The Gift of Freedom
Issue 93 June 2012
I was drawn to Islam by the concept of surrender. I wanted to give my life to God, and live a life of service thereafter. The idea is one that is central to the religion, but it is rather misunderstood, evoking images of white flags, defeat, and even fatalism. There is another, equally misunderstood concept in Islam, which is the precursor to surrender—freedom.
Many people do not associate freedom with faith. Instead, belief in God is often ridiculed as a form of enslavement, with one view holding that religion was created by the poor to keep the rich in check with feelings of guilt and moral blackmail; whilst the other view postulated that religion was manufactured by the rich to keep the poor subdued and under control. But the truth is that freedom was the foundation of the act of creation. Recall the great dialogue in the heavens between God and the angels. He announced He was going to create His custodian on Earth—humans. The angels were aghast. Why was God going to create something that would spread mischief and mayhem whilst they praised Him, unstintingly, unquestioningly? And the sublime reply was, “I know that which you know not.” (Qur’an 2:30) So, a being—us, humans—was created for this world that would have freedom. It is what distinguishes us from the angels and the animals, despite the similarities. We can exercise our freedom to do good or to do bad; we can use our freedom to think and imagine; we can use our freedom to even believe or not in God. This freedom to choose is the greatest gift given to humans; it predicates our creation, and defines us.
There will be those who hotly dispute this. To many Muslims, it sounds dangerous. Freedom is like a live grenade—it can blow up in your face any moment, so it is best avoided. Freedom scares many. It is indeed a double-edged sword: you can use your wealth to build an orphanage or you can squander it at the racecourse. But God trusted us with it, and it is not for anyone else to take it away.
There are the petty-minded yet predatory ‘religious enforcers’ in countries and communities, who have made it their mission to drag you kicking and screaming in to paradise. Their boundless zealotry wants to impose their religious will on you—something even God does not do. Little do they care that there is no moral worth in anything done under duress—as there is no compulsion in religion. But they believe they know what is best for you. They see freedom as the enemy. An enquiring mind is an existential threat that must be suppressed, yet the Qur’an is dedicated to “those who think.” A questioning attitude is an alarming presence that must be brought into conformity, yet even the great Abraham had his doubts. A dissenting voice is a Moses-like threat that has to be silenced. This is not just a “religious” phenomenon; our politics exhibit the same characteristics. But the men of religion claim Divine legitimacy, whereas God actually created us free—and then He put all the temptations in front of us to see who acts with honour and integrity.
We should not fear this freedom; rather we should embrace it and do great things with it. Explore the universe and observe God’s creative genius; discover our innermost thoughts and soothe away our hidden fears; find love, give compassion, stand up for truth. Freedom allows for virtue, for dignity and chivalry. No ship would ever have set sail, no mountain would have been summated, and no land discovered, if it were not for individuals who lived in freedom and who were prepared to risk all. There will always be those who sail close to the wind, and navigate perilous waters. They are often the rebel, the artist, the poet. They challenge authority, and probe the limits. These are the mavericks who create marvels.
The world has many problems that need creative solutions. There are complex challenges that cannot be answered by unthinkingly applying ancient remedies. We have to have the courage to ask dangerous questions, and confront the prevailing norms. We have to encourage our children, our communities, and ourselves to explore, to make mistakes, to fail at finding answers, and in so doing, we are fulfilling our intrinsic nature as humans.
Faith needs freedom; faith is freedom. We were created in freedom and it is our gift. Those who try to curtail it by oppressive external measures are denying us the means to internalise and actualise the Divine message. With freedom, we can elevate ourselves to the heavens; without it, we deny God’s favour and debase ourselves to wretched creatures. No one is entitled to take this gift away, and we must resist those who try to curtail our freedoms. That is not some western secular liberal dogma; it is at the heart of God’s creative impulse. It is the repetitive message of the stories of the prophets. History shows us that humans enslave or are enslaved; the prophets fought to keep us free, and they brought us into the protection of the One who gave us freedom.