The freedom to sin

The freedom to sin

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.