Ibn Arabi on free will

The source: Futuhat al-Makkiyah

Sufi scholar and mystic Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi’s life can be divided into two eras; the first spent in his birthplace Andalusia, and the second spent traveling around the East. His major work Futuhat al-Makkiyah, or the Meccan revelations, is a culmination of thought influenced by his Eastern tour, where he performed the Islamic pilgrimage for the first time, met other scholars like Jallaludin Rumi, and narrowly escaped persecution by a judge in Cairo.

By Ibn Arabi’s own account, the Futuhat was the offspring of both concentrated study and mystic revelations. As a Sufi, Ibn Arabi was greatly influenced by the belief that the Quran possesses esoteric interpretations. These were considered to be experiential in nature and were said to lead to a deeper understanding of Islam.

In this way, Ibn Arabi takes an esoteric lens to the Quran and sunnah (examples from the Prophet’s life). By doing so, he developed theological ideas which were completely new and thought-provoking for his time. They provided a rich theological background for Islam, and will continue to be crucial for a modern understanding of the faith.

Nowhere is this as apparent as in his commentary on free will, which has emerged as one of the most intensive treatments of the subject in the Islamic tradition.

Free will: an enduring paradox

Free will is a concept which is antithetical to our prevailing ideas about the universe. After all, we live in a scientific era where all phenomena are relegated to the power of empirical description and prediction. In this respect, why should our brain processes — which give rise to all our thoughts and actions — be any different?

This problem has been argued pretty convincingly by the neuroscientist Sam Harris, who is quick to remind us that our will is the product of unconscious influences which we’re largely unaware of. But he doesn’t need to get his hands dirty with psychoanalysis to prove his point: all he needs to do is show that the brain itself is comprised of molecules, and molecules follow natural laws. Where then, he says, can there emerge any ‘freedom’ in the matter?

From a religious perspective, we can at least attest to the existence of a soul: something that rises beyond its material constitution to be considered the source of pure freedom. But this doesn’t get rid of the problem of free will, because we also have to deal with an omniscient and omnipotent God. How could the existence of such a figure, who presumably has full knowledge and power over his plan for the universe, be reconciled with the free will of mankind?

This is a uniquely vexing problem in the Islamic tradition. The Quran features many verses which give us startling ideas about the relationship between God and mankind. Take verse 30 of surah al-Insan:

وَمَا تَشَاءُونَ إِلَّا أَنْ يَشَاءَ اللَّهُ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلِيمًا حَكِيمًا

You do not will except that Allah wills: indeed he is ever knowing and wise

Many other verses echo this paradoxical notion. But so far, this is all perfectly in line with the Islamic concept of predestination. In fact, we can use our new vocabulary from last week and ask the question this way: how could mankind be capable of truly free choices when our actions are already present in the preserved tablet?

The creative versus obligating command

Ibn Arabi develops a solution to this apparent paradox by distinguishing between God’s creative command and God’s obligating command.

The creative command is the existential decree God, which creates the universe itself. It is the decree of the God who “says ‘be!’ and so it is” (36:82). This realm evolves by the rules of natural law.

Alternatively, the obligating command is the dimension of belief, faith, and salvation. It reflects the idea that we are always free to accept God at any minute, that there is nothing ‘too damning’ to be transcended by God’s grace.

The obligating command also houses the ‘righteous path’, which both believers and non-believers are (somehow simultaneously) bound to. According to Ibn Arabi, it is our subjugation to the obligating command which, paradoxically, exercises the free will of mankind. If we were only subject to the creative command, we would be no different than objects following their prescribed course through the laws of the Universe. But our ability to know God and follow him introduces the dimension of free will.

Dual-aspect will

In the introduction, we saw that Sufism involves an esoteric understanding of the Quran. This has been symbolized by God’s title as the batin, or unseen aspect. This is in the overall spirit of Sufism, and indeed mystical theologies in general, to attest to a ‘dual-aspect’ of religious symbols. For example, Mohammad himself can be considered a fierce lawgiver or contemplative saint: the Quran can be considered a legal document as well as spiritual guide.

This is also what Ibn Arabi brings to the philosophical notion of free will. The relationship between the creative and obligating commands reflects this dual-aspect nature, where our will is tied up with God’s will. This does not imply that we do not have free will: but it does imply that, as humans, we are limited to the ‘seen’ aspects of the will that operates in the universe.

Creative capacity

It is said that the Western political system, one of the freest and most productive in human history, is based on so-called Judeo-Christian values. Central to these is the idea echoed early in the Bible:

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Genesis (1:27)

This is often cited as a precursor to the idea that all men are created equal, since we all share this divine fashioning. But this sense of commonality is not limited to Christians: for Ibn Arabi, the creative capacity offered by the obligating will is exactly what a Christian might mean by a ‘soul’.

For example, Ibn Arabi might have understood Genesis (1:27) to mean also that humans possess a kind of creative capacity that reflects our own divine constitution. This would be his position on free will: that it’s something we ‘partake in common with’ the divine.

Next time

Here, Ibn Arabi’s thoughts on free will lead us to even more interesting conclusions. This is because for the Sufis, there is a universal as well as particular aspect of the divine. This concept will be the topic for next week!

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