free will and predestination


free will and predestination
   The tension between human free will and God’s predestination is a thorny issue in the Islamic tradition. Although one can find prominent strains of fatalism in pre-Islamic thought, concepts such as dahr or zaman (‘time’, which inexorably determines the general contours of each individual’s fate), aqdar (the blind ‘decrees’ or ‘powers’ that impose upon human beings the myriad details of life that are beyond their control) and qisma (initially ‘portion’ or ‘allotment’, later ‘destiny’ or ‘kismet’) are not explicitly at odds with the idea of human agency and responsibility, since not all events were believed to be predetermined by these impersonal forces.
   The problem first emerges in the context of early theological debates. Drawing on selective passages from the Qur’an and hadith that emphasized God’s foreknowledge (and indeed preordinance) of all events, as well as His omnipotence, the traditionalist Jabrites upheld the doctrine of divine ‘compulsion’ (jabr), claiming that all events are ultimately determined by God’s decree (qadar, lit. ‘measure’ or ‘determination’). Their conclusion – that it is God alone who acts and that human beings have no power over their choices and actions – was strenuously rejected by another early theological movement, the Qadarites, who (in spite of their misleading name) upheld the centrality of human free will (tafwid, lit. ‘delegation’). Not wanting to attribute evil to the Creator, they argued that God had endowed human beings with the capacity to choose between good and evil. Their main contention was that God could not justifiably expect us to do good and avoid evil unless it were genuinely within our power to do so. Although the Qadarites denied God’s preordinance (and arguably, His omnipotence), many nonetheless admitted divine foreknowledge, maintaining that God foresees our actions before we perform them but does not cause them.
   The Mu‘tazilites took up the Qadarites’ defense of human agency. On their view, God’s perfect justice requires that the human beings He rewards and punishes be genuinely accountable and thus deserving of whatever fate is meted out to them. He thus has created a power (qudra) in human beings, endowing us with free will (ikhtiyar, lit. ‘choice’), so that we can truly be said to be the ‘inventors’ or ‘creators’ of our own actions. The more traditional-minded Ash‘arites were aghast at the Mu‘tazilites’ attempt to justify God in the eyes of human reason. They emphasized God’s omnipotence rather than His justice, and formulated an occasionalist metaphysics in which God is the direct perpetual cause or creator of everything that occurs, whether good or bad – including the acts of human beings. Everything is fixed by God’s eternal decree and its existential determination in time (al-qada’ wa al-qadar). As it stands, this view appears to undermine the ontological basis of free will and thus human responsibility, but the Ash‘arite theologians experimented with various subtle distinctions and quali- fications in order to strike a mean between the two ‘extremes’ of Jabrism and Qadarism-Mu‘tazilism. One influential attempt was the theory of ‘acquisition’ (kasb, iktisab), according to which God repeatedly creates in human beings the capacity (istita‘a) to act. Our actions are thus created by God but performed by us. Yet even on this view, the nature of human agency and responsibility remains unclear. The question is whether there can be a real agent other than God. If not, can anyone other than God justifiably be held responsible for their actions? Philosophers (particularly the Aristotelian school) recast the problem of free will and predestination in the guise of causal determinism. Taking up a Neoplatonic emanationist model of reality, they posited a universal causal sequence in which effects followed necessarily from their determining causes as if by logical entailment. This logic of emanation was typically associated with God’s eternal knowledge or providence, neither of which left much room for human – let alone divine – freedom. The philosophers still spoke frequently of the power of spontaneous choice or deliberation (ikhtiyar); however, the idea is relatively naturalized. For Ibn Sina, choice can be a function of the lower (concupiscent and irascible) as well as higher (intellectual) faculties. It applies to the estimative faculties of animals as well as to the rational deliberations of human beings, both of whom are equally subject to universal causal necessity. In al-Kindi, it is even applied to the celestial spheres’ obedience to God. In short, the notion of free choice in classical philosophical discourse typically retains little metaphysical, psychological or ethical weight. One might even say it becomes more of an epistemological affair, inasmuch as it ultimately has more to do with knowledge than with the unconditioned power of the will.
   Al-Ghazali, unsatisfied with the existential determinism of the philosophers as well as his Ash‘arite predecessors’ occasionalism, put forth a new synthesis of the two. Although he rejected Ibn Sina’s necessitarian metaphysics, he retained the idea that human choice is determined to some extent by the judgement of the intellect. Appropriating the Ash‘arite notion of divine omnipotence, he argued that God is unlike creatures in this respect, in that His will is not constrained or determined by any motive or end for the sake of which he acts. Consequently freedom in the absolute, unqualified sense is reserved for God alone. It is not uncommon for subsequent philosophers (ranging from Ibn Rushd to Muhammad ‘Abduh) to maintain both God’s causal centrality and human free will, without pretending entirely to resolve the tension between these two fundamental ideas.
   Further reading: Burrell 1993; Goodman 1992a/2006; Ibn Sina 1985; Marmura 2005; Watt 1948

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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