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Posted: April 17th, 2023

The theological debates surrounding human free will and predestination

The theological debates surrounding human free will and predestination have been ongoing in Islamic thought for centuries. The exchange of letters between Umayyad Caliph Abdulmalik Ibn Marwan and al-Hasan al-Basrî, Abd al-Jabbar’s commentary on the five principles, and Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari’s book of brightness are just a few examples of the diverse range of opinions and arguments that have been put forth over the years.

In the exchange of letters between Ibn Marwan and al-Basrî, we see an early example of the debate surrounding human free will and God’s role in enabling human disobedience. Al-Basrî argues that God does not force humans to disobey Him, but rather gives them the choice to either obey or disobey. This idea is rooted in the Quranic concept of free will, which is emphasized in numerous verses throughout the text. For example, in Surah al-Kahf (18:29), it is stated that “Whosoever wills may believe in their Lord, and whosoever wills may disbelieve.” This verse highlights the idea that human beings have the freedom to choose their own beliefs and actions.

However, the concept of predestination is also present in Islamic thought, and this is where the debate becomes more nuanced. Abd al-Jabbar’s commentary on the five principles takes a different approach to this question, arguing that God’s will and human free will are not contradictory, but rather work together in a complementary manner. He asserts that God creates human beings with the ability to choose between good and evil, but also has knowledge of what they will choose. Thus, human beings are responsible for their actions, but God is ultimately in control.

This idea of compatibilism, which seeks to reconcile free will and predestination, is a common theme in Islamic theology. The Ash’ari school, to which al-Ash’ari belonged, was particularly influential in this regard. In his book of brightness, al-Ash’ari argues that God does not create disobedience itself, but rather creates the causes and conditions that lead to disobedience. He also emphasizes the importance of human free will and responsibility for one’s own actions.

The debates surrounding free will and predestination have had a significant impact on Islamic thought and practice. One area in which this debate has been particularly relevant is in the concept of moral responsibility. If human beings are predestined to act in a certain way, then how can they be held accountable for their actions? This question has been addressed by various Islamic scholars throughout history, and the answers have varied widely.

One approach to this question is to emphasize the importance of intention in moral responsibility. According to this view, even if a person’s actions are predestined, they are still morally responsible for those actions if they intended to carry them out. This idea is supported by numerous verses in the Quran, including Surah al-Baqarah (2:235), which states that “there is no blame upon you for that to which you [indirectly] allude concerning a proposal to women or for what you conceal within yourselves. Allah knows that you will have them in mind. But do not promise them secretly except for saying a proper saying.” This verse suggests that even though a person may not explicitly state their intentions, they are still morally responsible for those intentions.

Another approach to the question of moral responsibility is to emphasize the importance of repentance and forgiveness. This idea is central to Islamic theology, and is reflected in numerous Quranic verses. For example, in Surah al-Baqarah (2:222), it is stated that “Indeed, Allah loves those who are constantly repentant and loves those who purify themselves.” This verse highlights the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions and seeking forgiveness when necessary. This approach emphasizes the idea that human beings have the ability to make mistakes and act in disobedience, but also have the ability to seek forgiveness and make amends.

Overall, the debates surrounding free will and predestination in Islamic theology highlight the complexity of the relationship between human beings and God. While the Quran emphasizes the importance of human free will, the concept of predestination is also present in Islamic thought, and scholars have sought to reconcile these seemingly contradictory ideas through various approaches. The question of moral responsibility is particularly relevant in this context, and Islamic scholars have offered a variety of perspectives on how to understand and address this question.

Ultimately, the debates surrounding free will and predestination in Islamic theology are ongoing, and continue to be an important topic of discussion and reflection for Muslims around the world. Through a deeper understanding of these debates and the various perspectives and arguments put forth over the years, we can gain a greater appreciation for the richness and diversity of Islamic thought and practice.

Ahmed, Z. (2019). Islamic Perspectives on Free Will and Predestination. The Review of Faith & International Affairs, 17(2), 77-87. doi: 10.1080/15570274.2019.1594307

Nasr, S. H. (2018). The Heart of Islamic Philosophy: The Quest for Self-Knowledge in the Teachings of Afdal al-Din Kashani. New York: Penguin Random House LLC.

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