Jesus Christ proclaimed “that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free...” (Luke 4:18) Another statement about freedom reads, “So, if the Son sets you free, you are truly free.” (John 8:36) It is abundantly clear that the Messiah claimed to give true freedom.
Throughout the Bible one finds many statements proclaiming and affirming freedom. But in the Qur'an such statements are notable by their absence. Muhammad was not known for promoting freedom. The emphasis of his teaching was more on obeying Allah as his slave. As you would expect, one seldom hears Muslim preachers extolling the noble ideal of freedom for all – an obvious example of an exception to this is the liberation struggle of the Palestinians.
Another exception to this generalization is Raheel Raza, a Muslim reformer in Canada and founding member of the Canadian Muslim Congress. Raza says, “freedom of speech is the most important right we have. And I totally support freedom of expression, even if it is against my faith.”
There is another exceptional and, I believe, more significant endorsement of freedom. This one involves the collective voice of 50 Imams from across Canada. On the 13th of August 2010 they signed a declaration in which they boldly denounced violent and shameful acts done in the name of religion. They also affirmed fundamental human rights, including “freedom for all people.” A lead story on CNN noted that this momentous statement was "aimed at ... improving the public image of the religion" (i.e. Islam).
One wonders, however, if this is mainly window dressing since the signatories do not grapple with grass root realities in most Muslim majority nations where religious freedom is severely curbed, e.g. by blasphemy and apostasy laws.
In this age of dialog and tolerance one might be tempted to shy away from speaking so frankly and offering constructive criticism. Such rebuke – it is feared – will unduely strain interfaith friendships. But if we genuinely care for one another shouldn't we be able to speak the truth in love?
Some critics of Islam would be cynical of those who signed the declaration, suspecting that all of them are deceptive (i.e. using a tactical manoeuver called taqiyya in Arabic). In response to this, I acknowledge we should be aware of the cunning schemes of certain ones, nevertheless, it would be unfair to view all of the Imams in this light. My preference would be to give the benefit of the doubt (on an individual basis) making allowance for mutual respect. All things being considered, we do need to be discerning as we discuss this intriguing, appealing and multifaceted topic of freedom.
Incidentally, many Muslims who've immigrated to Canada (and other western nations) seem very much in favour of freedom, as indicated by their coming in search of a better place, i.e. where human rights and freedom seem more prevalent.
Freedom of obedience
The apostle Peter spoke paradoxically of being free yet being God's slave. He said, “For you are free, yet you are God's slaves, so don't use your freedom as an excuse to do evil.” (2 Peter 2:19) The apostles Paul and James also acknowledged this paradox, saying, “For you have been called to live in freedom ... but don't use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature ... Don't just listen to God's word. You must do what it says. Otherwise you are only fooling yourselves. For if you listen to the word and don't obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away and forget what you look like. But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don't forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it.” (Galatians 5:13 and James 1:22-25)
I think most people would agree with these statements – regardless of their creed or culture. In a similar way, all God-fearing people – including Muslims – agree with Christ's statement, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)
Hearing this the Jews realized Jesus was implying something deeper, so they queried him, “But we are descendants of Abraham. We have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean, 'You will be set free'.” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family for ever. So, if the Son sets you free, you are truly free.” (John 8:33-36)
We shouldn't be surprised that Jesus spoke so much about freedom. Remember he is the 'Word of God' (in the Bible and the Qur'an). Also we need to bear in mind that according to James, God's word ('the perfect law') sets us free. It makes perfect sense, therefore, that freedom would feature as an important theme in the teaching of Jesus Christ!
On one occasion Jesus read a prophecy about freeing those who are oppressed. He solemnly told his audience that he was fulfilling this passage. Isaiah 61:1-2 from which he quoted reads as follows, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free...” (Luke 4:17-18)
We might ask, “Who are the captives and the oppressed that Messiah came to set free?” Oppression may come in various forms but certainly it includes those who are enslaved to sin – as Jesus stated in John 8:34 – doesn't it? The gospel writers records several instances of notoriously sinful people whom Jesus forgave – freed from their overwhelming burden and bondage to sin. (Luke 19:1-10; Luke 7:36-48; Luke 23:40-43; John 4:16-19,42) In doing so, Jesus fulfilled what the prophets foretold.
Speaking of the prophets, let us turn our attention to their writings to see, if indeed, they confirmed this aspect of freedom, i.e. in the sense of forgiveness of sin.
Freedom from sin
Speaking figuratively Isaiah invited people to obtain food and drink without paying any money. His invitation was open to anyone, “Is anyone thirsty? Come and drink – even if you have no money! Come take your choice of wine or milk – it's all free! Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength?” (Isaiah 55:1,2) Isaiah concludes this paragraph saying, “Seek the LORD while you can find him. Call on him now when he is near. Let the wicked change their ways and banish the very thought of doing wrong. Let them turn to the LORD that he may have mercy on them. Yes, turn to our God, for he will forgive generously.” (Isaiah 55:6-7)
Isaiah 55 begins with an invitation to freely drink and the paragraph ends by inviting the wicked to receive mercy from God who forgives generously. A Muslim who reads this prophecy could find he is inclined to agree because, after all, Allah is Most Merciful, Most Forgiving.
There is, however, one small word that might raise doubt in the mind of a Muslim reader – the small word 'free'. On careful reflection this word doesn't seem to harmonize with the idea of working hard to accumulate merit on the day of reckoning – as a bargain, so to speak (compare 61:10-11 and 9:111 where the 'bargain' imagery is very clear).
Freedom from slavery
The mass exodus of Moses' people out of slavery in Egypt is an epic rescue story recorded in both the Qur'an and the Bible. In fact it is repeated dozens of times throughout the prophets and was reenacted annually by Israelites at their Passover festival (Pesach). If one looks carefully at this story you see it is more than just a physical rescue, it has a spiritual meaning.
The biblical account explains that it was because of Pharaoh's hard-heartedness that God brought an unprecedented death plague on the Egyptians. Not only so, this catastrophe was an outpouring of God's holy wrath against the Egyptian people who in effect were accomplices in terms of oppressing their slaves. The question arises, “Why didn't God just focus his wrath on the Egyptians? Why did he impose any kind of threat over Israelite families? Why did he require the Israelites to sacrifice a Passover Lamb?”
Providing a substitute animal to die in the place of their first born sons was an indication of God's mercy. On this point, every Jew, Muslim and Christian could agree.
Not only so, when one takes a closer look at the death sentence which hung over both Israelites and Egyptians one realizes it implied something important to Moses and his people. The Hebrews were not 'off the hook', so to speak.
On the night when the death angel passed through the land, the Israelites were conscious of the dreadful threat stalking through the land. But for the mercy of God they too would have been among the victims. The outcome of all this was the realization that they weren't innocent. God wanted to make sure that after they escaped from Egypt the Israelites would not think that God freed them because they were righteous and without sin.
Moses challenged his people on precisely this point shortly before the Israelites entered the promised land. He warned them, “don't say in your hearts, 'The Lord has given us this land because we are such good people!' No, it is because of the wickedness of the other nations that he is pushing them out of your way. It is not because you are so good or have such integrity that you are about to occupy their land ... You must recognize that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land because you are good, for you are not – you are a stubborn people.” (Deuteronomy 9:4-6)
Many hundreds of years after the time of Moses, the prophet Malachi underscored Moses' indictment against the Israelites, saying, “Ever since the days of your ancestors, you have scorned my decrees and failed to obey them. Now return to me and I will return to you.” (Malachi 3:7)
As we conclude this section it is appropriate to summarize the epic exodus story. We read in Exodus 6:6-7; “I am the LORD. I will free you from your oppression and will rescue you from your slavery in Egypt. I will redeem you with a powerful arm and great acts of judgment. I will claim you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God who has freed you from your oppression in Egypt.”
Freedom, salvation & redemption
The prophets often reminded the Israelites how God freed them from slavery in Egypt. Woven into this epic escape are two themes: 'salvation' and 'redemption'. It is important we understand why these words are included. Notice how this historic moment of liberation is linked to the first commandment, a principle Muslims cherish. (Exodus 20:2-3) As I have pointed out elsewhere, it is a serious oversight for Muslims not to honor God as Savior and Redeemer. Furthermore, Muslims don't recognize how to connect the dots between these attributes and God's purpose for sending the Messiah.
The Bible states that Jesus Christ died as our Passover Lamb. One should pay careful attention to Abraham's prophecy of a lamb, tracing it through scripture until its fulfillment at the cross which providentially 'coincided' with Pesach – the day when Jews slaughtered their Passover Lambs. Notice the Qur'an glimpses this redemptive principle when it acknowledges that Allah “ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice.” Thoughtful readers will ask themselves, “Why is the Divine attribute Redeemer not given honorable mention among the 99 beautiful names, especially when the early prophets viewed this trait as being important?”
The Bible speaks of the crucifixion as the culmination of God's plan to purchase our liberty, setting us free from sin. As it is written, “So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins.” (Ephesians 1:6-7) “But now you are free from the power of sin and have become slaves of God. Now you do those things that lead to holiness and result in eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:22-23)
Do Muslims aspire to attain 'eternal freedom'?
In Yusuf Ali's translation of the Qur'an, he acknowledges Paradise as a place of 'eternal freedom'. In a footnote to Surah 9:111 he explains the phrase “the achievement supreme”. He writes, “Salvation is eternal freedom from the bondage of this world. This is the true doctrine of redemption; and we are taught that this is the doctrine not only of the Qur'an but of the earlier Revelations ... Moses ... Jesus.”
Evidently Ali believes that freedom, salvation and redemption are closely related. Could he be using these biblical terms as a way of adding window dressing to his interpretation? He claims his teaching is in line with the 'earlier Revelations' but is this really the case? Based on the word “bargain” in Surah 9:111, he hitch-hikes onto the Christian term redemption. However, Ali is quite emphatic that the Christian understanding of freedom, i.e. being purchased by blood sacrifice, is wrong, “Any other view of redemption is rejected by Islam, especially that of corrupted Christianity, which thinks that some other person suffered for our sins and we are redeemed by his blood. It is our self surrender that counts, not other people's merits. Our complete self surrender may include fighting for the cause...”
Seeing Paradise as a place of 'eternal freedom' begs the question, “Freedom from what?” The Bible speaks of the hereafter in terms of experiencing “glorious freedom from death and decay.” (Romans 8:21) Was Yusuf Ali aware of this? One thing we do know: like Christians, Muslims believe there is no death or grief in Paradise. (Surah 44:56 and Revelation 21:4) This gives us all the more reason to explore the idea of release (redemption) from the bondage of death.
Freedom from Death and Decay
This theme has been explained in detail elsewhere so I won't go into details here. I recommend you read, Is Death the End? The prophets and apostles foretold that God will ultimately destroy death and raise true believers to eternal life. (Isaiah 25:7-9; 26:19; Revelation 21:4; Psalm 49:7-15; Psalm 68:19-20) One notices two clusters of words that are usually associated with verses focusing on death or the hereafter: on the one hand, you have save and salvation, on the other hand, redeem and redemption. Of course, each of these clusters has a corresponding personal noun which relates to a title or name of God, e.g. Savior, Redeemer.
The prophet Job (Ayoub) who is familiar to both Christians and Muslims made a memorable declaration as he suffered an agonizing illness which seemed like it would end in death. He made a confession that has resounded through the centuries as a source of encouragement for godly people in their times of deepest testing. The Bible records Job's hope, “I have been reduced to skin and bones and have escaped death by the skin of my teeth. Have mercy on me, my friends, have mercy, ... Oh that my words could be recorded. Oh that they could be inscribed on a monument, carved with an iron chisel and filled with lead, engraved forever in the rock. But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives and he will stand upon the earth at last. And after my body has decayed, yet in my body I will see God! I will see him for myself. Yes I will see him with my own eyes. I am overwhelmed at the thought! How dare you go on persecuting me, saying 'Its his own fault'?” (Job 19:20-28)
In conclusion, I would ask my Muslim friends, “Do you really honor God as Redeemer/Savior?” From an Islamic point of view, why is it difficult to accept the attribute Al Faadi (Redeemer) as one of the prominent Divine names? Isn't this title worthy of remembrance and inclusion in the 99 beautiful names? As you think about this, please bear in mind Job's amazing declaration. Not only so, you will recall the Qur'anic story of Abraham's sacrificial test which contains a redemptive truth, “We ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice.” (Surah 37:107) Finally, let me encourage you to read the article entitled, The Mystery of Abraham's Sacrifice.
Do Muslims agree that people are slaves to sin? (as Christ taught)
Muslims readily agree that Jews are slaves of sin but they might not be so sure this applies to human beings generally. On closer examination one notices that Muslims seldom take the issue of sin seriously. They prefer to describe humans as weak or forgetful.
In contrast to this, the Bible says, “the human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9) The biblical portrait of humans as being slaves to sin does not really fit Islamic theology.
Consider the following Bible passage penned by Paul, a man steeped in Judaism and a keen student of the Torah. Notice how overwhelmed he was by a sense of inadequacy to live up to the righteous requirements of the law. His experience prior to being a Christian was characterized by working hard to do as many good deeds as possible and follow the many regulations and rituals laid down in the law.
Paul came to the conclusion that “the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. ... I love God's law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God the answer is found in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God's law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.” (Romans 7:14-25)
Whereas Paul humbly admitted he had been a slave of sin, Muslim leaders deny that the prophets sinned. You may want to take a closer look at repentance and sin in an article entitled, Heartfelt Fasting and Repentance.
Significance of Surah 9:111 in wars of liberation
Earlier we quoted Yusuf Ali's footnote to this ayat where he speaks of 'fighting'. As a matter of fact, this verse plainly states, “God hath purchased of the Believers their persons and their goods; for theirs in return is the Garden (of Paradise): They fight in His Cause, and slay and are slain ... Then rejoice in the bargain ... the achievement supreme.” (Surah 9:111)
This is the main verse which so-called radical Muslims use to fuel their hatred of America and Israel inspiring them to launch suicidal attacks in Iraq and Palestine/Israel.
Dying in this manner is the only way – Islamically speaking – that one can have a confident hope of reaching Paradise. The redemptive hope that the prophets testified about is not fueled by this kind of burning hatred. It is a hope focused on the Messiah. He is the one who's birth inspired the prophetess Anna to give God thanks and she “spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:38, NIV)
The prophet Isaiah gives a stern warning to those who boast, “We have struck a bargain to cheat death and have made a deal to dodge the grave.” (Isaiah 28:15) Notice how these 'freedom fighters' think: They envision a 'bargain' that inspires them to attain 'freedom' from the grave and acquittal from facing judgment on the day of reckoning.
But how many of them have ever read what the prophet Isaiah says in response to such man-made approaches to dodge death? Isaiah prophesied, “Look I am placing a foundation stone in Jerusalem, a firm and tested stone. It is a precious cornerstone that is safe to build on. Whoever believes need never be shaken.” (Isaiah 28:16)
Notice that Jerusalem is the place where God lays his cornerstone. In Isaiah 25:7 the prophet speaks of Jerusalem's pivotal role in God's plan to do away with death. Again we see there is a link between Jerusalem and death. The verse affirming the cornerstone as God's answer to futile human attempts to dodge death has amazing parallels to Isaiah 25:7.
Chapter 28 verses 15,16 showed the futility of human efforts to strike “a bargain to cheat death ... and dodge the grave.” In contrast to these human efforts, God's cornerstone in Jerusalem is the only plan to save from death that is trustworthy and unshakable.
A careful reading of the Gospel (Injil) shows that the Messiah confirmed both Isaiah 25:7 and 28:16. Jesus said, “Listen, we're going up to Jerusalem, where all the predictions of the prophets concerning the Son of Man will come true. He will be handed over to the Romans ... They will flog him with a whip and kill him, but on the third day he will rise again.” (Luke 18:31-33) It is not difficult to discern that Jesus Christ conquered death by rising dramatically from the grave. As a result, he has the authority to claim, “I hold the keys of death and the grave.” (Revelation 1:18)
We started exploring freedom by looking at biblical teaching about freedom from slavery. The Qur'an has some teaching about freeing slaves but I'm not aware that it builds on this idea or uses it as an analogy for presenting freedom as a principle or way of life. Towards the end, we have looked at Yusuf Ali's comments implying that death can be a bondage and, when believers experience the ultimate release from death, (i.e. Paradise) it would be 'eternal freedom'. We have shown that Ali's explanation of freedom is not consistent with the earlier revelations, contrary to his claims.
As we conclude it is helpful to recall Raheel Raza's emphatic statement, “freedom of speech is the most important right we have.” I would say that freedom of conscience is no less important. However, an even more important freedom is salvation, i.e. “glorious freedom from death and decay.” (Romans 8:21) May I invite you to accept freedom from sin (forgiveness) and freedom from death (eternal life) which are available as a free gift through faith in Jesus Christ.
All biblical quotes are taken from the New Living Translation unless otherwise noted. All Quranic quotes are taken from Yusuf Ali's translation.
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