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The Beauty of Free Will

The first time I heard the word “Islam”, I was in my first year of college.

I spent the next few years learning more about this word, this faith.

Something about it spoke to me. But I rejected it time and again, thinking it had not been what I was taught growing up.

I chose pride in my upbringing, in my heritage over the truth from my Creator, until the weight of the truth became too much for me to reject.

I exercised my freewill in rejecting and finally accepting Islam. Read more about my journey to Islam here, and here.

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The topic of freewill and human beings’ ability to choose is one topic that many people get wrong about Islam.

Many people erroneously believe that Islam teaches strict predestination or fatalism, the idea that human beings are either predestined to go to heaven or hell no matter what we choose to believe or do and no matter what our intentions are.

This is because the idea of qadar (divine will) is often misunderstood. But qadar is a more complex concept than that of predestination or fatalism.

Balance in Understanding

Like most things in Islam, the truth is somewhere in the middle path. As Muslims, we know that whatever is written for us will unerringly come to us. This is Allah’s plan and will. But we also know that we will be judged and rewarded or punished for our belief and intentions.

We do not have freedom to determine everything we do, as we can see from our day to day lives. If we had absolute and complete freewill, everything we endeavored to do would work out for us.

There are other forces at play in the world that sometimes get in the way of what we will to happen. And we understand this. These forces were created by Allah and are completely under the control of Allah.

But we do have the freewill to believe what we want and to determine our intentions.

For example, we can believe that Allah is One, that He is our Creator, and that worshiping Him is the best act we can do. So we plan to make salat (prayer/worship) in the mosque, seeking Allah’s pleasure. We make our intention. Go to start the car. But it won’t start.

The belief and intention is there and we will be rewarded for that. But perhaps because the battery in the car died, we were not able to make salat in the mosque. The physics of the universe, that which Allah has created, got in the way of our will.

So, Allah’s will is superior and supersedes our will, but we still have choice. And this is where our reward comes from – the choice.

Choosing to Accept Choice

For freewill or choice to exist there has to be another option other than following our base desires.

There literally has to be something else to choose. That something else is voluntarily submitting to the will of Allah and exercising the choice and determination to overcome our own will to do what is better.

If we look to nature, we can see that no other animal or creation has a choice to act on anything other than their base urge. They do not have the freedom to choose. So why do human beings get to choose between instinct and a higher purpose?

It is because unlike any other creation, human beings accepted the responsibility of freewill.

Allah says in the Quran:

We did indeed offer the Trust to the Heavens and the Earth and the Mountains; but they refused to undertake it, being afraid thereof: but man undertook it; He was indeed unjust and foolish. (33:72)

In the Tafsir (exegeses) of this verse, Ibn Abbas said:

Al-Amanah [the Trust offered to all of creation] means [voluntary] obedience [to God]. This was offered to them [the heavens, the Earth and the mountains…] and they could not bear it. Then Allah said to Adam:

`I have offered the Amanah [the Trust] to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, and they could not bear it. Will you take it on?

He said:

`O Lord, what does it involve’?

He said: `If you do good, you will be rewarded, and if you do evil, you will be punished.’

So Adam [and all his children-that’s us] took the Amanah and bore it, and this is what is referred to in the Ayah.” (Tafsir Ibn Kathir)

So the ability of choose was literally chosen by us-the children of Adam. We took on this Trust from Allah, and so we have the freedom and responsibility to choose. We can believe in Allah or not. And we can overcome our egos and urges and intend to do evil or not. It is up to us.

Better than Angels; Worse than Animals

And because of our ability to choose, we can be better than angels.

The angels, who are created to do Allah’s will and worship Him, do not have the freewill to choose this obedience. But human beings who submit their will to the will of Allah do have a choice.

At the same time because of our ability to choose, we can act worse than animals. Animals, who are created to act entirely on instinct and base desires, do not have the freedom to choose a higher purpose. But human beings, who only act on their instinct and baser desires, do have a choice to do and be better.

It is in the ability to choose that is so significant and so worthy of reward or punishment. We accepted it, and we can do and be better.

It is up to each one of us to choose whether we want to be better than angels or worse than animals.

May Allah (SWT) guide us all to His Straight Path.


(From Discovering Islam’s archive)

About Theresa Corbin
Theresa Corbin is the author of The Islamic, Adult Coloring Book and co-author of The New Muslim’s Field Guide. Corbin is a French-creole American and Muslimah who converted in 2001. She holds a BA in English Lit and is a writer, editor, and graphic artist who focuses on themes of conversion to Islam, Islamophobia, women's issues, and bridging gaps between peoples of different faiths and cultures. She is a regular contributor for and Al Jumuah magazine. Her work has also been featured on CNN and Washington Post, among other publications. Visit her blog, islamwich, where she discusses the intersection of culture and religion.