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The Concept of Freedom in the Nahjul Balaghah (Part: I)
Author(s): Prof. Waheed Akhtar

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In the Nahjul Balaghah Imam Ali (a.s) has repeatedly emphasized that God created man as a free being with sound senses and reason, and led him with His grace to the right path, but it was man who chained himself with false desires and misguided ambitions.He stresses this point with regards to man's natural makeup and his ability to exercise his freedom in the right path. Rousseau's famous dictum "Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains" echoes the utterance of Imam Ali (a.s), repeated time and again during his indefatigable struggle for human freedom at a time when it was threatened by the slaves of worldly desires and encroached upon by those who wanted to reduce a free Muslim society to a tyrannical monarchy.
Freedom, a yearning of many inner beings, has been expressed in various forms throughout human history. Adam and Eve, as Iqbal puts it, were compelled by this urge to leave Heaven. It is presumed that action is grounded in freedom. Islam does not accept the Christian notion of original sin, as a punishment for which man was exiled from Heaven.
What is called the fall of man in pre-Islamic Semitic tradition may be interpreted from the Islamic viewpoint as man’s ascension to a life of freedom. Man's coming to Earth was an act of his free choice, and he has to earn eternal freedom and conquer time through his continuous free acts in this world, which tests his urge for freedom at every step of his life.
The history of mankind is a ceaseless quest for freedom. It is a multipronged quest: freedom from want, from fear, from the forces of nature, from the tyranny of fellow beings, from injustice, from superstition, from prejudice, from tribal and racial loyalties, and, ultimately, from his own egocentric existence. Man passed gradually through the various stages of realizing all these freedoms, each of which had a material as well as a spiritual aspect. Sheer material freedom means nothing unless it brings in its wake spiritual freedom also.
Rather, both of them complement each other and are inseparable. The quest for freedom suffered setbacks and reverses whenever any one of the two were neglected. The modern civilization suffers from the malady of overemphasizing the material dimension of freedom, totally or partially neglecting the relevance of spiritual freedom to human existence.
Religion has been striving for man's spiritual freedom, while philosophy has been concerned with intellectual freedom. Art and literature have been interested in realizing both of them at a different plane. The quest of science and technology has been always directed towards attaining material freedom. All human activity is a quest for freedom, and all human evolution represents a course of gradual realization of various freedoms.
Human evolution is creative, in the sense that at its every stage, a higher form of freedom emerges as a result of man's creativity. Human evolution is different from biological evolution, for the latter is mechanical and deterministic as compared to the former in which man's aspiration for freedom plays a vital and decisive role.
In the course of man's creative evolution, Islam emerged as an embodiment of all kinds of freedom at a stage when humanity was in need of a balanced synthesis of material and spiritual freedoms. At a stage when man's material advancement was still embryonic, Islam anticipated rapid future developments in the material sphere, which required Divine guidance in pursuing the right path for future development of human society and polity.
It is in this sense also that Islam ensures eternal guidance, for it took in its stride all past freedoms attained by man and laid down a plan for future evolution. At that stage the human mind was incapable of embracing the infinite future possibilities of human creativity, because it had not yet developed the intellectual and empirical tools of the unseen future.
The Qur'an, the last of Divine revelations, contained the guiding principles of scientific induction as well as a moral code that could suffice for man's socio-political and economic advancement, ensuring maximum freedom of human action in all the spheres of man's multi-pronged quest for freedom.
The Qur'an's declaration that God has completed the din (religion, as the totality of Divine guidance) and has conferred upon man the best of His rewards, points to the fact that through Islam, man attained the utmost potential to realize his freedom.
In order to have a comprehensive view of freedom granted to man by Islam, one has to understand the Islamic conception of freedom along with all its implications and practical consequences bearing upon human society, state, and economic activity, at both individual and collective levels.
Freedom can be understood in two ways: theoretically from the ontological point of view, and practically from the social angle. This division is for the sake of study, for in reality the latter aspect logically follows from the former.
As pointed out above with reference to Iqbal, the urge for freedom is inherent in man’s nature. It may be called a Divine gift or spark. But I would prefer to refer to dictum of Ibn Arabi in this context, who said “nothing was imposed upon man from without: what one's ayn (essence) demanded from God was given to him”.
Thus freedom was bestowed upon man not as a gift, but he received it through his own capacity. To borrow a contemporary philosophical phrase, freedom is man's essence and his existence is grounded in freedom. This view can be interpreted as being in conformity with the Qur'an, in which a number of verses refer to human freedom in both willing and acting.
The Qur'an also admits the existence of various grades of freedom in human beings; that is, all men are not equally capable of possessing or exercising freedom. It means that every man is given freedom in proportion to his ability to receive it. Mulla Hadi Sabzawari's doctrine of graded being can be interpreted in the following manner. Every grade of being has its corresponding ability to freedom.
Men differ from one another with regard to their ability for freedom. The weaker beings have a weaker urge for freedom, while the stronger ones have a greater urge for it. It is because of this difference that what is obligatory for higher individuals such as the prophets, Imams, the awliya' and the urafa' is not expected from ordinary men.
"God does not saddle a soul with obligations beyond its capability." (al-Baqarah, 2: 286).
This principle is applied to different individuals in different degrees. Obligation (taklif) implies the ability to fulfill it, provided a man is willing to shoulder it. All Divine commands and prohibitions presume that men have ability to follow them and that some of them might obey, while others might not.
The possibility of obedience and disobedience arises out of human freedom. As everyone acts according to his own will without any compulsion from outside, he is liable to reward and punishment according to his deeds. We have to accept that God never imposed a fixed, predetermined nature upon any individual, and it is man himself who chooses and molds his own character and accordingly his destiny in full freedom.
The Qur'an is quite explicit in this regard. Without the freedom of choice and action for man there could never arise the question of reward and punishment, for otherwise that would have amounted to arbitrariness, that is, injustice on the part of God. In this context all the controversies in kalam seem to be pointless and irrelevant.
The Qadarite and the Mu'tazilite doctrine of complete freedom, also ignores the relativity of freedom in relation to different individuals. The Jabrite notion of determinism goes against Islamic teachings and can be understood in the light of socio-political expediencies of the age. Iqbal has correctly analyzed and explained the reasons behind the denials of human freedom:
The practical materialism of the opportunist Omayyad rulers of Damascus needed a peg on which to hang their misdeeds at Karbala, and to secure the fruits of Amir Mu'awiya's revolt against the possibilities of a popular rebellion.
Ma'bad is reported to have said to Hasan of Basrah that the Omayyads killed Muslims, and attributed their acts to the decrees of God. These enemies of God replied ‘Hasan are liars’. Thus arose, in spite of open protests by Muslim divines a morally degrading fatalism, and the constitutional theory known as the accomplished fact in order to support vested interests. (1)
It would be out of place here to go into the details (on) the issue of jabr and qadar (determinism and freedom). Absolute freedom belongs to God only, and He has given this power to man in various degrees according to individual human abilities. It is in this sense that freedom is termed by Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (a.s) and Imam Ali al-Rida (a.s) as ‘tafwid’, that is, delegated freedom.
When Imam Ali (a.s) was asked to explain the difference between ‘qada`’ and ‘qadar’, he said: "The first means obedience to the Commandments of God and avoidance of sin; the latter means the ability to live a holy life and to do that, which brings one nearer to God... Say not that man is compelled, for that is attribution of tyranny to God". (2)
Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (a.s) made the observation: "The doctrine of jabr (determinism) converts God into an unjust Master". (3)
However, these traditions cannot be interpreted as advocating absolute freedom for man. The latest scientific studies of the problem of freedom, both in metaphysical and political or social terms, arrive at the conclusion that freedom is always relative.
No society or State can give absolute freedom to man in order to secure harmony and mutual respect of all the members. This mutual respect lays certain duties on man, which are for the sake of granting equal freedom to everybody. The saying of Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (a.s) "There is neither jabr nor qadar or tafwid", but the matter is a via media between the two can be interpreted both metaphysically and socially. Metaphysically, or rather theologically, it means that absolute freedom is for God only; man has been given limited freedom.
Socially and politically freedom is delimited by duties, and is not complete or absolute. Imam Ali ibn Musa al-Rida sums up the issue in the following words: "You are at liberty to take one or the other path, but man has not the capacity of turning evil into good or sin into virtue". (4)
Thus we may conclude that man is free, but his own freedom demands him to fulfill certain obligations towards himself, towards other fellow beings and ultimately towards God. Freedom is meaningless if one does not fulfill these obligations. All human rights become due to man, when he exercises his freedom to shoulder the duties he is expected to perform by his Creator, his fellow beings, and his own nature.
However, whatsoever may be the degree and extent of freedom accorded to man, he is free and, consequently responsible for his acts. The Umayyads' attempt to justify fatalism, as described by Iqbal, was an atrocity against Islam and Qur'anic teachings. All forms of government and society, which deny freedom to individuals, represent a gross violation of Islam. How far a State or society is prepared to allow its members freedom determines its Islamic character.
The following are corollaries of human freedom:
1. Every man is able to perform an act he wills and chooses to do.
2. Every man who performs an act is able to perform its opposite also.
3. Every man who is obliged to do a certain act is awarded the power to do it.
4. Even those who do not obey Divine command are given the power to do it, and they are also free to do or not to do what they are commanded. (5)
The practical side of freedom is related to man's individual as well as social duties. Every duty requires as its prerequisite condition freedom and the power to fulfill it, which is called right in legal terms.
As the right to have the freedom and power to perform desired acts is termed a natural right, the freedom and power to perform social duties is termed as civil rights, the freedom to act in relation to the State is called political rights and the freedom to defend one's rights in courts is termed as legal rights.
Right is based on freedom, for it calls on men to fulfill certain duties. Rights are meaningless without freedom and freedom remains an empty concept without the right to act within a particular framework. Freedom assumes a definite meaning in each ideology according to its conception and practice of human rights.
Human Rights: A Comparison of the Western and Islamic Views and Practices:
The declaration of human rights, a result of the French Revolution, was completed on 26 August 1789. The two fundamental doctrines, which gave the declaration its force as the gospel of the Revolution, were those of the natural rights of man and national sovereignty.
The natural rights stated in the preamble were held as inalienable and sacred, because they were considered to be inherent to human nature. These rights were defined in the article II as those to liberty, property, security and the right to resist oppression. Liberty included two aspects, individual liberty and the freedom of opinion. Freedom of speech, liberty of press and expression of religious opinions were secured in articles X and XI.
Though article I proclaimed all men to be equal in rights, it did not assert their political or social equality. As the French Revolution, was mainly led by the business class, which had grievances against the feudal class, the authors of the declaration were perhaps not ready to grant equal political rights to all classes. However, clauses VII-IX secured the principle of equality before law, while clauses VI and XIII established the principles of civic and fiscal equality. (6)
In order to understand the loopholes in this declaration, we have to discuss at some length how the various types of rights are distinguished from one another. In general, a right is defined as a claim or title to anything that can be enforced or a claim to act, possess or enjoy anything, or the use thereof; it may exist in the nature of a privilege or power. A right in the legal sense is "that which one has a legal claim to do; legal authority, immunity granted by authority". The existence of a legal right implies the existence of legal remedy for one does not exist without the other. (7)
Civil rights are those which appertain to citizenship and which may be enforced or redressed by a civil action. These are divided into absolute and relative rights. Absolute rights are supposed to be inherent to humanity, under which are placed rights of personal security, mobility, honor, health and enjoyment.
Relative civil rights include those which subsist between the people and the government, such as the people's right to protection at the hands of the government; the right of allegiance, which is due to the government at the hands of the people; the rights of husband and wife, parent and child, guardian and ward, master and servant, reciprocally.
Right is co-existent with authority or government, and both are inherent to man. According to Bouveir rights precede government or the establishment of States. Johnson holds that a civil right is accorded to every member of a distinct community or nation, while a political right is exercisable in the administration of government, such as the right to vote in elections. Bouvier says that certain apparently natural rights may not be actual, such as rights of privacy. (8)
Another step towards declaration of human rights was taken by the United Nations on 10 December 1948. The General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, also known as an international Magna Carta. It enumerates the specific rights to life, liberty and security of person; freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention and exile; fair and public trial by an independent impartial tribunal; freedom of thought, religion, and conscience; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; and the rights to social security, work, education and participation in the life of an artistic and scientific community were added to them later. (9)
The civilized Western world had to go a long way to reach a universal declaration of human rights. Despite a lapse of one and a half centuries after the French declaration of human rights, the U.N. declaration falls short of ensuring equal rights of people of different race and color as well as ideological and religious freedom for all the nations of the world, particularly those of the Third World, which have no safeguard against their economic, cultural and political exploitation by the so-called advanced nations.
Interpretation of terms like freedom, human rights and sovereignty is considered to be a monopoly of the industrially advanced powers. Freedom-fighters are dubbed as terrorists, while inhuman acts of aggression, suppression, subversion, interference in the affairs of sovereign nations of the Third World by the imperialists are termed as means of safeguarding the freedom and human rights of the people of the victim countries.
What is inconvenient to the champions of open society and human rights is labeled violation of human rights and is condemned by international forums and mass media. Contrarily, the countries openly practicing policies of Apartheid and racial discrimination, such as South Africa's white minority government and the Zionist regime, receive all kinds of assistance and support from the civilized West.
Military dictatorships and anti-people regimes that serve their Western masters and crush democratic movements of their people are justified on the pretext of fighting against obscurantism and religious fanaticism. How human rights and freedoms are interpreted is a matter of convenience for the guardians of Western civilization and supremacy.
The movements of Islamic resurgence particularly invite the wrath of the standard-bearers of human rights. Socialist countries criticize capitalist nations for denying ideological and economic freedom to their people, while Western democracies accuse socialist States of totalitarianism and violation of fundamental rights. Both are right so far as the other camp is concerned, and both are wrong with regard to their claim of granting all the freedoms and rights to their people. Capitalist democracies and socialist republics represent two faces of one and the same coin in the modern world for transacting the business of human rights.
Islam, if studied and judged without any bias, can be justifiably acclaimed to have launched and practiced a universal message of human rights and freedom fourteen centuries ago, in which all the above-mentioned contradictions and inconsistencies were resolved at both the theoretical and practical levels. Islam being a religion consists of a set of beliefs. And beliefs, as defined by C. S. Pierce, the founder of Pragmatism, are distinct from ideas, for those who hold them, while ideas often remain unpracticed necessarily act them upon. Hence, true Muslims, also practiced whatever Islam preached.
As in Islam all dichotomies of theory and practice are resolved, wherever we see disparity between professing and practicing, we can say that in such cases the essential condition of Islam is not fulfilled. Islam literally means submission to God. The submission of various selves struggling to achieve supremacy to an Absolute Self brings harmony in the world of unceasing struggle.
Harmony in the human collective existence can be maintained and ensured through a balanced and just award of equal rights to all individuals along with the freedom to shoulder corresponding obligations, so that human rights are accorded to all. Islam brought into existence such a harmonious society for the first time in the annals of human history, at a time when the advanced West of today lived in a total darkness and without any conception of freedom and human rights.
Before the advent of Islam, the great Greek civilization had introduced a rudimentary form of democracy in the city-states and later the Romans also put up a semblance of democracy for a short time. But in Greek democracies only free men, not women, had the right to vote, and slaves were considered unworthy of having any rights.
The vast Roman Empire was virtually a slave State, in which only the free ruling class enjoyed certain rights. The Byzantine Empire that succeeded the Roman Empire never practiced the teachings of Christ and denied freedom of thought and enquiry to Christians themselves. The Popes were equally intolerant of free enquiry.
In the Christian theocracies and monarchies, religious minorities were persecuted and discriminated against. The socio-political structure of the Persian Empire was equally oppressive, in which only the priests and noblemen enjoyed some rights. In this caste-ridden set-up the common people could not even think of freedom.
The Indian society was also caste-bound, where the lower castes constituting the vast majority of people were treated as subhuman beings. In such an epoch, Islam emerged with a universal message of human freedom that guaranteed equal rights for all human beings irrespective of their race, color, nationality, faith, and sex.
Despite deviating from the path of the Prophet (s.a.w) and his true successors, Muslim rulers generally observed the Islamic principle of human equality and granted much more freedom and rights to their subjects than any other past or contemporary State. Not only Muslims, but also non-Muslims enjoyed full freedom in the States ruled by Muslims.
Sayyid Amir Ali, in The Spirit of Islam, stating that Islam never interfered with the dogmas of any faith, writes:
“Whilst orthodox Christianity persecuted with equal ferocity the Jews and Nestorians, Islam afforded them both shelter and protection. Whilst Christian Europe was burning witches and heretics, and massacring Jews and infidels, the Moslem sovereigns were treating their non-Moslem subjects with consideration and tolerance. They were the trusted subjects of the State, councilors of the empire. Every secular office was open to them along with the Moslems. The teacher himself had declared it lawful for a Moslem to intermarry with a Christian, Hebrew, or Zoroastrian.” (10)
The rights accorded by Islam to non-Muslims, women, and slaves were not only unprecedented in those days, they also distinguish Islam from modern ideologies.
A detailed discussion on the subject of human rights granted and practiced by Islam is beyond the scope of the present article. I would confine my discourse to certain rights granted to women, slaves, and non-Muslims, in order to show to what extent Islam respected human freedom. This study would enable us to understand how far the Islamic conception of freedom had been translated into action and practice.
Besides the Qur'an, our other main source of reference is Nahjul Balaghah of al-'Imam Ali (a.s), which is in total conformity with the tradition of the Prophet (s.a.w).
The Qur'anic Conception of Freedom and Rights:
The relation between rights and freedom is twofold. On one hand no right can be conceived without freedom; on the other, rights ensure certain freedoms for human beings. In the same way, rights and duties are also related to each other reciprocally. Every right granted to man saddles him with some duties. Duty, in a broader sense, means respecting the rights of other, which in its own turn results in securing a safer ground for enjoying and exercising rights.
Freedom of man implies that all men have equal right to freedom, which leads to a logical corollary that every individual's freedom is delimited by other's freedom. But this limitation does not deprive one of his freedoms; rather, it safeguards the freedom of all. If one is allowed to exercise his individual freedom to an extent, which results in usurping, or curtailing other's freedom, nobody shall remain free, and freedom itself will become meaningless. Thus freedom in itself is a right as well as a duty.

Sometimes duty precedes right, for instance, when a person knows and obeys God (both of which are primary duties of a human being according to Islam), he is entitled to certain rights. In this case, fulfilling one's obligation towards God bestows upon one greater freedom also. Of course, man is free to disobey his Creator, but disobedience lands him in the worst type of slaveries, of the world and other men. On the contrary, obedience to God emancipates the human being from all kinds of freedom and rights.
Usually rights are supposed to precede dependence and obedience, and entitle him to greater duties. It is very difficult to solve the riddle as to which is prior between these two. In actuality, freedom, right and duty (or obligations) are three sides of a triangle, in which all three sides are equal. In this triangle, I personally prefer to regard freedom as the base. However, all three sides are equally essential to form a triangle. If any one of the three is removed, the triangle disappears.
Islam has given equal importance to all the three, which together form the moral, social and political conduct of a Muslim. I do not mention religious or theological behavior intentionally and consciously, because religious behavior is nothing but the sum total of the various dimensions of human behavior. Realization of God and obedience to Him is the basis of man's moral as well as social and political conduct. In reality, these patterns of behavior that are named differently are intertwined and are indistinguishable from one another.
Islam regards all different modes of human behavior as modes of an integrated activity. The world outlook of tawhid approaches human behavior also from a monistic and unitary viewpoint. The purpose of all human activity is the establishment of justice at all levels.
Starting from the base, I would reemphasize my belief as a Muslim that man's existence is grounded in freedom, which is inherent to man's nature. He is born free in the world, which calls upon him to choose and act freely in order to determine his destiny.
Freedom is ensured in the Qur'an, both inborn and acquired. There is no distinction between a believer and a non-believer in this respect. What is prohibited is evil and what is lawful is good for all men. It is good and evil that is the criterion of lawful and unlawful, not vice versa. Those who follow the rational commands of God revealed through the Prophet (s.a.w) are emancipated:
(The Prophet) enjoins them good and forbids them evil, and removes from them their burden and the shackles which were upon them . . . (al- A'raf 7: 157)
This general principle based upon the inherent good and evil of things and acts is universally applicable, and it is in this sense that Islam is "the religion of (human) nature (it is Divine nature in the sense that it is ordained by God).
As we have pointed out, no fixed nature is imposed upon man, but he was created in the way he deserved to be. In this way, we can understand the true meaning of "there is no compulsion in religion" (al-Baqarah, 2: 256). This principle is further elaborated in another verse:
"And strive hard in (the way of) Allah, such a striving as is due to Him; He has chosen you and has not laid upon you any hardship in religion". (Al-Hajj 22: 78)
Men are free to make use of and enjoy all the things not declared as unlawful (al-Ma'idah 5: 87-88).
The prohibited things are overt and covert indecencies, aggression and injustice (al-'A'raf 7: 33).
Justice and equity, which are the ends of freedom, are enjoined.
In the matter of doing justice, God does not desire hardship for men but ease: (al-Baqarah 2: 185).
All the Qur'anic verses laying down the laws of just action are addressed to and are applicable to all human beings irrespective of their faith. God is the Lord of all the worlds, and the Prophet (s.a.w) of Islam is sent as a blessing for all the worlds. Neither His Lordship nor the blessings of the Prophet's prophethood is confined only to Muslims. Hence freedom, the greatest of all blessings, is granted to all men.

Resorce and refrence

1. Allamah Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (Lahore: Muhammad Ashraf, May 1971) p. 111.
2. Syed Ameer Ali, op. cit., pp. 409-10.
3. 3.Ibid, p.411.
4. Ibid, p.412.
5. Shaykh al-Ta'ifah Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Tusi, Tamhid al-'usul, translated with introduction by Abd al-Muhsin Mishkat al-Dini (Tehran: Anjuman-e Islami Hikmat wa Falsafeh-ye Iran, 1358 Sh.), pp. 267-383. All points enumerated in the article are discussed in detail with rational arguments in these pages, which may be referred to for gaining a better insight into the problems and their Shi'i Imami solutions.
6. Goodwin, The French Revolution (London: Hutchinson University Library, fifth ed. reprinted 1974), pp. 74-75.
7. The Encyclopedia Americana (U.S.A., American Corporation, 1963 ed.), XXIII, 5 18-19.
8. Ibid, XXIII, 52 1-22.
9. Encyclopedia International (New York, Grolier Incorporated, 1971 ed.), IX, 36.
10. Syed Ameer Ali, The Spirit of Islam (London, Methuen, 1965), pp. 2 19-20.
Resource: www.al-islam.org

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