Discover Origin of Human Choice through Islamic studies summer programs

November 1, 2022 Ust. Asad Khan
Free will Islamic Guidance Human choices

In the discussion of free will through Islamic studies summer programs in Madina institute, a central and commonly debated issue, the exploration more topics in the Islamic summer program, by philosophers and theologians belonging to various faith systems alike is the issue of man’s freedom to make choices. Where does the individual’s choice to perform the action, often referred to by Muslim theologians as the resolve (qaṣd), originate from? How free is the individual in making that choice? Are his choices his own or is he compelled?”


Where does the individual’s choice to perform the action originate from?

Perhaps this is a matter that is beyond human comprehension and no amount of contemplation and reflection can lead one to attain the truth of the matter. In fact, the early Muslim scholars discouraged people from deeply reflecting upon and debating the matter. The erudite Ḥanafī al-Imām al-Ṭaḥāwī (d. 321H) states,

“The essence of the divine decree is a secret of Allah onto His creation. It has not been revealed to an angel who is near to Him, nor to a prophet who was commissioned. To reflect on and immerse oneself in it is a path to failure, deprivation, and transgression.” al-Ghunaymī, ‘Abd al-Ghanī. Sharḥ al-‘Aqīdah al-Ṭaḥāwiyyah, 1st Edition, 103. Egypt: 2009, Dar al-Baṣāir

However, due to the continued incorrect interpretations and understandings on the topic presented by the non-Sunni sects, Sunni theologians were forced to attempt to explain the matter from an orthodox perspective and respond to any doubts that people may be suffering from. The Muslim theologians, belonging to Ahl al-Sunnah and other groups, have debated and unpacked the nuances of this matter in an attempt to identify the exact distinction between determinism and free choice. Thus, presenting a complete picture of the subject requires an analysis of the different positions within and outside of the Sunni tradition. It should be noted that exposure to this level of analysis should only be reserved for scholars and students of sacred knowledge or those who are suffering from doubts regarding the matter, and one might explore more through Islamic studies programs in the USA or  summer programmers in Madina institute.


Introduction To Relevant Terminology

A proper analysis of the second problem, regarding the origin of human resolve and choice, must be prefaced with an introduction to relevant terminology and concepts like in Islamic studies summer programs. For this purpose, the argument for the existence of Allāh ﷻ from the contingency of the universe will be used as an example. It must be noted that this is not a thorough presentation of the argument as that is not the objective. The objective is to introduce certain terms that will be essential in understanding the discussion regarding the second problem. Consider the following:

The universe transitioned from a state of nonexistence to a state of existence. Therefore, the existence of the universe is merely possible. In exploring this concept within an Islamic studies homeschool curriculum, one can delve into the profound philosophical implications inherent in understanding the necessity of an external cause for the universe’s existence. Since the universe is a merely possible entity, it is in need of an external cause to exist. This external cause must be a necessary existence. Otherwise, either of two impossible scenarios would have occurred: infinite regress or preponderance without a cause.

1. A merely possible (mumkin) entity is one whose existence is not rationally necessary. This means it is not rationally necessary for it to exist, nor is it rationally impossible for it to exist, rather it is merely possible. An example of a merely possible entity is the universe. It is rationally possible to conceive of its existence and non-existence. If an entity whose existence is merely possible is nonexistent, then its existence requires an external cause.

2. An external cause (murajjiḥ/mukhaṣiṣ), in this case, is a cause other than the merely possible entity that causes it to exist. This external cause is necessary for the merely possible entity’s existence because on the proverbial scale, nonexistence is preponderant over existence. It is not possible for existence to gain preponderance over nonexistence without an external cause. This leads to the impossible case of preponderance without a cause. If the external cause is also a merely possible entity, then its existence also requires an external cause. If the sequence of causes is only composed of possible entities, then this leads to a state of infinite regress, or a never ending sequence of causes.

3. The case of preponderance without a cause (al-tarjīḥ bila murajjiḥ) with respect to the existence of a possible entity is an impossibility. This is because the alternative is that the possible entity caused itself to exist. This is not possible because in order for it to cause anything to occur, it must first be existent. It is not possible for something nonexistent to be a cause.It may be argued that the nonexistence of something may be a cause for something else to exist. For example, if the happiness of an individual ceases to exist, it will cause him to act in a particular manner. However, this case is not analogous with the one mentioned above in the main text. The argument above is not regarding the transition of an entity from existence to nonexistence but rather nonexistence itself you can learn more through h accredited online islamic studies. It is self-evident that an entity that does not exist, can not act as a cause for an occurrence.

4.Infinite regress (tasalsul), or a never-ending sequence of causes, is an impossibility. This is because the existence of an actual infinite in reality is impossible. For a refined explanation of the impossibility of an actual infinite, see William Lane Craig’s The Kalam Cosmological Argument. The proof offered for the impossibility of the existence of an actual infinity by theologians is the following. Assume there is a series of numbers that continues infinitely and another series that also continues to infinity but starts with one number after (ex. If the first series. If you’re interested in delving deeper into these philosophical concepts while exploring your faith, you might consider exploring Islamic studies classes near me is: 1, 2, 3…then the second series is 2, 3, 4…). If the two series are aligned either they will be equal to one another or not. If they are equal, this means that the part of something is equivalent to the whole of it (as the second series is a subset of the first), which is impossible. If the two series are not equivalent, and the first is larger than the second, then the second is not never-ending. If the second has an end and the first is only one unit greater than the second, then the first is not never-ending either. Ibn ‘Umar al-Taftāzānī, Mas‘ūd. Sharḥ al-Maqāṣid, Second ed, Vol 2, 366. Beirut: 2011, Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyah. This particular argument for the impossibility of an actual infinite is known as Burhān al-Taṭbīq

5. A necessary existence (wājib) is one that the intellect can not conceive of its non-existence. An example of a necessary existence is the existence of Allāh ﷻ.

6. A concept that is not found in the example above, yet is essential to the discussion, is the concept of relative matters (umūr i‘tibārīyah). These are conceptions that are formulated in the mind but do not exist outside of it. An example of this is the concept mentioned above of an entity being merely possible. The entity being described with possibility may exist, however the concept of possibility as explained above is formulated in the mind but does not enjoy an extramental existence. Another example of a relative matter, which does not have an extramental existence, is the example of direction. Assume that there are two trees side by side. A man standing in front of them will perceive one to be on the right and the other to be on the left. A man standing on the opposite side will have the opposite perception. This is because direction is only affirmed relative to a specific frame of reference and is not affirmed outside of it. Ibn Muḥammad al-Jurjānī, ‘Alī. Sharḥ al-Mawāqif, 2nd Edition, Vol 3,117. Beirut: 2012, Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyah

7. Another term that is not found in the example above yet must be introduced is mode (ḥāl). A mode is an attribute that is not existent, nor is it nonexistent, rather it is an intermediary mode between the two. The affirmation of the mode has been a point of contention among theologians, the majority of whom negate it. To better understand this concept you will find more explanation in Islamic studies programs, consider the example of a knowledgeable individual who has the attribute of knowledge residing in him. Those who affirm modes, would argue that there are three matters involved in this example: the individual, the attribute of knowledge, and the state of being knowledgeable that resides in the individual. This state is referred to as a mode.

Non-Sunni Positions

The second problem is not explicitly addressed in the surviving works of the scholars of the Mu‘tazilī school. The surviving works do not provide an explanation for the origin of human choice, and perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that this particular issue gained importance in academic discourse following the era of those scholars. However, the opinion of later Mu‘tazilī scholars, whose books did not survive, can be found in the works of Sunni scholars who recorded those opinions to refute them you can get more information through Our One Year Intensive Islamic and Arabic Studies Program. Based on these sources, the opinion of the Mu‘tazilah in response to the second issue was that if the choice of the individual is created within him by Allāh ﷻ, then his choices are compelled because man does not have the option to choose otherwise. Ibn Umar al-Rāzi, Muḥammad. al-Maṭālib al-‘Āliyah, First ed, Vol 3,16. Beirut: 1999, Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyah Hence, it is necessary that choice is something that is generated by the will of the individual—independent of Allāh ﷻ.


Differing Sunni Views

Similar to the Mu‘tazilah, the discussion regarding the second problem, the origin of human resolve (qaṣd) and choice, is not found in the works of the early Ash‘arī scholars. Perhaps one of the first mentions of it appears in al-Rāzī’s al-Maṭālib al-‘Āliyah. In it, al-Rāzī presents a difficult problem that those who claim that man can make free choices, such as the Mu‘tazilah, run into. He argues that since the existence of human actions is merely possible, it is possible for them to exist and also possible for them to not exist. Therefore, in order for existence to gain preponderance over nonexistence, an external cause is required. The cause in this case is the resolve of the human being to perform the action. Al-Rāzī’s paradigm of the internal process of the individual that leads to an action is slightly different to the one presented above from al-Bayāḍī. Al-Rāzī argues that if the individual has the ability to perform an action, if he acquires an inclination (al-dā‘ī) to perform an action, the action necessarily has to occur. This inclination is the knowledge, belief or assumption of the benefit of performing a particular action. If this inclination is acquired by the individual, his will to perform the action necessarily follows it. Therefore Al-Rāzī argued that this inclination was created by Allāh ﷻ, and the individual was compelled to will and perform the action as a result. However, the existence of that resolve is also merely possible. It is equally possible for the individual to choose to perform or not perform the action. This makes the occurrence of a choice or resolve subject to a cause other than itself. If that cause is also merely possible and the chain of possible causes continues without end, it would lead to infinite regress, which is an impossibility. If it is argued that the choice occurs on its own, then this is preponderance without a cause which is also impossible. As a result, the ultimate cause for the occurrence of the choice must be a necessary existence and that cause is the Will and Omnipotence of Allāhﷻ. A similar argument is presented by the 7th century Ash‘arī theologian ‘Aḍud al-Dīn al-Ījī (d. 756H) in al-Mawāqif and by al-Taftāzānī after him in Sharḥ al-Maqāṣid. Al-Ījī states, as a response to the Mu‘tazilah claim that man creates his own actions, “If man is the creator of his action, then it is necessary for him to be able to perform it and leave it. However [the occurrence of the action] relies on the preponderance of the action over its non-performance due to a cause (murajjiḥ). This cause can not be [generated] from the individual as that would lead to infinite regress, and the occurrence of the action with it [i.e. the cause] is necessary. If it is not [necessary] then the existing [cause] is not the entirety of the cause [on its own]. Therefore the action is involuntary.”Accordingly, al-Rāzī argues that the human being’s choice is compelled as it occurs within him, without his initiation or choice, but by Allāh’s Will. Ibn ‘Umar al-Rāzī, Muḥammad. al-Maṭālib al-‘Āliyah, First ed, Vol 9,9. Beirut: 1999, Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyah

This position was adopted by later Ash‘arī theologians and can be found in later Ash‘arī works, such as, the book of the last Shaykh al-Islām of the Ottoman Empire, al-Shaykh Muṣtafa Ṣabrī (d. 1373H), titled Mawqif al-Bashar. In it, he states, while summarizing the Ash‘arī view, “However, this will and choice [of man], according to the Ash‘arīs, are not from the individual, but rather, they are conceived through the creation of Allāh ﷻ.” Ṣabrī’, Muṣtafa. Mawqif al-Bashar Taḥta Sulṭān al-Qadr, First ed, 55. Cairo: 1933, المطبعة السلفية ومكتبتها

Therefore, according to the later Ash‘arī scholars the choice or resolve (qaṣd) to perform an action is something that is created within the person and is not generated by the will of man independently. Hence, although the actions of the individual do occur according to his choice, the choice is not generated by him. This is explicitly mentioned by Ṣabrī where he says, “And with reference to the fact that the action and the will to perform that action, are both created by Allāh ﷻ it necessitates that the individual is compelled in both of them [action and choice], except that his action occurs in accordance to his choice.” Ṣabrī’, Muṣtafa. Mawqif al-Bashar Taḥta Sulṭān al-Qadr, First ed, 55. Cairo: 1933, المطبعة السلفية ومكتبتها This view has been famously encapsulated by some of the Ash‘arī scholars in the expression, “The individual is compelled but in the image of one who is free”. This is because he acts in accordance to his will and choice yet he is compelled in that choice.

However, with this understanding of choice the issue of accountability resurfaces. If man is compelled in his choice, then how can the accountability of those choices be just? If man is compelled in his choice, then what is the difference between the belief of the Ash‘arī school and that of the Jabariyyah? This problem was pointed out by some of the later Māturīdīs theologians. The 8th-century Māturīdī scholar al-Imām ‘Ubayd Allāh ibn Mas‘ūd (d. 747H), famously known as Ṣadr al-Sharī‘ah, in his work al-Tawḍīḥ states, “If the [choosing and giving preponderance to an action] are not generated by us, then the will can only be a mere desire. This necessitates that there is no difference between voluntary and involuntary actions.” Ibn Mas‘ūd, ‘Abd Allāh. al-Talwīḥ ‘ala al-Tawḍīḥ, First ed, Vol 1, 349. Beirut: 2012, Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyah

Al-Shaykh Ṣabrī acknowledges this criticism in Mawqif al-Bashar where he says, “It is due to this that the school of al-Ash‘arī has been labeled with moderate determinism (al-jabr al-mutawassiṭ).” Ṣabrī’, Muṣtafa. Mawqif al-Bashar Taḥta Sulṭān al-Qadr, First ed, 56. Cairo: 1933, المطبعة السلفية ومكتبتها

However, elsewhere in his book Ṣabrī argues that this label (of moderate determinism) and the claim that there is no difference between the belief of the Ash‘arī school and the Jabarīs are unjustified. He defends the Ash‘arī opinion by arguing that although the conclusion of the Jabarī and Ash‘arī views may be the same, there is a clear difference between the two views, which is the Ash‘arī affirmation of human will. By affirming that the human being has a choice and his actions are manifested in accordance with it, the concept of compulsion (jabr) is eliminated. For those interested in exploring such nuanced perspectives further, delving into the best Islamic studies graduate programs could provide invaluable insights and resources. He states.

“What occurs is always what Allāh has Willed, and the individual always does that which Allāh has Willed. Although the two schools [Ash‘arī and Jabarī] are in agreement on this conclusion, the differences between the forming [of these opinions] are enormous like [the size of] mountains. Due to these differences no one is justified in considering the Ash‘arī opinion the same as the Jabarī opinion as there is nothing within it [the forming of the Ash‘arī] that may be called compulsion. People act in accordance with their choices, they act according to the principle and path of choice. This is because Allāh has made the human choice the means by which He drives man to perform what He has Willed.” Ṣabrī’, Muṣtafa. Mawqif al-Bashar Taḥta Sulṭān al-Qadr, First ed, 151. Cairo: 1933, المطبعة السلفية ومكتبتها

Shaykh Ṣabrī contends that this position is supported by reason and revelation. The rational argument of al-Rāzī’s mentioned earlier, necessitates the creation of man’s choice by Allāh ﷻ, while there are several verses in the Qur’ān that indicate this as well. From among them is the verse, “And you do not will except that Allāh Wills.” Qur’ān 76:30 Furthermore, the Ash‘arī theologians argue that the compulsion of man’s choice is not unjust. The contemporary Ash‘arī theologian, Dr. Sa‘īd Foudah presents a rational argument to solve the problem of compulsion while maintaining the Ash‘arī position in his Tahdhīb Sharḥ al-Sanūsiyyah. He states, “The Will of Allāh follows His Knowledge that man wants [by his will] to perform an action. He knows this pre-eternally and thus creates for man the will and ability needed for that will.” This explanation seems to be circular, as the cause for man’s will that is known to Allāh is His Will and creation. This is because they define injustice as transgressing upon the property of someone else. However, since the entirety of creation is the property of Allāh ﷻ, it is not unjust for Him to do as He wills in His dominion. Al-Shaykh al-Bājūrī (d. 1276H), the Ash‘arī theologian, states in his commentary on Jawharat al-Tawḥīd, “If it is said, if man is compelled internally then there is no purpose to the apparent choice [that man seems to enjoy]. This is because the action was known to Allāh and therefore had to occur, and He created within man the ability to perform it. My response to this is [the verse of the Quran], ‘He is not questioned about what He does’.” Ibn Muḥammad al-Bājūrī, Ibrāhīm. Tuḥfat al-Murīd, Seventh ed,118. Beirut: 2017, Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyah

The Māturīdī scholars, however, are unsatisfied with this justification as, they argue, it is unbefitting of Allāh’s ﷻ wisdom. As Allāh ﷻ is all Wise, He would not compel man to make certain choices and hold him accountable for them. Hence there must be an alternative way of understanding the origin of human choice that is supported by reason and revelation. The Māturīdī solution to this problem was first developed by Ṣadr al-Sharī‘ah, in his work al-Tawḍīḥ.

Ṣadr al-Sharī‘ah responds to the rational argument of the Ash‘arīs by positing an alternative resolution to the problem of the necessity of the choice’s occurrence by an external cause. He argues that although it is not possible for a merely possible existence to exist without a cause/creator, this does not negate the possibility of man choosing to perform an action without an external cause. This is because the human attribute of will (irādah) is created by Allāh ﷻ with the essential quality of selecting the performance of an action over its nonperformance and thus is capable of making choices without being initiated by an external force. The proof for this is in the example of a man who, while fleeing from a predator, comes upon two paths that are exactly identical. The man necessarily chooses one of the two paths to escape although there is no cause (such as distance, ease, etc.) that causes the prey to choose one over the other. Ibn Mas‘ūd, ‘Abd Allāh. al-Talwīḥ ‘ala al-Tawḍīḥ, First ed, Vol 1, 346. Beirut: 2012, Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyah As such, there is a difference between the existence of a merely possible entity without a cause and a willing-being giving preponderance to one choice over another without a cause, with only the former being impossible. Therefore, it is possible for man to make choices that are uncaused by foriegn affects.

However, this alone does not solve the problem of the resolve requiring a cause to exist by virtue of it being a merely possible entity. Ṣadr al-Sharī‘ah addresses this problem by arguing that the resolve to perform an action is not an entity that exists in reality that is separate from the will. Rather, it is either a rational conception (amr i‘tibārī) or a mode (ḥāl). Since it does not exist or enjoy an extramental existence it does not require a creator. This means that although man makes his own choices, he does not create them. Thus, the problems of infinite regress and preponderance without a cause are resolved without attributing the action of creating to man. Some of the Māturīdī scholars believed that the resolve was an existing entity that was created by the individual. Al-Imām al-Bahārī states in Musallam al-Thubūt, “And to the Ḥanafīs [Māturīdī], acquisition (kasb) is the directing of the created ability towards the firm resolve to perform the action. So it [the ability] has an effect on the resolve that is mentioned, and Allāh creates the action following that [resolve]. It is said that this resolve is a mode (ḥāl) that is not existent or nonexistent so it is not created or originated but is rather a matter of lesser significance. It is also said, nay it exists. If that is the case, then it is necessary to specify the general [texts from Qur’ān and Ḥadīth, that attribute all creation Allāh] to allow for the creation of the resolve [by man].” Among the Māturīdī who believed the resolve was created by the individual was al-Imām al-Kamāl ibn al-Humām as he expressed  in his work, al-Musāyarah  .


Al-Taftāzānī states in his commentary on al-Tawḍīḥ, al-Talwīḥ,

“If it is said, ‘The linkage [or inclination towards the performance of an action] of the will with a merely possible existence [the action] is a merely possible matter. Therefore, it [the linkage of the will or the resolve] is in need of a [necessary] originator. Otherwise, it will lead to infinite regress or necessitate that it exists without an originator [each an impossibility].’ We respond, ‘The will of the will is the will itself, meaning that the will gives preponderance by its essence [meaning the preponderance does not exist as a separate entity in reality] or the linkage of the will does not exist, rather it is a mode (ḥāl). Therefore, the existence of a possible entity without an originator is not necessitated.” Ibn ‘Umar al-Taftāzānī, Mas‘ūd. al-Talwīḥ ‘ala al-Tawḍīḥ, First ed, Vol 1, 346. Beirut: 2012, Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyah. The question on whether al-Taftāzānī adheres to a particular school is a difficult one to answer. This is because there are clearly opposing views and opinions expressed in his works. For example, his commentary upon al-’Aqāid al-Nasafiyyah is mostly written from a Māturīdī perspective, while his work Sharḥ al-Maqāṣid is written from an Ash’arī perspective. Regardless, since he is merely elaborating on the argument made by Ṣadr al-Sharī‘ah in al-Tawḍīḥ, there is not doubt the opinion being expressed here is the Māturidī opinion.

As depicted, the Māturīdīs claim that the resolve to perform an action is not created within man by Allāh ﷻ. Instead, they claim that Allāh ﷻ creates within man an ability to choose (irādah) with which man makes specific choices. These individual choices do not need to be separately created by Allāh ﷻ as they do not exist extramentaly. Despite Shaykh Ṣabrī’s harsh criticism of this argument, whereby he declared it to be more deviant than the belief of the Mu‘tazilah, it is possible for it to be reconciled within the Ash‘arī paradigm. Many Ash‘arī theologians, such as al-Rāzī in al-Maṭālib al-‘Āliyah and ‘Aḍud al-Dīn al-Ījī in al-Mawāqif, argue that preponderance without cause is possible, which is the main premise in the Māturidī argument. A detailed layout of the Māturidī argument can be found in Ṣadr al-Sharī‘ah’s al-Tawḍīḥ and al-Taftāzānī’s commentary upon it. An elaborate presentation of the Ash‘arī argument as well as a rebuttal to the Māturīdī argument can be found in Ṣabrī’s Mawqif al-Bashar.



While the issue of man’s freedom to make choices is central in the discussion of freewill and we will find that in Islamic studies summer programs, the explanation for the problem of identifying the source of man’s resolve remains disputed among Sunni scholars. Both opinions regarding the second problem have been presented in this article in the hope that the reader is able to understand a basic layout of the arguments of Islamic Theologians, gain clarity and insight into how they deal with these issues, and then adopt the opinion that he is most comfortable with as both opinions fall within the realm of Sunni thought. The reality of the matter, however, is only known to Allāh ﷻ.

And Allāh ﷻ knows best.