Available languages:
Carta di credito

Muslims and Free Will

The nature of human actions has always been at the centre of Islamic theological reflection. Indeed, the Qur’an appears to support both God’s omnipotence and human responsibility simultaneously

This article was published in Oasis 26. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2018-11-27 10:24:46


The holy Book of Islam appears to support simultaneously both God’s omnipotence and human free will, with an emphasis on human beings’ personal responsibility for their own actions. The apparently unsolvable conflict between the concepts of free volition and divine predetermination has been one of the great topics in the Islamic theological discourse.


As a religion founded on a revealed law, Islam implies the existence both of an intelligence capable of grasping the meaning of such law and a will inclined to either submit or not submit to it. As a message addressed to humanity for humanity’s sake, Islam recognises human beings as creatures able to understand the contents of the revealed Truth and to receive it, at will.[1] From this, emerges the fundamental concept of responsibility, founded on a free and voluntary acceptance of the law. So human beings, as divine creations, would by God Himself be designated as His viceroys and vicars (see Qur’an 2:30) to carry out their earthly mission and actualise God’s creation in the universe.


In Islamic theology, the concept of humans as God’s viceregents can, potentially, offer an alternative notion to the concept of freedom. By entering into a relationship with God and by contributing to divine creativity according to their own individual circumstances, Muslims would proudly recognize themselves as God’s servants or ‘ibād, whilst becoming aware both of their Lord’s transcendence and of the consequential gap occurring between humanity and divinity. Human beings are able to recognise God as their rabb, lord and master, thus rediscovering the Creator’s omnipotent sovereignty, His rubūbiyya (lordship). Corollary of humanity’s condition as God’s servants is the lack of any aspiration to any form of freedom (ikhtiyār).


The servant’s inferiority would, however, be redeemed by the divine investiture that makes any human individual God’s administrator on earth. In Islam, such an “inheritance” (which, for the believer, is the mechanism that both redeems and confers responsibility) is entrusted to every individual within his/her own sphere of action: “ God charges no soul save to its capacity; standing to its account is what it has earned, and against its account what it has merited” (Qur’an 2:286). The apparently unsolvable conflict between the concepts of free will and determinism (or divine predetermination) has always been a matter of great interest but also, and above all, of heated controversy, emerging as it does not as an exclusively academic or theologico-philosophical problem but also as a political one, by virtue of the repercussions that this debate has in a social context.[2] According to a series of traditions, the Prophet himself allegedly discouraged speculation on the subject.[3]



The First Century of Islam

The Qur’an appears to simultaneously support God’s omnipotence and human free will. God is “the Creator of everything” (6:101; 13:12; 25:2; and 39:62). “For to God belongs the kingdom of the heavens and of the earth, and all that is between them, creating what He will. God is powerful over everything” (5:17-18).[4] The sacred Book of Islam does not less emphatically propound each human being’s personal responsibility for his/her own actions thus, indirectly, upholding free will (in verses such as 18:29, 73:19, 74:37, 76:29 and 8:53).


Antithetical to the notion of free will, the two concepts of qadā’ and qadar (which translate loosely as “divine decree” and “destiny” respectively) are not, in reality, originally Islamic: they have Semitic roots originating from Babylonian and Israelite religious traditions that considered the world as a replica of what had already been recorded in celestial books or charts.[5] In pre-Islamic Arabia, then, the predominant conception was that of a destructive and vengeful destiny or dahr, conceived as unescapable, blind fate.


A genuinely predestinarian theory began to manifest with the Qur’an’s first interpreters. They adopted a basically fatalistic perspective that had become popular as a result of the brutalities suffered by Muslims (and the inhabitants of the Hejaz, in particular) around the middle of the first Islamic century. A series of social and political upheavals – from the brutal murder of the third rightly guided caliph to the founding of the corrupt Umayyad caliphate – psychologically predisposed the young community of believers to a form of public resignation, a sort of sense of inevitability. This – whether consciously or unconsciously, led the community to develop a fatalistic notion of qadar (triggering a gradual misunderstanding of the original meaning of the term.


A first form of speculative protest against this predestinarian vision was put forward by the Qadarite theologians in Damascus towards the end of the seventh century. They promoted the idea of human beings being able to decide their own actions and to determine whether such actions were good or evil. The Qadarites promoted the concept of tafwīd i.e. God’s delegation of the power to act to human beings. Thus they came close to the Christian concept of autoexoúsios. Their position was highlighted in a letter probably composed by one of the most famous religious authorities during the first century of Islam, al-Hasan al-Basrī (d. 728). It was written in response to a missive from the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik, who was worried about the interest the influential theologian had shown in the subject of predestination.[6] This letter that, independently of its attribution, continues to be one of the first documents which systematically tackles the question of human responsibility in relation to the Qur’anic notions of foreknowledge and divine determination, emphasised how God could not order acts that were contrary to His Decree. Consequently, transgression of the divine law and unjust acts were not to be included amongst the actions that had been predetermined by the Lord. Similarly, a lack of faith (albeit known in advance by God) was considered to derive from an individual’s free choice and from the pursuit of his/her personal interests.


The supporters of pure determinism, the Jabarites (from jabr, “compulsion”,) sided in total opposition to the theory of free will. In their opinion, divine omnipotence deprived human beings of every power to act. Indeed, a mainstay of the Jabarite doctrine inaugurated by Jahm Ibn Safwān (d. 746) was the concept of absolute divine supremacy and oneness, by virtue of which it was impossible to attribute qualifications such as agent, creator or existentiator to any being other than God.



Mu‘tazilites and Ash‘arites

Around the ninth century, the discussion about free will left room in Muslim thought for subtle reflection about the scope of the human power to act (istitā‘a). The debate on predestination and free will shifted, focusing on God’s and humanity’s respective spheres of action in originating and determining the course of events.


Amongst the Sunni schools of speculative theology (kalām), the Mu‘tazilites and the Ash‘arites, in particular, felt the need to reconcile the idea of an omnipotent God and creator of all things (human actions included) with the concept of a just God who cannot make men responsible of iniquitous acts which they never chose or willed, punishing individuals for actions that had necessarily been imposed upon them. The vision of the Mu‘tazilite school, focused on safeguarding God’s ethical nature, recognised justice (‘adl) as the true essence of the divinity and explained that God can only do and only wishes what is salutary for human beings, ordering that which is good and forbidding that which is reprehensible. The Mu‘tazilites directed their attention to the concept of qudra, or the power of efficient causality, and recognized man not only as a knowing, intending and willing being but also as an agent and therefore as the genuine “creator” (khāliq) of his actions.[7] More specifically, al-Jubbā’ī (d. 915-6), one of the greatest exponents of the Mu‘tazilite school, considered human causality to be actually creative, because active independently of God. He identified man as the ontological cause of the action: the agent that makes it occur. Human action, therefore, came to coincide with the meaning of “implementing” i.e. of “producing” in a limitative sense: in his specific function as an act’s innovator (muhdith), man became a “maker,” capable of bringing something into existence from non-existence: someone who produces ex nihilo.


Differently, Abū al-Hudhayl al-Allāf (d. 840-1), master of the Mu‘tazilite school in Basra, conceived of istitā‘a as a willpower rather than as the capacity for actual realization. According to his theory of moments, human beings act in the first moment (the moment of “being-in-the-process-of-acting” – yaf‘alu), whereas the act occurs in the second moment (the moment of the “action-that-has-happened” – fa‘ala). Such a vision entailed human will to be absolutely necessary and the capacity to act to be necessary before the act. Within the inner dominion of the will, therefore, human beings were considered able to exercise a definite freedom of initiative and, through their choices, actualize certain actions in the exterior world of nature, thereby causing effects. According to such doctrine, man was able of free choices that allowed him to choose between just acts and unjust ones, whilst discerning the principle of justice contained within the Revelation, independently of the latter and aided by reason alone.


So, according to the Mu’tazilites, the human ability to accomplish actions, humans’ understanding of the universal moral principles, together with the power of efficient capacity ended up constituting the essential characteristics of any autonomous agent.[8] Although istitā‘a was conceived of as one of man’s permanent accidents, his real capacity for realization, according to Abū al-Hudhayl, was only given within the confines of a specific situation that, in itself, could not be chosen. Human beings’ capacity to transcend the actuality of things and situations was therefore not in any way a capacity for creative spontaneity but only a capacity to choose between two given alternatives within a determinate context.[9]


For the Ash‘arites, generally, and for Abū al-Hasan al-Ash‘arī (d. 935), the founder of their school, in particular, on the other hand, the whole question of free will was enclosed within the notion of divine omnipotence, which recognised God as the sole, true author of every action, good or bad. Understood as the Creator of the human power of causation, God was thus recognised as the creator of the act or event that was realised through such power. Man was limited to taking possession (by way of acquisition – kasb) of the actions created for him by God. The acquired action revealed itself to be such through the existence – in the human being – of a power, opposite of that ineffectualness that is characteristic of compelled actions: something that indirectly inferred the distinction occurring between voluntary actions and obligatory ones.[10]


More specifically, al-Ash‘arī conceived of capacity (qudra) as an actual power of causation exercised by a human being at the moment of an event’s realization: “An enabling power positioned between the two poles of the act.”[11] God would create such power of causation in the human agent only simultaneously with the act’s realization. Being an accident, however, such causative power belonged to the being equipped with that power (qādir) i.e. the human individual, who therefore became its muktasib or the one who actually realised it.


Created by God along with the act and for the act, qudra becomes any qādir’s constituent reality. The human individual was, however, to be conceived of as qādir only insofar as he/she was considered the locus (mahall) in which the divinely created power was realised. Denial of the two-staged nature of the power’s capacity would also then derive from this concept. Indeed, contrary to what the majority of Mu‘tazilites maintained (namely, that qudra, being prior to the act, allowed an individual freely to choose between realising or not realising the act itself), al-Ash‘arī insisted on maintaining that qudra began to exist simultaneously with the act and that it was the cause of one, single event and not of its opposite.


As the supporter of the new method of philosophical enquiry, the Ash‘arite al-Bāqillānī (d. 1013) distanced himself from the doctrine advanced by al-Ash‘arī and proposed an original version of the role that created beings have in actualising events. Starting from the premise that human power was not ontologically intended to bring an act into existence, and looking at God as the sole creator, al-Bāqillānī nevertheless recognised humans’ generated power as being effective in various modes or qualifications of action. According to this perspective, the specific state of an act – or one of its specific modalities – would be the product (or effect) of the generated power’s application (ta‘alluq) to such act; such application would be identified as nothing other than a “specific relationship”, an “acquisition.”


In his attempt to illustrate the meaning of the verb “to acquire” (a word that is typical of Ash‘arite theology), al-Bāqillānī, in specifying the difference between a forced act and an acquired act, stated: “To acquire means that [man] freely performs his own acts by virtue of a [generated] power joined to such acts that makes them “acquire” a qualification other than any compelled action… Such qualification of the action is, precisely, what we name acquisition.”[12] It was in relation to this specific state that the action led to reward or punishment. More specifically, although he did not credit human beings with the power to make the action good or wicked, al-Bāqillānī recognised that they had the capacity to act in such a way as to make their actions coincide with what God wanted or rejected, thereby conferring moral connotations upon actions.



“Neither Absolute Compulsion, Nor Absolute Delegation”

In Twelver Shi‘ism, the theological debate about free will and divine predestination (tackled mainly during the ninth and tenth centuries) resulted in an intermediate position, as evidenced by the saying attributed to the sixth imam, Ja‘far al-Sādiq (d. 765): “Neither absolute compulsion, nor absolute delegation but something in between (lā jabr wa-lā tafwīd wa lākin amr bayn amrayn).”[13] Thus for Hishām Ibn Hakam, the imam’s companion, human actions were created by God and could simultaneously be classified as free actions – insofar as they were chosen – and as obligatory actions – insofar as they proceeded from a cause produced by God.


Adopted by the Qom’s theological school and the Imamite traditionist al-Kulaynī (d. 941), such a doctrine was also briefly supported by the sheikh al-Sadūq Ibn Bābawayh (d. 991). Like Hishām, he maintained that God, whilst being the creator of actions, should not be considered responsible for their realization, being only the One who had knowledge of them from all eternity. By contrast, sheikh al-Mufīd (d. 1022), who belonged to the Baghdad’s Imamite school, argued that God could not be deemed either the creator of actions or the One wishing wicked human actions. In so claiming, he seemed to have borrowed from the Mu‘tazilite perspective. In his opinion, the sixth imam’s expression lā tafwīd, which denied absolute delegation, simply indicated that God had imposed a divine law upon humanity. This interpretation is still officially representative of Twelver Shi‘ism today.


In Ismaili thought, theological and philosophical speculations about predestination and free will found expression in the work of great thinkers such as, inter alia, Abū Hātim al-Rāzī (d. 934), Muhammad Ibn Ahmad al-Nasafī (d. 942), Abū Ya‘qūb Ishāq Ibn Ahmad al-Sijistānī (d. around 971), the Fatimid jurist al-Qādī al-Nu‘mān (d. 974) and the missionary” (dā‘ī) Hamīd al-Dīn al-Kirmānī (d. around 1021-22). These scholars all contributed to defining the Qur’anic terms qadā’ and qadar, and established precise points of correspondence within the Ismaili religious and celestial hierarchies.


Expanding the Imamite doctrine of lā jabr wa lā tafwīd, the Ismaili authors of the Fatimid period argued that although human beings were capable of choosing between good and evil, they were not able to fully grasp the Qur’anic truths in their exoteric and esoteric essence. Nor were they able to distinguish correctly between the precepts and prohibitions contained in the religious law or sharia. Human knowledge, aiming at salvation and reward in the afterlife, therefore required refinement. This was offered through the guidance of a hierarchy of divinely designated masters that included the prophets, their heirs, the lawful imams and the whole chain of Ismaili religious dignitaries and officials who, through ta’wīl (esoteric exegesis), authoritatively interpreted the authentic spiritual meaning of the Islamic revelation. Thus the debate on human freedom was ultimately reconnected both to the issue of identifying the ethical criteria governing action and to the question of religious authority.



Further Reading


Georges C. Anawati and Louis Gardet, Introduction à la théologie musulmane (Vrin, Paris, 1970).

Maria De Cillis, Free Will and Predestination in Islamic Thought: Theoretical Compromises in the Works of Avicenna, al-Ghazālī and Ibn ʿArabī (Routledge, London and New York, 2014).

Richard M. Frank, Early Islamic Theology: The Muʿtazilites and al-Ashʿari. Texts and Studies on the Development and History of Kalam, vol. II (Ashgate/Variorum, Aldershot, 2007).

Id., Classical Islamic Theology: The Ashʿarites. Texts and Studies on the Development and History of Kalam, vol. III (Ashgate/Variorum, Aldershot, 2008).

Louis Gardet, Dieu et la destinée de l’homme (Vrin, Paris, 1967).

Id., “Quelques réflexions sur un problème de théologie et de philosophie musulmanes: toute-puissance divine et liberté humaine,” Revue de l’Occident musulman et de la Méditerranée 13-14 (1973), pp. 381-394.


[1] Qur’an 2:256 “No compulsion is there in religion (lā ikrāh fī al-dīn). Rectitude has become clear from error.” The version of the Qur’an used in the English translation of this article is The Koran Interpreted: A Translation by A. J. Arberry.

[2] Emphasis on the concept of an absolutely unavoidable predetermination resulted in a sort of fatalistic resignation to the inevitability of events or actions that were often unacceptable. In this way, the principle of divine predetermination, conveniently misunderstood, could (and did) become an adequate alibi for the perpetration of unjust acts. Accordingly, the Omayyads were able to justify their corrupt government by arguing that their every action was divinely willed and preordained.

[3] The Prophet allegedly taught believers to abstain from considerations about destiny (qadar), calling it a deep sea, a dark path and God’s secret. One of the most authoritative Sunni intellectuals, the theologian and Sufi master, Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), reports in his masterpiece The Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihyā’ ‘ulūm al-dīn, Dār al-Qalām, Bayrūt, 1980 ca., vol. 1, p. 50), the tradition according to which Muhammad allegedly proclaimed: “Refrain from speaking about qadar.

[4] Other Qur’anic verses echo the notion of divine omnipotence. See, for example, “God […] is powerful over everything” (22:6) and “[…] but it is in a Book, before We create it” (57:22).

[5] Arent Jan Wensinck, The Muslim Creed (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1932), p. 54.

[6] Scholars arguing in favour of al-Basrī’s authorship include, inter alia, Hellmut Ritter, “Studien zur islamischen Frömmigkeit I: Hasan al-Basri,” Der Islam 21 (1933), p. 57; Josef van Ess, Anfänge muslimischer Theologie. Zwei antiqadaritische Traktate aus dem ersten Jahrhundert der Hira (Franz Steiner Verlag, Beirut and Wiesbaden, 1977), pp. 27-28; idem, Theologie und Gesellschaft im 2. und 3. Jahrhundert Hidschra (De Gruyter, Berlin, 1991-1995), vol. II, p. 48; and Michael Schwarz, “The Letter of al-Hasan al-Basrī,” Oriens 20 (1967), pp. 15-30. Recent studies tend to contest the letter’s attribution to al-Hasan al-Basrī. See the observations made by Michael Cook, Early Muslim Dogma (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1981), pp. 112-123, and by Suleiman A. Mourad, Early Islam between Myth and History. Al-Hasan al-Basrī (d. 110H/728CE) and the Formation of His Legacy in Classical Islamic Scholarship (Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2006), pp. 176-239.

[7] The term khalaqa had been used up until then, when referring to men. It had been used with the utmost meticulousness because of the notion (particularly dear to al-Ghazālī) that true creation involves knowledge of all the effects of creation itself and it is consequently impossible to be addressed to man, who has only a general knowledge of his actions at best. Al-Ghazālī, al-Iqtisād fī al-I‘tiqād, edited by I. A. Çubukçu and H. Atay (Nur Matbaası, Ankara, 1962), p. 92.

[8] Richard M. Frank, “Several Fundamental Assumptions of the Basra School of the Mu‘tazila,” Studia Islamica 33 (1971), p. 10.

[9] Maria De Cillis, Free Will and Predestination in Islamic Thought: Theoretical Compromises in the Works of Avicenna, al-Ghazālī and Ibn ‘Arabī (Routledge, London and New York, 2014), pp. 10-16.

[10] In the theological essays of the time, the concept of kasb was de-codified in terms of will, “by which the effect produced is clothed and accompanied.” Louis Gardet, Dieu et le destinée de l’homme (Vrin, Paris, 1951), p. 64.

[11] Richard M. Frank, “The Structure of Created Causality according to al-Ash‘arī”, Studia Islamica 25 (1966), pp. 26-30.

[12] Daniel Gimaret, Théories de l’acte Humain en théologie musulmane (Vrin, Paris, 1980), pp. 102-103.

[13] Muhammad Ibn Ya‘qūb al-Kulaynī, Al-Usūl min al-kāfī, edited by ‘Alī A. Ghaffārī (Tehran 1375/1955, reprinted Beirut 1405/1985), vol. 1, p. 160, hadīth no. 13.

Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter

For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal