Lesson 16: The Divine Will and Decree

One of the Attributes of Perfection of God is that of will (irādah) and decree (mashiyyah), as Al-murīd (the Desirous or Willing) is considered one of the Divine Names. In the Holy Qur’an, the words mashiyyah, irādah and al-murīd have not been used for God, but in many verses the phrases shā’ Allāh, yashā’ Allāh, arād Allāh, aradnā, yurīd Allāh, and nurīd have been used.

In view of these action words, the attributes of mashiyyah and irādah and the nouns shā’ī (decree-giver) and murīd can be abstracted and used as the Attributes and Names of God. In addition, the usage of the said Attributes and Names can also be found in Prophetic traditions.1

Some theologians have regarded will and decree as an attribute while others have treated them as two separate attributes, and something has been transmitted regarding the dimensions of the difference between the two.2 What can be inferred from the Qur’anic usages of these two words is that mashiyyah is only used in cosmic (takwīnī) matters while irādah is used in cosmic as well as legislative (tashrī‘ī) matters. Keeping in view the totally of [relevant] verses of the Qur’an and traditions, it can be argued that with respect to God, irādah and mashiyyah refer to an attribute.

Some Views on the Essence of Will

Different views have been expressed by philosophers and theologians on the essence of will (irādah) with respect to God and whether it is one of the Attributes of Essence or one of the Attributes of Action:

1. God’s will in relation to His Actions (cosmic will) is identical with the origination of actions and His will in relation to human actions (legislative will) is the command to execute the actions.

Shaykh al-Mufīd3 has subscribed to this view.4

‘Allāmah al-Ṭabāṭabā’ī who has also regarded the cosmic will of God as one of His Attributes of Action has said, “The will which is attributed to God is abstracted from His Action or from the Action itself which is realized outwardly, or from the total realization of the Action.”5

2. The cosmic will of God means His knowledge that the action which is consistent with order is the best. This view is popular among the Muslim philosophers.6

3. The cosmic will of God means His knowledge that an action encompasses what is good for the human beings and all other creatures. The Mu‘tazilah and Imāmiyyah theologians who advocate this view call this knowledge as dā‘ī (motive).7

4. The will of God is an attribute separate from His knowledge, power, and Attributes of Essence, and it is among the Essential and Eternal Attributes of God. This view is acceptable to the Ashā‘irah.8

5. The will of God is an Essential Attribute distinct from other Essential Attributes, and at the same time, it is contingent (ḥādith). Its state is either contingent in essence as claimed by the Karrāmiyyah group,9 or contingent neither in essence nor other than essence (ḥādith lā fī maḥall) as described by Abū ‘Alī and Abū Hāshim.10

6. Irādah is one of the Attributes of the Divine Essence, but it has negative sense; that is, the agency (fā‘iliyyah) of God is not based on compulsion or forgetfulness (conscious and volitional).

This view has been adopted by Ḥusayn al-Najjār, a Mu‘tazilī theologian.11

7. The essence of irādah is exaltation (ibtihāj) and contentment (riḍā’), and it is divided into two, viz. essential (dhātī) and active (fi‘lī) irādah:

The essential exaltation and contentment is the essential will while the active exaltation and contentment is the active will (irādah-ye fi‘lī). Since God is Pure (ṣirf) and Absolute (maḥḍ) Being, He is essentially elated (mubtahij bi ’dh-dhāt), and His Essence is being Self-contented (essential contentment (riḍā’ bi ’dh-dhāt equals essential will (irādah-ye dhātī)).

Meanwhile, essential exaltation and contentment necessitates exaltation and contentment in the stage of action, for “Whoever loves something loves its effects” (that is, exaltation and contentment in the stage of action equals active will (irādah-ye fi‘lī)). Muḥaqqiq al-Iṣfahānī, better known as Kampānī,12 has subscribed to this view.13

Assessment of the Views

The first view which has regarded irādah as only an Attribute of Action is consistent with some traditions transmitted from the pure Imāms (‘a) about the Divine will and decree. We shall elaborate later.

The second and third views have consensus in interpreting irādah to mean the eternal knowledge of God. Yet, they also differ [in the detail]; in the second view, irādah is interpreted to mean knowledge of the best order while in the third view, it refers to knowledge of the exigency of the action. The second view is compatible with the criteria of discursive intellect (‘aql-e naẓarī) while the third view is harmonious with the standards of practical intellect (‘aql-e ‘amalī). The discussion on the excellence of order belongs to the sphere of theoretical intellect while the discussion on the exigency of an action pertains to the domain of practical intellect. We shall review these two views later.

No explanation or justification of the fourth view has ever been transmitted, and it has been put forth as a mere claim. A review of it shall be made after the following examination.

While considering irādah an Essential Attribute of God, the fifth view has treated it as contingent (ḥādith). It is evident that pre-existence (azaliyyah) and contingency (ḥudūth) cannot go hand in hand.

The sixth view is also unacceptable because irādah is one of the Positive Attributes (al-ṣifat al-thubūtiyyah) and not one of the Negative Attributes (al-ṣifāt al-salbiyyah). Therefore, it must be not identified as a Negative Attribute.

The point of strength of the seventh view is in interpreting irādah in the realms of Essence and Action. Yet, the problem with this view is in treating the concepts of exaltation (ibtihāj) and contentment (riḍā’) as identical with those of will (irādah) and decree (mashiyyah), and interchanging the two concepts is similar to interchanging knowledge and power, which is inadmissible. In addition, traditions stipulate that irādah is contingent and one of the Attributes of Action, and not an Attribute of Essence.

An Examination and Analysis

The criterion for proving the Positive Attributes with respect to God is that an attribute which exists from the perfections of the Being by Himself (the Absolute Being) exists in God in the most perfect and complete manner, for it is impossible for God who is the Necessary Being to have no existential perfections.

However, some attributes are perfections of a particular being and not by the Being that exists by Himself; for example, seeing by means of the faculty of sight, ability to walk [by feet], and the like (from among the perfections of the natural creatures). Such existential perfections cannot be established for God because doing so necessitates corporeality (jasmāniyyah), movement, change and other attributes of deficiency which are concomitant with contingency (imkān) and insufficiency.

Meanwhile, the way of knowing whether an attribute is one of the perfections of the Self-existent or one of particular existential perfections (natural creatures) is to take away contingent (imkānī), physical (māddī) and natural (ṭabī‘ī) traits from it. The concept which remains after the purging is one of the Attributes of existential perfection [of the Absolute Being].

However, if the essence of the said attribute also ceases to exist after purging those traits, it follows that the said attribute is one of the perfections of a particular being and not the Self-existent. For example, knowledge in the human being has some characteristics and after purging knowledge of those characteristics, nothing remains except discovery (inkishāf) and presence (ḥuḍūr). That is, the reality of the known (ma‘lūm) before itself is discovery and presence, and this is the truth of knowledge. We can establish this truth for God.

Now, if we apply this method to irādah, we will find out that no other attribute will remain except free-will (ikhtiyār). The essence of irādah in the human being is a mental (nafsānī) state which is derived from knowledge and desire (shawq). This mental state is only necessary in relation to the actions of the limbs (af‘āl-e jawāriḥī), and not necessary with respect to inward actions (af‘āl-e jawāniḥī) which include irādah. That is, irādah is one of the voluntary actions of the self (nafs) but it is not precedented by itself. Meanwhile, once an action is materialized, irādah ceases to exist whereas the attribute of free-will remains the same prior to, during, and after, an action.

From the above analysis, it can be inferred that what is one of the Attributes of Perfection for the Self-existent is the attribute of ikhtiyār and not irādah, and that which is an Essential Attribute is ikhtiyār and not irādah. It is true that irādah can be abstracted from the stage of action, just as the attributes of rizq (sustenance) and al-rāziq (the Sustainer) are abstracted from the stage of action.

The totality of the causes and preliminaries of the action are attributed to God (relative to the agent or mover) as well as to action (cause and effect relationship). In the context of the first relationship, God is called Al-murīd (the Willing and Desirous One) and the Divine Will is abstracted, while in the context of the second relationship, the action is God’s object of will (murād).14

It is worth mentioning that the present discourse pertains to the derivation of the essence of irādah from knowledge or power, and not the unity of its manifestations as the Divine Unity in the Attributes demands. For example, the concept or essence of power is not identical with the concept or essence of power, although they are the same for being among the manifestations of the Divine Essence.

The Divine Will as Described in Traditions

As we have said earlier, irādah has been regarded in the traditions (aḥādīth) as one of the Attributes of God’s Action, thereby stipulating its being contingent (ḥādith). Interpreting it to mean eternal knowledge is equally negated [in the traditions]. Now, we shall quote below some examples of pertinent traditions:

1. Muḥammad ibn Muslim reported that Imām al-Ṣādiq (‘a) said:

ألمَشِيَّةُ مُحْدَثَةٌ.

“The will [of God] is contingent.”15

2. In a tradition transmitted by Ṣafwān ibn Yaḥyā from Imām al-Kāẓim (‘a), after stating the characteristics of irādah in the human being and that these characteristics are impossible with regards to God, the Imām (‘a) has said:

فَاِرادَةُ اللهِ هِيَ الْفِعلُ لا غَيْرُ ذلِكَ، يَقولُ لَهُ كُنْ فَيَكونُ.

“The will of Allah is the action itself and nothing else. He say, ‘Be’ and it is.”16

3. ‘Āṣim ibn Ḥamīd asked Imām al-Ṣādiq (‘a), thus: “Has God been the Desirous (al-murīd) from eternity?” The Imām (‘a) replied:

إنَّ المُريدَ لا يَكونُ إلاّ لِمُرادٍ مَعَهُ، بَل لَّمْ يَزَلْ عالِماً قادِراً ثُمَّ أَرادَ.

“Indeed there cannot be the Desirous (al-murīd) without the object of desire (murād). Instead, He has been all-knowing and all-powerful from eternity and then He willed.”17

4. Bakīr ibn A‘yan asked Imām al-Ṣādiq (‘a), “Are the knowledge and will of Allah identical or distinct from each other?” The Imām (‘a) replied:

“[His] knowledge is different from [His] will on account of which we say, ‘I will do something if Allah wills,’ and we do not say, ‘I will do something if Allah knows.’ Thus, that we say, “If Allah wills” shows that He has not desired prior to this. Whenever He desires something to materialize, it will materialize the way He wants it, and the knowledge of Allah precedes His will.”18

5. Imām al-Riḍā (‘a) is reported to have said:

ألْمَشِيَّةُ وَالْإرادَةُ مِنْ صِفاتِ الْأفْعالِ.

“The decree and will [of God] is among the Attributes of Actions.”19

6. In his debate with ‘Imrān the Sabian, Imām al-Riḍā (‘a) has said:

وَاعْلَمُ أَنَّ الْإِبْداعَ وَالْمَشِيَّةَ وَالْإِرادَةَ مَعْناها وَاحِدٌ وَأَسْماؤُها ثَلاثَةٌ.

“And know that origination, decree and will have the same meaning and they have three names.”20

7. In a long debate between Imām al-Riḍā (‘a) and Sulaymān Marwazī, the renowned Mu‘tazilī theologian of Khurāsān, that took place in the court of [the ‘Abbāsid caliph] Ma‘mūn, one of the issues they disputed on was whether the will of God is one of the Attributes of Essence or the Attributes of Action and whether will is identical with knowledge or a distinct attribute. Sulaymān has considered will one of the Essential Attributes and interpreted it as knowledge (as the Mu‘tazilah do subscribe) while Imām al-Riḍā (‘a) has regarded it as contingent and an Attribute of Action.21

Review Questions

1. Write down the difference between the will and the decree of God by considering their Qur’anic usages.

2. State the views of philosophers and theologians about the Divine will.

3. Write down the correct view about the essence of will with respect to God along with its proof.

4. What is the criterion for establishing the Positive Attributes in God?

5. What is the reply of Imām al-Ṣādiq (‘a) to the question of Bakīr ibn A‘yan about God’s will?

  • 1. See Shaykh al-Ṣadūq, Kitāb al-Tawḥīd, sections on the Attributes of the Essence and Actions, and on the Divine will and decree.
  • 2. See Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī, Al-Mufradāt, under the words irādah and mashiyyah.
  • 3. Shaykh al-Mufīd: the common designation of Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad ibn Nu‘mān al-Hārithī (d. 413 AH/1022) who was a great Shī‘ah jurist (fiqh), traditionist (muḥaddith) and scholar of scholasticism (mutakallim). Notable among his disciples were Sayyid Murtaḍā ‘Alam al-Hudā, Sayyid ar-Raḍī, Shaykh al-Ṭūsī, and al-Najashī. Around 200 works are attributed to him, from which Kitāb al-Irshād, Ikhtiṣāṣ, Awā’il al-Maqālāt, Al-‘Amalī, and Al-Maqna‘ah can be cited. See Shaykh al-Mufīd, Kitāb al-Irshād: The Book of Guidance into the Lives of the Twelve Imāms, trans. I.K.A. Howard (London: The Muhammadi Trust, 1981), introduction, pp. xxi-xxvii; Martin J. McDermott, The Theology of al-Shaikh al-Mufīd (Beirut: Dar al-Mashreq, 1978), introduction, pp. 8-45. [Trans.]
  • 4. Shaykh al-Mufīd, Awā’il al-Maqālāt, p. 58.
  • 5. ‘Allāmah al-Ṭabāṭabā’ī, Nihāyat al-Ḥikmah, stage (marḥalah) 12, chap. 10.
  • 6. Ḥakīm Sabziwārī, Sharḥ Manzūmah, farīdah 2, discussion on will (irādah); Ṣadr al-Muta’allihīn, Al-Asfār al-Arba‘ah, vol. 6, p. 317.
  • 7. Muḥaqqiq al-Ṭūsī, Qawā’id al-‘Aqā’id, p. 57.
  • 8. Sayyid Sharīf Gurgānī, Sharḥ al-Mawāqif, vol. 8, pp. 81-87.
  • 9. Karrāmiyyah: followers of Muḥammad ibn Karrām Sijistānī (died 255 AH). This sect has subscribed to anthromorphism and incarnation.
  • 10. Muḥaqqiq al-Ṭūsī, Qawā’id al-‘Aqā’id, p. 57; Sa‘d al-Dīn Taftazānī, Sharḥ al-Maqāṣid, vol. 4, p. 128.
  • 11. Abū ‘Abd Allāh Ḥusayn Najjār al-Rāzī (died 320 AH).
  • 12. Muḥaqqiq al-Iṣfahānī or Kampānī: the author of an important and popular book entitled Nihāyat al-Dirāyah, which is a gloss to the treatise Kifāyat al-Uṣūl by Muḥaqqiq Khurāsānī.
  • 13. Nihāyat al-Dirāyah, vol. 1, p. 116.
  • 14. ‘Allāmah al-Ṭabāṭabā’ī, Nihāyat al-Ḥikmah, stage 12, chap. 11; Al-Asfār al-Arba‘ah, vol. 6, pp. 315-316, 353 (‘Allāmah al-Ṭabāṭabā’ī’s gloss to Al-Asfār al-Arba‘ah).
  • 15. Shāykh al-Ṣadūq, Kitāb al-Tawḥīd, section (bāb) on the Attributes of Essence, ḥadīth 18.
  • 16. Ibid., ḥadīth 17.
  • 17. Ibid., ḥadīth 15.
  • 18. Ibid., ḥadīth 16.
  • 19. Ibid., section (bāb) on the Divine will and decree, ḥadīth 5.
  • 20. Ibid., p. 435.
  • 21. Ibid., pp. 445-454.