Predestination and Free Will in Islam and Christianity: A Comparison

People the world over like to know about ultimate meaning in life. They want to know whether God exists, whether life has some ultimate end-goal (i.e., telos), whether there is life after death, etc. But if God—whichever God that may be—exists, they want to know whether He/She/It influences their lives. If God is driving history—all history—to some greater ends, some yet-to-be-seen Grand Finale, where is God now in all this? If there is some sort of final end point at which God is driving all history, how is God accomplishing all that in the here and now? To put the related question in different terms: is God influencing
my day-to-day existence? If so, how much of the influence is out of my control (that is, am I being predestined?) and how much of my life is of my own free will (that is, free of God’s, or anybody else’s, control)? Both Islam and Christianity attempt to address that issue. Both have things to say about predestination and free will. And, finally, both, I dare say, do not offer an absolute, universally agreed upon answer. What we have are various attempts at answering the question. We have various ways both Islam and Christianity attempt to make sense of both God’s omnipotence and humankind’s autonomy. In a world which appears hectic, inexplicable, utterly evil, and full of useless suffering, people everywhere ask the question: where is God in all this? Am I damned to suffering? Did I create this hell I’m living in? Was it chance? I will begin by looking at Islam’s attempt to answer some of these questions. After looking at Islam, I will look at Christianity’s response to the issue. Finally, I will compare and contrast the two religions, and, ultimately, offer my own theological reflections.

Islam on Predestination and Free Will

Islam teaches that Allah created the world out of water (30:21) and humans out of clay (32:7). (It should be noted that some commentators combine the different statements and amalgamate the texts to teach creation from both water and clay.) Humankind, then, is seen as a creation of Allah. Being Allah’s creation, Allah had given guidance to humankind—from Moses’s Decalogue, to Jesus’ Beatitudes, to Muhammad’s final miracle: the Quran, the concrete guide for all life on earth. In the Quran one finds what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself”; the Quran is the epitomizing definition of Jesus’ teachings. The devout Muslim sees the Quran as the inspired word of Allah. By it he lives, breathes, and guides all his actions. But from whence do these actions arise? Does Allah cause a man to be a good Muslim or does a man simply, on his own, using rational reason, choose to follow Allah (by means of following the Quran)? A devout Muslim, naturally, would, again, turn to the Holy Quran for guidance. What does the text say about Allah’s will and how it relates to humankind?

There are numerous verses in the Quran that speak precisely to this issue. In 18:28, for example, the Quran states:

And keep thyself with those who call on their Lord morning and evening desiring His goodwill, and let not thine eyes pass from them, desiring the beauties of this world’s life. And follow not his whose heart We have made unmindful of Our remembrance, and he follows his low desires and his case exceeds due bounds.[1]

The verse addresses, paradoxically, both issues. On the one hand, Allah is commanding the readers to follow those who are desiring His goodwill. This implies that humans have the ability both to hear the word of Allah and do it. However, in the second part of the verse, notice the paradoxical phrase “[a]nd follow not his whose heart We have made unmindful of Our remembrance.” So Allah is the one who, like the YHWH of Exodus, “hardens the heart” of Pharaoh. So do those who do evil have a choice? I mean, the text does say that “We have made unmindful” of the commands of Allah those who are evil. (The “we” is known as a “royal plural,” which is used in Semitic languages when a king or a god speaks, even though the speaker is singular.) What appears to be most mind-boggling is the following verse, which continues the illogical paradox:

And say: The Truth is from your Lord; so let him who please believe, and let him who please disbelieve. Surely We have prepared for the iniquitous a Fire, an enclosure of which will encompass them. And if they cry for water, they are given water like molten brass, scalding their faces. Evil the drink! And ill the resting-place!

Not only do the evil have Allah (We=Allah) intervening and causing them to be “unmindful,” they also have Allah serving them canisters of molten brass! In an understandable move, the sectarian[2] commentator Mualana Muhammad Ali refrains from commenting on predestination and free will in both verses; however, to his credit, he does elaborate theologically on the torments of the Quran’s “hell.”

These two verses from Surrah 18, known as The Cave, are not the only ones one finds about predestination and free will. In 76:29-30 the Quran states:

Surely this is a Reminder; so whoever will, let him take a way to his Lord. And you will not, unless Allah please. Surely Allah is ever Knowing…

Here, again, one finds two apparently contradictory ideas being made back-to-back. On the one hand, Allah is allowing the readers to “take a way”; on the other hand, you will not actually will to do anything unless Allah allows you to will. So who or what is ultimately responsible for humankind’s actions? If those who choose the wrong path are ultimately caused by Allah to make that evil choice (and are later punished for it), why are humans responsible for their evil actions? In this case, Muhammad Ali is somewhat helpful. “The meaning is that true and sincere believers have so completely submitted themselves to the Divine will and are so completely resigned that they have no desires of their own, and all their desires are in accordance with Allah’s pleasure.”[3] Muhammad Ali is on the free will side in his commentary (in opposition to a deterministic interpretation). He argues that “man has not been constrained by God to adopt a particular course, whether for good or for evil.”[4]

Are we even reading the same text? Because I am honestly baffled. Does he ignore Allah’s complete and sovereign omnipotence? Al-Ajurri, for example, disagrees with Muhammad Ali. He takes a strong deterministic (=predestination) interpretation. The renowned Islamic theologian Binyamin Abraham writes concerning al-Ajurri, “[W]hen dealing with the problem of predestination and free will, al-Ajurri is very careful to select verses which fit his doctrine of predestination which is very probably dictated by the traditions.” [5]Abrahamov sees this sort of theologizing as being more grounded in Hadith and tradition rather than Quranic theology. Al-Ajurri virtually ignores verses that contradict his deterministic view of history. Verses such as 2:26, 14:27 and 40:74, all which tend to emphasize human free will, are ignored. For example, 2:26 reads:

…Then as for those who believe, they know that it is the truth from their Lord; and as for those who disbelieve, they say: What is it that Allah means by this parable? Many He leaves in error by it and many He leads aright by it. And He leaves in error by it only the transgressors.

Muhammad Ali, commenting on this verse, writes: “It is a plain fact that Allah guides people or shows them the right way by sending His messengers, and therefore He could not be spoken of as leading them astray.”[6] By “plain fact” what Ali really means is “that which accords with my own opinion.” As is evident, people like al-Ajurri vehemently disagree (and rightly so!). The Quran does speak of predestination, whether you like it or not. In fact, al-Razi, a 13th century Islamic philosopher, “considers the Qur’an a weak device for attaining certainty with regard to theological problems in general and on the issue of predestination in particular.”[7] More pointedly, he considers such verses as “contradictory.” Despite these contradictory verses, al-Razi believes the Qur’an is inspired with mere uncertainty regarding such peripheral matters as predestination and free will. Here is certainly an interpreter one can respect. A man who calls the bluff on those who believe they have found a “solution.” He says it clearly: no certain solution exists.[8]

“Free will inside a radius of determined environment creates an obscurity,” wrote L. Housman.[9] Despite all of these problems, some scholars and theologians continued trying to figure out Quranic theology on this issue. Abd al-Razzaq wrote that “the act, which is decided upon, is free; but in so far as the totality of causes, named the complete cause…its production is determined.”[10] If I understand him correctly, using what seems to be Aristotelian philosophy, al-Razzaq is suggesting the nuanced but absurd idea that individual acts are “free,” whereas their collective totality is somehow predetermined. That is, while I may choose freely different routes to drive home (individual actions) the fact that I arrive at home is determined (i.e., this being the “complete cause”). Allah is in charge of “complete causes”; I am in charge of choosing freely. This really pushes the problem forward. One could then ask, what point is all of my free will (let us say that I am attempting to lead a peaceful life), if Allah had already predestined me to some murderous “complete cause”? Am I really free to lead a peaceful life if I had been predetermined to murder somebody at some final point?

Against the above view, another theologian, Wasil b. ‘Ata, offers a different approach:

“The Creator Most High is wise and just, so that it is impossible to attribute to Him evil, or wrong, or that He will for His creatures the opposite of what He commands, and judge and punish them for that. The creature is the doer of good and evil, belief and unbelief, disobedience or obedience, and is requited for his action. The Lord Most High has enabled him…for it.”[11]

In this view, it appears that Allah had made man rational, he is able to competently do the good or the evil. Given this presupposition, humankind is then judged accordingly. God is not responsible for where humans ultimately end up. All evil is on their hands.

With all of these various approaches, where does that leave the devout Muslim, the one who is aching and pining away in the trenches of existential reality? Is he or she responsible? Allah? Both?

I do not think that Quranic theology gives us a concrete answer. As we will later see, in Christianity one is faced with relatively similar problems. Theologians there have come up with ingenious ways of “solving” the issues.



Christianity: Free Will and Predestination

Christianity presents us with problems very much similar to problems examined earlier in Islam. Predestination and free will feature much in today’s Christian discussions. In fact, in my experience, whether one has any theological training or not, almost everybody has an opinion on this issue. As Adam Neder once said, “There’s good theology and there’s bad theology, but there’s no such thing as no theology.” Growing up, I found passages such as Exodus 9:12, where the Lord hardens Pharaoh’s heart, perplexing.

וַיְחַזֵּ֤ק יְהוָה֙ אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֲלֵהֶ֑ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶֽׁה

“And YHWH made strong the heart of Pharaoh and he did not listen to them [and] the word which YHWH said to Moses.”

While we all know the ending of the story—Pharaoh ends up drowning in the waters of the Reed Sea—not all of us think about the potentially implied injustice being done: God punishes Pharaoh after “hardening” his heart. The question then becomes: is God responsible for Pharaoh’s death? There seems to be one potential catch here, however. The word commonly translated “hardened” is the Hebrew word חָזָק (“to make strong, harden”), occurring in the intensive Piel verbal form. Using some liberty, one could paraphrase the text to read: “YHWH made Pharaoh’s heart firm in its own resolution.” That is, YHWH merely made firm that which was already present in Pharaoh’s own heart. In this translation, Pharaoh is not seen as being controlled entirely by YHWH; YHWH is merely making firm that which already there.

While many, if not most, lay readers see this passage as ultimately describing YHWH’s sovereign reign over humanity (he is the one totally in charge of your destiny), passages like 2 Kings 20 seem to add more confusion to the mixture. In this text, Hezekiah prays to YHWH after he is told that he would die. YHWH had decreed Hezekiah’s coming death. Hezekiah responds with petitioning YHWH and YHWH ends up “changing his mind.” Hezekiah, in the end, ends up living fifteen additional years. Here, at least in this chapter, biblical theology points in the direction of free will. For his acclaimed book—being endorsed by the likes of OT scholar Walter Brueggemann and the philosopher C. Stephen Evans—Gregory Boyd begins discussing “open theism” with this passage.[12] He argues that God chooses not to know outcomes and allows humans to exercise complete and total free will. This view, however, does not dismiss God’s sovereignty (God is seen as ultimately giving up his power in a sacrificial, Christ-like manner). Open theism is essentially an “open view” of God—God has left the future completely open. He does not “know” it.

In opposition to this view is the so-called classical view, popularized by John Calvin. In this view, God does not change throughout eternity, neither does his knowledge change, his will change, nor any past, present or future outcomes. Everything is set in stone in unchangeable eternity. God is impassible, too. (In ironic contrast to Christ’s humiliation on the Cross.) God is not affected by human petitions in any real sense (they really don’t change what the Islamic scholar called the “complete cause”). Summarizing this view, Boyd writes: “[W]hatever takes place in history, from events great significance to the buzzing of a particular fly, must take place exactly as God eternally foreknew it would take place.”[13] In the classical view, God’s foreknowledge determines the future (Augustine and Calvin) or, according to Arminius, the future determines God’s foreknowledge. In the end, both takes of the classical view result in a set future. One way or another, God had predetermined a certain occurrence of events. The open view accepts some claims of the classical view, disagreeing that all the events are known and controlled. For example, one could know that tomorrow one would go to the dentist at ten o’clock. Knowing this (a set future) does not mean that one “knows” everything that would take place in between now and the future. The open view, therefore, cherry-picks from several approaches and creates a synthetic approach that makes (almost) everybody happy. One could think of Deuteronomy 30:19, which reads, implying free will, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life (NRSV).” But how does the open view, in which free will is given almost complete free reign, deal with biblical texts that make the future set in stone?

In Isaiah 46:9-10, YHWH declares that he declares “the end from the beginning and from the ancient times things not yet done.” Christ’s ministry itself was “destined before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20, NRSV). While there are multitudes of such passages that deal with this issue, these select and concrete verses do reflect the totality of the views in the Bible; that is, these verses give us a taste of both extremes. For example, the open view interprets Isaiah 46 as essentially saying that God, in knowing what he wills to bring about, will have his way with many uncontrolled, unknown factors. Taking Romans 8:28 seriously, one could argue that God is the one who is “working all things for the good.” God is not saying that all things are good—He is saying that, in this chaos, that is his goal (i.e., the accomplishment of that which is good [the “complete cause”]). He guides history where he wants it, working within a chaotic and unset system. In fact, as Boyd points out,[14] a God capable of dealing with chaos is a much greater being than the being Calvin believes in—a detailed perfectionist incapable and incompetent in dealing with chaos and free will.

Furthermore, take Jeremiah 18:7-10, for example.

If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it (NIV).

As plain as day, God is “relenting,” or, to accurately reflect the Hebrew term, “repenting.” God is changing his mind, so to speak. While this, in fact, is the straightforward reading of the Hebrew text, Calvin and the classical theologians used ingenious ways to make the text say something it never said. They “usually argue that texts that attribute change to God describe how he appears to us; they do not depict God as he really is. It looks like God changed his mind, but he really didn’t.”[15] The problem with the classical view, whichever form it appears in, is impossible to disprove. With all the weasel-wording, distortion of ancient texts, and hedge-creation, it is simply impossible to disprove the classical view. “Suppose, for the sake of argument, that God wanted to tell us in Scripture that he really does sometimes intend to carry out one course of action and that he really does sometimes change his mind and not do it. How could he tell us this in terms clearer than he did in this passage?”[16] Well, reading the Bible, one should get the impression that God changes his mind and that the future is not—entirely—set (cf. Gen. 6:6-7; Ex. 32:14; 33:1-3, 14; Deut. 9:13-29; 1 Samuel 2:27-31; 1 Kings 21:21-29; 2 Chronicles 12:5-8; Jer. 26:2-3; Ezekiel 4:9-15; Amos 7:1-6; Jonah 3:10; and scores of other passages).[17]

How then does one go about dealing with the issue of predestination and free will? Personally, I am not sure that the Bible gives us a clear picture. While the verses dealing with an open view (in favor of free will) completely outnumber, anecdotally, verses that imply or support predestination, one is still left quite baffled by the texts when viewed as a whole. For these and other reasons, I believe it is probably safe to say that while an open view may have me and some philosophers happy, it certainly isn’t the final word that is to be said regarding Christianity and its stance towards free will and predestination.

Concluding Remarks

In this brief look at a relatively basic approach towards the issue of free will and predestination in both Islam and Christianity, we can easily see many similarities. Both religious traditions have unanswered—and maybe even unanswerable—questions. Both appear to suggest, at least tentatively, the existence of both predestination and free will. Both may even allow the two to exist in tension. However, both also have unresolved issues; things that many a theologian and philosopher will probably continue to dispute for many years to come.


[1] The Holy Quran: With English Translation and Commentary, trans. Maulana Muhammad Ali, new 2002 ed. (Ohio: Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at Islam Lahore Inc., 2002).

[2] Going with the Lahori-Ahmadi creed, Ali did not accept miracles, had an immense hatred for the West, Christianity and Judaism, all features which I, the subjective reader, can attest to being found in his notes, translation and commentary. Most Muslims do not like this particular translation. However, it is the definitive translation to those of us in America, since a large Muslim population here belongs to the Ahmadi sect. Moreover, as a final remark, I do not believe this particular translation skewed the texts that I will be dealing with.

[3] Mualana Muhammad Ali in The Holy Quran: With English Translation and Commentary, 1163.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Binyamin Abrahamov, “Theology,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Quran, ed. Andrew Rippin (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 424.

[6] Mualana Muhammad Ali in The Holy Quran: With English Translation and Commentary, 16-17 (26b).

[7] Binyamin Abrahamov, “Theology,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Quran, 429. Italics mine (added for emphasis).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cited in William Thomson, “Freewill and Predestination in Early Islam I,” The Muslim World, 40: 207–216. 207.

[10] Ibid., 207.

[11] Ibid., 211.

[12] Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 7.

[13] Ibid., 22.

[14] Ibid., 128-129.

[15] Ibid., 77. Italics original.

[16] Ibid., 77-78.

[17] Ibid., 83-87 and 157-169.

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