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Our Extent of Control

Predestination or free will?If He knows that we will commit sins, then why bother letting us live our life at all – why did He create us? The answer to that is quite simple.

Predestination or free will?Are we just actors living out an already-written script – or are we the authors of our own story?

This is a question common to both Muslims and non-Muslims alike: if we don’t believe in “predestination”, yet we believe that Allah is All-Knowing of what will happen before it happens, then what exactly do we believe?

Indeed, Allah is the All-Aware. He knows everything, including what it is that we will do in our lives. A question that then arises from this is: if He knows that we will commit sins, then why bother letting us live our life at all – why did He create us? The answer to that is quite simple. If He were to make the judgment on us of whether we should forever live in heaven or hell without us first living out our life, it would mean that He is unjust – we will not have yet performed any deeds to merit a judgment. By giving us a chance in this life, we are once again shown an example of the magnificent justice of Allah.

While Allah is the All-Aware, He has given us the intelligence to make wise choices and, in that way, control what we can. What needs to be understood is that there is a difference between making a choice because Allah wills it, and making a choice which Allah knows about. Even though He knows which path we will take in life, that does not mean that we are bound to a certain fate because He now knows of it. Shaikh as-Saduq has said, “Allah possesses foreknowledge of human actions, but does not compel them to act in any particular manner.”

In reference to the issue of free will, Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) said, “There is no compulsion (by Allah), nor is there absolute delegation of power (from Allah to man); but the real position is between these two extremes: al-amr bayn al-amrayn.” Roughly translated to mean “the middle alternative between two options,” al-amr bayn al-amrayn conveys the Ja’fari belief as being midway between free will and predestination.

There are many things which we do not have full control over in life: the weather, the perceptions of others, national crises, etc. Allah has determined certain aspects of our life, such as wealth, nationality, life span, etc. Within those determinations, however, we have control as to how we react to them. We have control over whether we thank the Almighty, or whether we waver in our faith, whether we choose to continue on the Right Path, or whether we will turn to other paths.

In his book The Justice of God, the late Allama Sayyid Saeed Akhtar Rizvi gives an explanation of al-amr bayn al-amrayn by way of example:

“Suppose a man’s hand is totally paralyzed to an extent that he cannot move even a finger. A doctor has fitted an electrical device on his hand which, on being switched on, enables the man to use his hand freely in a normal way. The device is activated by a remote control which the doctor keeps in his own custody. When the doctor switches the device on, the man uses his hand in any way he intends, but when the device is off, he cannot do [any]thing. Now, if the device is on and the patient does any work, can that work be attributed inde­pendently to him? No, because the power comes from that device which is fully controlled by the doctor. Then can it be attributed to the doctor? No, because the man had done it by his own free will and choice. This is exactly the position of our activities. We are not under compulsion because the will and choice is ours; nor are we completely independent, because the power to do whatever we intend to do comes from God…we may be advised to treat an ailment in this or that way, but we cannot be advised to recover from the illness. It means that getting treatment is within our power, but getting well is not within the sphere of our activities.”

Given a situation, it is up to us how we choose to respond; we are responsible for the choices we make and the actions we take. According to Allama Majlisi, Abu Hanifa once asked five-year-old Imam Musa al-Kadhim (peace be upon him), “O the son of the Holy Prophet! What is your opinion about the deeds of a man? Does he do them by himself or does God make him do them?”

The Imam presented three different possibilities to the question: “First, that God alone does them while the man is quite helpless. Second, that both God and the man do equally share the commitment. Third, that man does them alone.”

He then continued to narrow down the options by process of elimination. If the first two possibilities were true, then it would logically mean that Allah is not truly Just, because to punish humans for deeds which He would have been responsible for would be contradictory to the concept of divine justice. That leaves the last possibility standing – that man alone is responsible for his actions.

Therefore, if man alone is responsible for his actions, that must mean that Allah has granted us the ability to think things through. We are each responsible for our own deeds which we commit within a frame of certain circumstances that Allah has created, because He has provided us with the intelligence to make decisions and take action.

So do we believe in complete pre-destination? No. How about complete free will? Again, no. What we believe in is a hybrid between compulsion by and independence from Allah. He controls and knows, but He has given us the ability to make our own choices in life and impact what our destination will be in the next life.

About Nabila Rizvi

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  • mehdi

    salam, a very well written piece to summarize the basic concepts of this topic., god willing this inspires more people to study this topic of qaza wa qadr in depth.

  • muzafer

    salaams, i think this topic has been very controversial, and has been nicely answered here. I though still have a question. I agree with the above because I had previously done research, and this made logical sense. In the same context, would it make sense to postulate:
    God is timeless, infinite…therefore our understanding of time cannot be put into that same context. So what we do, he knows and foresees, except foresight is the closest thing we have to describe it, because it is a “time” concept, and God is not bound by time. So since it is outside the realms we live in, he has the ability to know what we will do, and yet we have the ability to make decisions on some occasions.

  • Muhammad Baqir

    Very nice article. I just heard this in a majalis. In fact I was about to write such an article, though I feel this is better than I could have written. Can I use this article, as in paste it on other places?