Islam, Freedom, Modernity: Mastery of the Self v. Slavery to the Self
Believer must realise that, at root, there’s a parting of ways between Islam and the liberal monoculture when it comes to what human beings fundamentally are, what it is possible for them to be or become, and what it means to be liberated or free. Islam teaches that the human person is imbued with a ruh, a “spirit,” that yearns for God, truth and beauty. For the liberal monoculture, there is no spirit or soul, but merely a “self.” And this self is made up of our whims, wants and desires. Islam teaches that the intellect or reason’s role, in light of Revelation, is to enable us to know the good and what’s morally right, and direct our desires towards it. Reason is a restraint on desires, it is master of desires; hence the importance of self-mastery or mastery of the self in Islam. About this, the Qur’an says: As for those who feared the standing before their Lord and curbed their soul’s desires, the Garden is their abode. [Q.79:40-41]
In stark contrast, the monoculture would have us believe that reason is not, and cannot be, master of desire but only its servant. Reason can tell us not what to desire or want, but only how to get whatever it is we desire or want. For the monoculture, it’s seldom about restraining our desires or mastering the self; rather it’s about slavery to self. Today’s freedom is freedom of the self; freedom to be servile to the self. Islam’s freedom is freedom from the dictates of the self; freedom from self-slavery. One of the saints of Islam once said: مَا وَصَلَ إِلٰى صَرِيْحِ الْحُرِّيَّةِ مَنْ بَقِيَ عَلَيْهِ مِنْ نَفْسِهِ بَقِيَّةٌ – ‘No one attains true freedom as long as he remains under even the slightest influence of his ego.’ With that being the case, any fiqh that isn’t rooted in this reality; any taysir or ease which fails to factor this into its fatwas, is sloppy and short-sighted and, in the long run, is part of the actual problem.
True or meaningful freedom, then; freedom from self-slavery, can only come with taslim; surrender to God: i.e. Islam. To minds that have been dulled and numbed by the monoculture, a Muslim who submits to the divine Reality and who binds himself to a code of life consisting of a series of religious duties and commitments, may not appear as free as the hapless victims of the secularised monoculture who live in accordance with their whims, base desires and egos. In reality, however, the Muslim discipline is no deprivation of freedom. It is a necessary measure so as to guide people, regulate their affairs, prevent them from straying, and dissuade them from doing harm to themselves or to others. By recognising that the divinely-given code of life exists to protect us, bring out the best in us, and help our Adamic potential flower to its fullest, we can attain balance and contentment in this life, and endless joy in the next. In fact, if anything, the sheer number of laws, regulations and prohibitions which the modern state constrains its citizens with – all in the name of progress and the public interest – is far far larger than the corpus of laws or duties the believer is required to uphold. Yet in the cult of blindness and double-standards, it is the shari‘ah that is the “straight-jacket”.
Ever since the French ‘philosophes’ and the French Revolution which swiftly followed on its heels – which wasn’t just a revolt against social injustices and an unjust aristocracy, but above all, it was a revolt against Religion; against God – Man would, henceforth, be the measure of all things. It would be Man’s will that would be sovereign. His personal will alone would have the right to decide what it desires to believe, want, own or serve; even as the upshot of it all – hedonism, ecological decimation, slavish consumerism, alarming rates of depression and ontological loneliness, erosion of family and community, or spiralling levels of substance abuse and addiction – aggressively gnawed away at his civilisational values like cancer.
It is clear, therefore, that the monoculture is heading in the wrong direction. It is leading us like lemmings to a cliff-edge. It’s driving the bus of humanity over the edge; and we Muslims have to be the ones to apply the brakes. Islam’s message of monotheism, hope and healing must restore direction and purpose back into peoples’ lives. It must help steer them back to restoring God in the hearts. Key to all this is the required virtue of sabr – of patience, perseverance, and ploughing on with what revelation expects of us. The Prophet ﷺ foretold: ‘There will come upon the people a time where a person patiently practicing his religion will be like holding on to hot coal.’1 There is also this hadith: ‘And know that victory comes with patience, relief with affliction, and ease with hardship.’2
1. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2260. It was given a grading of sahih in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), no.957.
2. Al-Tabarani, al-Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.11243; al-Quda‘i, Musnad, no.745. Ibn Badran says, Sharh Kitab al-Shihab (Beirut & Damascus: Dar al-Nawadir, 2007), no.136, that the hadith, with its collective chains, is hasan.