The Quran, Determinism and Free Will

The Quran, Determinism and Free Will

‘WILL’ is “the mental faculty by which a person decides or conceives himself as deciding upon and initiating his actions”[1]. When we ask the question, “Do we have free WILL?”, the answer depends very much upon what we mean by “free” in this context. If we ask, ‘Is our WILL free from compulsion?’, the answer is ‘YES’ but if we ask, ‘Is our WILL free from causation?’, the answer is ‘NO’.

“A man is free from compulsion when he is not restrained or coerced by forces or persons outside of himself. He is free when he can follow his own desires, his own WILL, regardless of how that WILL may itself have come to be what it is”[2]. According to the Quran, man is (born) free to aim at definite ends, free to choose between alternatives, free to choose good from evil and free to act in accordance with his WILL. The Quran says, “Do whatever you will”[3]; “there is absolutely no compulsion in the Deen”[4]; “the Truth [has come] from your Sustainer: let, then, him who wills, believe in it, and let him who wills, reject it.”[5]; “Verily, We have shown him the Way: whether he be grateful or ungrateful (rests on his will)”[6].

Allah says in the Quran that if human beings had not been endowed with freedom of choice, all those who dwell on earth would have been made to believe (in that which Allah asks them to believe). But this was not Allah’s way. He says, “Would you compel people to believe?”[7], signifying that people are under no compulsion by the Almighty to believe or disbelieve and that they should not be compelled in this regard by other people. “None can attain faith except in accordance with Allah’s law”, which is that “Allah lays the loathsome evil [of disbelief] upon those who will not use their reason”[8]. People believe or disbelieve according to Allah’s law of universal causation. Human WILL is absolutely free from compulsion but not free from causation.

Everything, including our every act and decision has a prior cause. The important point to keep in mind is, however, that the cause is not always outside of us. The cause may also be within us. Our own character, which we ourselves have helped to form, our own past habits, resolutions and decisions may also be the cause of our present decisions and acts.

There are many passages in the Quran which elucidate that man is free from compulsion but not free from causation. However, when some verses of the Quran are viewed in isolation from the other verses, that appear in other parts of the Quran but related to the same theme, then the confusion may arise. For example, Sura Al-Bakara, verse 7-8 says, “As to those who reject Faith, it is the same to them whether you warn them or do not warn them; they will not believe. Allah has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing and there is a covering over their eyes, and there is a great punishment for them”. It appears from the verses that the disbelievers are under compulsion from Allah and since Allah has set seal upon their hearts, they will never believe. However, if we look at Sura An-Nisa, verse 155, it says, “Allah set a seal upon them because of their disbelief”. So there is causation here, not compulsion. The cause of the seal from Allah is their own disbelief. If they start believing, of which they have choice [9], the seal will go off.

The Quran says that “Any calamity that befalls you is because of your own misdoings; (whether these are committed by an individual or collectively because of an improper social system)”[10]. “Verily, as for those who do not believe that they are destined to meet Us, but content themselves with the life of this world and do not look beyond it, and are heedless of Our messages. Their abode is the Fire, because of the (evil) they earned. [But] those who believe, and work righteousness,- their Lord will guide them because of their faith: beneath them will flow rivers in gardens of bliss.”[11]

Determinists rightly assert that every effect has a cause but Materialistic Determinists wrongly assume that all effects including thoughts, values, volitions, decisions or acts are caused only by physical or chemical or physiological processes going on in human body. However, they forget that Psychological reasons (related to the nafs) may also be the cause of many effects.

An implicit assumption in Fatalism is that “a given event will take place regardless of what you or I may do to promote or prevent it”. This concept of Fatalism is utterly against the Quranic Teachings. The Quran says, “Allah does not change the condition of a people until they bring about a change in their inner-selves (anfus: psyche)”[12]. “Allah would never change the blessings with which He has graced a people unless they change their inner-selves”[13]. This clearly implies that people can change their conditions by changing their inner-selves (anfus or psyche) and that all causes of an effect are not always outside (or external) of them but there may be some (internal) causes within their inner-selves and hence within their control.

A distinction must be made between Activistic Determinism and Fatalistic Determinism. “Activistic Determinism, though recognizes that every effect is the result of a cause, is a call to action and utmost exertion of man’s physical and mental capacities”. On the other hand Fatalistic Determinism “paralyzes the will and makes man passive and lethargic”.

[1] The Oxford Reference Dictionary, edited by Joyce M. Hawkins, Oxford University Press (1987)

[2] The Foundations of Morality, by Henry Hazlitt, D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc. (1964)

[3] Al-Quran Sura Al-fussilet, verse 40.

[4] Al-Quran, Sura Al-Bakara, verse 256.

[5] Al-Quran, Sura Al-Kehf, verse 29.

[6] Al-Quran, Sura Al-Mursalat, verse 3.

[7] Al-Quran, Sura Yunus, verse 99.

[8] Al-Quran, Sura Yunus, verse 100.

[9] Al-Quran, Sura Al-Kehf, verse 29.

[10] Al-Quran, Sura Ash-Shura, verse 42:30

[11] Al-Quran, Sura Yunus, verses 7-9

[12] Al-Quran, Sura Ar-Rad, verse 11

[13] Al-Quran, Sura Al-Anfal, verse 53

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