welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please

Philosophy of Religion

Human Acts in Islamic Philosophy

Are our actions really free or are they determined by God’s will? Imadaldin Al-Jubouri on a controversy that divided Muslim philosophers.

Among the questions that preoccupied Muslim philosophers during the Middle Ages was whether human actions are optional or compulsory. Advocates of determinism looked at human will as being powerless, because God made our actions and choices eternally. The chief of the Muslim determinists, Jahm ibn Safwan (d. 745) said: “Man, like a feather in the wind, cannot have will, ability or choice. All events and human acts are created by God. It is not true to say man has his own acts; rather he has them metaphorically. For instance, when we say the tree bears fruit, the water flows, or the sky rains, truly it is God who performs the acts of tree, water and sky. Nevertheless, God created man with a power to act as well as creating him with will and the desire to be a distinguished creature. But there is no creator but God, so if we were to say man that creates his own acts, this would obviously lead us to polytheism.”

To Jahm ‘faith’ is defined as knowledge of God, and unbelief means ignorance of God. ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’ will vanish after the Day of Judgment, and God alone will remain. These conceptions led Jahm to deny various attributes of God in order to avoid any likeness between man and God. Although Jahm’s view of God’s attributes was close to that of the pagan Plotinus (204-270), his thought was supported strongly by the Umayyad rulers (661-750) to justify their repressive policies.

Naturally, a large number of thinkers and scholars were against Jahm’s ideas. Two movements particularly opposed to him were the al-Safa Brotherhood and the Islamic Fatalists. The latter included philosophers such as Mabad al-Juhni (d. 702), the Damascene Ghaylan (d. 743), and Wasil ibn Ata (699- 749). They all agreed that man has the ability and freedom of choice to do good or evil and that God gave him free will so as to be able to reward or punish him on Judgement Day. In other words, if human acts are determined totally by God, then why should He punish man for them on Judgement Day? It is very clear these human acts would be God’s responsibility, if he had ordained them and man had had no ability to act differently. So if there is a Judgment Day then it follows that man must have free will and the ability to do positive or negative things.

For this reason, the Islamic Fatalists confronted the determinism of Jahm and accused him of abolishing the duty of Muslims to stand up to unjust rulers. Furthermore, they said, Jahm had misinterpreted some Qur’anic verses, wrongly requiring Muslims to be passive in the face of events and to rely on God’s will in everything.

Wasil said: “It is inconceivable that God might order man to do something and he be unable to do it, or feel unable to act. Whoever denies man’s ability, denies the necessity [of obedience to God].”

The Fatalism movement gradually melted into a new school of thought, called Mutazilitism, mainly because ‘human freedom’ was the most important issue to the Mutazilites. According to the Mutazilites, God gave human beings the ability to do whatever they want, for good or ill. This freedom is one of the causes of the intellect and without it we would have no understanding. Therefore, nothing but good comes from God; evil comes not from Him but rather from the free choices of man.

Second only to ‘human freedom’ in the Mutazilites’ philosophy is ‘justice’. To them, God abhors corruption, and that includes misusing the abilities He has given us. Therefore, justice requires that we should use those abilities to best effect, including the intellectual abilities. We should strive to do God’s will, but God does not order us to do what we could not bear, nor does He want from us what we have no ability to give. God is the Creator; if He wished to force people to obey Him and stop them from offending Him, He would do so. Nevertheless, He does not do that because His divine justice allows people to act in the way they want, freely. It is necessity to divine justice to do things according to divine wisdom.

The Mutazilites therefore called themselves ‘the people of justice’, as they affirmed that man has ability and freedom of choice as a part of the divine justice in this earthly world. They too relied on various Qur’anic verses to support their views, such as:

“Every person is a pledge for what he has earned.” (74:38).

“Whoever works righteousness benefits his own soul;
Whoever works evil, it is against his own soul.” (41:46).

“And say: ‘The truth is from your Lord.’
Then whoever wills,
let him believe; and whoever wills,
let him disbelieve.” (18:29).

“We showed him the Way:
whether he be grateful or ungrateful.” (76:3).

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, known in the West as Algazel (1058-1111) criticized Mutazilite thought on some important points. According to him, human freedom is no more than acts of God; no human is independent by himself to do freely whatever he wishes in this world. In fact, al-Ghazali’s strictly religious upbringing had conditioned him to approach everything from a religious rather than a philosophical angle. In his view the world and all its creatures existed by the act of God, whose creation and invention they were. All the actions of God’s creatures were thus subordinate to His mightiness. God had ordered all people to be good and careful in all they did and said, whether openly or in secret, because He knew their most deeply hidden motives.

As God alone had conferred benefit upon humans, inventing and adapting them, all favour and blessing belonged to Him. When His creatures underwent torments, therefore, this was no wrong or injustice, but His justice. God was just and right, and ruled, so He would reward His creatures or punish them according to their deeds. He was to be obeyed by all His creatures not only because the human intellect showed this to be right, but because He had sent His messengers and helped them with miracles to demonstrate the justice and truth of their messages. Humanity was obliged to believe these men, who had called for nothing but truth and justice.

God’s knowledge was comprehensive, so nothing ever happened in this world of which He was not previously aware. He created man’s ability, power, choice, free will and so forth. Human acts were thus freely chosen and yet at the same time remained part of His divine will. Nothing happened except by His ruling; from Him emanated all good, evil, utility, inutility, success, failure, faith, disbelief and so on. His judgement could not be questioned nor could the fate He ordained be avoided. Human freedom (which al-Ghazali called ‘acquisition’) was thus both God’s act and a human choice following on which man would either be rewarded for his obedience and submission or punished for whatever sins he had committed during life.

Al-Ghazali tells a good story about free will to explain how God can be the doer behind all human invention and creation while man’s deeds remain the direct results of his own morals. A man is talking to some paper that was recently blank but has now been written on and thus become black in parts:

The man asked: “Why is your face black?”

The paper replied: “You did not treat me fairly in this question. I did not blacken my face on my own. Ask the ink, which left its place and unjustly and aggressively came to settle on my face.”

The man asked the ink about it, and the ink answered: “You are not treating me fairly. I was sitting quietly in the inkwell, but the cane (pen) encroached upon me and removed me from my place and spread me on blank paper, as you can see. You should therefore ask it and not me.”

So the man asked the pen why it had been unjust to the ink. The pen replied: “Ask the hand and fingers. I was a cane on the river bank among the greenest trees when the hand came upon me with a knife and cut me from my root and sharpened me and split my head, then dipped me into the black ink. The hand is using me to write and copy, so ask the one who is compelling me.”

The man then asked the hand about its unjust aggression towards the pen, and the hand answered: “What am I but blood, flesh and bone? Have you ever seen unjust flesh or a body moving by itself? I am dominated by a power called ability. Ask it about my position; I am impelled by the one who took control of me.”

The man asked the ability what was going on between it and the hand and why it was using it so much. The ability replied: “Cease to blame and admonish me; how many of the guiltless endure blame! How can you fail to understand my position? How can you think I was unjust to the hand when I took control of it? I was sitting there quietly long before the hand moved, but something called the will that I have no power to resist came and attacked me.”

So the man asked the will: “What set you against this calm ability?”

The will said: “Do not be unfair to me; I have an excuse. I am aroused not by myself, but by a decisive and all-conquering command from the heart, the messenger of science to the intellect. I am thus exploited and beaten by science and the intellect. Ask science about my position.”

So the man went to science, the intellect and the heart and demanded of them why they had forced the will to arise. The intellect said: “I am a lamp, but I did not light up by myself; I was lit.” The heart said: “I am a tablet, but I did not hew myself out; I was hewn.” Science said: “When the lamp of the intellect shines, I am engraved on the tablet of the heart. I do not delineate myself, and this tablet was empty before I was on it. So ask the pen, since no line can appear but by the pen.”

The man was by now confused. He did not accept these answers, but said to the hand, the pen, the will, science and the rest: “Please accept my apology. I am new to this field and confronted you out of ignorance. Now it is clear to me that of

everything existing God alone is solitary; you are subject to Him by virtue of His supreme capability. He is First and Last, Visible and Invisible, and herein there is no contradiction. He is First because everything originated from Him and Last because all things go back to Him. He is Invisible to those people who want to grasp Him by means of the five senses and He is Visible to those who seek Him by means of inner insight.”

The Mutazilites believed God always does what is in people’s best interests. Al-Ghazali rejected this idea completely; to him, God is the Cause, the Absolute Master and the Arbiter of Right and Wrong, so it is not right to think of His acts as being linked to necessity or obligation, or to a message. In short, God does whatever He wishes to do with His creation, and there is nothing to make him to do what is in the interest of or right for the people.

Al-Ghazali shows us a dialogue in the hereafter between two Muslims – a boy and a grown man. Usually, God should give the man a more exalted status in heaven than the boy, because he had spent many years of his life in pious obedience and prayer. But the boy says: “Oh Lord, why did you put this man on a higher level than mine?”

God replies: “Because he dedicated his life to worship and virtue.”

The boy then says: “But Lord, you have caused me to die young. If you had made my life longer so that I had reached adulthood then I would also have dedicated my time to your worship, but you decided otherwise, favouring him with a longer lifetime. So why did you bless him with a long life and shorten mine?”

God says: “Because I knew that if you had reached adulthood you would have become a polytheist. I therefore ruled it would be better for you to die in boyhood.”

Then the unbelievers call out from hell, saying: “Oh Lord, we wish that you had caused our deaths in boyhood, to spare us this agony! Surely You knew that would have been rightful for us? We would have been happy even to occupy a lesser level than that of the young Muslim boy.”

God does not answer them at all!

In truth, al-Ghazali borrowed this story from the thinker al- Ashari (873-935), but garbled it in the process – in al-Ashari’s version the boy doesn’t argue with the Almighty. It seems obvious that al-Ghazali did not attempt any close examination of his quotation, or he would not have allowed the boy to demand to be at the mature man’s level despite having died before reaching adolescence. And is it likely that the unbelievers, having in life been proud and sinful tyrants, would propose occupying a lower level than the boy?

The Mutazilites in general took a more searching approach to the question of human freedom than did al-Ghazali. Their defect, in his eyes, lay in the fact that they deemed all man’s actions to be created by himself. Al-Ghazali attacked this concept roundly, insisting that man was no more than a creature who did what God wanted him to do. As for freedom, it should be seen as no more than a psychological state that any man may experience for as long as he has no ill will, regardless of changes of circumstance.


Imadaldin Al-Jubouri has written several books in Arabic and in English, including God, Existence and Man (Beirut 1986, English translation 2000).

The Mutazilites

The Mutazilites (the name means ‘Isolationists’, as they stood apart from the political struggles of their time) were the great proponents of rationalism in early Islamic philosophy. They believed that the intellect alone was capable of understanding the nature of God, and of existence, so that prophecy and revelation were unnecessary. Members of the school included such thinkers as Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicena) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). They all wrote commentaries (sometimes critical) on Aristotle and their writings later influenced Thomas Aquinas. They took a great interest in the natural world and made advances in astronomy, medicine and other sciences.

Al-Ghazali (Algazel)

Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) was a philosopher, lawyer and religious mystic. He was born in Khurasan and trained in Nishapur before teaching theology and law at a seminary in Baghdad. Despairing of finding certain truth through philosophy or theology, he became a wandering Sufi for ten years. In his search for certainty, Al-Ghazali wrote a summary of the views of all the major thinkers, The Intentions of the Philosophers. Later he wrote a detailed attack on all those doctrines, and on philosophy generally, in a book called The Incoherence of the Philosophers. (This attack was later answered by Ibn Rushd in a book called The Incoherence of the Incoherence.) Al-Ghazali believed that events in the world aren’t governed by logical necessity or immutable laws, but by God’s will alone.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X