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Last Updated: 2010/10/13
Summary of question
What is the limit of freedom in Islam and Shi’ism?
What is the limit of freedom in Islam and Shi’ism?
Concise answer

Depending on the contexts, freedom has different meanings and the limits of freedom are different with the difference of its meanings:

1- Freedom in the sense of existential independence, something exclusive to an absolute being and to God, the Exalted who is not constrained by anything.

2- Freedom in the sense of free will which is a philosophical and theological concept. That is, man is free and he acts of his free will although he might be bound by some legal and religious limits.

3- Legal freedom (freedom to choose a residence, clothing, job, wife and freedom of expression and belief etc.) which according to Islam and Shi’ism is limited to the observance of man’s material and spiritual interests.

Civil or social freedom discussed in politics can have something to do with our discussion in this article. The focal question in regards to social freedom is: How far can a state or the law constrain individual freedoms?

The answer to this question is that according to the political thought of Islam, neither excessive freedom, which leads to evil and destruction, is prescribed nor is man forced to accept any kind of unjust and oppressive government that may destroy his dignity and make an inert and yielding individual out of an active, responsible and free one.

Detailed Answer

Nothing is as valuable to man’s God-gifted nature as autonomy and freedom; if a man is made to live in a place under restriction and all the bounties and pleasures of the world are made available for him, he will not be satisfied and he will keep yearning for freedom because nothing is so important to him as freedom.

One of the important reasons why the human society continues to revere and respect the names of the divine prophets lies in the fact that on the one hand man always needs freedom as this is his natural and intrinsic right and on the other hand the divine prophets were the first people to defend this great human right i.e. freedom. They made efforts towards introducing and actualizing it, and the teachings they brought down consist of some of the best principles guaranteeing mankind’s freedom. It is for the same reason that the prophets continue to live in memories but the names of men who invented devices and machines, though they helped serve people’s needs, are gradually wiped out from the memories because with each passing day newer and more advanced technologies are coming. For example, today no one ever reveres or mentions the name of the inventor of glass who lived in Pharaoh’s time in Egypt. In any case, freedom is man’s essential right and it is a need embedded in his very nature.

When it comes to the right of freedom, it should be noted that “freedom” is a word having many meanings and implications in different contexts. Someone may use the word and intend knowingly or unknowingly a different meaning. In order for us not to fall into a fallacy concerning the concept of freedom, it would be necessary to get acquainted with its different meanings:

A) Freedom in the sense of “existential independence”:

One of the meanings of freedom is being completely independent and free from the effect and influence of another being. For example, those who do not believe in God say: "The universe is not dependent upon anything, it is self-existent and self-subsistent" or those who believe in God say that God left the world to run on its own after creation. They subscribe to such a freedom for mankind but according to Islam this kind of freedom is prerogative of God, the Exalted, and it is only God Who is not constrained by anything; He is independent and needless whereas other beings are entirely dependent upon and needy of Him.

B) Freedom in the sense of "free-will[1]":

The other meaning of freedom relates to the metaphysical, theological and philosophical domain and also to philosophical psychology. Freedom is opposed to determinism or fatalism.  The discussion concerning determinism and freedom is one of the oldest theological issues that have been raised in all intellectual and religious schools.[2] There exist three major approaches concerning predetermination and freedom:

1. Predetermination: Those subscribing to this theory[3] says that men do not have the least freedom of choice and man is just like a conscious tool in the hand of the master and whatever that happens in this world, originates in God’s will.

2. Absolute discretion and designation: Proponents of this theory[4] say that God created man and equipped him with brain and nerves and relegated the management of his tasks to him. Therefore, neither God has any effect on man’s actions and conducts nor divine decree has any impact.

3. Freedom or al-Amr bayn al-Amrayn[5] (intermediate position): The median approach has been adopted by Shiites. The Shiites have, with reliance on teachings of the Ahl al-Bayt, proved that the middle way is the correct way. That is to say, man is the builder of his own destiny and he exercises free choice in his acts and conducts, albeit with God’s will and the effect of divine decree. In other words, man’s actions are not generated or created completely by him and that there are two “wills” that work and leave their impacts; they are the wills of God and man and that insofar as these two “will powers” do not work, no action shall take place.

Indeed, these two wills are not latitudinal; that is, there are not two independent causes for one effect. Rather they are longitudinal in the sense that every being depends on God and the power of every powerful being comes from Him. In the same way, a free being’s will and power originate in God’s will and power.

The simple reason for this theory is God’s unity in creation and unity in lordship and the absoluteness of His will and power towards everything and also divine justice. Moreover, public conscience and general nature testifies to man’s free will and power.

The point that has to be noted is that freedom in this discussion is meant for creational freedom which indicates an objective reality. Therefore, we cannot conclude legal and value freedom from this discussion as we might end up falling into an oral fallacy.

C) Freedom in the sense of “detachment”[6]:

A third meaning of freedom is a concept often used in ethics and mysticism. That is, man should not be fond of the world and worldly or ungodly pleasures. His love and attachment should be solely for God, the Exalted and if he loves someone or something, it should be for God’s sake and because he or it is a reflection of divine beauty.

This meaning of freedom which is a value-laden meaning is desirable in an absolute way. That is to say, if a man is free of love and attachment to everything and everybody even God, it is an anti-value and it is where a mistake or a fallacy might occur.

D) Freedom versus slavery which is a social concept:

In old times[7], people used to buy and sell slaves. Some people owned other people as slaves whom they made to work and of course there were some people who were free and not the slaves other people.

Following the advent of Islam, basic and real actions and strategies were offered by Islam which we do not mention here for the sake of brevity and we request the readers to refer to special books in this regard.

E) Freedom in legal and political terms (the right of sovereignty):

A free man is a man who is not under the rule and authority of another person and who himself chooses his way and manner of living. There are two approaches in this regard:

According to one of the approaches, man should be absolutely free and should not accept the authority of anyone, even God. A second belief which is the belief of Shiites is: Man should not be under the authority of another person not that he should be free even of God’s authority. That is to say, rulership belongs basically to God and He can grant it a human being. The simplest reason is that God, the Exalted, has created our physical and material being and He has blown His spirit into us. In addition, He has granted us innumerable bounties such as weather, water, food, limbs, power of thinking and anything that has to do with man’s life. God cannot be dispossessed of the ownership of these material and spiritual bounties. Now that He is the Owner and we are His servants, based on the rational statement that “an owner has discretion over his property and that he can handle it in any manner he wants”, God has the right of discretion over us and we must be submissive and obedient to Him.

Additionally, no one other than the Creator knows more about us, our needs and existential efficiencies and no one knows as much as He knows the ways and methods of reaching perfection. Therefore, God alone wants us to be perfect and He knows the way through which we can attain perfections. Hence, if we are seeking our interest, we must follow the way and method which God has chosen for us and we accept His sovereignty and surrender to it.[8]

F) Legal freedom:[9]

Legal freedom means man’s freedom to do certain actions in his social life and that the state or government does not have the right to forbid it or persecute him for doing it. These actions include the right to choose a place for residence, job, wife, freedom of expression and belief …[10]

There is no discussion as to the fact that these rights and freedoms are not absolute and that they should be limited. There is no legal system in any part of the world that may have given absolute freedom to individuals. Basically, legislating and preparing a legal system are aimed at putting a limit on man’s actions. The discussion is actually about the extent of freedom.

Now-a-days, it is often said that the extent of freedom, is others’ freedom. That is, man is free to adopt any behaviors provided that they do not violate the rights of other individuals of the society. The liberalist tendency in law is of such a view. However, if we want to examine this issue from Islam’s perspective, the answer is that determining the limit and extent of freedom is done on the basis of human beings’ material and spiritual interests. That is to say, the principal condition of freedom in adopting and choosing a behavior is that it should procure man’s material and spiritual needs.[11] This is like freedom given to a food producer or a drug producer since he can produce any kind of foodstuffs or medicine except for those things that are harmful to the health. If it is likely that the food or medicine produced by him contains some toxic or dangerous material, his productions will be banned. Here no one speaks about the freedom of trade and business nor does anyone say that this prohibition violates human rights. Conclusively, what concerns them are the harms that affect the body. As for Islam, not only does it prohibit physical harm but it also forbids psychological and spiritual harms.

The concluding point is that the discussion concerning civil or social freedom which is dealt with in political studies can be presented here and the main question concerning social freedom is: How far can the state or law constrain individual freedom?

The answer is that according to Islam, although man possesses a divine nature which guides him towards the good and spiritualities[12], he also has a material nature which is the source of animalistic desires in him. Man attains prosperity, if he overcomes and controls his nature. Indeed, the nature should also gain the share which it deserves.

On the other hand, legislation and determination of man’s worldly path should be with divine guidance and in the light of revelation because God alone knows what is in our best interest and what is in our disadvantage.

Keeping in view the above, according to Islam’s political thought neither excessive freedom which causes evil and destruction is prescribed nor is man forced to accept an unjust government which violates all his dignity and make an inert and yielding individual out of an active, responsible and empowered one.[13]

Sources used in preparing this article:

1.     Mesbah Yazdi, Muhammad Taqi, Islam’s Legal Theory, p.303-400

2.     Sha’rani, Abul Hasan, The Path of Prosperity, P.97 and 98

3.     Qaemi, Asghar, The Principles of Beliefs, p.78-84

4.     Hadavi Tehrani, Mahdi, Wilayat (guardianship) and Religiosity, p.131, 134

[1] - In this regard, see: Man and Free will, question 51 (site: 287).

[2] - In this regard see the category: Islam, Determinism and Free Will, Question 130 (site: 1237).

[3] - Majority or the entire Sunni community advocates this theory.

[4] - Proponents of this theory were a group of Sunnis called Mu’tazilites who have perished.

[5] - In this regard see category: al-Amr bayn al-Amrayn, Question: 58 (site: 294).

[6] - In this regard see: Religion and Freedom, question 74 (site: 317).

[7] - Slavery in a different form still exists in the modern world.

[8] - Rulership of this kind manifests itself in Islam’s governmental system (governance of the jurist). In this regard see category: Wilayat-e Faqih (governance of the jurist) and Freedom.

[9] - The discussion concerning freedom in a legal system does not relate only to men’s individual and private lives so that it may be limited or restricted; rather it relates to matters in social life.

[10] - In this regard, see category: Freedom of Belief and Execution of an Apostate in Islam, question 53; Also: The Criterion and Limit of Freedom of Expression, question 92 (site: 1765).

[11] - In this regard see category: Religion and Freedom, question 74 (site: 317).

[12] - In natural devotion to the truth (following) the nature caused by God in which He hath made the people. [al-Room:30]

[13] - Hadavi Tehrani, Mahdi, Wilayat (guardianship) and Religiosity, p.133, 134.

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