3 – The roots of freedom in Islam and the west

The Roots 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)

In the discussion on the Islamic perspective on freedom and the boundaries that an Islamic government has the responsibility for putting in place to provide for key Islamic freedoms in society, we mentioned that the western perspective on the concept of ‘freedom’ has many differences from the Islamic perspective. Of those many differences, there are three major ones that we will cover.

Previously, we went over one of these differences. In the western perspective, freedom can be bound by external barriers (social, political, economic, etc.); however, in the Islamic perspective, freedom, in addition to those external barriers (tyrannical regimes, oppressive economic systems, and their like), also has a series of internal barriers. These internal barriers limit and imprison humanity. They are more important than external barriers; their danger is greater; and their removal is more difficult. Only those who have previously removed these internal barriers – or at least some of them – and are free in heart and spirit are able to remove external barriers and bring those who attempt to limit them to their knees. We mentioned and explained a few narrations from the great leaders of Islam, our Imams (as), on this topic. One point that remained is that the much-emphasized words and concepts of ‘taqwa’ and ‘tazkiyyah’ in Islam in reality are equivalent to the very same breaking of one’s internal barriers to freedom. Taqwa is that one cautiously protects oneself and doesn’t allow lowly inclinations and desires, ignorance, and mistakes to take one away from the correct, Divinely-prescribed path for humanity. Tazkiyyah is that one purifies oneself from contamination, corruption, and captivities of the soul and heart – to purify oneself from lowliness and vices. If taqwa and tazkiyyah are found in someone, they are free, and therefore, they can also be victorious over the great powers in the world. If taqwa and tazkiyyah are found in a nation, even if they are found with varying degrees among the people, to that same extent which it is found, that nation is able to overcome those external powers that attempt to limit their freedom. There is a famous story about the philosopher Diogenes that one day Alexander of Macedonia, who conquered a great portion of the civilized world of his time, was conceitedly walking around the city. All the people honored him, falling to the ground and praising him. He saw a man wearing shabby, poor clothing in the middle of his path, and this man was the only one not paying any attention to him. Alexander asked, “Who is this?” People went closer to find out who the man was. Alexander asked him, “Why didn’t you pay me any respect?” He responded, “I shouldn’t pay you any respect, as you are the servant of my servants.” Alexander was taken aback. He exclaimed, “Are you crazy? Are you calling someone like me a servant? That too, a servant of your servants?!” The man responded, “Don’t be surprised Alexander! You are imprisoned by your desires and anger; whereas, desires and anger are under my control.”

This is an anecdote of a free human, who, by controlling their desires, anger, and lowly inclinations and not being imprisoned by them, becomes stronger than any person or group having material power but imprisoned and enslaved by their lowly inclinations. Therefore, when you look through history, you see that philosophers, scholars, prophets, and Gnostics – even with their apparent weakness and lack of power over the Alexanders, Cyruses, and other rulers and conquerors of the world – were victorious. They weren’t victorious in their own times; rather, they were victorious over the course of history. Of rulers and conquerors of the world, nothing but their name has remained, and that too comes with the condemnation of intelligent peoples. On the other hand, those people who lived, who understood, who learned, who expressed lofty ideas, who exemplified virtuous characteristics, who in reality followed the path of prophets, philosophers, and Gnostics, they are the ones who impressed their ways of thinking onto history and humanity, standing by their views and fighting for them. Even if they are now gone, their thoughts remain; they achieved their goal. This is the key difference between the freedom that is popular in western culture of today’s world and the freedom within Islamic culture.

Another major difference lies in the roots of freedom. We will go over this point in a simplified, concise manner. Albeit, this topic calls for specialists within the field to expend further efforts and studies on it. The source and root of freedom in western thought is completely different from that in Islamic thought. This call that you see in current western civilization for humanity to be free has a particular philosophy; it draws from a particular way of thinking. Whereas, Islam’s call for humanity to be free has a different philosophy and draws from a different source. The root of freedom in the West is human wishes and desires. When we say “human wishes and desires”, what is meant is all desires, not just those that are logical to have. Humans have a series of wishes and desires, some of which are important, and others are unimportant. Some are logical; others are whimsy. Some are related to lowly desires, and others to lofty thinking and the soul. Whatever these wishes and desires may be, because one has a certain inclination, one must be able to satisfy it. This is a summary of the western view on the philosophy of freedom. This is why when you look at western civilization and culture, when they talk of freedom, it includes political freedoms (such as the freedom of carrying out political activities, the freedom to vote, the right to legislate laws, the right to work, etc.), and it includes the freedom to satisfy personal lowly desires. If it is asked why that man with that woman come out in public, on the street, with that uncouth and wrong behavior, doing actions that shame the conscience of ordinary people, it is said that this is what they want to do. They are free! Let them do as they wish. This philosophy of freedom is centered on wishing, the heart’s desires. This is at the heart of freedom in the West. Even if it is said in the West that freedom is limited by laws, those laws themselves are a result of the wishes and desires of individuals. Who determines the laws in western civilization and democracy? The majority. In accordance to what does the majority vote for a law, an individual, or system? What they desire, what they think to be good. Their reasoning for something to be ‘good’ is not necessarily that it correlates with virtues. The wishes and desires of the majority of a society bring about laws and a system; these laws and system limit the general populace’s freedom within its framework. Thus, the source of freedom in western civilization and culture is the wishes and desires of the people.

However, it shouldn’t remain unsaid that this is the apparent side of the story. Even freedom to this level is not truly present in current western civilizations. If one were to ponder on the issues of the western world and study their difficulties, it would become abundantly clear that a specific handful of people make up the ‘majority vote’ and the ‘desires of the majority’, such as economic factions, political factions, those attached to various political and economic interest groups, and, in some countries like America, powerful Zionist groups. If you want to find the source of western freedom, meaning that which was established in France in the 18th century and became common throughout America, Europe, and all other locations under the influence of western culture, you will find that it is the wishes of a specific class of society: investors, owners of companies, owners of international cartels and trusts, international companies. When they desire a certain person to become a figurehead, to become a president so that their economic plans come to fruition, they expend all their resources and utilize public channels of information – that are generally under their own control – to sway the public opinion to a particular party or individual and capture the majority’s votes. In this day and age, it is something clear and known within political circles that if someone in America were to be in opposition with large companies and popular economic groups, their political future falls into danger; their party isn’t selected in the elections; they don’t win the election. If that person is somehow elected and acts in opposition with the desires of those groups, they are taken down from their seat of power – they are assassinated, or a game is played over their head. We occasionally witness these type of happenings in those systems and regimes.

Therefore, even if is claimed that freedom in the West is based on the wishes and desires of the people – which itself is an unacceptable and illogical basis that we will expound on later – the actual source of this freedom that creates their laws and system is the wishes of owners, cartels, and individuals with economic and political influence. This is the source of freedom in the West, and it is in accordance with this thinking that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights came into existence. If you look at this declaration, you will find that it has predetermined various ideas on beliefs, thoughts, and actions for people everywhere in the world. However, you will at the same time find that there is no country that has put into practice what is written and signed in this charter. Even though in that theory of freedom – freedom that is to a large extent possible to be put into practice if they desired to do so – limits are not beneficial for humanity, those who hold power don’t follow this theory. They don’t put into practice that which they themselves accept and chant slogans for, because even this freedom is abrasive to what benefits them. This is freedom in western culture. This is why you see that the countries that are seen to have greater freedom by western audiences and writers are those that have the greatest gratification of carnal desires. When it is asked which country is the most free, the name of some Scandinavian countries – in which sexual freedom is completely without bound or limit – is taken. They are seen to be free and said to be the freest of countries! So, freedom, in western thought, is principally that the inclinations and desires of humans, their faculties of desire and anger be let free. Anything that they wish, they should be able to do within the framework of laws, which itself comes about through these same wishes and desires.

However, freedom as an Islamic concept and in Islamic culture is fundamentally different. The root of freedom in Islamic culture is a worldview of monotheism. The principle of monotheism, with the depth of precise meaning that it entails, guarantees that humanity be free. Whoever believes in the oneness of God must let humanity be free. This is why you see proclamations of prophets in the various chapters of the Quran (Surah Anbiya’, Surah A’raaf, and others) such as: And to the people of ‘Ad, [we sent] Hud, their brother. He said, ‘O my people, worship Allah![1] First, the prophets would make the people wary of God, and, after relating the reason why they should do so, they would advise the people to obey God and obey them – the representatives of God. The first message of all prophets was to obey God and to restrain from following all that is taaghut – that which is other than God and desires to imprison and enslave humanity. ‘Worship Allah, and keep away from the Taaghut.’[2] This has been mentioned many times with the very same wording in the Qur’an. According to this, freedom in Islam is dependent on monotheism. This topic covers a very expansive ground. Whenever I have reached the topic of tawhid, I would spend hours and days going over verses of the Qur’an and narrations. This is truly an ocean of Islamic wisdom. Here, we will suffice with a short explanation that the heart of monotheism is to reject the worship of that which is other than God. Monotheism, in every religion and in every prophets’ call, means for humanity not to obey and worship that which is not God – no matter if it be one individual (like Fir’aun and Nimrud) or a group or system (a non-Divine system), no matter if it be a thing or one’s lowly inclinations and desires, or the non-Divine practices and customs that are popular. One should only obey Allah, the Almighty. Obeying God means to act in accordance with Divine laws, to accept a system that is Divine and based on Divine-thinking, to acknowledge as a leader and guide only those hold to Divine values and to obey them, to acknowledge the prophet sent from God as someone whose obedience is obligatory, to accept and obey that vicegerent whom God has specified, and in all ones movements and actions to live only within this framework, not obeying any other framework. Only be a servant of God. A human is that creation in the Islamic worldview which has endless potential within it. This human can endlessly advance in the arenas of knowledge and the discovery of the secrets and realities of creation. This human can endlessly advance in the travel of spiritual levels and stages of the soul. They can go higher than the angels. With respect to various types of powers, they can reach the peak of all abilities. If humans worship God, if they obey God, these paths are laid open before them. If they obey other than God, their wings will be held bound, and their advancement will be restricted in all fields, even science. Humanity comes to know about science through monotheism. Muslims, when they turned towards monotheism at the advent of Islam even with all the ignorance and polytheism that overwhelmed the world at that time, gained such freedom and found such victory that the doors of knowledge were laid open to them. They advanced and all of humanity was left to follow them. They entered the valley of knowledge, and today, all of humanity owes their knowledge to Islam and the monotheism of Muslims. This is Islamic freedom. Thus, the root of freedom in Islam is the personality and intrinsic value of a human who is the servant of no one other than God. In reality, the source of human’s freedom is monotheism and awareness of God. This source of freedom in Islam in the fountainhead for various types of new freedoms for humanity. Thereafter, a free human in Islamic thinking cannot and does not have the right to obey other than God – which we will go over in further detail when discussing the third difference between Islamic freedom and western freedom. This is why all prophets, and especially the prophet of Islam, emphasized worshiping only God. The Qur’an, when addressing the ahl al-Kitaab – the Christians and Jews – gives this advice at the time of the Prophet (saw): Say, ‘O People of the Book! Come to a word common between us and you: that we will worship no one but Allah.[3] This is what was already in Judaism and Christianity and all Divine religions. Islam is the flag bearer of this pure monotheism. It doesn’t suffice with this; it adds another sentence to make the worship of God further clear: and that we will not ascribe any partner to Him.[4] It says nothing – not just any person, but nothing at all – will be made a partner to God. Desires, inclinations, egotism, self-absorption, tyrants, wrong and ignorant traditions and customs; none of these are to be made a partner to God. The Qur’an makes it even more clear and tangible in the arena of our lives: and that we will not take each other as lords besides Allah.[5] Only God is our lord. No human, no power will be taken as our lord other than God. This is Islam’s slogan; this is Islam’s global charter. This is one of the ideas that we invite humanity towards. If, today, humanity is able to pay attention to and act in accordance with this freedom, if corrupt systems are unable to lay burdens on humanity’s shoulders, if oppressive and egotistical peoples around the world are unable to enslave others, if large, international companies and individuals are unable to confuse, and imprison millions for money and profit, if humanity can remove these chains, that is the very freedom that Islam desires. Islamic freedom is to be free from other than God. Islam by acknowledging that humanity is the servant of God has a betterment over all religions and schools of thought. In some religions, humanity is thought to be the children of God. This being a child of God is empty words; they are a child of God and imprisoned by thousands of other humans. What kind of child of God is this? Islam says that humanity is only the servant of God. Don’t be a servant of anyone else; you can be the child of whomsoever you wish, but don’t obey anyone else. Islamic jihad is for this purpose. Amir al-Mo’mineen (as) says regarding jihad in Islam: Jihad is to take people from the servitude of servants to the worship of God, from the obedience of servants to the obedience of God, and from the authority and governance of servants to the authority of God.[6] Jihad is for this. It isn’t to make a country larger. It isn’t to conquer lands or capture spoils of war. It is to take one from the obedience of manmade systems to the obedience of God. It is to take one from the governance of servants and the weak who are themselves servants of their lowly desires and inclinations to the governance of God. What honor could be higher for humanity than this? This is the ideal of a free human that can truly claim to be free. Whereas, that human who claims to be free under the western framework only has this idea in their mind that they can do whatever they wish in the streets; like animals, they can copulate before the eyes of people. Or, their idea of freedom is that they have all paths of thinking and questioning taken from them, and a voting booth is placed before them; they are simply pushed into the booth and told to vote for so and so. This is their freedom. With thousands of chains binding their hands and feet, this isn’t freedom. How can such a human claim to be free? Chains of employment, chains of corrupt systems, chains of lowly inclinations and desires, chains of the police, chains of various kinds from the pressures of powers, chains of economy in the hands of monetary groups around the world; the nation that is enslaved by all these chains, how can they claim to be free? How can they claim that what they have is freedom? What kind of freedom is this? This is exactly what Islam doesn’t accept. Islamic freedom is drawn from humanity’s freedom from the worship of all that is not God. Whereas, western freedom is drawn from the inclinations and lowly desires and all that humanity wishes for.

This was the second difference between freedom in Islamic culture and freedom in western culture. We should pay close attention and ponder on this discussion. We should start acting with regards to ourselves. If we want this discussion on freedom to be truly useful, it must be accompanied by action. We have to obtain freedom for ourselves. The first step is freedom from our lowly desires and inclinations which is nothing other than taqwa. I advise all dear brothers and sisters to struggle for the salvation of themselves from the constraints of lowly desires and inclinations, vices, egotism, arrogance, hardheartedness, and cynicism. May Allah the Almighty give all of use the ability and opportunity to save ourselves from all occasions and circumstances that bring forth lowly desires within our hearts and souls.


[1] Surah A’raaf, verse 65: و الی عاد اخاهم هودا قال یا قوم اعبدوا الله

[2] Surah al-Nahl, verse 36: ان اعبدوا الله و اجتنبوا الطّاغوت

[3] Surah Aale Imran, verse 64: قل یا اهل الکتاب تعالوا الی کلمة سواء بیننا و بینکم ألّا نعبد إلّا الله

[4] Ibid: و لا نشرک به شیئا

[5] Ibid: و لا یتّخذ بعضنا بعضا اربابا من دون الله

[6] لیخرج النّاس من عبادة العباد الی عبادة الله و من طاعة العباد الی طاعة الله و من ولایة العباد الی ولایة الله. In Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 74, p. 367, this narration can be found with a slight difference: لیخرج عباده من عبادة عباده الی عبادته و من عهود عباده الی عهوده و من طاعة عباده الی طاعته و من ولایة عباده الی ولایته

Related Articles

1 – The meaning of freedom

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? …

8 – Freedom of expression in Islam

We have thus far discussed freedom from an Islamic perspective and the responsibilities an Islamic government has, based on the teachings of the Quran, with regards to the freedoms of society and individuals. First, we elaborated on the meaning of freedom according to Islam and how it differs with what is referred to as freedom in the West …