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A Muslim Perspective on Freedom

Basma Elshayyal's picture

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Freedom: It is, perhaps, a state to which every living creature aspires to – not only humans, but animals as well. It would, I think, be difficult to find a single human who would not wish to be 'free'. Likewise, if a bird is placed in a cage; and one day the door happens to be left open, then that bird will surely fly out. Take a cat into a small room and close the door – you will see that it will immediately go to the door and scratch away … neither wish to remain in a locked, enclosed environment.


Freedom, then, is not a religious or 'non-religious' idea, nor an 'Eastern' or a 'Western'; ancient or modern – it is a universal concept, one which has been treasured by humankind since time immemorial.


Freedom and equality


Muslims believe that in order to be able to live with and in freedom, then one must equally wish and work for the freedom of others. Freedom and equality are interrelated. Freedom cannot be achieved without the application of equality. However, it is important to remember that freedom in Islam means freedom to do what is deemed good and wholesome, not unfettered freedom. In the Arabic language the word hurr does not mean only 'free', it also means 'noble'. Islamic teachings emphasize human dignity, and a Muslim believes it is freedom that brings dignity to human beings. Thus, human beings cannot be called honoured and dignified unless they are free.


Divine authority and free will


Closely related to this point is the concept of Divine authority and free will. A Muslim believes that human freedom cannot go against Allah's power and knowledge. He/she believes in Allah's qada' and qadar (destiny and predetermination). This means that Allah knows everything of past, present and future, and He has power over everything. However, by His own will and power, Allah has given humans the freedom to choose. He gave us free will, but this does not mean that He does not know what we do or He has no power over us. The concept of freedom is also not against the Islamic concept of `ubudiyyah (service) to Allah. Islam itself gives a Muslim the idea of freedom as well as that of service and obedience to our Creator. The foundation of Islam is submission to Allah alone. Therefore, the Islamic concept of freedom is to remove any absolute authority over the individual, for such authority negates the very gifts that Allah has granted him. Submission to Allah is by necessity realized within the context of freedom. It is intrinsically tied in with responsibility.


Freedom in Islam is not freedom from moral obligations and responsibilities or freedom from truth, justice, virtue and righteousness. Islam teaches that freedom from these values is not freedom, but anarchy and corruption… human beings should be free mentally and spiritually, as well as physically.



Freedom of religion


For example, an oft-cited verse is 'Let there be no compulsion in religion'. (Qur'an, Chapter 2, verse 256.) The reasons behind the enshrinement of the freedom to practise one's chosen faith are interesting to note. Prior to the arrival of Islam in the Arabian peninsula, leaders of the two largest tribes of Madinah, the Aws and Khazraj, had made a solemn covenant that all their male progeny would be brought up as devout Jews as an expression of gratitude for the blessing of sons. Later on, when many members had embraced Islam, some families insisted that their offspring should do the same. This verse was then revealed, asserting the principle of freedom of religion.


It is also important to be aware that, for a Muslim, this concept is not one that has come about as a result of revolution or societal evolution. It is believed to be a Divine injunction, and one that has limits, just like any other freedom. For instance, should a person avail themselves of this freedom of allegiance to a particular faith, this would be deemed a sacred obligation, not to be taken lightly. (Chapter 3, verse 72).


Freedom of thought


A second 'freedom' which a Muslim cherishes most dearly is freedom of independent thought and individual accountability – more on this point in the section on Judgement and Salvation. A Muslim is constantly being exhorted to rely on his/her own independence of thought and reminded that Allah rejects the argument of people who may say: 'We followed our leaders or elders who misguided us.' (An interesting thought, given current global political dynamics.)


Do they not travel through the land, so that their hearts (and minds) may thus learn wisdom and their ears may thus learn to hear? Truly it is not their eyes that are blind, but their hearts are in their breasts.

Chapter 22, verse 46


It therefore follows that freedom to debate, have a dialogue and interact with various other belief systems is not only permitted, but truly praiseworthy. In fact, Muslims are commanded to defend other faiths with the same assiduousness that they would their own:


Did not Allah check one set of people by means of another, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure. Allah will certainly aid those who aid his (cause) – for verily Allah is full of strength, exalted in might, able to enforce his will.

Chapter 22, verse 41


Other freedoms


So, people should be free to practise their religion, but they should not force their religion on others. Similarly, Islam allows freedom of expression, but people should not utter falsehoods and lies. Islam teaches political freedom so that people choose their leaders by their own consent, and if the leaders are dishonest or incapable then people remove them from office. Islam allows economic freedom. People should be free to earn and to own as much as they want, but without indulging in fraud, deception and cheating.


In the Qur'an the concept of freedom is described with many words and expressions, such as hurr (free) or tahrir (making a slave free); najat (protection, salvation); fawz (reaching the target, achieving the goal); and falah (total wellbeing, flowering of the potential, fulfilment of latent qualities). In the Hadith (Prophetic sayings and traditions) it is called `itq (emancipation and liberation).


To conclude, a Muslim believes that freedom has both positive and negative connotations: freedom for, and freedom from. If he/she is to be free to lead a happy, healthy, prosperous, moral and dignified life – then that will necessitate being free to worship, to express themselves, to earn, to have a family, and to have a government of their choice.


On the other hand, a Muslim wants people to be free from economic, political and social oppression. A Muslim wants people to be free from materialism, selfishness and religious persecution. Finally and most importantly, A Muslim aspires to be 'free' from Hell and to live happily in Paradise in the Hereafter.


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