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Divine Will and Human Freedom -- Part I. Divine Predestination: How Far Real?

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Throughout recorded history, perhaps no other religious subject has generated so much controversy and confusion than that surrounding the issues of divine will and human freedom to act. Much of the controversy, or rather confusion, is ostensibly based on a literal reading of scriptural texts and speculation. There has been little discernible concerted effort on the part of the Muslim theologians to reconcile and consistently piece together the different threads of insight into this subject that are found in the Quran. Those who have been critical of Islam, have portrayed the Quranic message as teaching a fatalistic doctrine of predestination. [1] Regrettably, such a doctrine has gained widespread acceptance among Muslims. Most Muslims believe that major events such as life, death, marriage and livelihood, if not all that happens to them, are due to God's will and preordainment, and that they are virtually, if not totally, powerless in influencing the course of such events. This view parallels that widely held among Christians, influenced by the ideas of theologians such as Augustine, Martin Luther and John Calvin.

This paper attempts to discuss this subject in two parts from the Quranic perspective. This part will examine whether divine predestination, as generally understood, makes any sense in light of human freedom, responsibility and accountability, taking for granted that predetermined destiny plays a part in human life, effectively limiting human freedom to an extent. A second part will attempt to further clarify what divine will really means, and how it can be distinguished from human will, and how and to what extent real destiny is at work for human life.

The Doctrine of Predestination

In Islam, the popular view on predestination comes from one of the most orthodox, and early schools of thought, the Asharite school, founded by an Iraqi Arab theologian al-Ashari (874-936 AD), and from theologians such as al-Ghazali (1058-1111 AD) of Iranian origin, and ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328 AD) of Turkish origin. Their view on this doctrine can be summed up thus: God preordains everything that happens on earth, including what man wills and does, and what befalls man, good or bad. Even a modern Egyptian-American scholar, Rashad Khalifa (1935-1990 AD), who commands our well-deserved respect by championing the cause of the Quran-only movement, regrettably, erred about this doctrine. While recognizing that man is absolutely free to believe or disbelieve in God, he presents the view that God wills and knows who is going to be a good or bad person even before his or her birth -- that it was not Joseph's will, but God's will, that deterred him from committing an indecent act. [2] Brief summaries of their views on predestination are placed in a Box at the end of this article.

This kind of ambiguous, dualistic thinking is characteristic of beliefs generally held by Muslims. Among modern scholars, Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938 AD), the Pakistani Poet-Philosopher and a great progressive Islamic thinker of modern time, did an excellent job in doing away with the fatalistic doctrine of predestination by reconciling God's knowledge and power with man's free ego (See below for elaboration). Of course, in Islam's early history, the rationalist theological school, Mutazilites, represented by Wasil ibn Ata (d. 748 AD) and his followers, whose theology thrived in Basra and Baghdad during the 8th-10th centuries, countered the doctrine on the basis of the basic conception of God as just and impartial, but their position on predestination was partially tendentious as, in their zeal to show God as distinctly different from man, they stripped God of attributes, which looked to them anthropomorphic.

A literal reading of some verses of the Quran, of course, gives the impression that nothing happens except with God's knowledge and will. But this will of God is rarely, if ever, analyzed properly in light of the world view of the Quran. There are numerous other verses that speak about human freedom, responsibility and accountability, about God's justice and impartiality, about the way God acts, and about how human beings can receive divine help, forgiveness and grace. This is, of course, not to say that human beings are not under some control of predetermined destiny, a topic that will be discussed at some length in the second part of this article. But this destiny part often gets much overblown by theologians and scholars to the virtually complete denial of human free will.

The Quran contains a whole host of ideas concerning divine will and decrees and human beings' capacity and responsibility -- ideas that are well worth pondering by all believers. On close reflection, these ideas can be found to be essentially inter-linked and coherent. [3] The Quran itself claims that there is no incoherence in it:

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Abdur Rab is the author of "Exploring Islam in a New Light: An Understanding from the Quranic Perspective" (To know about the book, visit the website: Abdur Rab, Ph.D. from Harvard, has had a long career in economic research (more...)
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