وَيَضَعُ عَنْهُمْ إِصْرَهُمْ وَالْأَغْلَالَ الَّتِي كَانَتْ عَلَيْهِمْ
…and relieves them of their burdens and the shackles that were upon them
The topic I will present here, which is the start of a series of discussions, is with regards to freedom in Islam and the Quran. It is an important Islamic and social discussion. What is the relationship of this topic with the topic of the Islamic government’s responsibilities towards society? The Islamic government’s responsibilities are of two types: responsibilities concerning spiritual affairs and responsibilities related to material welfare. Examples of spiritual responsibilities are educating, training, and rectifying the society. Another responsibility of the government in spiritual matters is to provide freedom for the individuals of the society and to prepare grounds for liberation from destructive, corrupting, and halting defects and for deliverance from all obstacles of man’s movement and growth. Fighting against these destructive elements – which is the fight for the freedom of the individuals of the society – is also a necessary and obligatory endeavor of Islamic governments. Indeed, it is not possible for the Islamic Republic and an Islamic government to exist and for it not to undertake this endeavor.
To make the discussion clearer, it is necessary to discuss the ‘concept of freedom’ and Islam’s perspective on what freedom means. I hope that the collection of these discussions will be useful for the awareness of the general public and also for those holding office within society.
First, we must clarify the concept of freedom. What does freedom mean? Almost all governments in the world that are recognized and make noise, and the Eastern and the Western Blocs as well, proudly speak of freedom. The Western Democracies are claimants of freedom, although there the freedom is individual freedom as well as with a specific meaning for freedom. The countries of the Eastern Bloc and those regimes that are socialist or claim to be socialist also proudly speak of freedom and democracy. As you can see, most Eastern countries, those that are associated with the Eastern Bloc, employ the word ‘democracy’ in the name and title of their governments, which in turn means freedom, that they are free. They want to claim that there too one of the objectives is freedom. However, by freedom they do not mean individual freedom; rather, they mean freedom on a social scale, the dissolving and assimilation of individual freedoms into what they consider to be freedom of the society. Therefore, you can see that there are claims of freedom in the world, and each government, every regime, every school of thought, and every system interprets freedom in a specific way. All of them claim that they have guaranteed freedom in their societies.
Inside Islamic societies, such as our own society, there are also some who proudly speak about supporting freedom, whether they be revolutionary and faithful individuals who speak of freedom as something sacred and support availing different forms of freedoms – some of them support political freedom and others, economic and different other types of freedoms – or those who have made freedom, support for freedom, and demanding freedom a tool under which they can hide their political motives. Therefore, inside society, among the enlightened and aware people and our general public who, praise be to God, possess high political awareness these days, the word freedom is repeated with different meanings and expressions. Each of them has a meaning and concept of freedom in their mind. Here too, the boundaries of freedom are not clear.
However, there are some people who are proponents of a variety of unrestrained liberties, such as unrestrained sexual liberties and unrestrained moral liberties. These people also speak of ‘freedom’ and that we are free to do whatever we want. They speak of that very type of ‘freedom’ which is there in the West, of that which is unfortunately called freedom. In our society also, when someone says freedom, most of the time Western freedom comes to mind. God willing, we will discuss that form of freedom. And if I succeed in putting forth the proper meaning of freedom and its correct definition, then probably many of these claims of freedom in the world would become questionable. We would see that in Western countries, in these very democracies, in these places where apparently the newspapers can write anything or the television can speak certain things – displaying a superficial exhibition and decoration of freedom – in these places, that which actually exists is a thick make-up that has been drawn upon the face of despotic and dictatorial systems. In fact, no freedom exists. It is likely that, through the discussion that I will present later and through presenting and discussing the meaning of freedom, these freedoms will become questionable. Perhaps this discussion can be the spark for many so-called free nations to doubt whether they truly are freedom and start to demand true freedom.
Before entering the main topic on the meaning of freedom and determining its limitations, a concise matter needs to be addressed which will likely take up the rest of this article. Is there something called freedom in Islamic teachings and texts? It is possible that some may think that religions have nothing to do with what is called freedom and liberty, that social freedom, individual freedoms, human beings being free, all of these came into existence for the first time in Europe. They may think that it was approximately two hundred years ago, in the French Revolution, that the issues of humans being free and are born free were first presented. They may say that desiring to attribute the topic of freedom to Islam is a vain endeavor, that Islam and other religions have nothing to do with freedom at all. This social and political concept that is prevalent in the world today is a European concept, a Western concept. It originates from the great French Revolution, from Western revolutions, from Western schools of thought; what does it have to do with Islam?! So, let us see if a concept called freedom exists at all in Islam or not?
In answering question, I must say that it is the opposite of what these people think. The concept of man being free was presented in Islam centuries before it was presented in Europe. Centuries before European thinkers, intellectuals, revolutionaries, and leaders started to consider human freedom as one of the fundamental rights of human beings, it was put forward in Islam. Actually, if we take into consideration the advanced, subtle, and lofty meaning of freedom – which is the freedom of human soul from contaminations, carnal desires, unworthy traits, and material shackles – then, even to this day, it is exclusive to divine schools of thought. The Western and European schools have not tasted this freedom in the least. That freedom which was put forward in France by the great revolution in the eighteenth century and which was later presented in the Western world is a lot smaller, more limited, and less valuable than that freedom which was discussed by the Divine prophets and Godly schools of thought. If we take into consideration freedom in this sense, then it is exclusive to the Godly schools of thought. And if we take into consideration freedom in the meaning which is presented today in political schools of thought – i.e., social freedoms, political freedoms, economic freedoms, freedom of thought and belief – along with all the different interpretations that exist for each of these titles, then the fact is that Islam presented this kind of freedom too centuries before the European revolutions and schools of thought did so.
The verse I presented in the beginning is one of those verses which are worthy of being written upon golden tablets and installed at the doors of all associations in the world that fight for the rights of the people.
الَّذِينَ يَتَّبِعُونَ الرَّسُولَ النَّبِيَّ الْأُمِّيَّ الَّذِي يَجِدُونَهُ مَكْتُوبًا عِندَهُمْ فِي التَّوْرَاةِ وَالْإِنجِيلِ يَأْمُرُهُم بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَاهُمْ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَيُحِلُّ لَهُمُ الطَّيِّبَاتِ وَيُحَرِّمُ عَلَيْهِمُ الْخَبَائِثَ وَيَضَعُ عَنْهُمْ إِصْرَهُمْ وَالْأَغْلَالَ الَّتِي كَانَتْ عَلَيْهِمْ
…those who follow the Apostle, the untaught prophet, whose mention they find written with them in the Torah and the Evangel, who bids them to do what is right and forbids them from what is wrong, makes lawful to them all the good things and forbids them from all vicious things, and relieves them of their burdens and the shackles that were upon them
This verse is about the Prophet (s). It is one of the descriptions regarding the personality of the noble Prophet of Islam that in in the Quran. There are a few verses in the Quran which describe the personality of the Prophet (s) and his companions. Each of these verses mention a dimension from among the great dimensions of that personality. One of the most prominent of these verses is this verse. One of the things mentioned in this verse is that he removes the binds from their feet, from the feet of mankind, those shackles which are there on their feet, which are a heavy burden upon them and are an obstruction to their movement, an obstacle to their flight, a barrier to their elevation to the pinnacle of their being and their perfection. He opens these shackles from the feet and necks of human beings. I looked up iṣr (اِصر) in the dictionary. It means those ropes with the help of which the base of a tent is fixed to the ground by nails. For however long those ropes are affixed to the tent, the tent does not move. So many of such ropes bind the feet of men; people are nailed down in life in such a way that they cannot move at all in the evil (ṭāghūtī) systems. There are many types of impositions, many kinds of discriminations, many types of limits and indoctrinations and infusions in a modern form today in the word which transform man into an animal. In many western societies man lives like an animal, like a goat, like a pig, like a wolf, and there is no trace of humanity in him at all. What has captivated him in this manner? Is not this the same human being one of whom sometimes sets free a nation, a country, and a society?
Sometimes, such a man can ascends. But in these western societies, you see that this same human being has become captive of lowly material inclinations, captive of oppressions, captive of discriminations, captive of these degrading inculcations, captive of disgraces and abjectness. What is it that has imprisoned man in such a way?! This is that same iṣr. These are the chains and shackles. When the prophets enter societies, their first job is to remove these chains and shackles from the neck of this prisoner. That is why you see that when the Noble Messenger of Islam came and presented his invitation and spoke the words ‘there is no god but Allah’, a black slave – who in that society is subjugated to that degree of abjectness, misery and humiliation – stands against his master, who is a noble or an influential man, speaks what he wishes to say, reveals the words of his heart, resists his master, and debates with him. This occurs in the life of all the prophets. What liberated these people in such a way? The removal of these chains and shackles. Freedom means this.
So, the concept of freedom is present in the Noble Qur’an, in the narrations, in the Islamic texts. What is this freedom? As I said before, in the following discussions, we will specify the limits and boundaries of this freedom, God willing, so that it becomes clear that this freedom is not the same as unrestrained behaviors, not the same as deviations, the same as being self-opinionated and self-indulgent, and not the same as barbarism and disorder.
Freedom means freedom. While all of the being unrestrained, barbarism, corruption, deviation, and self-indulgence have their own particular meanings, freedom too has its own particular meaning. We will clarify this later God willing. Freedom, this lofty and advanced concept, which has come up in the media, books and western thinking from at most two hundred years ago, is there in the Noble Qur’an, and it is definitely present in the schools of thought of many of the Godly prophets.
In the Commander of the Faithful’s (a) will to his son Imam Ḥasan al-Mujtabā (a), he says using the exact word ‘freedom’:
لاتکن عبد غیرک و قد جعلک الله حرّا
Do not be a slave of other than yourself as God has created you free.
You see, every human being is born free. This statement is preserved today in important documents related to the great French Revolution. It is said by everyone. It is mentioned and narrated from writers and thinkers like Montesquieu and his likes that every human being is born free. While in fact, this existed a thousand and four hundred years ago in an undeniable written account. “Do not be a slave to others while God has created you free.”
Before Islam, Prophet Mūsā (a) says to the Pharaoh:
وَتِلْكَ نِعْمَةٌ تَمُنُّهَا عَلَيَّ أَنْ عَبَّدتَّ بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ
That you have enslaved the Children of Israel—is that the favor with which you reproach me?
This has been narrated by the Qur’an. Here also, the issue of slavery and freedom is mentioned.
In the teachings of early Islam and in the history of early Islam, this concept, with this very word and these same attributes, is repeated so often that no place for doubt remains.
In the time of the second caliph, ‘Amr al-‘Ās was the governor of Miṣr (Egypt). The son of ‘Amr al-‘Ās had an argument with a young villager, and he slapped that Egyptian villager. He was just a simple, Egyptian villager. I don’t even know if he was Arab or not. It is likely that at that time they were not even Arab. On the other hand, the other person was [the son of] the representative of the caliph and the governor. The young villager complained to his father. The father comes to ‘Amr al-‘Ās and said that he must exercise retribution. My son has taken a blow, and your son, who struck the blow, has to take one. ‘Amr al-‘Ās did not pay any heed and had them removed. They got up and went to Madinah before the second caliph who was in the masjid and mentioned what had occurred. The caliph immediately wrote to the governor, ‘Amr al-‘Ās, that he and his son should come there. He brought them into the masjid and said that this villager child should execute retributive punishment upon the son of the governor, and the governor himself should face corrective punishment also. The governor asked why should he be corrected. The caliph responded that it was due to your station that your son did this; you were his backing. Then, there is a sentence narrated from the caliph, which is registered in history. He addresses ‘Amr al-‘Ās and says:
متی استعبدتم النّاس و قد ولدتهم امّهاتهم احرارا؟
Since when do you seek to make the people your slaves while their mothers have brought them into this world free?!
This is the logic of Islam. If this was not present among Muslims as a widespread culture, the caliph would not have referred to this sentence, this teaching of Islam, for such an important issue where he wanted to punish his own governor. It is clear that this was an issue that was known to everyone. It was a part of the prevalent and well-known culture of the Islamic society of that day that human beings are free. They have a right to freedom. They are born from their mothers free, and nobody has the right to enslave and imprison them and to take away their freedom. However, a Christian named George Jordac, who has written a book on the Commander of the Faithful (a), makes an interesting comparison between this sentence and that of the Commander of the Faithful (a), but this is not the place to discuss it.
This shows that this concept, this culture, exists in Islam. So, the culture of freedom, the concept of freedom, is one of the certain and definite concepts in Islam. If someone thinks that Islam is a religion which takes away social freedoms, takes away individual freedoms, that there is no freedom in Islamic culture, then their opinion is groundless. However, freedom differs from being unrestrained. As was mentioned before, freedom differs from deviating and misleading people. Freedom differs from being self-opinionated and self-indulgent. Freedom differs from one doing whatever one wants even though it is against the accepted framework of the society, the rights of the society, or the rights of others. Freedom has some borders. Freedom differs from a person doing all the misuse they wish all the while citing freedom as their justification, just as has been done in the world, just as the heaviest of burdens have been imposed on man in the name of freedom, just as the biggest crimes have been committed under the name of freedom. Under the name of freedom, generations of human beings are inflicted with ethical and lustful corruptions. Under the name of freedom, the real freedom has been taken away from the minds of men in Western culture and their schools of thought. Under the name of freedom, they have shut mankind’s eyes, closed their hearts, and have infused and inculcated in their minds and hearts with whatever they desired. This is a reality that we are witnessing in the world today, in the Western Bloc and democratic systems that are proponents of individual freedoms and also in the Eastern systems and socialistic apparatuses that are proponents of social freedoms within which individual freedoms are assimilated. Different schools of thought under different names, such as humanism and others, each one of them have struck a blow to this freedom.
Therefore, this Islamic concept – which is a very advanced, loft, and glorious concept – should be defined correctly. This is similar to the issue regarding women’s rights, women’s responsibilities, and the boundaries of their interactions which I have previously mentioned. I had said that we would not owe anything to the world if we mentioned our view regarding women’s issues; the world cannot speak anything against us if the concept of women’s boundaries and responsibilities in society are clarified. Instead, we will be the one’s who have something to say against the state of the world!
Similarly, if we present and explain the view of Islam with regards to freedom correctly, then we will not owe anything to the world, to those countries that speak proudly of their false, artificial, and deviating freedoms. It is us who would be talking back to the world as to why this freedom is not being given to mankind, why, under the name of freedom, are people being oppressed and persecuted.
So, the view of Islam regarding freedom should be known. This is a necessary discussion. It is necessary for our people. It is also necessary for those who are in contact with global issues. And also, God willing, it will solve problems for us, the officials of the country, so that we can discharge our responsibilities based on these boundaries.
 Quran (7:157).
 Muḥammad ibn Ḥasan Sharīf al-Raḍī, Nahj al-Balāgah (lil-Ṣubḥī Ṣāliḥ) (Qom: Hijrat publication, 1414 A.H., First print), 401, Letter: 31, Noor Software CD-ROM.
 Quran (26:22).
 Sayyid Quṭb, Tafsīr fī Ẓalāl al-Qur’ān, Volume 8, 95.