Freedom in Islam (Needs revision)

Back in November 2002 we were asked (S.Shafiq Ahmed – advocate, Meerut, UP) to explain the Ummah-situation vis-à-vis the inequalities prevalent in its societies. How is it justified? And what is the role of the Ulama, elites and intelligentsia? What in specific are the Ulama doing in this regard?

It was answered – in effect then – that the Ulama are helpless since their leadership role has been taken away from them. It is now in the hands of the elites and the intellectual class. (Although we believe that the intellectual class, or the intelligentsia of Islam, does not meet with even the secular requirements, far from Islamic).

These two classes, (however defined, and whatever their worth), having taking over the lead, denied Islam – and continue to deny it, to this day – any but marginal role in the social, political and economic lives of the Muslims. This has brought on several consequences, one of which is social inequality among the masses, which was the main concern of the questioner.

That short answer stated in sum and substance what in detail would require volumes. It was also pointed out then, to put it slightly differently now, that there is not much that the Ulama can do about it, except perhaps adopting poverty for themselves too. They are there to study, advance and spread Islamic knowledge and awareness. They have no power to enforce rules, nor does the Islamic system allow for enforcement, even if the Ulama are in power.

The above statements have now been questioned by Aliuddin and Humera Hyder. They have asked for justification, vis-à-vis the enforcement. It seems they believe that the Ulama are there to enforce the Islamic rules, if they have the power. What comes below is in response to it, with a few lines on another, important issue.

We might begin by stating that from philosophical angle, one of the prime difficulties we face in bringing in any significant change at the social, economic or political level among the Muslims, in any part of the world, is, in the final analysis, freedom of choice accorded every person Muslim or non-Muslim. Freedom is an inviolable tenet of Islam. Perhaps nothing is more firmly established in Islam than freedom. One might cite an example. When the son of the Governor of Egypt whipped a Copt and the case was reported to `Umar at Madinah, the second caliph of Islam, he ordered both the Governor and his son to show up at the capital. When they came, he ordered retribution. He remarked on that occasion, “Allah created people free. Since when have you enslaved them?”

This is the reason why Islam was not enforced upon those of the earliest non-Muslims who, following defeats in the battlefields, fell under the political rule of Islam. To cite Egypt’s example again, a very few converted to Islam after its fall to Muslims early in Islamic history. Conversion rate remained so low then onward, historians tell us, that even after some 700 years, half of the Egyptian population was still Copt, remaining on their old religion, perhaps in majority of cases Christianity. The numbers have continued to decline to this day when just about ten percent have remained Christian. This slow conversion has been the result of complete religious freedom given to them. The use of the word complete is in its unequivocal sense. There was never any coercion. Indeed, there was never any reward either. That is, no one stood to gain any material reward if he converted to Islam. In the Gulf today, many new converts to Islam go about from pillar to post when they are out of jobs, but fail to find one simply on grounds that they have converted to Islam. Compare this with Christianity. Conversion means, in most cases, immediate material rewards: free or low-cost education in Missionary institutions, ex-gratia payments to the family from Christian charitable organizations, and cash gifts at the Church for attending weekly services. But in Islam, a convert gets nothing whatsoever, except promises of rewards in the Hereafter. Indeed, the Muslims do not even recognize his conversion in the fullest sense. They say, “You are a revert.” There ends the matter: “You came back to what you originally were – born on the religion of Allah – and so, sort of, no credits for the jump.”

Forced regimentation is totally and completely anathema to Islam.

Not only Islam does not enforce its beliefs on any people, it does not either enforce upon Muslims the kind of life it suggests. It defines and delineates the way to a peaceful, dignified existence. But, thereafter it is quit of the situation. It is up to the people to accept or reject.

Islam is not a communistic, tyrannical, dictatorial system to enforce its way of life, nor is it the “freedom coated” capitalistic system (as of the West today) in which “you are free to do what you are told.” Islam is the other name of freedom: of the absolute kind – to the extent that you can reject it also, either wholly, as the non-Muslims do, or to a great measure, as the great majority of Muslims do, or, partly, as a smaller minority of them does today. In contrast, other systems do not allow such absolute freedom. In the USA you are not allowed to follow any other kind of life, but American/Western. Its President for example, is not allowed to denounce Christianity, or the banking system. In contrast, Muslims, living in the thick of Islam, denounce Islam, say it is the sole cause of their decline, and that the less of it in education, the better. Such denunciations are normally followed by some noisy protest by a few committed Muslims, but, in time the hulla bulla dies down and the denouncers go scot-free. Benazir Bhutto’s (a former Prime Minister of Pakistan) public denunciation of Islamic penal code as barbaric is a case in point. She didn’t lose a single vote for saying that.

Freedom in Islam goes deeper than what appears at the surface. An American President for instance, cannot go to office with an Arab dress. He cannot wear a Muslim cap in public. In contrast, many Muslim heads of state wear Western suits and don hats. Some Muslim scholars also wear Western suits without anyone raising an eyebrow. If a Pope wore the Islamic turban in public appearance, he will receive a few tomatoes. Early in the history of Islam, a Persian commander asked a Muslim delegate what they had come for, he answered, “To remove you from the slavery of men and bring you into the slavery of God.”

If there are restrictions in Islam, they are entirely of the kind that humanity has throughout its history judged as reprehensible: wine, gambling, women’s exposure, usury, pornography, etc. Islam is not the first in restricting freedom in these affairs, and, in today’s world, not the only system which places restrictions on these things.

Even where Islam enforces its injunctions, it tries to find a way for the non-believer to enjoy his right of freedom. In case of wine, for example, an Islamic state bans its sale and drunkenness in public. But it does not allow any state or voluntary organization to spy on the non-Muslims to discover whether they drink in private.

But there is something amazing about freedom in Islam. Islam does not force the citizens of the nation to defend their country against invaders. So, non-Muslims are exempt from any military duty. What does it imply? It implies that they live in the land, for centuries, enjoying all the rights, but, when it comes to defending the land against the enemies of the land, they can shrug their shoulders, say, “not my business” and walk off! What other country will tolerate that? In most countries, if they refuse to serve when the country is invaded, they will be court-martialed and shot dead. But is that the limit to freedom? No. Amazingly, even Muslims are not forced into military service. They are encouraged to Jihad. Some sort of enforcing is also tried. It is done by the Amir declaring Jihad obligatory on everyone. But supposing some Muslims refuse to fight, refuse to do anything about turning back the enemy. What’s to be done with them? Should they not be tried in the military courts? Islam has a firm no for it. Jihad was wajib on them, but if they refused, there is nothing that can be done about it except to threaten them with severe chastisement in the Hereafter. This came to light at the time of the Prophet himself. He received news that the Muslim state was likely to be attacked by Romans. He declared fighting an obligation on every Muslim, collected his forces and marched forward to prevent the invaders from entering into the Islamic lands. But many did not go. Some came to him seeking excuse on false pretexts before the journey to meet the enemy at Tabuk, while some did so after he returned from that journey. What did he do? He accepted their excuses and let them go home with smiles on their faces. The Qur’an called them hypocrites, and said they should never be allowed to fight again. But that’s all. They were not punished.

Does any country give this freedom to its people? Freedom in Islam is unfettered, unbound.

Absolute freedom then, is the reason why Islamic principles cannot be enforced on anyone, and is one of the reasons why the Islamic world has not developed materially, but instead, suffers from inequalities. Islam will not allow a group of say, committed Muslims, or the Mullah’s as derogatively they are referred to, to seize power, and then force the people to the ways of Islam. That is the reason why it were the elites and not the Mullah’s who seized power and forcibly put several Muslim countries on a course of material development. Had they not done it with the help of military rule, continued to this day, Turkey would have gone another way. Which way, we do not know. But not the one it was forced to take.

To many people the above would sound strange, confusing, contradictory, and perhaps wrong. But on some consideration the facts will speak for themselves. Take for example economic activities. Non-Islamic system enforce work upon the citizens. Eight hours work a day, forty-eight hours a week, fifty weeks a year, everyone has to work. In America, it is right from the age of eighteen until sixty-eight – man and woman. That is full fifty years. And, during the working hours one is required to work hard, harder, and harder: endlessly. Targets set are such as can never be completed in eight hours. So, many stay on for extra hours. But that doesn’t help either. So, they work during the weekends.

In contrast, the Islamic system is very loose. Eight hours are not eight hours. Work hours are interspersed with obligatory Prayers. A whole month of Ramadan dulls down everybody’s productivity. How and why? It is through freedom. People are taught that they are freed of the nature’s whims and fancies, of market’s up and down, and economy’s rise and fall. They are told to “do their best” and depend on Allah. This is a far cry from the ruthless non-Muslim economic systems where you perform, or take the exit. Whether, you are happy or miserable by the evening is your business. Whether you go to the bar to remove your tension or take hard drugs. Those are nobody’s worry except your own. The important thing is, when you report for work, your performance has to be hundred percent efficient. But in the Islamic world, if somebody took off forty days for Tabligh work, the top boss doesn’t want that to be brought to his notice for him to take the embarrassment of removing the “muballigh” from service. Thus, you have a lot more freedom in Islam than in any other system. But, how can you bind the people to say, hard work and efficiency, when you teach them self-satisfaction,

And, since this comes in the way of material development, Islam is a universally hated religion.

Rasheed Rida Misri, Sayyid Qutb, Mawdudi and Abul Hasan Nadwi were a few of the many, who dealt with this issue in detail. A study of their writings shows that although they, as principal movers of thought and ideas in Islam in the last century, correctly lay their fingers on the right causes for the failure of Islam and Muslims in the modern times, they did not have a solution to the problems that they dealt with. Why? It is because the diagnosis done, the scholars of Islam had reached their ends and limits. The best that they could do, and can do now at any time, is to point at the malady and suggest the cure. They cannot deliver the cure. First, as stated above, they were not and are not (one trial in Afghanistan stood rejected), at the helm of affairs. At the helm of affairs are still those, the elite and the intelligentsia, who refuse any serious role for Islam in building up of the society, running of the state, and development of the Muslim nations. The credit for the poverty and backwardness of the Muslim states, and now the humiliation of the Muslim Ummah, goes entirely to the leadership of the elites and the intellectual class. (This in turn had its roots in greed amongst all, the elites, the intelligentsia, the common people: one and all, (and now even in some sections of the scholars). This was stated in the answer to a previous question.

Thus, the scholars were, and are, left with no other role but to comment, explain, suggest, expound and admonish. They have no corporeal power to enforce what they believe is right. A step further, assuming that they were at the helm of affairs, and in possession of corporeal power (the army, police, the courts, etc.) they would still have no power – since Islam denies them – the right to impose what they think as the correct measures for the Ummah. (Hence the Taliban withdrew into the mountains: “if the Ummah doesn’t want what we can offer, we are in the wrong place”).

For, as we stated in the issue of above reference: From the philosophical angle we can say that the prime cause of all present day evils in the Muslim Ummah is because Islam firmly believes in man’s freedom. It does not enforce its beliefs on any people, nor does it enforce upon Muslims the kind of life it suggests. They are rather put to test. It delineates the methods for a peaceful, dignified existence. It is up to them to accept or reject. It warns however, that a Day will soon arrive when they will face the consequences of their choice.

We have witnessed, and are witnessing on daily basis, the consequences of our choices in this life. Death is the barrier between our eyes and the consequences that await those who made choices other than Islam.

The point at which the Ummah stands now, is not the point at which its scholars, reformers, preachers, thinkers, writers and Da`wah workers, held by hand and led to this point.