Saturday, 26 September 2015

Islam and Freedom

The Arabic word for freedom is hurriyya. But in Islam, this concept is completely at odds with the Western understanding of the term. The lionised Sufi Master Ibn Arabi (d.1240) defined freedom as “being perfect slavery.”

This conception was not only limited to the mystical Sufi understanding of the relationship between Allah and his human “slaves”. The renowned E.J. Brill Encyclopedia of Islam, a must-read scholarly reference work, contains an excellent entry on hurriyya. The next three paragraphs are a brief summation of some of the main points the entry raises.

For centuries in Islamic political thought, the individual was expected to subordinate his own freedom to the beliefs, morality and customs of the Islamic community as a whole, and hence was not expected to exercise any free choice as to how he wished to be governed. In general, there was never any idea that the individual citizen could democratically participate in government.

Throughout the nineteenth century, during the latter stages of the Ottoman Empire, there were some cautious reformers who wrote of political freedom in a more familiar sense, and even experimented with councils and assemblies, but even then, there was still no idea that the subjects of a state have any right to determine how their society is governed.

The idea of individual freedom only really reached Ottoman lands during the later periods under British and French rule, and while it was not always perfectly applied, it was on the whole much better protected than at any time during Muslim rule. Eventually, Muslim thinkers in the region rejected Western democracy altogether, labelling it a fraud and a delusion which was of no value to Muslims.

It is noteworthy that a traditional Arabic term used throughout the Qur’an to denote a follower of Islam is ‘abd (plural ibad), which also more literally means a slave or servant (i.e. of Allah).  Further, the word “Islam” itself means “submission, resignation, reconciliation (to the will of Allah)”, with the word “Muslim” therefore meaning one who submits to Allah. 

While many Muslims recognise these concepts to be completely antithetical to the Western idea of freedom, many have also begun to exploit popular democratic ideals in order to promote the implementation of sharia. This is most clearly demonstrated in the evolving methods of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which formed its first legitimate political party in early 2011: the Freedom and Justice Party, or Hurriyya and Adala

In the run-up to the Egyptian Presidential elections, the Brotherhood was open about its desire to implement sharia law in the country, but its political platform also made clear that it planned to do so via a pseudo-democratic process:

The authority of the sharia will be implemented in a manner that conforms to the [will of the] nation, by means of a parliamentary majority elected in free, clean, and transparent [elections]. The legislative branch must consult with the nation's Supreme Council of Clerics, which will likewise be freely and directly elected from among the clerics…[The duty of consulting with the Supreme Council of Clerics] will also apply to the president when he wishes to implement decisions based on law and in the absence of the legislative branch. In these circumstances, the Supreme Council of Clerics decision will be final and will best serve the interests of the public.

This system demonstrates how easily a fa├žade of “democracy” can obscure the inherently anti-democratic character of Islamic law.

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