Al-Maturidi’s complex views on human freedom and divine command are best understood through three distinctions that he makes, distinctions between two kinds of power, two kinds of divine attitude, and two kinds of divine decree. Let’s start with the two kinds of power. Of these, the second kind of power is relatively straightforward. It’s the power not definable except as the power to perform the act at the time of the act. But acknowledging this kind of power is consistent with acknowledging a different kind of power, the first kind. What is this kind? It’s the human capacity to act in two opposite ways.
Al-Maturidi says God makes us responsible for things that are hard and easy, steep and level, and gives us principles by which to attain every virtue. He holds that everyone knows that he is the one who chooses to do what he is doing, even though the theological determinists deny this. The picture of the two powers we are given is that the first power precedes the act, and it is a power to choose, and the second power performs the act and is concurrent with the action. Both powers are the gift of God. The action that is taken by the second power must be the action that is chosen by the first power, since al-Maturidi says the action is performed “through” the choice made by the first power.
This brings us to the second distinction, between two kinds of divine attitude. It’s similar to the earlier distinction between decreeing and determining in the sense of producing something and decreeing and determining in the sense of commanding it. But whereas al-Ash’ari resists the implication that there exist things of which God disapproves (because he doesn’t want to attribute weakness to God), al-Maturidi gives us a way to take the distinction inside God’s will, without losing God’s global providential control. This solution distinguishes between satisfaction and will in general. But this isn’t intelligible until we have described the third distinction al-Maturidi makes, namely, the distinction between two kinds of divine decree.
The first decree is the definition with which things come into existence. In something like this sense God has said, “Surely we have created everything by a decree.” About the second kind of decree, al-Maturidi says, “Nor with regard to the second is it possible for human beings to determine their actions with respect to time and place, nor does their knowledge attain this. And so in this respect, too, it is not possible for it to be by them, such that their actions do not come to be from God.
What is the difference between these two kinds of decree, which we can refer to (somewhat imprecisely) as the “absolute decree” and the “detailed decree”? It’s noteworthy that the “absolute” decree is an evaluation that is all good for the object because the decree comes from divine wisdom and knowledge. The “detailed decree,” though, is of the coming-to-be of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, wisdom and foolishness. When al-Maturidi talks of the distinction between satisfaction and will, he has in mind (under “will”) that everything is good that is created by the absolute decree in its final connection with everything else in the history of the universe, and is under God’s working all things together for good. But when each type of action is put together with its results and circumstances, but still isolated from the final disposition of the whole universe, it can be good or evil. [Is the intimation that in ultimate context it ceases being, say, bad when it was bad before? That seems to confuse something being good versus something being used for good. An evil redeemed doesn’t mean it’s not evil.] God chooses to reward in accordance with the “detailed decree” only what satisfies Him and to punish only those “He does not like.” But God by His absolute decree and in His absolute power turns even the evil that we choose into good. [How can evil change into good?] One way to put this would be to use a distinction al-Maturidi does not: a murder can still be wrong even though God turns it to good. [Yes, and this is exactly the confusion: it’s not turned into something good, but it’s rather used to bring about some good.] Hare says if this is al-Maturidi’s picture, he has a way to repair the fissure in the providential circle that would otherwise result. It will still be the case that we can attribute the whole final circle to God’s good care.
Image: "Islam" E. Musiak. CC License.