I was shocked, when my six year old asked me: “Mama, if Allah (swt) controls everything, which includes us, then why do you punish me for misbehaving?” I didn’t know how to explain to him that even though Allah (swt) controls everything, He (swt) has given us free will – the choice to do good or evil. And due to this free will we will be judged on the Day of Reckoning, after which our eternal abode will either be heaven or hell. Reflecting on my teen years, it was this question that started my journey from having unshakable belief in Allah (swt) and the unseen to questioning everything and coming full circle into a conscious decision and Imaan in Allah’s existence.

This question is commonly argued under the title of ‘Determinism vs. Free Will.’ Determinism is defined as ‘the doctrine that everything, including one’s choice, is a necessary result of a sequence of causes.’ Free will, on the other hand, is ‘the freedom of will to choose any course of action without outside coercion.’ Both of these are not in the least synonymous, and the argument stems that since Allah (swt) controls everything, we really do not have the choice to do good or evil. The logical question then arises – why should we be punished in hell for a choice we do not have?

There are Ayahs in the Quran that support both view points. We can divide the Ayahs used commonly in this debate into three broad categories as per Dr. Ahmad Shafaat:

  1. Those that mention that only man is the source of his choices.
  2. Those that mention that only Allah (swt) is the source of man’s choices, including his moral choices.
  3. Those that bring the two thoughts together.

Following are some Ayahs for each category.

Category I – Those that mention that only man is the source of his choices.

  • “And say: ‘The truth is from your Lord.’ Then whomsoever wills, let him believe and whomsoever wills, let him disbelieve.” (Al-Kahf 18:29)
  • “That no burdened person (with sins) shall bear the burden (sins) of another. And that man can have nothing but what he does (good or bad).” (An-Najm 53:38-39)
  • (Fussilat 41:46 and Dahr :3)

Category II – Those that mention that only Allah (swt) is the source of man’s choices.

  • “Those who reject our Ayat are deaf and dumb in the darkness. Allah sends astray whom He wills and guides on the Straight Path whom he wills.” (Al-An’am 6:39)
  • “While Allah has created you and what you make!” (As-Saffat 37:96)

Category III – Those that bring the two thoughts together.

  • “That is so because Allah will never change a grace which He has bestowed on a people until they change what is in their own selves” (Al-Anfal 8:53)
  • (Yunus 10:44)

It is possible to explain logically all the three types of verses quoted above, if we believe in the concepts of divine foreknowledge, forewriting and foreordainment. Allah (swt) has knowledge of every event before it happens. This is divine foreknowledge. Forewriting (Kitabah) literally means that God has written in a symbolic sense that an event will occur. Foreordainment (Taqdir) means that God has willed that this event should occur.

However, knowing in advance about an event is often confused with forcing that event to occur. We think of Allah (swt) in terms of our foresight. Allah (swt) is not limited by the dimension of time; hence, He knows what is happening now, what happened yesterday and what is going to happen tomorrow all at the same moment.

Allah (swt) is perfect in His knowledge, so He (swt) knows everything. When we try to change our Taqdir, Allah (swt) knew we would do this and so has written that a certain event would happen. Hence, Allah (swt) has not forced us to make a certain choice; He (swt) knew we would make that choice.

The question then arises – if Allah (swt) knows everything, then why is there a need to test us? Why not just put us in Heaven or Hell? Well, if one goes to Heaven, there is no problem. However, if one goes to Hell, he will ask Allah (swt) why. He would want to be given the chance to prove that he could have made the right choices. This explains why we have to strive to pass the test.

If Allah (swt) wills everything, then how can we be good, if Allah (swt) has willed us to be evil? There is a simple explanation. Allah (swt) says that He (swt) will reward / punish us to the extent of the abilities granted. Thus, if He (swt) has given us the ability to perform great good and we do not do it, then we will be rewarded accordingly and vice versa. For example: if Bilal has Rs. 2 and gives one in charity, he is better than Usman who has Rs. 10 and also only gives away one in charity. Bilal has given half of his possessions, while Usman gave only one tenth! “Allah burdens not a soul beyond his scope…” (Baqarah 2:286)

In conclusion, I would like to state that this debate is a philosophical one and has great potential to weaken one’s Iman; hence, it is not crucial to understand this argument completely. Know only this that Allah (swt) and the Day of Judgment are real. Base your belief on that and live your life to fulfill the potential Allah (swt) has granted you. May we all enter paradise, Ameen.