- February 3, 2008
Islam and individual freedom
Freedom is to creativity what the soul is to the body. The Qur”an affirms individual freedom and underscores its relevance as it pertains to our individual decisions. Even the pivotal issue of religion, namely faith versus non-belief in God, was left to individual choice: “Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve” (Qur”an 18:29).Thus, human behaviour in Islam is subject to a person”s discretion. Disagreement between people is therefore intrinsically unavoidable and indeed expected: “And if thy Lord had willed, He verily would have made mankind one nation, yet they cease not differing; Save him on whom thy Lord hath mercy; and for that He did create them” (Qur”an 11:118-119).
Islam does not restrict human freedom in any way but makes human beings responsible, individually as well as collectively, for the consequences of their decisions; one must think about one”s actions and consider their ramifications. The possibility of having to deal with certain consequences may seem to limit individual freedom, but it provides a deep benefit to society as it perpetually reinforces the social adage: “A person”s freedom ends where the freedom of others begins”. Were it not for this restriction, the blessing of freedom would be a curse of chaos, and individual freedom would become a nuisance to others and an infringement on their interests and choices.
But how is accountability for one”s choices enforced in the Islamic framework?
First, it is imposed through the punitive responsibility borne by an authority that handles public affairs, inclusive of the task of establishing order. Relegating responsibility to a higher authority essentially allows for the possible prevention of conflict, or its resolution should it break out. Since this disciplinary responsibility aims to preclude transgressions, it falls in line with the hadith, or saying of the Prophet Muhammad, “No harm and no damage”, as well as the Qur”anic verse: “Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors” (Qur”an 2:190).
Second, Islam places a perpetual moral responsibility upon us that relates directly to our relationship with God, who will hold man accountable for his actions on the Day of Judgement. Carrying the weight of this responsibility reminds man to abide by the values of morality, which the Qur”an promotes by promising divine forgiveness and eternal peace in heaven, as well as maintaining punitive warnings for wrong-doers. No other being has the authority to punish or forgive. Only God, in the afterlife, judges the actions and deeds of an individual. Therefore, the individual must work on purifying his soul from earthly desires and lusts, and bettering his relationship with his Creator.
Islamic views of freedom and liberty are consistent with its divine call for man to mould his behaviour and use his/her skill and art for the collective good, as well as individual bliss. Men of knowledge, science and arts enjoy a greater status in society for their ability to clarify various matters and act as the eyes and ears of society. Moreover, they have an effective role in society, and as such, their responsibility toward others becomes graver. Poetry, writing and other forms of art are welcomed and respected in Islam so long as they do not transgress against anyone. Impinging on others would consequently trigger a punitive measure against the artist so as to preserve the moral fibre of a society against all transgressions in the name of misplaced individual freedom. No one but those with religious authority may assume an authoritative role.
Art acquires its value from the human cause it is serving. As such, the work of the innovator must support just human causes and entrench splendid and noble values. The relationship between art and man, after all, is a reciprocal one: just as man lives by art, so does art live by man. Any art that harms human ideals of truth and virtue and misrepresents society”s aspirations shall fall under the Prophet Muhammad”s dictum: “Whoever believes in God and Judgment Day shall say that which is good or shall otherwise be silent.” In the event that a creative work transgresses against another individual or is an offence punishable by law, it is the duty of the authority to summarily take action to contain the transgression, preventing any conflict from arising as a result. It not is permissible for any person to convince others or think of himself as being delegated by God to inflict punishment or to make others accountable for their deeds.
From both a spiritual and humanistic perspective, art that does not serve human causes is ultimately beneath the standards of worthwhile creativity, and is ultimately short-lived by its very nature. Attempts to forcibly prevent or eliminate such art – what some have called “art for art”s sake” – is in any case futile and one”s energies should be channelled instead toward making positive contributions to our societies and our world through whatever means we have at our disposal. Such a manifestation of our God-given freedom of expression is of the highest order.