Dear Rumi …
Do I have Free Will?
Do I have free will and choice in life, or is it all predetermined?
What do “acceptance” and “surrender” mean in real life?
Rumi Calendar Series – Response to the June Question
This is an age old unanswered question which Rumi says will never be resolved, if expressed in this either or context.
Rumi has paid extensive attention to this complex and significant question; evidenced by the fact that he has discussed it in about 70 places throughout the Mathnawi, amounting to about 2000 couplets; particularly in book five as well as books one and three. He has also covered this topic in Fihi ma Fihi and Divan Shams.It might appear that Rumi wavers between free will and fatalism; however this is not the case. In order to understand his seemingly contradictory stance, one must appreciate his layered and evolutionary cosmology. 
Rumi teaches that one does posses free will and carries personal responsibility for one’s actions in day to day social matters. Responsibility towards oneself, others, the society and the whole of nature (Personal will).
Whereas from the cosmic perspective everything and everyone is subject to the Divine Will; a creative evolutionary process which is an intelligent optimising force (Universal Will). This Universal Will overarches and encompasses one’s personal will without contradicting it. 
Furthermore, the distinction between personal and universal will disappears at higher levels of self-realisation.
Consider both our action and the action of God. Know that our actions do exist, this is obvious.
If our actions did not exist, then you should never ask anyone: “Why did you do that?”
The creative act of God brings our actions into existence; our actions are the effects of the creative act of God.
Nevertheless we have choice in our actions; the consequences of which shall either aid us or bite us back like a snake. ~Rumi 
You have free will and personal responsibility
Rumi clearly illustrates below that we do posses free will and personal responsibility for our actions, and that we must not do wrong and then; as a fatalist; simply blame destiny or God for it. Similarly we must do our best to improve our own and others’ lives; we must not sit idle and wait for divine intervention (for Rumi’s personal life example see section “Presence, clock time and psychological time” in article “Rumi on presence and time“).
In another parable; in the Mathnawi Book V, 3077-3086; Rumi tells the story of a man who climbs a date palm to help himself. The owner spots him and asks what he is doing up there. The intruder claims this is God’s orchard and as God’s servant he is entitled to eating the dates God has offered him. The owner calls one of his workers to take the intruder down. He then ties him to the tree and beats him up, saying that “I’m just a servant of God, carrying out God’s wish using His stick”. To which the intruder surrenders and says: “Sorry, I repent being a fatalist, yes I have free will, I have free will, I have free will”.
Reasons demonstrating we posses free will
Relationship between personal will and Universal Will
As mentioned in the opening, we do posses personal will at the social level and therefore carry personal responsibility towards ourselves, the society and the environment. However, from the cosmic perspective everything and everyone is subject to the Divine or the Universal Will. This creative evolutionary process which is an intelligent optimising force overarches and encompasses our personal will without contradicting it . Let us now explore the relationship between these two levels of will and what they mean to us in practical terms.
Ultimate free will is losing your personal will in the Universal Will
In a previous article about the “Purpose of life and our work here“, Rumi showed us that our life purpose is self-realisation; and that we are capable of advancing on our unique journey through self-knowing.
We are therefore here to know our true self. This is a non-compulsory mission offered to us, that most of us will not accept, and will choose to stay trapped in our day-to-day cycles of pleasure and pain. (See also Rumi on True Happiness).
However, should you choose to accept this mission, you will then need to learn to apply your personal will to be a fair and good community member, as well as remaining steadfast on your path of self-realisation.
Our heart is longing for what it has lost, and the way we go about finding it is by initially using our personal will (being disciplined and steadfast in our self-realisation activities), and then gradually getting out of our own way to directly experience the optimising force which is the Universal Will.
The more advanced we are on our journey of self-realisation, the less we would be concerned with our personal will. In fact at higher levels of self-realisation, one has direct experience of the Universal Will and would not see oneself separate from it; hence the question whether one has free will or not would turn out to be irrelevant.
In the following poem Rumi tells us that we must abandon any resignation to fate and actually use our free will in order to work towards knowing the secret of true fate; which as he said above is “union with the Truth”:
Devote your limited personal will to the path of self-realisation in order to dissolve into the unity of being. To lose one’s will in the Universal Will is the ultimate free will.
Then Rumi pleads with the Divine to rid him of his painful personal will:
How to use our personal will to accomplish our mission
From what went, it is clear that at the social level we should not simply submit to fate. We must not remain idle and leave all to be handled by the “higher powers”. We must do what we can, to improve our personal and social situations, and we must not remain silent in the face of injustice and adversity. We are obligated to put our utmost effort towards the good of all existence, including humanity, animals, plants, and the environment.
At the same time, we must try surrendering to the Universal Will (this is not resignation). We can do this by continually examining our actions and personal history to recognise how we resist the optimising force of the Universal Will. While going about fulfilling our personal and social duties, we must endeavour to learn from our experiences to know the deepest and possibly darkest parts of our social self. We can then gradually get out of our own way to allow our essential self to shine through (for more on social and essential self, see Purpose of life and our work here). Spiritual teacher A.H. Almaas clarifies this further:
We are not saying that you don’t have free will, but that you don’t have a free will separate from the whole.
Surrender is not resignation. It is very important to distinguish between them. Resignation means that you are admitting that you cannot get your own way. You are taking yourself to be a separate self with a separate will that is being thwarted by reality. This is very different from true surrender, which is neither acceptance nor rejection, but ceasing to separate one’s own will from reality. To learn to surrender means to expose your wilfulness–the belief that you have a will separate from reality’s, and that you can have it your way. ~A.H. Almaas 
Your wants and needs are your leash; resistance is futile, understanding sets you free
Rumi illustrates the dynamics and traps of the above-mentioned journey of life by likening our wants and needs to a leash. One can live either enslaved forever by one’s wants and needs, by struggling to meet or get rid of them. Or one can conduct oneself in a manner to become free. This liberation results from channeling one’s energy and resources towards understanding our wants and needs, while also meeting them at a reasonable level. Our biological and psychological wants and needs drive us to act in certain ways, some of which are vital but most are not. We must not remain fixated on the leash and we must not resist it either, for it is precisely our reaction to the leash that keeps us in chain. We must notice that the purpose of the leash is to awaken us to that which holds it. The more accurately we examine our social self, the freer we would be because we get to know and identify more with our true nature, our essential self.
Through continual recognition and examination of our needs and limitations plus our reactions, struggles and resistances to them; we will awaken to our essential self to know that there is no leash.
Love of the truth is the cure
And finally Rumi tells us that love is the cure to end this debate. Uncompromising love of the truth that brings about our direct inner experience of our essential self, our pearl.
-Hamid Homayouni (June 2014)
Copyright notice: Content and poem translations can be used freely for non-commercial use on the condition that they are clearly acknowledged and attributed. Commercial use without written permission is prohibited. Painting copyright Andre Martins de Barros
Translations: All English translation from Persian(Farsi) are by Hamid Homayouni, either originally or as review updates and/or corrections from available English translations. Mathnawi by R.A. Nicholson. Fihi Ma Fihi by A.J. Arberry.
1. Rumi, Mathnawi, Book V, 3214 همچنین بحث است تا حشر بشر // در میان جبری و اهل قدر
2. Zamani, Karim, in Minagar Eshgh , p 382 (Book only available in Persian میناگر عشق). See also article by Jalaluddin Homayee “Free will and Fatalism from the perspective of Rumi and Islamic theologians”, p 19 (only available in Persian)
3. Rumi did not literally use the terms Universal and Personal will. I have deployed these terms for clarity and consistency; they are totally aligned with Rumi’s teachings.
4. Rumi, Mathnawi, Book I, 1480-1483
فعل حق و فعل ما هر دو ببین // فعل ما را هست دان پیداست این
گر نباشد فعل خلق اندر میان // پس مگو کس را چرا کردی چنان
خلق حق افعال ما را موجدست // فعل ما آثار خلق ایزدست
لیک هست آن فعل ما مختار ما // زو جزا ، گه مار ما گه یار ما
5. Rumi, Mathnawi, Book V, 3058 – …
6. Rumi, Fihi Ma Fihi (Discourses of Rumi), Discourse 40, p 272.
Discourses of Rumi OMPHALOSKEPSIS Publications.
7. Rumi, Mathnawi Book V, 2967-… and 3050-…
8. Rumi, Mathnawi, Book VI, 408-412
9. Rumi, Mathnawi, Book I, 618-619 and Book V, 3049 and Book IV, 1396-1402
10. Rumi, Mathnawi, Book I, 1464-1467
این معیت با حقست و جبر نیست // این تجلی مه است این ابر نیست
ور بود این جبر جبر عامه نیست // جبر آن امارهٔ خودکامه نیست
جبر را ایشان شناسند ای پسر // که خدا بگشادشان در دل بصر
غیب و آینده بریشان گشت فاش // ذکر ماضی پیش ایشان گشت لاش
11. Rumi, Mathnawi, Book IV, 3187-3188
ترک کن این جبر را که بس تهی است // تا بدانی سر سر جبر چیست
ترک کن این جبر جمع منبلان // تاخبر یابی از آن جبر چو جان
12. Rumi, Mathnawi, Book IV, 401-403
آنکه او مغلوب اندر لطف ماست // نیست مضطر بلکه مختار ولاست
منتهای اختیار آن است خود // که اختیارش گردد اینجا مفتقد
اختیاری را نبودی چاشنی // گر نگشتی آخر او محو از منی
13. Rumi, Mathnawi, Book VI, 203-206
کای خداوند کریم و بردبار // ده امانم زین دوشاخه اختیار
جذب یک راهه، صراط المستقیم // به ز دو راهه تردد، ای کریم!
زین دو ره گر چه همه مقصد تویی // لیک خود، جان کندن آمد این دویی
زین دو ره گر چه به جز عزم تو نیست // لیک هرگز رزم چون بزم تو نیست
14. A.H. Almaas. Facets of Unity; pages 127 & 131.
15. Rumi, Fihi Ma Fihi (Discourses of Rumi), Discourse 33.
16. Rumi, Mathnawi, Book V, 3240-3243
عشق، برد بحث را ای جان و بس // کو ز گفت و گو شود فریاد رس
حیرتی آید ز عشق، آن نطق را // زهره نبود که کند او ماجرا
که بترسد، گر جوابی وا دهد // گوهری از لنج او بیرون فتد
لب ببندد سخت او از خیر و شر // تا نباید کز دهان افتد گهر