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Freedom, Human Destiny, and the World in the
Nahj al-Balaghah

Dr. Syed Waheed Akhtar
The theme of freedom is repeatedly emphasized and elaborated in the Nahj al-Balaghah. We shall quote a few relevant passages to substantiate the points made so far.
. . . (God) has given inborn disposition to human minds to shape themselves either towards good or towards evil." (Khutbah 75)
They were given complete liberty in this world, of thought and deed, to think as they like and to do as they desire, so that they may develop their minds, and with the help of such developed minds, free will, and the span of life allotted to them, find the purpose for which they were created . . . . 12 (Khutbah 86).
In Khutbah 86, Imam 'Ali (a) further says that human beings are given sound bodies and limbs with perfect senses to acquire the knowledge of the external world and the light of reason and wisdom, so that they are able to exercise their freedom of thought and action.'" This point forms a recurring theme of the Nahj al-halaghah, for a sound body, sound senses, and reason are necessary conditions for exercising freedom. Those who are deficient in these respects are not held responsible for their acts, such as insane persons and infants. Solely those endowed with these things are responsible for their acts:
. . . Lives of men who were enjoying themselves to their hearts' content and had perfect freedom of action have such useful lessons in them to teach . . (Khutbah 86)14
From the above-quoted passages, certain points can be inferred: man is given complete freedom with the ability to exercise it; freedom has a purpose: to realize and obey Allah and act in a just manner. Justice can be defined as maintaining equilibrium among various obligations and rights. One has to be just to oneself. There are many verses in the Holy Qur'an and innumerable passages in the Nahj al-Balaghah restraining men from indulging in excesses even in desirable deeds, such as generosity, excess of which is israf and is prohibited. Doing justice to others, which ensures social and political morality, and just behaviour in relation to God, requires abstaining from overindulgence in ritual worship. By maintaining justice in all the three aspects—that is in relation to oneself, others and God—man is free to determine his destiny. In contemporary Western philosophy existentialism is credited with introducing the notion of man's freedom in shaping and molding his own destiny, but a glance at the Nahj al-Balaghah is sufficient to arrive at the conclusion that it was Imam 'Ali (a) who advanced this idea for the first time:
"If by destiny you mean compulsion (physical or otherwise) whereby we are forced (by nature) to do a thing, then it is not so. Had it been an obligation of that kind, then there would have been no question of reward for doing it and punishment for not doing it (such as breathing, sleeping and eating are physical necessities entailing no reward or punishment), and the promised blessings and punishments in afterlife will have no meanings. The Merciful Lord has given His creatures complete freedom to do as they like, and they are prohibited from certain actions and warned of the consequences of such actions. These commands carry in them the least trouble and lead us towards the most convenient way of life . . . . He sees people disobeying Him and tolerates them, not because He can be overruled or be compelled to accept human supremacy over Him. He did not send His prophets to amuse Himself or provide amusement for them. He did not reveal His orders without any reason and purpose. Neither has He created the galaxies and the earth without any design, purpose, and program. A universe without plan, purpose, and program is the idea of the infidels and heathens; sorry will be their plight in the fires and the hell. . ." (Sayings: 78)
(Destiny) was an order of God to do it, like the order he has given in His Holy Book "You are destined to worship him and nobody else'' .Here destined means "ordered", it does not mean physical compulsion.15
From this brief saying, many points relevant to philosophical and moral issues can be derived: determining one's destiny is an act of man's free will, different from physical compulsion; Divine commands are rationally designed and have a purpose; the universe itself has a design and a purpose; in this purposive scheme of creation man is free to act or not to act in accordance with the Divine purpose; voluntary acts of men deserve reward or punishment according to their nature; and that freedom brings in its wake responsibility.
Kant, who could not bring himself to accept the existence of God on the strength of ontological, causal, and teleological arguments, had to evolve a moral proof for the existence of God, in which God, freedom of human will, and life after death served as the essential postulates of morality. If we compare Imam 'Ali's approach to the problems of freedom, morality, purposiveness of creation, and the existence of God, we may come to a more convincing philosophy. Imam Ali does not require any proof for the existence of God, but believes in Him on the ground of revelation and his own inner experience. This is the same stand which was taken in the West by Kierkegaard in the 19th century after realizing the inadequacy of reason in proving or disproving God. Recent theology in the West accepts the inner yearning of man to have faith in a Supreme Being as the only criterion of belief in God.
Starting from the same position 'Ali ('a) proves the purposiveness of creation, arguing that it is created by an intelligent, knowing, and just God with a design and a purpose, and all His commands are just and reasonable, for He does not command man to do something that is beyond his capacity. Human freedom is an essential constituent of this purposive world, without which man would not have been able to pursue certain goals. It is also necessary for morality, which comprises voluntary actions.
Thus freedom is not a postulate in Imam Ali's world-outlook, but an organic part of a just and purposive order. His firm faith in a just God makes him believe in the Hereafter. In this way, the Islamic world-outlook he presents is more coherent and consistent than that of Kant or any other Western philosopher. In this system, human reason does not give rise to antimonies, because it is not required to trespass the region of faith or inner experience. All the three axioms of morality which Kant derived from his moral philosophy follow in Ali's Islamic system of thought from faith in God and freedom of human will. In the world conceived by him all individuals are free and they form a "kingdom of ends," that is the beings sovereign in this world and only subordinate to Divine commandments. They are not subservient to other human beings and are masters of their own destiny. In this sense Imam 'Ali (a) considers this world of ours better than any conceivable worlds. There is a saying of his that refutes the commonly believed notion that the Imam ('a) despised the world and his approach to it was ascetic and pessimistic. He heard someone abusing the world and said to him that it was not the world which deceived man but it was man who was allured and enchanted by it, and subsequently debased himself and polluted the world. He said:
"Verily this world is a house of truth for those who look into it carefully, an abode of peace and rest for those who understand its ways and moods, and it is the best working ground for those who want to procure rewards for their life in the Hereafter. It is a place of acquiring knowledge and wisdom for those who want to acquire them, a place of worship for the friends of God and for angels. It is the place where prophets receive revelations of the Lord. It is the place for virtuous people and the saints to do good deeds and to be assigned with rewards for the same; only in this world they could trade with God's favours and blessings, and only while living here they could barter their good deeds with His blessings and rewards. Where else could all this be done?16 (Sayings: 130)
This passage may remind one of Leibnitz's saying: "Ours is the best of all possible worlds", which reflects an optimistic view of the physical world. 'Ali (a) regards it so because it is here and here alone that man's freedom is tested as to how far he acts justly. In the light of this passage we can justify Iqbal's view that man chose freely to leave Heaven and come to this world.

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