With the Name of God, All-Merciful, Most Merciful
Reflections by Imam Usama Hasan, Head of Islamic Studies at Quilliam Foundation, in preparation for the Inspire Dialogue Foundation conference in Cambridge, Saturday 17th September 2016, hosted by Lord Rowan Williams, Emeritus Archbishop of Canterbury
There are many universal human rights: arguably, freedom is one of the basic ones, intertwined with life itself. As Tipu Sultan, the famous Indian resistance leader against the British, exclaimed: “better to live one day, free as a lion, than to live as a slave for a thousand years.” Caliph Omar once berated one of his commanders, who had followed the common pre-Islamic medieval wartime practice of enslaving the women and children of a defeated army, asking: “how could you enslave people whom God had created free?!” echoing Moses’ defiant response to Pharaoh in the Qur’an (26:22), which asks: “is this the favour, of which you are reminding me, that you have enslaved the Children of Israel?”
Theologically, true faith is based on free will and free choice: any practice that is not free, including faith and religious observance, cannot be genuine. Hence the famous Qur’anic declaration (2:256), “There is no compulsion in religion!”
The centrality of freedom to faith raises important issues: drugs, alcohol, mental illness, carnal lusts and social pressures all mean that our choices and decisions in life are not totally free. How, then, are these actions judged by fellow humans and by God? In particular, one of the goals of religious practice has always been to remove internal shackles that inhibit our expression of humanity, enabling greater self-awareness and realisation of our potential. Thus, a tradition of the Prophet Muhammad says that “the world is a prison for the believer,” i.e. the moral person, and great sages survived imprisonment because they were, internally, free spirits. Ideas of freedom and liberty have, of course, strongly shaped the modern world since the 18th century with the abolition of slavery, French and American republican ideals and anti-colonial independence movements.
It is my firm belief that the great philosophers, sages and prophets: Moses, Mary, Christ and Muhammad, Buddha and Confucius, and men and women of God through the ages, supported the liberation of men and women of all colours, races and religions, children and slaves, individuals and populations, from the yokes of tyranny and oppression. Our modern heroes in this regard range from Wilberforce to Jefferson to Gandhi, Jinnah, Martin Luther King and Mandela.
But today, we still have our modern forms of slavery: bonded and child labour; entire multiple-generation families working in sweatshop factories; highly-organised international rings dealing in human trafficking, including that of children, for financial and sexual exploitation. Therefore, we need to address the above problems by rekindling the same spirit that historically liberated children from labour into education, slaves from enslavement into liberty, peoples from colonisation into independence, and people of colour from segregation and apartheid into civic equality.
Tony Blair, whilst UK Prime Minister, once said in an historic speech on Capitol Hill that “to be American is to be free.” In reality, as spiritual-animal beings made in the image of the Divine, to be human is to be free. Now, let’s continue with working towards inner and outer freedom, and sharing it with our fellow travellers, with the goal of reaching our full and common humanity.