The concept of freedom is the distinguishing quality of humanity. Freedom refers to a state of being in which an individual is able to make a choice in thought, behavior or speech, as he or she wishes, or to avoid doing so, without violating similar freedom on the part of others. From this we can deduce three main dimensions to freedom:
- First, freedom has both positive and negative aspects. It includes the freedom to do something, as well as the freedom not to do it.
- Second, there are limits or restraints on individual freedom, such that it cannot impinge upon another person's freedom.
- Third, because it is a choice, the individual is then accountable for his/her actions and the consequences deriving from his/her choices.
Qur'anic Concept of Freedom
In the Qur'an the concept of freedom is described with many words and expressions, such as hurr (free) or tahrir (to free); najat (protection, salvation); fawz (reaching the target, achieving the goal); and falah (total well-being, flowering of the potential, fulfillment of the latent qualities). In Hadith (Prophetic) literature there is reference to 'itq (emancipation and liberation).
Freedom has both positive and negative connotations: freedom for something and freedom from something.
- Islam wants freedom for living a happy, healthy, prosperous, moral, and dignified life. Islam wants people to be free to worship, to express themselves, to earn, to have family, and to have a government of their choice.
- On the other hand, Islam wants people to be free from economic, political, and social oppression.
The Qur'an says in the matter of freedom of religion, "Let there be no compulsion in religion: truth stands put clear from error." [Qur'an 2:256] The reason for the enshrinement of the values of this "freedom verse" is that: the two largest tribes of Madinah, Aws and Khazraj before Islam made a pledge if their wives give birth to baby boys they will Judaize them. This is how some of the members of those two Arab tribes became Jews. However, when Arabs were blessed with Islam, and those two tribes entered Islam, members of these families wanted to return their children to Islam.
Islam advocated such a principle at a time when the Roman Empire used to force people to Christianity or be beheaded, and the Persian Empire used to torture its religious reformers. Within this atmosphere, Islam came to assert the principle of freedom of religion.
Character of Society
It is significant to note that how we express ourselves is a reflection of our attitudes, and its is unfortunate that habitually in religious debates, or arguments over religious matters; etiquette and respect is often absent. We all must realize that the freedom of speech principle is one that shapes the intellectual character of society.
Three Aspects to Human Freedom
The issue of human freedom in Islam has three aspects.
- First, is the notion that humans are born free as well as free from original sin. Adam and Eve were forgiven for their error by God, although their human descendents would have to live on earth, which would serve as a test to their faith. [Qur'an 2:36-38].
- Second, given this test, humans are free to choose their actions; God has created humans such that they have an innate ability to know the difference between good and evil, and in doing so, have the freedom to choose good. "Consider the human self, it is formed in accordance with what it is meant to be, and how it is imbued with moral failings as well as with consciousness of God! To a happy state shall indeed attain he who causes his (self) to grow in purity, and truly lost is he who corrupts it." [Qur'an 91:7-10]. It is only by having this freedom that choosing to obey God becomes a meaningful process. [Qur'an 18:29].
- Third, to be able to choose one's actions then implies that one has to deal with the consequences of them as well. Humans are accountable to God on the Day of Judgment. "And every human being's doings have We tied to his neck, and on the Day of Resurrection We shall bring forth for him a record which he will find wide open." [Qur'an 17:13].
It is important to remember that freedom in Islam means freedom to do good, not freedom to do just anything. In the Arabic language the word hurr does not only mean "free" but it also implies "noble." Islam promotes the type of responsible freedom: A type of freedom that respects the other. Freedom in Islam is not freedom from moral obligation and responsibilities or freedom from truth, justice, virtue, and righteousness. Freedom from these values is not freedom , but rather anarchy and corruption.
Freedom Not in a Vacuum
Freedoms do not exist in a vacuum; they do not function without limits. In many countries, "hate speech" (such as holocaust denial, incitement to racial hatred, advocating genocide) is a criminal offense prohibited under incitement to hatred legislation. Freedom of religion; at least in a pluralistic society, ought to mean that some things are sacred and therefore treated as such. The rampant Islamophobia, which is becoming a social cancer, should be as unacceptable as anti-Semitism.
Freedom of expression is not a license to utter falsehood and lies, just as economic freedom should allow people to earn and to own; without indulging in fraud, deception, and exploitation.
Freedom to Express or License to Malign?
The debate surrounding the offensive cartoons about the Prophet raised+9 the issue of freedom of expression/speech. We acknowledge the fact that of all the tools of life at man's disposal, freedom of speech is among the noblest, greatest, and most powerful. Speaking the truth, speaking your mind, communicating heart to heart, touching the spirits of others, inspiring with hope and motivation - these are all powerful instruments that can change the course of life events. Never underestimate the power of the word! The spoken and written word can break down tyrants, inspire social change and unseat corruption. But like all tools words are also potential weapons; there must be ethics in expression that are practiced with nobility and conscience so as to ensure the rights and dignity of everyone. Just because you have the power and ability to use words, it does not imply the right to abuse.
The recent attempts at banning the hijab in parts of Europe and Tunisia, are no more than fear and hate-driven Islamophobic sentiments. Can speech still be free or laws still be appropriate if they attempt todenigrate an entire section (1.4 billion) of the human population? The lesson in all of this is that no one should ever abuse "freedom" as a deliberate pretext to undermine or malign; for that would be the desecration of the noble concept of freedom
Sadullah Khan completed memorization of the Quran and furthered his studies in Law in South Africa, Journalism in England and Islamic Studies in Egypt. As a motivational speaker he addresses issues of spirituality, empowerment. He is the author of the book "Dimensions of the Qur'an" and translator of "Message For The Seekers Of Guidance". He has served in several roles in Universities and Islamic Centers in Southern California and is currently involved with Impower Development International based in South Africa.
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