Divine Will and Human Freedom


Divine Will and Human Freedom

Abdur Rab


Shakespeare writes: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” This pretty much sums up the role of the three groups of factors that shape human destiny: heredity, human effort, and environment. This also echoes what Scriptures would tell us.

Influenced by Muslim traditions and Muslim and Christian scholars and theologians, Muslims and Christians widely believe that God predestines the fate of human beings – how long they live, how they live, what fortune or misfortune they enjoy or suffer in life — no matter what they actually do during their time on earth. But if this were true, as I concluded in an earlier article, the whole case for religion that makes man responsible for his actions would crumble. Destiny plays a part in human life, but man largely shapes his own destiny.

The Quran states that God has created everything in due measure (taqdir, proportion or destiny) (25:2). Shakespeare puts it: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends.” The German Philosopher Goethe says: “Man supposes that he directs his life and governs his actions, when his existence is irretrievably under the control of destiny.” David Eagleman notes in his book Incognito: “Most of what we do and think and feel is not under our conscious control.” He documents how human biology, especially the brain’s constitution and health, affects human behavior.

Certainly, though, destiny is a tricky term to understand. Often what we may call destiny or fate befalling us is nothing but the outcome of what we (or our forefathers or society) have done. The Quran states along these lines: “Whatever misfortune strikes you is due to what your hands have earned” (42:30) and “Laisa lil insani illa ma sa’a – There’s nothing for man without effort” (53:39; also see 20:15; 2:286).

The history of human civilization is that of human endeavor: unprecedented material prosperity, immense improvement in human living standards, impressive development in prevention and control of diseases, and a sharp increase in human longevity. Also look at man-caused fires, massacres, injustice, humiliation, inequality, poverty, and misery. This dark record of what man has done made Wordsworth lament “what man has made of man!” With all the arms build-up worldwide and arms race and nuclear proliferation going apace, the world stands at a tipping point. World peace hangs on a very delicate balance.

In their dreams and visions, individuals sometimes see things that foretell future events. The Quran also announces some important events in advance: the birth of Jesus who would be worthy of respect in both worlds (3:45); the birth of John (Yahya) who would be an honorable prophet to his people (3:39); Muslims’ victory at the Badr battle (3:124-126; 8:9-12); and the fall of the Roman empire (30:2-4). Call, if you will, such dreams, visions, and announcements vindications of Divine will. However, an analysis of such predicted events may suggest that underlying factors at play in most cases are rather hereditary or environmental, reflecting the predominant role of human effort, present or past.

That God does not directly will or influence events is brought out by several verses of the Quran. A key passage reads as: “Surely God does not change the condition of people until they change their own selves (nafs)” (13:11). Still another states that God lands one where one chooses to turn (4:115). God mocks those who do not feed the poor and says that if God willed, He could have fed them (36:47). Also: “If God willed, He could have guided us all” (6:149), “If He willed, He could have made humankind one nation” (5:48), and “If He willed, all would have believed” (10:99). The import of all these verses is that God does not directly determine our affairs.

Look at another important Quran verse that unequivocally upholds freedom of human choice: “The Truth (has now come) from your Lord; let, then, him who wills believe (in it), and let him who wills reject (it)” (18:29). There are other verses that categorically make human beings accountable for their own actions: “You are responsible for your own selves” (5:105) and “Spend in God’s cause, and let not your own hands lead you to ruin” (2:195).

But what do you make of such statements in the Quran that say that nothing happens without God’s knowledge (2:33) and that everything is in the Book (78:29)? Is human freedom limited by God’s knowledge and power? A great Islamic thinker Indian-Pakistani poet, philosopher Muhammad Iqbal does not think so. In his seminal work Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, he forcefully and beautifully describes God’s knowledge and power in a way that admits of freely exercised creativity on the part of humankind: “If history is regarded merely as a gradually revealed photo of a predetermined order of events, then there is no room in it for novelty and initiation. Consequently, we can attach no meaning to the word ‘creation’, which has a meaning for us only in view of our own capacity for original action. The truth is that the whole theological controversy relating to predestination is due to pure speculation with no eye on the spontaneity of life, which is a fact of actual experience. No doubt, the emergence of egos endowed with the power of spontaneous and hence unforeseeable action is, in a sense, a limitation on the freedom of the all-inclusive Ego. But this limitation is not externally imposed. It is born out of His own creative freedom whereby He has chosen finite egos to be participators of His life, power, and freedom.” He further aptly notes:

It is the lot of man to share in the deeper aspirations of the universe around him and to shape his own destiny as well as that of the universe […] And in this process of progressive change God becomes a co-worker with him, provided man takes the initiative.

Several Quran verses encapsulate this idea of God becoming a co-worker with man (13:11; 8:53; 19:76; 42:23; 2:26). God adds good to those who do good (42:23). This is a God’s Law: If you start doing something good, you’re further inclined to doing the good things and if you start doing evil, you’re further attracted to the evil.

Man, as all the creation, is subject to the Laws of God, which scientists call the Laws of Nature. But note: God Himself is subject to such Laws. He never changes His Sunnah or Ways (35:43, 17:77). This Divine will, of course, constrains human freedom. None can work in contravention of such laws. But this is a general constraining factor as well as a blessing for humankind. If things hadn’t been that way, we couldn’t have ever known for sure what works for us and what does not and all scientific research would have come to a standstill.

Evolution is a natural process, taking place throughout the universe. Evolution is a manifestation of Divine will.

[For a related article by Edip Yuksel see: Free Will or Predestination? ]


Abdur Rab is the author of Exploring Islam in a New Light: A View from the Quranic Perspective, 2010

First Published at AslanMedia in 29 July 2012
*Photo Credit: Usman Ahmed