Free Will and Predestination in Islamic Thought: Theoretical Compromises in the Works of Avicenna, al-Ghazālī and Ibn ’Arabī

Free Will and Predestination in Islamic Thought
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About the Book – Free Will and Predestination in Islamic Thought

The subject of ‘human free will’ versus ‘divine predestination’ is one of the most contentious topics in classical Islamic thought. By focusing on a theme of central importance to any philosophy of religion, and to Islam in particular, this book offers a critical study of the intellectual contributions offered to this discourse by three key medieval Islamic thinkers: Avicenna, al-Ghaz l and Ibn ‘Arab

Through investigation of primary sources, Free Will and Predestination in Islamic Thought establishes the historical, political and intellectual circumstances which prompted Avicenna, al-Ghaz l and Ibn ‘Arab ’s attempts at harmonization.

 By analysing the theoretical and linguistic ‘techniques’ which were employed to convey these endeavours, this book demonstrates that the three individuals were committed to compromise between philosophical, theological and mystical outlooks.

Arguing that the three scholars’ treatments of the so-called qa ’ wa’l-qadar (decree and destiny) and ikhtiy r (free will) issues were innovative, influential and fundamentally more complex than hitherto recognized, this book contributes to a fuller understanding of Islamic intellectual history and culture and will be useful to researchers interested in Islamic Studies, Religion and Islamic Mysticism.

Maria De Cillis is a Research Associate and the Shi‘i Studies Co-ordinator at the Institute of Ismaili Studies, Department of Academic Research and Publications, London. Her research interests focus on the Islamic tradit d, including Islamic

theology, the study of the Qur’an, Islamic philosophy, Islamic spirituality and mysticism.


The subject of ‘divine predestination’ (qa wa’l-qadar) versus ‘human free will’ (ikhtiy r) is one of the most contentious topics in classical Islamic thought. By focusing on a theme of central importance to any philosophy of religion in general, and to Islam in particular, this book offers a critical study of the contributions given to this discourse by three key medieval Islamic scholars: Ibn S n , known in the Western world as Avicenna (d. 428/1037), al-Ghaz l (d. 505/1111) and Ibn ‘Arab (d. 638/1240).

This volume aims to attain a proper understanding of Islamic intellectual history and culture by arguing that these three scholars’ treatments of the issues of qa wa’l-qadar and ikhtiy r were innovative, influential and fundamentally more complex than hitherto recognized.

This work shows that Avicenna, al-Ghaz l and Ibn ‘Arab were making compromises between philosophical, theological (kal mic) and mystical ( f ) outlooks on the subject of free will vs predestination.

Their compromising stances are clearly remarkable when it is considered that the subject matters and the methodologies of kal m, fals fa and ta aww f have often been perceived as starkly distinct or even mutually incompatible. This work investigates the historical, political and intellectual causes which spurred these scholars’ attempts to harmonization, and focuses on the nature of their speculations and the techniques which they employed to convey them.

Objectives and methodology of this volume

The intellectual dynamism which the issue of divine qa wa’l-qadar vs ikhtiy r had triggered, since its origins, amongst endless numbers of intellectuals, together with the social, cultural and political implications embedded in what was only initially a theological question, are all well reflected in the works of Avicenna, al-Ghaz l and Ibn ‘Arab .

 Their attempts to ingeniously engage and reconcile the numerous forms of knowledge available to them are captured in this book which provides a critical reading of subject matters such as creation, emanation, causality, the nature of divine knowledge and divine will, and shows how these, strictly intertwined with the core topics of free will and predestination, were employed by these three scholars in their relentless attempts to bring their theoretical systems closer to the position of Ash‘arite ‘orthodoxy’, without enouncing, consciously or unconsciously, the Aristotelian, Neoplatonic and Sufi teachings.

In order to explain why the three scholars’ tactics of harmonization or ‘compromise’ were so different and yet necessary, the present work takes into account the historical, social and political circumstances in which Avicenna, al-Ghaz l and Ibn ‘Arab lived and worked.

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It is shown that Avicenna’s and al-Ghaz l ’s endeavour to reconcile the Ash‘arite view of God with Neoplatonic emanationism was not done simply because they probably were convinced of the validity of such reconciliation, but also because they needed their speculative systems to be accepted by the teachings of mainstream Islam of the time.

In contrast, it is demonstrated that Ibn ‘Arab adopts the philosophers’ and the theologians’ theoretical findings, yet supersedes them with the intent to better communicate to his readership the nature of the mystical events.

This book sets out to discuss the topic of qa ’ and qadar using the notions of divine predestination and determinism in different ways. More specifically, it distinguishes between a ‘predestinarian view’ and a ‘deterministic perspective’.

The former refers to instances in which the discourse emphasizes God’s direct intervention in the creation of existents, particularly in conjunction with the topics of creation ex nihilo and perpetual divine creation.

The latter is used with reference to cases which stress the Aristotelian idea that destiny (qadar) and the determination of all existents are basically due to their inherent natures rather than being dependent on the occasionalistic inference of the deity.1 In line with this reasoning, this will explain both why it is more suitable to speak of determinism for Avicenna and predestination for al-Ghaz l , whilst also discussing the reasons which led Ibn ‘Arab ’s construct to acknowledge both precepts.

Besides providing a critical assessment of secondary sources and studies on the topic of ethics and theodicy strictly linked with the topic of free will and predestination, this study offers a perusal of primary sources in order to explore the varieties and nuances in the thought of these three major thinkers.

 The analysis of primary sources does not follow a strictly chronological order: this together with the choice of introducing significant extracts from major primary literatures – followed by comments and critical observations – are intended to better convey each scholar’s overall position and to draw attention to the exact points where the intellectuals’ approaches intersect and where differences, affinities and correspondences may be identified.

With regards to Avicenna, this volume examines his Persian work, the D nish n ma-i al ’ (The Book of Knowledge), and his Arabic literary production, considering the Kit b al-Shif ’ (The Book of the Healing), the Kit b al-Naj t (The Book of Salvation), the Kit b al- Hid ya (The Book of Guidance) the Ris lat al-a aw ya f ’l-mad (The Epistle of the Afterlife), the Ris lat al-Qa ’ (The Epistle of the Qa ’) and the Ris lat al-Qadar (The Epistle of the Qadar).

Moreover, the investigation makes use of Avicennian works regarded to be ‘mystical’ in their contents and style such as the Ris lat f ’l-ishq (The Epistle of Love), ayy b. Yaq n and the Ris lat al- ayr (The Epistle of the Birds).2

The first Ghaz l an works to be investigated are the ones more openly declared to be influenced by Sufi connotations such as the disputed Mishk t al-anw r (The Niche of Lights), the I y ‘ul m al-d n (The Revival of the Religious Sciences) and the Maq ad al-asn f shar man asm All h al- usn (The Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God). The priority given to these works is based on the premise that it is mainly through mysticism that it is possible to recognize similarities between Avicenna, Ibn ‘Arab and al-Ghaz l , with Sufism becoming for al-Ghaz l the meeting point which conveys both clear philosophical tenets and rigid

Ash‘arite dogmas. Works such as al-Iqti d f ’l-itiq d (The Just Mean in Belief) and the Tah fut al-fal sifa (The Inchoerence of the Philosophers) are also studied. Even if labelled as mainly kal mic compositions, this study shows that even these works have never been entirely immune from philosophical ‘aggressions’. The extensive compass of Ibn ‘Arab ’s literary works imposes a selective approach.3

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Renowned works such as the Fu al- ikam (The Bezels of Wisdom) and, above all, the Shaykh al-akbar’s magnum opus the Fut t al-Makkiyya (The Meccan Openings) are examined.

This book is divided in six chapters. The first chapter, which is dedicated to Avicenna, marks a departure from the traditional approach on the subject of qa wa’l-qadar, to explain why Avicenna speaks of natural determinism rather than divine predestination, through an analysis of the concept of relative necessity (wuj b bi’ l-ghayr). It shows the extent to which Avicenna absorbs and expounds Platonic, Neoplatonic, Aristotelian, Mu‘tazilite and Ash‘arite teachings.

 It analyses the tactics employed by the philosopher to develop an original perspective on qa wa’l-qadar which harmonizes deterministic and ‘libertarian’ aspects. It is argued that these facets are particularly evident when Avicenna reconciles the notion of ibd ‘ (origination) with the concept of fay (emanation) by way of referring to God as a Necessary Existent which – as stated by the Peripatetic philosophers – does not have a real intentional nature and yet is a subject of power – as stressed by kal m theology.

 First the investigation focuses on the notion of prime matter: as one of the four Aristotelian causes, prime matter is portrayed as entailing the concept of freedom in relation to its role in determining the existence of the substantial compound. Particularly, the discussion on matter investigates both Alfred Ivry’s opinion, for which matter can be held responsible for the determination of events, and the contrasting view of Catarina Belo, who insists on the priority of form over matter.

In order to examine matter’s influence on the topic of determinism, this volume also analyses arguments such as the difference between possibility and potentiality, passive and active receptivity, and specifically, the issue of privation.

 The second half of this chapter surveys Avicenna’s view of matter and evil: Aristotelian, Plotinian and Kal mic elements are merged as matter is described, not merely as a recipient, but as

the Aristotelian ‘substance’,4 which is responsible for changes and whose final existence – as the Ash‘arites argue – depends on God. This chapter also explores how Avicenna employs Qur’ nic hermeneutics in order to show that his positions on matter and evil are rooted in the Qur’ n.

Avicenna demonstrates that questions mainly influenced by Aristotelian and Neoplatonic thought such as the notion of ‘i y n al-m dda (the disobedience of matter) and the ontological nature of evil are clearly ‘Islamic’ concepts to be found in the source of Islamic revelation.

Avicenna’s system is often accused of undermining God’s omnipotence by arguing that God knows particulars only in a universal way; so the second chapter expounds the role of matter explored in the first chapter and employs it to address Avicenna’s intention to link God’s knowledge of universals with his idea of divine determinism by stressing how both notions are influenced by the potentiality of matter.

More particularly, the second chapter explores how Avicenna’s speculations replace the Ash‘arite with the view of God who, having a limited knowledge of particulars, does not exercise a ‘direct’ control over material compounds. Resembling the Mu‘tazilite view for which God, through delegation (tawf ), invests created beings with the capacity to perform acts, Avicenna perceives God as able to ‘entrust’ matter with an efficient causality which shapes the destinies of future existents. This chapter also analyses Avicenna’s unconventional stance on the Qur’ nic notions of rewards and punishments and demonstrates that he ‘naturalizes’ these concepts in order to solve the problem of theodicy.

The concept of human free will, previously examined in philosophical and theological terms, is explored also from a mystical perspective by analysing freedom in association with the rational faculty and the human innate desire to strive towards perfection. The realms of divine and human responsibility in acting are investigated, first in terms of love, and second in accordance to the dictates of an esoteric type of mystical philosophy which makes a wide use of angelology.

This is done with the intent to show how Neoplatonic and Aristotelian stances on free will and determinism can be associated with Sufi perspectives. The first part of the third chapter places al-Ghaz l in his intellectual contexts and argues that, particularly in the Mishk t al-anw r, the scholar is able to reconcile the theory of emanation with that of creation in a way which differed from Avicenna’s view.

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 Al-Ghaz l reads the emanative arrangement primarily in gnoseological terms, thus challenging the idea that emanation is utterly incompatible with the ‘orthodox’ doctrine for which God is the Creator, as argued by his Ash‘arite peers.

 This chapter also shows that in al-Ghaz l ’s masterpiece, the I y ’ ‘ul m al-d n, his view on free will and predestination is shaped in a rather convoluted way. Ash‘arite theological issues like the concepts of God as the only Creator, the pervasive character of the divine will, the nature of the divine justice and the concern about the theodicy are progressively ‘coloured’ by philosophical and mystical resolutions.

This, it is argued, is the result of a series of ‘immersions’ within the different intellectual systems al-Ghaz l came into contact with.

 After analysing al-Ghaz l ’s new reading of the Ash‘arite theory of acquisition (kasb) – which on the surface is substantially Ash‘arite but which betrays more metaphysical trends – this chapter explores the concept of the human being as a ‘compelled chooser’ stressing that, despite strong Ash‘arite underpinnings, al-Ghaz l ’s discourse remains within a philosophical framework, particularly with regard to the role played by human nature. The fourth chapter is directed to the study of the Maq ad al-asn f shar ma‘ n asm All h al- usn , al-Iqti d f ’l-itiq d and the Tah fut al-fal sifa.

Even in works where the Ash‘arite view of divine predestination prevails, the use of Aristotelian logic – intended to rebuff philosophical inconsistencies – has led al-Ghaz l to absorb some philosophical constructs. Chapters Five and Six are dedicated to Ibn ‘Arab .

They open with a discussion of the intellectual milieu within which Ibn ‘Arab operated. The exploration of this theoretical context which assesses, amongst other things, the status of Sufism in the twelfth century, makes it possible to explain why Ibn ‘Arab ’s strategy of compromise is less radical if compared to that of Avicenna and al-Ghaz l .

 The complexity of his speculations requires a theoretical excursus through the key topics of his thought based on the theory of the ‘unicity of existence’ (wa dat al-wuj d). This study explores the Akbarian approach to issues like the divine names, attributes and knowledge, also dwelling on the concept of the immutable entities (ay n th bita).

 The latter, expressions of eternal divine predispositions, are revealed to be the element most closely linked with the topic of predestination in Ibn ‘Arab ’s system.

The analysis also focuses on defining the essential nature of man as a servant of God in order to address the concept of freedom through the mystical understanding of ‘servitude’. Ultimately, this volume shows that the Akbarian system, with its alleged theosophical and monistic underpinnings, entails means and pathways to absolute freedom as individuals strive to draw near the divinity.

 By surveying the notion of ‘the Perfect Man’ created in the image of God, the discussions attempt to exemplify this supposition.

Historical and cultural context: The status of Kal m, Falsafa and Ta aww f

From a very early stage Islamic thought was perceived to be characterized by cultural divides inclined to trap the contributions of luminaries within specific investigative niches. This has often led to a false perception of the Islamic faith as being incapable of an effective development.

 For instance, kal m or speculative theology, emerging around the second/eighth century, faced opposition since its very beginnings. Theoretical conflicts were probably triggered by the inherent nature of the kal mic discourse.5

The latter, as Oliver Leaman has observed, is per se dialectical and hence ‘open to be directed against some other position’;6 and it was born to address early debates about anthropomorphism, the divine attributes, atomism,

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