Interview by `Amr `Abdul-Kareem**

Mar. 17, 2006

Dr. Saif Ad-Deen `Abdul-Fattah

The crisis of the abusive cartoons published in a Danish newspaper depicting Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) has revealed many issues on the theoretical and intellectual levels, as well as on the practical level. The main problem with relation to this crisis lies in the concept and practice of “freedom,” which many have used to prove the veracity of their positions. This has led us to stand before an ambiguous concept and practice. In order to explore this obscure area, we have conducted this interview with Dr. Saif Ad-Deen `Abdul-Fattah, professor of political theory at Cairo University who is known for his remarkable contribution to the branch of jurisprudence that deals with almaqasid (the objectives of Shari`ah). In this interview, Professor `Abdul-Fattah has deconstructed the concept of freedom in an attempt to understand and digest it, and at the same time perceive the position of Islamic thought towards this issue, regarding justice as the superior and upper concept in the system of our Islamic thought.

Therefore, if we want to discuss freedom, we should pose the concept of the justice of freedom. Thus the discussion within the Islamic vision will be about the limits of freedom, not about the constraints of freedom. This is based on the fact that limits represent the area of movement, while constraints are things that hinder such movement. According to the Islamic understanding, freedom is associated with responsibility, so it is not an absolute freedom. That is why there is always a connection between the idea of freedom and the objectives of Shari`ah.

`Abdul-Fattah stressed that we should move from regarding the incident of the Danish cartoons as a single incident to discussing it methodologically, emphasizing the fact that there is a structural flaw in the West’s definition of the value of freedom, which leads it to cause gross injustice to others; it is a freedom that lacks balance.

`Abdul-Fattah was so critical of the practices that marred Islamic history, as well as some sayings that represented the base of the idea of constraining freedom. Examples of such sayings were “There is no way but to obey oppressive rulers”; “an unjust ruler is better than constant sedition”; and “sixty years with an unjust ruler are better than a night without a ruler.”

Criticizing such sayings, `Abdul-Fattah assured that Islamic thought has often faced them with some free and strong sayings, such as Imam Malik’s saying “A coerced person’s oath is void.”

The conversation tackled the following issues:


Deconstructing the Concept of Freedom

IOL: To begin with, freedom is one of the greatest concepts which governs man’s consciousness and directs his feelings and actions; the same as the concepts of life, death, and hope do. Freedom is among the systematic concepts which evoke a system of concepts. We have learned about the triangle of values: equality, freedom, and justice; and that as Socialism introduces the concept of equality and Western thought presents the concept of freedom, the Islamic model introduces the concept of justice. So would you please deconstruct the concept of freedom?

`Abdul-Fattah: In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Our Lord, do not punish us if we forget or fall into error.

The world of concepts is actually one of the main worlds connected to Muslims and their world. There is no way but to assure that words represent a part of our nation’s identity, and according to this principle, words stand for a sanctuary which we must defend.

Words, according to Mustafa Sadiq Ar-Rafi`y [a well-known Egyptian man of letters], are like “honor and land.” So we can assure that “words of the nation” are worthy of considering and discussing, along with the concepts which come to us from everywhere. We are also to deal with the concepts which come from a civilization, a culture, and an identity other than ours.

In this context, I think that concepts vary, so we have to look into the world of concepts with a general and a special view at the same time.

These general and special views are expressions of the conceptual circle as you said. Among concepts, there are ones which are civilizational, and there are also secondary ones which are included in a system. In addition, there are concepts which represent systems in themselves, so they evoke a family of concepts. Other concepts are like a tree, or a seed of a tree, which grows and contains roots, a trunk, branches, and fruits.

From this point, we think that the world of concepts needs more investigation and elaboration. The concepts which are related to the system of values are very important concepts and they fall under “umbrella concepts” or “system concepts.” If we want to talk about the cognitive and intellectual systems in the West and inside the Islamic civilization, then we can say that the system of values with Marxists considers equality the supreme value. We will also see that Socialist thought, with its Communist thought, has depended on the issue of equality as a supreme value. When we understand the supreme value, we will find that it means, among other things, that such a supreme value affects other values and the way of understanding such values. That’s why when the Marxist cognitive system raises the issue of equality considering it a supreme value, then it, at the same time, shapes the other two values (freedom and justice). Thus, neither freedom nor justice can be understood except through the concept of equality.

However, the concept of equality has become a mathematical concept, which tries to make all people equal to the extent that it makes equal those who are not equal by any means. In other words, we can say that sameness is different from equality.

Here, we have to talk also about the cognitive system of the liberal capitalistic West; for this system adopts another value: the value of freedom. It neither understands the value of equality nor the value of justice except from within the framework of the value of freedom. Thus, this system makes freedom an absolute value that shapes other systems of values. As for Islam, it regards justice as the supreme value, through which the other two values are shaped.

Examining how these values are shaped in this way, we assert that the value of freedom cannot be understood except in the context of justice. The “justice of freedom” differs from the “value of freedom.” What does that mean? And how can the value of freedom be examined in this context?

From the Islamic viewpoint, freedom is not an absolute value that should be accepted with all its blemishes, but it is rather connected with a number of limits. There is no freedom without limits. Here we have to ponder upon how the Islamic viewpoint handles this: Islam talks about the “limits of freedom” not the “constraints of freedom,” because limits are a space for motion while constraints obstruct freedom. In this connection, we stress the meaning previously emphasized: that freedom is conditioned by a system of limits which surrounds it and realizes its effectiveness within the framework of justice. Fair freedom, or justice of freedom, is what we can understand from this value connected to freedom.

In this way, we have to touch on a very important subject: What was the opinion which pointed out the value of freedom in the Islamic tradition?

Contemplating this issue, we find that the word used to indicate the value of freedom in this context was the word choice, and choice is a concept that denotes responsibility. Choice here is not according to one’s wishes, but it is a choice of whatever is good. The words choice (ikhtiyar) and good (khayr) in Arabic derive from the linguistic root of khayr (good). Thus, it becomes clear that choice is a commitment and a responsibility, and hence it surely entitles accountability.

In the light of all these concepts, we can examine the value of freedom. It is also the choice of justice. The issue of equality cannot be understood without the concept that asserts that fair equality, or justice of equality, cannot be perceived except within the frame which maintains that different denominators cannot be added except after making them common. We have been taught this as an arithmetical fact; arithmetical equality would never apply to those who are not equal.

Here we do not mean by equality a form of sameness, but we mean that the scale of rights and duties is connected with justice. [Are those who know equal with those who know not?] (Az-Zumar 39:9).

These matters are related to how a certain value comes to be regarded as a supreme value in an intellectual or cognitive system.

Then comes the necessity of connecting between the concept of freedom as in Islamic thought and the concept of freedom adopted by Western thought. As for the concept of freedom related to the abusive Danish cartoons that offended the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) as a person and a symbol for the Muslim nation and the message these cartoons convey, it asserts the issue we are tackling here. What sort of freedom are we talking about? Is it a freedom void of any limits? No, freedom from the Islamic viewpoint is that which is connected with choosing good as I have clarified.

IOL: Does this mean that we are judging the West according to our system of intellectual values?

`Abdul-Fattah: We are not judging the West according to our system of intellectual values. The issue is about the concept related to the correct freedom. One has to know that one’s freedom ends when others’ freedoms begin. It is by no means of freedom that you may insult my religion, my prophet, or any of the symbols related to me. I too have no right to insult the symbols related to you. In fact, Islam is the religion which asserts the protection of all religions against such acts.

Approach Before the Incident

IOL: Professor `Abdul-Fattah, we would like a clarification about the approach of dealing with the problem rather than the problem itself, or the Danish incident itself, which was dealt with by many writers. Muslims’ reactions towards it indicate that the Muslim nation is still alive. What do you think?

`Abdul-Fattah: Actually, we are talking about the approach. When we talk about the issue of concept and that we should not understand it as being of one form, we are saying that there are “concepts of situation.” There are concepts within our intellectual system. It is impossible to say that we do not possess an intellectual system because we have a distinguished one.

IOL: In this system, does freedom come late?

`Abdul-Fattah: Freedom is not late. The issue of freedom has its special status. What is important is not the priority of a value, but rather the ability to consider these values in their position, which preserves the freedoms of all human beings.

Therefore, the effectiveness of the concept stems from a very important matter, which is that the value would preserve freedom for me and you equally. In this regard, we have to stress these meanings. But when your freedom means violating mine, the concept here becomes problematic; a thing which has caused the matters we are now dealing with in analyzing the Danish incident.

IOL: The subject of “the sacred” is an important one in Western thought. What is common is that the West does not care about sanctities and devalues them. It attacks Christ and the Divine Being, or as they say, it tries to break taboos.

`Abdul-Fattah: This is something the Westerner would do; to break the taboos related to whatever is sacred, because he wants to say that he is only attached to the affairs of life and living. He has the right to believe in this, but has no right to force the rest of the world to believe in it, too.

Thus, it becomes a necessity for the cognitive and intellectual systems to examine the relationship between the sacred and the human being, which asserts the nature of the relation between the religious and the political, the sacred and the profane. If the Westerner thinks that excluding, or even marginalizing or profaning, the sacred is a part of the core of his secular belief, then we are facing a highly dangerous problem. If the sacred is not revered by him, he is free in his own sacred symbols, but he is by no means free to violate my own sacred symbols.

It is really a wonder that Islam, as a universal religion, raises a sacred symbol in all levels. In this regard, a very important command is mentioned: [The Messenger believeth in that which hath been revealed unto him from his Lord and (so do) the believers. Each one believeth in Allah and His angels and His scriptures and His messengers. We make no distinction between any of His messengers and they say: We hear, and we obey. (Grant us) Thy forgiveness, our Lord. Unto Thee is the journeying] (Al-Baqarah 2:285).

Thus, we do not make distinctions between any of the messengers, and, similarly, we do not make distinctions between the origins of the sacred, which means every religious group. Whenever they abuse Christ, they abuse the messengers of Almighty Allah. Thus, it is incumbent upon the Muslim to rage in the same way if Christ is abused; it should not be said that they are their messengers, because we must respect all messengers according to our religion. In the end, we assert that it is not of the freedom of others to insult my religion.

IOL: Even if the other does not consider this as an insult, but as matter of freedom of expression?

`Abdul-Fattah: No, there is a difference between freedom of expression and insult. We said that freedom does not give anyone the right to do anything that leads to a state of aggression, as then it would be said that he has the right of aggression. We see freedom as thus. The Western civilization alters scales and uses double standards. For example, the United States’ freedom and preservation of security are in the occupation of Iraq and depriving it of its freedom; and the United States’ freedom and preservation of security are in the occupation of Afghanistan and bombarding it with heavy bombs that weigh thousands of tons.

The United States also says that its intervention in Iraq is “liberation.” How can occupation be considered liberation? Americans also say they are reconstructing, while they are actually destroying. Why do you destroy to rebuild? Such contradictions are found within the system of Western thought, in its cognitive world and value world. What is more, it wants to impose this vision upon us. So, when the West says that what it is doing is not an occupation but a liberation, we have to repeat in a parrot fashion: “It’s freedom! It’s freedom!”

It is not this way. Therefore, we are stressing that there is a structural flaw in the definition of the value of freedom in the West, and this flaw leads the West to a state of grave oppression. It becomes a freedom which loses balance and criterion at the same time. Thus, freedom becomes chaos and dissoluteness not an obligation or a responsibility.

Single Standard for Freedom

IOL: But is the West free in its system of values?

`Abdul-Fattah: The West is free in its system of values as long as it does not transgress mine. The issue here is about the limits of this freedom and the fact that my limits are being transgressed. This transgression forces me to defend these limits and ward off transgressors. Doing so does not imply that I do not want freedom of opinion or expression, but I want this freedom to be a responsible one; of one scale and one criterion.

Look what Iranian president Ahmadinejad did. What was the Danish story about? We will not go into details here, but we will learn the method. Let us learn the method from this Danish story. There was a cartoon competition, whose theme was drawing cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. Twelve cartoons were selected out of many more (apparently more than a hundred), then they were published in that newspaper in what was called drawing lots, after which it was said that those cartoons had won.

What was Ahmadinejad’s response? He said they would make a competition for drawing cartoons of the Holocaust and would give the cartoonist of the most distinguished drawing a prize, too. At this point, the West was extremely raged because of an issue of history; so the West has its own sanctities, but in this case it is a worldly one. Moreover, it wants to impose, in this connection, its elements and criteria of sanctification upon others; as if talking about the Holocaust, which is a historical incident, has become holy, whereas talking about the Messenger of Allah is a matter related to freedom of expression. The West says that whoever raises doubts of the Holocaust could face imprisonment.

IOL: I know that the West as a whole is intellectually hypocritical as regards double standards.

`Abdul-Fattah: The idea of double standards is a structural one within its cognitive and ethical structures. It is a basic idea within Western civilization, which has not understood anything different for a very long time. Ever since this civilization began, there have been genocides. We can even say that the civilization was established this way: there were original inhabitants who had to be annihilated. What is the difference between eradicating Red Indians and the Jewish Holocaust?

It is the element that can eradicate with its strength, and which can also protect, but it only wants to protect Israel, about which Dr. `Abdul-Wahhab Al-Misiri says, “Israel is a functional country; it performs a functional task inside the region for the interest of the United States and the Western civilization.”

Does Freedom Mean Chaos?

IOL: Going back to the issue of deconstructing the concept of freedom within Islamic and Western thoughts, and comparing the two; we want to analyze the Danish incident in view of this deconstruction and comparison. It seems that the concept of freedom in the West has become absolute, even if it leads to chaos and dissoluteness.

`Abdul-Fattah: Freedom is what makes the absoluteness of relativity the rule; everything becomes relative; there are no constants or sanctities. In this way, this problematic issue emerges: absoluteness of freedom and absoluteness of relativity.

IOL: Why can’t freedom be a supreme value in Islamic thought?

`Abdul-Fattah: Freedom is already a supreme value in Islamic thought.

IOL: But it is late.

`Abdul-Fattah: The issue here is not being late or advanced. What matters is how one understands freedom through the concept of supreme value. Why does Islam regard justice as the highest value? Because the concept of justice means putting everything in its rightful place, giving all people their rights. One of the important sayings that we are talking about is “justice is a balance;” it weighs freedom and equality, so it makes equal the things that are truly equal. And no one can be free except if he is responsible.

IOL: What are the limits of freedom in Islamic thought?

`Abdul-Fattah: We have already mentioned many. They are the rules of general order; for example, one of the necessities which preserve human freedom is freedom of religion. Allah says: [There is no compulsion in religion. The right direction is henceforth distinct from error] (Al-Baqarah 2:256) because whoever embraces this religion without conviction is actually worthless.

Freedom also has basic dimensions. Anyone who does not have his daily bread does not talk about freedom; therefore, freedom has its material basis, as well as its immaterial one. Islam combines both bases of freedom with fairness and equilibrium. It does not regard man as this physical being who only talks about his freedom in enjoying all elements of consumption, but rather commands him to eat from Allah’s good things and not to eat any of the evil things, considering this part of his freedom. All that is limited by legal and social limits, limits related to the general order, limits connected to conventions, limits related to whatever benefits people, and limits connected to justice and quality in justice.

Islam regards freedom as a collective freedom, not as an individual one. This collective freedom leads to entering into relations. And the freedom of individuals cannot be controlled except through the concept of justice because justice asserts the individual balance before speaking about absolute freedom.

IOL: The concept of absolute freedom is a traditional concept; it is approaching its end even in the West, isn’t it?

`Abdul-Fattah: No, it has not ended.

IOL: I mean that your freedom ends when the freedom of others starts. Does this mean that absolute freedom is not exactly absolute?

`Abdul-Fattah: There has been some kind of a violation of others’ freedom under the guise of freedom of publication and information. The West hurts us when whole companies launch a certain sort of propaganda on the Internet. Isn’t that a form of violating people’s freedom? They claim that this is practicing the principle of freedom.

IOL: That sort of thing does not conflict with their general order as long as it is within the limits of law, right?

`Abdul-Fattah: Yes. This does not contradict with the general order. They want to corrupt people; spread vice and corruption. To us, this contradicts with the general order. To us, the human being is honored; woman is not something to be sold and bought. They say they are free to practice same-sex marriage, but this is not freedom, because it has caused harm to that society, those people, and their interests.

Whenever the West causes problems because of its values, while it knows that the bases of its values bear those elements of contradiction, it attempts to create a state of adaptation — like, for example, taking precautions for safe sex. These are all very dangerous issues.

Reckoning of Norms Not Years

IOL: I’m asking you a direct question: If Muslims were as powerful as America today, would they do in the world more than what America is already doing?

`Abdul-Fattah: No.

IOL: Maybe in the name of freedom of conquering countries and freedom of calling to Islam (da`wah)?

`Abdul-Fattah: No, the matter was not like that. When the Islamic conquests (al-futuhat al-Islmaiyyah) adhered to the Shari`ah and relied on an Islamic referential authority, they truly represented a process of liberating nations. They did not eliminate languages or eradicate races, but rather they saved such races, languages, and cultures. Moreover, those who did not participate in war and remained in their own towns are the very people who helped build the Islamic civilization.

IOL: But I’m talking about the so-called Islamic history as a whole, as some people see that the dark side of this history is more evident than the luminous side.

`Abdul-Fattah: I have only one word to say in this point; it’s a word related to the method. When you talk to me about something, don’t talk about it in terms of years but in terms of norms. Tell me when we adhered to our Islam and were weak, and when we adhered to it and were powerful!

IOL: Take, for example, the person who said, “The caliph is this (pointing to the caliph), and after him it’s that (pointing to the caliph’s son), and whoever refuses will be dealt with this (pointing to a sword).” Take also the issue of freedom and the long history of dictatorship; that is, the issue was not only that some rulers took power by means of dominance, while others were dictators.

`Abdul-Fattah: This is one of the problems of Islamic reality.

IOL: But some scholars granted legality to such a reality when they admitted the governance of dictators and dominating rulers.

`Abdul-Fattah: Their granting of legality was in terms of potentiality, which meant that it was the exception. Then the exception turned into a rule; and that was the wrong thing. Among such wrong practices also were the sayings which were common in our heritage. Examples of such sayings are “An unjust ruler is better than constant sedition”; “there is no way but to obey oppressive rulers”; and “sixty years with an unjust ruler are better than a night without a ruler.” All such sayings only justify dictatorship and have nothing to do with Islamic referential authority. We must also discuss the faults and wrongs that hindered freedom from taking its real status in Islamic history, which means that freedom itself is at a low status in the Islamic system of values.

Besides, look at what Ibn Taymiyah said: “A just state endures though unbelieving; and an unjust state perishes though Islamic.” This shows the most brilliant example for freedom.

When we talk about the value of freedom, we should also talk about the slogan of monotheism. But when the Islamic world retarded, the Muslims’ understanding of their religion also retarded. Thus, it is clear that the words of monotheism indicate freedom. It is a testimony that there is no god but Allah; there are no multiple gods that dispute over the human being.

IOL: I think that this is the problem with Islamic thought. Do you think, Professor, that the making of mistakes in practice throughout long centuries proves the invalidity of the origin of freedom?

`Abdul-Fattah: It was not a mistake throughout history, because you are looking at Islamic history partially not wholly and comprehensively. For example, when we talk about ” trial,” we remember how the four Imams were trialed, and the trial of the creation of the Qur’an, from which Imam Ahmad suffered.

IOL: Are those the Mu`tazilites, the advocates of freedom?

`Abdul-Fattah: Shouldn’t we talk about Imam Ahmad’s position regarding freedom? That is how we should understand the lesson, from its two sides; the first is that of the rulers who were tempted by bad scholars who attempted to endorse the rulers’ oppressive absolute acts. The second is that of a scholar who stood up for an important issue and made a free statement which was “If you say they said (that is, some scholars said what Mu`tazilites wanted), (as for me), by Allah, I will never say (what they want me to say).” This happened after his students asked him to say what Mu`tazilites wanted in order to save himself from torture, considering that a rukhsah (legal concession). But Imam Ahmad continued to be imprisoned and tortured for so long that he was in prison during the reign of the three caliphs Al-Ma’mun, Al-Mu`tasim, and Al-Wathiq.

IOL: And those were the examples of the Islamic caliphate?

`Abdul-Fattah:: Please, brother, don’t take politics as equivalent to authority. The word policy (siyasah) in Arabic means performing something in a way that makes it better. Those caliphs perished while Imam Ahmad survived as a symbol which emphasized the meaning of freedom, and which produced free texts.

Imam Malik also produced a free text when, in his time, the pledge of allegiance to the caliph was taken by obliging each one of his subjects to swear that his wife would be divorced if he rose against the caliph. When Imam Malik was informed of the matter, and how those people had politicized this affair, he also introduced a free text saying “A coerced person’s oath is void.” Through this fatwa, as a general rule, Imam Malik emphasized that whoever is coerced to do something is not liable to the responsibility arising from it. With such a rule, the thing sworn for is deemed void, as coercion annuls the contract.

IOL: The examples you have just introduced are actually few bright spots in Islamic history, while the mainstream is not like that.

`Abdul-Fattah: These are not few spots but situations. The greatness of a situation is not in the number of years it lasts or the number of words it takes, but the greatness of the situation here is measured by its conformity with the principles of Shari`ah.

When Az-Zamakhshari talked about those who called themselves people of authority (rulers) (while they were not), he said, “They are not people of authority; they are just like dominant thieves who block the way between the Shari`ah and the nation.”

Imposing Thoughts and Demanding Freedom

IOL: With appreciation to Mu`tazilite thought, but they oppressed people when they assumed power, and tried to impose their thoughts on people, though they were advocates of freedom.

`Abdul-Fattah: Yes, that’s right. The violation of freedom came from those who were allegedly freedom advocates. Yet, this is not due to a fault in the principle but in people.

You can also say that so many of the Mu`tazilites who were contemporaries of Ahmad ibn Du’ad — the scholar who tried Imam Ahmad during the reigns of Al-Ma’mun, Al-Mu`tasim, and Al-Wathiq — stood against Ibn Du’ad and said he was a scholar who subjected to rulers.

IOL: Concerning the Islamic and Muslim viewpoint of others’ religions, of course every human being has the right to believe that his religion is the true religion. But where is the issue of coexistence, or the acceptance of the other, as said now? It is also notable that other religions are subjected to restriction within Islamic societies. It is a substantial matter and has its roots in Islamic thought.

`Abdul-Fattah: If you are referring to what Ibn Jama`ah said in the book Tahrir Al-Ahkam fi Tadbir Ahl Al-Islam, where he talks about the necessity of restricting people of other beliefs, we have to explain the context in which those texts appeared. Any text cannot be fully understood except through its context. These texts appeared during a period when the Muslim nation was targeted by Crusades, among other threats. Due to the fact that some of those people had joined Crusaders in the outskirts of the Muslim nation, betraying their nation and violating its security, such texts were spread.

On the other hand, the accounts related to `Umar ibn `Abdul-`Aziz and his kind treatment of the Dhimmis are not shown. This also applies to `Umar’s convention for the Dhimmis and the document about which Ibn Al-Qayyim wrote two books.

We are dealing with a very important issue. Do not use historical events as an argument, because this makes me seem as if I have no standard like the West. I believe that when those people erred, they deviated from the right course; the fundamentals of Shari`ah and its observed rules.

IOL: But what about the Islamic viewpoint of others’ beliefs? Isn’t that considered violating others’ beliefs according to your standard?

`Abdul-Fattah: The Islamic point of view is so much balanced that Islam even prohibits abusing others’ deities, so that Allah would not be abused by others out of ignorance. [See Al-An`am 6:108.]

Religious Freedom

IOL: What about calling others to Islam (da`wah)?

`Abdul-Fattah: Calling others to Islam is a proposition, not an obligation, while Christianization is an organized churchly vocation aiming at converting people from their religions to Christianity.

IOL: Isn’t that what Muslims do too?

`Abdul-Fattah: No, calling others to Islam is a proposition. A person may willingly accept or refuse. In case of refusal, he remains an honored and dignified citizen in the nation. The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Whoever oppresses a covenanter or hurts a Dhimmi, I will be his enemy on the Day of Resurrection.”

IOL: I think that the two sides call to their religion in an organized manner.

`Abdul-Fattah: No, he is Christianizing while I am just calling; I am proposing. I say to a person that there are such and such matters in my religion; if you would like to join me, you are most welcome, and if you would not, I stop and do not fight you. I never do anything to force him to come. The noble Qur’anic verse saying [There is no compulsion in religion] (Al-Baqarah 2:256) was revealed in connection with a woman who tried to force her Christian children to embrace Islam.

IOL: But it is not allowed in Muslim countries to call to other religions whose believers think they are following the right religion.

`Abdul-Fattah: Calling to a religion is permitted as long as it is done through persuasion. But missionary work (Christianization) is rejected.

IOL: Is the difference in the term or is it in the means?

`Abdul-Fattah: It is a difference in the means and the objectives.

IOL: What about building places of worship for non-Muslims within Muslim societies?

`Abdul-Fattah: They are welcome as long as it achieves their goals and answers their needs. It is even a required matter.

IOL: But there is a famous fatwa about not giving permission for building places of worship in the countries conquered by war.

`Abdul-Fattah: Fatwas are related to their time.

IOL: So, is building places of worship allowed?

`Abdul-Fattah: Yes, it is. As for the fatwas, they have their own contexts, like that which pertains to the people of Cyprus. A number of scholars gathered there to state their opinions individually about whether or not the covenant should be revoked. That incident was mentioned in Abu `Ubayd ibn Salam’s book Al-Amwal. Those scholars differed in opinion about the matter, which was their right, and this led to the difference in judgments. But most of them asserted the covenant with the people of Cyprus and said it should not be revoked.

IOL: It is permissible then to build places of worship for non-Muslims in Islamic countries.

`Abdul-Fattah: Places of worship are available for every non-Muslim to practice his religion. There is no question about that; but there is no need to enter into the concept of minorities, which the West created to fragment the Islamic world. In this regard, we should examine the Ottoman period and the issue of foreign capitulations carefully, for the concept of minority is a fragmentizing one; it is what prominent Professor Hamid Rabi` used to call “the policy of pulling the limbs to weaken the heart.”

IOL: There is reciprocity here. Many of the Islamic communities in the West are allowed to practice their beliefs, build mosques, and work in Western societies with much freedom.

`Abdul-Fattah: Not exactly so. In the United States, there is regression in these sorts of things.

Freedom and Objectives of Shari`ah

IOL: Going back to the foundational side — freedom and objectives of Shari`ah — you are a professor in the objectives of Shari`ah; so what is your opinion about the ijtihad (personal reasoning) of At-Tahir ibn `Ashur in which he says that freedom is the sixth objective of the Shari`ah?

`Abdul-Fattah: Sheikh At-Tahir ibn `Ashur is an honorable prominent scholar, whose ijtihads should be considered with much respect, but I am from the group who are reserved with his ijtihad.

The objectives of Shari`ah are five, which represent foundational aspects: religion, soul, lineage, mind, and property. If we want to add to them another objective, we have to look at the category of these aspects. Freedom does not belong to the same category, but it rather belongs to another one, which is the category of values. Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim teaches us that there are four important categories in which we should think and between which we should relate:

The first is the cognitive system. Shari`ah is all about wisdom and the word “wisdom” implies justice, the cognitive justice. It is a kind of balancing between the individual and society, the material and the spiritual, and a kind of equilibrium between all what the West considers conflicting elements. I think that this matter is explained as such.

Shari`ah is all about justice, which is a balance of values; and that is why Professor Hamid Rabi` considers justice the supreme value and the symbol of our system of values.

Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim says also that Shari`ah is all about mercy. And when we stress on the meaning of mercy in Shari`ah, we are stressing also on the behavioral system. This means that the cognitive system comes first, then the system of values, and then the behavioral system. Thus, Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim adds that Shari`ah is all about interest, and this is the objective system.

Therefore, according to him, the four interactive interrelated systems shape the Muslim mind and also make the value of freedom one of the fundamentals, but within the system of values. I also give freedom a meaning further than this, which is the meaning of honor, as Allah says, [Verily We have honored the children of Adam] (Al-Israa’ 17:70). Man is not free to give away his honor, because it is a divinely-bestowed honor. It is therefore incumbent upon man not to be weak, submissive, surrendering, haughty, or arrogant. Man should preserve his honor as much as others’ honor.

As for the issue of human rights, we do not have the meaning which indicates that these rights are absolute or pure without any obligations. Islamic thought connects between right and duty. Each right is followed by the four following duties:

The first duty: to be aware of it and its fundamentals (the right or duty of knowledge)

The second duty: to practice it effectively and actively

The third duty: to protect it if violated

The fourth duty: to observe it in the other’s right

The idea of right and duty and the merging of the two ideas in one structure is what establishes this fair balance between the two. Thus, every right is not void of duties and every duty is not void of rights.

Shari`ah Is Applicable Wherever Justice Exists

IOL: The relationship between freedom and authority has always been problematic in the Islamic political system. It seems that Islamic practice has put authority above freedom, so we have not seen the balance between practicing freedom and practicing authority. Authority has always been for the victorious and freedoms were generally repressed.

`Abdul-Fattah: You are talking about a very important matter which pertains to freedom procedures or the means by which the human being’s freedom can be measured. This is one of the very important issues that is also related to the idea of democracy.

The idea of democracy in the West is related to freedom, which is therefore transformed into tools. The same should be applied to shura (mutual consultation), for shura is part of making decisions; it is binding not informative. Moreover, the element of majority is one of the elements that we should resort to in this connection, and accepting positive ijtihads is one of the matters related to Islamic legal policy, which is the policy that agrees with Shari`ah. That is why Ibn Al-Qayyim says, quoting his teacher Ibn `Aqil, “Some would say that there is no right policy except that which agrees with Shari`ah. If they mean that Islamic legal policy is only that which is stated in legal texts, then this would be wrong and accusing the Companions of misunderstanding. But Shari`ah is applicable wherever justice exists.”

IOL: What is the most important criticism you see to the concept of freedom in Western thought?

`Abdul-Fattah: The Western concept of freedom has destroyed the circle of the sacred, and has also destroyed the circle of protecting the human self. This concept has also demolished the circles of unifying standards and caused absoluteness of relativity. This has led to a state of injustice, which everybody witnesses and many persons, either from the West or from other civilizations, have pointed to.

IOL: Another issue related to freedom is the penalty for apostasy. Some point to the Prophet’s hadith which reads, “Kill whoever changes his religion.” What do you think about this issue?

`Abdul-Fattah: Professor Taha Jabir Al-`Alawani has introduced an ijtihad in this issue, and he wrote a book on the penalty for apostasy. This issue actually needs some elaborate discussion.

I think that the rule that governs the issue here is Allah’s saying [There is no compulsion in religion] (Al-Baqarah 2:256). Religion cannot by any means be compared to a trap; whoever is trapped in it can never get out. Muslims are in no need of new hypocrites. From this point, I can assure that those who apostatize are always to be asked to repent. The incidents of apparent apostasy in our history are those of collective apostasy. This kind of collective apostasy is considered as cases of state security and national security, in which the penalty for apostasy is applied to protect the whole state.

An example of this was Abu Bakr’s fighting against the apostates, the incident in which he said his famous saying, “By Allah, if they refuse to give me even a tying rope which they used to give to Allah’s Messenger, I would fight them for withholding it.”

IOL: Can the peoples of the world agree to general human principles, with which they bypass heavenly religions — I mean in order to prevent any follower of a given religion from attempting to impose his religion’s principles on others?

`Abdul-Fattah: None has the right to impose his religion’s principles on others. There are humanly-common principles. And among the signs of true faith is respecting others and not regarding them from a racial perspective. This is Islam; it sees others as possessing the right to have their own religion, whether heavenly or nontheistic religions.

IOL: Does Islam allow nontheistic religions, like Buddhism, to proclaim themselves?

`Abdul-Fattah: Yes, Allah Almighty says: [To you be your religion, and to me my religion] (Al-Kafirun 109:6). And the Prophet used to talk about that with the polytheists.

IOL: Can Muslims be engaged in intellectual alliances with followers of other beliefs?

`Abdul-Fattah: Yes, if it is like Hilf Al-Fudul (Alliance of Nobility; an alliance whose purpose was to help the oppressed, and which took place in the pre-Islamic period. The Prophet engaged in that alliance).

IOL: Can they agree to the concept of freedom and bypass the issue of religions?

`Abdul-Fattah: Why should they bypass the issue of religions? In this context, religions urge respect for followers of other religions; and if religions are as such, then why should they be bypassed?

IOL: To make the ceiling of freedom higher than the ceiling permitted by religions.

`Abdul-Fattah: There is no freedom without limits. Freedom must have limits to abide by, and it must be responsible. Such limits would not constrain motion, but rather they would serve as a warning to the limits of motion. This is how values act when they turn into behaviors.

IOL: How could dictatorship in our Arab and Muslim world kill freedoms?

`Abdul-Fattah: This is an issue of utmost importance. I advise whoever is interested in reading to read Al-Kawakbi’s book Taba’i` Al-Istibdad, as he talks about dictatorship as a network concept, and how dictatorship is created, and then surrounds all people. But whoever does not call for freedom and attempts to extract it, is not worthy of it.

IOL: Is it easy to dismantle the network of dictatorship, especially in the Islamic world?

`Abdul-Fattah: Sure, but this requires hard work and sacrifice.

IOL: I think the tyranny which has destroyed the ability in these peoples’ souls has deprived them even of the ability to sacrifice?

`Abdul-Fattah: Everything can be achieved through education. There is tyrannical education and there is free education. As we previously said, our rulers are always chosen for us; it is not we who choose them — and this has nothing to do with conspiracy theory. Such rulers come and practice dictatorship while protected from abroad. But when peoples rise to say their word, it will be the cry of freedom in this vast area of dictatorship.

IOL: [They say: When will it be?] (Al-Israa’ 17:51).

`Abdul-Fattah: [Say: It will perhaps be soon] (Al-Israa’ 17:51).

*`Amr `Abdul-Kareem is the head of the Islamic Book Review which is available on