Free Will and Determinism:
An Overview of Muslim Scholars' Perspective
Dr. Abdur Rashid Bhat*
The problem of free will and determinism is both old and complex. From the early days of human civilization men reflected on it and formed their opinions about its various aspects. The Greek philosophers, Socrates (470-399 BC), Plato (427-347 BC) and Aristotle (384-322 BC) concentrated on the internal capacity of man to find the truth of practical good.1 The medieval Christian dogmatism led man to despair as he had no freedom to enquire about the authority and had to suffer for the 'original sin'.2 The Renaissance thinkers of Europe like Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Rene' Descartes (1596-1650) and Leibniz (1646-1716) focused more on the rational mechanism of the universe than on the spirituo-ethical reality of man. The propounders of Enlightenment and empirical science revolved round the material progress and happiness in the world of cause and effect, thus ignoring the role of transcendental or spiritual powers.3 To many of them man is subject to cosmic physical determinism, which, in consequence, restricts his domain of activity.4
Islam, the primordial and revealed religion of God for all-embracing guidance of mankind, treats the problem of free will and determinism in totality. In the history of Islam scholars have dealt with it in various dimensions and paradigms. Its conspicuous rise was during the period of Umayyads and it continued to stimulate the scholars of subsequent times. Here an attempt is made to look into the early rise of the problem and its treatment by the Muslim theologians and scholars of the medieval and the modern times. However the focus will be on the main theme and on the representative personalities only.
Early Rise of the Problem
During the time of Prophet Muhammad (may Allah's peace be upon him) the people who belonged to other religions as well as polytheists were engaged with the problem of destiny (taqdir). They used to ask twisted _____________________________________________________________ * Senior Lecturer, Shah-i-Hamadan Institute of Islamic Studies, University of Kashmir, Srinagar, 190006.
questions to Muslims about Allah—His Essence and Attributes. They, out of evil designs, attributed acts of their polytheism to God.5 The Qur'an addresses their queries and characterises such men as followers of conjecture (zun) rather than knowledge: Those who are bent on ascribing divinity to aught beside God will say, "Had God so Willed, we would not have ascribed divinity to aught but Him nor would our forefathers [have done so]; and neither would we have declared as forbidden anything [that He has allowed]." Even so did those who lived before them give the lie to the truth—until they came to taste Our punishment! Say: "Have you any [certain knowledge which you could proffer to us? You follow but [other people's] conjectures, and you yourself do nothing but guess."6
Even the question of destiny struck the minds of some of the Prophet's companions (sahabah) and they were told to believe in it rather than have discussions on it. It is reported through the various well known narraters of Traditions (ahadith) that once when the Prophet (SAAWS) saw some Companions discussing destiny (taqdir) he got offended and forbade them from doing so.7 He advised them that it does not belong to such matters of Shari’ah (Islamic Law) about which they have to form their opinion definitely. He added that it is better to remain calm than to discuss it which might lead to harm.8 This refrainment from the discussion is even found in the Prophet's attitude which he showed when he visited the house of Hazrat ‘Ali (RA) and Fatima (RA) during a night enquiring them about their failure to offer tahajjud (additional night prayer). In his reply Hazrat ‘Ali seemed to attribue their failure to Allah who made him not to rise up for tahjud that night. This displeased the Prophet (SAAW) who left their house by...
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