Mohammad Ali Shomali

Despite the evolution of renaissance that led
to the processes referred to as ‘liberalisation’, ‘consumer lifestyle’ and
‘gross materialism’, mankind still faces a kind of dichotomy. Humanity is yet
to embark upon the search for inner peace, truth, freedom, and way of life. In this paper, we will try to study one
of the important topics of the modern age i.e. the relation between religion
and freedom. We will Endeavour to seek a way and a method to acquire knowledge
of the true spirit of religion. We will also tackle tangible methodologies to recognize
the ‘true spirit of religion’, the definition of freedom and the approach that will
lead one to know the splendid reality of ‘true freedom’. Consider the following questions: how does the world view
freedom? Are there any misconceptions regarding the essence of

true freedom’? We will attempt to analyze such
polemical issues that relate to the topic under discussion, and to seek an understanding
that would nurture the innate nature of human


Conceptualizing freedom

Let us start by briefly enlightening ourselves
regarding the concept of freedom. How do people view religion and freedom? This is one of the most pertinent issues in philosophy
and the social sciences. In the current age it is paramount for one to beable
to empower one’s self with a true understanding of the concept of freedom from
the Islamic perspective. There arecertain ‘modes of understanding’ that define
freedom.Furthermore, there are different types of freedom. One type of freedom,
known as ‘philosophical and metaphysical freedom,’ is the subject of study by
philosophers and theologians who aim to establish whether or not human beings
can choose their path andthe nature of the actions they perform as well as
those actions which they do not perform this is generally referred to as ‘free

will’ . Does a human being possess a free
will, or are his actions pre-ordained? In order to tackle these complex matters
with a degree of clarity, one must first grasp a thorough understanding of
‘free will’. For example, if a person was to perform an action or travel to a
specific place would the said individual decide his own actions or would this
act be caused by factors that are not

under his control? Did the Sublime God create
the action in the individual, or does he possess the free will to perform an
act of his choosing? In the Holy Qur’an, God says:

Indeed, we have guided him to the way, be he grateful
or ungrateful. 73:3

What does this verse tell us about mankind
with regard to free will? How can this verse be interpreted? People from
different walks of life may interpret the above verse in different ways. After investing much thought in this matter, one comes to
the conclusion that Allah s.w.t. is stating that mankind has been

provided with the guidance that he requires to
continue on the virtuous path. However, it is for the individual to accept this
guidance and be thankful because of it or to reject it and be ungrateful.
Whatever decision the individual makes is his choice and he is responsible for

There are different ways to discuss this
issue, but perhaps the clearest way is to refer to ourselves and reflect on the
process of decision making. In the following couplet, Jalaludin Rumi1 reminds
one of the perception of freedom that is innate to human


این که گویی این کنم یا آن کنم

اختیار است اختیار است ای صنم


Here, Rumi so magnificently proves that when making
a decision a man asks himself whether I should do this or that, this in itself is
a proof that human beings are ‘free’. When we make decisions our condition is completely
different from that of someone who is falling off a building, because in this case
the individual has the will to prevent himself from falling, but has no choice and is forced to fall. Those who are
interested to know more about this type of freedom should refer to philosophical

Other types of freedom include freedom of
thought, freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom in political matters
and so on. All of these types of freedom are based on acceptance of metaphysical
and philosophical freedom. In fact, if philosophical and metaphysical freedom
did not exist then one would not be able to engage in the philosophical and
metaphysical disciplines.

Therefore, one must accept that the foundation
of all freedom is philosophical and metaphysical freedom, so that one may
proceed onto the next step in order to appreciate the diverse expressions of

Islam and freedom of thought Does Islam
encourage or even allow individuals to think and reflect? Let us explain what
we mean by this statement. The freedom to think and reflect allows a person to
engage in a search for the truth regarding the affairs of humanity. Some people
think that this contradicts any religious conviction. To them, you have to be
either a freethinker or a religious person. Of course, this

problem does not stop with religions. It
extends to any philosophical, spiritual and ideological convictions that one
may have.

To have a more objective understanding of the
question we need to distinguish between two types of convictions. Sometimes people
have convictions without them being the result of a rational process of
reasoning and arguing; they just accept certain things emotionally or because
of the influence of the peers, elders, society, media, etc. Surely these types of
convictions represent great obstacles to freethinking. In contrast, there are people
who have convictions and firm beliefs which result from an earlier process of
freethinking and rational decision-making.

They have made sure that the only reason for
accepting and upholding these positions is that they are backed up by safe and sound
arguments. In such cases, there is no conflict between freedom of thought and
upholding those positions. Indeed, this is the only way forward. In science,
philosophy and any other discipline we need to build upon our findings; we
cannot always start from scratch. Therefore, instead of dismissing all types of
convictions and affiliations, we need to investigate them and check on which
basis they rely.

In any case, as far as Islam is concerned, its
adherents are bound to accept only those things that are rational and decisive, including Islam itself. The religion of Islam encourages
human beings to reflect and ponder. In fact, Islam makes cognizance and vigilance
incumbent on all people. There are many verses in the Holy Qur’an where Allah
SWT. commands human beings to think and to ponder. One must realise that when
a person thinks and reflects, this increases his or her knowledge and

understanding. Through this process, humans
can find new ways in which to conduct their lives. Furthermore, one has ample facility
to benefit from the vast experiences of those people who are among the wise and
knowledgeable people within society. In this way, individuals are able to reach
their own conclusions and apply them in their daily lives. Islam holds in great esteem those people who learn by
engaging in thought and reflection, and who correct themselves accordingly. The
late prominent scholar, Martyr Murtada Mutahhari, held a beautiful discussion
on this subject, where he reflected upon the golden era in Islamic history. Islam
has always made progress when the common people, clergymen,

scholars and scientists have exercised freedom
of thought. The sixth infallible Imam Sadiq A used to spend a considerable length
of time in complex philosophical and theological debates and discussions with
people of different faiths, and also with those individuals who did not adhere
to any religious beliefs.

Atheists would deliberate with the Holy Imam
on issues that were of immense scholastic value, and they would ask difficult
and challenging questions. Yet, one finds that during such debates our Holy
Imam would maintain his composure and he would graciously quench the thirst for
knowledge in each and every questioner by answering their questions
comprehensively. As an

example, one may refer to the well-known book
size answer that Imam gave to Mufaddal about the existence of God when he was challenged
by the atheists.

Islam places a great deal of emphasis on
creating avenues whereby people may ask questions and receive answers to these questions.
There are two underlying issues to consider:

a. According to Islam, people should be able
to create scientific and academic ideas and their intellectual needs should be

b. Even if people are very critical or ask
very rational or deeply philosophical questions, this poses no threat to Islam.
Islam can withstand any type of critique. Indeed, Islamic thought has always been strengthened and refreshed
after critiques.

Islam triumphed when the masses evolved by
acquiring the freedom to think, and that period was known as the ‘golden age in
the history of Islam’ whereby civilisation reached its pinnacle.

According to the school of Ahlul Bayt A ,
people should adopt religion only after adequately uncovering the truth, with
the support of intellect, the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah. Blind faith, or religion through ‘inheritance’, does not cause a
Muslim to be a ‘true Muslim’. When one studies books dealing with Islamic
jurisprudence, one will find that the first part in the Risalah of any renowned
Maraji of Taqlid will make it clear that following a Marji‘ is only for
practical rulings of Islam; one cannot follow a Marji‘ in the fundamental
beliefs Usul-e Din . Each and every individual must exercise reason and
reflection and develop his or her own arguments with regards to the truth of
religion or existence of God and the like.

There is a famous story from the time of the
Holy Prophet S , about an elderly woman who was working with her simple machine
that produced thread from wool. The Holy Prophet S asked her why she believed
in the Creator. She answered “I know that my machine only works when I put my
hand on it and stops when I stop, so how can this awesome world with its
amazing creations move without a mover. It is impossible”. This was an argument
put forward by an old lady to answer the Holy Prophet S , for which the
Prophet S exclaimed to the people: “Alaykum bidin al-Aja’iz” You must have a
faith like such elderly women .Ijtihad or independent study of a qualified scholar The
other dynamic and prominent issue in Islam, especially in the school of Ahlul
Bayt, is that it allows and indeed insists on independent study and thought of
a qualified jurist, known as ijtihad. The door of ijtihad has always been open in the School of
the Ahlul Bayt. To make this concept clearer, we deem it necessary to explain
it further. Every qualified jurist faqih; mujtahid;ayatollah in order to draw and infer Islamic rulings has
to refer directly to the Qur’anic injunctions and the Sunnah. Although such a jurist
is always in need of consulting works and reasoning of the peers and
predecessors, he cannot follow any of them, regardless of how learned they may be, and must make his
own judgements. Such approach to jurisprudence has provided certain vitality and
dynamism in the Ja‘fari school of thought. Another aspect of this vitality is that according to this
school of thought, when a Marji’ passes away all his followers have to refer to
the most knowledgeable among the living ones and it is only when he permits
that they can keep following the late Marji‘. Ofcourse, even in this case, with
respect to new issues which arise by the passage of time, they need to refer to
the living one. Islam does not impede anyone in any way, as long as one
abides by its divine principles. In fact, Islam encourages us to be creative,
to initiate new ideas, innovate and direct new efforts and fresh thinking so
that we are able to meet the challenges and requirements of the present time. On visiting an Islamic seminary or an Islamic theological
centre, one begins to appreciate that hundreds and thousands of
students, teachers and scholars engaged in profound and thought provoking
discussions. Teachers at these institutions become very sad when students do
not indulge in rigorous questioning and intellectually challenging scientific
dialogue. Teachers at the Islamic centres believe in asking their students
questions and allowing them ask any question they like, thus creating room for dialogue
and rational thinking, as well as encouraging the development of logical reasoning
that will satisfy the human mind.


Freedom of belief


The third type of freedom is somewhat
controversial. It is the freedom of belief, which constitutes a great part of
what is known as ‘religious freedom’. This point is very important to discuss, particularly when some individuals ask questions such as
“Can we encourage people to believe in whatever they want?” and

“Should we allow people to worship idols, cows and other
such things?”

How does Islam view this concept? From an
Islamic perspective, people are free to choose their ownreligion and no one
should force them to adhere to any particular religion. Faith can only come
when people voluntarily choose to be faithful. Force is not accepted. Nor does
it work. Of course, this does not mean that whatever people choose will make no
difference and all will bear the same fruits. Ultimately, some may have good
results and while others may suffer horrible consequences for himself and possibly
others. Thus, everyone must make their choices with the utmost
care that he may ever exercise in any of his decisions that he makes in his life.
It may prove to be of far more importance than choosing a spouse or a career.
Thus, it becomes necessary to use rational arguments and exercise logical
reasoning to reach the ultimate truth. One cannot simply say “I am an idol
worshipper just because my parents were idol worshipers” or “I am a Muslim just
because my parents were Muslims” or “I am an atheist because it is more
convenient and easier”. Blind faith in its entirety is unacceptable in Islam,
and one cannot be termed as a real Muslim if one has merely ‘inherited’ Islam.
Of course, to be born into a religious family can be very helpful in having an objective
and first hand experience of religious life in general and the religion at
issue in particular, but this is not enough. Islam encourages and indeed urges everyone to make his
own enquiry about which religion to choose, while simultaneously it does not
hold all choices equally sound. This is a matter of truth regardless of whether
one discovers it, denies it, or ignores it altogether. For such a choice is not
something subjective like the colour of one’s dress or the cuisine that one
enjoys; rather, the belief in baseless myths and superstitions is undoubtedly
perilous to human honour and dignity. What about an Islamic government? Should an Islamic government
impose Islamic belief system on its citizens? Imposition of Islamic beliefs on others is not something
that one would expect from an Islamic government. An Islamic government treats
its citizens with respect and dignity and tries to create a peaceful and moral
environment in which people exercise their intellectual power and make
responsible and serious decisions independent from the pressure of immoral factors
and powers. Islam’s certainty regarding its truth, clarity and compatibility
with human nature is such that it finds itself to be pleasing to any
freethinking person or society. Of course, an Islamic government should feel
responsible to help its Muslim majority in upholding human divine values,
practising their faith and upbringing their children spiritually. In any case, the maximum a Muslim individual, party or government
can do is to encourage their nation into believing something that is genuine
and would ensure eternal happiness in this world and the Hereafter. Of course,
religious people must be honest in preaching their faith and should represent
such honesty in action, and not only in words, if they are to convince others
of the beauty of such a faith. Therefore, despite the fact that we are not relativists
and we do believe in certain standards, we should let people decide which creed
they are to follow. Let us say, for example, that in an Islamic state there are
atheists who do not believe in the monotheistic ideology which is to believe
in the Absolute One God . Here, it would not be the Islamic government’s responsibility
to force them to believe. The unprecedented truth is that Islam is not
intolerant to other people’s faiths. Rather, Islam aims to propagate individuals to take
responsibility of their faith. Islam encourages them to follow logical
arguments, to ponder and avoid blindly following one’s lowly desires and whims.


Social freedom


Another type of freedom is referred to as
‘social freedom’. Among other things, this implies that we as individuals
have the choice of the type of rule, government and policies we are governed
by. No one can force another person to obey a given rule. It is important to
note that the Islamic point of view in this matter is that freedom of the
people must be safeguarded. Advising his son, Imam Hasan A , Imam Ali A states:

Safeguard yourself from everything that is
mean, because you do not gain any replacement for what you lose
from yourself [when you perform something mean]. And do not be a slave of any
one, because God has created you free.2

When God has created us free, why should one
human being serve another? Is it because the person being served is the head of
a tribe, a head of state, a highly influential individual or that he is supported
by the affluent people, such that this in turn causes one to sacrifice one’s
freedom? The right of obedience belongs solely to God, and those whom have been
granted rights from God, such as the Prophets, parents, and the like. Even if
someone is more pious he does not have the right to claim our obedience for his
own sake. Thus, if one studies the mission of the divine Prophets, one will come to realise that even the Prophets did not
ask us to obey them for their own sake or independent of God. They acted as
spokesmen of religion to tell us what God wants from both us and them in order
to secure our interests. This is comparable to a scenario where a physician or
a doctor prescribes a particular medicine to his patient. The very fact that
the patient trusts the doctor means that the patient will accept the doctor’s
medical treatment for his own sake . Similarly, when a teacher sets an assignment
for a student, the student will complete the assignment for his own sake and
not for the teacher. When one obeys the Prophets, the infallible Imams and the
like, one is inclined to become a better human being.

Hence, obedience to other individuals is not
acceptable. Being a free person, one should only conform to other people’s
wishes so long as it is in one’s interest to do so! For example, a citizen of a
particular country cannot be forced to become a subject of a country by anyone.
Rather, he can choose to remain in a country and commit himself to it. At this
juncture we will not dwell on the concept of authority in Islam i.e. politics
and democracy as this is not the subject under discussion. The core issue is

every human being is free and equal, and he or
she can decide to agree upon and commit to the constitution of a particular

To conclude this part, let us remind ourselves
of a story that originates from the early days of Islam, when the army of Islam
headed by Zahrat b. Abdullah encountered one of the chief commanders of the
Iranian army, Rustam. The chief of the Iranian army asked his Muslim
counterpart “what is your religion all about?” The Muslim commander answered
with confidence, saying “we believe in Allah as our Creator and Muhammad
as his last Messenger“. The Iranian commander in chief replied

“this is not a problem. What else do you believe in?”
Zahrat b. Abdullah replied “human beings are free and God has
created human being free”. At this stage, Rustam encountered great difficulty,
because in Persian society at that time, monarchy and class system were so
strong that there was no way to talk abot people being equally free.


Freedom of behaviour


What do we mean by freedom of behaviour, or
‘individual freedom’? The question is: whether one, per se, is free to do whatever
one wishes. This is a notion of the so-called ‘secular liberal culture’. This concept
can be explained as follows: let people do what they want as long as they do
not violate other people’s rights and freedoms. To illustrate this point in
more simple terms, we will provide some examples. A person can increase the
volume of his television to the highest setting, as long as he does not annoy
or irritate his neighbours. Similarly, one may choose to drink alcohol and become intoxicated,
but may not drive a vehicle in this state, because he may hit other cars or
innocent people. This attitude is merely concerned with preventing harm to
other individuals in society. This culture does not permit one to question an
individual as to why he or she consumes alcohol. If a person wishes to drink
alcohol, he cannot drive; otherwise he can drink as much as he wishes even if
this leads to a fatal illness. The only time such a “liberal society” may again
be concerned about this person is when his illness places a burden on the
public fund. The Islamic doctrine is diametrically opposed to the
above concept. Ayatollah Mutahhari makes a very interesting point here. To
understand it better we should bear in mind that there are three types or
dimensions of the human soul: vegetative soul, animalistic soul i.e. a soul with the desire for food,
shelter and sexual fulfilment and the rational soul. There are no limits with regards
to the extent of animalistic desires in a human being. However, the ‘rational soul’ directs one’s desires
towards perfection. Nobility of man depends on his purity and selfcontrol, the urge for him to seek knowledge and to help others, and these desires direct man towards divinity. These
desires and their like are ‘human’ and ‘moral’ in nature. The desire for food, power, fame and knowledge can be moral or immoral. This depends
on the individual’s attitude and state of mind. An individual who exercises
self restraint can think aright and make the correct decision. He does not
succumb to agitated emotions and transitory passions, thus enabling him to save
himself from all types of troubles and worldly whims.

When we say that ‘human beings are free’ this
means that real freedom comes from within. This concept is vital. What does it mean
‘to be free’? Does this involve following one’s lower desires and being free to
amass wealth, acquire power, indulge in sexual gratification and so on? Or does
this mean that a human being must be free to follow the real human desires,
i.e., to attain moral excellence, benevolence and, ultimately, perfection? It
is from this idea that the Islamic understanding of ‘real freedom’ stems. One must be capable of succumbing to whatever is
‘moral’ and ‘human’. Neither the internal forces i.e. our
nature nor the external forces i.e. the environment and people around us should prevent one from becoming moral human beings. If one contemplates more deeply, one will come to realise
the fact that the internal forces i.e. our nature is more severe and
dangerous compared to the external forces, so much so that this can weaken the
values and principles of an individual who succumbs to an external force and
gives in to his or her animalistic desires. To illustrate this point, consider
the example of a person who wishes to perform a good act e.g. a person who is
a great philanthropist , but he is chained from within and cannot liberate
himself in order to be able to give charity. There is an internal force that
prevents this individual from performing such a noble act. Another example is
one where an individual takes pleasure from a deep sleep during the night, but
there is no determination from within this person to wake up for prayers at the
time of fajr. Reflection upon these points will make one realise the extent to
which an individual can be chained within himself, thus preventing him from
being liberated from the prison within. As Muslims, we must liberate ourselves from both the
external and internal forces. The internal enemy is more dangerous than the
external enemy. The Prophet Mohammad is quoted as saying:

Your most hostile enemy is your own soul.3


Spiritual freedom


‘Spiritual freedom’ is the core ingredient of Islam. It
refers to a state where a person is socially and spiritually free, allowing him
to prosper both materially and spiritually. For such a person, there remains salvation
in this world and in the Hereafter. On the other hand, if people do not have
real freedom then their inner potential will be wasted. As long as such people
keep their spiritual facet chained, they will regress and be hindered from
progress. We need to be free in every sense of the word i.e. freedom from within,
freedom from satanic powers and freedom from manmade forces . One of the tasks entrusted
to the Prophets from the very beginning was to liberate people from their
internal locks.

We need to free our eyes, tongues, ears and
minds from satanic thoughts and actions. In the contemporary age, human beings
live in total confusion and bewilderment. Do you think that we are truly free
to think, decide, choose and vote? Given the extent and overwhelming nature of
the external propaganda and pressure of our own lusts and lower desires which
are heavily expanded in the culture of materialism, we have more or less lost
the essence of true liberation within and without. It is the power of a true religion
that can liberate us.


The concept of piety taqwa


What is meant by the term ‘taqwa’? Is it a
form of restriction? Does taqwa restrict human freedom? Are religious values a
type of restriction? Of course, not. On the contrary, by becoming a committed
follower and a true servant of God, an individual also becomes a liberated
force. This is the true essence of taqwa. As followers of truth, we ought to be
confident and not be afraid of those who combat the truth. We are called upon
to do what is right and leave the rest to God. However, if we are timid,
fearful and afraid to perform an act that is righteous, because we are in danger
of tarnishing our reputation in this world, or afraid of losing friends,
relatives and money, we would forever be trying to please others and never
satisfying them. The reason for this is that people in this world are never
satisfied with the things they possess, and they are continuously seeking more.
More is always less to such people. On a positive note, God is the One, the Absolute.
He only demands good and what is possible and rational. He never wants anything
from us for His benefit. Pleasing Him is far easier than pleasing thousands of
people with different sorts of demands that they have. Moreover, pleasing God
by itself pleases one’s self, and provides one with a sense of fulfilment.
Taqwa is a protection and a strong shield of human freedom.




The concept of freedom possesses several
facets. These include freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of
expression, spiritual freedom and philosophical freedom. The latter
type of freedom forms the basis of each of the other freedoms and God has given
us the free will. Without contemplating and deliberating on a matter freely,
one cannot be free to form a particular train of thought or express an opinion.
Whilst contemporary society lays much emphasis on the physical aspects of
freedom i.e. the tangible and worldly freedoms , the spiritual aspect is
almost totally ignored. One observes that some individuals are significantly
lacking in exercising self-control. A stark example of this is that some people
will ‘give in’ to their desires, whether it is a sexual desire or the desire to
drink alcohol and so on. Furthermore, there is a tendency for people to be
influenced by ideas that are prevalent in society without scrutiny or any
consideration as to whether such ideas are correct. These tendencies occur because
such individuals lack spiritual freedom. They are bound by ‘internal shackles’
that do not allow them to exercise their spirituality without hindrance. This
imprisonment may occur when one is subject to one’s animalistic instincts, when
the provisions of reason and intellect are forgotten. Such people cannot be
‘free’ in the true sense of the word, as the opinions they express and the
contemplation they pursue will not be governed by them, but by those forces
which bind them. Once the internal forces are defeated, one has to contend with
restrictions over the physical aspects of freedom. Man will not enjoy eternal
bliss and peace until and unless he frees himself from the inner chains that
bind him as well as the external forces that hinder his freedom, allowing him to become nearer to God and resemble Him in
his qualities and actions.


References :


1. Jalal-ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi-Rumi was a 13th century
Persian poet,

Islamic jurist and theologian.

2. Nahj al-Balaghah, Letter 31.

3.Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 67, p. 64


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