Freedom is an inviolable tenet of Islam. Perhaps nothing is more firmly established in Islam than freedom. One might cite an example to illustrate how strongly embedded the idea of freedom was among the first generation Muslims. When the son of the Governor of Egypt whipped a Copt for no fault of his, 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 arrived, he ordered retribution. He remarked on that occasion, “Allah created people free. Since when have you enslaved them?”
Accordingly, Islam was never enforced upon those of the earliest non-Muslims who, following defeats in the battlefields, found themselves under the political hegemony of Islam. To cite Egypt’s example again, a very few converted to Islam after its fall to Muslims early in the 7th century. Conversion rate remained so low then onward too, historians tell us, that even after some 700 years, half of the Egyptian population was still Copt, adhering to their old religion, perhaps in majority of cases Christianity. The gradualness of decline in numbers has been continuing right to this day when just about ten percent still remain 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 of any sort, direct or indirect. Indeed, there was never any reward either. That is, no one stood to gain materially 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. In most cases, conversion means immediate material rewards: free or low-cost education and medical treatment in Missionary institutions, ex gratia payments to the family from Christian charitable organizations, cash gifts at the Church for attending weekly services, easy terms of migration to Christian countries, etc. Contrastingly, a Muslim convert gets nothing whatsoever, except promises of rewards in the Hereafter. Indeed, older Muslims do not even seem to give full credit to the conversion. They say, “You are a revert.” There ends the matter: “You came back to what you were at birth – one submitted to God – 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 enforce upon its own adherent the kind of life it suggests they should live. 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 neither a tyrannical, despotic 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 majority of Muslims do in our times, or, partly, as a smaller minority of them does it today. They cannot be criticized for their choices. If somebody did not live by say a rule of Islam, and the word was passed around, it would be considered a slander, punishable in the courts. No religion prescribes any punishment for criticizing non-adherence of its adherents. This is the true freedom we are alluding to.
The ruling authorities in Islam enjoy limited power over the lives of their subjects. They cannot compel the people to live by the Islamic guidance, if they are not willing. Punishment for violating Islamic social laws cannot be prescribed where Islam has not prescribed. And Islam has prescribed punishments for a few violations. You can count them on a finger and a quarter: adultery, theft, drunkenness and robbery. But, of these only two are really punishable for, adultery and drinking are not punishable unless committed in public. Therefore, the ruling authorities are, in a way, rendered toothless. In Islam, the state rules more by moral power than corporeal. This is the prime reason why the tyrannical regimes in the Arab world had to disinvest Islam: bar it from social, economic and political fields of activities, before they could launch their own agenda. This is the reason why the Taleban experiment failed. When they saw that the Islamic system they were trying to establish was unacceptable to a section of their own people, and to the Muslim states of the world, their elites and masses in general, who were all happier under the hegemony of the West, they gave up. Had they fought on, surely the invaders would have committed excesses and subjected them to humiliations. In time the Taleban would have won the secularists too to their side and the struggle would have become national. In that event the invading forces would never have won. But, for the Taleban, if the local and world Muslims did not want an Islamic state, the battle was already lost. They retreated to the mountains.
Not only religions, but other systems too do not allow such absolute freedom as given in Islam. In the USA you are not allowed to follow any other kind of life, but American and Western. Americanism is indoctrinated through the educational system. Its President for example, is not allowed to denounce Christianity, or the banking system, or any part of the constitution. Whereas Muslims, living in the thick of Islam, denounce Islam, say it is the sole cause of their decline, the less of it in education the better, and so on. They object to the Qur’an included in school syllabus, refusing to accept any indoctrination. Some denunciations are followed by noisy protest by a few Muslims, but, in time the hullaballoo dies out and the denouncers go about unruffled with their axes against Islam. Benazir Bhutto’s (a former Prime Minister of Pakistan) public denunciation of Islamic penal code as barbaric is a case in point. While the Qur’an enjoys constitutional position in that country, the Prime Minister was actually praised by many for her bold remark.
Freedom in Islam goes deeper than what appears at the surface. An American President for instance, cannot go to office in an Arab dress. He cannot wear a Muslim cap in public. In contrast, many Muslim heads of state wear Western suits and some 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.
If there are restrictions in Islam, they are entirely of the kind that humanity has judged throughout its history 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 too, it is not the only system which places restrictions on these vices.
Even where Islam enforces its injunctions, it tries to find a way for the non-believer to careen around and retain his freedom of action. In case of wine, for example, an Islamic state bans its sale and drinking in public. But it does not allow any state official, or a voluntary organization to spy on non-Muslims to discover whether they drink in private. Muslims who do not know the rules are therefore crestfallen when they report of non-Muslim private drinking to the religious authorities in the Gulf states, but find that all they can get is a cold remark about how fast vice was spreading, how dangerous the world was becoming, and so forth, but no more.
There is in fact something amazing about freedom in Islam. Islam does not force its citizens to defend their country against invaders. Non-Muslims are exempt from any military service. What does it imply? It implies that they live in the land in peace, generation after generation, enjoy all the rights that any citizen does, but, when it comes to defending the land against its enemies, they can shrug their shoulders in the American style, say, “not my business,” and walk off! What country will tolerate that? In most countries, if someone refused to serve when the country is invaded, he will be court-martialed. 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 in case of an attack. It is done through declaration by the leader of the faithful, that Jihad has become obligatory on everyone in that situation. He could assert that it is the demand of their faith. 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 as an answer. To be sure, jihad becomes wajib on every Muslim when their country is invaded, but if they refuse, there is nothing that can be done to them except to threaten them with severe chastisement in the Hereafter.
The above came to light right at the time of the Prophet. He received news that the Muslim state was likely to be attacked by Romans from the direction of Tabuk. He declared defense an obligation on every Muslim, collected his forces, and marched out to prevent the invader’s entry into the Islamic lands. But many did not go. Some came to him seeking excuse on false pretexts before the journey to Tabuk started, while others did so after he returned from that journey. What did he do to those who escaped the obligation? 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 in the cause of God. But that’s all. In truth, it was some noise for those who refused to participate in the defense. They were not punished – save three. But that is because the three said they had erred, and that they were ready for any punishment. They didn’t offer false excuses to be forgiven. And how were the three punished? They were not court-martialed. They were merely socially ostracized for forty days after which, and nothing done on their part as expiation, except, so to say, some lip service, were pardoned!
Early in the history of Islam, a Persian commander asked a Muslim delegate to explain the purpose of their onslaught on his country. He answered, “To remove you from the slavery of men and bring you into the slavery of God.” But, once the slavery of men was removed, slavery to God was as enforced as it was in Egypt.
When you come into Islam, you come into freedom of a kind you will never experience under any other system anytime in your life. The day you enter into Islam you win two immediate rewards. During first few days you feel like a feather. Sometimes you have to touch your limbs to be sure your body is there with you. The other reward is that you experience a sleep, as deep and sweet, as you had never experienced since you were a baby. Ask any new Muslim: the first day in Islam is an All-Soul’s Day.