What is Meant by (Free Choice) in Islam?

Question and answer details
As-salam-alakum. Can you explain the verses that say "Allah guides whomever he wills"? I have been having a hard time reconciling our ability to make free choices and these verses. I see people say "It's Allah who chooses who becomes a Muslim". Does this mean that those who don't become Muslim because Allah (SWT) made them reject Islam or was this a person's choice? How can we receive guidance? How can we reconcile accountability and Allah's will? I hope you can explain it to me. I tried to find an article that talks about the very word "Qadar". Qadar is usually translated as "divine decree". In the English dictionary, the word "Decree" is a word usually translated as "To order or Command or something like that". I have read the other articles on this site but could not find why we are "Decreed to do stuff" if we have free choice and responsibility. Isn't there a difference between "Decree" and Allah (SWT) knowing the future and allowing us to do what we choose"?
Jasser Auda

Salam brother,

Thank you for your question and for contacting Ask About Islam.

The question of 'free choice', and whether a human being has free choice or is under compulsive predetermination, is an old question. There were classical philosophical arguments for either argument, which either claimed that (1) the whole universe is like a large pre-programmed machine, or claimed that (2) humans are the 'creators of their own actions'. I believe that both extreme arguments fail to address the issue adequately.

The first argument which claims that a human being is 'forced' (mujbar) to do whatever he/she does, is based on the premise that God does whatever He chooses, and that justice means what God decides, even if it is to put all people in Hellfire or Heaven.

The school of Islamic philosophy of religion that believes in the above is the Asharites. Refer, for example to: Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari's book, Khalq al-Aamal "The Creation of Deeds", which is a refutation of the doctrine of the Muatazilah and Qadariyyah whereby humans are responsible for their own deeds. They claim to have based their views on the following verses and similar verses:

{Say: "[Know,] then, that the final evidence [of all truth] rests with God alone; and had He so willed, He would have guided you all aright."} (Al-Anaam 6:149)

{Yet, when a good thing happens to them, some [people] say, "This is from God," whereas when evil befalls them, they say, "This is from you!" Say: "All is from God."} (Al-Nisaa 4:78)

{Yet had We so willed, We could indeed have imposed Our guidance upon every human being: but [We have not willed it thus - and so] that word of Mine has come true: "Most certainly will I fill hell with invisible beings as well as with humans, all together!}  (Al-Sajdah 32:13)

{But you cannot will it unless God wills [to show you that way]: for, behold, God is indeed all-seeing, wise.} (Al-Insan 76:30)

{In this way God lets go astray him that wills [to go astray], and guides aright him that wills [to be guided].} (Al-Muddathir 74:31)

{But you cannot will it unless God, the Sustainer of all the worlds, wills [to show you that way].} (Al-Takwir 81:29)

{Now whenever God and His Apostle have decided a matter, it is not for a believing man or a believing woman to claim freedom of choice insofar as they themselves are concerned: for he who [thus] rebels against God and His Apostle has already, most obviously, gone astray.} (Al-Ahzab 33:36)

{Say [O Prophet]: "It is not within my power to avert harm from, or bring benefit to, myself, except as God may please."} (Yunus 10:49)

Moreover, it is essential to know that this opinion of humans being 'forced' was, on one hand, the belief of Arabs before Islam, the 'official' position that was made popular by the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphs, who came after the Guided Caliphs of the Prophet (peace be upon him), on the other hand. Refer to: Muhammad Emara, al-Muatazilah wa Mushkilat al-Hurriyah al-Insaniyah (Muatazilites and the Problem of Human Freedom).

The Arabs before Islam used their belief in 'jabr' to justify the evil deeds they had committed. God refutes their argument:

{… and [so,] whenever they commit a shameful deed, they are wont to say, "We found our forefathers doing it," and, "God has enjoined it upon us." Say: "Behold, never does God enjoin deeds of abomination. Would you attribute unto God something of which you have no knowledge?"} (Al-Aaraf 7:28)

On the other hand, the Caliphs used the 'jabr' creed, or rather misused it, in order to justify their reign over Muslims and their wealth via repression and authoritarianism. For example, the first Umayyad Caliph, Muawiyah, was reported to have said: 'If God wanted someone else for the Caliphate, He would have done so', and Abu Jafar al-Mansour, the Abbaside Caliph, was also reported to have said: 'I am a lock over God's money. If He wants, He would open me so I give you, and if He wants, He would close me'.

The second argument was presented by the school of Muatazilites, and endorsed by a number of imams as well, such as Ibn Hazm and others. It claimed that a human being is the 'creator' of his/her own acts.

The Muatazilites based this argument on the fact that God is The Just, and that justice entails that humans actually 'create' the actions they are responsible for. (Refer, for example, to al-Qadi Abd al-Jabbar, Al-Mughni fi Abwab Al-Tawheed wal-Adl, vol. 8).

This group of scholars often cite verses such as the following to support their argument:

{You worship only [lifeless] idols instead of God, and [thus] you create a lie!}  (Al-Ankabut 29:17)

{… and then We create out of the drop of sperm a germ-cell, and then We create out of the germ-cell an embryonic lump, and then We create within the embryonic lump bones, and then We clothe the bones with flesh - and then We bring [all] this into being as a new creation: hallowed, therefore, is God, the best of creators!} (Al-Muminun 23:14)

{Verily, God does not do the least wrong unto men, but it is men who wrong themselves.} (Yunus 10:44)

{And say: "The truth [has now come] from your Sustainer: let, then, him who wills, believe in it, and let him who wills, reject it."} (Al-Kahf 18:29)

{Whoever chooses to follow the right path, follows it but for his own good; and whoever goes astray, goes but astray to his own hurt; and no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another" burden. Moreover, We would never chastise [any community for the wrong they may do] till We have sent an apostle [to them].}  (Al-Israa 17:15) 

{To a happy state shall indeed attain he who causes this [self] to grow in purity, and truly lost is he who buries it [in darkness].} (Mariam 91:9-10)

{Say [O Prophet]: "O mankind! The truth from your Sustainer has now come unto you. Whoever, therefore, chooses to follow the right path, follows it but for his own good; and whoever chooses to go astray, goes but astray to his own hurt. And I am not responsible for your conduct."} (Yunus 10:108)

Both of the above opinions are 'Islamic' opinions, and could be valid and true. However, I believe that the most accurate opinion is a middle-house opinion that many scholars have endorsed, which states that God does create and did create everything, good and evil, but He has 'delegated' humans to choose their actions.

Thus, both groups of verses quoted above could be understood in one context. So, God did create everything and He does know what we will choose, but as far as we, humans, are concerned, we have the full freedom to choose our actions.

I hope this answers your question. Please keep in touch.


Useful Links:

Islam Between Surrender and Free Will

Personal Freedoms vs. Public Violations

Why Do We Have Free Will?

Are We Entirely Free?

Fate and Free Will

Fate: Our Choice or Allah's?

Are We Predestined?

Predestination of One's Deeds?

Qadar: A Measured Destiny

Are We Judged for What’s Already Destined?

Are We “Born to Be Free”?

Divine Decree

Divine and Human Will