The Sharing Group Discussion: The Problem of Omniscience & Free Will

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

Brother Chris Hutchinson posted this on The Sharing Group, on the 13th June, 2015: “This question has probably been asked numerous times so I am sorry if you have to explain once again, but since it occurred to me, I am yet to find a satisfactory answer by any monotheist sect.  My question is, if God is Omniscient, and therefore not limited by the boundaries of time; He then Knows everything even before it happens.  This is why most people agree that things are ‘written’ as God Wills.  Therefore, God would Know whether or not someone would accept His Message before He even Created them.  And if a person ultimately ends up in Hell, then it would be fair to say they were ‘destined’ for that fate before they had even been born since God knows Everything and is not bound by time. 

So then, why would God Create a person, if he knew the life choices they were going to make beforehand would lead them into a life of sin and punishment in the Hereafter?  People say that ‘knowing something is going to happen does not necessarily take away that persons free will’.  But the point remains, why Allow such a thing to happen when God could have just not created that person in the first place?  If a doctor were to inform me that, should my partner and I conceive a child, then it would have a very short and painful life, would we carry the pregnancy to term in the first place, thus avoiding a life of no benefit for that child? 

Thank you for taking the time to consider my question.  I am not trying to be provocative and ‘disprove’ anyone's theories.  I just want to understand for my own peace of mind.” 

Brother Colin Turner: Omniscience has nothing to do with free-will.  Just because I know you are going to do something does not mean that you are forced to do it.  Even if I know from pre-eternity that you are going to crash your car tomorrow, my knowledge is in no way coercive: that has to do with Divine iradah and qudrah.  Furthermore, knowledge depends on the thing known; the thing known does not depend on knowledge.  So my knowledge of your future car crash depends on that crash; it is not that the crash depends on my knowledge. 

Sister Nur Nadiah Zailani: Tentatively my view in technical terms: if you have sat in a multiple questionnaire paper examination, in it will be choices which you are to choose which is the right answer. A, B, C, or D.  In human terms, there is only one correct answer.  While you do the paper, you are aware that the examiner is the one who sets the paper, testing you to find out your level of knowledge you have obtained from lessons.  The examiner knows well which is the right answer, but gave you the free will  and choice to use what was given to you previously.  Only when the paper has ended and results are tabulated will you know which you got right.  Similar in that sense, my assumption is that life is for us to create an awareness of God’s Presence, discover God, and apply what was learnt through the “multiple choices” God Gives.  Similar to the a human examination, it depends on the level of knowledge you have.  You may never know which is the right answer until the test is over.  The best way to know what is good or right is to constantly self-reflect and use whatever knowledge and experience you have to apply it to your today and in the future.  Ultimately, you will only know when the examination is over. 

Brother Colin Turner: The problem, Sister Nur Nadiah Zailani, is that many of us conflate God’s Omniscience with His Will.  Many of us think that God’s Knowledge of our future must mean that this future is Imposed upon us against our will.  Of course, this is a fallacy: knowledge does not determine the future; it is will and power which do that. 

Sister Samra Hussain: But what about Divine Intervention?  For example, one man sets out to murder someone and God Sends someone or something in motion whereby the man has a change of heart, and seeks Forgiveness and changes himself.  In another case, a man sets out to murder, and he ends up committing it without any hindrance, and therefore, damns himself to Hell.  Why would God Save one person from Hell and Damn another one to Hell and then hold that person responsible? 

Sister Nur Nadiah Zailani: Sister Samra Hussain, your sentence sounds speculative.  My question to your example would then be: how would you know if God has not “set up something in motion” prior to the guy committing the act “without any hindrance”.  And how would you know that the guy is “Damned to Hell”?  We would not know if God Forgave him nearing his end of life. 

Brother Chris Hutchinson: I appreciate all of your answers.  To analogise it in the form of an examination, where the examiner knows the answers but the student does not is interesting.  But for this to work, the examiner would also have to know which answers the student is going to give.  He would also have this knowledge before designing the exam, and if; he designed the exam in such a way he knew from foresight which answers the student would give, he would know whether or not the student would fail, and ultimately; have designed a test in which the student could not have passed. 

Although I agree that knowledge of something does not determine the outcome of that event, and therefore, we still have the free will to make that choice, nevertheless God would have known all along that the said event was going to happen, and that through our own free will we have chosen the wrong path.  My question here, is why would God Create a person only to allow them to fail?  Say I can see the future, and I know someone will be in a car crash, my knowledge of that has no effect on their free will to be involved in that crash.  But, if I were the Creator of this scenario, then I would have Created a scenario knowing that it was going to happen. 

Sister Samra Hussain: I know there is no guarantee they will go to Hell.  But it is possible that they could go to Hell whereas the other person would be saved from it because God Intervened in the act? 

Sister Nur Nadiah Zailani: Brother Chris Hutchinson, personally though, I would still favour the part on God is Most Gracious, Most Merciful, hence our perceptions of “wrong path” and “fail” might be flawed. 

Brother Colin Turner: Sister Samra, there is no such thing as Divine Intervention as such.  God’s Creation of our acts depends on our intention; it is not arbitrary on His Part. 

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: In tawhid al-af’al, Allah (s.w.t.) is the Originator of all acts.  We do not own them.  We own only our intentions.  Imam Ja’far ibn Muhammad asw-Swadiq (q.s.) said that that we have the intent to do something, such as the intention to cross the river.  But it is God Who Determines the outcome.  Coming back to Divine Decree, God’s Knowing of Outcomes does not preclude our free will.  Our Creation is itself a Rahmah.  Anything more is Divine Generosity. 

Sister Jacqueline Tiefert: Imam Ja’far asw-Swadiq (q.s.) said, “It is neither determination nor free will, but something between the two.”  Man is mukhtar, free, in his actions but not mustaqil, independent.  Further explanation: for each act, there are countless causes that set up for it.  Each part of the cause provides the appropriate measure for the effect.  Man has the possibility or free will to perform the act.  The necessity existing in the relation between the action and all of the parts of the cause does not mean that the relation of the action to some of the parts of the cause, of which man is one, should also be that of necessity and determinism.  For example, when a man takes a bit of bread, he needs not only the instruments of his hands, feet, mouth as well as knowledge, power, and will, but also the existence of the bread in the external world, its availability, the lack of obstacles and other temporal and spatial conditions. 

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: The entire issue of Decree is very difficult to understand. One of our limitations is that we are temporal being, whilst God is Eternal.  What we see as  past and future does not Exist in the Divine Sight.  Perhaps it would help us to understand the conundrum if we went back to the basics and looked at it from that perspective.  God is Eternal.  Creation is not.  He is the Originator of every act.  As such, we have no say in Creation.  That is why we are Judged on our intentions, not our acts.  Our acts never actually belonged to us. 

Since God is Omnipotent and Omniscient, He cannot be moved by Creation in any way.  If your supplication can move Him to act, there are two inadequacies in the Divine.  The first is that He can be influenced.  That means He is no longer in Command.  Secondly, that would imply there is something he does not know that needs to be addressed.  That would mean He is not Omniscient.  Since both are impossible, we have to consider another perspective.  God is not in need of our asking in order to Grant.  As such, He has already Decreed from the very beginning our sustenance and its measure, and it is perfect.  So what is the need of supplication?  Supplication is for our benefit so that we may be unveiled to His Immensity, His Generosity and His Gentle Caress.  The need of ‘ibadah is to recognise who is al-Ghany and who are the fuqarah. 

In the beginning, He Said He would Create His vicegerent, because it was His Desire that He be known, a Hidden Treasure Unveiled.  And He Called forth the Children of Adam in ‘Alam Alastu bi Rabbikum: 

سُوۡرَةُ الاٴعرَاف

وَإِذۡ أَخَذَ رَبُّكَ مِنۢ بَنِىٓ ءَادَمَ مِن ظُهُورِهِمۡ ذُرِّيَّتَہُمۡ وَأَشۡہَدَهُمۡ عَلَىٰٓ أَنفُسِہِمۡ أَلَسۡتُ بِرَبِّكُمۡ‌ۖ قَالُواْ بَلَىٰ‌ۛ شَهِدۡنَآ‌ۛ أَن تَقُولُواْ يَوۡمَ ٱلۡقِيَـٰمَةِ إِنَّا ڪُنَّا عَنۡ هَـٰذَا غَـٰفِلِينَ (١٧٢) 

When your Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam― from their loins― their descendants, and made them testify concerning themselves, (Saying), “Am I not your Lord (who cherishes and sustains you)?” ― They said, “Yea!  We do testify!”  (This), lest you should say on the Day of Judgement, “Of this, we were never mindful.” (Surah al-A’araf:172) 

On the Day of Judgement, we will be asked the same thing.  Some will acknowledge and some will rebel.  The ones who rebel are distant, astray and adversaries of the Divine Plan.  They are.  The ones who acknowledge are muslimin. 

The next point then, is why would He Allow rebellion?  It is through this free will that He Demonstrates His Overwhelming Majesty and Mercy.  We must consider that the fish must leave the ocean to see the water.  We live in a realm of relativity as opposed to the Divine realm of Absolutes.  As such, we can only know obedience through rebellion, peace through conflict and knowledge through ignorance.  But we must never believe that the negative traits have an actual independent reality. 

This comes down to the problem of evil.  If God is Omnibenevolent, why allow evil then?  The fact of evil creates a problem for belief in an Omnibenevolent and Omnipotent God.  Christian theologians have argued that though evil is present, it is not strong enough evidence to suggest that God is not Omnipotent and Loving.  The simplest contentions is that God has Reasons to permit evil, meaning there is a hidden Divine Wisdom.  This is a type of greater good response.  Greater good responses justify evil in the world by claiming that they are necessary for God’s Plan, which is ultimately good.  Another answer is the free will response.  Some Christian theologians argue that if God prohibited one evil, then He would have to prohibit them all, curtailing free will.  This is not acceptable in Islam since it supposes an inadequacy in His Creation or His Sovereignty. 

Christian Gnosticism is a heresy who collectively see evil as due to the world being created by an imperfect god, the demiurge, which is contrasted with a superior entity.  But this does not answer the problem of evil if the superior entity is Omnipotent and Omnibenevolent.  Different gnostic beliefs give varying answers.  Manichaeism adopts dualism, in opposition to the doctrine of omnipotence. 

Irenaean theodicy was posited by Bishop Irenaeus and reformulated by Dr. John Harwood Hick.  It holds that one cannot achieve moral goodness or love for God if there is no evil and suffering in the world.  Evil tempers the soul, leading to Divine closeness.  It states God Created an epistemic distance.  Since God is not immediately knowable, so that we may strive to know Him and become truly good.  Evil is a means to good through three things.  It is knowledge.  For example, hunger leads to pain, and causes a desire to feed.  Knowledge of pain prompts humans to seek to help others in pain.  It is through character building since evil offers the opportunity to grow morally.  And it is through a predictable environment.  Natural evil only occurs when these natural laws conflict with our own perceived needs.  There is no immorality. 

Islam’s conception of the problem of evil is similar to Judaism, in that it is careful not to attribute creation to other than God.  But since God is ultimately Omnibenevolent, He does not create evil.  Evil is how we perceive things since Divine Justice is overwhelming.  The main conceptions of God and the problem of evil in Islam are found in the Mu’tazilah, the Ash’ari and the Maturidi.  Every school of theology essentially falls within these three positions. 

The Mu’tazilah emphasised God’s Omnibenevolence.  As such, they believe that evil arises not from God but from the actions of His Creations who create their own actions independent of God.  This is considered a heresy and rejected by the Ahl as-Sunnah wa al-Jama’ah since in the doctrine of tawhid al-af’al, God Alone Originates actions in Hiss Creation.  The Ash’aris emphasised God’s Omnipotence. God is not limited to an objective moral system centred on Man.  As the Qur’an States many times, He has the Power to exercise His Will without limit.  “Evil” is our inadequacy in accepting and understanding His Will and Decree, but we believe that His Intent is always good.  The Maturidi have a variation of this position.  They contend that “evil” arises from God but that “evil” has a wiser purpose as a whole and for the future.  It is “evil” in our perception.  As such, evil has not reality.  Evil arises from the lack of realisation, awareness and God-consciousness. 

In the case of the person who is bound for the Fire, there are three positions.  The first is that the Condemned go in and abide within eternally, and the second position is that amongst the sinners, the Muslims come out eventually.  This is the jumhur position of the classical scholars and Imam Abu al-Hasan Taqi’ ad-Din ‘Ali ibn ‘Abd al-Kafi’ as-Subki (r.a.) stated that disbelief in this is kufr.  And the final position is that Hell is not eternal, and this is the position of Shaykh Taqi’ ad-Din Ahmad ibn ‘Abd al-Halim ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.), Imam Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn ‘Utsman al-Hujwiri (q.s.) and a few others.  Imam Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Isma’il al-Ash’ari (r.a.) himself said that there are those who are Sent to the Fire without hope of Salvation. 

There is an atsar on the authority of Sayyidina Abu Bakr ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Utsman asw-Swiddiq (r.a.) that I know of. One of the few places that it is mentioned is in Kashf al-Mahjub of Imam al-Hujwiri (q.s.).  In it, Sayyidina Abu Bakr asw-Swiddiq (r.a.) said that there will come a time, when the gates of Hell will be hanging on their hinges and Hell will be like a wheat field that has been mown, empty.  It references the hadits of when the Prophet (s.a.w.) spoke after the Isra’ wa al-Mi’raj, where he explained his shafa’at. 

In that hadits, the Prophet (s.a.w.) described the different categories of people who are Removed from the Fire through the intercession of the Prophet (s.a.w.), the other prophets, the pious, the parents, the children, the single dzurrat of faith until there remains those in the Fire who have not even that, not even a moment where they remembered God.  The Prophet (s.a.w.) said that there would still be multitudes in the Fire.  And then Allah (s.w.t.) will Decree, “Remove from the Fire those which the Hand of God can Hold.”  And that is understood to mean that all are Removed.  By then, the fires would have burned to embers and these souls will be like ashes. 

The Prophet (s.a.w.) said that these souls will be Thrown into the River Ridhwan and there they will reform again.  And Allah (s.w.t.) will Ask the same Question that was Posed to us when he Drew Forth and Assembled the Children of Adam in ‘Alam Alastu bi Rabbikum: “Am I not your Rabb?”  And they will finally acknowledge. 

Brother Chris Hutchinson: I must say, Brother Terence, this has been a very enlightening read.  If there were any truth behind the idea that the hellfire may not be eternal after all; then this would take precedence over my question.  I also agree that while human beings have a limited capacity for understanding, we have to accept that God knows that which we cannot possibly understand, he is morally superior, and is therefore just.  It is kind of like how a toddler would think it is unfair that they cannot eat chocolate for every meal, but the parent, knowing what is good for the child, feeds the child broccoli instead.  As the child becomes an adult and understands more, they realise just how caring the parent was.


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