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The question of free will in Islamic philosophy

Veröffentlicht am 28. März 2023

Von Mona Jahangiri

Rapid developments are taking place in the field of neuroscience. As a result, ethical questions are increasingly being taken up in the field of brain research: Is there freedom of will? Are human beings free in their actions, or are their actions determined? In the following, the question of moral responsibility in criminals as well as the question of free will underlying this question are examined from an Islamic perspective[1] in an interdisciplinary manner.

Whether man is free in his actions or not is examined from the Anglo-American and European philosophical point of view as well as from the point of view of Islamic – especially Shi’ite – theology, which has not been done in this form before. In addition to the general question of whether man has freedom of will and moral responsibility, this article therefore takes a new approach to this question. The innovative approach planned here, namely the comparison of the Shi’ite view with the Western philosophical debate on free will and the embedding of the topic in neuro-scientific research in the European and Anglo-American context, has not yet been undertaken more thoroughly. Therefore, in this study, a Shi’ite solution to the free will debate is presented, which represents a unique theory of compatibilism in Shi’ite philosophy of the 13th to 17th centuries and is not yet known in this form in Western philosophy.[2]

The question of determinism and freedom of choice is also one of the most difficult questions of all in Islamic philosophy, and dealing with it has been compared to a sea in which the one who attempts to solve it will drown.[3]

In Islamic philosophy, and especially in Iranian philosophy after the 13th century, which is built on the ground of Shi’ite theology, a neither-nor view is held. What this means is the main topic of this article and will be described in more detail below.

Maǧlisī (1628-1699), a Twelver Shi’i theologian and jurist of the Safavid period, in his work Ǧabr wa tafwīḍ (“Compulsion and Delegation”), opposes the Muʿtazilites and the Ašʿarites[4] in favor of a kind of middle way. According to this middle way, man has free will, but God controls him and is always able to change the decisions he makes. Maǧlisī refers to Ǧaʿfar b. Muḥammad aṣ-Ṣādiq, the sixth Imam of the Shi’ites, who answered the question of whether there is pure determinism or absolute freedom by saying that there is neither, but the truth lies in between (al-amr bayn al-amrayn, the ‘position between the positions’).[5]

To begin with, it should be explained what the statement al-amr bayn al-amrayn means: lā ǧabra wa-lā tafwīḍa bal amrun bayn al-amrayn. The correct translation is: “Neither predestination nor free-will, but a matter between the two.”[6]

This theory states that God’s will and man’s freedom of will and action are in harmony with each other. That is, according to the view of Ǧaʿfar b. Muḥammad aṣ-Ṣādiq, freedom of will and determinism do not only not exclude each other, but are even complementary and supplement each other. While everything that exists is contingent and depends in its existence on that which exists absolutely and necessarily – that is, on God – God created man with a freedom of choice. This means that God enables man to act, but man has limits in his actions.

Power and will are abilities created by God in man. So, everything that man does is the achievement of God on another level, because man’s being and all his abilities are ultimately due to God as the material cause of the world. He is thus the remote cause of all human actions; but he is not the cause of the bad, sinful actions. However, since free will is the proximate cause of man’s actions, he can be described as the free author of his voluntary actions. Nevertheless, as the Creator of all things, God is actually the remote cause since He encompasses the beings, also referred to as the ‚almighty encompassing‘ (al-iḥāṭa al-qayyūmiyya) of God.[7]

The statement that neither determinism nor absolute free will but a thing in between is valid does not mean that man’s actions are a combination of determination and free will, nor that man’s actions are exempt from determination and free will, but it means that man is compelled (muḍṭarr) in his freedom of will.[8] In other words, it means that man is free (muḫtār) in his choice, but at the same time he is compelled (maǧbūr) to be free in his choice; his freedom of will consists in this compulsion. That is, man has freedom of choice, but it is within a certain confinement because he has already been shown the right way.

How man will act at any given time is present in the divine knowledge (ʿilm) since He is an omnipotent being. However, this does not exclude man’s responsibility.[9]

I personally feel sympathetic with the idea of compatibilism, because determinists hold that, from a neurobiological perspective, people cannot act other than they do and therefore cannot take full responsibility for what they do. However, this statement clearly contradicts theology. Libertarians believe that man has absolute freedom of will. However, much critique can be made of this as well. As a result, this cannot be held as true either, as can be seen from the Libet experiment, among others.

It can be concluded that in this special kind of Islamic philosophy, namely Iranian philosophy after the 13th century, which is based on Shi’ite theology, a kind of compatibilism is advocated which, unlike in classical Western compatibilism,[10] is not based on an ‘and’ but on a negation or disjunction, postulating an intermediate concept and thus a new way. The “neither-nor” view takes on a theological undertone and here the human free will debate is mixed with the concept of divine authority. While man has absolute responsibility over his deeds, the omnipotence and power of God is also brought to the foreground of actions.

Upon assessment, I have concluded that, on the basis of this particular type of the ‘middle road’ compatibilism, every human being has perfect responsibility for his deeds and he should be considered their author, even if he does not have absolute, perfect freedom of will and even if the causes are not one hundred percent within his power.

© Dr. Mona Jahangiri


[1] In essence, the terms Arabic philosophy and Islamic philosophy can both be used in scientific literature. However, since this paper deals with theological issues, the term Islamic philosophy is employed here.
[2] These preliminary three pages are only a beginning, as a guide or an invitation to do this more. It goes without mentioning, that of course in this short piece of writing a deeper swimming into this topic is not possible.
[3] Mullā Ṣadrā Mullā Ṣadrā. 2010. „Ḫalq al-aʿmāl“. Edited by: Mahdī Dihbāšī. In: Maǧmūʾa-yi rasāʾil-i falsafī. Bd. 2. Tehran, p. 305.
[4] There are two theological movements that appeared in early Islamic history. The Muʿtazilites and later also the Ašʿarites made use of Greek logic in their argumentations, and thus a kind of speculative theology emerged.
[5] Maǧlisī, Muḥammad Bāqir b. Muḥammad Taqīy. 1983. Bīḥar al-anwār al-ǧāmiʿa li-durar aḫbār al-aʾimma al-aṭhār. Bd. 3, Beirut: Dār Iḥyāʾ at-Turāṯ al-ʿArabī, p. 4.
[6] Hajatpour, Reza. 2022. Islamische Ethik. Baden-Baden: Nomos, p. 142.
[7] Zamānī, Mahdī 1392/2013. Ṣifat-i qayyūmiyyat-i ḫudāwand wa natāyiǧ-i ān dar āyīna-yi ḥikmat-I mutaʿāliya-yi Mullā Ṣadrā, Āmūzišhā-yi falsafa-yi islāmī 12: pp. 65-82.
[8] Khansari Mousavi, Sedigheh. 2017. Molla Sadras Handlungstheorie im historischen Kontext. Nordhausen: Traugott Bautz, p. 189.
[9] Mousavi 2017, p. 187.
[10] Among the representatives of the western compatibilist direction are for example John Locke (1632-1704), George E. Moore (1873-1958), Harry G. Frankfurt (b. 1929) and Daniel C. Dennett (b. 1942).

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