MUSTAFA AKYOL > The freedom to sin

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In a recent piece of mine (titled “Can Islamists be liberals?”) I mentioned “the freedom to sin.” Some readers have asked what exactly I mean by that. So, let me try to explain.

In fact, the term “Freedom to sin” is the title of one of the chapters of my book, “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty” (WW Norton). In it, I explain why we modern-day Muslims need to rethink the means of the Quranic duty of “commanding the right and forbidding the wrong.” I argue that Muslims need to make a clearer distinction between “crime” and “sin,” and stand against the latter only through civil means such as preaching. 

This argument does not arise from distaste toward Islamic piety, as it would come typically from a secularist. Quite the contrary, my argument for “freedom to sin” arises from a care for Islamic piety, for I have seen that it comes only through sincere belief and not coerced behavior.

This is best exemplified by the “religious police” in Saudi Arabia. This institution coerces every individual on Saudi streets to conform to what it perceives as Islamic norms. All women are forced to veil themselves, for example, and all shop owners are forced to close their doors during the times of prayer. The result is that every Saudi citizen appears fully pious. 

However, it is also well-known that some Saudis often fly to European capitals, to throw off the veils and wear mini skirts, and to hit the wildest night clubs, in order to indulge in all the sins that they can’t access at home. And while it is their civil right to do that, this phenomenon indicates that the regime-imposed piety in Saudi Arabia might be creating more hypocrisy than genuine piety. 

And hypocrisy, according to the Quran, is worse than disbelief. It is the number one thing that Muslims need to avoid. 

Observations like this have gradually persuaded me that genuine piety arises only through personal choice, and that choice only becomes possible when there is freedom. “Freedom to sin,” in other words, is the necessary medium to be sincerely pious. 

But what about the Quranic duty of “commanding the right and forbidding the wrong,” that basis for both the Saudi religious police and other authoritarian-minded Muslims?

In my book, I address this question as well, by going back to the history of Quranic exegesis (tafseer). As I note, the Quran is far from being specific on what to “command” and what to “forbid,” and its earliest interpretations were much more modest and limited in the scope that they attributed to the obligation.

For example, Abu al-Aliya, an early commentator on the Quran, argued that the verse specifying “commanding the right” was in fact simply “calling people from polytheism to Islam.” The parallel duty, “forbidding the wrong,” he believed, was all about “forbidding the worship of idols and devils.”

As time went by, however, the scope of “commanding the right” and “forbidding the wrong” expanded more and more. This was the interpretation of medieval Islamic scholars, who thought in a political culture where individual freedom was less valued than communal harmony. 

But times are changing, and new interpretations are coming. One example is a 2008 statement by Dr. Ali Bardakoğlu, a theologian and the former head of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs. “We only communicate the known rules of Islam,” he said. “It is free to observe or not to observe them, no one has the right to interfere.”

In my view, Bardakoğu was totally right. And his approach to religiosity is what Muslims need in the 21st century — especially if they want to nurture genuine piety rather than hypocrisy.


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Zack Alexander

5/30/2012 11:46:16 AM

Another nice piece by the Mr. Aykol who seems to understand Islam very well. It is also worth noting that Sauid regime also uses draconian measures to infringe on personal freedoms because Saudia Arabia is ruled by dictators who manipulate the masses and deprive them of their rights under the pretense that this infrigements on rights is somehow inspired by Islam thus distorting Islam for the regime's gain as in the case of fatwa prohibiting demonstrations and protests in light of Arab Spring.

jd pomerantz

5/22/2012 3:00:04 PM

Cemre, you hit on a major problem: people demand the right to do with their bodies as they please, but wish to farm-out the responsibility for the consequences to the rest of us. Frankly, people should pay their own bills - responsibility is the corollary of freedom.


5/21/2012 11:48:07 PM

BEGUM: what you just did is what I think is wrong with religious people: you believe in "one truth" so you dont even feel the need to learn other truths and you judge others through the lens of what you believe to be true... you were big enough to take a step back and admit you were wrong and apologize but most people are not so mature. that s why I think religious societies can not be pluralist democracies....


5/21/2012 10:21:16 PM

@potter, smokers and alcoholics usually do those things too but they do it earlier - smoking being a major risk factor for heart disease and all.alcoholics tend to fall more often too and alcoholism being a risk factor for malnutrition also causes osteoporosis-hence the hip replacement... there are other expensive diseases too; one is COPD; which requires them to use nasal oxygen for most of the day and the oxygen generating machine is kinda expensive; oh and there are cancers only smokers get.

american american

5/21/2012 10:14:55 PM

begum, right on! by not prohibiting any group from anything within limits (no public slaughtering of animals), i am fine with everyone living how they please. whether the prohibition of alcohol, or orthodox jews in israel trying to shut down life on shabbat (friday night - saturday night), is unacceptable. to be a true democracy everyone is on the level. let us all have the freedom to observe how we sit fit. free for women to be covered or uncovered, free to drink, free to live!

mara mcglothin

5/21/2012 7:05:06 PM

BEGUM It is perfectly okay for you to get God's permission, as long as you do NOT demand that I do the same. People make their own rules every day as they interpret the Quran of bible or other holy books. Your rights/ views begin and end where mine start, so you abide by any laws you want, BUT the laws of a democracy are a minimum standard. If you want to live by Shariah law in your own home then knock yourself out, just don't expect for me to live by your rules. That would not be democrat

mara mcglothin

5/21/2012 6:08:13 PM

A very wise Muslim living in Istanbul from some African country said it best. He said that laws removing alcohol from society robbed him of his freedom to practice his religion. If he cannot choose NOT to drink then he cannot properly practice his religion. Everyone's rights end where another's begins. Simple.


5/21/2012 5:09:58 PM

american american, :) in fact the concept you put forward seems really good :) "freedom to observe! " all i want is that while we freely live (eat, drink, speak ,think ...whatever it is) i want to get the consent of God..

american american

5/21/2012 3:53:11 PM

no worries begum. that is why i say rather than 'the freedom to sin', we call it 'the freedom to observe'.


5/21/2012 2:52:15 PM

Hımm, i am ignorant about that Jewish worships.. sorry :( i have got it wrong.. not invention then! again sorry!
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