Did classical Islam talk about freedom? The answer, without a shadow of a doubt, is “Yes”. But not in the disciplines that one would instinctively think of

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Did classical Islam talk about freedom? The answer, without a shadow of a doubt, is “Yes”. But not in the disciplines that one would instinctively think of. Indeed, the term does not occupy much space in the classical treatises on law or political theory, where the emphasis is placed on God’s rights and the justice dispensed by the ruler. It does have a central place, on the other hand, in the theological reflection of the first generations of Muslims. Are human beings free? Or are they “constrained” by divine omnipotence, which predestines them to hell or paradise? The nascent Islamic community was to give antithetical answers to this question, right from the Omayyad age (661-750), when the two schools of the Jabriyya (predestinationists) and the Qadariyya (partisans of free will) emerged.



The Debate about Divine Will

Among the numerous texts dedicated to the subject, we present here the Epistle to ‘Abd al-Malik, which is attributed to Hasan al-Basrī. Born in Medina around 642, Hasan died in Basra in 728 and was buried in nearby al-Zubayr. A major figure in the second generation of Muslims, Hasan is an ascetic particularly venerated by the Sufis, who consider him as a fundamental link in the transmission of mystical knowledge. He is moreover appreciated, by Sunnis and Shi‘ites alike, for his memorable sayings inspired by love of God and contempt for the world. In the chosen text, the Omayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705) writes, with the frankness typical of the early Muslims, to the revered ascetic and asks him to clear himself of rumours of being a partisan of free will. Hasan answers the caliph with equal frankness, warning him to keep to the verses of the Qur’an that describe God as just and human beings as responsible for their own deeds. “Say of Him,” Hasan enjoins the caliph, “only what He accepts to be said of Him, since He has said, ‘Surely upon Us rests the guidance, and to Us belong the Last and the First.’ Guidance therefore comes from God, and errancy from men.”


In reality, the Epistle is a fake, as Suleiman Mourad has convincingly shown.[1] It was composed around the year 1000 by an anonymous Mu‘tazilite author i.e. a member of the theological school that, taking over from the Qadariyya, became the staunchest defender of human free will in Islam. Politically defeated, the Mu‘tazila was to end up relegated to some outlying regions of the Muslim world, particularly Yemen, the main centre for a moderate form of Shi‘ism known as Zaydism, although abundant traces of Mu‘tazilite thinking can also be found in mainstream Twelver Shi‘ism.


The pseudo-epigraphical nature of the text should not surprise anybody: attribution to great authors of the past is very common in both Islamic and non-Islamic medieval literature. Suffice it to think of the hadīths, Muhammad’s traditions, a good deal of which is certainly spurious. Apart from this general consideration, there are two specific reasons for choosing this work. In the first place, the Epistle to the Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik is, quite simply, a very fine text that summarizes in a particularly felicitous manner the main arguments developed by Mu‘tazilite thinking in favour of free will. In the second place, after being rediscovered in 1933 by the German scholar Hellmut Ritter (who considered it authentic), the treatise has enjoyed a certain fame amongst contemporary Muslims, primarily because it was included in a series of Treatises on Justice and Monotheism published by the influential Islamist thinker Muhammad ‘Imāra (b. 1931).



A Trilingual Bishop

Islamic theological reflection on free will and predestination neither originated nor developed in a cultural vacuum. On the contrary, it is one of the areas where an influence from Christian theology is more likely to have occurred. But the process went also in the opposite direction, as demonstrated by the tract On Free Will, written by Theodore Abū Qurrah, bishop of Harran (the ancient Carrhae). What is now a modest village a few hundred metres from the Turco-Syrian border was in early Islam a cultural centre of primary importance characterised by the presence of pagan, Manichean and Christian communities of various confessions, as well as Muslims. Born in Edessa around 775 and died after 829, Theodore became the leader of the city’s little Melkite community.[2] Faithful to the Council of Chalcedon, he was one of the first Christian thinkers to seriously deal with Islam, to a far greater extent than his predecessor, St John Damascene, with whom he is sometimes associated. He still knew Greek and Syriac but preferred to write in Arabic.


Probably a youthful work, the tract on free will is presented as a confutation of the Manicheans (to whom the central section is dedicated) but it also features an anonymous advocate of predestination who can only be a Muslim belonging to the Jabriyya school. The arguments that Theodore uses to confute him – the question of the “excuse” that God would seek in order to explain the damnation of predestined souls, for example – are, in good part, identical to those that were to be discussed by the Mu‘tazilites (scriptural evidence excluded, of course, since Theodore obviously argues from the Bible, whereas the Mu‘tazilites base their arguments on the authority of the Qur’an). However, as said, the influence is also visible in the opposite direction, since Theodore fully adopts the methods of his Islamic contemporaries. “If you say that God is just even though he does this, we respond: God is just, and it is precisely his justice that keeps him from doing this!” This is the typical dialectical reasoning of kalām, Muslim classical theology: in the formative phase of Islamic civilization, the various religious communities in the Near East frequently engaged in mutual conversations and Theodore Abū Qurrah was no exception.



Predestination’s Victory

Alongside the verses in favour of free will cited by the (pseudo-) Hasan al-Basrī, the Qur’an also contains various passages that teach the inevitability of the divine decree. Two metaphors, in particular, are used: the seal that God places on the hearts of sinners, an image well known to the Old Testament too, and the book containing men’s actions from eternity. Hence the difficulty of harmonizing the two perspectives.


But it is the hadīths that are decidedly predestinationist in their outlook, and it is not by chance that they are absent from the discussion in the Epistle to ‘Abd al-Malik. From the ninth century onwards, they were to assume a central role not only in law but also in theology. The result was to be essentially the victory, in Sunnism, of the pro-predestination party. Despite some dissenting voices – the Salafi Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328), for example, or the Maturidi theological school in Central Asia – the spiritual climate was thus to be dominated by the conviction that the Divine Will enjoyed absolute supremacy, however tempered by faith in God’s merciful disposition towards his servants. Thus in the fifteenth century, the theologian as-Sanūsī was able to write, incisively – but terribly – that “man is a constrained being under the appearance of freedom.”[3]



From Piedmont to the 2011 Uprisings

In this discussion, the nexus with politics is there right from the start. Indeed, it was quite clear to the Omayyad caliphs that belief in predestination could foster political quietism, whereas the doctrine of free will could encourage the idea of personal responsibility, including that of rulers. And it is precisely this idea that, jumping forward a millennium, assumes a new centrality in contemporary Arab thinking, from the figure of ‘Abd al-Rahmān al-Kawākibī onwards.


Born in Aleppo around 1853/1854 into a family of notables, al-Kawākibī adhered in his youth to the reformist movement that was spreading across the Ottoman Empire. In 1877, he opened the first weekly in Aleppo, which the government closed down after just sixteen issues. A second attempt in 1879 was even shorter-lived. The clash with the Ottoman authorities intensified over the next years until al-Kawākibī was arrested and his property confiscated. Thus in 1898 or 1899, he decided to abandon Syria and, after a series of journeys that led him as far as India, established himself in Egypt, at that time under British occupation. He published a series of articles, often writing under the (one is tempted to say Kafkaesque) pseudonym Rahhāla Kāf, Traveller K”. These he then collected and ordered into two books: Tabā’i‘ al-istibdād, “The Nature of Despotism”, from which the present excerpts are taken, and Umm al-Qurā, “The Mother of Cities”, which calls for the founding of an Arab caliphate in Mecca.


Already conceived in Syria, Tabā’i‘ al-Istibdād was first published in 1901. It appeared in the important reformist magazine al-Manār, which was run by another Syrian exile, the influential Rashīd Ridā (1865-1935). The second and definitive edition came out in 1902. Even if al-Kawākibī states in the preface that he does not want to target any particular tyrant or nation, the book was immediately read as an attack on the Sultan of Constantinople. The author died shortly afterwards, in June 1902, possibly poisoned by Ottoman agents.


What is remarkable about Al-Kawākibī’s work – besides its already modern, journalistic style (late nineteenth-century journalism, obviously) – is the breadth of its horizons. In his analysis of despotism, the Aleppine thinker not only refers to Islamic history but ranges from the Greek myths to the Sumerians and Buddhism, in addition to modern Western civilization. The composite nature of these references is, in fact, characteristic of the Arab Renaissance, eagerly opening up to other cultures, the European one in the first place. In al-Kawākibī’s case, moreover, it has been demonstrated philologically that the work Della Tirannide (“On Tyranny”), by the Piedmontese Vittorio Alfieri (1749-1803), played a fundamental part in the final formulation of his thinking: the Syrian intellectual probably knew Alfieri’s work through a Turkish translation, printed with the title Istibdād in Geneva in 1898.[4] The French Socialist Charles Fourier (1772-1837) is another certain source for some parts of the chapter on despotism and money.


From the young Alfieri al-Kawākibī draws a conspicuous anti-clerical and anti-Catholic vein. But whilst Islam embodied for the Piedmontese thinker the quintessence of “oriental” religious despotism, al-Kawākibī throws this accusation back at Christianity (and at Catholicism, in particular) by distinguishing between the Islam of the Prophet and his first Companions and the long history of this ideal’s progressive corruption. A history that will continue uninterruptedly – al-Kawākibī warns – “until the Day of Judgement, unless we adopt […] a political style founded on democratic consultation: a style achieved by some Western nations of which we could truly say that they have learned more from Islam than Muslims themselves.” This is Muhammad ‘Abduh distilled; and not by chance, al-Kawākibī shares with the Egyptian reformist the same understanding of Western civilization.


Despite the occasional nature of his writings, al-Kawākibī was to enjoy an ever-increasing success, being claimed by the widest assortment of currents: democrats, socialists and communists, but also Arab nationalists (because of his proposal to re-establish a unitary Arab state) and Islamists. And like al-Kawākibī and ‘Abduh before him, the majority of his emulators were to resort to the fallacious argument that sees religious despotism as structurally impossible in Muslim lands because Islam – at least the authentic, original Islam – “does not have a clergy”, as was to be repeated ad nauseam. Forgetting that religious despotism and theocracy can easily exist also without an organised clergy, these authors were preventing themselves from a true reflection on the relationship between religion and civil liberty.


Much water has passed under the bridge since June 1902, when al-Kawākibī suddenly died, but the thorny theoretical issues raised by his work remain unresolved. The Arab Springs’ difficulty in passing from protest to the creation of a real political alternative has demonstrated this once again. With all due respect for “that great one / who, annealing the kings’ sceptres, / strips them of their laurels, and reveals to peoples / in what tears and in what blood they are drenched” (as Ugo Foscolo depicts Alfieri in Dei Sepolcri), the Arab world deserves more than the Piedmontese Enlightenment intellectual. It deserves, for example, to resume a reflection on human freedom, because without a proper anthropology, political liberation will remain an illusion. Perhaps – as in the time of Theodore Abū Qurrah and the Mu‘tazilite school – the moment has come to take up this Islamo-Christian conversation once more. And if possibile, without passing through the distorting lens of nineteenth-century modernism.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] Suleiman Ali Mourad, Early Islam between Myth and History. Al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 110H/723CE) and the Formation of His Legacy in Classical Islamic Scholarship (Brill, Leiden-Boston, 2006). See, in particular, chap. 6, pp. 176-239.

[2] Among the many studies, see John C. Lamoreaux, Theodore Abu Qurrah (Brigham Young University Press, Provo [UT], 2005).

[3] Louis Gardet, Dieu et la destinée de l’homme (Vrin, Paris, 1967, first treatise, pp. 33-139) remains essential to understand the terms of this debate.

[4] See Sylvia G. Haim, “Alfieri and al-Kawākibī”, Oriente Moderno 34 (1954), no. 7, pp. 321-334 and Ettore Rossi, “Una traduzione turca dell’opera ‘Della Tirannide’ di V. Alfieri probabilmente conosciuta da al-Kawākibī”, Ibid., pp. 335-337. It is regrettable that the recent French translation of al-Kawākibī’s work (Du despotisme et autres textes, Sindbad 2016) makes no mention of this connection.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Martino Diez, “When Islam Discusses Freedom”, Oasis, year XIII, n. 26, December 2017, pp. 88-93.

Online version:
Martino Diez, “When Islam Discusses Freedom”, Oasis [online], published on 18th April 2018, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/when-islam-discusses-freedom.