With Islam under fire from large portions of Western society, there has been an understandable push to defend the legitimacy of Muslims as a whole. As a Muslim, I am sympathetic to this effort. However, the ways in which this defense is mounted is more often than not sub-optimal. Other times, it is straight up self-defeating. What do I mean by this? Well, before we can consider an intellectual defense of a belief system, we must first consider what Islam is, in of itself.
Islam is the belief in the primacy of God, and the existence of God’s right upon mankind. It is God’s right that He be worshiped by humanity because He is their sole Creator, and humanity is obliged to willingly submit their wills to His. The mechanism by which this occurs is through the religion that chosen messengers and revealed books espouse and propagate, leading to the final Messenger, Muhammad. This religion ultimately aligns with humanity’s own internal sense of meaning and natural inclination to elevate higher principles.
The problem today is that Muslims and non-Muslim allies alike fail to argue for, or even defend the above paradigm. Instead, we see arguments that take for granted other premises, and try to fit Islam into that mold. These claims all have a common theme at their core: they all try to insinuate that Islam is a liberal religion and that it empowers individuals in the same way that liberalism does. To be sure, Liberalism is a diverse spectrum of ideas, but there is a unifying theme to it that does not really fit with what Islam posits for society. To put it simply, Islam is not Liberalism.
Liberalism places the primacy of determination upon the Self: the individual contains within him or her the right to be who they want to be, to act how they want to act. Now, it is true that individuals are more-or-less given the ability to behave however they will from a purely physical standpoint. Nobody is going to stop you from having free will. But the claim of liberalism is that by virtue of the existence of such a freedom, human beings ought to be given the ability to express it however they want, and not be hindered in doing so in any way by society at large.
The self, therefore, is sacred; it must not be impinged or made to feel uncomfortable. If a person, state, or society were to cause a person’s individuality to be restricted unnecessarily, then they have caused a person harm, they have denied them their rights, and infringed upon a sacred realm. In essence, preventing self-expression is a sin. When you claim that a person should not act a certain way, or adhere to a certain identity, then you have indicted their very individuality and stripped them of their sanctity. Therefore, society should protect against such blasphemy with laws that recognize any and all identities and legitimize any person’s claim to such. Laws that discriminate or bias towards certain identities over others should all be amended or thrown out.
At the same time, people acknowledge that you can’t truly do everything that you want to do, as that will have likely infringe on others’ rights. So there is an accepted exception to the liberal creed that states that the only morally defensible restriction of individual freedom is the prevention of causing harm onto others. From a theoretical standpoint, this makes sense because liberalism is about elevation of the self of each person; and the only thing that can limit the self are other selves. As long as you are protecting other selves from physical harm, then a small restriction of individual freedoms is logically and morally defensible under liberal ideology.
Having said all that, one can see how Liberalism, despite not making any overtly religious claims about God or afterlife, still makes ideological claims about society that a religion normally would. What is the role of the individual in society? What is acceptable for people to tell others what to do and not to do? Which rights are we going to expect government to recognize, and which actions are we going to criminalize? Liberalism has something to say about all of that.
Consequently, any actual religion that makes different claims will be at odds with Liberalism. As any casual observer can tell, Islam very clearly restricts a person’s individual freedom in cases where there is no obvious harm to others. Muslims are prohibited from drinking alcohol, from eating pork, from exposing their bodies, from having homosexual relationships, extramarital sexuality, and so on. You don’t need an Ijaazah or scholarly degree in Islamic jurisprudence to understand that. Both non-Muslims living in the heart of America’s Bible belt and Muslims living in the deserts of Najd are equally aware of this fact. And it is the precise reason why societies entrenched in the language of liberalism can be so uncomfortable with the presence of Islam itself.
Indeed, we Muslims believe that God is the source of law and that He has every right to restrict our behavior, and it is incumbent on us to obey His commands. We should not sugar-coat it or try to claim otherwise. In truth, there is room for human interpretation and leniency as long as the primary texts can be legitimately interpreted to allow for it. However, the very fact that we have allowed God to dictate our individuality, even in part, is enough by itself to disqualify us from being true and intellectually consistent liberals. From the perspective of Liberalism, it is Islam itself that is a sinful concept. The self should not submit to any higher power, because the self is the only recognizable higher power.
If you were to ask a practicing Muslim if they feel that their religion is oppressive, most of the time they will say, no, of course not. Islam is empowering! And yes, in fact it is empowering, but not in the same way that liberalism posits its empowerment. Rather, Islam proposes a different paradigm altogether. It is true that worshiping a false god is disempowering, humiliating, and sinful. But Islam says there is a True God, a singular God, a Creator of all things. Submitting to Him, worshiping Him, and pleasing Him is the only real, lasting way to become empowered in the face of the cold march of time towards oblivion. We choose, of our own accord, to lower ourselves both figuratively and literally by praying with our heads on the floor. By humbling ourselves, we hope to gain God’s favor, and God Himself will elevate those whose faith He accepts. Not only will we bear the fruits of our worship in the Hereafter, but the blessings from being close to God as a society will extend over into this life as well. God makes laws not arbitrarily, but for a wisdom He is well acquainted with and as such there is immense benefit in applying them.
To Liberalism, the above logic seems ancient and detestable. Suggesting that anyone, even so-called “God,” has the right to tell us how to express ourselves and live our lives is considered ugly and possibly even blasphemous. We are above such ignorance, we are too advanced as a society, both technologically and culturally, to stoop to such backwardness! However, the question I am posing is “Why?” Why is it backwards to consider the existence of God in real terms, with practical implications for how we live our lives? Why is it bad if certain cultures choose to believe in God in such terms, and structure their society with that presumption? How is it any different than a society that simply removes God and substitutes Him with the worship of Self? Are both not simply working with ideological presumption, with certain unquestioned dogma regardless?
So then we come to the question of which presumption makes more sense; is it more logical to elevate the Self, or elevate God? Which being and their rights ought to take precedence in a society and become “sanctified?” Under Liberalism, the self and its desires are the ultimate lawmakers. The ability to act and be as one wills is codified into the concept of freedom. Freedom itself is made a virtue. But should a blank check be given for the concept of individual freedom? Does largely unrestricted freedom negatively impact society? We all know actions have consequences. While we may not observe immediate ramifications for certain actions, we understand that things such as smoking cigarettes, polluting the environment, and pursuing multiple sexual partners all have negative effects not only to ourselves, but also negatively impact society as a whole.
All of these negative actions are motivated by the pursuit of self interest. Self interest is the logical conclusion of a belief that sanctifies the self in ideological terms. But in reality, the self does not deserve to be elevated to the status of god. It carries no higher wisdom, no transcendent perspective, and no omnipotence. In fact, if a person is granted material success beyond what is imaginable, then more often than not, a person’s individuality becomes corrupted, distorted, selfish and ugly. Freedom through material capability corrupts the self and does not lead to satisfaction or fulfillment. Many popular and successful celebrities end up committing suicide; the question is why? Does that not fly in the face of the entire cultural premise we have been force-fed as a society? That letting the self run free causes a person to be happy and fulfilled due to the pureness of self-expression?
As a Muslim, I argue the opposite. Fulfillment is not found in self-expression. Fulfillment is found in self-restriction; restriction that is self-imposed for a higher purpose or a higher goal that extends beyond ones’ self. There is no higher goal that is conceivable other than obedience to one’s Creator, and the knowledge that you are attempting to please the One who placed you on Earth. That is the hidden beauty of Islam that can only be experienced by the one who practices it. Muslims themselves should not be ashamed of it. It is the core element that people who do not “get” Islam miss when they focus on the outer expression of the religion. Frankly, they are missing out, big time. Society has a lot to gain if it were to recognize that value. Declaring that there is nothing worthy of worship except God is morally the highest claim a society can make. At the very least, it will keep us all humble.