Human Freedom and Responsibility

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Human Freedom and Responsibility  (1921) 
by Abu Hamid al-Ghazālī, translated by Syed Nawab Ali
Translated in 1921 as part of Some Religious and Moral Teachings.
Human Freedom and Responsibility[1]

Actions are either voluntary or involuntary. The difference between them is not of kind but of degree. Analyse the the process of an involuntary action and you will find that if, for example, a man intends to thrust a needle in your eye or draws a sword to strike on your head, your eye in the former case will at once close and in the latter your hand will suddenly be raised up to shield your head. This prompt action on the part of your eye and hand is due to your consciousness of the evil to be evaded, and this gives rise to volition which moves the eye and the hand without the least delay. There are, however, cases the desirability or rejection of which needs meditation, but the moment mind decides, the decision is carried out as promptly as in the above example. This meditation translated into choice or rejection constitutes will. Now will makes its choice between two alternatives and takes its cue either from imagination or reason. For example, a man may be unable to cut his own throat, not because his hand is weak or a knife is not available, but because will is lacking which would give the stimulus to suicide. For man loves his own life. But suppose he gets tired of his life, owing to having harrowing pains and unbearable mental sufferings. He has now to choose between two alternatives which are both undesirable A struggle commences and he hangs between life and death. If he thinks that death which will put an end to his sufferings quickly is preferable to life with its lingering intolerable pains, he will choose death although he loves his life. This choice gives rise to will, the command to which, communicated through proper channels, would then be faithfully executed by his hand in the manner of suicide. Thus, though the process from the commencement of mental struggle for the choice between too alternatives down to the stimulus to physical action is uniformly determinate there is at any rate a sort of freedom tracable in the will.

Man holds the balance between determinism and freedom. The uniform succession of events is on the lines of determination but his choice which is an essential element of will is his own. Our Ulamas have therefore coined a separate phrase: Kasb (acquisition), distinguishing it from Jabr (necessity) and Ikhtiyar (freedom) They say that fire burns of necessity (Jabr) but man may acquire fire through the appropriate methods, while in Almighty God is the ultimate cause of fire (Ikhtiyar). But it must be noted that when we use the word Ikhtiyar for God, we must exclude the notion of choice, which is an essential element of will in man. Let it be here recognised once for all as a general principle that all the words of man’s vocabulary when used for God’s attributes are similarly metaphorical.[2]

The question may be asked: If God is the ultimate cause why should there be a causal connection in the orderly succession of events? The answer to this lies in the correct understanding of the nature of causation. Nothing causes anything. Antecedents have consequents.[3] God alone is the efficient cause, but the ignorant have misunderstood and misapplied the word power. As to the orderly succession of events, let it be understood that the two events are conjoined like the relation between the condition and the conditioned. Now certain conditions are very apparent and can be known easily by people of little understanding, but there are conditions which are understood only by those who see through the light of intuition: hence the common error of miscalculating the uniformity of events. There is a divine purpose linking the antecedents to the consequents and manifesting itself in the existing orderly succession of events, without the least break or irregularity. “Verily”, says the Quran. “We did not create the heavens and the earth and what is between them in sport. We did not create them both but with truth, but most of them do not know”.[4]

Surely, there is a set purpose pervading the universe. The uniform succession of events is not at random. There is no such thing as chance. Here again it may be asked: If God is the efficient cause, how will you account for actions attributed to man in the scriptures? Are we to believe that there are two causes for one effect? My answer to this will be that the word cause is vaguely understood. It can be used in two different senses. Just as we say that the death of A was caused by (1) B. the executioner, and (2) C the king’s order. Both these statements are correct. Similarly God is the cause of actions as He has creative power and efficiency. At the same time man is the cause of actions as he is the source of the manifestation of uniform succession of events. In the former case we have a real causal connection, while in the latter a relation of the antecedent to the consequent after the manner of the connection between the condition and the conditioned. There are passages in the Quran where the word cause is used in different senses.

“The angel of death who is given charge of you shall cause you to die: then to your Lord you shall be brought back”.[5] “Allah takes the souls at the time of their death”.[6]

“Have you considered what you sow?”[7] “We pour down the water, pouring it down in abundance. Then we cleave the earth; cleaving it asunder. Then we cause to grow therein the grain”.[8]

“Fight them: Allah will chastise them by your hands and bring them to disgrace”.[9] “So you did not slay them, but it was Allah who slew them, and thou didst not smite when thou didst smite, but it was Allah who smote, that he might confer upon the believers a good gift from himself”.[10]

These passages show that the word, cause, signifies creative power, and must be applied to God alone. But as man’s power is the image of God’s power the word was applied to him figuratively. Yet, just as the death of a culprit is caused by the actual killing by the hand of the executioner and not the king’s order, so the word cause actually applied to man is contrary to fact. God alone is the real efficient cause, and the word must be applied to him in its root sense of power.

It may be asked then, why man should be rewarded for his good actions and punished for his misdeeds. Let us consider first the nature of reward and punishment. Experience tells us that things have natural properties and that physical laws operate in a uniform manner. Take, for example, the science of medicine. Certain drugs are found to possess certain qualities. If a man swallows poison of his own accord he has no right to ask why poison kills him. Its natural property has simply operated in his system and caused his death. Similarly actions make an impression on mind. Good and bad actions are invariably followed by pleasure and pain respectively. A good action is its own reward of pleasure and a bad one of pain. The former works like an elixir; the latter like poison. The properties of actions have been discovered, like discoveries in medicine, but by the physicians of the heart, the saints and the prophets. If you will not listen to them you must suffer the consequence. Now hear a parable:

A certain king sent a horse, a robe of honour, and travelling expenses to one of his suzerains in a distant land. Although the king had no need of his services, the royal gift was a favour shown to his suzerain, so that he might come to the king’s court and be happy in his presence. If the suzerain understands the king’s intention from the nature of the gift and utilizes it properly with a grateful heart, he will wait on the king and live happily, but if he misuses the gift or takes no heed of it, he will prove an ungrateful wretch.

It is thus that the boundless mercy of the omnipotent and omniscient God bestowed on us the gift of life, providing us with bodily organs, mental and moral faculties, so that we uplift ourselves by utilizing them properly, and be worthy of being admitted into his holy presence. If we misuse them or pay no regard to them, surely we shall be (Kafirs) (literally “ungrateful”) for his blessings bestowed on us for our good, and thus be doomed.

“Verily,” says the Quran, “we created man in the best make. Then we render him the lowest of the low. Except those who believe and do good, so they shall have a reward never to be cut off”.[11][12]

Original footnotes[edit]

  1. Ihya IV. 5.
  2. It is interesting to note here the following: is age from a modern European author: If we form a conception of a Perfect or Infinite Mind it is in this sense that we must speak of such a mind as free. To speak of choice between alternatives is to suggest that another than the best might be chosen and this would be inconsistent with the idea of perfection.

    A finite mind, limited in knowledge and power and distracted by desires other than the will to goodness, may yet have a partial measure of self-determination which is complete only in the infinite. It is incompletely determined by forces external to itself. And if it stand—as it does stand-between the realm of nature and the realm of goodness, conscious of the good and yet beset by many temptations to fall to a lower level, then the relative independence or partial spontaneity of such a mind may be exhibited in the power to direct its own path toward the goal of goodness or to allow it to lapse into evil. Its freedom will be neither complete independence of external determination nor complete agreement with the ideal of goodness; but it will exclude total subordination to the forces beyond itself, and it will give opportunity for choosing and serving the good. In spite of its restrictions human activity will be recognized as possessing a core of spontaneity”, W.R.Sorley: Moral Values and the Idea of God. Cambridge 1918 pp. 446-7.

  3. Ghazzali here anticipated Hume. “Seven hundred years before Hume, Ghazzali cut the bond of causality with the edge of his dialectic”. Journal of the American Oriental Society. vol XX 103.
  4. Quran XLIV 38, 39.
  5. Quran XXXII 11
  6. Quran XXXIX 42.
  7. Quran LVI 63.
  8. Quran LXXX 25-7.
  9. Quran IX. 14.
  10. Quran VIII 17. This passage refers to the battle of Badr, the first battle of the Prophet. The Muslims slew the enemy but it is affirmed that really they did not slay, but it was Allah who slew them; the meaning apparently being that Allah’s hand was working in the battle, which is also clear from the fact that three hundred Muslims mostly raw and equipped with neither horses nor sufficient arms, prevailed against a thousand of the most renowned warriors who had come to crush the growing power of Islam. ”And Thou didst not smite when thou didst smite”. Ghazzali points out that negation and affirmation for one and the same action throw new light on the nature of causation. Negation affirms God as the efficient and real cause; affirmation establishes man’s free-will faithfully executing divine order.

        * Whose branches are ever shaken by the wind,
        * And whose fruit is showered on the sleeper’s heads.
        * Fatalism means sleeping amidst highwaymen.
        * Can a cock who crows too soon expect peace?
        * If ye cavil at and accept not God’s hints,
        * Though ye count yourselves men, see, ye are women.
        * The quantum of reason ye possessed is lost,
        * And the head whose reason has fled is a till.
        * Inasmuch as the unthankful are despicable,
        * They are at last cast into the fiery pit.
        * If ye really have trust in God, exert yourselves,
        * And strive in constant reliance on the Almighty.
          (Translation by E. Whinfield. Masnavi. 2nd ed. 1898 Bk. I. pp.19-20.)

  11. Quran XCV 4-6. Whether man is by nature good or bad is a question which has vexed great thinkers from ancient times. Various answers have been suggested, which are summed up in three distinct theories:
    1. Evil is innate. Education simply muzzles the brute in man. Civilisation is mere veneering process. This cynical view of human nature is the religion of despair.
    2. Man is neither good nor bad. Mind is a tabula rasa. Good or bad actions leave their impression. Thorns and roses are alike gathered by it.
    3. Good and evil are mixed up in man. He has an angelic as well as a satanic nature. The development of this double nature depends on the force of external circumstances and surrounding influences. Good and evil are like two seeds: whichever is sown and taken care of will grow into a tree
    The Quranic expression: “we created man in the best make” emphasises the purity of his nature. He is born with good and for good, but has to preserve and to develop his goodness to his full capacity in the struggle of life. He has but one seed which is good if it grows and bears fruit it is called goodness; if it be crushed or nipped in the bud it is called evil. Evil, therefore has no separate entity in him, it is simply a negative which will lose his soul and reduce him to the lower depths.
  12. It is interesting to note a parallel passage from the Masnavi of Jal al uddin Rumi, who was born in 1207 ninetyseven years after the death of Al Ghazzali:

        * “When a master places a spade in the hand of a slave,
        * The slave knows his meaning without being told
        * Like this spade, our hands are our Master’s hints to us;
        * Yea, if ye consider, they are his directions to us
        * When ye have taken to heart His hints,
        * Ye will shape your life in reliance on their direction;
        * Wherefore these hints disclose His intent,
        * Take the burden from you, and appoint your work,
        * He that hears it make it hearable by you,
        * He too is able to make it within your ability.
        * Accept his command and you will be able to execute it
        * Seek union with Him, and you will find yourselves united.
        * Exertion is giving thanks for God’s blessings;
        * Think ye that your fatalism gives such thanks;
        * Giving thanks for blessings increases blessings
        * But fatalism snatches those blessings from your hands
        * Your fatalism is to sleep on the road; sleep not
        * Till ye behold the gates of the King’s palace.
        * Ah! sleep not, unreflecting fatalists,
        * Till ye have reached that fruit-laden Tree of Life.
          E. Whinfield. trs. Masnavi.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).