The state of freedom has steadily declined all over the world since 2005. This growing freedom deficit is most emphatic in the Muslim World; the group of nations with Muslim majorities. According to the human freedom index, which is a composite of political and economic freedoms, Bosnia and Herzegovina at 59 is the highest ranked Muslim majority country in the world. Jordan at 75 is next. Only Malaysia (ranked 52), Tunisia and Indonesia (63-65) are ranked in the category of flawed democracies by the Democracy Index. No Muslim country today qualifies as a full democracy. While many factors contribute to this reality, religion and culture play an important role in this freedom deficit.
“I am persuaded that based on several verses in the Quran, a case for the Islamic ideal of freedom can be easily made.”
I am persuaded that based on several verses in the Quran, a case for the Islamic ideal of freedom can be easily made. In verse 2:256, which is widely known, the Quran flatly states that there can be no compulsion in religion. In verse 10:99 Quran affirms the principle of religious freedom. The Quran suggests in 5:48 that religious diversity is a product of divine design and advocates for religious pluralism. In verses 21-22 of chapter 88 the Quran reiterates the idea of freedom as non-compulsion in matters of faith. So, if the scripture is not the problem, then what is? It is lived religion and cultural practices that undermine the flowering of freedom in Muslim societies and unless Islamic cultures inculcate and firmly ingrain four essential freedoms, democracy will only remain an aspiration.
In his state of the Union address in 1941 US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, building on Immanuel Kant and Isiah Berlin’s ideas of negative and positive liberty, advanced the idea of four freedoms as a basis for a new world order. He identified freedom of expression, freedom to worship God as one pleases, freedom from want and freedom from fear as universal values. These four freedoms are necessary to all societies, but the four essential freedoms that I am advocating for are particular to Muslim societies and necessary for their emancipation and democratization.
“I think of freedom as absence of internal and external infringements against and constraints on self-expression. In my recent book, Islam and Good Governance: A Political Philosophy of Ihsan, my goal is to aspire for an intimidation free society in the Muslim World, where people pursue goodness not because they are forced to, but because they want to.”
I think of freedom as absence of internal and external infringements against and constraints on self-expression. In my recent book, Islam and Good Governance: A Political Philosophy of Ihsan, my goal is to aspire for an intimidation free society in the Muslim World, where people pursue goodness not because they are forced to, but because they want to. They obey the prerogatives of faith not from fear of a punitive state but because they are self-regulating. Many Muslims living in free societies are self-regulating when they abstain from alcohol, eat halal food, choose to wear hijab, pray and fast and even pay religiously mandated charities, of their own volition. They are free Muslims.
But for free Muslims to exist in the Muslim World, they must be able enjoy four essential freedoms. The four freedoms are (1) freedom to be or not to be a Muslim (2) freedom to challenge existing Ijma (past religious consensus) (3) freedom to do Ijtihad (reinterpret religious law) and (4) freedom to be a partner in governance.
Freedom to apostasy (to be or not be a Muslim) is the first freedom. Contemporary Islamic states today go to great lengths to discipline the lives of their citizens, often of women and often in superficial ways to signal the religious identity of the nation. Islam rather than being a virtue of the citizens, becomes an identity of the state. Imposing the Hijab and the Chador for women, restricting the preaching of other faiths, making conversion out of Islam illegal and punishing apostasy and blasphemy with death become signifiers of national identity. Religious law enforcement and not celebration of spirituality becomes national interest. It appears that these Islamic states, like Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, are worried that without the ever-present stick of the state their citizens would abandon Islam. What value is faith if it is forced? Prayer, devotion and confession of faith all have meaning only when done freely from conviction rather than from fear and compulsion. True believers can emerge only in free societies and people’s faith matters only when they are free not to believe yet chose to believe.
“Freedom to apostasy (to be or not be a Muslim) is the first freedom.”
Freedom to think, research and argue for better governance, for a better society and to critique status quo is essential for democracy and for good governance. Without freedom, there can be no meaningful discourse about anything, including laws and values of society. But the insistence of Islamic religious orthodoxy to block independent thinking in matters of religious law, perpetuates anachronistic traditions and values and precludes progress. Early Muslim jurists has developed Ijtihad, a juristic tool, that empowers Muslims to reflect upon, interpret and reinterpret Shariah (divine law) based on Islamic sources. It was through the widespread exercise of Ijtihad that Islamic shariah evolved and developed during the golden age of Islam.
But intellectual freedom gradually was suffocated by traditions and orthodoxy and faith and society stagnated for centuries. Even today, most Muslims understand Islamic scholarship as knowledge of past opinions about Islam rather than new thinking and new application of Islam. The Muslim world not only needs independent thinking, but more importantly critical thinking in matter of religion and its application. The freedom to do Ijtihad — think anew and critically about the shariah — is essentially without which neither democracy nor good governance will thrive in Muslim majority states.
“Ijma, the consensus of scholars is an important source of Islamic law. But in our times what matters is not the contemporary consensus of scholars but past consensus often dating back to medieval ages.”
Ijma, the consensus of scholars is an important source of Islamic law. But in our times what matters is not the contemporary consensus of scholars but past consensus often dating back to medieval ages. An idea that could empower and render Islamic thought dynamic has become the reason for the fossilization of Islamic thought. The opinions of long dead scholars today masquerade as opinions of God and as divine law. In the past few hundred years Islamic thought has become backward looking and the past is glorified and made sacred with ever increasing fervor. Muslims today live under the tyranny of past opinions.
Freedom to challenge Ijma is essential to liberate Islamic societies from the ghosts of the past. Even if societies allow freedom of Ijtihad, I fear they will treat real or imagined past consensus as out of bounds for critical reexamination today. Therefore, I insist on recognizing the freedom to challenge the past consensus as necessary and fundamental to any free and ethical society. Challenging past Ijma is not necessarily a wholesale rejection of the past. It may result in better understanding of past logic and reasoning and may even reinforce past consensus but this time with fresh and contemporaneous reasons and arguments. This will breath more life in to faith and its traditions. Muslim societies will not develop or grow without continuous self-examination and for this the freedoms to do Ijtihad and to challenge past Ijma are absolutely necessary.
“Freedom to challenge Ijma is essential to liberate Islamic societies from the ghosts of the past.”
The demand for freedom to be a partner in governance should not come as a surprise to any Muslim who ponders the role of Islam in governance. This is just another way of stating that Muslims as believers have the right to a consultative governance and thus have a right to have a say in how they are governed. Free Muslims who are self-regulating enable a transfer of governance from state to society and make states weak and civil society strong. The more seriously policy making, lawmaking and governance is taken by citizens the more participatory governance will become. I expect that in a truly developed state of free Muslims, civil society and self-governance will be so developed and so engaged that governance will become ubiquitous and invisible as virtuous citizens with a very strong culture of self-regulation will make the state enforced virtues unnecessary.
For a spiritual, moral and ethical awakening of Muslim societies, the four freedoms I identified are essential.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is a professor at the University of Delaware and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy. This essay is based on his most recent book, Islam and Good Governance: A Political Philosophy of Ihsan.