RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: AN Islamic PERSPECTIVE

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: AN Islamic PERSPECTIVE

A PAPER Presented
BY
DR. KHALID ABUBAKAR ALIYU
SECRETARY GENERAL
JAMA’ATU NASRIL ISLAM (JNI)
NATIONAL HEADQUARTERS
KADUNA
AT
PLATEAU ROUND TABLE

ORGANISED BY: CARE FRONTING NIGERIA

VENUE:

NANA COUNTRY HOME HOTEL

NEPA CLOSE AFTER HILL STATION HOTEL

TUDUN-WADA, JOS, PLATEAU STATE

DATE:
THURSDAY, 12TH, DECEMBER, 2013

ABSTRACT

 

The current trend in vogue in various circles of our society today, is ‘Freedom’, in all facets of human life, nationally and internationally. Freedom is one of the fundamental pillars of man’s happiness and stability. Religion, being the greatest gift of God to man is in tandem with his make-up and answers his inner most yearnings and aspirations. There is a harmonious relationship between man and religion. Islam recognizes this. Several textual evidences abound in the Glorious Qur’an on this.    Misapplication of religion by its managers, adherents and other hidden interests, which are given religious coloration and have nothing to do with the religion, are the serious  problems religion faces today, the world over. Furthermore, misunderstanding freedom, its context and limitation, and its misapplication is another problem. Unless these misapplications are corrected, religion will continue to be implicated for no fault of it. Hence the need to put things in their proper perspectives, the task which this paper tries to highlight.

Introduction
Praise is God’s in the beginning and the end. He is the Creator, the Nourisher and the Sustainer of the world. He is the Sole Maker and Owner of ‘Man’ and what man has achieved in terms of socio-political, economic and scientific breakthroughs. God is The Great, The Omniscient and The Omnipotent, Whose greatness and blessings are endless and multidimensional.  He is free from all defects, and therefore grants freedom to his servants, by giving them the opportunity to know Him and therefore serve Him. He sent down the revelation of faultless scriptures through the most distinguished Angel, Jibril, to hand them to God’s messengers, for guidance of the human kind; guidance which is much superior to the caricatures of man’s gaze work, which he calls laws, constitutions and so on. God is the peace; the real source of peace and unto Him peace shall return. He is the one Who guarantees peace which can only be achieved through freedom.

Undoubtedly, ‘Freedom’ is one of the fundamental pillars of human accomplishments. It is also seen as the real accomplishment itself, while it’s opposite; bondage is a source of misery and backwardness.  Severing man from his freedom means reducing him to a mere slave. This contradicts his God giving honorability (Abdallah, 2002). The value of freedom in the life of man cannot be overstressed. Freedom is a necessarily requirement for man’s meaningful life on the planet. Freedom as it were, is an end in itself. It is also an important means to attaining development and prosperity in this world and the next.

The greatest goal of man is to achieve happiness and to live a life of solace and prosperity. Happiness is a very important component of life. It is the peace of mind, the opposite of misery, which is a complex of narrowness in the heart, caused by absence of relaxation of the heart (Abu- Abdillah, 1422 AH.) But happiness cannot be achieved without first possessing the ingredients of happiness, and freedom is one of the indispensable ingredients of happiness.

 

Nigeria, the most populous Black Country on earth, is blessed by God with both human and material resources to the envy of the world. Unfortunately, it seems Nigerians themselves do not understand, let alone appreciate and utilize these potentials towards taking their destiny seriously, and therefore playing their expected roles in the home front, in Africa and the entire world. As Nigerians, we have chosen to behave like human species different from the other humans in the world. When the rest of the world does right, we do the wrong. When they tell the truth, we tell lies. When they become selfless, we become selfish. When they offer trust, we cheat. When they are transparent we choose to be corrupt; serious attitudinal problems needing drastic change for development to reign.

 

Religion and Nigerians

It is a fact that religion is the most important God’s gift to man, which instills in him the quality of humanness, makes him real human and humane, and provides man with the ability to appreciate life, environment and the greatness of God. Religion which adds a sweet spice to life is largely being misunderstood by many people, while it is abused by others.
The paradoxical attitudes of Nigerians about religion leave much to be desired. While one hand, Nigerians depict religiosity outwardly, through the display of gorgeous worship places, the trooping of worshipers into the worship places gorgeously dressed, on the other hand there is emptiness of the inner self from both the preachers and the recipients inwardly,   the scenario of preaching today and the general practice of religion among both the managers of the religious pulpits and their surrounding listeners has become like a studio, dramatizing a play full of fiction. In general life, God is left aside while the so-called homily givers and their patronizers are on the other. The lifestyle of both the religious leaders and their followers is a departure from what pleases God. Stealing to support religion, which is no doubt irreligious, has become the order of the day despite the fact that ‘God is pure and accepts not except which is pure’. Killing and maiming “others” in the name of “defending our religious interests” has become a recurring decimal in the Nigerian society. Many Nigerians have chosen to award themselves the monopoly of right and freedom to practice their own religion while denying the same freedom for those whom they consider as “others”. Today, materialism, eye service, pretenses, false prophesies and the claim of unsubstantiated miracles, greed and penchant for power, rivalry and envy are the psycho-complexes suffered by Nigerians, while, ironically, these are the very evils which religion seeks to correct.  One is forced to assert that, because the indices of religiosity are more apparent in proclamations rather than in practical terms, Nigerians are people of religion and not religious people.   This is not to deny that there are indeed both religious scholars and religious adherents who are truthful, sincere and God fearing, who match words with action; who are disdained because of their righteousness.

 
Perceptions on Freedom

Understanding the contextual framework of terms, expressions, assertions, and statements is fundamental to knowing their exact meaning and implications.  People’s perceptions usually differ regarding concepts based largely on ideological, environmental and other causes. Viewed from a Nigerian or African context for instance, a term like freedom may be seen differently from when it is viewed from the Asian or European context. The same thing applies to seeing it from a Middle Eastern context. Therefore, it is important we ask: Is there a universal yardstick for defining and measuring complex concepts such as justice, equity and freedom? If the answer is in the affirmative, then we ask: do we actually see in today’s real world the practical application of those “universal” definitions? Yes, ideal situations can be set, but the reality can, no doubt, be the opposite. That is why we can see that Nigerian democracy in reality is different from what has been universally tagged as the ideal democracy.

There is an anecdote, that a judge in England chattered a taxi and said to the driver: “to the Court of Justice”.  But the driver replied:  “you mean the court of Law”? That is because what is equitable to one person may not be equitable to another. Or what is justifiable to one person may not necessarily be justifiable to another. For instance, China and America are democracies. But one needs not be told of differences in conceptualization of human rights and freedom from the perspectives of the two democracies, which are basically born out of the ideological and environmental precepts of the two democracies.

Defining Religious Freedom

Despite the multiplicity of perceptions and contexts about freedom, it is important that we come up with an operational definition of the term.

The Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary provides many definitions of the term freedom. Among these definitions is that freedom means “the right to do or say what you want, without anything stopping you”; “the state of being able to do what you want, without anything stopping you” and the “permission to use something without restriction”. From these definitions, it can be seen that while freedom is primarily a “right” not a privilege, it is also a “state of being”. Freedom is therefore not a theoretical thing, it is practical.

Religious freedom can be seen as the right of the citizens to practice the belief system and teachings of their religion without any person or any authority stopping them from doing so. These religious practices may include those done individually or collectively, those done privately or in public and the ones practiced occasionally or frequently. It involves both verbal and physical religious acts. It also entails the right to use religious symbols and to own and control places of religious worship just as also it includes the unhindered right to propagate religion through peaceful and constitutionally guaranteed means.

Islamic Framework for Religious Freedom

It is a central argument of this paper that there cannot be development without peace, and there cannot peace without religion and that religion cannot prosper without freedom to practice and propagate it. There is therefore an organic relationship between peace and prosperity on one hand, and religious freedom on the other.

 

For the adherents of the Islamic faith, the Glorious Qur’an is the impeccable source of guidance. It represents the everlasting revelation that serves as source of inspiration for the Muslims. The Qur’anic guidance is a special gift which man has no hand in, because it is not within his ability and jurisdiction, but by God’s grace.  The Qur’an (24: 46) declares that

“We have indeed sent down signs that make things manifest: And Allah guides whom He wills to a way that is straight”.

 

 In the Qur’an, several verses underscore the fundamental principles and framework for the understanding of Religious Freedom in the Islamic Faith. I have highlighted on a few of these below:

The Inevitability of Plurality

The first Islamic premise for religious freedom is Islam’s acknowledgement of the fact that by its own nature, the human family is inescapably pluralistic and heterogeneous. This plurality is evident in many respects. The Qur’an makes it clear that God has deliberately created people in different sexes and also in different nations and tribes so that they would understand one another (49:13). He has also created people with various colors and languages out of His wisdom (30:22). The purpose of these diversities is not for the human society to fight belittle or disrespect one another, but to have variety in the human species so that people can, on the basis of those differences, seek to understand one another and to try to promote mutual respect and trust.

Multiplicity of Religions

The Qur’an declares also that it was not unintentional that God created people with the tendency to be inclined to different worldviews and religious ideologies. The Qur’an (10:99) maintains that:

“If Your Lord had so willed (and, denying them free will, compelled human kind to believe), all who are on the earth would surely have believed, all of them, would you then force people until they become believers?


One of the leading English commentators of the Qur’an, Abdallah Yusuf Ali, explains this verse in the following perspective:

If it had been Allah’s Plan or Will not to grant the limited Freewill that He has granted to man, His omnipotence could have made all mankind alike: all would then have Faith, but that Faith would have reflected no merit on them. In the actual world as it is, man has been endowed with various faculties and capacities, so he should strive and explore, and bring himself into harmony with Allah’s will. Hence faith becomes moral achievement, and to resist faith becomes a sin. As a complimentary proposition, men of Faith must not be impatient or angry if they have to contend against Unfaith, and most important of all, they must guard against the temptation of forcing Faith, i.e., imposing it on others by physical compulsion. Forced faith is no faith. They should strive.
Abul A’la Maududi, in The Meaning of the Qur’an, states:

This refers to the freedom that Allah has granted to mankind to believe or not to believe in Him. Otherwise He could have very easily created all the people as born believers and obedient servants and there would have been no disbelief  and disobedience at all on earth. Or He could have very easily inspired them to turn towards belief and obedience. But these methods would have defeated the wisdom that underlines the creation of mankind.
Furthermore, had God the Almighty willed, would have created human species different from what he is, not knowing anything but one way, like angels, or make him having one disposition, driving all to faith. Or He would force and coerce them on faith, severing their will of choice.

But the wisdom of the Creator, which we may comprehend or not comprehend, dictates, that man has two dispositions of either good or evil, guidance or misguidance.

No Coercion in Religion

The third and perhaps the most apparent Qur’anic declaration in respect of religious freedom, is in Qur’an 2:256, where Allah clearly repels coercion and compulsion in religion. The issue of religion according to Islam is rather to be left to the discretion of an individual.  The verse goes thus:

“Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error”.

 

Here also, Yusuf Ali comments:


Compulsion is incompatible with religion: because (1) religion depends on faith and will, and these would be meaningless if induced by force:(2) Truth and error have been so clearly shown up by the mercy of Allah that there should be no doubt in the minds of any persons of goodwill as to the fundamentals of faith; (3) Allah’s protection is continuous, and His plan is always to lead us from the depth of darkness into clearest light.

 

In explaining the above verse, Abul A’la Maududi also said; “Of

course, it is not His will to force people to believe in Him. This means that the creed of Islam and its way of life is not thrust upon anyone”.

According to Sayyid Qutb:

 

This clearly establishes the grace of Allah to man, in honoring his will, thoughts and sensibility, by leaving his affairs to himself, in matters of guidance and delusion in belief, and leaving it’s burden to himself. This is the most special human rights, which some confusing systems reject in the twentieth century. They don’t allow for this being, man, whom Allah had honored, to choose his belief different from the superstructure, which denies him belief in The Lord of the world, or he faces negative consequences. Indeed, religious freedom is the first human right which establishes for man the proper description of mankind to him. Therefore, whoever severs man freedom of religion is severing him his humanness. What accompanies freedom of religion is freedom of calling unto it, free from torture and trouble. If not, it is a nominal freedom with no effect in practical life.

Freedom of Choice in Religion

As if the above verse that declares the undesirability of compulsion in religion is not enough, the Qur’an goes father to proclaim that the work of the messenger or any preacher for that matter, is just to convey his religious message “with wisdom and good preaching” and then allow people to choose the religion of their choice based on conviction.  Hence, Qur’an (18:29)  stresses the freedom enjoyed by man, that he has the choice to either believe or reject faith, even though his freedom should be in harmony with choosing that which pleases God.
Allah the Almighty says:

 

“Say, the Truth is from your Lord. Let him who will believe, and let him who will reject it”.  

 

Al- Sa’di, explains that this verse means “there’s no compulsion in matters of faith, because there’s no need for it”.  Al-Qannuji and Ibn Kathir have also stressed the twin principles of non-compulsion and freedom of religious choice as explained above.

 

All the analysis of this verses as presented above should have made it by now clear, that Islam is very serious about the issue of religious freedom. Compelling people to accept a particular religion is a clear infringement into their fundamental rights. Since people are created with independent faculties of reasoning, it would be unfair for anyone to be forced to accept what he is not convinced about or to deny him the right to freely practice and propagate what he believes is the way to salvation. It is evident also that religious freedom is a value that has been so entrenched in Islam. The preceding textual evidences from the Glorious Qur’an testify to that.

 

 

Restrictions on Freedom

One pertinent question to ask is; are rights and freedom qualified or unqualified, restricted or unrestricted? This question is important given the manner freedom and human rights are being misconstrued and abused. In law, it is said; ‘ The right of a person stops from where the right of the other begins’. And if not, the result would be that society becomes chaotic, and therefore ungovernable.

Islam as a religion is not only concerned about rights alone, it is concerned also about responsibilities. While man is entitled to various rights, he is also shouldered with responsibilities. The implication of this is that while pursuing one’s right, one is expected also to be mindful of his responsibilities towards his Creator and also his fellow creatures. It is in line with this that Islam sets two basic limits to man’s freedom. The first restriction is that a person’s freedom does not allow him to intrude into the rights of God Who created him and therefore knows him the most. Anything that challenges the authority of God, or betrays the natural laws of God is against the freedom granted to man, and, hence, according to Islam, it must be checked. Islam for instance, does not accept debasing human values in the name of freedom. It therefore prohibits lesbianism, homosexuality and same sex marriage, because they are clearly at war with the natural laws of God.
The second restriction is that the pursuit of one’s freedom must not be done in a manner that infringes into the rights and freedom of other individuals or the collective freedom and interest of the community. In this regard, it is not part of exercising freedom for one for instance, to disturb other people with noisy sounds of religious songs or recitals as doing so means infringing into their freedom.

In some countries today, there are shops which publicly sell guns. So one can just walk in and buy, because their citizens have the right and “freedom” to own and use them. These countries have emphasized the importance of individual freedom while ironically neglecting collective freedom. But many other countries   are not like that. They have concerns that while exercising your freedom to own and use these weapons, you may infringe on the freedom of others, hence, some restrictions are made, including the fact that one must be licensed after being approved by the authority.

 

Conclusion
This paper has illustrated the fundamental Islamic principles related to religious freedom. It has made it clear, based on the teachings of the Qur’an and the sayings of Muslim scholars that Islam abhors anything that hinders the freedom of people to practice their religion. Islam is clear on the fact that there is no compulsion in religion and that people have the choice to adopt the religious ideology of their choice. Finally, it becomes evident from the above thesis, that religious freedom from the Islamic perspective is fundamental and incontrovertible. It should be respected and not be trampled upon.

But a pertinent question needs to be asked; is religion the problem of Nigeria, Africa and the world? The answer is certainly in the negative. The problem lies in the misapplication of religion by the adherents, i.e. religious leaders, scholars and followers, as indicated above. Secondly, Muslims and Christians are not at war, either in Nigeria or elsewhere in the World, rather, certain hidden interests, which could be economic, political, regional, continental or intercontinental, are at play from both Muslims and Christians. And because of the vulnerability of religion, it is used, not for the sake of it, but for the sake of those interests. Indeed this scenario is quite disturbing to both reasonable religious leaders, scholars and followers. Until the wolves are severed from the sheep clothing, religion will continue to be implicated for no fault of it.

We may need also to ask: why is it that despite the clarity of the teachings of Islam and Christianity about religious freedom, tolerance and respect, we still see some Muslims and Christians violating those teachings?  While I leave the answers of these posers to the discerning minds to answer, it is important I state that objectivity and fairness dictate that religions should not be judged based on the wrong actions of a few of their adherents who choose to be extremists.

Thank you.

 

 


WORKS CITED

 

 

Al- adawi, M.  Mukhtasar Sahih Tafsir Ibn Kathir,1st print, Maktaba Fayyad, Cairo. 2006.

Abdallah M. D. Risala ila Arbabil Insaniyyah wa Ulil albab, Darul Ummah, 2nd edition, 1433 A.H./2002.

Al-Maududi, S. A. The Meaning of the Qur’an, Board of Islamic Publication, Delhi, n.d.

Abu Abdillah, K. A. Assa’dah, Dar al ihsan, 1st edition, 1422 A. H.

As-Sa’adi, A.N., Taysirul Karimil Ar- Rahman, Cairo, 2005.

Qutb, M. A. Fi Dhilalil Qur’an, 39th edition, Dar ash- shuruq, Cairo, 2011.

Siddiq, H.A. H., Fathul Bayan Fi Maqasidil Qur’an, almaktabah al Saroyan, 1992, Beirut.