Islam and Freedom (part 3 of 3)
Sheikh Salman al-Oadah
When the West asserts human rights, it often does so only within the limits of a specific program or framework. Therefore, the conduct of the Western powers in its colonies during the colonial period was in stark contrast to the high ideals that they were even then espousing. The Australian historian Clive Turnbull, in his book Black War – The Extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines (1948), speaks about how the English brutally and systematically exterminated the indigenous population of Tasmania. He reports that the colonists even practiced cannibalism on some of the natives that they had captured, extracting and consuming the flesh of their captives while the tortured victims were still alive. Ironically, the popular English press abroad frequently made the claim that the natives were savage cannibals and that the colonists were there to liberate them from such barbarity. Turnbull asserts that there was not a single reported case in which a native Tasmanian ever practiced cannibalism on any Englishman.
We must clearly define what it means to be fully human. Do we mean by it every human being created by Allah, irrespective of color, sex, or nationality as Islam would have it? Or do we mean, say, everyone with blonde hair, blue eyes, and a fair complexion and say for the dusky races scattered across Asia and Africa that it would take a bit of stretching to go so far as to call them human?
For an Islamic perspective, let us contemplate the many famous statements of the second Caliph, `Umar b. al-Khattâb. Once he said: “I did not send my deputies to you to strike your flesh or take your wealth. I sent them only to teach you your religion and to distribute the wealth among you.” He also said: “If I hear about any deputy of mine oppressing anyone and I do not correct it, then I must consider myself to be the oppressor.”
On another occasion, he said: “Would you say that if I appointed as governor over you the best person I knew and commanded him to be just that I have fulfilled my duty?” When the people agreed that he would have indeed fulfilled his duty, he said: “Not at all! Not until I monitor him and make sure that he acts upon my orders.”
One of his governors once wronged someone who then came to `Umar and complained about it. `Umar then sent a message to the governor, saying: “Do justice to this man. Otherwise, return to me now. Peace.” The governor promptly redressed the wrong.
When `Umar heard that his governor in Kufah Sa`d b. Abî Waqqâs had built a palace for himself and appointed a chamberlain at its gate without there being a need to do so, he dispatched his investigator Muhammad b. Maslamah to take firewood and oil and burn down the palace gate. He also sent with him a letter for Sa`d that read: “Word has reached me that you have built a palace and a fortification that you call your home and that you have placed a gate between yourselves and the people. It is not your palace but a palace of shame. Do not place a gate at your residence to prevent people from having an audience with you and in that way deny them their rights.”
He wrote the following to his governor in Egypt, `Amr b. al-`Âs: “Word has reached me that you recline in your public assemblies. Do not do so. Sit up like the rest of the people.”
These are but a few examples presented here to emphasize how Islamic values have upheld human rights to a degree unprecedented in history. Yes, `Umar was able to be very forthright in his dealings and demand from people that they fulfill their duties, but it was the atmosphere that Islam had brought about that allowed for the noble gestures mentioned above to take place.
We must make sure that the terms human rights and freedom exist in our own vocabulary as defined according to our own unique perspective, not according to the dictates of others.
It is a mistake for us to regard human rights and women’s rights with suspicion. The same goes for freedom. We should be the ones to bring these subjects up. We must clarify how the law of Allah addresses these concepts and we must correct the gross violations of these rights that exist within the Muslim world today. This is the way we will be able to fend off the attacks of the West that employ the ideas of rights and freedom to target the Muslim world and its values. We must make sure that the terms human rights and freedom exist in our own vocabulary as defined according to our own unique perspective, not according to the dictates of others.
There is a dire need for Muslim scholars to tackle the issue of human rights and freedoms and offer a viable alternative to the Western model. When we talk about freedom and equality, we should observe that the West with its liberalism and Capitalism gives priority to freedom, often sidelining equality in the process. This has caused a wide gap between the haves and have-nots and the acute social stratification often associated with Capitalism. The Communists, on the other hand, give priority to their notion of social equality, and dispense with nearly every aspect of freedom to do so, particularly freedom of ownership, but even freedom of speech and most human rights. Whenever Communist regimes have been instituted, people found themselves living in the most oppressive of dictatorships. The so-called dictatorship of the proletariat turned out to be no less oppressive and top-heavy than any other authoritarian regime.
The system offered by Islam does not seek to advance either consideration at the expense of the other, but gives precedence to the general welfare over individual interests. From this vantage point, where considerations of freedom offer the greatest benefit, they will be given priority. Likewise, where matters of equality bear more heavily upon the public interest, they will take precedence.
Moreover, both freedom and equality have to be defined. The limits of freedom must be made perfectly clear. Equality must be understood in the context of justice and not in an absolute sense that often wrongs many, especially those who work hard and excel on their own merits. Scholars of Islamic Law would do well to give top priority to the study of these issues. They need to educate the people about their rights and how they can go about securing them. Equally important is for them to teach the people how to properly exercise their freedoms when they attain them.
There are those who can only see rights and freedoms in their most absolute sense. This is a gross misunderstanding. No one can be said to have unlimited rights or freedoms. The rights and freedoms of one person must at least take into consideration those of others. In Islam, they must be kept within the framework of the Divine Law to which all Muslims must submit, since this law comes from their Lord who knows best what they need.
On the other hand, there are those who believe that allowing people to exercise their individual rights is detrimental to society and breeds all sorts of deviance. This belief is inconsistent with reality. Experience has shown that when people are granted a reasonable amount of trust, they develop into people who act responsibly.
Consider the family unit. Do we find that the ideal strategy for childrearing is to completely restrict the child and deny it any semblance of rights? Such a strategy is no better than ignoring the child and letting it run wild. The best, most balanced approach is to give the child the opportunity to exercise some freedom so it can learn how to do so and make intelligent and responsible decisions. This should go hand in hand with a proper religious upbringing that instills in the child Allah consciousness and provides for it a way to distinguish right from wrong.
The school environment is another excellent example to consider. Should a school be an institute for rote learning, an autocratic grind mill for information? Should it, conversely, be a free-for-all wherein students do as they please, no matter how wrong or immoral it might be? Ideally, the school environment should be balanced so that it develops the character of its students and instills within them an awareness of both individual worth and responsibility towards others. What we say here about schools applies equally to other educational activities like library programs and lessons given in the mosque.
Imposing values upon students and denying them the right to ask questions and discuss their concerns is an insult to their humanity. It also breaks their spirits and negates their feelings of self worth.
At every level of society, a balance must be struck between the rights and needs of the individual and those of society. Due consideration must always be given to considerations of freedom and equality.
People should be granted freedom of speech and taught how to exercise it without slandering others and injuring them. People must be made conscious of their responsibilities as well as their rights. Likewise, people need to be held accountable when they transgress their rights or fail to live up to their responsibilities.
Intelligent people are concerned about the good of the society in which they live. They are cognizant of the fact when society misuses its rights and denies the people theirs; it places itself in danger by alienating the people and fostering among them destructive tendencies and spawning numerous social problems.
When we speak about freedom, we should not feel that it is a Western idea we are espousing. We definitely should not feel that it compromises the Islamic ideal of submission to Allah. Islam itself dictates to us the idea of freedom as well as that of servitude to our Creator. The foundation of Islam is submission in worship to Allah alone. Therefore, the Islamic concept of freedom is to remove any absolute authority over the individual, for such authority negates the very gifts that Allah has granted him. Submission to Allah is by necessity realized within the context of freedom. It is intrinsically tied in with responsibility. This is why Islam so strongly encourages the emancipation of slaves. Freedom in Islam is expressed in the Qur’ân in the following words: “Allah has not given you a way against them.” [Sûrah al-Nisâ’: 90]
The famous man of letters, `Allâl al-Fâsî, once wrote: “Human history is one long search for freedom.”
And Allah knows best. And may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon our Prophet Muhammad and upon his family and Companions.