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Philosophical libertarianism and Islam

In my search in early Islamic intellectual history I noticed that early interpretations about free will were philosophically libertarian. In a free will context, “Libertarian” means the position that human beings have true free will, and a rejection of determinism. Pre-Islamic Quraysh, on the other hand, were hard determinists. They even commonly blamed their own immorality and excesses on fate. The Umayyads (direct as well as cultural descendants of Quraysh) would later seek to promote hard determinism under various guises. Umayyads (especially in their middle period) referred to fatalism in order to justify their own tyranny and to discourage rebellion.

Among the earliest “heretics” killed by the Umayyads was Ghaylan al Dimashqi, who was previously in the employ of Umar bin Abdulaziz. Umar bin Abdulaziz had tried to reverse the Umayyad trend, and appointed Ghaylan to return Umayyad family largesse back to the people. Ghaylan was both harsh and upfront about his despise and disgust with Umayyad excesses. After Umar’s death he “had to go”. So Umar’s successors accused Ghaylan of being a “Qadari” (that he didn’t believe in predestination) and tortured him to death for heresy. Till today he’s often referred to as “Ghaylan al Qadari”, although he almost certainly did not reject “qadar” (God’s power on all things). If he had really been a heretic, Umar bin Abdulaziz (who was very selective) wouldn’t have put him in such a high position. But then again history is written by the victors, and Ghaylan’s story was written not by him but by those who put him to death for heresy.

However it seems quite plausible (indeed very probable) that Ghaylan did indeed take a libertarian position on free will. Interestingly, this is the position attributed to Ali bin Abi Talib, and is the general position adopted by Shia and Mu’tazilites. Meanwhile, “mainstream” Sunnis adopted a sort of hybrid compatibilism, which tries to reconcile hard predestination with free will.

I was today through a notebook of hand-written notes from my Salafi period (around 2006), I had attended a lecture on this very subject. It’s amazing that today I disagree with most of what I wrote back then. Although even back then I admitted a lot of that didn’t make sense. Anyway I remain interested to see if this trend repeated anywhere else – tyrants promoting a fatalistic, hard-determinism free will view.