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Last Updated: 2012/04/21
Summary of question
From the Islamic and Shi’a point of view, where exactly does man have free will in?
question
From the Islamic and Shi’a point of view, where exactly does man have free will in?
Concise answer

Islamic texts (the ahadith and the Quran) clearly stipulate that man has free will. This does not mean that man has complete freedom and no other power or factor limits his will.

Man has control over his own acts and can decide with free will what to do and what not to do. Therefore, man will be held accountable for his acts.

Evidently, even though man has been granted free will, in order to change his environment and to shape his future in the best possible way, he must confront and overcome many obstacles and difficulties. Therefore, his freedom is relative. Even though man cannot stay uninfluenced by factors such as family and parents, environment, history, and society, he can overcome the odds and free himself from their influence to a certain degree. He can do so by utilizing his intellect and his belief, and finally shape his future himself.

Detailed Answer

Islamic texts (the ahadith and the Quran) clearly stipulate that man has free will. This does not mean that man has complete freedom and no other power or factor limits his will.

Man has control over his own acts and can decide with free will what to do and what not to do. Therefore, man will be held accountable for his acts.[1]

This viewpoint has been mentioned by many Islamic theologians. However, the most precise and deep explanation has been presented by Mulla Sadra. In this regard he says: “The different phenomena around us with all their different essences and attributes and with the difference they have in their distance from God in the chain of causes, they have one thing in common, that a divine reality has encompassed them. This divine reality has encompassed everything in the world, not a single particle being an exception, yet this reality itself is non-comprised and is unified at the same time. The result of each and every creature being encompassed by the existence of God is that their actions are also attributed to God. Obviously, we do not mean that a person’s actions aren't really their actions, what is meant is that one’s actions belong to both himself and God. The same way our existence is both ours and can also be viewed as Gods’ existence (for He has granted us existence), our knowledge, will and movement and whatever we do can also be attributed to us and God at the same time. Therefore, man is truly the creator of his own fate, and predestination cannot be accepted.”

Needless to note is that man has been granted free will, but in order to change his environment and to shape his future in the best possible way, he must confront and overcome many obstacles and difficulties. Therefore, his freedom is relative.

Some of the odds he must overcome are:

1- Inheritance of family traits:

We are born human and do not have a say in that. Obviously, each and every one of us comes from a particular family with specific physical and emotional attributes. We unwillingly and without a choice inherit these attributes as a result of being born into such a family.

2- Geographical Whereabouts:

The place where one is born and grows up will, whether he likes it or not, result in certain attributes in ones physique, conduct and emotions. For example, cold climates and warm climates, or living in a dry region all can have their own exclusive effects on one mentally as well as physically.

3- Society:

The factor of society is central to ones emotions, language and manners. One’s religion is usually that which is commonly embraced within the society.[2]

Despite the fact that the Quran believes a society has independent nature, character, power, life, death, obedience and disobedience from that of its members, it also clearly asserts that each member is able to oppose that which society dictates.

In verse 97 of surah Nisa’, when speaking of a group that had named themselves “مستضعفین” (people that could not take the right path because they did not have the ability to), the Quran says: “Their excuse is not acceptable, because they could have traveled to a place where they could practice Islam.”

Or in another verse, the Quran says: “يا ايها الذين آمنوا عليكم انفسكم لايضركم من ضل اذا اهتديتم[3] “O you who have faith! Take care of your own souls. He who strays cannot hurt you if you are guided.”

4- History and Past Events

History and incidents that have taken place in the past are also influential in one’s character. Generally speaking, there is a strong bond between the past and the present. In short, the past is the seed of the future.

Even though man cannot stay uninfluenced by factors such as family and parents, environment, history, and society, he can overcome the odds and free himself from their influence to a certain degree. He can do so by utilizing his intellect and his belief, and eventually shape his future himself.[4]

We do not deny the role environmental, genetic and social factors play in shaping one’s character, but to believe that these are the only factors that influence a person is completely false and means to deny the spiritual and divine aspect of man’s existence. Knowing that humans have free will, even though we accept the influence and effects of physical, environmental factors, no one can claim that these factors completely deprive man of the power to choose his own fate. Man can always stay strong when temptations are caused by these physical and emotional factors. We experience many examples of such striving and resistance in our day to day life. Even the natural law of genetic inheritance does not dictate that the attributes one inherits from his mother, father and family cannot be changed. In short, it is up to man himself, to choose whether he wants to overcome these factors or not.[5]

References for further reading:

Muhammad Taqi Ja’fari, Jabr va Ekhtiyar

Ja’far Subhani, Sarnevesht az Didgahe Elm va Falsafeh

Sayyid Muhammad Baqir Sadr, Ensane Mas’ul va Tarikh Saz

Murteza Motahhari, Ensan va Sarnevesht

Mohammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi, Ma’arefe Quran (Theology, Cosmology, Anthropology)

 


[1] Ahmad Wa’izi, Ensan az Didgahe Islam, p. 12, Qum, The Office for the Collaboration of the Islamic Seminary and Universities, 1375 (solar).

[2] Murteza Motahhari, Moqaddame’i bar Jahan Biniye Eslami, pp. 270-271, Sadra Press, Qum.

[3] Ma’idah:105.

[4] Murteza Motahhari, Moqaddame’i bar Jahan Biniye Eslami, pp. 272-330.

[5] Mahmud Rajabi, Insan Shenasi, p. 151, Imam Khomeini Educational and Research Institute, first edition, 1379 (solar).

 

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