(Reflections on Sheikh Yahya Rhodus’ lecture on Book 35: On Divine Unity and Reliance on God)
The Free will v Determinism debate will forever persist. It features heavily in theology, and surprisingly, neuroscience.
For monotheistic religions, the idea of determinism is a Gordian knot, and perhaps the most paradoxical of religious paradoxes. Is it reasonable for God to judge your actions when He is controlling your actions? The Asharis circumvented this problem, to some extent, by introducing the concept of kasb. A person “acquires” his actions, or chooses his actions, and God executes them.
Many remain unconvinced by this explanation, while others avoid becoming too technical, and simply accepts God control. Hence, inshallah (if God wills) is a common mantra on the tongues of Muslims.
Yet the paradox remains, and its idea can be a source of confusion. Ghazali solves this riddle by constructing a path towards understanding God and His acts. As a believer journeys down the path, he/she reaches milestones of understanding, and one of those milestones is understanding determinism. Once one reaches this stage, he/she will be able see that all that occurs in the world is due to God.
Only an elect few have this perception. For the rest who are either not on the journey, or who have yet to reach this point, they remain puzzled and are caught in a bind. As an article of faith, they are meant to believe in determinism, but their rationality rebels against the concept. Being told that one can only understand if God inspires knowledge serves only to suffuse the concept with uncertainties, much akin to the Christian conceptualisation of the Trinity.
Sufis often speak about individuals holding divine secrets that only they know. They cannot convey those secrets as the average person would not be able to understand, which can create a very thin line between veracity and mendacity. For issues such as determinism, the average person is left with justifiable doubts because he/she cannot be taught these “secrets”.
As a consequence, on the spiritual journey, there will be moments where articles of faith will contest with rationality and emotions. The seeker will peer through the blur seeking truth and witness obscurity.
It is a troubling position to be in, and no amount of sanctimonious persuasion (“You must believe what God has said because God has definitely said”) can fully persuade the confused. Puzzlement will reside in the soul. The confused then has two options: give up or continue journeying down the path, hoping, waiting, anticipating.
Interestingly, this was the manner in which the Prophet received revelation. Excursions to Mount Hira, and days of isolation and contemplation, eventually led to enlightenment. Before Jibreel came to the Prophet, he sat in worship, perhaps unsure as to what it would lead to. That it led to prophecy was for the Prophet unbelievable.
Likewise, the Seeker does not know what he will find at the end of the journey. But in searching for God, and clarification of confusions, there maybe a moment where the obscure becomes clear. If one believes in God, then there is no reason to doubt that enlightenment can come at any point and at any moment, provided he/she truly desires it.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee of this intrusion of God, and that is why the spiritual journey is so very difficult. Rationality, emotions and dogma will contest with each other, and relying on God to resolve the struggle could be a false hope. Nevertheless, humility throughout the journey assists in negotiating these problems. There maybe things the seeker is unsure about, but he/she persists, knowing that he does not know but hoping one day he/she will.