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Can We Choose Our Actions?

by Fethullah Gülen on . Posted in Questions and Answers

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Based on the verse cited above, it seems that God controls us. However, the Qur'an says that God has given us reason, intellect, and free will so that we can choose the way of good or evil. How can we reconcile these?

The Arabic word hidaya usually is translated as "guidance." However, it also has other meanings: rectitude, the straight way, the way to Islam, and the way of those upon whom God has bestowed His blessings. The Arabic word dalala usually is translated as "going astray." Among its other meanings are corruption, error, the way of those who persistently adhere to false beliefs and willfully break God's law, and those who refuse to listen to the truth and thus go astray out of their own heedlessness or negligence.

Being guided and being left astray relate to God and depend on His Will. He creates hidaya to manifest His Name al-Hadi (the One Who Guides) and dalala to manifest His Name al-Mudil (the One Who Leads Astray). He creates, or in other words, enables or "gives" being guided or being led astray. This does not mean that He leads someone on the right path or astray. Rather, being guided or being led astray result from our own intentions and actions, for such is a consequence of our attitudes and inclinations. It has nothing to do with an arbitrary predestination.

Guidance can be received by various actions: going to a mosque; listening to a sermon, a lecture, or the Qur'an; reflecting seriously on the Qur'an's verses and their meaning; spending time with pious people; receiving advice from sincere, spiritual guides and teachers of religion, and trying to benefit from their purity and lofty ethos; and reflecting on the true nature of life and death. Such practices lead to mental and spiritual enlightenment. If you start to do such things, no matter how apparently small or insignificant, God accepts it as a means to grant guidance. Therefore God guides, but the individual initiates the process. On the other hand, if you frequent such places as bars, nightclubs, or non-Islamic places of worship, in effect you are asking to be led astray. If God wills, He will let you go astray. If He does not, He will save you from such a destiny by any means He wishes.

Our share in determining whether we will be guided or go astray is infinitesimally small. If we follow misguidance, God creates the results from our own actions in accordance with the laws of cause and effect that He has decreed for His creation. It is a necessary condition of moral responsibility that we freely initiate actions that will lead us to misguidance if we choose to do so, despite all the warning and instruction we receive. Later on, God will punish or forgive us as He pleases.

Consider this example. When you listen to the Qur'an or a sermon, or read something about Islam, you experience certain feelings, a kind of inner uplifting and illumination. However, someone living next door to the mosque might consider the call to prayer, the sermons, and the prayers sources of irritation and complain that they are a public disturbance and nuisance. In either case, God uses our reactions and inclinations to create and enable the necessary results, wholly dependent on His Will, that may follow from that response.

Consider a different example. As we eat and drink, all kinds of nutrients, proteins, vitamins, carbohydrates, and so on are sent to where they are needed in our bodies. The mere wish or act of placing food in the mouth does not enable nourishment. First the faculties necessary to identify and move the food into the mouth, a complex coordination of brain and muscle activity, must be engaged and operative. No part of this process is controlled consciously or understood by the individual. Then, as the food enters the mouth, salivary glands begin to operate. Data about taste and flavor are passed to the brain, processed, and directed to the stomach, informing it of the precise combination of chemical substances necessary to digest that particular food and turn it into nourishment. And this is only the beginning!

As we have no conscious control over the process of nourishing our own body, we cannot say: "I put the food in my mouth, planned and arranged everything for the meal, digested it, distributed it to where it was needed, and fixed my body temperature for everything to function properly and efficiently. I did all this on my own!" If we did, would we not be ascribing to ourselves the actions of God? We should acknowledge reality: "When I put food in my mouth, wonderful processes begin to operate. An unseen, powerful hand puts these processes in motion for the necessary amount of time. The One who initiates and sustains all these processes is God."

By moving our will and inclination toward Divine Guidance, we may prove ourselves capable and worthy of it. For instance: I long to talk about religion with fullness and ease, to express my heartfelt feelings so well that others may be moved and benefit—but I fail to achieve what I wish, and can do only so much. I wish to convey Qur'anic law and God's commandments through persuasive, sincere words—but I get stuck at some point and become tongue-tied. I long to be totally immersed in the rapture of prayer and to be rid of all worldly concerns while praying—but I can hardly manage one prayer out of a thousand in this way. In sum, I contribute a sincere wish or a will, even though I may not realize my goal. The realization of this belongs to the All-Mighty.

The love and pleasure of faith, the earnest desire for Heaven, and an inclination to be content and submissive in the face of whatever comes from God are gifts that only He can place in our hearts and souls. We choose and incline, and God accepts and bestows His Blessings and Guidance. Saduddin Taftazani said: "Faith is a flame that God lights in a person's soul as a consequence of his or her use of free will." In order to obtain so great a favor, we must use our free will. You press a button and your life is illuminated. This seemingly small effort of will, this inclining toward faith, becomes the means to acquire Guidance and to be illuminated by Divine Light.

Some people may ask: If God lets go astray whomever He wills and guides aright whomever He wills (74:31), how does He call His servants to account?

We cannot attribute evil to God, for that comes from ourselves: Whatever good happens to you is from God; and whatever evil happens to you is from yourself (4:79). We have only ourselves to blame for what we suffer, for God does not wrong any one as much as an atom's weight (4:40). What happens to us is based upon our choices and actions, and accords with the law of cause and effect that God has decreed for His creation. Thus, those who persistently adhere to false beliefs and refuse to listen to and obey Divine commandments gradually lose the ability to perceive the truth, until a seal is set upon their hearts. Since God instituted these laws, sealing the heart and leading astray are attributed to Him. But in reality, such is the consequence of that person's free choice and inclination. Such a fate is neither predestined nor unjust.

Happiness in the Hereafter is the natural consequence of our effort to attain righteousness and inner illumination while alive: None does He cause to go astray save the iniquitous, who break their bond with God after it has been established, and cut asunder what God has joined, and spread corruption on Earth (2:26–27). God does not cause anyone to go astray, except those who He knows will refuse to seek faith. Here the causing to go astray denotes God's leaving the individual alone and removing His blessings. God may forsake one who He knows will choose to deny the truth and persevere in denial. Deserving His favor and blessings or deserving their withdrawal depend upon our free choice, and nothing else.