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Free Will in Classical Islamic Philosophy and Theology


The notion of religious law (sharī‘a), essential to the Islamic tradition and identity, does not only refer to a set of legal prescriptions but to a broad group of ethical and religious norms, values and duties that are fundamental to every Muslim. The sharī‘a contains all the ethical and legal obligations that every faithful Muslim must fulfill and therefore is the main source of morality. The revelation given by God to the Prophet Muhammad is the main basis for this set of criteria for ethical and legal actions. After the death of Muhammad (632 C.E.) the sharī‘a was gradually consolidated into a legal and moral system derived from the Qur’ānic revelation as its primary source, and from the teachings (the ḥadīth) of the Prophet Muhammad recorded through the tradition (sunna). Also after Muhammad’s death the most important juridical schools were founded and discussions regarding the interpretation of the law became crucial.

Among the numerous juridical and theological discussions on the interpretation of the sharī‘a, there is a decisive ontological and epistemological concern related to the status of ethical values and their source of knowledge. In Reason and Tradition In Islamic Ethics George Hourani draws attention to these difficulties and recognize three different positions in respect to this: 1) ethical values have an objective existence, that is, they can be known by human reasoning or from the religious sources (Qur’ān and the ḥadīth), or sometimes by both (this was the position of the Mu‘tazilites); 2) ethical values are essentially what God commands and therefore the only valid source is the religious tradition, though reason can be used (in subordinate ways) to extend the tradition (this was the position of the Ash‘arites and most juridical schools); and, 3) ethical values are objective and they can be thoroughly known by reason, mainly by wise people, namely, the philosophers; however, values were presented by the prophet to common people by means of the persuasive imaginative language of the scriptural tradition (1985, p. 2).

Notice that positions (1) and (3) represent an objectivist vision of ethical values, that is, good and evil are real qualities inherent to human actions, and God himself adopted these qualities when He revealed the sharī‘a. If ethical values are objective, therefore, as stated in (1), they can be known by human reasoning in some cases even without resorting to divine revelation. This is why this position is usually identified with the rationalism of the Mu‘tazilites and could also be the stance of some philosophers who inherited the Greek tradition. Position (2), on the other hand, represents an ethical voluntarism in which ethical values are understood as deriving from God and therefore good and evil are identified respectively with what is permitted (ḥalāl) or forbidden (ḥarām) by God himself. This position, usually identified with the Ash‘arites is also common among juridical schools such as the Shāfi‘ites and the Ḥanbalites and should be considered, in more precise terms, as a theistic subjectivism where it is not possible to accept any source of morality other than revelation. In this position, God did not adopt the qualities of good and evil, because this would imply that they were previous to God’s will and to revelation. Given that nothing can have an objective existence outside of God’s will, the only valid source of ethical values is revelation, that is, what God commands.

Position (2) implies a strong connection and even the identification between God’s will and ethical values. In other words, those actions considered as good or evil, just or unjust, have as their only valid source what God has prescribed, and therefore human beings shall exclusively act according to those commands in order to act correctly. The assumption of God’s will as the only valid source of ethical values is bound to the preservation of a rooted belief, namely, God’s omnipotence. According to some Islamic theologians God’s omnipotence implies that He is absolutely free to command what is good or evil, what is just or unjust and, actually, God is the only truly free agent. This position raised a crucial question in Islamic theological, juridical and philosophical sectors, namely, whether human beings are able to act freely or whether they are determined by God’s omnipotence and divine will. In what follows, I develop different approaches to this problem starting with the Mu‘tazilites, then the Ash‘arites and, finally, I address the positions of al-Ghazālī, and Ibn Rushd.

 The Mu‘tazilites on Moral Agents and Free Will

The Mu‘tazila, a religious movement that probably started with the ideas of Wasil ibn ‘Ata (d. 748 C.E.) during the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258 C.E.), is commonly identified with Islamic rationalism (Hourani 1985, p. 67-97; Vasalou 2008; Amir-Moezzi & Schmidtke 2009), and they were also partisans of what may be called “libertarianism,” that is, those who believed in human free will (qadar). Their origins are linked to an early theological group, namely, the Qadariyya, which radically rejected the doctrine of predestination (jabr). According to the jabr doctrine every occurrence in the world (natural or human) has previously been planned by God and therefore, there is no room for free will. Certainly, as Hourani explains, although Mu‘tazilite ethical theories varied in detail from one author to another, there are at least five issues which are common to most of their partisans: 1) the objectivity of ethical values, i.e. good and evil are intrinsic to acts; 2) the conception of God as a divine Creator who perfectly knows good and evil and, though He commands only good for human beings, He allows them to choose evil; 3) that the ethical value of human acts can be rationally known, as is the case with people who do not consider revelation but are still able to make sound ethical judgments; 4) that human beings have the power to recognize ethical values and to act in consequence, hence, they are responsible for good and evil, just and unjust acts; and 5) that given that human beings are responsible for their acts, God rewards or punishes them in the afterlife (1985, p. 69).

From these five issues it is easy to detect that the Mu‘tazilites consider human reason itself as a valid source for recognizing ethical values, that human beings are able to choose between good and evil, just and unjust and, therefore, that they are responsible for their acts. Put in other words, the Mu‘tazilites believe that human beings are free agents and hence responsible for the reward or punishment they will receive in the afterlife. Among the prominent scholars who discussed these matters perhaps the most mature conception is that of ‘Abd al-Jabbār (d. 1024), who in his work Mughnī al-Ta‘dīl wa’l-Tajwīr (Summa of the Headings of God’s Unity and Justice) devotes several pages to this matter. His ideas have been discussed by several scholars such as George F. Hourani (1971; 1985, p. 98-117), Montgomery Watt (1973), and more recently by Maha Elkaisy-Friemuth (2006), Mariam al-Attar (2010), Omar Hamdan and Sabine Schmidtke (2012), among others.

According to al-Jabbār there are several conditions involved in our moral judgments. Some of them consist in qualities needed by moral agents such as, for instance, their maturity, the possession of moral knowledge and the capacity to understand the implications of an ethical judgment, their ability to choose and perform the actions they have chosen, and the fact of being responsible agents (Mughnī VI.1, p. 5-6). Mariam al-Attar has provided a valuable explanation of those conditions that involve the previous qualities. According to al-Attar, we could take into consideration five presuppositions of ethical judgments in al-Jabbār’s ethical theory: 1) necessary moral knowledge; 2) human autonomy; 3) purposefulness; 4) universality and impartiality; 5) objectivity and rationality (2010, p. 68-70). These presuppositions are particularly helpful to understand al-Jabbār’s defense of the autonomy of the moral agents and, as a consequence, the centrality of free will and moral responsibility.

Concerning the first presupposition, that is, necessary moral knowledge, this means that a moral agent should be able to understand moral judgments. As al-Attar states, this implies that human beings can recognize those actions that are good or evil. Put it in other terms, when a moral agent is aware of these values she is able to detect those actions that, according to the Islamic characterization, are prohibited (maḥẓūr), obligatory (wājib) or recommended (mandūb). Notice that what al-Jabbār is arguing is that in order to act according to these commands the moral agent must previously understand and reflect on the moral value of her actions; otherwise, morality would consist in mere imposition. According to this first presupposition, namely, the necessity of moral knowledge, al-Jabbār is assuming that human reason can recognize moral values on its own and, in this sense, we can infer that reason provides independent criteria for moral judgments. As will be shown, this contrasts quite seriously with the Ash‘arite position, which rejects such a possibility.

The independent character of human reason is linked to the second presupposition, namely, human autonomy. According to al-Jabbār a moral agent should be able to act by its own and make independent decisions with no related imposition (taklīf) (Mughnī VI.1, p. 16-17). This contrasts with some other Islamic sectors that hold deterministic positions or some others that argue for blind adhesion to the religious law.

Now, the third presupposition, purposefulness, states another relevant condition: human beings act according to motives and purposes. As al-Attar points out, these motives and purposes could be ultimately reduced to the seeking of benefit and the avoidance of harm. The natural character of this principle of action must be stressed. Once again, this contrasts with the position of sectors such as the Ash‘arites who discard the role of natural reason and hold that the religious law should be considered as an exclusive and determinant motivation.

The fourth presupposition is closely related to the third and is very provocative for those sectors that consider Islamic religious law as the only source of morality while discarding any other source (such as natural reason or any other religion). As opposed to those versions of Islam that hold that there is no morality outside the sharī‘a, the fourth presupposition of al-Jabbār’s ethics holds that ethical judgments should be universal and impartial. Every human being, independently from her religious or cultural background is able to make moral judgments and make moral decisions, be it according to what is good and just or not, and this is so because rationality is universal.

The connection with the fifth presupposition, objectivity and rationality, is evident: rationality is essential for making moral judgments and decisions. Actually, in al-Jabbār’s ethical theory the main characteristic of a moral agent is the use of reason to decide over her actions objectively, regardless of imperative rules or warnings linked to reward or punishment that she will deserve according to her moral behavior.

‘Abd al-Jabbār’s stance is a good example of an ethical theory that argues for human beings as being capable of recognizing ethical values through natural reason and also being capable of acting in accordance with said natural reason. A real moral agent, according to this view, stands as a rational agent. An agent with such a characteristic is able to deliberate, to make responsible moral decisions and to act freely according to these.

 The Ash‘arites and the ‘acquisition’ doctrine

The Ash‘arites held exactly the contrary view to that of the Mu‘tazilites (Makdisi 1962; 1963). Their position has been described as a sort of theological voluntarism that held divine command theory. Following Hourani once again, the Ash‘arites sustained that 1) ethical values are not objective and prior to God’s commands, but are entirely created by Him; 2) given God’s unrestricted power, He can provide good or evil to human beings; 3) human beings are not able to attain ethical values through independent reasoning, but only by means of revelation or by reasoning dependent or subordinated to revelation; 4) God has absolute power over all human choices and acts, and He actually predestines their direction; and, 5) God’s decisions are just not because they fit into a human understanding of justice, but because they are God’s decisions (1985, p. 70-71).

The consequence that follows from these premises is that the only valid source for morality is God, who establishes the ethical values through revelation. This means that previous to revelation there were no ethical values, and therefore there were no moral criterion either. The absence of ethical values before revelation is one of the most difficult issues to understand: what happened with human beings before religious law, that is, during the “natural state” prior to revelation? What was the moral status of their actions? Patricia Crone (2004, p. 263) has explained that Muslims provide two different answers for this question. According to the first one, in this natural state human beings lived some sort of amoral state where they were not able to discern between good or evil, right or wrong, permitted or prohibited, because there were no intrinsic ethical value to human acts. The second answer is a modified version of the first one, and it appeals to the insufficiency of human abilities to recognize ethical values, though it admits that some actions were already intrinsically good or evil. According to the first answer, intrinsic ethical values did not exist before God decided to establish them through revealed religious law; according to the second answer, human beings started to discern ethical values when through God’s intervention they acquired that capacity. In general terms, the Ash‘arite position is closer to the first alternative though in a stronger variant: God is not only the originator of morality, but He also has absolute control over all human choices and acts.

Abu al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī (d. 935 C.E.), the founder of the theological school that bears his name and one of the most representative theologians within the Sunni Islamic tradition, developed the so called “kasb” or “acquisition” doctrine which in general terms states that God, not human beings, is the author of human actions, and hence these are acquired (maksūb). This means that God has disposed what we can do, and ethical values such as good an evil have no other meaning than what God has commanded or prohibited. This position becomes controversial if we take into account its implications, namely, that seemingly there would be no room for human responsibility and free will. According to the kasb doctrine God rules both the natural and human domains and, therefore, their followers are usually considered as supporters of predestination and determinism. Nevertheless, this doctrine, far from rejecting human moral responsibility and free will, is conceived by al-Ashʿarī as an attempt to harmonize human responsibility with God’s omnipotence. In other words, al-Ashʿarī holds that God creates human actions and the human power (qudra) for the appropriation of those actions; hence, according to al-Ashʿarī, if an action is executed through a power that God has provided to each human being, then this said action would be properly human and we could hold that humans are responsible for their actions (Adamson 2010: 400-401). This argument, however, is problematic because it is not clear to what extent is it possible to admit free will and moral responsibility when God has created both the action and the power to act.

Al-Ashʿarī explains the kasb doctrine mainly in chapters five and six of his Kitāb al-Luma‘. There he appeals to some Qur’ānic passages to support the acquisition of acts, for instance Qur’ān 37:96, where we read: “[…] It is God who has created you and what you make.” The theological explanation within these chapters leads us to the conclusion that God creates every act and the human power to act. Several scholars have provided different interpretations of the meaning of these words. For instance, Frank’s position is that this doctrine can be understood as a defence of God as creator of every act and as creator of the human power to act; this means, in other words, that He has given human beings the power through which the action takes place. Hence, human beings are the performers, that is, the efficient causes of moral actions, and the kasb doctrine is not necessarily a rejection of human free will and moral responsibility but actually a defence of human responsibility (1966; 1983). However, Abrahamov has commented on Frank’s interpretation emphasising some disagreements with this view and asserts a different conclusion, that is, that al-Ashʿarī’s position is more focused on the defence of God’s omnipotence than on arguing for human free will and moral responsibility (1989).

According to Abrahamov, Frank himself admits that al-Ashʿarī does not give a concise definition of qudra and if with that word al-Ashʿarī were referring to an “efficient cause,” he would have defined it as such. However, as Abrahamov notices, al-Ashʿarī defines qudra (power) as something distinct from human beings (al-Ashʿarī 1953, p. 76, par. 122). The main obstacle to understand al-Ashʿarī’s presentation of the kasb doctrine is, according to Abrahamov’s interpretation, the omission of relevant elements of human action such as the source of the will or the source of the power of will; furthermore, al-Ashʿarī never says “to whom the power of will belongs, to man himself or to God, whether God creates it for man at the moment the action takes place of before the occurrence of the action, or whether it is an inherent element in man. However, since according to al-Ashʿarī, God wills and creates all things, one may conclude that He wills and creates man’s power to will as well as the will itself” (Abrahamov 1989, p. 215).

The kasb doctrine, as seen, may lead us to conclude that given his omnipotence God is the real free agent and human beings are determined by His divine will. Still, after this view a difficulty promptly arises: if God creates every action, is He also the author of evil or wrong actions? From the Mu‘tazilite point of view, God is not responsible for evil, but the human agent that has erred when judging the facts or in recognizing the ethical values, or maybe because he was tempted by something desirable that he judged as something convenient (Frank 1985, p. 69-79). The Ashʿarite response is more complicated. In Kitāb al-Luma‘, al-Ashʿarī holds that “evil is from God in the sense that He creates it as evil for another, not for Himself” (1953, p. 9, par. 107). This asseveration is endorsed by the following argument: “[…] If there were in the world something unwilled by God, it would be something to the existence of which He would be averse. And if there were something to the existence of which He was averse, it would be something to the existence of which He would refuse. This would necessitate the conclusion that sins exist, God willing or God refusing. But this is the description of one who is weak and dominated – and our Lord is very far above that!” (al-Ashʿarī 1953, p. 36, par. 53).

 Al-Ghazālī’s Notion of Causality and the Problem of Free Will

As can be seen, the kasb doctrine involves some difficulties concerning the possibility of free will and human responsibility. It is very likely that al-Ashʿarī’s main interest was to argue for God’s omnipotence. One of the thinkers that explored in detail the consequences of this doctrine was the prominent Muslim theologian al-Ghazālī (d. 1111 C.E.). Though his theological background is Ashʿarite, his proximity to this movement has been a matter of dispute (Frank 1994; Marmura 2002). One of the main difficulties with the Ash‘arite presentation of the kasb doctrine is the conception of God as the unique cause of every occurrence – natural or human – in the world. Although Frank argues that al-Ashʿarī’s intention was to argue for human beings as causal agents of their acts, we have shown that, rather, there are reasons to hold that God’s absolute omnipotence implies the impossibility of any creaturely causality.

Al-Ashʿarī sustains, in this sense, an absolute determinism on the part of God, while strengthening this divine causal exclusivity through an atomistic conception of the world. He thinks that every material body is made out of transitory atoms, arranged in order to fashion the wide variety of bodies that compose reality. Bodies are a whole set of ever-changing atoms, which are created and annihilated according to God’s free will. This atomistic conception of nature is essential for the refutation of some philosophers that have argued that the world is ruled by intrinsic natural causes. According to al-Ashʿarī natural events depend absolutely and utterly on God in every way, and there is no intrinsic causality in nature. In this scenario, as Hume will hold several centuries later, it is our mind that perceives natural phenomena as displaying regularity and attributes causality to them. This is very close to what al-Ghazālī argues in the seventeenth discussion of his work Tahāfut al-Falāsifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers) (al-Ghazālī 2000, p. 166-167; Marmura 1981, p. 85-112), where he addresses the natural phenomenon of combustion and explains that, although some philosophers would argue that fire is the natural efficient cause of combustion, fire is in fact an entity that is in itself incapable of action, and that the true cause of burning cannot be other than God.

This particular discussion from the Tahāfut is one of the places where al-Ghazālī clearly adheres firmly to Al-Ashʿarī. God is the sole agent responsible for the existence of every entity, change and accident that takes place in the world. However, although in the Tahāfut al-Ghazālī seems to reject natural causality, his position has been a matter of considerable dispute (see Fakhry 1958, p. 56-82; Courtenay 1973, p. 77; Wolfson 1976, p. 549; Goodman 1978; Alon 1980; Abrahamov 1998; Druart 2006, p. 425-440; Griffel 2009, p. 147-213 & 215-234). We can assume however that, at least in the Tahāfut, al-Ghazālī is rejecting the notion of causality associated with the philosophers, that is, the necessary natural causal link between cause and effect. From al-Ghazālī’s view, God is free to break the apparently necessary cause-effect nexus. The rejection of natural causality and the dependence of natural events upon divine will lead to the conclusion that God is the sole free agent. In the third discussion of the Tahāfut, al-Ghazālī precisely explains the meaning of the term “agent,” and criticizes those philosophers who have erroneously identified the notion of “agent” with a “natural efficient cause.” An “agent,” according to al-Ghazālī, is someone who is able to produce an act, is capable of willing, of free choice, and is aware of what he wills and of the consequences of his action. God, for al-Ghazālī, is an agent because He creates the world freely and is the creator of every occurrence in the world. For this reason, as stated in the seventeenth discussion mentioned above, He can make fire burn or not burn.

Now, if God has this absolute governance over natural phenomena, what happens then with human free will? Can human beings be considered free agents and morally responsible for their actions? If answered negatively, what would happen with the Islamic teachings on reward and punishment? Would they still be sound? Al-Ghazālī’s stance is quite close to that of Al-Ashʿarī: while he does not deny human free will, he holds that God creates every action for each human being and, hence, there is an accurate match between God’s will and human actions. In another work entitled Iḥyā’ ‘ulūm al-dīn (The Revival of the Religious Sciences) al-Ghazālī insists on the harmonization between free will and God as the creator of every action (al-Ghazālī 1990, p. 36). There, he explains that free will should not be conceived as a human power but as a disposition that God provides to human beings. Nonetheless, it can be argued whether this stance contends for God’s omnipotence or human free will.

 Ibn Rushd on Voluntary Agents and Free Will

In the Tahāfut al-Tahāfut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence), a treatise where Ibn Rushd refutes al-Ghazālī’s criticism against philosophy in Tahāfut al-Falāsifa, Ibn Rushd states that the Ash‘arites do not recognize free will in human beings nor a power to exercise influence on reality (Averroes 1987, p. 94, par. 158). Within the Tahāfut Ibn Rushd also ascribes this view to al-Ghazālī. In the Tahāfut al-Falāsifa, as mentioned above, al-Ghazālī provides the properties of an agent, that is, the capacity to act freely being aware of the consequences. God fulfills these conditions. However, according to Ibn Rushd, al-Ghazālī did not understand the difference between natural and voluntary agents correctly. The former are those that can act only in a given way. Hence, they are naturally determined. Instead, voluntary agents are those that are not determined to act in a given way but can choose between contraries because they are endowed with knowledge and deliberation. The Ash‘arites and al-Ghazālī reserve the characterization of voluntary agency to God, and this is why the only alternative for human beings is their submission to the divine will. Although Ibn Rushd agrees with this demand of submission to God, he thinks that this should not exclude the possibility of free agency, and he builds some arguments in this direction.

Ibn Rushd claims, first, that the term “agent” (fā‘il) cannot be said in the same way when referring to God or to the other causes (1987, p. 89-90, par. 151). Second, he maintains the possibility of arguing for a difference between natural agents and voluntary agents. Therefore, in the first case we would be pointing at natural causality, where the natural agent would be bound to operate in a certain given way that actualizes its natural potencies; in the second case we would be pointing at voluntary agents who are able to bring about this actualization through deliberation and choice (1987, p. 90, par. 151). Two kinds of causality would have then to be differentiated, namely, a unidirectional causality (the one that defines natural agents, for instance, the eye was made for seeing and it has no other function), and multidirectional causality (the one that defines voluntary agents):

“[…] It is clear that the First Principle is the principle of all these principles, and that He is an agent, a form, and an end. And as to His relation to the sensible existents, He is – since He bestows on them the unity which causes their plurality and the unification of their plurality – the cause of all of them, being their agent, form, and end, and all the existents seek their end by their movement towards Him, and this movement by which they seek their end is the movement for the sake of which they are created, and in so far as this concerns all existents, this movement exists by nature, and in so far as this concerns man, it is voluntary. And therefore man is of all beings the one charged with duty and obligation” (1987, p. 95, par. 160).

After distinguishing natural agents from voluntary agents, another distinction must be made between divine and human will. According to Ibn Rushd, “the human will implies a deficiency in the willer and a being affected by the object willed, and when the object is attained, the deficiency is completed and the passivity, which is called will, ceases.” In contrast, the acts which proceed from God, “proceed through knowledge, and everything which proceeds through knowledge and wisdom proceeds through the will of the agent, not, however, necessarily and naturally, since the nature of knowledge does not imply (as [al-Ghazālī] falsely affirms of the philosophers) the proceeding of the act” (1987, p. 264, par. 438). While the will of natural agents is moved by a deficiency, and hence they align their desire with some object to fulfill its needs, God’s will does not respond to a deficiency, rather, His will is linked to his perfect knowledge and wisdom: “For the will in animals and man is a passivity which occurs to them through the object of desire and is caused by it. This is the meaning of ‘will’ in the case of the human will, but the Creator is too exalted to possess an attribute which should be an effect. Therefore by ‘will’ in God only the procession of the act joined to knowledge can be understood” (1987, p. 264-265, par. 439). In other words, in God every act proceeds from knowledge and, given that He is the Knower par excellence his knowledge – and therefore, His actions – excludes the worse (1987, p. 256-257, par. 426-427).

To sum up, while God’s will is determined by his perfect knowledge, human will is undetermined by its capacity to choose between opposites. In this sense, human beings are imperfect: they can err. Ibn Rushd thinks that al-Ghazālī’s and the Ash‘arites’ main concern was to safeguard the divine omnipotence without noticing that in order to hold their position it was unnecessary to exclude human free will.

Ibn Rushd’s criticism against the Ash‘arites is also developed in al-Kashf ‘an Manāhij al-Adilla fi ‘Aqā’id al-Milla (The Exposition of the Methods of Proof Concerning the Beliefs of the Community). What draws attention from this treatise is how Ibn Rushd not only attacks the position of the Ash‘arites but also that of the Mu‘tazilites and even the views of the jabriyya (necessitarians or determinists) (2001, p. 105-115; Arabic 1998, p. 223-233). Ibn Rushd explains that the Ash‘arites represent the intermediate position between the libertarianism of the Mu‘tazilites and the stance of the determinists. None of these alternatives is coherent according to Ibn Rushd: 1) the Mu‘tazilites challenge the Muslim belief in God as the unique creator, because they understand that human beings can be creators of their actions; 2) the determinists consider that human beings are not able to act freely but, if this were the case, holds Ibn Rushd, religious obligations would be unreasonable, because God’s imposition would impede the distinction between human beings and inanimate things; 3) finally, the Ash‘arite view is pointless given that both the acquisitive power and the act itself are created by God, and therefore human beings are in fact obliged to act in a determined manner.

Ibn Rushd himself admits that the antagonistic positions between those who defend free will and those who deny it are due to ambiguous Qur’ānic passages that seem to be contradictory: while in some places it seems that the Qur’ān itself presents a deterministic stance (13:8; 39:63; 37:94-96; 54:49; 57:22; 67:13-14), there are other places where it is held that human beings have acquired the power or capacity to discern between what is good or evil and hence will receive rewards or punishments for their actions (2:286; 16:96; 21:23; 18.29-30; 32:14; 41:17; 42: 3; 42:29; 42:34). In the Kashf, however, Ibn Rushd holds that these passages are not contradictory. He proposes the following resolution: God has endowed human beings with certain power (free will) through which we can perform our actions; at the same time, God has created external causes that are conducive for our actions taking place. In other words, human actions would not be performed through our free will if God had not provided a series of external causes subordinated and complementary to the actions human beings perform. In this sense, our free will is bound to the external causes. Both free will and external causes are involved in human actions; thus, if actions are attributed to only one of these two factors, then we face the previous dilemma. The Ash‘arite resolution was unhelpful because they did not considered God as the unique cause of every occurrence in the world without considering the external or secondary causes and the role of other agents (human beings) than God. Averroes does not reject God’s omnipotence, but he thinks that His almighty will is compatible with human free will, that God has disposed the appropriate scenario for human choice.


The previous sections have shown the complexity of the different arguments formulated by several thinkers within the Classical Islamic context in order to harmonize human free will and the divine omnipotence. The different approaches to the possibility of free will (qadar) are linked to a diversity of philosophical issues such as the nature of ethical values and the source of ethical knowledge (reason itself or revelation), human powers, God’s omnipotence, and the understanding of causality and the notion of ‘agent.’

The debate between the Mu‘tazilites and the Ash‘arites represents the main framework in which the discussions took place in the Classic context: while the former movement appeals to the human rational power to recognize ethical values, to free will and choice, the latter seeks to safeguard divine omnipotence by weakening and rejecting the role of free will. In this debate within the Islamic kalām al-Ghazālī appears as a theologian attempting to find a more appropriate solution. His position has its own complexities and was discussed by one of the major philosophers in the Islamic tradition, namely Ibn Rushd, who summarized the different positions of the Islamic theologians and provided a philosophical solution integrating both the external causes created by God and a human power disposed to act freely.



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How to cite:
Luis Xavier Lόpez-Farjeat, «Qadar: Free Will in Classical Islamic Philosophy and Theology», in Houari Touati (ed.), Encyclopedia of Mediterranean Humanism, Spring 2015, URL =