The Conception of Human Responsibility in Islam

“The Conception of Human Responsibility in Islam”

Al-Azhar Magazine – October 1969

One of the remarkable characteristics of Quran is the curious manner in which it combines the existence of a Divine Will, which not only orders all things, but which acts directly upon men and addresses itself to the springs of thought in them, with the assertion of a free agency in man and of the liberty of intellect.

Te conception of human responsibility is so strongly developed in the Quran. According the clear verses of it man is responsible for his actions and for the use or misuse of with which he has been endowed. He may fall or rise according to his own inclination.

It seems at first sight, that man should be judged by his works, a doctrine which forms the foundation of Islamic morality. How can this idea be reconciled with the idea that all his actions are ruled by an All-Powerful Will? It should be noticed that the Holy Quran clearly combines the existence of a Supreme Divine Will governing the Universe with the conception of self dependence and of moral responsibility founded on the liberty of human volition.

To illustrate the human responsibility and the freedom of human will, let us quote the following verses of the Holy Quran:

وَمَن يَكۡسِبۡ إِثۡمً۬ا فَإِنَّمَا يَكۡسِبُهُ ۥ عَلَىٰ نَفۡسِهِۦ‌ وَكَانَ ٱللَّهُ عَلِيمًا حَكِيمً۬ا ) ١١١ -سُوۡرَةُالنِّسَاء(

It means: “And whosoever gets to himself a sin gets it solely on his own responsibility” (4:111)

وَذَرِٱلَّذِينَ ٱتَّخَذُواْ دِينَہُمۡ لَعِبً۬ا وَلَهۡوً۬ا وَغَرَّتۡهُمُ ٱلۡحَيَوٰةُ ٱلدُّنۡيَا‌ وَذَڪِّرۡ بِهِۦۤ أَن تُبۡسَلَ نَفۡسُۢ بِمَا كَسَبَتۡ لَيۡسَ لَهَا مِن دُونِ ٱللَّهِ وَلِىٌّ۬ وَلَاشَفِيعٌ۬ وَإِن تَعۡدِلۡ ڪُلَّ عَدۡلٍ لَّا يُؤۡخَذۡ مِنۡہَآ‌ۗأُوْلَـٰٓٮِٕكَ ٱلَّذِينَ أُبۡسِلُواْ بِمَا كَسَبُواْ‌ۖ )٧٠ -سُوۡرَةُالاٴنعَام(

It means: “And let alone those who make a sport and a mockery of their religion, and whom this present world has deluded, and thereby bring to remembrance that any soul perishes for what it has got to itself…” (6:70)

وَإِذَا فَعَلُواْ فَـٰحِشَةً۬ قَالُواْ وَجَدۡنَا عَلَيۡہَآ ءَابَآءَنَا وَٱللَّهُ أَمَرَنَا بِہَا‌ۗقُلۡ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَا يَأۡمُرُ بِٱلۡفَحۡشَآءِ‌ۖ أَتَقُولُونَ عَلَى ٱللَّهِ مَا لَا تَعۡلَمُونَ) ٢٨-الاٴعرَاف(

It means: “When the commit a deed of shame they say: We have found that our fathers did so, God obliges us to do it; say (thou): surely God requireth not shameful doing…” (7:28)

أَتَتۡهُمۡ رُسُلُهُم بِٱلۡبَيِّنَـٰتِ‌ۖ فَمَا ڪَانَ ٱللَّهُ لِيَظۡلِمَهُمۡ وَلَـٰكِن كَانُوٓاْ أَنفُسَہُمۡ يَظۡلِمُونَ) ٧٠ -التّوبَة(

It means: “Their messengers (from Allah) came unto them with proofs (of Allah’s sovereignty). So Allah surely wronged them not, but they did wrong themselves” (9:70)

هُنَالِكَ تَبۡلُواْ كُلُّ نَفۡسٍ۬ مَّآ أَسۡلَفَتۡ‌ۚ وَرُدُّوٓاْ إِلَى ٱللَّهِ مَوۡلَٮٰهُمُ ٱلۡحَقِّ‌ۖ” ) ٣٠ – یُونس(

It means: “There will every soul experience that which it did aforetime and they are returned unto Allah, their Rightful Lord…” (10:30)

قُلۡ يَـٰٓأَيُّہَا ٱلنَّاسُ قَدۡ جَآءَڪُمُ ٱلۡحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّكُمۡ‌ۖ فَمَنِ ٱهۡتَدَىٰ فَإِنَّمَا” يَہۡتَدِى لِنَفۡسِهِۦ‌ۖ وَمَن ضَلَّ فَإِنَّمَا يَضِلُّ عَلَيۡہَا‌ۖ ( ١٠٨ -یُونس(

It means: “Say: O mankind! Now hath the truth from your Lord came unto you. So Whosoever is guided, is guided only for (the good of) his soul, and whosoever goes astray, he himself bears the whole responsibility of wandering” (10:108).

The people of Arabia, like all other nations of antiquity, had before the promulgation of Islam, absolutely abandoned themselves to the idea of an irresistible and blind fatality. Man was but a toy in the hands of Fate. This idea bred an utter disregard for human life. The teachings of Islam created a revolution in their mind. The above mentioned verses laid down, in emphatic terms, human responsibility, the freedom of human will and the liberty of human volition.

The following passages of the Holy Quran will clearly define the meaning of the Decree or Ordinance of God, and expression to the Absolution of the Divine Will, and an assertion to the liberty of human volition:

وَٱلشَّمۡسُ تَجۡرِى لِمُسۡتَقَرٍّ۬ لَّهَا‌ۚذَٲلِكَ تَقۡدِيرُٱلۡعَزِيزِٱلۡعَلِيمِ ( ٣٨ -یسٓ(

It means: “And the sun proceeding to its place of rest-that is an ordinance of Almighty, the All Wise” (36:38)

وَمِنۡ ءَايَـٰتِهِ ۦخَلۡقُ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٲتِ وَٱلۡأَرۡضِ وَمَا بَثَّ فِيهِمَا مِن دَآبَّةٍ۬‌ۚ وَهُوَ عَلَىٰ جَمۡعِهِمۡ إِذَا يَشَآءُ قَدِيرٌ۬( ٢٩ -الشّوریٰ(

“Among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and of the animals which He hath distributed therein, which He has sovereign power to gather when He will…” (42:29)

أَوَ لَمۡ يَرَوۡاْ أَنَّ ٱللَّهَ ٱلَّذِى خَلَقَ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٲتِ وَٱلۡأَرۡضَ وَلَمۡ يَعۡىَ بِخَلۡقِهِنَّ بِقَـٰدِرٍ عَلَىٰٓ أَن يُحۡـِۧىَ ٱلۡمَوۡتَىٰ‌ۚبَلَىٰٓ إِنَّهُ ۥ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَىۡءٍ قَدِيرٌ۬) ٣٣ -الاٴحقاف(

“Do they not see that God, who created the heavens and the earth, and faltered not in creating these, Has power to vivify the deed-nay, He had sovereign control over all things” (46:33)

وَأُخۡرَىٰ لَمۡ تَقۡدِرُواْ عَلَيۡہَا قَدۡ أَحَاطَ ٱللَّهُ بِہَا‌ۚوَكَانَ ٱللَّهُ عَلَىٰ ڪُلِّ شَىۡءٍ قَدِيرً۬ا ) ٢١ -الفَتْح(

It means: “…and other things which are not at our command, but which are truly within His grasp, inasmuch as God is sovereign disposer of all things” (48:21)

وَإِن مِّن شَىۡءٍ إِلَّاعِندَنَا خَزَآٮِٕنُهُ ۥوَ مَانُنَزِّلُهُ ۥۤإِلَّابِقَدَرٍ۬ مَّعۡلُومٍ ( ٢١ -الحِجر(

It means: “There is not a thing but with us are the stores thereof. And We send it not down save in appointed measure” (15:21)

وَلِلَّهِ غَيۡبُ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٲتِ وَٱلۡأَرۡضِ‌ۚوَمَآ أَمۡرُ ٱلسَّاعَةِ إِلَّا كَلَمۡحِ ٱلۡبَصَرِ أَوۡ هُوَأَقۡرَبُ‌ۚإِنَّ ٱللَّهَ عَلَىٰ ڪُلِّ شَىۡءٍ۬ قَدِيرٌ۬)٧٧ – النّحل(

It means: “And unto Allah belongeth the Unseen of the heavens and the earth and the matter of the Hour (of Doom) is but as a twinkling of the eye, or it is nearer still. Lo! Allah is able to do all things. (He has all things at command).” (16:77)

لَّقَدۡ أَنزَلۡنَآ ءَايَـٰتٍ۬ مُّبَيِّنَـٰتٍ۬‌ۚ وَٱللَّهُ يَہۡدِى مَن يَشَآءُ إِلَىٰ صِرَٲطٍ۬ مُّسۡتَقِيمٍ(٤٦ -النُّور(

It means: “Verily We have sent down to velations and explained them. Allah guideth whom He will unto a straight path”. (24:46)

ٱلَّذِى لَهُ ۥ مُلۡكُ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٲتِ وَٱلۡأَرۡضِ وَلَمۡ يَتَّخِذۡ وَلَدً۬ا وَلَمۡ يَكُن لَّهُ ۥ شَرِيكٌ۬ فِى ٱلۡمُلۡكِ وَخَلَقَ ڪُلَّ شَىۡءٍ۬ فَقَدَّرَهُ ۥ تَقۡدِيرً۬ا ) ٢ -الفُرقان(

It means: “He unto Whombelongeth the sovereignty of the heavens and the earth, He hath chosen no son nor hath He any partner in the sovereignty. He hath created everything and hath meted out for it a measure”. (25:2)

إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ بَـٰلِغُ أَمۡرِهِۦ‌ۚقَدۡ جَعَلَ ٱللَّهُ لِكُلِّ شَىۡءٍ قَدۡرًا) ٣ -الطّلاَق(

It means: “Verily! Allah accomplishes what He ordains. Allah hath established for everything a fixed decree (He hath set a measure of all things)” (65:3)

سَبِّحِ ٱسۡمَ رَبِّكَ ٱلۡأَعۡلَى, ٱلَّذِى خَلَقَ فَسَوَّىٰ وَٱلَّذِى قَدَّرَ فَهَدَىٰ) ١ – ٣ :الاٴعلی(

It means: “Praise the name of thy Lord the Most High. Who created and fashioned to completeness. Who measureth, then guideth accordingly”. (87: 1-3)

إِنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ سَوَآءٌ عَلَيۡهِمۡ ءَأَنذَرۡ تهُمۡ أَمۡ لَمۡ تُنذِرۡهُمۡ لَايُؤۡمِنُونَ , خَتَمَ ٱللَّهُ عَلَىٰ قُلُوبِهِمۡ وَعَلَىٰ سَمۡعِهِمۡ‌ۖوَعَلَىٰٓ أَبۡصَـٰرِهِمۡ غِشَـٰوَةٌ۬‌ۖ وَلَهُمۡ عَذَابٌ عَظِيمٌ۬)٧ – ٦ :البَقَرَة(

It means: “…As for the disbelievers, whether thou warn them or thou warn them not, they will not believe. God hath sealed up their hearts and their ears and on their eyes there is a covering. Theirs will be an awful doom”. (2:6-7)

لا يُغَيِّرُ مَا بِقَوۡمٍ حَتَّىٰ يُغَيِّرُواْ مَا بِأَنفُسِہِمۡ‌) ١١ -الرّعد(

It means: “…Lo! Allah changeth not the condition of a folk until they (first) change that which is in their hearts…” (13:11)

وَيَہۡدِىٓ إِلَيۡهِ مَنۡ أَنَابَ) ٢٧ -الرّعد(

It means: “…And He guideth unto Himself those who turn (unto Him)”. (13:27)

The first group of these verses meant by the Decree of God the law of nature. Because it will be noticed that the stars and the planets have each their appointed course, so has every other object in creation. Not only that, the movements of the heavenly bodies, the phenomena of nature, life and death are all governed by that law.

The second group indicates the idea of Divine sovereignty upon human will. But this idea is again explained by the last group of those verses. It is to the seeker for Divine Help that God renders His Help, and it is on the searcher of his own heart, who purifies his soul fromn impure longings, that God bestows grace.

We can summerise the conception of these verses in the following points:

  1. – The existence of an Almighty Power, the Creator of the Universe, the Ruler of His creatures. He has sovereign control over all things, and He knows the secrets of the heavens and the earth, and He has all things at command.
  2. – The belief in an all-pervading, ever conscious power, or the feeling of an assured trust in such a power, has been the motive factor of the world in every age. There is nothing more assuring, nothing that more satisfies the intense longing for a better and purer world, than the consciousness of a power above humanity to set right wrongs, to fulfill hopes, to help the abandoned.
  3. – The belief in God, the Almighty, the Fashioner of His creatures, springs from the very essence of Divine Ordinances. These Ordinances are as much laws which regulate the movements of the heavenly bodies. The Will of God is not an arbitrary will, but it is an educating will, as it is clear from the verses in which He promised help and guidance for him who sought the Supreme assistance.

We must, however, notice that, in many of the above mentioned verses of the Quran, the idea of Divine agency is conditioned upon human will. It is to the seeker for Divine Help that God renders his Help and man is responsible for his actions, and is absolute master of his conduct within the limited sphere of his existence.