Can Spiritual Freedom provide the answer?
It may be clear at this point that a human being can easily lose their freedom as they become psychologically enslaved to the various idols of this worldly life. And evidently, this can lead to disastrous psychological, social, moral and spiritual consequences. But is there another perspective of freedom that allows for human beings to attain that elusive freedom of the soul? Interestingly, a close examination of the Islamic teachings presents a moral paradigm of freedom that is worthy of our consideration.
From the Islamic perspective, our lives are not meaningless, nor devoid of any ultimate purpose. “Do you think that We created you aimlessly and that you would not ultimately return back to Us?” [Qur’an 23:115]. So what then is the purpose of our lives? Our lives are a spiritual journey towards God, to deepen our relationship with Him. “O Human, indeed you are laboring painfully towards your Lord, but you shall surely meet Him.” [Qur’an 84:6]. All the hard and painful experiences in life actually present opportunities for us to build ourselves as better human beings by building our relationship with God. If we transform these experiences into spiritual growth and development, we find true liberation and serenity. “The one who purifies his soul is successful” [Qur’an 87:14]. A human being is successful when he or she achieves the freedom of the soul, by strengthening its connection with the Divine and empowering it with moral virtue. When the soul becomes awakened to the reality of life, it is not distracted by obsession with materialistic pleasures, but instead it is galvanized to spread mercy and compassion, and become the very embodiment of moral virtue. Such a soul is truly free. It is free to see beyond the immediate gratification of desires and look instead towards what brings about the greatest good. As Prophet Muhammad (S) famously said, “True wealth is not abundant riches. True wealth is the contentment of the soul.” [Related in Sahih Bukhari]. Such a soul is free to recognize its incredible potential as a servant of God, capable of bringing unlimited good into the lives of others. Such a soul is emancipated from the shackles of worldly enslavement, and has the understanding of what is truly valuable in life. A soul that wants only to consume what is placed in front of it is not truly free. But a soul that sees all the options, that looks beyond what is immediately pleasurable, is a soul that is free to choose whatever brings about the greatest prosperity and spiritual welfare.
So let us return to one of our initial questions – what is true freedom? It should be clear from the foregoing discussing that a disproportionate focus on physical freedoms actually does not equate with true freedom, and in many cases it leads to a clear loss of psychospiritual freedom. True freedom in its most basic form then is the the awareness and clarity of mind to desire those things which lead to one’s prosperity. This is a freedom that is cultivated when one’s soul is awakened to the reality of life, and connected with the sources of spiritual purification. A soul that understands its purpose in life is free to focus on those things in life that truly matter, free to value substance over style, free to value meaningful relationships over superficial appearances – and most importantly, free to actualize one’s full potential by developing the moral qualities that bring one closer to God.
All freedoms in Islam are predicated on this basic freedom – spiritual freedom. Interestingly, the most fundamental components of Islam, famous as the “five pillars of Islam”, contain within them a practical format for liberating ourselves from all the forms of psychological slavery already discussed. Let us examine them in turn:
The first pillar of Islam is the testimony of faith, and it represents intellectual freedom. It is to accept that the ultimate purpose in our lives is our relationship with Our Creator, that there is none worthy of our worship and devotion except Him. And it is to accept Prophet Muhammad as a messenger sent by God with guidance for humanity. Now in Islam, there is no such thing as blind faith. “Belief in the absence of evidence” is a notion completely alien to Islam, and in fact the Qur’an explicitly criticizes the idol-worshippers of Arabia for blindly following the faith of their ancestors: “And when it is said to them, ‘Follow that which God has revealed’, they reply, ‘we follow that which we found our forefathers practicing.’ Even though their forefathers did not use their intellect at all and were devoid of guidance?” [Qur’an 2:170]. In Islam, faith is one’s intellectual and spiritual conviction as well as the attitudes and behaviours entailed by such convictions. In his doctoral dissertation, Abdul Latif b. Abdul-Aziz al-Rabah demonstrated that there are over seven-hundred and fifty verses of the Qur’an which call upon the human being to engage in rational contemplation, investigation, analysis and reflection on the nature of the world around us and the reality of existence. Amazingly, intellectuality and spirituality are perfectly synthesized in the Islamic sources, and this yields a profoundly liberating outlook for the human being.
The second pillar of Islam is the performance of the five daily prayers, the word ‘salah’ itself linguistically denoting a connection with the Divine. Salah is the ultimate manifestation of ourspiritual freedom, allowing us to take a moment from our busy lives to remind ourselves of our relationship with God, and the meaning of life. It provides us with a means of spiritual nourishment, reciting and reflecting on the verses of the Qur’an. Indeed, this is what allows a human being to find true inner peace in a world filled with so many distractions, conflicts and sources of stress. “Verily, in the remembrance of God do hearts find rest.” [Qur’an 13:28]. This connection also continually reminds us of our moral obligations and keeps us away from lapses in moral judgement. “Recite what has been revealed to you in the scripture and establish Salah. Verily, Salah guards against immorality and wrongdoing, for remembrance of God is the greatest activity. And God knows all that you do.” [Qur’an 29:45].
Islam obligates spending a minimum of a fortieth of one’s total wealth on the poor and needy, thus creating a built-in mechanism for humanitarian and philanthropic activity and allowing a human being to achieve material freedom. This entails a freedom from obsession with our wealth, a freedom from the pathological pursuit for money which drives many people into living empty and superficial lives. This pillar of Islam reconnects us with the reality of those less fortunate and our role as moral agents to care for all those living in suffering and poverty. “We certainly have created the human being to face distress. Does he think that no one has power over him? He will say: “I have squandered much wealth.” Does he think that no one sees him? Have We not given him two eyes, and a tongue and two lips and pointed out to him the two conspicuous ways? But he attempts not the uphill climb; and what will make you comprehend the uphill climb? It is to free a slave, or to feed in a day of hunger an orphan nearly related, or the poor one lying in the dust. Then he is of those who believe and exhort one another to patience and exhort one another to mercy.” [Qur’an 90:4-17]
The fourth pillar of Islam entails fasting from one’s physical desires – eating, drinking and intercourse. Thus it represents physical freedom from the obsession with bodily desires. It reminds a human being that one is composed of body and soul, and it is an opportunity to focus less on the nourishment of the body and more on the nourishment of the soul. It is a dedicated opportunity to develop the spiritual discipline that will enable one to be strong at all times in resisting the lower urges. It is nothing short of developing mastery of the soul.
Finally, the fifth pillar of Islam is the pilgrimage to Makkah, wherein one dresses in the simple garments and stands shoulder to shoulder with all fellow members of humanity, undertaking a physical journey which mirrors the spiritual journey of life. This represents a form of communal freedom which awakens the individual to a sense of belonging to a global community and allows a person freedom from all divisive forces such as discrimination based on race, gender or economic status.
This is a brief overview of just the most basic aspects of Islam and how they are connected with freedom, and the more one studies the deeper theological concepts in Islam the more they unearth such fascinating spiritual insights. Freedom is a value that is often discussed, but as demonstrated in this article, the real issue of spiritual freedom and psychological enslavement is rarely addressed. Islam offers a unique and exciting perspective on freedom that allows for all the fundamental freedoms to be achieved through the actualization of spiritual freedom. The Islamic understanding of true freedom is simple:
Freedom is to discover your ultimate purpose in life and reclaim your self-worth, to achieve your maximum potential in society through caring for others and building your relationship with God.
The Prophet Muhammad said, “Every person starts his day as a vendor of his soul, either freeing it or causing its ruin.”[Related in Sahih Muslim]