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

Free will or fatalism?

This is an age old unanswered question which Rumi says will never be resolved, if expressed in this either or context.

There shall be debates and disputes, to the end of time; between the Fatalists and the advocates of free will. ~Rumi [1]

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. [2]

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. [3]
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 [4]

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“).

A thief said to the magistrate, ‘Your honour, what I have done was decreed by God.’
The magistrate replied, ‘My dear, what I am going to do is also decreed by God.’
If someone takes a radish from a greengrocer’s shop, saying, ‘This is decreed by God, O wise man’;
You’d punch him in the face few times; and tell him ‘This beating is also God’s decree to make you put it back, you wicked man.’
This sort of excuse is not even acceptable by a greengrocer in the case of stealing some vegetable.
How dare you then making such an excuse?  You are frequenting the neighbourhood of a dragon, you obnoxious ‘know-it-all’ man.
By making an excuse like this, O immoral naive one, you sacrifice all—your life, your property, and your wife.   ~Rumi [5]

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”.

The world echoes like a mountain—whatever you say, whether good or evil, you hear the same back from the mountain. If you think, ‘I spoke beautifully and the mountain gave an ugly answer,’ this is impossible. When the nightingale sings in the mountain, does the mountain return the voice of a raven or a donkey? Know for certain then that you have spoken like a donkey! ~Rumi [6]

Reasons demonstrating we posses free will

Rumi offers at least four reasons as evidence that we humans posses free will:

1. Our innate knowing:

Beyond doubt we possess a certain power of choice: you cannot deny the plain evidence of our inward sense.
Nobody says to a stone, ‘You are late?’; or to a stick, ‘Why did you hit me, O stick?’
If a camel-driver goes on striking a camel, the camel will attack the striker.
The camel’s anger is not directed against the stick: therefore the camel has got some notion of the power of choice in Man.
Similarly a dog, if you throw a stone at him, will rush at you with fury, not at the stone.
Since the animal intelligence is conscious of the power of choice in Man; don’t you, O intelligent human, say otherwise! Be ashamed. ~Rumi [7]

2. Indecision, hesitation and doubt:

How can your indecision–as to which to choose between two actions–be void of freewill?
Would someone whose hands and feet are chained ever say: “Shall I do this or shall I do that?”
Can there ever be in my head such a dilemma as: “Shall I walk on the sea or shall I fly in the sky?”
No, there is only the kind of vacillation like: “Shall I go to Mosul or shall I go to Babylon?”
Vacillation, then, must be in the context of the power to act; otherwise, it would be a mere mockery.  ~Rumi [8]

3. Experiencing variety of feelings and moods:
Rumi says that if we did not have freewill, then why would we experience feelings such as anger, resentment, shame, guilt, regret, remorse, kindness, pleasure, pride, achievement?

Our humility is evidence of necessity, but our sense of guilt is evidence of free will.
If we did not have free will, what is this shame then? And why the feelings of regret, bashfulness and embarrassment in us?
The anger within you is an expression of free will; so you must not excuse yourself after the fashion of Fatalists.
How can you say there is compulsion when you take much pleasure in your indulgence and sins?
Would anyone walk joyfully if forced to go somewhere? Would a lost person be dancing all the way to nowhere?  ~Rumi [9]

4. Rewards and punishments for acts of good and evil, as instructed in scriptures and books of ethics and morality. 

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[3] . 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.

Mission Possible?
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.

This is union with the Truth; this is not fatalism. This is the shining forth of the moon, this is not a cloud.
And if this be fatalism, it is not the common fatalism; the type put forward by one’s self-righteous commanding self.
O’ son, only those would know this true fatalism whose hearts God has blessed with inner sight.
To them the unseen things of the future became manifest; to them recollection of the past became naught. ~Rumi [10]

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”:

Abandon this useless fatalism; in order that you may know the innermost secret of (real) fatalism.
Abandon this (common) fatalism that belongs to a bunch of idlers; in order that you may gain knowledge of the fatalism that is your true self. ~Rumi [11]

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.

The one who is overpowered by Our grace, is not coerced; no, he freely chooses devotion to Us.
This is the ultimate freewill; that his freewill is dissolved here.
The freewill advocate would not get a taste of this ultimate freewill; if he does not ultimately become free of his ego self. Rumi [12]

Then Rumi pleads with the Divine to rid him of his painful personal will:

Deliver me from this fork of free will, O gracious and tolerant Lord!
Being pulled in one direction–the straight Path –is better than being torn at the junction of perplexity, O gracious One.
Although all roads lead to You; yet indeed this duality is so agonising.
Although travelling either of these roads is all Your Will; yet this battle is hardly as nice as Your banquet. Rumi [13]

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 [14]

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.

Everyone is in the midst of their own wants and needs. No living creature can be separated from its need.
“Their needs cling to them closer than their father and mother.”
That need is their leash, drawing them this way and that, just like a nose-ring and chain. Now, who would make a leash for themselves? That is absurd—so someone else must have made it for them.
If we are in the midst of our own wants and needs, we are also in the midst of the One who gives us those wants and needs. If we allow contact with our own leash, we would always be connected to the One who draws that leash. However, if our eyes were fixed upon our chain, we would lose our dignity and worth. We would be free of the chain only if our eyes would be fixed on the One who draws that chain. For that leash is around our neck only to reveal the One who holds it. ~Rumi [15]

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.

Love alone cuts the debate short; for Love alone comes to the rescue when you cry for help against arguments.
Eloquence is dumbfounded by Love: it dares not engage in altercation.
For the lover fears that if he answers back; a pearl (his inner experience) may fall out of his mouth.
He closes his lips tight, avoiding any words good or bad; lest the pearl should fall from his mouth. Rumi [16]


-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