Rafed English

Freedom as freewill

Adopted from the book : "Freedom; The Unstated Facts and Points" by : "Ayatullah Misbah Yazdi"

The other meaning of freedom, which is also related to the domains of theology, philosophy, scholasticism [‘ilm al-kala-m], and philosophical psychology, is the freedom in contradistinction to “predetermination”. Since time immemorial, this discussion has existed among the thinkers and scholars: Is man really free in his action and has freewill, or is it that he is only imagining that he is free and the truth is that he is under compulsion and has no will of his own?!

The issue of predetermination [jabr] and freewill [ikhtiya-r] is one of the oldest discussions, which exists in the philosophical discussions of all peoples and nations. After the coming of Islam or from the very advent of Islam, because of the Muslims’ contact with other peoples and cultures, or due to the intellectual sediments they had in their minds from the culture of pre-Islamic thought and heresy, this issue was intensely discussed among Muslims.

The fatalistic tendencies, meanwhile, gained much currency, and they would even cite Qur’anic verses in proving the predetermined state of man. Among the Islamic schools of thought, Asha-‘irah (Ash‘arism), which is among the scholastic schools of the Ahl as-Sunnah, upholds the theory of predetermination. 5 Of course, it is not as extreme and passionate as others.

In any case, this question is posed: In terms of action, does man really have freewill and is free such that he could decide and do whatever he likes? Or, are there elements in the offing, which compel man to do a certain action and even to accept a particular idea and thought, and that freewill is just an illusion? The proponents of predetermination believe that the different social, natural and supra-natural elements compel us to act and even think and decide in a certain way. According to them, as what Mawlawi- cites as an example,

That you said I have to do this or that Is itself a basis of freewill, O master!

Speeches are nothing but illusion and imagination, and are incompatible with the reality; man has no freewill of his own and is under the influence of various elements.

This matter is also discussed in the philosophical psychology: Is man a being who, in terms of personality and mental frame, has the power of decision-making, or not? In scholasticism and theology this is also discussed: As the servants of God, are human beings under compulsion, or autonomous and free?

According to our view and that of the majority of Muslims, this belief in the domain of (personal) opinion and outlook is rejected, although in the domain of action and deed all people know that they have freedom and freewill. If mere predetermination rules over man, there is no more point of having moral and educational systems as well as government organs.

In the domain of ethics and educational system, if man is compelled to do a good or bad action, having no choice of his own, with respect to the good deed he must not be praised, lauded and be given reward. Equally, if he were compelled, he must not be punished and reprimanded for an evil deed.

If the child were compelled in his action, there is no more point of training him, and for controlling his action educational systems must be abandoned. In case both the teacher and trainer, and the child and pupil were under compulsion in their actions, the trainer could not advise the child to perform a certain activity and to avoid a certain undertaking. In the same manner, in the domain of legal, political and economic issues, all those regulations and recommendations that have been made are pieces of evidence that man is indeed free and autonomous.

When man is autonomous to perform a certain action or abandon the same, they will admonish him to perform or abandon a certain act. If he were under compulsion, having no choice and freewill on his action, then there is no point of admonishing or giving order to him.

This freedom and freewill in which we do believe is a creational [takwi-ni-] affair whose opposite is predetermination [jabr]. It has been endowed by God to man, is among the peculiarities of man and the criterion of his superiority over all creatures.

Among the creatures that we know, it is only man that has the power to choose and select, notwithstanding his diverse, and at times, contradictory inclinations. In responding to the call of his desires—whether they are bestial desires, or divine and sublime aspirations—he is totally free and autonomous.

Undoubtedly, God, the Exalted, has bestowed this divine blessing to man so that out of his freewill he could select the right path or the wrong path.

All the advantages that man has over other creatures including the angels are under the auspices of having the power to choose and select. If he would make use of this power in the right path and choose the divine wishes while putting aside the bestial desires, he will reach an exalted station wherein the angels will feel humble before him. Of course, man’s possession of this freedom is a creational issue. Approximately, nowadays, nobody denies it and regard himself as totally under compulsion, having no freewill of his own. The Qur’an naturally gives emphasis on this issue:

“Say: (It is) the truth from the Lord of you (all). Then whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve.” 6

“Lo! We have shown him the way, whether he be grateful or disbelieving.” 7

Hundreds of verses, nay it can be said, the entire Qur’an, highlight the autonomy of man because the Qur’an is meant for the guidance of man. If man were under compulsion, his being guided was a predestined matter and so with his being misguided, and there was no place for guidance by choice. In this manner, the Qur’an will become useless and futile. It is clear that the second meaning of freedom is different from the first one that we mentioned. Of course, they are common in indicating objective realities and so to speak, the “beings” and “not-beings”. None of the two meanings falls in the domain of “must” and “must-not”.

If man had been really created to be under compulsion, it can no longer be said: “He must be free.” On the contrary, if man had been created as autonomous, it cannot also be said: “He must be compelled.

”In these two meanings of freedom, one cannot speak of “mandatory” and “moral” orders. If in the parlance of philosophy it is proved that man is created to be under compulsion, the slogan of the freedom of man can no longer be chanted. If man is by creation under compulsion, whether we like it or not, the freedom of man will be an impossible and absurd affair. The domain of “being and not-being” is different from that of “must and must-not”.

Therefore, if someone applied “freedom” with its creational meaning and then arrived at the “must and must-not”, he is committing that fallacy of common word, which we pointed out before. If we proved that man by creation is free, one cannot arrive at the legal and moral freedom, and say: “So, he must be free,” or “It is good” for him to be free”. To discover and prove an external reality is one thing, and to talk about “good and bad” and “must and must-not” is another. One must not mix the two together, however.


5. For information on Asha-‘irah and other scholastic schools in Islam, see Murtada- Mut?ahhari-, “An Introduction to ‘Ilm al-Kala-m,” trans. ‘Ali- Quli- Qara-’i-, At-Tawhi-d Journal vol. 2, no. 2 (Rabi-‘ ath-Tha-ni- 1405 AH-January 1985), available online at http://www./at-tawhid/kalam.htm. [Trans.]

6. Su-rah al-Kahf 18:29.

7. Su-rah al-Insa-n (or, ad-Dahr) 76:3.

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