M. Fethullah Gulen
The arguments for the existence of man’s free will
Before passing on the arguments for the existence of man’s free will, we should point out:
Most of the Western orientalists accuse Islam of being fatalistic. Whereas, except a small sect-Jabriya-no one in the history of Islam has defended fatalism. Almost all the Western philosophies of history are, by contrast, based on the irresistibility of what they call historical laws and therefore fatalistic. The outlines of those philosophies of history may be summed up as follows:
a. Mankind is in a continuous progress towards the final happy end.
b. This progress depends on the fatalistic, irresistible laws of history which are completely independent of man, so a man must, in any case, obey these laws, otherwise he is certain to be eliminated.
c. All the stages, primitive, feudal or capitalistic, through which mankind inevitably pass in the course of time to the final happy end should not be criticized, because mankind have nothing to do other than passing through them.
What is implied concerning the political conditions of time by all such philosophies of history may be this: The present socio-economic and even the political conditions of the world are inevitable, because they were dictated by nature, which decrees that only the able and the powerful can survive. If the laws of history dictated by nature are in favour of the West, the communities that choose to survive must concede to the dominion of the West.
What distinguishes the Qur’anic concept of history from other philosophies is that, first of all, while philosophers of history or sociologists build their conceptions on the interpretation of past events and present situations, the Qur’an deals with the matter from the perspective of unchanging principles. Second, contrary to the fatalism of all other philosophies, the Qur’an lays great emphasis on the free choice and moral conduct of the individual. Although Divine Will, emphasized by the Qur’an, could be regarded as, in some respects, the counterpart of the ‘Geist’ in the Hegelian philosophy and of absolute, irresistible laws of history in other philosophies, the Qur’an never denies human free will. God, according to the Qur’an, tests man in this life so that man himself should sow the ‘field’ of the world to harvest in the next life, which is eternal. For this reason, the stream of events-successes and failures, victories and defeats, prosperity and decay-all are the occasions which God causes to follow one another for mankind, to the end that the good may be distinguished from the evil. Testing must evidently require that the one who is tested should possess free will to prefer between what is lawful and unlawful or what is good and bad. Thus, according to the Qur’an, what makes history is not a compelling Divine Will, rather it is man’s own choice, the operation of which God Almighty has made a simple condition for the coming into effect of His universal will. If this point is understood well enough, then it will be easy to see how groundless are the Western philosophies of history especially with respect to their conception of ‘inevitable end’.
After these preliminary notes, we can discuss the existence of man’s free will:
a. A man feels remorse when he commits something wrong. He begs God’s forgiveness for his sins. If he troubles someone or does someone harm, he begs that person to excuse him. All this shows that man does on his own whatever he does or he himself decides to do something and how to do it. If he had no free will to exercise in doing the actions he does and were compelled to do them by a superior power, why should he become remorseful and beg forgiveness if he has done something wrong or committed a sin?
b. Obviously enough, we choose to move our hands or say something or stand up to go somewhere. We see that there is nothing, no fetters around our necks, to compel us to do or not to do something. We feel free to, for example, read a useful book in our leisure time to sit and watch TV. Nothing or no one makes us pray to God or not by force. None of us move by a remote control in the hands of an invisible superior power.
c. We hesitate, reason, make comparisons, judge the circumstances, choose and decide before doing something. For example, when two of our friends invite us to different places or suggest doing different things, before deciding, we hesitate, make comparisons and finally come to a decision. Likewise, perhaps a hundred times a day, we act in the same way, that is, we think, hesitate, judge the circumstances, make comparisons and then decide, in the face of the opposed appeals of good and evil within us.
d. When we are wronged, we sometimes go to a court and bring suit against him who has wronged us. Neither we nor the court ascribe the wrong done to us to a compelling superior power like Destiny, nor does the one accused attempt to excuse himself by blaming that power The virtuous and wicked, those who are promoted to high ranks in social life and those who waste their time idly, those who are rewarded for their good acts or successes and those who are punished for their crimes-all this shows that everyone acts of his free will, under no compulsion.
e. Only the insane are not held responsible for their acts. Reason and other mental faculties with which man is endowed require that man should be free in his decisions and acts, and actually show that he is so. Without free will, neither human reason nor other faculties have a meaning.
f. Animals have no will power. They act under the guidance of God, which materialistic science calls instinct. For example, a bee always builds hexagonal hives. Since it has no will power to decide on the form of its hives, it never attempts to make, for example, a nest or a triangular hive. However, human beings decide between many alternatives before doing or building something. Also, we are free to change our minds. It usually occurs that we make changes in our decisions in the face of emergencies or new, better proposals. This is also indicative of man’s will power.
The nature of man’s free will
Man’s free will is not something visible like the parts of the body. Nor does it have a material existence. However, that something has no visible, material existence does not mean it does not exist. Everyone has two eyes but we can also see with a third eye we have. We see with our two eyes the things in the external, material world. As for the third eye we have, we see the things beyond events and the physical world with it. The free will is like the third eye of ours, which you may call insight. It is an inclination or an inner force by which man prefers and decides.
Man will and God creates. The project or a plan of a building has no value or use unless you start to construct the building according to it. Actually, it is the building which is visible and serves many purposes for man. However, that building has been built according to its plan. Man’s free will is, in a sense, like that plan, according to which man decides and acts and God creates man’s actions. Creation and acting or doing something are different things. God’s creation means that God gives actual existence to man’s choices and actions in the physical world. Without God’s creation, man cannot do anything.
We can explain the role of man’s free will and actions and God’s guidance and creation by means of an analogy:
In order to illuminate a huge, magnificent palace, we must install in it a lighting system. However, after we have installed the lighting system, the illumination of the palace will still require that we should touch the switch and turn on the lights. Unless we touch the switch, the lights will not be turned on and the palace will still remain in darkness despite the lighting system. In a like way, man is a magnificent palace of God, which is illuminated by belief in God. God has supplied him with the necessary lighting system: He has given him intellect, the powers of reasoning and sensing, and the faculties of learning, making comparisons and preferences between opposite things. Nature and events and also the Divinely revealed religion are like the source of the electricity with which this Divine palace-man-will be illuminated. Nevertheless, man’s illumination with belief requires that he should use his free will and touch the switch. Man’s touching the switch means petitioning God to illuminate him with belief. In a manner befitting a slave at the door of his lord, man must petition the Lord of the Universe to illuminate him and make him thereby a king’ in the universe. When he does so, the Lord of the Universe will behave towards him in a way befitting Himself and promote him to the rank of kingship over the other realms of creation.
In His treatment of man and His acts with respect to man, God takes man’s free choice into account and regards it as the cause for creating man’s deeds. That is, man is not, as some assert, a victim of Destiny or one wronged by Fate. However insignificant it seems, and in comparison with God’s creative acts it is insignificant, man’s free will is the cause of his deeds. God’s way of acting is that He makes huge bodies out of things as small as minutest particles and makes simple means for creating many important results. For example, he makes a huge pine tree out of a tiny seed and makes man’s inclinations or free choice in eternal happiness or punishment in the eternal world.
In order to understand better the part of man, including his will power, in his acts or accomplishments, it is enough to consider his part in the food with which he is fed. Without earth, water, air and the heat of the sun, even a particle of which the whole of humankind are unable to produce or create despite their vast technology, man cannot procure even a single morsel of his food. In addition, the whole of humankind are also unable to produce a single seed of corn. Also, it is not man himself who endows himself with intellect and other mental faculties and power to produce corn. Furthermore, it is not, again, man himself who has created his body and established the relation between it and the food. With all its parts and organs and cells, the body operates not under the control or supervision of man himself. Have you ever thought that if a man had to set his heart like a clock at a fixed time every morning, how long he could continue his life? Obviously, almost all the parts of the universe, which is, like a most developed organism, so complicated, yet so harmonious, a system, cooperate with one another according to the most delicate measures in order that a single morsel of food can be produced. So, in fact, a single morsel is almost the same price as the whole of the universe, which the whole of mankind are unable to pay, and man’s part in the production of that morsel is utterly negligible: it consists of the effort he exerts.
Is it possible for us to give enough thanks to God for even a morsel of food? If only the picture of a bunch of grapes had been shown to us, could the whole of mankind produce it, even if they worked in close cooperation? Whereas God nourishes us with all those bounties of His for nothing and in return demands from us almost nothing. If, for example, He had stipulated that we should perform a thosunad rak‘ahs(units) of prayer in return for a bushel of wheat, in order to survive, we would have been obliged to do that. If, again, He had sent a single drop of rain in return for a rak‘ah of prayer, then we would have been doing nothing but spend all of our lives praying. Supposing you are left in the scorching heat in the middle of a desert, would you not give whatever you had for a single glass of water?
How can we pay the thanks for each limb of our body? When we see the ill and crippled in hospitals or when we are ill, we can understand how valuable health is, and how can we pay the thanks due for our health? The worship which God Almighty orders us to do is, in fact, for our benefit, for our spiritual refinement and a good personal and collective life. Furthermore, if we believe in and worship God, He will reward us with infinite happiness and bounties in an external world, in Paradise.
In sum, we see that almost everything we have is given to us for nothing, our part in the bounties we enjoy in the world is quite negligible. Like this, the will power we have is equally negligible when compared to the consequences which God Almighty creates as a result of our use of it. However weak it is and however difficult it is to understand its true nature, God creates our actions according to the choices and decisions which we make through our will power.
The relation between Divine Destiny and man's free will
In human history, people have suffered difficulties to distinguish or reconcile Divine Will and human free will. Some have gone so far as to deny man a free will to act and determine his life, while others have attributed to man himself even the creation of his deeds, completely ignoring the role of Destiny in his life. However, Islam is a middle way; as it is in every other issue, what is right in the matter of the relation between Destiny and man's free will is also following the middle way. That is, Divine Destiny dominates over the whole of existence, including the human realm, while man obviously has a free will by using which he directs his life. In three succeeding verses coming at the and of sura al-Takwir, the Qur'an expresses the true nature of relation between Destiny and man's free will: This (the Qur'an) is not but a reminder onto the worlds, onto whoever among you wills to walk straight. You do not will, unless God wills, the Lord of the Worlds. (al-Takwir, 27-9) These verses attribute absolute will to God Almighty but does not exclude man from having a will power to exercise in directing or designing his life. In another verse (al-Saffat, 37.96) the Qur'an declares that it is God Who creates us and whatever we do and therefore ascribes creation to God exclusively. In other verses such as Fulfil (your part of) the covenant so that I fulfil (my part of) the covenant (al-Baqara, 2.40), if you help God('s religion), He will help you and will make your foothold firm (Muhammad, 47.7), and God changes not the condition of a people unless they change what is in their hearts (al-Ra'd, 13.11), it speaks about a contract or covenant between God and man, openly declares that it is man himself who directs history. Except for the human realm and jinn, who have free will and therefore are accountable for their acts, Divine Destiny is the single absolutely and exclusively dominant factor in existence. In order to reconcile Destiny and man's free will, the following explanations may be worth consideration: a. Destiny is a title for Divine Knowledge. As explained before, God's Knowledge comprehends everything within and beyond time and space. If you know beforehand that a certain thing will happen at a certain future time and that things happens at exactly the time you predicted, it does not mean that that thing's happening was caused by your knowledge beforehand that it would happen. Since every thing and every event in the universe is comprehended in God's Knowledge, He has written such a thing will happen at such a time and a place, and it does. Although there is not the slightest difference between what God has written for a man and what that man does, this is not because God's having written it forces man to do it, rather it is because man willed to do that and did it. Consider this example: a train is traveling between Istanbul and Ankara, at a certain speed according to the characteristics of its manufacture and the conditions of the railway, and Istanbul is at a known distance from Ankara.
Also, there are a certain number of stations along the way, at each of which the train stops for a certain time. Taking all these matters into consideration, a time-table is written in advance. The time-table's being prepared in advance is not the cause of the train's traveling. Again, the time and duration of such heavenly events as the solar and lunar eclipses are known and written down beforehand through astronomical calculations. This does not mean that the sun or the moon is eclipsed at that certain time because astronomers knew it beforehand and recorded. The truth is exactly reverse: since astronomers knew beforehand when the sun or the moon would be eclipsed, they recorded it. There is the same relation between Destiny and man's free will. b. Man's free will is not something excluded from Destiny; rather, Destiny includes man's free will. For example, one asks you whether the clock in the next room is working or not. You hear its sound and answer that it is working. The one who asks you about the clock will not need to ask you whether the hands of the clock are moving. Because the working of the clock means that the wheel of the clock is working and its hand are moving. In an analogous way, Destiny and man's free will are not independent of each other.
As regards Destiny, man is neither a dried leaf blown by the wind, nor is he completely independent from Destiny. As Islam follows the middle way in every issue—for example, it allows neither debauchery nor intolerable self-denial, or it neither advises celibacy nor allows illicit intercourses, and so on—it has also established the right way in the issue of Destiny and man's free will. In other words, Islam has explained the true relation between Destiny and man's free will. According to its explanation, wills and does a thing, and God creates it. c. Cause and effect are not separable in the view of Destiny. That is, it is destined that this cause will produce that effect. But, from there it cannot be argued that, for example, shooting a man dead should not be regarded as a crime because the dead man was destined to die at this time anyway so he would have died even if he had not been shot. Such an argument is baseless since that man is actually destined to die as a result of being shot. The argument that he would have died even he had not been shot mean that he died without a cause, and in this case we should not be able to explain how he died. It should be remembered that there are not two kinds of Destiny—one for the cause, and the other for the effect. Destiny is one. d. People tend to, excluding themselves from the passage of time, imagine a limit for past time which extends through a certain chain of things, and they call it 'azel'—past eternity. But to reason according to such an imagination is not right and acceptable.
For better understanding of this subtle point, the following example may help: Imagine that you are standing with a mirror in your hand, that everything reflected on the right represents the past, while everything reflected on the left represents the future. The mirror can reflect one direction only since it cannot show both sides at the same time as you are holding it. If you wish to reflect both directions at the same time, it would be necessary to rise high above your original position so that left and right directions are united into one and nothing remains to be called first or last, beginning or end. As already mentioned, Divine Destiny is in some respects identical with Divine Knowledge. It is described in a Prophetic saying as containing all times and events in a single point, where first and last, beginning and end, what has happened and what will happen, are all united into one. And we are not excluded from it so that our understanding of time and events could be like a mirror to the space of the past. e. Man cannot be the creator of his actions. For if he were the creator of his own actions, then he would himself be the ultimate cause of them, and his will would be cancelled. Since, according to logic, if a thing is not necessary, it will not exist. That means for something to come into existence there has to be a real complete cause, but a complete cause makes the existence of something compulsory so there will be no room for choice. f. Although man's free will is too inefficient to cause something to happen, Almighty God has made its operation a simple condition for the coming into effect of His universal Will. He guides man in whatever direction man wishes by the use of his free will so that man remains responsible for the consequences of his choice.
As an example, if you were to take a child upon your shoulders, and then leave him free to decide where he would like to go and he elected for you to take him up a high mountain, and in consequence he caught cold, he would have no right to blame you for that. Indeed, you might even punish him because he wanted to go up the mountain. In like manner, Almighty God, the Most Just of judges, never coerces His servants into doing something, and He has accordingly made His Will somewhat dependent on man's free-will. We may summarize the discussion so far in five points: 1234567