Freedom and Choice:
The First-Order Condition of Islam

Mohammad Omar Farooq

Courtesy: Message International [July 2004]
Islamic Horizons [Abridged version; July-August 2006]


Professor Bernard Lewis wrote: "By all the standards that matter in the modern world—economic development and job creation, literacy, educational and scientific achievement, political freedom and respect for human rights—what was once a mighty civilization has indeed fallen low. ... Many in the Middle East blame a variety of outside forces. But underlying much of the Muslim world's travail may be a simple lack of freedom." [“What Went Wrong?” Atlantic Monthly, January 2002]

Apparently, the diagnosis of Lewis has been instrumental for the neo-con hawks (or chickens?) in the US. In the guise of removing their former bed-fellow and buddy-- Saddam Hussein, they were the architects of US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Infatuated with Lewis' diagnosis they wanted to deliver freedom, the medicine of deliverance, particularly to the Middle East. Lewis' prescription to them seemed exactly what the doctor ordered.

Non-Muslims’ views on the condition of Muslim societies are important for Muslims. However, the real challenge for them is to adopt a self-critical approach, to diagnose their conditions without neglecting either the reality on the ground or the guidance of Islam as reflected in the Qur'an and Sunnah.

Even though Muslim regimes are primarily secular they are mostly tyrannical and authoritarian, lending credence to Lewis' assertion. Unfortunately, regimes claiming Islamic orientation have not been illustrious of freedom. Pakistan, the first Islamic Republic of the twentieth century, has been unable to free itself from military juntas except for brief periods. Efforts and experiments to implement Shariah by authoritarian regimes have been inglorious: the case of Sudan has been dismal, Saudi Arabia’s detestable, and Afghanistan’s horrifying. The case of Iran is qualitatively better, with a representative form of government institutionalized. Regardless, Iran’s top religious hierarchy retains ultimate power and authority, helping keep a stubborn and tight leash on the government. Arbitrary rejection of many candidates at the recent election in Iran was not a healthy sign.

Throughout the Muslim world young marriageable daughters and sons are coerced to accept life-partners chosen by parents or guardians. Any critique of Islam and the Prophet--reasonable or propagandist notwithstanding--that goes against popular Muslim sentiment often earns a death sentence or bounty on the head for their vocalizers. Governments that are secular in practice, such as the one in Bangladesh, are being coerced by some reactionary religious elements to engage in declaring who is true Muslim, and to ban books by select subgroups within the society generally regarded as non-Muslims.

As a minority in the US for more than 23 years and helped by a comparative perspective based on personal experience, it is quite clear to me that one need not turn to Bernard Lewis, a Jewish professor who is inclined to Zionism and the Zionists love him for his service [see "The Anti-Zionist Resolution," Foreign Affairs, October 1976], to acknowledge serious problems in Muslim countries within the context of freedom. Let alone the secular governments in the Muslim world, as Islamically-oriented governments are falling seriously short from the Islamic standards, Muslims need to critically re-examine themselves and their societies. 

Notions of freedom and liberty are least articulated themes among Muslims, unfortunately. The shaping of today’s Muslim societies has been tremendously impacted by this. The theme of freedom is articulated in the Qur'an in many places, among which is the following dramatic verses.

"I do call to witness this City;
And thou are a FREE PERSON (Hillun) of this City;-
And (the mystic ties of) parent and child;-
Verily We have created man into toil and struggle. [90:1-4]

The context in which these verses were revealed relates to a unique aspect of what should be the essential understanding of a Muslim personality. Notably, the Prophet was born and raised in that society, where he earned the title al-Amin (the trustworthy). Yet, the powerful elites of the Makkan Quraish considered Islam’s egalitarian message a serious challenge to their unjust status quo and would not allow the Prophet to stay in that society. He overcame all the odds but it illustrates that even the Prophet, just as did other Prophets (e.g., Abraham, Moses and Jesus), struggled to earn and retain this freedom so as to deliver the divine message, and carry on his mission to make the truth "manifest". 

God reaffirmed this fundamental human right of freedom of choice and expression, not directing it to the people but to the Prophet himself, to make it more emphatic and dramatic, saying: "No, I witness by this City that YOU ARE A FREE PERSON (HILLUN) of this city." This is an inalienable blessing directly from God himself. You are FREE because God has made you--and everyone else--free in this world!

Why is this theme of freedom so vital? Unfortunately, those who believe in La Ilaha Ill Allah (There is no deity, except God) often don’t appreciate enough the freedom they must have, both at the individual and societal level. Notably, Prophet Moses had to face another impediment: a culture of slavery in which the Children of Israel grew up and were not ready to undertake any struggle to free themselves from the very tyranny to which they have been subjected for generations.

Today the majority of Muslims live under conditions that are tyrannical and unIslamic. There are forty-plus countries that claim to be Muslim countries [These ought to be called Muslim-majority countries, in accordance with Islam's pluralistic and inclusive vision and principles], but Islam is hardly practiced as a complete way of life – the way it should be practiced in a holistic sense, of course, with due respect to the rights of and respect to others (non-Muslims). Prevalent democracy and elections in other parts of the Muslim world are mostly pseudo-systems of post-colonial legacy, denying their people tangible benefits of democracy as a representative, participatory and accountable form of governance. In Egypt, Tunisia or Algeria, for example, elections are regular so long as the outcome coincides with the expectations and/or desires of the establishment. 

Islamic parties, organizations, movements, etc. also have not made any major progress because most of them have an authoritarian bent of mind and their calls for an Islamic state or society also portrays or represents a rather coercive and imposing model, especially for non-Muslims and women. Endeavors from various Islamic organizations have not been too successful primarily because most of them envision authoritarian rule. The problem might be deeply rooted in a culture that does not embrace the value and principle of freedom from the Islamic viewpoint.  Rather, it is laden with both external aggression and internal tyranny and not engaged in a struggle to secure their own freedom and independence, let alone being reasonably conscientious and respectful of the freedom of others. 

Muslims are still not coming to grips with the fact that the contemporary world is governed and dictated by a global system that exploits and oppresses the rest of the world in the very name or cover of some lofty modern labels. It’s a global phenomenon. It is high time to realize the true message of La Ilaha Ill Allah and positively, creatively and constructively face the so-called new world order with a better model for humanity to emulate.

If Muslims are to chart their future course of history, then as individuals they need to purify and educate themselves, working at both community and Ummah levels to reestablish themselves based on universalistic values of Islam, and the post-Prophet legacy of representative, participatory and accountable governance.

Today the world is concerned about extremism and terrorism by Muslims. However, Muslims as minority here in the USA also can probably better appreciate the need to have the same concern about any extremism that does not distinguish between the innocent and guilty, civilians and military, ordinary people and combatants. Unfortunately, such extremism develops more commonly where there is a clear lack of freedom as in the Muslim world. This is exacerbated by injustice, deprivation and effrontery Islam and Muslims have been facing from non-Muslim powers and societies. While freedom and independence of the Muslim world at the collective level remain at jeopardy under the so-called new world order and the freedom and liberty of the people in general in the Muslim world remain shaky, Muslims must be self-critical in determining the indispensable role of freedom in their lives.

According to Islam, God created humankind with the distinct endowment of freedom: the freedom to choose and express in this world. If this freedom were not essential to our human existence, then God already had angels to serve him obediently. Freedom to choose is, not the last or only, but the first-order condition of Islam. The Qur'an categorically states: "Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error..." [Qur’an/2:256] Thus, there is no need to coerce others toward faith and a virtuous life. People should only be offered the pertinent information, education, and enlightenment toward what Muslims believe to be the truth without coercion. This is a profound issue that seems quite nebulous in traditional Islamic discourses.

Somewhat painfully slowly but gradually, a new Islamic discourse is emerging in a more contemporary context, to better address the pertinent issues. Some essential aspects are as following.

First, freedom of choice and expression being the first-order condition in Islam, Muslims must cherish this fundamental right for themselves at the individual and the collective level.

Second, Muslim-majority countries should seek true independence to serve their own people genuinely and capably and free themselves from the post-colonial legacy of corrupt and undemocratic regimes often subservient to and manipulated by the interests of the global powers.

Third, based on the principle of "no compulsion in religion," Muslims need to develop a new model of a society, where people uphold their faith not primarily due to the coercion and fear of the government or the authority, but based on Taqwa (God-consciousness that motivates the inner self toward what is good and right). A society can have norms for various aspects of life, but the compliance of much of it should not be based on “enforcement” by an authority. The Prophet’s indeed was not a model of enforcement. If he was not a watchman or police over the society [Qur’an/42:48], the government’s authority can’t assume that role either over who prays, covers her head or keeps his beard.

Lastly, to be independent, Muslims need to appreciate the importance of freedom not just for themselves but also FOR ALL OF HUMANITY. If Muslims value freedom it can't be just for them. They have to value freedom of others too, even though sometime they may find certain ideology, religion or philosophy disagreeable. At the very first sign of others criticizing or vilifying Islam, Muslims can't demand their head or try to drive them out of our neighborhood or of this planet.

Living in the United States for almost 23 years has been a remarkable experience for me as a minority. While it has its own extremes and shortcomings and there are many cases of discrimination and, in recent times, worse, even then there are many more people who would like to come and reside here, because at the personal level it offers a very high degree of freedom. While U.S.’ aspirations regarding the freedom, liberty and democracy for all (beyond the American border) might be hollow, hypocritical and even arrogant, the personal freedom its citizens and residents, regardless of their background, generally enjoy is remarkable. However, the example of USA is not a balanced one, because the personal freedom it offers is afforded by an utterly loose and relativist standard of morality. In contrast, the traditional Muslim understanding and vision of an Islamic society leans toward some strict moral standard, where coercive authority plays a pivotal role. That is not a balanced position either. That’s where a new model that better balances personal freedom while also upholds some universal moral values becomes imperative.

A past-enriched, but forward-looking perspective requires that Muslims need to recognize the importance of freedom, and struggle for it at all levels. They also need to recognize the challenge of conceiving a model of a society where merely the freedom of Muslims is not an exclusive concern, but also the freedom of others. That should be the meaning of this Ummah (people) being "evolved for the humanity." [Qur’an/3:110]

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