2 – The boundaries of freedom in Islam and the west

The Boundaries of Freedom in Islam and the West

In the name of Allah, the all-Beneficent, the all-Merciful.

Allah the all-Wise has said in His book:

الّذین یتّبعون الرّسول النّبىّ الامّىّ الّذی یجدونه مکتوبا عندهم فی التّوراة و الانجیل یامرهم بالمعروف و ینهاهم عن المنکر و یحلّ لهم الطّیّبات و یحرّم علیهم الخبائث و یضع عنهم اصرهم و الاغلال الّتی کانت علیهم

Those who follow the Apostle, the uninstructed 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 … (Surah al-A’raaf, 157)

The slogan and concept of ‘freedom’ has precedence in Islam. It is a mistake if some think that the issue of freedom – social and individual freedom – entered Islamic societies from the West and western cultures. Rather, in Islam and Islamic literature, the issue of freedom holds great importance and has many expansive dimensions – even more expansive than what is currently discussed in the world. Amir al-Mo’mineen (as) has stated: Indeed, Adam did not give birth to male slaves and female slaves, and indeed, all of humanity is free.[1]

This is a concise but meaningful sentence that includes all of the freedoms that the West, the East, world civilizations, and cultures discuss today. [It is religions’ and Islam’ honor to have proclaimed freedom for humanity.] The honor of proclaiming freedom for humanity belongs to religions and belongs to Islam.

Defining ‘freedom’ is one of the central issues within this topic. First, we must acknowledge that ‘freedom’ in the meaning of being free from every limit and constraint, of not seeing barriers on one’s path, and of every person being able to do whatever act they like, is not mentioned as a value in any culture or philosophical or social school of thought. No one has defended freedom without any limits or constraints, nor is freedom in such a complete form possible. In society, if we imagine a person who is free to do whatever they wish and has no barrier stopping them, it naturally follows that this very freedom would limit the freedoms of other individuals. Others’ easiness, safety, and freedom would all be taken away. Therefore, total individual and social freedom is not possible. Even anarchists, who came about in the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and raised the slogan of freedom from all social laws and social limits, still believed in some constraints and acted according to them. In short, total freedom in the meaning that a person is able to do whatever they wish and that everything they intend is permissible for them is not logical, possible, or defended by anyone. The discussion that does exist is on the limits of freedom. It is inevitable that this complete freedom is limited in some manner. If humans are to have a desirable life and live at ease, they must accept that some of their freedoms will be taken from them; their freedoms must have some limit. The discussion between thinkers, social philosophers, and others who have given opinions on this matter is on these ‘limits’. What are the boundaries of freedom? To what extent and in which arenas and within what framework are humans free? In which circumstances should their freedoms be limited or taken from them? The discussion on the meaning and concept of freedom is in this context.

On this matter, for the first time within popular global culture, it was western social philosophers that expressed opinions and wrote books. These books and the name of these writers and thinkers are commonly known and are usually mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which today is a global reference and accepted by many around the world. They have mentioned various opinions on the limits of freedom. For example, one opinion is that the boundary of freedom is laws: if someone wants to be free, they must be free within the framework of laws. Or, another opinion is that the boundary of freedom is to the extent that it doesn’t harm the freedoms of others. These are commonly said words by western social philosophers. Several Muslim writers have taken opinions from these philosophers and followed them without having examined and explained the Islamic opinion. They have simply repeated the same slogans without researching, looking at the verses of the Qur’an, and looking at the Islamic perspectives. Of course, some of what has been said by western philosophers is correct; however, some is wrong, cannot be defended, and is not logical. Entering into the particularities of what is right and what is wrong is outside the scope of our discussion.

What are the general differences between ‘freedom’ in the Islamic perspective and ‘freedom’ mentioned by western thinkers? To give an overview of the structure our discussion will take: First, the key points and differences on the concept and meaning of ‘freedom’ between the Islamic and non-Islamic perspectives – or better put, between the perspective of divine religions and other perspectives – will be covered. Thereafter, we will thoroughly go into the details, such as the limits on the freedom of thought, the freedom of belief, the freedom of speech, and the freedom to do various social, political, and economic actions according to Islam.

There are three major points within Islamic thinking on the limits of freedom and determining the framework of freedom that differentiate it from western thought. Just as was indicated, the western social schools of thought limit freedom by way of laws or based on where it would intrude on others’ freedoms, for example. In some areas, Islam limits freedom further than this, and in other areas, Islam grants greater freedoms. In other words, freedoms from the Islamic perspective overlap with freedoms from perspectives common in the West; however, neither completely contains the freedoms of the other. In certain areas, we believe the western opinion to be very limiting and restrictive; whereas, in other areas, we believe the western opinion to be too loose and close to abandon. One of those three main differences is that Islam, in addition to taking into consideration external barriers to freedom such as various powers, tyrants, oppressive people, and dictators who limit the freedoms of weaker people and those under their control, also takes into consideration internal factors that limit humanity’s freedoms. Defenders of freedom in the West oppose those external factors that fight and limit one’s freedom. They fight against the might of some powers that strangle their societies, not allowing a nation to breathe, against those masters who put their servants under the whip and constrain their freedom. The West has these factors in mind when it talks of freedom; these are what it wishes to provide a solution for. However, as previously mentioned, Islam, in addition to paying attention to these barriers, also pays attention to another set of factors: internal barriers. What are these internal barriers? They are those characteristics which drag humanity towards weakness, lowliness, being downtrodden, and passivity; towards decadent traits, lowly desires and inclinations, egoism, hatred, and wrongful passions. From the Islamic perspective, these too limit human freedom. In order for one to be free, it is not enough to not be under the yoke of another or a despotic government; rather, one must also not be controlled by one’s faculties of anger and desire. The human who, because of weaknesses, fear, avarice, greed, and internal lowly desires, is forced to accept impositions and constraints is also, in reality, not free.

If you look at those oppressive systems in the world and those nations where people live chained in the prisons of a tyrannical ruler, you see that their people are powerful; they have an active strength. At the same time, if you look around today, you will see many of these nations, each one having a few people in charge – people who are not even stronger than the rest of the nation. Those in charge are like children with the reins of the nation in their hands, taking the nation in whichever direction they will, without a care for its benefits and betterment. Such is the general temperament of both Muslims and non-Muslims in the world today. Why is it that these nations tolerate such conditions? One factor is the imprisonment of the people in such nations – their internal imprisonment. When the people are internally afflicted with fear, greed, giving importance to living a few more days in this world, giving importance to eating a few more bites or having better food, giving importance to their own easiness and self-indulgence; when they fear a policeman tasked by the powers that be and are over-wary of him and don’t dare to show they exist, don’t dare to breathe; when they fear death, fear unemployment, fear hunger, fear distress and difficulty; when they are imprisoned by their sentiments and internal weaknesses, this naturally necessitates that they be imprisoned by external chains as well. Look at our own nation [Iran]. Those days that this nation didn’t draw breath under the suffocation of the Shah’s tyrannical regime, no one made a sound; no one dared to complain in such bad, hellish, and oppressive conditions. That oppressive and tyrannical system bulldozed over the people with no burden on its conscience. And why shouldn’t it? When the heart doesn’t know God, it doesn’t have mercy, kindness, or love for humans, for God’s servants. On the day that our people broke down the walls of fear and the walls of greed, that businessmen overlooked their daily income, that students overlooked that term’s classes, that workers overlooked even the minute income they received, that soldiers overlooked the stations they held, the chains of greed were destroyed; the chains of fear were destroyed. When people were freed from their internal chains, it necessitated that they pour into the streets; they clenched their fists. When the people were freed, freed from the chains binding their souls and breath, at that moment, the tyrannical, oppressive system of the Shah saw no method to oppose them, no way to force the people back in their places.

It is the same worldwide. The people who are not imprisoned by their debasing sentiments, their negative characteristics, their lowly desires, fear or greed, will also not be imprisoned by external powers, by tyrannical, oppressive, despotic powers. This is a prescription that is equally applicable for all nations of the world and is a cure for the pain of all people. Internal freedom and spiritual freedom is the freedom from those chains that don’t allow one to move, to act, to will. But, these chains are not external; they are internal. This is one major difference between Islam and western schools of thought on the matter of freedom. Western schools of thought do not give importance to this point, nor do they pay it any attention. Yes, their teachers of ethics – an ethics that is far away from spirituality, divorced from a spiritual foundation and thought and therefore, an ethics that is dry and empty – give some advice, say some words, and write some books; however, that is completely separate from the topic of freedom. They do not see freedom from internal chains to be the freedom of humanity. Islam does see it to be humanity’s freedom.

What have Islam’s leaders said about this freedom that is in reality the freedom of human spirituality, freedom from internal limits and chains? Oh mankind, do not let greed imprison you and make you a servant, when God has created you free.[2] What type of freedom is it that one’s greed would take away and destroy? Humans’ greed, avarice, and craving imprison them. That is the opposite of freedom; it contradicts freedom. It is not possible for humans to be free, to be desirous of freedom, to think of themselves as free, and yet be imprisoned by greed. Greed itself would make them slaves.

One who lets go of their lowly desires and inclinations is free.[3] The person who is imprisoned by their desires, drowning in their lowly inclinations, what freedom do they have? This is the point that completely separates freedom in the Islamic perspective from freedom in the western perspective. They say that if a person is controlled by their inclinations and is a slave to their lowly desires, they should be let ‘free’ to do what they will. That isn’t freedom; it is imprisonment and servitude. No external factor can make a person enslaved like internal, lowly desire can enslave. This is why you see that in the world today tyrants use this methodology to imprison nations, to make individuals – even those who are resistant – obedient: they throw people into the clutches of desires. One of the operations that intelligence agencies around the world carry out is that through special plans and evil actions they put individuals, who they are wary of or fear might create difficulties for them, into the clutches of some lowly desire – lust, money, etc. That person who was so free, who cried out and expressed their existence so grandly, suddenly, you see that person is like a slave, imprisoned; like a servant, obedient. Therefore, lowly desires imprison humanity.

One narration states: The person that ignores the attractions of this world and worldly inclinations has freed their soul and pleased their Lord.[4] And in another, it is related: A free person is free in all conditions. If they are faced with difficulties, they bear it; they are patient. If they are afflicted with trials from every direction which put them under pressure, they do not break.[5] What does this mean? Such people are not made wretched by difficulties. They are not made helpless, imprisoned, or enslaved by fear, upset, and trial. This is who you call ‘free’. This is freedom in the Islamic conceptualization.

This was one difference between freedom in the Islamic perspective and freedom in the perspective of western schools of thought. It can be summarized thusly: in Islam, freedom is not only freedom from external constraints and limits; rather, freedom from internal constraints is the greatest of freedoms. If someone has external freedom but lacks internal freedom, in reality, they are not free.


[1] Al-Kafi, vol. 8, p. 69: انّ ادم لم‌ يلد عبدا و لا امة و انّ النّاس کلّهم احرار

[2] Ghurar al-Hikam, p. 298: لا یسترقنّک الطّمع و قد جعلک الله حرّا

[3] Tohaf al-Uqool, p. 88: من ترک الشّهوات کان حرّا

[4] Ghurar al-Hikam, p. 277: من زهد فی الدّنیا اعتق نفسه و ارضی ربّه

[5] Al-Kafi, vol. 2, p. 89: الحرّ حرّ علی جمیع احواله ان نابته نائبة صبر لها و ان تداکّت علیه المصائب لم تکسره

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