushd, there is no reward and punishment after death. The bodies disintegrate and the individual souls merge with the universal soul.

Moses Maimonides (11351204) asserts the Judaic belief that the human soul is intrinsically free, and agrees with the Greek and Muslim philosophers that matter is the source of natural evil. Thus, he absolves God from moral and natural evil, and justifies reward and punishment for the former, because God does not predetermine human action. However, God can intervene under certain circumstances. Maimonides was criticized by many Jewish thinkers for his rational approach to Judaism, which they feared denies some of its basic ideas, for example, that God wills whatever happens according to his knowledge of the natures of things.

See also al-Fārābī; al-Ghazālī; Muhammad; al-Kindī Abū-Yūsuf Yaʾqūb ibn Isāq; Averroes; Avicenna; Determinism, A Historical Survey; Islamic Philosophy; Jewish Philosophy; Maimonides; Universals, A Historical Survey.


Fakhry, Majid. A History of Islamic Philosophy. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Hourani, George F. "Averroes on Good and Evil." In his Reason and Tradition in Islamic Ethics, 249269. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985

Inati, Shams. The Problem of Evil: Ibn Sina's Theodicy. Binghamton, NY: Global, 2000.

Shams Inati (2005)