Selection #1 of Governance of the Faqih, Chapter One: Man, Freedom, Slavery, and Law

Man and Freedom

Achieving ‘happiness’ is everyone’s wish, just as being ‘free’ has been and continues to be one of the desires and ideals of humanity. And although approximate definitions of these two words are clear for everyone, arriving at exact definitions for happiness and freedom is not an easy task.

Insofar as a description of freedom is a description of an attribute of the self, its definition will vary according to differing anthropologies and the differences therein. In turn, one’s ontological bearing and one’s worldview will bear on one’s anthropology, so that any given discreet anthropology offers us a definition of freedom unique to itself. Thus, freedom from an Islamic perspective differs greatly from the various conceptions of freedom maintained in the West, as well as from non-religious and other non-Islamic perspectives, as the cognitive foundations of Islam differ from other systems of thought in terms of their view of the world, and of man and his welfare.

It is evident that freedom can never be unbounded and absolute, for the attributes of each entity conform to the entity itself: finite entities have finite attributes and infinite entities have infinite attributes. God, Whose being is absolute and infinite, has attributes which are similarly absolute and infinite, and man who is a finite being will necessarily have attributes such as life, freedom, knowledge and will, which are finite. If the existence of an object is finite and we attribute infinite qualities to it, the attribution of such qualities would exceed the bounds of the subject, which is not (logically) permissible.

Therefore, it is not possible for man, who is a finite being, to have infinite freedom, (for in that case his attributes would not conform to his nature). Although God created man free and gave him free will, the freedom and will given to him are limited, and therefore, man does not have the power to will all that he wishes into existence. And similar to this natural and cosmic [takwini] limitation, when man is living in his natural social environment, legal and social limitations restrain his freedom and prevent him from overstepping the bounds of his nature. For how is it possible for each person in society to enjoy the benefit of a limitless and unbounded freedom, and for such a society not to descend into the throes of chaos and thus be prevented from achieving the felicity and perfection fully commensurate with its potential?

Man’s Freedom and his Transgressive Nature

What history shows us, and that which we observe in ordinary people today, is that most people are inclined by their nature to overstep and transgress their bounds. The flame of “is there yet more?” is ablaze in a great number of people who are not content with any limitation. Of course, beside his worldly nature which is one of excessive desire, a tendency toward equity and justice has been provisioned in man’s fitrah (primordial disposition or original ‘nature’). On the basis of exegetic commentaries, which to some extent are also confirmed by rational proofs, man is endowed in his primordial disposition (rather than in his worldly nature) with the quest for religion, for the reality of tauhid (the ontic unicity or oneness of God; monotheism), and for divine justice and equity. God has stated: [30:30] And so, set thy face steadfastly towards the [one ever-true] faith, turning away from all that is false, in accordance with the natural disposition which God has instilled into man: [for] not to allow any change to corrupt what God has thus created – this is the [purpose of the one] ever-true faith; but most people know it not. And also: [91:7-10] Consider the human self, and how it is formed in accordance with what it is meant to be, and how it is imbued with moral failings as well as with consciousness of God! To a happy state shall indeed attain he who causes this [self] to grow in purity, and truly lost is he who buries it [in darkness] – these verses all refer to this same matter.

The Noble Koran confirms the transgressive “is there yet more?” nature of man, and reproaches humanity in over fifty instances, in all of which the reproach turns on man’s worldly nature. Attributes such as impatience, fretfulness, covetousness, querulousness, obstreperousness, avarice, cruelty and ignorance all relate to man’s worldly nature rather than to his fitrah or primordial disposition. Regarding the latter, He states: [17:70] Now indeed, We have conferred dignity on the children of Adam, or: [30:30] And so, set thy face steadfastly towards the [one ever-true] faith, turning away from all that is false, in accordance with the natural disposition which God has instilled into man; these and all other such verses are in praise of man and his tauhidic (monotheistic) primordial disposition. The reference in the first sermon of The Nahjul Balaghah to the prophets who were sent to uncover hitherto hidden mental treasures refers to man’s fitrah or primordial disposition. There exists in man’s inner being treasuries which contain faculties, some of which pertain to knowledge and science and gnosis, and others which pertain to pure and Godly inclinations. The prophets are sent to activate these theoretical and practical fitric abilities which hitherto existed in man in potentia, and by so doing, allow them to flourish.

From what has been stated, it is clear that if man’s worldly nature rather than his fitrah or primordial disposition reigns upon him, there shall be no bounds or limits on his desires and he will not be content to be ranged in, and will require a freedom that is absolute and is not limited by the presence of others and considerations of their requirements, and will arrogate everything for himself; and such a disorderly state can only bring about insufferable chaos. Subsequently, there exists no system of laws in the world – be it Eastern or Western, of the Developed or Third World, or of a theistic or atheistic system of laws – other than those which provide for limitations on man and which have placed constraints upon his freedom, and which have provisions for his punishment in the event those limits are infringed.

So it is not the case that man is absolutely free and that he should be able to do whatever he wants. [75:36] Does man, then, think that he is to be left to himself, to go about at will? Freedom without restraint is acceptable neither to the intellect, to man’s fitrah, to religion or in fact to any human society. Man, whilst free, is at the same time obliged to abide by certain limits in all spheres of life, be they rules of social propriety, legal norms, or economic, political, or military rules, and so on; and should he fail to so abide, he will be punished, wherever he might be in the world, for if this were not the case, chaos and decay would ensue, leading to the destruction of society.

Who is Best Suited to Determine the Limits to Freedom?

After proving the necessity of delimiting freedom and the need for the control of the natural desires of man, our discourse reaches the point where we must ask ourselves who it is that determines the limits to human freedom in the fields of beliefs, law, deeds, civic affairs, custom and morality? The logical answer to this question is that the only person who can properly determine these limits is God, who has predetermined those limits in the first place, and has created man as a limited and finite being; for it is only He who is fully aware of his own creation’s limits and it is therefore only He who can determine the limits to man’s freedom which limits are exactly commensurate with man’s innate limits, and as such, will therefore enable man fully to actualize his potential within those predetermined limits. It is God, who has determined a due measure for each and every creature and object: [54:49] Behold, everything have We created in due measure and proportion. It is God who created man and endowed him with limits, and therefore it is God who necessarily determines the limits to man’s freedom and his other qualities.

If our conception of freedom is correct, then man can never think of himself as the Owner of his freedom, but finds himself rather to be its trustee. Freedom, which is one of the most beautiful of legal facets, is not the property of man, but is rather a Trust from God which has been entrusted to man, who in turn is duty-bound not to shirk in his responsibilities of guarding that Trust, never to interpret his duties toward the Trust with his own opinions, and not to distort it based on his own desires; for no man has a right to sell his freedom into slavery and deliver himself into the bondage of others, just as human life is a Divine Trust and no one has a right to suicide, as suicide is a breach against the Trust of life.

We can conclude from the above that the reasoned and undistorted description of freedom and the correct behavior it demands are both matters relating to a Sacred Trust, and the worthy Bondsman is their competent Trustee.

Conceptions of Freedom based on Theistic and Materialistic Worldviews

As was stated at the beginning of the book, the definition of freedom depends on one’s anthropology, which in turn is dependent on one’s worldview, so that the definition of freedom will vary according to one’s worldview and its concomitant anthropology. The theistic worldview maintains that the world has a beginning and an end, and that revelation and a message have been sent down for man who, while being part of the natural world, has the distinction of simultaneously having a metaphysical existence and is a wayfarer who has put several events behind him and has several in store, and is not annihilated by death but rather, this event is one in which his spirit is transferred from one world to another. Opposing this worldview, there is the materialistic worldview which maintains that the world of being is naught but this (sensible) material world, does not have a beginning and ending, and the life of man is contained between the events of his birth and death, after which he is annihilated and there is no reward or punishment waiting in store for him. The Noble Koran paraphrases the language of the subscribers to this view as follows: [23:37] There is no life beyond our life in this world: we die and we live [but once], and we shall never be raised from the dead!

Two definitions of man arise from these two worldviews. Those who limit being and man to this world define freedom as an absolutely unbounded state, provided of course that the rights of others are not infringed. They believe that man’s freedom is defined by his maximal ability to choose between various options, including the enslavement of others. In their view, man is free to choose to accept or reject religion, and they also believe that if one does not accept religion, no blame is incurred by him as he has not lost his purchase on any sort of ultimate truth or reality. But in the theistic view, this absolute freedom is actually a form of bondage, for this kind of unbounded freedom becomes the cause of his enslavement to his desires and caprice, and causes him to concede victory to his inner urges: [45:23] Hast thou ever considered [the kind of man] who makes his own desires his deity…?

Note that whereas god created man free in a cosmic sense [takwinan] so that he is not compelled to choose a given religion, he is nonetheless bound by canon or sacred law [tashri’an] to accept and enter into the religion of truth, which is the desired choice of his pure and divine fitrah. The way of growth and perfection and guidance has been separated from the dead ends of darkness and from the paths of those who have gone astray and been lost, and each person who seeks happiness and perfection must appreciate God’s guidance and refrain from rebellion and idolatry and have faith in God. [2:256] There can be no coercion in matters of faith. Distinct has now become the right way from [the way of] error: hence, he who rejects the powers of evil and believes in God has indeed taken hold of a support most unfailing, which shall never give way: for God is all-hearing, all-knowing. In the Islamic worldview, every belief and act of man will have its manifestation in the isthmus [barzakh] between this world and in the hereafter, and man is a being who is constantly in a state of migration from this (lower) world to the isthmus and from the isthmus to the hereafter, and in this midst, unbelief and atheism and going against what is right will manifest themselves in the forms of snakes and scorpions, and this is indicative of the fact that wrong beliefs and thoughts are poisons which kill the human spirit, and God will never accept that man, with his absolute (cosmic) freedom, should not accept and enter into the religion of truth, and destroy himself with the poison of unbelief and atheism. Therefore, although man is free in the greater, cosmic sense, his actual freedom lies in the circle of following God’s religion and its life-giving dictates, and not in going beyond it. Thus, no one should say, “I have a right not to accept God’s religion,” for by rejecting the religion of God, which is in lockstep with his innate fitrah or primordial disposition, what he is actually doing is taking leave of his humanity and reason.
On one hand, the Noble Koran has made clear the possibility of the freedom of belief, and states: [39:17-18] Give, then, this glad tiding to [those of] My servants who listen [closely] to all that is said, and follow the best of it: [for] it is they whom God has graced with His guidance, and it is they who are [truly] endowed with insight! On the other hand, the Noble Koran introduces the concept of better speech (which emanates from better beliefs and thoughts): [41:33] And who could be better of speech than he who calls [his fellow-men] unto God, and does what is just and right, and says, “Verily, I am of those who have surrendered themselves to God”? Thus the Noble Koran encourages people to hear different opinions and to choose the better speech from among them; introduces that better speech and encourages man, based on his inward fitric inclinations, to incline toward that better speech and to be a Moslem {one who surrenders himself to the will of God}, who does good deeds, and calls others unto God.

And as to the following two verses which speak in terms of man’s freedom, their message refers to man’s cosmic [takwini] freedom rather than the freedom afforded by Sacred Law [tashri’i]: [18:29] And say: “The truth [has now come] from your Sustainer: let, then, him who wills, believe in it, and let him who wills, reject it.” And: [76:3] Verily, We have shown him the way: [and it rests with him to prove himself] either grateful or ungrateful. The meaning of these and similar verses is that the way of truth has been distinguished from the way of error, and it is up to man to choose between them. We are not compelled and in practice are free to choose between the two: if you chose the path of righteousness, then you will reach heaven and everlasting happiness, and if you travel the path of the void [baatel], then your end will be the fire of Hell. A similitude is man’s freedom to choose poison or lust, which he is free to do in the cosmic sense, but which reason and canon would never allow.


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