Are We Entirely Free?
Question: I have been a proud Muslim all 16 years, and I do research about many religions and the miracles I see in Islam are really wonderful. An atheist once proposed a question about 'free will' in Islam. He told me that if I were to be stuck somewhere with one person with no food or water, eventually I'd kill that person and eat him. Is that true?
In the Name of Allāh, Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
All praise and thanks are due to Allāh, May Allāh blessings and peace be upon His Messenger.
Whether humans have free will or not is one of the most debated questions in philosophy and religion. The problem can be stated thus: If God is in full control, humans cannot have freedom, as everything is pre-determined by God.
But from the Qur’anic point of view, Man is the khalifah (vicegerent) of God on earth and everything here has been created for him,“Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: "I will create a vicegerent on earth." … [ Al-Baqarah, 2:30] This would mean that Allah has given Man certain abilities to act here as His ambassador. These gifts of Man will be useless unless he has freedom, so God has given him freedom too. Yet, it is within limits, as human abilities too are limited.
It is clearly stated in the Qur’an that life on earth is a testing ground for Man. And we know that any test requires that the tested should have the freedom to act on their own initiative. Otherwise, there is no meaning in such tests.
As the chief faculty of Man is his reason, he can use it to good purpose. He can study the world around him as well as assess his own potential and scope of action. On that basis, Man strives to achieve the objectives and goals he visualizes.
Allah SWT says:
“Whoever has done an atom's weight of good shall get its reward and whoever has done an atom's weight of evil shall meet with its consequences.” [Surah Al-Zalzalah, 99:7 – 8]
“Man shall have nothing but what he strives for.” [Surah An-Najam, 53: 39]
Everything is accounted for, and nothing is wasted in God’s scheme of things. Allah (swt) in His infinite mercy has given Man guidance too. This is to help him use his freedom and faculties to his own benefit and live a meaningful life here.
Allah wants Man to use the freedom He has given in accordance with His guidance. This means that the scope and potential of Man’s freedom is within the framework of God’s jurisdiction and control. For this reason, we may say that Man is not a master of his fate; nor is he a mere cog in the wheel of destiny.
God says: “Allah will never change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” [Surah Ar-Rad, 13: 11]
So ‘taqdir’ used in the Qur’an does not signify that Man is deprived of free will. It stands for the latent possibilities Allah has invested in the nature of things. It also signifies God’s grand design of creation as well as His foreknowledge; but it does not imply that human beings have been completely deprived of freedom of will or action.
For this reason, Man’s freedom of will - if he ignores divine guidance - can lead him to do wrong things, as suggested by the atheist. That exactly is the reason why we need divine guidance; to keep ourselves upright and steady in times of extreme trials.
Thus, from the Islamic point of view, it is our willful choice of those actions from our inherent possibilities, which are in harmony with God’s will that earns us our reward from Him. Our efforts should always be to see that our choices and actions are in agreement with God’s guidance.
Allah Almighty Knows Best.
[Reference: Excerpted with minor modification from The Q&A published in Islam Online -- Ask About Islam, 2nd. June 2003]