At the time of our Prophet (S), human beings were living under all kinds of oppressive systems. J.H. Denison aptly sums up the miserable human condition prevailing at that time:
“It seemed then the great civilization that it had taken four thousand years to construct was on the verge of disintegration, and that mankind was likely to return to that condition of barbarism where every tribe and sect was against the next, and law and order were unknown…. Civilization… rotted to the core, riven by the storms of war, and held together only by cords of ancient customs and laws, that might snap at any moment. Was there any emotional culture that could be brought in, to gather mankind once more into unity and to save civilization? ... That such a culture should have arisen from Arabia just at the time when it was most needed.” [J. H. Denison, Emotion as the Basis of Civilization, pp. 267-268]
The Prophet (S) liberated human beings from these oppressions and opened the door of true freedom for humanity. The Prophet’s mission (and therefore his Sunnah) was to establish the unity of humankind (2:213). This was a necessary consequence of the belief in the unity of God (112:1). The Prophet (S) did not achieve this high goal by rituals and dogmas alone. Nor did he accomplish it by supernatural means. He (S) and his companions (R) persevered and struggled to create social and political change through Quranic education and training. They challenged the secular, tribal, and temporal forces of exploitation and corruption. They torched the path to freedom by removing the chains placed on human beings by these forces: “… lift[ed] from them their burdens and the shackles that were upon them...” (7:157). This struggle of our Prophet (S) and Sahaba (R) gave unimagined freedom to oppressed human beings. Thus the darkest period in human history (quotation from Denison) was turned into a most enlightened one.
Under our Prophet’s leadership and his Sunnah, the world was transformed briefly, as people were given freedom to develop their human potential. Even today, historians and philosophers marvel at how the most backward and barbarous people became the most advanced, most civilized in such a short time. Yet, sadly enough, today, instead of being astonished, we are perplexed at how the succeeding Muslim generations came to lose that glory. Muslims are oppressed in their own homelands. Why? Could it be that we have extinguished the light of freedom borne by our Prophet (S) and his companions (R), the light that liberated common people from exploitation and subjugation? If so, how can we bring back that luster? How can we enlighten the present consciousness of Muslims, as well as non-Muslims? The only way to do that is for us to re-turn to the pristine message of the Quran. We must remove the non-Quranic dust that has settled over Islam through centuries of dictatorship and priesthood, resulting in the suffocation of that very freedom of thought, which our Prophet (S) gave to humanity.
Allama Iqbal emphasizes the importance of independent thought. He says:
“The only course open to us is to approach modern knowledge with a respectful but independent attitude and to appreciate the teachings of Islam in the light of that knowledge, even though we may be led to differ from those who have gone before us (page 78). …The teaching of the Quran that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessors, should be permitted to solve its own problems (Page 134). …False reverence to past history and its artificial resurrection constitute no remedies for a people’s decay. ‘The verdict of history’, as a modern writer has happily put it, ‘is that worn-out ideas have never risen to power among a people who have worn them out.’ The only effective power, therefore, that counteracts the forces of decay in a people is the rearing of self-concentrated individual (Page 120).” [The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam]
It is important to note that the ability to think differentiates human beings from animals. If this freedom is taken away, human beings descend to the level of animals. It is imperative that the shackle of blind Taqlid, which has choked freedom of thought among Muslims for more than a thousand years, be broken. Then only will we be truly in accordance with the Sunnah of our Prophet (S).
“Those who follow the messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find mentioned in their own (scriptures),- in the Torah and the Gospel;- for he commands them what is just and forbids them what is evil; he allows them as lawful what is good (and pure) and prohibits them from what is bad (and impure); He releases them (i.e., all human beings) from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them. So it is those who believe in him, honor him, help him, and follow the light (i.e., the Quran) which is sent down with him,- it is they who will prosper (7:157).” [Yusuf ‘Ali]
If we turn back the pages of history and observe the struggles of past nations, or if we study the present social and political movements, we find one common thread: the human urge for freedom. Human beings, no matter when or where, will invariably rebel against oppression and yearn for freedom. However, freedom itself must be bounded, otherwise, like an uncontrolled flood, it, too, will lead to destruction, anarchy and chaos.
True freedom is like an evergreen tree, which is free as well as restrained. While every tree is subjected to the same restrictions by nature, these restrictions are imposed to optimize the growth and development of a tree’s latent potential. The same principle can be applied to human society. And the application of this principle is what our Prophet (S) accomplished in Medina. He implemented, in Medina, a socio-economic and political infrastructure within the boundaries of the Quranic principles. The Quran constitutionally protected the human rights and freedom of all people. Everyone was equal before the law. Within these Quranic limits, human beings enjoyed full freedom of thought, which, in turn, gave human beings – An-Naas (النّاس) – the opportunity to realize and nourish their God-given latent potential. Hence, the glory of Islam in its early years!
The Prophet (PBUH) first planted the seed of ijtihad and nourished it as commanded by Allah (3:79; 34:46). This he did as an integral part of the Islamic way of life (Shariah). The Rightly-Guided Khalifas continued the Prophet's tradition by their continuous cultivation of ijtihad, resulting in the phenomenal flowering of the Islamic civilization. In accordance with the universal nature of Islam (38:87; 68:52; 81:27), the world was offered the fruits of these efforts in areas of science, art, philosophy, architecture, jurisprudence and medicine. As the early Muslims were dedicated to the spirit of inquiry (3:191) and establishing schools in many branches of knowledge, the West benefited well from the fruits the tree of ijtihad yielded. Muslims however ceased to nurture the root of inquiry that had proved so vital to their vigorous development. Once felled, the loss of ijtihad starved the Ummah of a means to propagate the intellectual inquiry so integral to the early Islamic tradition.
Humanity has survived two world wars but it may not survive a third one. In recent years, the intensity and scope of human rights abuses, worldwide, have been increasing at an unprecedented level. It is important to recognize and protect the rights and freedom of all human beings, if humanity is to survive.
Although many great intellectuals of the West e.g., Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Henri Bergson, and Robert Briffault, among others have tried, but the goal of creating even a basis for a universal constitution has remained elusive. However, the need for its formulation has never been as great as at the present time, because many of the barriers that separated human beings have already fallen, and the remaining ones are falling at electronic speed. Many envision the world as a global village that is being increasingly (and tightly) connected by the information superhighway. Immediately, the urgent question becomes: who should rule this global village? The multinational corporations? They who have plundered the resources of the world and polluted its environment? It will indeed be unfortunate for humanity if they become the de facto rulers of the world. In fact, they already are, to a large extent. They have created a new economic paradigm based on exploitation of the poor by the rich in the guise of free market and economic progress and in the name of freedom and opportunity. History bears ample testimony that this kind of deceptive and large-scale exploitation leads to human catastrophe. Therefore, this is not the way to protect universal human rights and freedoms.
About fourteen hundred years ago, Prophet Muhammad (S) gave to humanity a document, a declaration of independence for the entire human race based on permanent values. It was a declaration of universal human rights and freedoms, of universal peace and security, of universal trust, of a universal code of ethics, of universal human dignity, of universal freedom of thought and expression. In short, it was a declaration of the universal brotherhood of humankind. This document is called the Quran. Can it serve as the constitution for entire humanity? Can it save humanity from the destruction that seems to be its destiny? It boldly proclaims that it can.
The system that can guarantee equal rights and freedoms for all human beings irrespective of race, color, language, ethnicity, etc. must be based on permanent values. If we are able to structure our society based on the permanent values contained in the Quran, then humanity will not only be assured dignity and equality, but it will also be set free to realize its God-given potential, as it did 1400 years ago in the glorious days of early Islam. The challenge for us is to prove to the world that the Quran is the only book that contains the complete set of Permanent Values.
Are we, Muslims, ready for this challenge? Are we ready to challenge the Pharaohs, the Hamans, and Qaroons of the world with the Quran? This is what our Prophet (S), whom we love so dearly, did to liberate human beings. This is how he “… lift[ed] from them their burdens and the shackles that were upon them” (7:157). Today, the Muslim world is still dominated by modern Pharaohs (dictators and corrupt rulers), modern Qaroons (capitalist parasites), and modern Hamans (defenders of religious status quo). It is our duty to liberate the masses from their clutches through the message of the permanent values contained in the universal constitution of Al-Quran.
This must be done, however, through constitutional and peaceful means. It requires, firstly, great wisdom, up-to-date knowledge, objective reasoning, and deep understanding of the Quran as a universal constitution, not as a religious book. Secondly, it requires great focus, great patience, and great tolerance. This is what our Prophet (S) struggled for throughout his life. And, therefore, this is his most important Sunnah for us to practice. We certainly cannot follow our Prophet’s Sunnah by being divided into sects, by paying lip service to the Prophet (S), by singing poems in his honor and celebrating his birthday, by evading controversial issues, by passing fatwas against others, by engaging in subjective arguments and endless debates, by resorting to emotional and psychological tactics, by labeling others who disagree, by spreading rumors, suspicions and propaganda, or by resorting to violence. The most urgent task before us is to get down to cleaning our house first before we point fingers at others.