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Understanding the Qur’an (Episode 5: God’s Sovereignty)

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As many of you know, the focus of much of my writing is on the divine sovereignty versus human free will problem. One of my life goals is to bring a deeper understanding of this subject to people who are interested in matters of faith and spirituality.

While I have written extensively on the subject of free will in relation to the Christian faith, I have said little on the subject in relation to Islam, because I only began studying the Qur’an fairly recently. In this post, I will offer a few short reflections on God’s sovereignty and free will as these subjects are portrayed in the Qur’an.

In the Bible, there are many passages which describe God’s sovereignty over all events. I invite you to read my post entitled God’s Sovereignty in Scripture for an overview of some of the key biblical scriptures that portray God’s control of all things. I have for many years argued that human beings do not have free will, and I believe a strong argument can made for our lack of free will if we understand God’s omnipresence — an idea which, when taken in a literal way, makes free will an impossibility.

From the perspective of my own philosophy, any sense of freedom we have is what I term a ‘mode of mind’ under God’s control. God sometimes makes us forget about Him, and causes a veil over our awareness of Him so that we may forget about Him. This happens to people of faith in certain situations (perhaps, for instance, when one is focused on working or on some other activity) and is an acute reality in the case of life-long atheists, who may never have an awareness of God. Nevertheless, even when the veil is present, God is still in control of every detail of our lives; it’s just that the reality of this can be hidden from our minds.

The fact that God is in control of all events, and that there is no free will, should be a central concern for people of faith. I encourage you to read my book God’s Grand Game for a detailed examination of the subject. In the book, I describe how we might understand religious ideas such as divine command and obedience, sin and judgement, prayer and response, etc, if we don’t have free will. While God’s Grand Game focuses primarily on Christianity, many of the arguments that I make about free will in the book are directly applicable to Islam and other religions.

Let us look at a few scriptures from the Qur’an that are interesting in relation to the divine sovereignty versus human free will problem.

God controls everything.

(Surah 4:85)

It’s important to point out this statement from the Qur’an, which does of course simply and concisely express my own view of reality, which is that God is in control of everything that happens. However, as is the case with the Bible, in the Qur’an we find certain scriptures that appear to complicate matters.

God does not guide the mischief of the treacherous.

(Surah 12:52)

Without the need for too much explanation, it should be obvious from the above two quotations that there is a contradiction here. How can it be the case both that God controls everything, and that God doesn’t control the actions of those who behave in a treacherous way? This seeming contradiction appears in both Christianity and Islam, and is a key focus of the philosophical perspective I present in God’s Grand Game.

A related subject is that in both Christianity and Islam we find a duality; that good things come from God and bad things are the result of human beings acting wickedly, either by themselves or under the auspices of Satan. Below are two quotations from the Qur’an which reflect this idea:

Anything good that happens to you [Prophet] is from God; anything bad is [ultimately] from yourself.

(Surah 4:79)

We said, ‘Adam, live with your wife in this garden. Both of you eat freely there as you will, but do not go near this tree, or you will both become wrongdoers.’ But Satan made them slip, and removed them from the state they were in.

(Surah 2:35-36)

Many Christians who haven’t read the Qur’an may find it surprising that we find the story of the Fall of Man in the Qur’an, described in a similar way as we find the story in the Old Testament. For those who weren’t aware, there are very many stories from the Bible that are paralleled in the Qur’an, including for example the story of Noah and the flood, Moses and the Exodus, and many others.

The important point for our purposes is to understand that just as Satan is portrayed as being responsible for evil in the Bible, he is likewise portrayed in that way in the Qur’an. The point that must be made, though, is that if God is in control of everything, then God is ultimately in control of all of Satan’s actions, and so we must understand both those things which are considered good and those things which are considered evil to be fully under God’s control.

The last scripture I will quote (another scripture that parallels the Bible) is from Surah 28. The scripture interests me because it puts salvation entirely in the hands of God, which is something many Christians also believe is the case.

Your Lord creates what He pleases and chooses those He will—they have no choice—so glory be to God, and may He be exalted above the partners they ascribe to Him!

(Surah 28:68)

The phrase in the above verse which is important for our purposes in this article is ‘they have no choice’, a clear indication that the Qur’an teaches God’s absolute sovereignty in salvation. This could lead me to engage in a lengthy discussion about predestination, but I would prefer to discuss this as a separate subject in another article on another day.

In conclusion, what I have argued in this article is that in the Qur’an we find the seemingly incompatible ideas of God’s control over all events, and the idea that God doesn’t guide evil actions. While this is obviously contradictory, we can make sense of the contradiction if reality is viewed as a kind of cosmic playground in which God gives the illusion of free will in order to further the storyline of the game of life He is unfolding in accordance with His masterful and mysterious plans.

We do not, in reality, have free will, but in the Scriptures of the Abrahamic religions, the relationship between mankind and God is sometimes presented as though we do. The solution to this problem is the illusory nature of human freedom, which is part of God’s plan, and which I describe in much greater detail with all its implications in God’s Grand Game.

To see all posts in this series, click here.