Belief in the Divine Decree of Allāh, or predestination, is an essential part of the Islamic faith. Imām Muslim narrates in his rigorously authentic collection of Hadīth, in the narration famously known as the Hadīth of Jibrīl, that the Angel Jibrīl asked the Messenger, “What is Belief (Imān)?” To which the Messenger responded, “That you believe in Allāh, in His angels, in His books, in His messengers, in the last day, and in the Decree (qadr) of good and evil.”1 As such, belief that every occurrence, good or evil, is predestined by Allāh, is among the components of sound belief mentioned by the Messenger.
Despite its significance in Islamic creed, predestination has been a widely misunderstood concept throughout Islamic history leading to doubts and confusion. This misunderstanding is due to a fundamental theme found in the Qur’ān, which is that man will be held accountable for the actions he performs. He will be rewarded for the good that he does and punished for the evil that he does. For instance, the Qur’ān states, “On the day when every soul will be confronted with all the good it has done and all the evil it has done,” depicting accountability for one’s actions.2 Furthermore, the Qur’ān also describes Allāh as being Just, “Verily Allāh does not do injustice to mankind.”3 Therefore, since Allāh is Just and man is held accountable for his actions, it is not possible for man to be compelled, as that would entail injustice. Hence, it must follow that man isenabled with free will to choose his actions; however, the concept of predestination seems to negate man’s free will.
This apparent contradiction between predestination and free will has been the topic of debate among theologians throughout Islamic history. The growing contention surrounding this topic resulted in the emergence of groups who adopted extremist opinions on the issue ranging from absolute determinism to absolute free will. The scholars and theologians of Ahl al-Sunnah, realizing the severity of misunderstandings in this matter, strove to clarify the issue while countering the inaccurate and extremist beliefs. Despite their efforts, the relationship between predestination and free will remains a source of confusion for many. The ambiguity of the topic often leads individuals to increasingly problematic questions and doubts. Therefore, this article will present a reconciliation of the two seemingly conflicting concepts and elaborate on the belief of the scholars of Ahl al-Sunnah regarding their coexistence.
The Problem of Predestination
The concept of predestination, that everything that occurs or will occur has been pre-eternally determined, is rooted in the Islamic belief of the Divine Attributes of Allāh. Among the necessary Attributes of Allāh is that He is the Creator and Originator of the Universe. This is stated in the verse of the Qur’ān: “Allāh is the Creator of everything.”4 Moreover, from this verse one can also establish that not only the universe but also every occurrence within it is originated by Allāh’s Will—includingthe actions of mankind. This is explicitly represented by the Qur’ānic verse, “And Allāh created you and what you do.”5 Therefore, since He is the Creator of all that exists and occurs, it is necessary for Him to be Omniscient or All-Knowing because knowledge is a conceptual prerequisite to creation.6 The notion of Allāh being Omniscient because He is the creator is indicated by the verse of the Qur’ān: “Does the One who created not know?”7 This verse presents the logical inference that, since Allāh is the creator of all, it is impossible for Him to be attributed with ignorance. These two attributes, omniscience and divine will, form the concept of predestination.8
Given that Allāh is All-Knowing, it must be true that the actions of all of mankind were known to Him pre-eternally. For example, even prior to the existence of the universe, it was known to Allāh that when Abu Lahab would be presented with the opportunity to accept the message of Islam, he would reject it and become one of the fiercest enemies of the Messenger. If the actions of Abu Lahab always existed in the knowledge of Allāh, then it was inevitable that they would come to pass. Hence, it was not possible for Abu Lahab to make a choice contradicting what exists within Allāh’s knowledge; for it is impossible for the knowledge of Allāh to be incorrect, and it is impossible for Allāh to be ignorant of His creation.
To complicate the issue further, not only are the actions of mankind within Allāh’s pre-eternal knowledge but they are also created by Him, as stated in the verse9 mentioned above. This means Abu Lahab’s actions were not only within Allāh’s knowledge but were also pre-eternally willed by Allāh to occur. In that case, did Abu Lahab really have a choice in becoming one of the greatest early enemies of Islam, or was he compelled to reject the truth and cause the suffering of the Messenger and the early companions? Hence, the difficulty of reconciling the apparent autonomy of the human being over his actions with predestination emerges.
The Jabariyyah and The Qadariyyah
As a result of this apparent contradiction, two groups emerged—the Jabariyyah and the Qadariyyah, each with opposing radical beliefs on the issue of predestination versus free will. The Jabariyyah believe in absolute determinism. They argue that, based on the case presented, determinism and the compulsion of man is necessary. This is because to argue that man has free will would necessitate that there are multiple possible choices that he can make. However, since his choice and actions pre-eternally exist within Allāh’s knowledge and will, there is only one choice that he necessarily has to make. Thus, all alternative choices no longer remain possible.
In the example of Abu Lahab, if he had free will upon hearing the message of Islam, both acceptance and rejection of it would have been possible. However, since Allāh pre-eternally knew that Abu Lahab would reject the message, it was necessary for him to make that choice. For the alternative, to argue that he had multiple possible options to choose from is to affirm the possibility of the knowledge and the will of Allāh to be incorrect. Therefore, the Jabariyyah believe that although the human being has the illusion of free will, in reality, he is compelled. Although it may appear as if one acts according to his will, he has no choice.
Conversely, the Qadariyyah believe in extreme free will. They argue that since Allāh is Just, compelling His creation to disobey Him so that He may punish them is an impossibility. Hence, they reason that it is not possible for Allāh to will that mankind commit evil while He commands them against it. Therefore, the actions of human beings are pre-eternally known to Allāh but are not willed and created by Him. The actions of man are his own, created by him, independent of Allāh.
According to Ahl al-Sunnah, both the views of the Jabariyyah and the Qadariyyah are incorrect. Belief in determinism and the pre-eternal compulsion of the actions of the human being negates the wisdom of the concept of resurrection in the afterlife as well as accountability. On the other hand, it is also impossible for something to occur independently of the will and creation of Allāh. To argue otherwise is to contradict the unequivocal verse in the Qur’ān, “And Allāh has created you and what you do.”10 Hence, Ahl al-Sunnah believe that the correct way to understand the choice and actions of the human being is to be found between these two extremes.
The Reconciliation of Ahl al-Sunnah
The understanding of Ahl al-Sunnah is that Allāh has created within man the capacity to choose his actions. The Omniscience of Allāh does not negate this free will. This is because although it is true that the choices of man exist within the pre-eternal knowledge of Allāh, His knowledge does not bear any causal effect on the actions of man. Therefore if an individual is presented with the choice to perform an action, he or she will either choose to do it or not. Although man’s choice is pre-eternally known to Allāh, this does not compel him in any way.
To properly grasp this concept, assume that there exists the possibility of traveling into the past. Through this modality, one travels back to the moment before Abu Lahab is called towards Islam by the Messenger. The time- traveler is well aware of the choice Abu Lahab will make in the following moment, yet his foreknowledge does not bear any causal effect on the choice of Abu Lahab. Similarly, although Allāh’s pre-eternal Knowledgeencompasses the choice of mankind, it does not compel them. Furthermore, since every occurrence in the universe is contingent upon Allāh’s creation and Will, it is by His pre-eternal knowledge of the choices mankind will make that He pre-eternally wills for their actions to exist.11 This concept is clarified by the erudite scholar and theologian al-Imām al-Taftāzāni in his commentary on al-‘Aqāid al-Nasafiyyah. He states:
If it is said, ‘Given the all-encompassing attribute of Allāh’s knowledge and will, compulsion (of mankind) is necessary. This is because either they (Allāh’s knowledge and will) are linked with the occurrence of an action, thereby necessitating it, or with the nonexistence of it, making it impossible. And there is no room for choice in that which is necessary and impossible.’ We respond to this by saying ‘He knows and He wills that man (‘abd) either performs an action or does not based on his (man’s) choice. Hence there is no contradiction.12
Additionally, there is another flaw in the argument for determinism. Man’s choice to perform an action is a possibility; it is possible for it to occur and possible for it to not occur. However, the argument assumes that because the choice of man exists within the knowledge of Allāh it is, therefore, necessary to occur. This is a modal fallacy that has been pointed out by several contemporary Western philosophers such as Norman Swartz. The choice of the individual is a possibility and remains as such, even if it is true due to a necessary proposition. This flaw was also clarified by the statement of eleventh-century Māturidī scholar, al-Imām al-Bayāḍī, in his book, Ishārāt al-Marām: “The action, in and of itself, is possible. And necessity due to Knowledge regarding it does not remove it from its (mode of) possibility in and of itself.”13
Consequently, Allāh created within Abu Lahab the capacity to decide whether to accept or reject Islam. It was pre-eternally known to Allāh that Abu Lahab would choose to oppose Islam. Based on His knowledge of that choice, Allāh pre-eternally willed for the actions and disbelief of Abu Lahab to occur. Hence, the knowledge and the will of Allāh do not negate Abu Lahab’s own choice, nor do they compel him by making his choice necessary. It is due to his own choice that he disbelieved, and he will be held accountable for it in the hereafter.
Although the concepts of predestination and man’s free will may appear to contradict, further analysis of the matter reveals that this is not the case. The two can be reconciled without negating the Majesty and Lordship of the Creator and the will of man which is the source of accountability. The Omniscience and the Will of the Creator do not compel individuals with regards to their actions. Rather, by His Omniscience and Will, He Creates the actions of man to correspond with man’s own free choices. This is a basic explanation of Ahl al-Sunnah’s belief regarding the reconciliation of this matter. Nevertheless, because there are deeper dimensions of this issue, further analysis is required to attain a more comprehensive understanding. This requires an examination of the process by which mankind’s actions occur and the extent of their role in it. This will be presented in the second part of the article—The Origin of Human Action and Choice.
- Muslim, Book 1, Hadith 1
- Qur’ān 3:30
- Qur’ān 10:44
- Qur’ān 39:62
- Qur’ān 37:96
- It is impossible for it to be a literal prerequisite with regards to Allāh because that implies the attribution of a process to Allāh.
- Qur’ān 67:14
- The theologians of Ahl al-Sunnah state that predestination is composed of two concepts: Qaḍā’ and Qadr. The majority of them define Qaḍā’ as the pre-eternal Will of Allah for everything, from the beginning of time, to exist. Qadr is defined as the creation of that which Allah Willed to exist, in the moment and place, that had been determined for it. Both of these components must be conceptually preceded (as literal preceding is not possible) by Allāh’s pre-eternal Knowledge as His Will is in accordance with His Knowledge.
- Refer to note 5 above.
- Refer to note 5 above.
- It should also be noted that the argument for determinism assumes that the Knowledge of AllāhAllah precedes the choice of the individual in a temporal sense. This is false. Since time is merely a creation of AllāhAllah, He and His attributes, including His Knowledge and His Will, transcend it. He is not subject to time, past, present, and future, like the rest of creation is.
- Ibn ‘Umar al-Taftāzāni, Mas’ūd. Sharḥ al- ‘Aqāid al-Nasafiyya, Second ed., 211. Karachi: 2013, مكتبة البشرى
- Ibn Hussayn al-Bayāḍī, Ahmad. Ishārāt Al Marām Min ‘Ibārāt al-Imām, 217. Lebanon: 2007, Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyah.