i. In Twelver Shiʿism.

ii. In Ismaʿili Shiʿism.



On the question of free will, the whole view of the Imams amounts to a famous saying by Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq (d. 148/765): lā jabr wa lā tafwīż wa lāken amr bayn amrayn “neither complete constraint nor complete freedom but something in between” (Kolaynī I, p. 160, Hadith no.13; Ebn Bābawayh, 1387, p. 362 sec. 8 , Madelung, 1970, p. 18, footnote 1). The saying could be interpreted in different ways. It could be read in a way conforming to the Muʿtazilite thesis that human beings have real freedom to act (lā jabr) but this does not, morally speaking, give them a license to do as they please (la tafwīzµ); for God has fixed rules and allowed certain things and forbidden others. This was the position adopted by Shaikh Mofīd (Šarhá, pp. 201 ff.), and before him, according to Moḥammad-Bāqer Majlesī (V, pp. 23.6 ff., 72.17 ff.), by Imam Abū Moḥammad Ḥasan b. ʿAlī ʿAskarī (q.v.). This appears to be Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq’s own preferred gloss on his comment, for when he was asked what the “something in between” was, he replied, “Suppose you come across a man about to commit a crime, you try to dissuade him but he does not desist. You let him do it, and he commits the crime. Now it is not because he did not listen to you and you did not manage to dissuade him that you are the person who ordered him to commit the crime” (Ebn Bābaway, tr. Fyzee, p. 33). As quoted in another Hadith, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq appears even more explicit: “If God had granted full authority to mankind (law fawważa elayhem), he would not have bridled them with commands and interdictions” (Kolaynī, I, p. 159, sec. 11). It would seem implausible, however, that this would have been, at the beginning, the intended sense of the dictum in question; for, as Ašʿarī explained (p. 41.4-5), the real intention of the supporters of this formula was to range themselves against both the Muʿtazilites (regarded as followers of the doctrine of tafwīzµ) and the Jahmites (advocates of jabr). It was a matter of defining a doctrine of the golden mean between these two contradictory views, not a simple and self-evident proposition. According to some accounts, when asked to elucidate the problem, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq would resort to evasive answers (Kolaynī, I, p. 159, sections 8-11) going as far as saying to his interlocutor, with a wave of his hand indicating his perplexity, “Were I to answer that question, I might commit a blasphemy,”(Ebn Bābawayh, 1387, p. 363, sec. 11). It would be true to say that the very manner in which Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq enunciated these two conflicting theses lacked clarity. At times, he apparently took jabr to mean that God could “compel mankind to trespass” and yet punish them afterwards for it (Kolaynī, I, p. 159, secs. 8-9, 11; Ebn Bābawayh, 1387, p. 360, secs. 5-6), and at other times that God “was capable of imposing upon them things beyond their capability” (Kolaynī, I, p. 160, sec. 14; cf. also Ebn Bābawayh, 1387, p. 362, sec. 9) both instances negating divine justice. As for tafwīż, that would imply either that things could happen here on earth without His wish (Kolaynī, I, p. 158, sec. 6; p. 159, sec. 9; p.160, sec. 14) or that the transgressions of mankind did not depend on His might (al-maʿāṣī be-ḡayre qowwate’llāh, ibid., p. 158, sec. 6) both cases denying or limiting His absolute sovereignty (solṭān).

It will be noted that in the terminology used by Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq and others of the same view, the essential question of knowing if, given the preceding account, human actions are or are not created by God, was not posed (cf. Ašʿarī, p. 41, sec.6). The theologian who did confront this problem was Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq’s contemporary Hešām b. Ḥakam. Hešām, too, acknowledged an “intermediary doctrine” in this matter. According to him, although human acts are created by God, they could be said to be both free and compulsory at the same time: free, because they depend on human volition and compulsory, because they proceed from a cause (sabab) produced by God (Ašʿarī, p. 40, 12 ff. and p. 43, 1-4).

Based on the sayings of the Imams (Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq, and also ʿAlī al-Reżā,) the doctrine of lā jabr wa lā tafwīż, in the anti-Muʿtazilite sense of the expression, has remained in force in traditionist Imamism, for which Qom became, in the 3rd/9th and 4th/10th centuries, the principal center. The doctrine was expounded by Kolaynī and, chiefly, Ebn Bābawayh (q.v.). In his Eʿteqādāt, Ebn Bābawayh also strove to define this middle position advocated by his predecessors. On the one hand, he upheld the principle that God wills whatever exists, making use of the saying“what God wills, exists, what he does not will does not exist” (p. 71, sec.1). On the other hand, he interpreted that as simply meaning that God “has willed it so that nothing happens without His knowledge (p. 69, sec. 12). Ebn Bābawayh did not, anymore than Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq, clearly state that God willed the transgressions of mankind. In this respect he used somewhat convoluted formulae reminiscent of those used by the sunni theologian Ašʿārī (p. 70.8-14; cf. Gimaret, p. 306 ff). Like Hešām, he maintained that human deeds are created by God, but not to the extent that God makes them happen (ḵalq takwīn) but only to the extent that He predetermines (ḵalq taqdīr) them, i.e., to the extent that, in all eternity, He knows how they will be.

A major change took place at the end of the 4th/10th century. The Imamite theologians of the School of Baghdad, following the Muʿtazilite theses in this respect, managed to impose their views against those of the traditionists of Qom. In his Šarḥ ʿaqāʾed al-Ṣadūq, Shaikh Mofīd completely rejected Ebn Bābawayh’s position. In his view, following Muʿtazilite doctrine, God does not will in any way the sins of mankind (Šarḥ, pp. 202-7), and he is in no sense the creator of their actions (pp. 197-201). The term lā tafwīż, as said above, simply meant, according to him, that God had imposed a law on mankind (pp. 201 ff.).

This became accepted, from this juncture, as the established position in Twelver Shiʿism, as adopted by Šarīf Mortażā, Abū Jaʿfar Ṭūsī, later by ʿAllāma Ḥellī, and later still by Majlesī. From then on, the Imamite theologians differed only on points of detail, depending which Muʿtazilite school they followed. Thus Shaikh Mofīd, a disciple of the Muʿtazilites of Baghdad, denied that mankind could be qualified as ḵāleq (Awāʾel, pp. 64, 13 ff.) while, as disciples of the Basran Muʿtazilites, Šarīf Mortażā and later Shaikh Ṭūsī thought otherwise (cf. Ṭūsī, VI, pp. 234-35, 369-70). On the question of the way human action was produced, ʿAllāma Ḥellī, like his teacher Naṣīr-al-Dīn Ṭūsī, followed the doctrine of Abu’l-Ḥosayn Baṣrī (Schmidtke pp. 125-35).

In Zaydī Shiʿism. Zaydī Shiʿism on the whole went through the same evolution as Twelver Shiʿism but from an earlier date. On the question of the status of human actions, the earliest Zaydī authors, notably Abū Ḵāled Wāseṭī, were very clearly anti-Muʿtazilite (Madelung, l965, pp. 53-69; Sezgin, GAS I p. 557). But from the 3rd/9th century, with the imam Qāsem Rassī (Madelung 1965, pp. 117-29) and later specially with the imams Ḥasan b. Zayd and Yaḥyā b. Ḥosayn al-Hādī ela’l-Ḥaqq, it was the Muʿtazilite point of view which definitely carried the day (ibid, pp. 153 ff.).



Abu’l-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. ʿEsmāʿīl Ašʿarī, Maqālāt al-eslāmīyīn, ed. H. Ritter, 2nd. ed. Wiesbaden, l963.

Shaikh Ṣadūq Abū Jaʿfar Mohammad Ebn Bābawayh (Bābūya), Resālat al-eʿteqādāt, Tehran, 1370 Š./1992; tr. A. A. A. Fyzee as A Shīʿite Creed, rev. ed., Tehran, 1982.

Idem, Ketāb al-tawḥīd, ed. H. Ḥosaynī Tehrānī, Tehran, 1387/1967.

D. Gimaret, La doctrine d’al-Ashʿarī, Paris, 1990.

Moḥammad b. Yaʿqūb Kolaynī, al-Oṣūl men al-Kāfī, 2 vols., ed. ʿA.-A. Ḡaffārī, Tehran, 1375/1955; repr. Beirut, 1405/1985.

M. J. McDermott, The Theology of al-Shaikh al-Mufīd, Beirut, l978.

W. Madelung, Der Imam al-Qasim ibn Ibrāhīm und die Glaubenslehre der Zaiditen, Berlin, l965.

Idem, “Imamism and Muʿtazilite Theology,” in T. Fahd, ed., Le Shīʿīsme imāmite, Paris, l970, pp. 13-30.

Moḥammad-Bāqer Majlesī, Beḥār al-anwār, 110 vols., Tehran, l956-72.

Moḥammad b. Moḥammad Shaikh Mofīd, Awāʾel al-maqālāt fi’l-maḏāheb wa’l-moḵtārāt, ed. F. Zanjānī, Najaf, 1393/1973.

Idem, Šarḥ ʿaqāʾed al-Ṣadūq, ed. H. Šahrastānī, Najaf, 1393/1973 (published as part of the preceding volume).

S. Schmidtke, The Theology of al-ʿAllāma al-Ḥillī, Berlin, 1991.

Abū Jaʿfar Ṭūsī, al-Tebyān fī tafsīr al-Qorʾān, Najaf, 1376/1957.




Free will versus predestination was an important theological debate, with political implications, in Muslim society dating back to Omayyad times. The Ismaʿilis adopted an intermediate position in this debate and eventually accommodated the relevant issues within their theological doctrines. At one extreme, a variety of Islamic movements and schools of thought espoused the predestinarian view, initially designated as Jabrīya, holding that man’s deeds as well as good and evil resulted from God’s decrees and pre-ordination. At the other extreme, there were those, originally designated as Qadarīya by their opponents, who recognized the freedom of human will and the individual’s moral responsibility for his deeds. Both the Jabrīya and the Qadarīya based their arguments on verses from the Koran that supported their views. By early ʿAbbasid times, the Moʿtazilites took over the Qadarite belief in human free will and argued that man can establish the truths of religion on the basis of reason, without any need of divine guidance. In other words, they held that God in the Islamic revelation had shown the believers the “right path” for attaining salvation and reward in paradise, and had then left it to man to determine rationally what was good or evil. Thus, man’s ultimate destiny as a rational and free agent depended on himself. However, the majority of Sunni traditionalists, representing the mainstream of Muslim thought, eventually rejected Qadarism and adopted a form of predestinarianism as propounded by Ashʿarism.

The classical Ismaʿili view in this theological debate dates to the 4th/10th century, the early Fatimid period of Ismaʿili history. The earliest evidence for the “intermediate” Ismaʿili position may be found in the numerous extant works of the dāʿī Abū Yaʿqūb Sejestānī (see Walker, 1993, pp. 107-42). Similar “intermediate” views, rejecting both jabr and qadar, were expounded by the foremost Fatimid jurist Qāżī Noʿmān (Majāles, pp. 377-82), and the dāʿī Ḥamīd-al-Dīn Kermānī (fols. 151-52), culminating in the writings of Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow (died after 465/1072). These Ismaʿili authors drew on their earlier Imami Shiʿite heritage, especially the doctrine of the imamate which articulated the permanent need of mankind in all spiritual matters for divine guidance. Indeed, it was the standard view of the early Imami Shiʿites that God does determine the course of events at any time, but He has not pre-ordained it, and that He has not created man either as an infidel or a believer without responsibility for making choices. The Imami position itself, representing an intermediate position between constraint (jabr) and empowerment (qadar), is attested to by a Hadith reported from Imam Jaʿfar-al-Ṣādeq (d. 148/765). Concerning human free will versus predestination, the Imam had said “lā jabr wa lā tafwīż [qadar] wa lāken amr bayn amrayn” (see Kolaynī, I, pp. 159-60). Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow refers to this very Hadith in elaborating his own “intermediate” stance in this debate (1998, text, pp. 74-75, tr., pp. 113-14).

The Ismaʿili dāʿīs and authors of the Fatimid period further elaborated the earlier Imami views on the debate in question in their complex metaphysical systems of thought, holding that both the Jabrite and the Qadarite positions were rooted in a misunderstanding of the Koran and, indeed, the immutable spiritual truths (ḥaqāʾeq) of religion. By emphasizing a fundamental distinction between the exoteric (ẓāher) and the hidden esoteric (bāṭen) dimensions of religion, the Ismaʿilis from early on argued that these religious truths, concealed in the bāṭen, transcend human reason. As a result, man solely by his own efforts could never comprehend these truths and rationally choose the “right path” to salvation, even though he is endowed with the gift of the intellect and is free to make certain choices. According to Ismaʿili Shiʿite theology, the knowledge of the religious truths (ḥaqāʾeq) is available only to those infallible (maʿṣūm) authorities who are “firmly versed in knowledge” (al-rāseḵūn fi’l-ʿelm); they alone truly understand the real meaning of the Koran and the commandments and prohibitions of the sacred law of Islam (šarīʿa) and can, thus, act as trustworthy guides, interpreting through taʾwīl or esoteric exegesis the true spiritual message of the Islamic revelation (Qāżī Noʿmān, Daʿāʾem, I, pp. 22-24; Kermānī, fols. 134, 144-45; Moʾayyad fi’l-Dīn Šīrāzī, I, pp. 276, 452-53; Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow, Wajh-e dīn, pp. 11-14; Walker, 1996, pp. 26-83; de Smet, pp. 350-77).

In the era of Islam, the required authoritative guidance in religion would be provided initially by the Prophet Moḥammad, and then by his waṣī, or legatee, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb, and subsequently, until the end of time, by the rightful imams in ʿAlī’s progeny—the imams acknowledged by the Ismaʿilis. More than any of his Ismaʿili predecessors, Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow dealt with this theological issue (see also his Dīwān, pp. 21-22; Jāmeʿ al-ḥekmatayn, pp. 135-44; Zād al-mosāferīn, especially pp. 430-86). All the major Ismaʿili authors of the Fatimid period held that man’s destiny is not predestined as, in a sense, he is responsible for choosing between good and evil. However, they also refuted the Qadarite position by believing that man by himself is not capable of making the right choices rationally for moving along the spiritual ladder of salvation towards knowing God and his own origins in the universe because he lacks the required knowledge. In every age or dawr (q.v.), therefore, man is in need of the guidance of a divinely-appointed and protected hierarchy of authoritative teachers—the prophet and after him the rightful imam of the time. In its classical statement, Ismaʾili theology, thus, remained essentially revelational rather than rational, despite its promotion of a personal quest for knowledge and the importance attached to philosophical inquiry by many learned Ismaʿili theologians.

Later, the inadequacy of human intellect (ʿaql) in knowing God and the necessity at all times of an authoritative teacher (moʿallem-e ṣādeq) for the spiritual guidance of men were restated by Ḥasan-e Ṣabbāḥ in terms of the doctrine of taʿlīm, or authoritative teaching, which provided the basis for all the Nezārī Ismaʿili teachings of the Alamūt (483-654/1090-1256) period and subsequent times. Similar views, always pointing to an “intermediate” solution, were later expressed by Naṣīr-al-Dīn Ṭūsī (d. 672/1274) in his spiritual autobiography, Sayr wa solūk (text, pp. 4-5, 17-19, tr. pp. 27-29, 47-50), written while he was in the fortress communities of the Nezārī Ismaʿilis of Persia.



Abū Yaʿqūb Sejestānī, Ketāb al-yanābīʿ, in H. Corbin, ed., Trilogie Ismaélienne, Paris and Tehran, 1961, pp. 1-97 (text); tr. in P. E. Walker, The Wellsprings of Wisdom, Salt Lake City, 1994, pp. 37-111.

Ḥamīd-al-Dīn Kermānī, Tanbīh al-hādī wa’l-mostahdī, MS London, The Institute of Ismaili Studies Library, Ar. 723.

Abū Jaʿfar Moḥammad Kolaynī, al-Oṣūl men al-Kāfī, ed. ʿA.-A. Ḡaffārī, Tehran, 1381/1961.

W. Madelung, “Aspects of Ismāʾīlī Theology,” in S. H. Nasr, ed., Ismāʿīlī Contributions to Islamic Culture, Tehran, 1977, pp. 53-65; repr. in idem, Religious Schools and Sects in Medieval Islam, London, 1985, article XVII.

Moʾayyad fi’l-Dīn Šīrāzī, al-Majāles al-Moʾayyadīya, I, ed. Ḥamīd-al-Dīn, Bombay, 1395/1975.

Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow, Dīvān, ed. M. Mīnovī and M. Moḥaqqeq, Tehran, 1353 Š./ 1974.

Idem, Gošāyeš wa rahāyeš, ed. and tr. F. M. Hunzai as Knowledge and Liberation, London, 1998.

Idem, Jāmeʿ al-ḥekmatayn, ed. H. Corbin and M. Moʿīn, Paris and Tehran, 1953.

Idem, Wajh-e dīn, ed. Ḡ.-R. Aʿwānī, Tehran, 1977.

Idem, Zād al-mosāferīn, ed. M. Baḏl-al-Raḥmān, Berlin, 1341/1923.

Naṣīr-al-Dīn Ṭūsī, Sayr wa solūk, ed. and tr. S. J. Badakhchani as Contemplation and Action, London, 1998.

Qāżī Noʿmān b. Moḥammad, Daʿāʾem al-Eslām, ed. A. A. A. Fyzee, Cairo, 1383/1963.

Idem, Ketāb al-majāles wa’l-mosāyarāt, ed. Ḥ. Faqī et al., Tunis, 1978.

D. de Smet, La Quiétude de l’intellect: Néo-platonisme et gnose ismaélienne dans l’oeuvre de Ḥamīd ad-Dīn al-Kirmānī, Louvain, 1995.

Paul E. Walker, Early Philosophical Shiism: The Ismaili Neoplatonism of Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī, Cambridge, 1993.

Idem, Abū Yaʿqūb al-Sijistānī: Intellectual Missionary, London, 1996.

(Multiple Authors)

Originally Published: December 15, 2000

Last Updated: January 31, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. X, Fasc. 2, pp. 202-205