INDIVIDUALISM IN ISLAM: THEORY & PRACTICE (IN THE CONTEXT OF POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY)
Ahmad Reza Taheri
This presentation (15 minutes) was presented at a Seminar on Freedom (Professor Daya Krishna Memorial Seminar), Department of Philosophy, University of Pune, India. (15-16 OCT 2008).
The gist of the presentation:
In Islam, like any other institution, human being enjoys a limited form of freedom. Human being cannot enjoy that individuality which is perceived by the modern western philosophy.
Much of the Islamic law has been derived from Quran which is the source of authority and identity for Islam. Quran calls for human beings to acknowledge Allah’s sovereignty over their lives and invites them to submit to His will unconditionally.
In sura Baghara, verse 256, Quran says “there is no compulsion in religion”, but in sura Imran, verse 178, Quran threatens the non-believers for not following what Allah says. Allah says that “let not the unbelievers think that Our respite to them is good for themselves: We grant them respite that they may grow in their iniquity: but they will have a shameful punishment.” In sura Nisa, verse 14, Quran clearly says, “but those who disobey Allah and His Messenger and transgress His limits will be admitted to a Fire, to abide therein: and they shall have a humiliating punishment.” Based on such edicts, in a number of Islamic states like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, etc., if a Muslim converts himself/herself into any other religion and leaves Islam, his/her punishment will be death sentence.
In Islam, limits for freedom of speech must not be crossed. People do not have freedom to question, criticize, negate, or deny Islam. Whatever freedom people have should be within the sphere of Islam. Sura Haj, verses 51, says, “those who strive to thwart Our revelations, such are rightful owners of the Fire.” In the same sura, Quran says, “those who disbelieve and deny Our revelations, for them will be a shameful doom.”
In Islam, man and woman are free and can enjoy liberty so long as the Islamic principles are not violated. Yet, between man and woman, more freedom has been granted to the men. In the beginning of sura Nisa, verse.3, Quran vividly declares, “a man can marry to two or three or four women who seem good, but if man fears that he cannot do justice to so many women then one only or a captive who is rightly possessed by him is sufficient.” The nature of this authorization has paved the way for many Muslim men to practice polygamy. Quran has referred to “captive woman”, as another choice, which is again against the free will of individual. After all, a captive is an individual.
Another issue of great importance is divorce. Quran has not empowered women equally as men are empowered. Sura Baghara clearly states that if a man had uttered the word divorce to his wife three times, she would not be lawful on to him unless she marries another man (second husband). In many cases, divorce is practiced unjustly in many Muslim societies. Women’s right to divorce is often extremely limited compared with that of men. Men can divorce their wives easily, while women face more legal obstacles.
According to Islam, women have to cover themselves according to the Islamic tradition. Sura Noor, verse 31, says, “and, tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not to display their adornment except that which ordinarily appears thereof and to draw their head covers over their chests and not to display their adornment except to their people of close relationship like father, husband, brother, etc.” The practice is observed in the Muslim communities of the world. The westerners in particular have often viewed such a veil a sign of oppression over the Muslim women. It has been the cause of much debate especially in Europe amid increasing immigration of the Muslims.
The status of women’s testimony in Islam is also disputed. Sura Baghara, verse 282, says “… when you deal with each other in transactions involving future obligations in a fixed period of time, reduce them to writing… Get two witnesses out of your own men, and if there are no two men, then a man and two women such as you choose for witnesses so that if one of them (women) mistakes, the other can remind her…” Some jurists hold that certain types of testimony by women cannot be accepted. In other cases, a testimony of two women can be equal to that of one man.
According to the references given by Wikipedia, the only religious narration (hadis) relating to female political leadership is Sahih Bukhari 5:59:709, in which the prophet of Islam, is recorded, as saying that people with female ruler will never be successful. Muslims generally regard the Bukhari collection as authentic. However, some classical Islamic scholars such as Al-Tabari support female leadership. In the early Islamic history, women such as Aisha, Ume Warqa, and Samra Binte Wahaib took part in political activities. Likewise, in the past several decades, women have led several countries in which Muslims are a majority, including Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Turkey.
Regarding the inheritance rights, sura Nisa, verse 11, says “Allah directs you as regards your children’s inheritance: to the male, a portion equal to that of two females: if only daughters, two or more, their share is two thirds of the inheritance; if only one, her share is a half.”
Sura Baghara, verse 223, says, “your wives are as a tilt (plantation) for you; so approach your tilt when or how you (men) will…” Such a straightforward language has actually caused many liberal scholars to believe that Islam attacks the individuality of women.
In Islam, people are free to speak their minds, however, not beyond the principles of Islam. Arts, politics, and literature, all should reflect the values of Islam, which is one of the most important themes of the Islamic ideology. In Islam, there is a value for individualism, I may refer to it as “Islamic individualism” that cannot be compatible with the western individualism, because freedom in the domain of western individualism is in contrast with the freedom in the Islamic domain.
Individualism is about the ideas of right to think freely, freedom from captivity, and power of free choice. Every human being should know how to live individually. So, individualism, in many cases, can go beyond the Islamic codes.
Islam originally belongs to the Arab society of (roughly) 1400 years ago. Islam reformed the old Arab society. Since then the teachings of this institution has remained the same, but not for the same Arab society rather for many subsequent generations of different cultures such as the Iranians.
The human thinking faculty is not static; it is gradually changing. People adopt new ideas; these ideas can question the old institutions. The conflict between natural liberty and Islamic liberty is coming into lights.
Therefore, Muslim scholars and philosophers have a vital social obligation to update the teachings. This will be for the interest of both Islam and the Muslims.