PJM Specials

Specials Today: Islamic Angels Have No Free Will

Salim Mansur writes at PJM a piece called "The Cool Water of the Koran." It is meant to respond to some critics of Islam who have suggested that the trouble lies in the Koran itself; Salim Mansur disagrees.

One thing I found fascinating in his piece was the Islamic version of the "free will" argument:

The Koran instructs individuals to choose the right path. Because human beings, in contrast to angels and all other members of God’s creation, are endowed with free will it instructs them to choose among alternatives. It is in our freedom to choose we become fully human, and freedom means responsibility and accountability for choices made and acts committed. The Koran reminds us over and over again that we are responsible for the consequences of our conduct.
This is something new to me. I can see how someone could believe that "lower life forms" such as paramecia lacked free will; I'm not clear how anyone could believe a dog does -- or, as dogs are said to be unpopular among many devout Muslims, a cat. Indeed, it's especially hard to believe a cat has no free will.

But an angel? This is a real oddity. In every other system I know that believes in beings higher than men, those beings that are closer to god/truth/etc are freer than lower beings. There is a hierarchy of free will and awareness, that runs through paramecia to dogs and cats and people and on to the higher beings, whether they are gods or angels or beings of light -- or demons.

Indeed, in Christian belief, it is the wrongful expression of that will that caused the greatest of angels to fall and become the worst of devils. I'm told that Islam likewise believes in an idea of Satan, or Shaitan, so I wondered what they made of him. Here it is:
In Islam, Allah created everything in pairs. The pair for a human is a jinn, two beings of higher intelligence created with free will....

Iblis was of jinn race and was supposedly a devoted servant of Allah. He attained a very high status and was brought close with the Angels. But Allah knew Iblis well and the intentions of Iblis and therefore the Shayṭān was named Iblis (meaning "desperate"). The angels do not have free will and do not sin, because they do not know how to sin. When Allah created human, Allah commanded all the angels to prostrate (sujood) to Adam and his people. All angels did so, except Iblis, who refused Allah's direct command.

Iblis was proud and considered himself superior to Adam, since Adam was made from clay and Iblis was created from smokeless fire. For this act of disobedience, Allah cursed the Shayṭān to the Lake of Fire for eternity, but gave the Shayṭān the respite till the Day of Judgment at his request.
So we have an intermediate class, so to speak, of creatures: "jinn," who are lower than angels but who have free will like men.

That doesn't explain away the question of the angels, though. It's fascinating that Islam -- alone, as far as I know, among religions -- considers that it is possible to be a "higher" being but lack free will. What would it mean to be "higher," if it doesn't mean what it means for every other religion: to be more aware, and freer? It points to the Islamic ideal, I suppose: perfect submission to Allah.

The extinction of free will then would be a positive good. The death of knowledge would be good, if it meant that you would "no longer know how to sin."

I must admit that I don't feel better about the Koran after reading this piece. I do thank the author, however, for what was obviously intended as a kind and enlightening effort.

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