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Free Will in Isma‘ili Shi‘sm

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Free Will in Ismaili Shi'ism

Free will versus predestination was an important theological debate, with political implications, in Muslim society dating back to Omayyad times. The Ismailis adopted an intermediate position in thes debate and eventually accommodated the relevant issues within their theological doctrines. At one extreme, a variety of Islamic movements and schools of thought espoused the predestinarian view, initially designated as Jabriyainfo-icon, holding that man's deeds as well as good and evil resulted from God's decrees and pre-ordination. At the other extreme, there were those, originally designated as Qadariya by their opponents, who recognised the freedom of human will and the individual's moral responsibility for his deeds. Both the Jabriya and the Qadariya based their arguments on verses from the Koran that supported their views, By early 'Abbasid times, the Mo'talzilites took over the Qadarite belief in human free will and argued that man can establish the truths of religion on the basis of reason, without any need of divine guidance. In other words they held that God in the Islamic revelation had shown the believers the "right path" for attaining salvation and reward in paradise, and had then left it to man to determine rationally what was good or evil. Thus, man's ultimate destiny as a rational and free agent depended on himself. However the majority of Sunni traditionalists, representing the mainstream of Muslim thought, eventually rejected Qadarism and adopted a form of predestinarianism as propounded by Ash'arism.

The classical Ismaili view in this theological debate dates to the 4th/10th century, the early Fatimid period of Ismaili history. The earliest evidence for the "intermediate" Ismaili position may be found in the numerous extant works of the da'i Abui Ya'qub Sejestani (see Walker, 1993, pp. 107-42). Similar "intermediate" views, rejecting both jabrinfo-icon and qadarinfo-icon, were expounded by the foremost Fatimid jurist Qazi No'man (Majales, pp. 377-82), and the da'i Hamid-al-Dininfo-icon Kermani (fols. 151-52), culminating in the writings of Naser-e Kosrow (died after 465/1072). These Ismaili authors drew on their earlier Imami Shi'ite heritage, especially the doctrine of the Imamateinfo-icon which articulated the permanent need of mankind in all spiritual matters for divine guidance. Indeed, it was the standard view of the early Imami Shi'ites that God does determine the course of events at any time, but He has not pre-ordained it, and that He has not created man either as an infidel or a believer without responsibility for making choices. The Imami position itself, representing an intermediate position between constraint (jabr) and empowerment (qadar), is attested to by a Hadithinfo-icon reported from Imaminfo-icon Ja'far-al-Sadeq (d. 148/765). Concerning human will versus predestination, the Imam had said "la jabr wa la tafwiz [qadar] wa laken amr bayn amrayn" (see Kolayni, I. pp. 159-60). Naser-e Kosrow refers to this very Hadith in elaborating his own "intermediate stance in this debate ( 1998, text, pp. 74-75, tr., pp. 113-14).

The Ismaili da'is and authors of the Fatimid period further elaborated the earlier Imami views on the debate in question in their complex metaphysical systems of thought, holding that both the Jabrite and the Qadarite positions were rooted in a misunderstanding of Koran and, indeed, the immutable spiritual truths (haqa'eq) of religion. By emphasising a fundamental distinction between the exoteric (zaher) and the hidden esoteric (baten) dimensions of religion, the Ismailis from early on argued that these religious truths concealed in the baten, transcend human reason. As a result, man solely by his own efforts could never comprehend these truths and rationally choose the "right path" to salvation, even though he is endowed with the gift of the intellect and is free to make certain choices. According to Ismaili Shi'ite theology, the knowledge of the religious truths (haqa'eq) is available only to those infallible (ma'sum) authorities who are "firmly versed in knowledge" (al-rasekun fi'l-'elm); they alone truly understand the real meaning of the Koran and the commandments and prohibitions of the sacred law of Islam (sari'a) and can, thus, act as trustworthy guides, interpreting through ta'wil or esoteric exegesis the true spiritual message of the Islamic revelation (Qazi No'man, Da'a'em, I. pp. 22-24; Kermani, fols. 134, 144-45; Mo'ayyad fi'l-Dininfo-icon Sirazi, I, pp. 276, 452-53; Naser-e Kosrow, Wajh-e din, pp. 11-14: Walker, 1996, pp. 26-83; de Smet, pp. 350-77).

In the era of Islam, the required authoritative guidance in religion would be provided initially by the Prophet Mohammad, and then by his wasi, or legatee, 'Ali b. Abi Taleb, and subsequently, until the end of time, the rightful Imams in 'Ali's progeny - the Imams acknowledged by the Ismailis. More than any of his Ismaili predecessors, Naser-e Kosrow dealt with this theological issue (see also his Diwaninfo-icon, pp. 21-22; Jame'al-hekmatayn, pp. 135-44; Zad al-mosaferin, especially pp. 430-86). All the major Ismaili authors of the Fatimid period held that man's destiny is not predestined as, in a sense, he is responsible for choosing between good and evil. However, they also refuted the Qaqarite position by believing that man by himself is not capable of making the right choices rationally for moving along the spiritual ladder of salvation towards knowing God and his own origins in the universe because he lacks the required knowledge. In every age or dawr (q.v.), therefore, man is in need of the guidance of a divinely-appointed and protected hierarchy of authoritative teachers - the prophet and after him the rightful Imam of the time. In its classical statement, Ismaili theology, thus, remained essentially revelational rather than rational, despite its promotion of a personal quest for knowledge and the importance attached to philosophical inquiry by many learned Ismaili theologians.

Later, the inadequacy of human intellect ('aqlinfo-icon) in knowing God and the necessity at all times of an authoritative teacher (mo'allem-e sadeq) for the spiritual guidance of men were restated by Hasan-e Sabbah in terms of the doctrine of ta'lim, or authoritative teaching, which provided the basis for all the Nezari Ismaili teachings of the Alamutinfo-icon (483-654/1090-1256) period and subsequent times. Similar views, always pointing to an "intermediate" solution, were later expressed by Nasir-al-Din Tusi (d. 672/1274) in his spiritual autobiography, Sayr wa soluk (text, pp. 4-5, 17-19, tr. pp. 27-29. 47-50), written while he was in the fortress communities of the Nezari Ismailis of Persia.


Abu Ya'qub Sejestani, Ketab al-yanabi', in H. Corbin, ed., Trilogie Ismaélienne. Paris and Tehran. 1961, pp. 1-97 (text); tr. in P. E. Walker, The Wellsprings of Wisdom. Salt Lake City, 1994, pp. 37-111.

Hamid-al-Din Kermani, Tanbih al-hadi wa'i-mostahdi, MS London, The Institute of Ismaili Studies Library, Ar. 723.

Abu Ja'far Mohammad Kolayni, al-Osul men al-Kafi, ed. 'A.-A. Gaffari, Tehran, 1381/1961.

W. Madelung, "Aspects of Ismaili Theology," in S. H. Nasr, ed., Ismaili Contributions to Islamic Culture. Tehran. 1977, pp. 53-65: repr. in idem. Religious Schools and Sects in Mediaeval Islam, London. 1985, article XVII.

Mo'ayyad fi' l-Din Sirazi, al-Majales al-Mo'ayyadiya, I. ed. Hamid-al-Din, Bombay, 1395/1975. Naser-e Kosrow, Divaninfo-icon, ed. M. Minovi and M. Mohaqqeq, Tehran, 1353 S./1974.

Idem, Gosayes wa rahayes, ed. and tr. F. M. Hunzai as Knowledge and Liberation, London, 1998. Idem, Jame' al-hekmatayn, ed. H. Corbin and M. Mo'in. Paris and Tehran, 1953.

Idem, Wajh-e din, ed. G.-R. A'wani, Tehran, 1977.

Idem, Zad al-mosaferin, ed. M. Badl-al-Rahman, Berlin, 1341/1923.

Nasir-al-Din 'Tusi, Sayr wa soluk, ed. and tr. S. J. Badakhchani as Contemplation and Action, London, 1998.

Qazi No'man b. Mohammad, Da'a'em al-Eslam, ed. A. A. A. Fyzee, Cairo, 1383/1963.

Idem, Ketab al-majales wa'l-mosayarat, ed. H. Faqi et al., Tunis, 1978.

D. de Smet, La Quiétude de l'intellect: Néo-platonisme et gnose ismaélienne dans l'oeuvre de Hamid ad-Din al-Kirmani, Louvain, 1995.

Paul E. Walker, Early Philosophical Shi‘isminfo-icon: The Ismaili Neoplatonism of Abu Ya'qub al-Sijistani, Cambridge, 1993.

Idem, Abu Ya'qub al-Sijistani: Intellectual Missionary, London, 1996.

(Farhad Daftary and Faquir M. Hunzai)

Daftary, Farhad and Hunzai, Faqir M. "Free Will in Isma‘ili Shi‘sm". In Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. X, Ed., Ehsan Yarshater, Bibliotheca Persica Press, New York, pp. 202-205


The different views on freedom of human action in Shiainfo-icon traditions stem from the saying of Imaminfo-icon Jafar al-Sadiq. The Mutazilites, Jahmites and the Ithna Ashari schools have evolved their views on Free Will according to varying emphasis on 'al jabar' or 'al tafwiz' from al-Jafar's saying.

The Ismaili view on Free Will takes the intermediate position between constraint (jabar) and empowerment (qadarinfo-icon). It emphasises the permanent need of mankind for divine guidance.

Key Words

Jabar, Tafwiz, Jafar al-sadiq, Moallem-e sadeq

The different views on freedom of human action in...