Causation and free will

Surah 6 (Al-An’am /The Cattle): 59

And with Him are the keys of the Unseen.

None knows them but He, and He knows what is on land and sea.

No leaf falls but that He knows it, nor any seed in the dark recesses of the earth, nor anything moist or dry, but that it is in a clear Book.


The Qur’an frequently asserts God’s dominion over all the world, {54.49} – ‘Truly We have created everything according to a measure’ – with several verses stating that every event that occurs is already written by God in ‘a clear Book’, see {6.59} produced above, {10.61}, {11.6}, {27.74-75}, and {34.3}. This is presumably the same book referred to in:

{35.11}: ‘And none grows old, nor has aught lessened of his life, but that it is in a Book’,

{57.22}: ‘No misfortune befalls the earth nor yourselves, save that it is in a Book before We bring it forth. Truly that is easy for God,’

and {20.52}, {22.70}, {36.12}, {50.4} and {78.29}.


In a similar vein:

{9.51}: ‘Naught befalls us save that that which God has decreed for us.’

{60.67}: ‘He it is who created you from dust … that you may reach a term appointed…’

See also {3.145}

In {13.39} a process is described whereby ‘God effaces what he will and establishes, and with Him is the Mother of the Book’. Some believe that this verse depicts, from God’s perspective, changes that are experienced on earth as events: a process of His transcribing His commands from an unchanging book of destiny, to some sort of temporary repository for changing information, a postulated ‘tablet of appearance and dissolution’. For those without God’s perspective, all of this creates the impression of God as not merely able to foresee the future of the universe He had created, but determining every event as it occurs.


Free will

This predeterminist outlook is inevitably in conflict with the concept of free will, and also with God’s claim to be acting justly in rewarding some individuals and punishing others, if these rewards are bestowed and punishments inflicted for conduct that He has Himself ordained.


Yet the Qur’an frequently states that God ‘leads astray whomsoever He will and He guides whomever He will’, {6.39}, {14.4}, {16.93}, {35.8}, similarly {4.88 & 143}, {7.178-179}, {13.27}, {17.97}, {18.17}, {40.74}, {42.8, 13 & 44-46} and {87.2-3}; that He causes some to err’, {11.34}, and for some ‘seals their hearts, blinds their eyes and deafens them to the truth’, {2.7}. {76.30} and {81.19} assert that a person has no volition other than as directed by God: ’And you do not will but that which God wills’, and in {18.101} God describes unbelievers as ‘those whose eyes were veiled from the remembrance of Me and could not hear.’ Worst of all for free will and justice, the Quranic God states at {7.178} that ‘We have indeed created for Hell many among jinn and men’, suggesting that for some, eternal torment was the only purpose for which they were ever brought into existence.


From the eighth century until 848, a theological movement known as the Mu’tazila dominated Islamic scholarly thought upon the subject, which promoted the existence of free will. The Mu’tazila pointed out that in some verses God speaks of leading astray those who are already unrighteous:  ‘none but the iniquitous’, {2.26}, ‘whosoever is a prodigal doubter’, {40.34} and the kuffar (disbelievers), {40.74}. Other verses express that man’s disbelief had never been God’s wish: {13.31}: ‘If God had willed He would have guided mankind all together’ and {32.13}’s ‘Had We willed We would have given every soul its guidance.’ The Mu’tazila argued from such verses that it would be counter to God’s inherently just nature that He should ever lead somebody astray unless there was already something about the moral character of that person, even if only an inclination to future action that would never be realised, that led them to merit the Hellfire through their own choices. This, however, aroused vehement opposition from a more literalist group, led by Ahmad bin Hanbal, who accused the Mu’tazila of denying God’s own free will, by insisting that He was bound by His nature to act in accordance with ethical principles external to Himself. In 848, popular support for Imam Ahmad forced the then caliph to abandon official support for the Mu’tazila position, a loss of popular and institutional influence from which the rationalist school of Islamic theology has never recovered.


In the tenth century Abu al-Hassan Ashari established a middle ground in the debate whereby God granted a person freedom of intention only, and so it was just that a person should ‘acquire’ the consequences of their desires, whilst God alone has dominion over the physical world and chooses in His wisdom in each instant whether to make a person’s intent manifest. It is in consequence of this view of causality and in obedience to the Qur’an’s instruction in {18.23-24}, that the expression ‘inshāʾllāh‘ (‘if God wills it’) is used by Muslims after any reference to an anticipated future event.


In any event, Ashari insisted, adopting the Hanbali view, it was irrational to talk of God acting justly or unjustly since neither justice nor morality had any objective meaning other than obedience to God’s Will. Asharite theology is probably the most influential of all Islamic theological theories, although it stands accused of encouraging a fatalism and moral ambivalence that has held the Muslim world back from scientific and social development.


It has been seen above 11. that Daud Rahbur in God of Justice demonstrated that the Quranic God does not have foresight of human actions. In the same book Rahbur lists every verse in which God states that He misleads people and demonstrates that the vast majority (although not all) appear in close proximity to passages that either condemn the sinfulness of those being misled or else  refer to God’s wisdom of things beyond human understanding. From this analysis he concludes, it is suggested persuasively, that the Qur’an depicts a God that does permit free will, notwithstanding the very many verses that, taken out of their context, would suggest the contrary.



The Qur’an describes disbelievers dismissing the revelations of Jesus, {5.110}, {61.1}, and those of the Qur’an, {10.2}, {11.7}, {34.43}, {43.30}, {46.7}, and {54.2}, as being ‘sorcery’ (‘sahr’), often ‘manifest sorcery’. The prophets Salih, {26.153}, Shuayb, {26.185}, and the Qur’an’s author himself, {17.47}, {25.8}, we are told, had each faced accusations of being ‘but one of the bewitched’, and he and Moses together of being ‘two sorcerers supporting one another’, {28.48}. Clearly wearying of this slur, in {15.14-15}, the Qur’an predicts that: ‘Were We to open for them a gate unto heaven … they would say: ‘Our eyes are merely spellbound. Nay we are a people bewitched’ and it warns the deniers that on the Last Day, when they are consigned to burn in the Hellfire, God will mock them for their words, with the words ‘Is this sorcery?’, {52.14}.


In {7.109-126}, {10.76-81}, {20.57-73}, {26.30-51}, {27.13-14} and {28.36} the Qur’an describes a contest (based upon Exodus 8-13 ) in between the sorcerers (sāḥir) of Pharaoh and Moses. The sorcerers cast down their staffs which appear to turn into snakes, but when Moses does likewise, his snake consumes theirs 〈22.〉 The Qur’an’s accounts of this incident, when read together, seem deliberately ambiguous on whether the Pharaoh’s sāḥirs are using actual magic or the trickery of a magician in the modern sense of the word. {7.116} states that the sorcerers ‘bewitched the eyes of the people’, and {20.66} describes how ‘their staffs appeared to them through their sorcery to move swiftly‘; each worded so as to avoid stating whether the magician’s staffs were actually transformed into live snakes. None of the passages compel the believing listener to conclude that humans are capable of practising sorcery. Moses predicts in {10.76-81} that ‘the sorcerers will not prosper’ which may suggest that he accepted that they were actual sorcerers rather than illusionists, but it may also be read as merely predicting his victory over Pharaoh’s charlatans.


Belomancy, the use of divining arrows, (for the use of which by Joseph, husband of Mary, see 〈25.〉) is twice forbidden {5.3 & 90}. On both occasions this prohibition appears within a list of haram practises that includes idolatry, and, in {5.90} gambling, and so, whilst it may be to warn humans off dabbling with the occult, it is also consistent with the Qur’an’s discouragement of false beliefs and disorderly conduct. They do not require the reader to conclude that diving arrows were themselves regarded as having any supernatural power.


However, three passages of the Qur’an are hard, if not impossible, to interpret in a way that does not acknowledge that it is affirming that magic has real power:

the reference to shaitans ‘teaching people sorcery’ as it had been taught to them by the angels Harut and Marut, see 〈14.〉, above,


the account of the Israelites having created a golden calf idol in Moses’ absence that ‘lowed’ (’mooed like a cow’, per Ahmed Ali), and the suggestion a few verses later that this was due to the action of a Samaritan who ‘saw that which they saw not’ and ‘took a handful of earth from the footsteps of the messenger (possibly, Islamic commentators have speculated, an angel guiding Moses to Mount Sinai) and cast it,’ {20.88-96}, in what could only have been some form of ‘foot track’ spell, 〈22.〉, and


the prayer for protection in Surah 113:

{113.4}  From the evil of those who blow on knots,

{113.5}  And from the evil of the envier when he envies.

This short surah is traditionally associated with a story that a Jewish sorcerer, Labin bin Asam, had placed a hex on Muhammad by burying a comb containing some of his hair in a well, a spell that was only broken when Muhammad, in a dream, overheard two angels discussing what had been done to him. A later version of the tale, to fasten it to Surah 113 more securely, has Labin weave Muhammad’s hair with date palm fronds, and tied into eleven knots. ‘The envier’ of {113.5} is generally associated with the superstition of the evil eye, as is {68.51}’s reference to disbelievers who ‘would well-nigh smite thee down with their glances‘.


There can be no doubt that the Qur’an’s jinn practise magic, 〈15.〉, and that some humans such as Solomon 〈23.〉, Jesus 〈25.〉, al-Khidr 〈28.〉, and Dhu’l Qarnayn 〈29.〉 were endowed with superhuman powers that were more under their control than merely the power that we all have to call upon God to perform a miracle.



Further reading

God of Justice, A Study in the Ethical Doctrine of the Qur’an