The purpose of the article is to tackle the topic of Qadr and Free Will from an Islamic perspective which is done primarily from a book written by a first century Islamic Scholar Hassan al Basri. The article utilizes the main arguments used by Hassan al Basri to reconcile Qadr and Free Will and uses some points from Ustadh Noman Ali Khan’s lectures to make the concepts simpler to understand for the general public. The bulk of the discussion revolves around Quranic verses and what they mean on the topic as well as some examples from the lives of the Prophets. Lastly it wraps up the topic and discusses some practical implications of the concepts.
Qadr(Predestination) can be a puzzling concept to wrap your head around. It has sparked numerous debates in Religion and Philosophy over the centuries partly because it is hard to reconcile it with the concept of free will. Commonly asked questions include: If everything has already been decided, are we even free to choose? Why would God create Life, Heaven and Hell if He already knows the outcome? How could God be “Al’Adl (The Utterly Just)” if He damns part of his creation to Hell and grants the others Heaven? Life cannot be a fair test if you are preordained to fail. This article will attempt to answer these questions and others similar to these by mainly referring to arguments presented by Hassan al-Basri, a first century Islamic scholar, who uses Quranic verses to show how we have free will and clears misconceptions regarding certain verses as well as mentions instances from the lives of some of the Prophets to derive some lessons. As Islam has both the concept of Qadr and free will, it is important that we understand how they go hand in hand.
First and foremost, it is important to understand the definitions of the words. According to Hassan al-Basri, Qadr is not a written down unchangeable script of your life implying you have no control over your will but rather it is the pre-determining decree (order) of God (a form of determinism). It is also His divine knowledge of the past, present and future which has already been written down and the concept that everything happens from Allah’s Will. But wait, if everything is from Allah’s will, how can we have free will at the same time? The answer to this paradox will be given at the end.
The arguments presented are strictly in an Islamic framework where all points and counterpoints are from the Quran attempting to either prove the existence of an impersonal fate or disprove it. This is important because if one could prove we have an impersonal fate, that is to say we are powerless in the grand scheme of things making it pointless to strive towards any goal because what is written down from God’s will has to happen. We are like feathers and our destiny is the wind taking us to our destination, which remains the key argument of people who want to relieve themselves of any moral responsibility and any guilt that follows through it.
Quran on Creation and Mankind’s test:
“And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship me” [Quran 51:56].
Hassan al Basri argues that if God created human beings to serve Him, it would not make sense for Him to prevent his creation from fulfilling their purpose by preordaining their disobedience. This would have to be the case as the Quran also states that God does not wrong man otherwise it would be a blatant contradiction. This brings us to the next issue because evil does exist in the world. If man’s evil acts are not preordained by God, is it even possible that evil proceed from God? God did create good and evil in the fabric of this universe, but did he doom his creation to fall into it is the real question to which the author responds with the following verses:
“That is for what your hands have put forth and because Allah is not ever unjust to [His] servants.” [Quran 3:182]
“Have you not considered those who exchanged the favor of Allah for disbelief and settled their people [in] the home of ruin?” [Quran 14:28]
Thus, these verses provide the answer to this dilemma here; that is God granted His servants favor initially but when they corrupted their own souls through evil deeds by following their lowly desires, that favor was then withdrawn which then led them astray. It wasn’t so that they were doomed from the start as the proponents of fate argue. Next:
And [by] the soul and He who proportioned it. And inspired it [with discernment of] its wickedness and its righteousness, He has succeeded who purifies it, And he has failed who instills it [with corruption]. [Quran 91:7-10]
Here the author argues that as God gave man knowledge to discern good from evil, he left the choice ultimately up to man to decide which path he chooses to take in life. It can be argued that purifying one’s soul through righteous actions would be pointless to mention if some people were born pure while others impure.
“If you disbelieve – indeed, Allah is Free from need of you. And He does not approve for His servants disbelief. And if you are grateful, He approves it for you; and no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. Then to your Lord is your return, and He will inform you about what you used to do. Indeed, He is Knowing of that within the breasts” [Quran 39:7]
Another argument the author makes is that if God does not approve of disbelief, it cannot be sent from Him for if it were to be from Him, He would also have to approve it like He approves gratitude in the same verse. Again, it would be unjust to disapprove of an act openly and also secretly write that as someone’s destiny. Since the Quran is very specific in its delivery and choice of words, it is important to look for consistency in attitudes such as this.
The Prophetic Mindset:
The lives of the Prophets, who were some of the wisest and pious men, have also left us lessons in reference to Qadr. Prophet Adam (AS) had one of the most valid reasons to accuse God of sabotaging him and sending him from Heaven to Earth. Because God knew when He created him that human beings would live on earth eventually and it was only a matter of time. Regardless, we all know how the story goes but what is interesting is the response of Adam (AS) when he is sent to Earth. Instead of complaining about how injustice has been done to him, as people often do with God and fate, he admitted his mistake (of listening to the devil) and asked for forgiveness for eating the fruit from the tree.
Similarly, in the story of Prophet Musa (AS) when he accidentally kills a man, he does not call out God for pre-ordaining him to be a murderer but rather he thinks of it as something from Satan as mentioned in the Quran. He then proceeds to ask for forgiveness for his mistake.
Moving on to the life of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), one of the relevant verses is:
“…But if Allah had willed, He would have united them upon guidance…” [Quran 6:35]
On a first read this verse can seem like it is upon Allah’s will to guide or misguide human beings but a look into the context can clear out the confusion which the author points out. This was at a time of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) life where he was unhappy with the lack of results of preaching to the Meccan people. Its purpose was to highlight that it was up to their own free will to accept the message of Islam but if God willed, He could use His power to enforce them upon faith but that would disqualify them from the test of life and its rewards. These are some of the lessons from the life of prophets (some of the most pious and wise men) and their attitudes towards Qadr according to the Quran.
Verses commonly used to dismiss Free Will:
Finally, we will discuss some verses of the Quran which seem to indicate a belief in an uncontrollable fate and the counter-arguments presented by the author in reference to them. A major point presented is that some souls were initially created for Hell and they use the following verse for evidence:
“And We have certainly created for Hell many of the jinn and mankind. They have hearts with which they do not understand, they have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear. Those are like livestock; rather, they are more astray. It is they who are the heedless.” [Quran 7:179]
A superficial read of the verse can make it seem that God singled out people for Hell in the beginning. Similar to how humans do not have control over their physical appearance, they cannot control if they were created for Heaven or Hell. The catch here is nuanced as one needs to understand the preposition used “for Hell” in classical Arabic to understand its real meaning which translates to “with the result of ending up in Hell” (emphasis on “result” implying a consequence to human actions). Nonetheless, if that were really the case, it can be argued that it would have been futile to send Prophets down on Earth preaching God’s message if the result was already finalized. Moreover, the author argues if God was damning someone to hell, he would not use phrases like “…Do whatever you will;” [Quran 41:40] but rather He would have said “Do what I have destined you to do”. Also, God says,“He who determines and guides” [Quran 87:3]and not“He who determines and leads astray”.Thus he ascribes to Himself only guidance of man in the Quran but in reference to making mistakes and going astray:
“Say, “If I should err, I would only err against myself. But if I am guided, it is by what my Lord reveals to me. Indeed, He is Hearing and near.” [Quran 34:50]
The Prophet is told to ascribe the error to him and extending that concept into our lives, so should we. What is being indicated here again is that guidance is indeed granted by God; however, mistakes and acts of disobedience are upon our own shortcomings (which when committed repeatedly mislead us) indicating clearly a concept of moral responsibility.
So whoever Allah wants to guide – He expands his breast to [contain] Islam; and whoever He wants to misguide – He makes his breast tight and constricted as though he were climbing into the sky. Thus does Allah place defilement upon those who do not believe. [Quran 6:125]
Hassan al Basri’s opponents also used this verse to show how selected souls will be guided and misguided which will be decided by God but he objects to this interpretation citing that God does not burden man beyond his capabilities. So what this verse is meant to mean according to him is that those who were righteous will have their breast open to guidance as a reward for their righteous acts so that they may receive it whereas those who are disobedient will have their breast narrowed to guidance which will be a punishment for their sins. The expansion and constriction of the breast to guidance are the consequence of man’s actions rather than a pre-established condition.
“No disaster strikes upon the earth or among yourselves except that it is in a register before We bring it into being – indeed that, for Allah, is easy “[Quran 57:22]
This verse is used to show that some events are meant to happen but the context provided by the author is that this is to prevent people from grieving too much on worldly misfortunes but does not apply to religious matters according to Hassan al Basri. So this cannot be used to justify for example missing one’s prayer intentionally.
In conclusion, Qadr and free will are reconciled in the following terms according to the author, “Man chooses freely, God knew in all eternity what man was going to choose”. The goal of Hassan al Basri was to counter a belief in divine pre-determination of actions because that contradicts divine justice and has an adverse effect on human morals as that view had started to seep into the society of his time.
Now continuing the earlier discussion on the paradoxical nature of everything happening from Allah’s will while our free will is also in play, the following analogy is used to show how God’s divine knowledge and decree and human free will can co-exist at the same time. Imagine there is an exclusive party which has two guest lists. Guest list A is for the VIPs while guest list B is open for everyone who is able to fulfill certain conditions. Now if a person says they want to go to that party but does not want to work to earn their spot on the B list, thinking they are probably on guest list A. This shows they really did not want to go to that party in the first place, after all if the desire was anywhere near genuine they would have been willing to not take chances and work to get on the B list too. On the other hand, another person fulfills the conditions for the B list and earns their spot. When they reach the party, they are surprised to find their name was on the A list too, in fact only those who made it to the B list had their names on the A list. List A in this analogy were those who were predestined to go to heaven(the party) and List B had people who by their (righteous) actions fulfilled the conditions and earned their spot(through guidance) but they were one and the same in reality.
Speaking on practical terms of what has been discussed, the concept of Qadr puts on man the responsibility of his actions so he may be encouraged to lead an ethically upright life if he wishes to attain (and/or maintain) God’s favor (guidance). The concept of Qadr also inspires in a Muslim psychological reassurance of God willing the best for them in this world where we, its fragile participants, are constantly exposed to countless threats, diseases, uncertainties, anxieties that it is surprising more people do not go insane with the stress of their vulnerability. Qadr therefore cultivates a very positive mindset in life which is the one mentioned in this Hadith:
“Wondrous are the ways of a believer for there is good in every affair of his and this is not the case with anyone else except in the case of a believer for if he has an occasion to feel delight, he thanks (God), thus there is a good for him in it, and if he gets into trouble and shows resignation (and endures it patiently), there is a good for him in it. [Sahih Muslim 2999]
Freewill, Qadar, and Kasb in the Epistle of Hasan al-Basri to Abd al Malik (Book)
If Everything is Written What About Free Will? (Youtube video)
What is Predestination/Fate/Qadr? | Nouman Ali Khan | illustrated (Youtube video)