Predestination and Free Will in Islam
In Islam is everything predestined? Are some people preordained for salvation (in Islam) and others for destruction – and if so why is there a responsibility in Islam to invite others (Da’wa)? Or does man have free will with which he can decide for or against belief in Allah? These questions were already intensively discussed among Muslim theologians very early in the history of Islam. The discussion was based on Koran verses about Allah’s all pervading power, which stood in direct contrast to those verses which urge mankind to recognize their creator in nature and warn them to repent.
For a long time Islamic theology held more strongly to the view that everything is predetermined by Allah. But there were also advocates of free will who relied more on Koran verses that emphasised the responsibility of man for his deeds and his faith.
Some of the earliest and most fundamental statements in the Koran are that Allah is almighty, Lord over day and night (Sura 73:20), the Creator of mankind and the whole earth, and that everything happens through him. Allah calls each person into being and determines the moment of their death when their appointed time comes (Sura 63:11). He guides world affairs and calls everyone to account at the Last Judgement for what they have done. For this reason, Muhammad argues in the Koran against the fatalistic beliefs of pre-Islamic Arabian tribes, who believed in the inevitability of a predetermined fate for all mankind.
… on the one hand
On the one hand, with regard to the question of free will, many Koran verses state very strongly that Allah himself is the cause of everything. He does good to mankind but he also ordains evil. Everything has already been written down in a book: “No evil happens on the earth or to you that would not be in a book, even before we bring it into existence” (57:22).
Allah leads mankind and determines their path. He directs man’s will (76:30) and brings forth faith or unbelief in their hearts (6:125). He guides them aright (on the path of Islam) or astray (so that they will be thrown into hell on the Last Day) (2:26). Allah himself has predestined them to this fate as in the case of Lot’s wife: “We determine that they would belong to those who lag behind” (27:57).
Yes, if Allah had wanted all mankind would have been Muslim, but this faith is not intended for everybody (10:99-100). It was his wish and plan that various other religious communities outside Islam would come into being (5:48). Hence Allah places a ‘cover’ over the heart of the unbelievers and ‘deafness’ in their ears so that they cannot understand the Koran (17:46). In conclusion: “So God leads astray whom he chooses and guides aright whom he chooses” (74:31).
… on the other hand
On the other hand the Koran emphasises the responsibility of each individual. All mankind will have to give account before Allah on the Day of Judgement if they have not paid heed to the warnings of the prophets. The Koran attributes stubbornness as the reason for some people turning away from Islam (Sura 4:13-14). Everything that a person has done during his life is written down in a book to be brought out on that day (17:4). “Allah does not demand from anybody more than he is able to do. Each person receives what he deserves; and wherein he sinned descends upon him” (2:286).
The Koran does not solve this obvious tension between man’s responsibility and Allah’s omnipotence, but leaves both side by side. Some Koran verses even connect both sides. Because some people sinned by making their own ideas their god: “Allah deliberately led them astray” (45:23). Similarly Sura 18:57 says that both sides are responsible: Man chooses evil and turns away from the message of Islam. At the same time Allah makes him incapable of hearing what is right, even when he continues to hear Islam proclaimed (cf. 42:13). When the Bible speaks in a similar manner and God sends a “powerful delusion” (2Thess. 2:11 f.) it is usually clearly depicted as judgement for people “who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness” (2 Thess. 2:12).
The Tradition (hadith) also deals with the subject of predestination. It speaks more clearly than the Koran about the fatalistic predestination of all things, and refers more strongly to Allah as the cause of everything that happens. There is not a single hadith that affirms man’s free will.
The Hadith reports that everything that happens in the world has already written down by Allah. Other traditions speak of the angels determining everything for each individual beforehand; their birth, death and the question of their faith. This particular thought that everything has already been “written down” before a person’s life begins (arab. maktub), has especially taken root in Folk Islam.
Fatalism appears to dominate Folk Islam. If a difficulty arises or if special efforts are required to change something for the better sometimes very little is done. This is then an example of “maktub” and implies that everything in life has been predetermined and that it is not worth protesting against this or that or to avert it. Mankind’s required submission to the will of Allah found over and over in the Koran sometimes becomes a fatalistic resignation, which can also lead to passivity and indifference when facing the trials of life Allah imposes.
The diverse Koran verses related to predestination and free will reflect Muhammad’s own situation. With his message of Islam he challenged the fatalistic belief of his fellow countrymen, but also had to explain the continuing hardness of heart among the people in his hometown, Mecca. After several years he then factored the predestination of all things into his preaching as the reason for the poor response.
While the Old Testament already gives accounts of God granting people the freedom to turn to him with their doubts, questions or even with their accusations (cf. the psalms of lament or the book of Job), Islam demands foremost the submission of man to the Almighty and Unfathomable One. This requirement deeply shapes society in many areas. Submission without the possibility of expressing doubt and asking questions can very easily turn into passive fatalism.
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