Islam and Liberty: What It Really Is and How It Seems or How It Is Shown

by Begum Burak

After 9/11, a considerable amount of attention has been put on issues regarding Islam and its relationship with “others”, in the West. As known, there is not a monolithic and single view towards Islam in the West, just as the Muslim societies do not have a single perception of the West. In this article, I will try to explore why Islam is seen as an illiberal religion by some people in the West, apart from the impacts of the terrorist movements that have been performed by the so-called “Islamist” organizations. Moreover, another central concern of mine would be to shed a light upon the nature of the relationship between Islam and liberty. That is because unlike a widespread notion among non-Muslims and even among some Muslim people, Islam embraces liberty as it is understood based on The Quran (the Holy book) and the sayings of the Prophet, (p.b.u.h.) the Hadith. However, it is obvious that liberty along with tolerance have always been contested concepts with regard to Islam, according to some people.

Liberty, according to John Stuart Mill, consists of two types. The first type is the absence of external coercion, and the other type is the freedom to act. On the other hand, Charles Taylor has distinguished negative liberty as ‘freedom from external restrains’ and positive liberty as ‘freedom from internal restrains’ (such as fear, ignorance).[1]

What is worth analyzing here is the fact that Islam is generally presented and misinterpreted as a religion consisting of illiberal and intolerant understandings and practices; however, this is not true. Even a non-believer may draw this conclusion if they examine what is stated in The Quran. These misunderstandings, in fact, do not have their origins in the essence of Islam as a divine religion, but rather stem from socio-cultural and political contexts. For instance, in the Middle East, the degradation of women and persecution of perceived impiety, apostasy, or blasphemy lead some people to think that Islam has been the main driving force behind these illiberal and even oppressive activities.[2]  It must be said that the Islamic law (The Shari’ah)[3] is politicized not only in the western world but it is also misused for ideological purposes in the Muslim world.[4]

It has been argued that:

… To confront the challenges posed by European imperialism and internal social uncertainty, modern Muslim “reformers” argued for individual interpretation of Islamic law – and its sources for derivation – as a way to create a uniform body of law.[5]

At its core, the Shari’ah represents a Muslim’s efforts to construct a system of social and moral regulations based on the interpretations of the Islamic textual resources.[6] However, because of its misuse for mainly political and ideological motives, Islamic law and Islam as a religion have been seen as intolerant in addition to being regarded as illiberal.

On the other hand, “The  Quran says categorically that ‘There is absolutely no compulsion or coercion in (opting for a particular) Deen (or a way of life or a system of beliefs and actions)’ [Chapter 2: verse 256]. Freedom of choice is the birth right of every human being. Allah says in the Quran that ‘Had He willed (not giving humans the freedom of choice), He would have made every human being believe all together; would you then (O Muhammad) compel people until they become believers’ [Chapter 10: verse 99]. One of the most commendable acts of Allah’s Messenger (p.b.u.h) was that he relieved people of their burdens and shackles which were upon them earlier on [7:157].”.[7]

Tanveer Hussain states that, in Islam, every individual has full freedom of choice in believing and disbelieving in a particular system of beliefs. He goes on:

“The Quran makes it clear that liberty goes hand in hand with responsibility of the consequences for one’s actions. It says, ‘There has come to you enlightenment from your Lord; whoever reflects on it, will do so to his own advantage. On the other hand, those who choose to remain blind to it, will do so to their own disadvantage’ [Chapter 6: verse 104]. ‘Whoever disbelieves will suffer from his disbelief, and whosoever does righteous deeds then such will prepare a good place for themselves’ [Chapter 30: verse 44]. “The truth from your Lord has certainly come to you. One who comes to be guided by it will be guided to his own advantage. But one who chooses to go astray will only harm himself” [Chapter 10: verse 108; Chapter 17: verse 15; Chapter 27: verse 92; Chapter 39: verse 41]. “If you do the right thing it would be to your own advantage and if you go astray you will have to suffer the consequences of your wrong actions” [Chapter17:7]. “Whoever does righteousness, it is for his own soul and whoever does evil does so against himself” [Chapter 41: verse 46; Chapter 45: verse 15]. ‘Whoever commits a wrong, wrongs himself” [Chapter 4: verse 111]. ‘Your insolence or transgression is against your own selves’ [Chapter 10: verse23]”[8]

In short, it can be said that, just like other divine faith systems such as Christianity, Islam does not have any coercive or illiberal elements in its essence. However, it must be emphasized that sometimes the political and socio-cultural contexts play a major role in making Islam seem as an illiberal faith system. In addition to that, it must be stated that, the fundamentalism, autocracy, and developmental lag we see in the Muslim world today are all closely related: they are the results of a historical evolution through which Islam has strayed far from its original spiritual message of peace and equality.[9]


[1] For these definitions see Hussain Tanveer, “The Quran on Liberty”, at http://ntupk.academia.edu/TanveerHussain/Papers/890734/The_Quran_on_Liberty (accessed, 29.12.2011).

[2] See Mustafa Akyol’s piece “Sharia was Made for Man” to understand how Islamic law is misinterpreted and abused in the Middle East. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/shariah-was-made-for man.aspx?pageID=449&nID=10157&NewsCatID=411 (accessed, 29.12.2011).  See also, M. Akyol’s book  Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.

[3]Shari’ah literally means a way or a path, usually to a watering hole. Traditionally, it is meant to guide Muslims as to how they should fulfill their religious obligations. The vast majority of criminal and civil issues were handled by state authorities through a systemized code of law. This legal system was called qanun, from the Greek word kanon. With the rise of the modern nation-state, states seeking to be authentically “Islamic” adopted a wide variety of laws and dubbed them shari’ah, even though in the classical system they would be qanun. Whereas qanun is fixed and relatively static, as it is used for running a state, shari’ah is dynamic. The sources of shari’ah are the Qur’an, the scripture of Muslims, and the hadith, sayings and actions of Prophet Muhammad. Less than 10% of the Qur’an is what we would term legalistic, and the hadith genre is highly contested in terms of interpretation. The legal opinions that form the corpus of shari’ah are meant to be constantly negotiated based on time and place.”  See Hussein Rashid, “The Problem with Equating Shari’ah with Law”, The Revealer, 30/07/2010, at http://therevealer.org/archives/4600 (accessed, 29.12.2011)

[4] See Tariq al-Jamil, “The Perversion of the Shari’ah and the Limits of Tolerance”, The Revealer, 06/10/2010, http://therevealer.org/archives/4827 (accessed, 29.12.2011).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Anja Havedal, “Islam and Lıberty: The Historical Misunderstanding”, review of Islam and Liberty: The Historical Misunderstanding, by Mohamed Charfi, Zed Books, Autumn, 2006, Democratiya 6, at http://www.dissentmagazine.org/democratiya/article_pdfs/d6Havedal.pdf (accessed, 29.12.2011).

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3 thoughts on “Islam and Liberty: What It Really Is and How It Seems or How It Is Shown

  1. Asking pardon here i have done mistake . Plez read in my comment in first line . We do not have any problem to coexist with any other ideology *

  2. As muslim I can confidently claim , we dont have coexist with any other ideology . Our Islamic nature endores it . All religion including Islam , Christanity has been separated from state, but religious confliction we still hear . One of the reason is lack of information and using religion for few people interest . I read many article related to Islam which are often full of wrong information miss explanation . The writter deserve Thanks for being honest to represent correct information .

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