The Concept of Freedom

The Concept of Freedom

In the Nahjul Balaghah Imam Ali (PBUH) has repeatedly emphasized that Almighty Allah 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 regards to man's natural makeup and his ability to exercise his freedom in the right path. Rousseau's famous dictum said: "Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains", echoes the utterance of Imam Ali (PBUH), 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 (PBUTH), were compelled by this urge to leave Heaven. It 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.

The history of humankind 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 was 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 because 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 being nature. It may be called a Divine gift or spark. However, 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, and the awliya' is not expected from ordinary men.

" Allah does not task any soul beyond its capacity…" (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 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 (PBUH) and Imam Reza (PBUH) as ‘tafwidh’, that is, delegated freedom.

When Imam Ali (PBUH) 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 (PBUH) 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 (PBUH) "There is neither jabr nor qadar or tafwidh", 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 Reza (PBUH) 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 Quranic 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.


·  1. Muhammad Iqbal: The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (Lahore: Muhammad Ashraf, May 1971) p.111.

·  2. Seyyed Ameer Ali, op. cit., pp. 409-10.

·  3. 3.Ibid, p.411.

·  4. Ibid, p.412.

·  5. . 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.

Author:Dr. Sayyid Wahid Akhtar