‘Freedom’ in Islam – is it the same as ‘Freedom’ in the West?


This briefing is provided by a friend of RZIM.

Issue: ‘Freedom’ in Islam – is it the same as ‘Freedom’ in the West?


1. Key Facts

  • ‘Free will’ is bound into ‘destiny’ (qadar) in Islam
  • ‘Freedom’ in the political sense is called ‘hurriyya’ (meaning ‘free’)
  • Three perspectives on ‘Freedom’ within Islamic theology:
    • Jabriyya – determinists who believed all human actions are pre-ordained (Jahm Safwan, d.745 was key proponent of this)
    • Mu’tazili – Believed that reward in the afterlife directly related to actions on earth. Therefore, human capacity and free will therefore necessary (Abu al-Hudhayl, d.850, and Abu Hashim al-Jubba’I, d. 933 main proponents of this)
    • Ash’ari – Believed humans are innately good, and that therefore, doing evil must be the result of an involuntary action.
  • Impact of Greek thought into Abbasid court in Medieval period expanded the notion of ‘free’ to connect with ‘noble’ – both in aristocratic and honourable sense.
  • Representative government came through ‘shura’ – council of tribal elders which pre-dated Islam in Arabic culture.
  • Words ‘Slave’ and ‘Free’ were not used in a political sense.
  • ‘dhimma’ – a secondary status for non-Muslim ‘Peoples of the Book’ limiting access to justice, services and (frequently) employment was prescribed in the Qur’an and Hadith and was present under every Islamic Kingdom and Empire.
  • Good and bad government in Islam are understood in the context of ‘justice’, rather than free will.
  • For Sufi Muslims ‘Freedom’ meant freedom from everything except God.
  • Since the advent of European colonialism into the present day, ‘freedom’ in Muslim majority contexts has been understood as anti-Imperialism and latterly, freedom from outside interference.

2. Data

  • The ‘Cato Index’ measures political and economic freedom in 162 countries from around the world (although North Korea is not included in the data). In 2018 (the most recent data) there were:
    • 19 of the bottom 20 states in the list had Islam as the official religion.
    • China ranked 141, one above the bottom 20 countries. They are therefore assessed as less free than China.
    • 19 of the top 20 states in the list were Christian background. (The other state was Taiwan)
  • Freedom House Index measuring political rights and civil liberties in 210 countries has no Muslim states in its list of top 50 countries designated ‘Free’.
  • Only 12 out of 47 Muslim Majority countries rank in the ‘low’ category of restriction for religious freedom, whilst 27 rank at ‘high’ or ‘very high’.

3. Useful Quotes

  • The individual Muslim was expected to consider subordination of his own freedom to the beliefs, morality, and customs of the group as the only proper course of behaviour. While he valued his personal freedom and was proud of it, he was not supposed to see in it a good to be defended at all costs against group demands.

  • And who believe in what has been revealed to you, [O Muhammad], and what was revealed before you, and of the Hereafter they are certain [in faith]. Those are upon [right] guidance from their Lord, and it is those who are the successful. Indeed, those who disbelieve - it is all the same for them whether you warn them or do not warn them - they will not believe. Allah has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing, and over their vision is a veil. And for them is a great punishment.” Q2: 4-7

  • Those who associated with Allah will say, ‘If Allah had willed, we would not have associated [anything] and neither would our fathers, nor would we have prohibited anything.’ Likewise did those before deny until they tasted Our punishment. Say, ‘Do you have any knowledge that you can produce for us? You follow not except assumption, and you are not but falsifying.’ Say, ‘With Allah is the far-reaching argument. If He had willed, He would have guided you all.’” Q6: 148-149.

  • O believers, respond to God and the Messenger when He calls you unto that which will give you life: and know that God stands between an man and his heart, and that to Him you shall be mastered.” Q8:24.

  • And say, ‘The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills - let him believe; and whoever wills - let him disbelieve.’ Indeed, We have prepared for the wrongdoers a fire whose walls will surround them. And if they call for relief, they will be relieved with water like murky oil, which scalds [their] faces. Wretched is the drink, and evil is the resting place.” Q18:29

  • …where human rights and Islamic law conflict, Islamic law must hold sway. Several interpreters have argued that both documents grant a right of religious freedom that is more restrictive than what is found in international law. Furthermore, the views of contemporary Muslim jurists and the laws of numerous Islamic regimes contain broad definitions of apostasy and blasphemy, and stiff punishments for it.

4. Talking Points

  • ‘Freedom’ is not understood as ‘free will’ in Islam: Qur’anic quotes above show that it is Allah who is guiding their choice of whether to believe or not.
    • It is Allah who then punishes their unbelief.
    • Helmut Gatje’s The Qur’an and its Exegises (1996) contains the writings of Muslim theologians (classical and modern) and scholars on the interpretations of these passages.
  • ‘Freedom’ in Islam is therefore a ‘received’ idea rather than being ‘rooted’ in the precepts and doctrines of the faith.
  • The ‘Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights’ (UIDHR) published in 1981 shows that ‘freedom’ as understood in the West is not assumed for all citizens.
    • The UIDHR distinguishes between rights of ‘Citizens’, ‘Persons’ and ‘Humans’, only Muslims can be ‘Citizens’.
    • ‘Law’ is defined as ‘shari’a’
    • Muslim majority states consistently rank amongst the world’s most highly restrictive states.

This is outstanding! Thank you.

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