The following is a short essay I wrote for a friend who was debating with a Muslim. I've included the small note that I wrote to her, because it serves as an introduction to the essay itself.
Determinism in Islamic Theology
The Absolute Predestinationism of Islamic Theology
The author of the text concerning the nature of predestination in Islam needs to look more closely at the problems inherent within the Ash'arite "Theory of Acquisition (kasb)," which basically says that Allah is the creator or cause of all things and actions, including human actions, and that man only acquires these predetermined acts. The Ash'arite theory is an attempt to say that man, although not the cause of an action is somehow responsible for the action through a process of acquisition, but this idea defies reason. If Allah is the creator or cause of the action, and man is predestined to commit the act, no theory of acquisition can legitimize the punishing of a man for an action that he was compelled to make, and which he clearly lacked the freedom to avoid. Of course this problematic theory was promulgated by one of the greatest of the early Islamic theologians, a man named al-Ash'ari, and by the members of his orthodox school of theology.
Al-Ash'ari (died A.D. 935) was originally part of the Mu'tazilite movement, which of course accepted the doctrine of man's free will, and which also taught the heresy that the Qu'ran is not eternal and uncreated. Eventually, al-Ash'ari rejected the Mu'tazilite position, both on free will and on the nature of the Qu'ran, because he held that neither position was founded upon Qu'ranic revelation itself, but that both ideas were actually founded upon Greek philosophical rationalism, and so they should be rejected by every pious Muslim. Now the Ash'arite theory holds that Allah is not only the creator of the action (i.e., the object of the act), but that He is also the creator of the power or capacity in man to acquire the act. Now this created capacity empowers man to acquire the action that was itself preordained by Allah, but it does not empower man to acquire that predetermined action's opposite, and so man is compelled to act and can only act in one way. In other words, the created capacity to act does not give man the freedom to choose between various possible courses of action, but enables him to acquire only the act that was preordained by Allah from all eternity. So, Allah creates both the capacity to act and the action itself and man cannot do anything else but that which Allah has preordained for him to do. Al-Ash'ari sets down how acquisition is to be understood: (1) the power to acquire an action does not subsist normally in man, (2) the created power to acquire does not endure beyond the act acquired, (3) the created power to acquire the predetermined action is created simultaneously with the act itself, (4) the created power to acquire is attached to only one object, i.e., only one predetermined action, and thus cannot be used to do anything except that which was preordained by Allah, and (5) both the power of acquisition and the acquired act itself are properly acts of God alone, and not of man. (see, al-Ash'ari, Kitab al-Luma; Juwayni, Irshad)
As the creed of al-Ash'ari clearly states, "We hold that there is no creator except Allah, and that the acts of human beings are created and decreed by Allah, as He said, 'Allah has created you and what you do' [37.96]; and we also hold that human beings are unable to create anything but are themselves created; as He said: 'Is there any creator other than Allah?' [35.3]; and: 'Those to whom they call apart from Allah created nothing and are themselves created' [16.20]; and: 'Is He who creates as he who does not create?' [16.17]; and: 'Or were they created from nothing, or are they creators?' [52.35]. This thought occurs frequently in the Book of Allah [i.e., the Qu'ran]." [Watt, Islamic Creeds, p. 42] The Ash'arite theory is basically an evasion of the real issue and thus solves nothing. If Allah is the cause of man's actions, and also the cause of the acquisition of the acts, then it follows that man is not responsible for either his good or evil actions.
Two other prestigious theologians in addition to al-Ash'ari dealt with this issue, and they are, al-Ghazali and Ahmad ibn Hanbal. Their views are also considered to be a part of the orthodox Sunni Islamic position on the matter. Al-Ghazali (A.D. 1058-1111), who lived just over a century after al-Ash'ari, was a prominent jurist in Islamic law who later became a mystical theologian. It is important to note that he also, like al-Ash'ari and other Sunni Ulema, rejected the Greek rationalism that Avicenna (ibn Sina) had put forward in his philosophical works, including his views on human free will. Al-Ghazali pointed out the disconnect that exists between Islamic philosophy, which was too dependent on Greek philosophical reasoning, and Islamic theology, which was based on the sources of revelation (the Qu'ran and the Hadith), and thus he rejected the views of the Islamic philosophers as incompatible with revealed truth. Al-Ghazali thought that reason was dangerous, and that it could undermine piety.
Although al-Ghazali in minor details modifies the orthodox Ash'arite position, he changes nothing of substance. He, like al-Ash'ari, rejects the idea that there can be intermediate causes, and thus he holds that all things and actions are created by an act of Allah's will alone. Al-Ghazali, like all his predecessors in the orthodox tradition of Islamic theology, teaches that Allah creates the power to act in the human agent while simultaneously creating the object (i.e., the action in itself) as well, and this makes man nothing more than a puppet doing things (good or evil) that have been predetermined by Allah. Concerning freedom of choice on the part of man al-Ghazali says that ". . . everything is due to the creation of Allah, for the choice itself is also due to the creation of Allah and man is forced into the choice which he makes." [al-Ghazali, Ihya]
In opposition to this idea, the Mu'tazilites claimed that man is an autonomous agent who is able to create his own acts, but of course their position was held to be heretical by al-Ghazali and the Ash'arites before him. For al-Ghazali Greek philosophical speculation and human reason itself must always be subordinated to the Qu'ranic revelation that Allah is the sole creator of both things and actions. Now, it is important to note that both al-Ash'ari and al-Ghazali were following in the footsteps of the most influential theologian of the 9th century, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who of course is the source of the Hanbalite school of jurisprudence and theology in Sunni Islam.
Ahmad ibn Hanbal (A.D. 780-855) had been persecuted during the reign of the Caliph al-Ma'mun for defending the orthodox belief in the uncreated and eternal nature of the Qu'ran, and also for holding the orthodox view that Allah necessarily creates all things and actions, and which as a consequence involves the negation of human free will. The proponents of the unorthodox position on both these matters were the rationalist Mu'tazilite heretics, and a smaller group known as the Kadarites. The actions of Caliph al-Ma'mun in support of the Mu'tazilites ultimately backfired and so the events of the 9th century signal the end of the Mu'tazilite movement as an influential force in the development of Muslim beliefs, and at the same time signals the triumph of Sunni Orthodoxy, which as I pointed out, held that the Qu'ran is eternal and uncreated, and which also held that Allah is the sole creator of all things and actions. It follows from this second point that everything (including human actions) is created by Allah and is thus predetermined by Him, and that there are not intermediate or secondary causes.
As the longer version of the Creed of Hanbal declares: "The predetermination of everything is from Allah, both of the good and the evil, of the little and the much, of what is outward and what is inward, of what is sweet and what is bitter, of what is liked and what is disliked, of what is fine and what is bad, of what is first and what is last. It is a decree He has decreed and a predetermination He has predetermined for human beings. Not one of them opposes Allah's will or does other than His decree; but all of them come to what He has created them for and fulfill what He has predetermined for them to do. This is justice on His part. Adultery, theft, wine-drinking, homicide, consuming unlawful wealth, idolatry and all sins come about by Allah's decree and predetermination, without any of the creatures having an argument against Allah, although He has a conclusive argument against His creatures. He is not questioned about what He does, but they are questioned. The knowledge of Allah is efficacious in respect of His creatures by a volition from Him. He has known the sin of Satan and the others who sin against Him -- and He is being sinned against until the coming Hour -- and He has created them for that. He knows the obedience of the people of obedience and has created them for that. Everyone does what he was created to do, and comes to what was decreed for him and known about him. Not one of them opposes Allah's predetermination and His will. Allah is the doer of what He decides on and the accomplisher of what He wills. If anyone supposes that for His servants who sin against Him Allah wills good and obedience, and that the human beings will for themselves evil and sin and carry out what they have willed, then that person has supposed that the will of human beings is more effective than the will of Allah. And what is a greater lie against Allah than this?" [Watt, Islamic Creeds, p. 33] The Creed of Hanbal goes on to point out that it is a form of idolatry for a man to say that any action, good or evil, is not from Allah as to its source. Thus adultery, theft, murder, all sins and all good actions as well, are predetermined, caused, and created by Allah, and thus man cannot avoid his fate in these things.
So, the Kadarites (a.k.a., the Qadarites) and the Mu'tazilites, the two early Islamic groups that held that man had the ability to act freely, were both condemned for their teachings on free will by the greatest theologians of the formative period of Islamic thought on these matters, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, al-Ash'ari, and al-Ghazali. The orthodox Ulema also rejected the philosophical views of ibn Sina (Avicenna) and the later views of ibn Rashd (Averroes) on free will, so to quote them as a source, since they were philosophers and not theologians, is disingenuous to say the least. Their views were condemned by Orthodox Sunni Islam more than 800 years ago.