Q. A question which has bothered me for some time is whether man acts and behaves according to his own free will or to what has been destined for him by Allah. In other words, is the choice in any given situation completely ours, or is it pre-determined for us? Is there for every one of us a destiny towards his life, and from which he cannot escape? Or is it true that by our own choices we mould our future?
A. This is a question which really speaks of man’s position in relation to Allah. In order to answer it properly, we need to establish a basis for our discussion which takes into account certain essential facts which must be accepted at the outset. Otherwise, there can be no common ground between the one who poses the question and the one who tries to answer it.
These facts are:
Allah is the creator of all things, great and small, magnificent and petty, physical and abstract.
Allah is just. He administers His justice on the basis of His knowledge.
Allah’s knowledge is perfect and absolute. He knows the most secret of thoughts in the same way as He knows the most public of events. Nothing escapes His knowledge as He sees all and hears all, without restrictions or impediments.
Allah always tells the truth, the plain and complete truth. He never says something and means another. What He says must always be taken at face value, because He does not need to wrap His meaning or to make use ambiguity.
Within the framework which these facts establish, we find that the answer to your question is an easy one. Allah tells us in the Qur’an that every human being accepts the faith or denies it according to his own will. He instructs His messenger to say to people: “And say: The truth is from your Lord. Then whosoever wills, let him believe, and whosoever wills, let him disbelieve” (18:29).
This verse tells us that man chooses for himself whether to believe in Allah or not. This is the most important choice a man ever makes. If he has free choice over this particular question, then he must have the same over matters which are less serious. We cannot imagine a situation in human life where man can reach a higher stage without passing through a primary one. The sophisticated always includes the elementary. For man to be able to make a choice in a subject which affects all his life, he must have adequate training in exercising his ability to choose in simpler and less serious matters.
Allah also tells that He rewards man according to his actions. Numerous verses in the Qur’an tell us that no action will be allowed to pass unnoticed. For example:” So whosoever does good equal to the weight of an atom (or a small ant), shall see it. And whosoever does evil equal to the weight of an atom (or a small ant), shall see it” (99:7,8).
If our actions carry a reward, good or bad, then they must be of our own choosing. If they were imposed on us through predestination, then we cannot be held responsible for them. Otherwise, the divine attribute of justice could not be fulfilled. Suppose you are a shopkeeper and employ an assistant to attend to customers’ needs when you are absent. Suppose that you come to the shop one evening after having been absent all day and your assistant tells you that he tried to reach you everywhere to ask your permission to give a discount of 10 percent to a customer who wanted to buy a very large quantity of goods. When the customer could not get that desired discount, he bought the goods from one of your competitors. Now, if you were to scold, reproach or punish your assistant for not acting in what you may describe as “a responsible manner,” you are unfair. He has acted within the restrictions you have imposed on him. You have left him no choice and he should never be punished for not exercising a choice which is not his.
The fact that our actions are either rewarded or punished by Allah means, by logic and necessity, that we have complete control over them. Otherwise, the reward and punishment cannot be fair.
Moreover, Allah has created us and equipped us with an ability to choose. That ability is set into operation and we can see its effects every minute of our lives. You have only to look at what you do and what you omit. When you are awakened by your alarm in the morning, whether you rise and get ready to go to work or you switch it off and go back to sleep is your own choice. If you do the latter and you are reproached by your employer for being late, you do not complain. When you open your wardrobe you choose the shirt and trousers you will wear that day. It is you who decides whether to go to work walking, by your car or to use public transport. No one imposes on you that you should invite your friend to dinner, and when you accept someone else’s invitation, that again is your own choice. These are simple matters and I have chosen these examples advisedly. When you realize that it is always your choice that determines what you do in such matters, it is easy to understand that we also exercise a choice in more complicated matters.
A person who does not fast in Ramadan can never claim that he has made that choice under duress. Nor does the one who fasts accept any suggestion that he is compelled to fast. The same applies to prayers and zakah, no matter how much is said about anyone’s need to maintain appearances. Even that is one’s own choice. Without this free choice, the whole idea of action and reward becomes impossible. Moreover, it would not fit with Allah’s justice. There is no doubt, then, that we have free choice, and we exercise it freely, and we bear the consequences.
What makes this question seem, at times, an intricate one is that people confuse Allah’s prior knowledge of everything that may take place in the universe with pre-destination. We state very clearly that Allah knows what we are going to choose in any situation and what we will do or say before we actually do it or say it. His prior knowledge, however, does not signify any imposition on us to comply. Perhaps we will find it easier to understand this point if we remember that time, as we know it, does not apply to Allah or to His knowledge. Time on earth is a coincidental thing, by which man is able to calculate time on the basis of the succession of day and night. That a day consists of 24 hours is something determined by man. That a week consists of a succession of seven days and seven nights is also something that people have agreed. If we were to live on some other planet, we will find that all this calculation of time is irrelevant. Even in our solar system, one night and day on one planet is equal to several years on another. Then we have to exclude this notion of time when we speak of Allah’ s prior knowledge. When we are able to do so, we can easily understand that His knowledge does not constitute an imposition on us.
Having said that, however, I should add that there are certain things in our lives over which we can exercise no choice. We do not choose when we are born or when we die. Nor can we choose whether or not to react to natural elements such as rain, wind and temperature. We cannot determine how our bodies react in different situations. We are affected by illness in a way over which we exercise no control. In such matters, we earn no reward and incur no punishment. This fits with Allah’s justice which attaches those to our free choice.
Moreover, Allah has placed us on earth and given it its potentials and created its environment. We can tap those potentials and make use of them, and we can deal in a limited way with the environment. What we can do through our own choosing is part of what we are responsible for. What we cannot alter has no effect on our final outcome. But we should understand, however, that our lives are affected by conditions and environmental influences which are part of Allah’s system of creation. There are causes and effects. When we can influence a cause, we are responsible for the effect which results from our action. When we are influenced by a cause over which we have no control, we bear no liability.
Perhaps an element of ambiguity arises from the fact that Muslims often use such words as,” By Allah’s Will”, ” What has been written cannot be changed”, and similar phrases. These can easily be understood in the light of the foregoing, when we relate them to Allah’s prior knowledge on the one hand, and to His overall will on the other. It is Allah who has willed that there be cause and effect, and it is His will that such causes as affect our lives, are there to affect it. Furthermore, it is His will that we should have free will of our own. Our own will, then, is exercised within the framework of His absolute and overall will which has determined that man can have free choice of his own. The two are by no means mutually exclusive. Indeed, man’s free will is a manifestation of Allah’s absolute will.