The Difference between Islamic and Western Perspective on the Scope of Freedom
- :Ayatullah Misbah Yazdi
Adopted from the book : "Freedom; The Unstated Facts and Points" by : "Ayatullah Misbah Yazdi"
We have stated that all rational people of the world reject absolute freedom. We do not know of anyone who says that anyone can do whatever he wants at any time.
So, on negating the absoluteness and limitlessness of freedom, the question is: What is the extent of freedom? To what extent can the law promote or restrain freedom? Basing on the divine and Western cultures, there are two distinct answers to these questions. Based on the Western culture, freedom will be limited whenever it threatens the material interests of human beings.
If freedom threatens the life, health and properties of human beings, the law will put a restraint on it. Therefore, if the law would say that maintaining health is necessary and that potable water must not be poisoned as it would endanger the lives of people, this imposition of limits on freedom is acceptable because these freedoms are ought to be retrained in order to maintain the safety of individuals.
Undoubtedly, this law is acceptable for all. Nevertheless, in case an act threatens the chastity, eternal bliss and spiritual values of people, and pollutes the human soul, should the law hinder it or not? It is here that the dispute between the divine and Western cultures arises. From the divine perspective, man is moving toward divine and eternal perfection and the law is supposed to pave the way for this wayfaring, removing all the obstacles along the way.
(At this juncture, the law we are referring to is the legal and administrative law whose guarantor for its execution is the government, as well as the one related to the individual. That is to say that the ethical issues are not what we mean.)
In answer to the question as to whether or not the law should prevent anything that jeopardizes the eternal life of human beings, the divine culture states that it should prevent, but the answer of the Western atheistic culture is negative. If we were truly Muslims, and do acknowledge God, the Qur’an, Islam, Hadrat 16 Muhammad (s?), Hadrat ‘Ali- (‘a), and the Ima-m of the Time (may Allah, the Exalted, expedite his glorious advent), we should hold in high esteem the spiritual, eternal and otherworldly values.
The lawmakers have to observe the spiritual and divine interests while the Islamic government has to prevent that which is harmful to the spiritualities of human beings, otherwise we will follow the Western culture. The law should not only facilitate the bodily health, subsistence and other material welfare of human beings, prevent anything that creates disorder and crisis in the society, and put on check any action that threatens the economic interests and security of the people. Instead, the law should take into account the spiritualities as well.
We have two options before us: We have to accept either the Islamic law or the Western law. Of course, in these two options there are intermixtures and intersections. They are the manifestations of the statement of the Commander of the Faithful (‘a) who says:
“Something is taken from here and something from there and the two are mixed!” 17
They take something from the Islamic culture and yet another from the Western culture and this constitutes the asymmetrical combination. Certainly, Islam does not accept such an approach, and in reproaching it the Qur’an states:
“Lo! those who disbelieve in Allah and His messengers, and seek to make distinction between Allah and His messengers, and say: We believe in some and disbelieve in others, and seek to choose a way in between; such are disbelievers in truth.” 18
Today, there are also those who want to mix some elements of Islam with some elements of the Western culture, and present it to the society as the “modern Islam”. These individuals do not believe in Islam. If he only believed in Islam, he would know that Islam is a totality whose demands he should definitely accept.
I cannot claim that I do accept Islam, but I do not accept some of its demands. Therefore, our affair in legislation and in setting limit on freedom is situated between the two, one of which we have to choose. We have to regard either the material and worldly threats, or both the material and spiritual threats as the criterion in setting limit to freedom.
If we accepted the first we thus accepted the atheistic Western culture, but if we accepted the second, it follows that we accept the divine and Islamic culture.
The farther we are from that polar (the first) the nearer we become to Islam. In any case, these two have no total concordance because as far as material interests are concerned, both Islam and the atheistic Western culture state that they must be pursued. For example, both the two cultures state that the hygienic orders must be observed. Yet, as far as spiritual affairs are concerned, difference arises.
When only the material interests are considered, a small circle of the limitations is set before the freedom of man; however, when we added the spiritual values, another circle will be added to the first circle, and two aliquot circles emerge. As a result, the circle of limitations is wider than the circle of freedoms.
When we say that the freedom accepted in religion is not like the freedom in the West bespeaks of it. That is to say that it is on this account that spiritual interests must be observed. We cannot be like the Westerners who are unrestrained and unfettered. We have to observe the set of other values related to the spirit, true humanity and eternal life of man.
But the Western culture says that these values are not related to the social laws. Government and state laws revolve only around the axis of material affairs of society and their opposite are related to ethics, which have nothing to do with the state. Once it is said that the sanctities of religion are in danger the government official will say,
It does not concern me; my duty is to protect the material interests of the people’s lives. Religion is related to the seminaries and the a-khu-nds; 19 they themselves have to go to protect them (religious sanctities). The government has nothing to do with these issues.
But if the government is an Islamic one, it says: “Religion first, then the world”.
The Preeminence of the Spiritual and Religious Interests over the Material Interests
If we were put in a situation wherein we have to choose between two options: that with economic progress our religion will receive a blow, or that we would advance in religion while our economy would be arbitrarily affected to some extent—which option will we choose? We believe that the advancement of Islam also guarantees economic progress, but in a long-term program provided that it is implemented perfectly.
Nonetheless, sometimes it is possible that in a short-term it would negatively affect the economic interests and put individuals in a difficult situation. Now, if the situation would be such, which one has preeminence over the other—religious interests or worldly interests? It is clear that the religious interests are preeminent, as it has been stated, thus:
If your life is in danger, sacrifice your property for your life. If the situation were such that you have to choose between life and property, you have to sacrifice your property for your life. If the situation were such that you have to choose between life and religion, between remaining alive in unbelief and being slain while having faith, you have to sacrifice your life and property for the religion. 20
At this point, if man is killed, there is nothing wrong.
“Say: Can ye await for us aught save one of two good things (death or victory in Allah's way)?” 21
What is wrong with a person who will be slain in the path of his religion? He will directly go to heaven. But if supposedly he would live having without religion for another hundred years, what is the benefit except that day by day his suffering will increase? Thus, from the viewpoint of Islam, religious and spiritual interests are better than material interests. Therefore, apart from observing the spiritual interests, the law has to give priority to them.
16. Hadrat: The Arabic word Hadrat is used as a respectful form of address. [Trans.]
17. Nahj al-Bala-ghah, Sermon 51, http://www./nahjul.
18. Su-rah an-Nisa-’ 4:150-151.
19. A-khu-nd: a word of uncertain etymology that originally denoted a scholar of unusual attainment, but was later applied to lesser-ranking scholars, and then acquired a pejorative connotation, particularly in secularist usage.
20. Sharh Nahj al-Bala-ghah Ibn Abi-’l-Hadi-d, vol. 8, p. 25.
21. Su-rah at-Tawbah 9:52.
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