The Scope of Freedom in Islam| Sheikh Salman al-Oadah|
In a previous article, I presented freedom as being the human will unconstrained by external compulsion or by other external and internal factors that curtail this will. External factors that negate freedom include political authority that dictates to people what they can do or say. They also include religious authority that monopolizes access to scripture and dictates its interpretation. Then there is cultural authority that people must submit to.
All of these factors are external because they exist outside of the individual. However, to some extent all of these factors are unavoidable. We cannot imagine a world without them. A society without a government, without religion, and without cultural norms would not be as society to speak of. Every society needs these things to give human life stability and safeguard the rights of the people. Society must strive for balance and determine the extent of such authority that is needed and when that authority transgresses against the inviolable rights of others.
Then we have the internal factors, like the natural disposition of the individual, moral values, and personal idiosyncrasies that influence a person’s perspectives and decisions.
Then there are a host of other factors like the environment, history, and vested interests to take into account. On this basis, we can say that freedom exists within the context of four factors:
1. The dictates of textual authority
2. The authority of social norms and customs
3. The authority of learned people in the religion
4. Political authority
The Dictates of Textual Authority
With respect to the textual factor, every civilization on Earth has some inviolable sacred authority to which it defers. It could be derived from values or religion, or in materialistic societies, from reason, public interests, or even pleasure. In any event, it is impossible for a civilization to be devoid of some authority of this kind.
For Muslims, the religion of Islam is the very essence of our society. Our religion is the most important first principle. It is our individual and our collective choice. It is even the choice of the minorities living within Muslim society. Many nations, like the Berbers, Egyptians, Syrians, and a number of ethnic groups in Africa, were fully absorbed into Islam and became its most ardent believers, the carriers of its Message, and strove with their lives to defend it.
In the history of Islam, we do not know of a single case where a nation or even an individual person was forced to accept Islam under compulsion. The Qur’ân explicitly states: “There is no compulsion in religion.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 256] It is a basic teaching of Islam that if anyone ever was forced to convert, then that person’s conversion would not be accepted by Allah. The reason for this is that legal accountability in Islam does not apply to a person under duress. For the same reason, a person who makes a profession of unbelief under duress will not have it counted against him. Allah says: “Any one who, after accepting faith in Allah, utters unbelief – except under compulsion, his heart remaining firm in faith – but such as open their breast to unbelief, on them is Allah’s wrath, and theirs will be a dreadful punishment.” [Sûrah al-Nahl: 106]
This was not the case for other religious groups in history. When Spain fell to the Christians, the Inquisition was established. People were forced out of fear to convert to Christianity and change their names, bringing about what came to be known as the Moriscan people. Many people were imprisoned, tortured, and killed at this time. Nothing like the Spanish Inquisition ever took place at any time in Muslim history. This is a testament to the greatness and justice of Islam and to how well-suited Islam is for all people.
Islam is meant for everyone, both Arab and non-Arab. Anyone can willingly become incorporated into it and assume it as his or her identity.
The basic principles and teachings of Islam are fixed. The details are open to juristic investigations, and many of them are subject to change under different circumstances. Likewise, the text of the Qur’ân is firmly established and immutable, as is the authentic Sunnah. Often, however, various interpretations are possible. This is why the interpretation of a given text does not enjoy the sacredness of the text itself, except in cases where the meaning of the text is clear and indisputable and does not lend itself to multiple interpretations.
The Law of Islam as a whole is fixed and immutable. Individual laws, however, are subject to human investigation. This is why the great jurist al-Shâfi’î often had two opinions on a given matter of law. This is also why the students of Abû Hanîfah overturned two-thirds of their mentor’s legal rulings and there are so many opinions on legal matters that have been passed down to us from Ahmad. This is no different than what the Caliph `Umar meant when he commented: “That is the ruling we used to give and this is the one we are giving now.”
The Companion Abû Mûsâ al-Ash`arî explained the matter as follows: “A verdict that you gave yesterday in a particular case should not prevent you from looking into the issue again if you are guided to the truth on the matter, for the truth is timeless.”
Once a man came to Ahmad b. Hanbal with a book that he had compiled and that he wanted to call Disagreement among the Scholars. Ahmad said to him: “Do not call it that. Rather call it the Book of Leeway.”
The authority of Islam is firmly established, whether it be in its inviolable texts, its immutable principles, or its teachings that have been accepted without dispute from generation to generation.
As for the institutions that developed in Muslim society to derive solutions and programs from the texts, they are subject to opinion and juristic discretion and therefore hold no claim to sacredness. They should never cause rigidity in thinking or stifle inquiry. Their approaches and methods must never be seen as an end in itself, but merely as a means to develop and reform Muslim society.
Today, we see people talking about literary expression. Listening to them, it would seem that for something to be true literary expression, is has to be hostile to the principles of our faith since it seems that what has to be expressed are only base desires, perversions, and immoral behavior. Then,, there are those works that directly attack and belittle what Muslims hold sacred, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses being a good example.
What is the value of literary expression that is cut off from the people; that neither benefits them, inspires them, nor helps them to realize their goals?
Moreover, the inviolable principles on which Muslim society is built are not up for debate. We cannot create a new set of principles and then inject them into the Muslim community. The underlying principles of Islam are matters known to all Muslims. No one has the right to abuse such principles or cast doubt on them. Whoever wishes to advance Muslim culture should do so by first entrenching these principles, not by instigating internal crises.
The immutable principles and teachings of Islam are what unite us as Muslims. They must form the basis on which we build our intellectual lives, our professional lives, our politics, our educational system, and the orientation of our media. These principles are what can unite our different personalities and factions.
The existence of a few people among us who do not accept the authority of Islam nor the principles of the society in which they live should not come as a surprise to us. This was the case with the hypocrites who lived in Madinah when the Prophet (peace be upon him) was alive. They were few in number and weak in their influence over society at large. The problem, however, is when doubt about society’s basic principles and values becomes widespread and commonplace.
If a man wanted to renounce work because of some personal quirk or idiosyncrasy, then that is his own problem. The same thing can be said for someone who wishes to renounce education, marriage, or even life itself. The effects of this self destructive behavior would be limited. However, if these ideas became the norm in society, hereby the vast majority of people refused to work, get and education, or marry, then this would mean the destruction of society as a whole, no less than if they all engaged in mass suicide.
The Authority of Social Norms and Customs
There can be no doubt that society wields considerable power through the customs and traditions that it upholds. We find that the Prophet (peace be upon him) recognized and upheld this authority and even deferred to it on some occasions. For instance, he did not rebuild the Ka`bah according to its original design in consideration of the sentiments of the people. He forbade the killing of the hypocrites so people would not say that Muhammad kills his Companions. He allowed some practices that were less preferred in Islam because of the overwhelming public benefit that was realized by allowing them.
However, there has to be balance. Never should custom be given precedence over considerations of Islamic Law. Society must never be the final authority for all matters. of religion. Some questions are religious in nature and not within society’s scope to address. Other matters might have dimensions that existing social norms and practices are unable to sufficiently address. Society might itself be plagued with problems and schisms or be on the verge of falling apart. Such challenges require people to make choices that may very well be what is needed to bring about reform and move society forward.
Customs and traditions are an important part of society. Custom, as a rule, should be respected. Customs are not necessarily either good or bad. Some customs should be upheld and preserved as they help bring about what is good and right. There are other customs, however, that need to be abandoned.
In Muslim societies, there are many good customs and traditions that must be upheld, like those that foster social ties, family bonds, respect for parents, respect for the elderly, compassion for children, generosity, and good morals. These qualities are part of Islam and these traditions grew out of Islamic teachings.
Other customs are suitable for certain times or circumstances but not for others. Some of them might be suitable for the poor but not the rich. Some might work in peacetime but not during war. This is a very broad topic. For example, what was deemed generosity in the past may not count as generosity at the present or in the future.
Then there are bad customs and traditions, some of which go against the religion of Islam that, however, are difficult to do away with. Abolishing certain customs is a very sensitive matter. Trying to do so without wisdom and discretion can lead to even greater problems than those posed by the custom itself. Sometimes, trying to overturn a custom just makes people more passionate in their adherence to it.
Most customs and traditions are a mix of good and bad. It is difficult for many people to separate the two or even distinguish between them. A good example is that of human kinship and lineage. Kinship is a cause for cementing ties between relatives and knowing one’s family members for purposes of inheritance and other matters of Islamic Law. At the same time, since the dawn of history, it has also been a cause of prejudice and bigotry. Even though the Prophet (peace be upon him) warned against such ills, they have remained with us on every level of society up to this very day. These problems continue to be a cause of division and disruption. Distinctions between people cease to be merely to help us get to know each other. Instead, people began using them to claim that they were better than one another. Here is a case of something that is essentially good being tied in with customs and practices that are quite bad.
The Authority of Learned People
This factor is always somewhat problematic. When we look at the state of Islamic scholarship, we see a tremendous amount of disparity among the numerous scholars, legal experts, Qur’ân authorities, educators, and specialists working in the field. They are not united within a single organization nor a single way of thinking. Most of the statements and opinions being offered are made on an individual level. Rarely are they the result of a group effort or a public investigation. In the early days of Islam, the opposite was true. When an issue arose, `Umar used to summon the Companions and consult them on it.
Even when it comes to dealing with Islamic institutions, matters are still problematic. People naturally like to be told positive things about themselves, even if those things are untrue. They are likewise turned off by criticism, no matter how valid and well intended it might be. A person usually needs to be very God-conscious and spiritually motivated not to succumb to such tendencies. Asceticism weakens the ego and allows a person to accept criticism. Someone who is accustomed to hearing praise all the time finds it very difficult to deal with criticism when it comes. This is quite natural. Even a person who hears nothing but criticism for twenty years and then experiences praise for one week out of his life will have a hard time accepting criticism when hears it again.
Sometimes, loyalty to a certain scholar or political figure becomes too strong. Some people cannot stand hearing anyone criticize the sheikhs or Islamic workers they follow. No matter how gentle the criticism might be, they become hostile and aggressive and often insulting towards the critic.
A person should be free to defend what he believes. At the same time, he must be aware that becoming preoccupied with doing so can lead to unnecessary polarization and division within Muslim society or at least within the ranks of scholars and Islamic workers. This is especially true when the motivation for doing so is partisan in nature.
The tendency to rally around personalities is a problem that can no longer be ignored. We must make a concerted effort to bring unity to the Muslim world and marginalize factors that cause division.
No doubt, establishing truth and rectifying mistakes are duties enjoined by Islamic teachings. Preserving the honor of people is equally our duty. These duties complement each other and are by no means contradictory.
People must have the freedom to criticize. They should be free to determine how deserving people are of the titles and positions that they hold. We might demand that the language of discourse be maintained at a certain level, but at the same time we cannot demand the impossible. We cannot expect proper decorum to be maintained at all times. Let the people express their opinions. Then after the air has been cleared, there will be time for direction and guidance so that the discourse will take a more polite tone in the future.
If we are to criticize governments that repress the views of others, we cannot do the same things ourselves in our own conventions, assemblies, and organizations. Criticism does not destroy people of worth; it is what builds them. It can act as a motivational force that pushes them into positive and creative action. It dispels arrogance and false pride. We must accustom our ears to criticism of those we love, as long as that criticism does not degenerate into accusations and slanders. When it does, we do not have to entertain it. Allah says: “And when they hear vain talk, they turn away from it and say: ‘To us our deeds, and to you yours; peace be upon you: we seek not the ignorant’.” [Sûrah al-Qasas: 55]
The problems that we have in our learned community are also unfortunately evident in our politics. By contrast, many countries today see an opposition as an essential ingredient in political life, so much so that if it does not exist they set about creating one. In this we can see that criticism is not at all detrimental to government or society. It brings about transparency, exposes problems, and weeds out the corruptions and inefficiencies that are symptomatic of an autocratic, oppressive and stifling environment.
It is well known that many infectious microorganisms thrive in darkness and die when they are exposed to sunlight. When people live in a natural and open environment where they can express themselves and exchange ideas, society tends to be much healthier. It is more enduring and more capable of overcoming the challenges that it faces.
It is a mistake to think that freedom is merely a decision on the part of society. It is a way of life. Such a decision, however, can be the spark that ignites the first fires of true freedom.
Al-Jâhiz wisely observed that a nightingale will never breed in captivity. There is a lesson in this that we can learn.
Between Equality and Justice
Freedom and equality are two sides of the same coin. Islam recognizes that all human beings are created equal. Allah says:
“O humanity! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware.” [Sûrah al-Hujurât: 13]
“O humanity! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women.” [Sûrah al-Nisâ’: 1]
“And their Lord hath accepted of them, and answered them: “Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, male or female: You are one of another.” [Sûrah Âl `Imrân: 195]
Some people prefer to talk about justice rather than equality since there are some unavoidable differences between people that can neither be overcome nor ignored; for instance, the biological and psychological differences that exist between men and women.
The differences between men and women turn out to be greater than previously assumed. Scientists have discovered that biological differences between men and women are so great that any medical research that is conducted must recognize sex as an important variable. Some of these differences go down to the cellular level. In the past it had been assumed that these differences existed only within the sex organs themselves.
Men and women differ in the stages of life that they pass through. They differ in their susceptibility to various diseases. There are differences in metabolism and in how they react to various medicines.
Research conducted by the British military revealed that injuries more than doubled during military exercises where women and men were treated identically. The Journal of the Royal Academy of Medicine reported that injuries requiring medical attention, like broken bones, chronic back pain, and tendonitis, remained at less than 1.5% among male soldiers, whereas similar injuries among women increased from 4.5% to over 11%. It was concluded that the smaller bone-size and lower muscle mass of women meant that stress to the woman’s skeletal frame during military training was from 33-35% greater than it was for men.
Therefore, it is impossible to conceive of absolute equality between men and women in all matters. This does not mean, however, that there should be a bias in favor of men to the detriment of women. This is surely not the case in Islam, though it makes certain distinctions between men and women. Some of these distinctions may be seen to favor men, but just as many certainly favor women. In many other matters, Islam calls for strict equality.
With respect to rights, Islam gives preference to the rights of the mother over the rights of the father. The Prophet (peace be upon him) emphasized the mother’s rights three times and mentioned the father’s only once.
Cases of absolute equality can be found in matters of inheritance. For example, the brothers and sisters of the mother of the deceased have an equal share of the deceased’s estate. In some cases, the woman’s share is greater, depending on the type of relationship she has to the deceased.
Allah says: “And women have rights similar to the rights upon them, according to what is equitable.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 228]
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Women are the full siblings of men.”
These principles are an integral part of the greater Islamic framework. They cannot be taken in isolation or without considering the other aspects of that framework. Consider the following questions:
– Who is obliged to pay the dowry?
– Who is liable for household expenses?
– What are the duties that fall exclusively upon the shoulders of men?
– What are the duties that fall exclusively upon the shoulders of women?
Islam has given men a degree above women. It has placed men, as husbands and fathers, in charge of maintaining and caring for women. Collectively, men have a distinction. This is an aspect of Islamic Law that is clear and unambiguous. We should not shy away from this fact simply because some men misuse it.
When Islam discusses the deficiencies of women, it is neither insulting them nor belittling them. Some men, unfortunately, do precisely that when they quote the words of the Prophet (peace be upon him) that women “have a deficiency in their intellect and their religion”. They take these words out of context as a means of oppressing women and putting them down.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) meant something quite different. He said: “I have never seen among those who have a deficiency in their intellect and their religion anyone more capable than women of swaying the intellect of the most determined of men.” He is actually asserting here the power of women to influence men and sway their opinion. This is one of the distinctions that women, in their natures, have.
He then went on to define precisely what he meant by these deficiencies. In the remainder of the hadîth, some women asked him: “O Messenger of Allah, what is this deficiency in our intelligence and religion?” He replied: “Isn’t it that a woman’s testimony as a witness is half of the testimony of man?” They said: “Yes.” He said: “This, then, is the deficiency in her intelligence. Isn’t it true that when she is in her menses, she leaves off prayers and fasting?” They said: “Yes.” He said: “This is the deficiency in her religion.”
These are matters of Islamic Law. A woman is neither sinful nor blameworthy because of the prayers and fasts that she misses. She, in fact, receives blessings by obeying Allah and abstaining from those acts while she is menstruating. Her testimony as a witness is half that of men only in matters wherein she is generally less versed than men. In other matters wherein women have particular knowledge, like fosterage and virginity, the testimony of a woman is accepted but not that of a man.
Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) attested to the perfect character of four women: Mary, Âsiyah the wife of Pharaoh, Fâtimah, and Khadîjah. He definitely did not mean that these women did not go through menstruation. He was referring to their good character, strength of intellect, and soundness of opinion.
Equality and justice are principles of Islamic Law. It is also a matter of Divine decree. Ages ago, when the descendants of Âdam were few in number, human beings were granted long lives of a thousand years or more. As the human population increased in size, the human lifespan was reduced until it reached the duration we now deem as natural. There is divine justice in this. If the earlier generations were to endure, they would do so at the expense and detriment of the later ones. By passing away, the earlier generations give the later ones the opportunities that they need.