Reconciling the Divine Decree and Free Will in Islam

Published: July 31, 2017 • Updated: February 14, 2023

Author: Justin Parrott

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ

In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.


In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
The idea of divine providence also known as the divine decree or predestination—that everything has already been decreed by the Creator from eternity— has troubled theologians and philosophers for centuries. How can we reconcile the two apparently contradictory facts that Allah has absolute power and sovereignty over all creation, and that at the same time we are responsible for our actions? Are we forced to do what we do, or are our choices meaningful?
This question led to one of the earliest sectarian schisms in the Muslim community, between the Qadarites, who believed in absolute human free will (Allah has no control over us), and the Jabarites, who believed in absolute determinism and fatalism (we have no control over our actions). Each of these groups developed an extreme and misguided theology. If Allah has no control, then why call upon Allah in prayer? And if we have no control over our actions and fate, why do any good deeds at all?
Not only was this question a sharp controversy in early Islamic history, it has been an important issue throughout history for both religious and secular reasons. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote seriously on the topic over two thousand years ago because of its implications for understanding order in the universe, the origin of life, human freedom, and happiness. Today, it is the subject of complex academic debate, under the heading of determinism, in scientific disciplines such as mathematics, physics, biology, psychology, and social science. Clearly, our understanding of destiny plays a decisive role in both our view of the world and, perhaps more importantly, our behavior in it. Muslims have also experienced doubts in their faith due to the myriad of philosophical conundrums that arise from it. How does Islam solve the riddle?

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The Quran and Sunnah take a middle path between the two historical extremes, upholding both the sovereignty of Allah and the responsibility of humankind. From a purely rational standpoint, these two aspects seem mutually exclusive; in other words, it seems they cannot both be true. However, we have to remember that Allah exists outside of time and space, beyond the cosmic veil in the Unseen. By contrast, we human beings can only conceive of realities within the framework of time and space. Divine providence, or predestination, is a reality that exists beyond time and space, which means we are simply incapable of conceiving it with our limited rational faculties.
For this reason, Allah communicated the reality of providence using the tools of language—in particular, literary imagery (al-taswir al-fanni)—which in Qura’nic science involves “expressing a mental meaning by use of sensory and visualized pictures.” These images are the Pen, the Preserved Tablet, and the angelic records of deeds. They articulate the nature of providence, that Allah has complete control over what is decreed from the beginning and what is later expunged. They are images that are not fictional nor merely metaphorical; on the contrary, they constitute profound truths in the universe and are realities in themselves. While all things have already been decreed from eternity, Allah has the power to change destiny based upon the choices we make. We are, indeed, morally responsible for our actions and our free will has associated with it a measure of control, limited under the sovereignty of Allah, to determine our ultimate fate.

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