Freedom is such a powerful word. But what does it imply? Freedom from something or freedom to do something? It could mean different things to different people, but the dictionary defines it as the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. So it means both freedom from hindrance and freedom to think, speak and act.
The fact is that everyone is free – that’s the way God made us. We are free to think as we like. We are free to speak as we like. And we are free to act – within the limits of our human ability – as we like. It’s the consequences of saying and doing what we want that worry us. We think that if we face unpleasant consequences for saying or doing what we like, we are not free. So what people really want when they long for freedom is freedom from consequences.
Freedom to say and do everything you want without facing any unpleasant consequences is unrealistic because it disregards others’ rights and contradicts justice. The reality is that our actions bear consequences. Nevertheless, having freedom and avoiding unpleasant consequences IS possible. You just have to want pleasant consequences enough to freely choose the things that make them possible! Actually, most of us practice this in our daily lives. For example, we want to have good health and to avoid the possibility of certain diseases, so we freely adopt healthy eating habits to achieve that. We are all free to eat junk food and smoke cigarettes but we choose not to do it because we are planning ahead for more comfortable outcomes.
God helps us to make good and wholesome choices, whether they are physical, social or spiritual. For example, when we do something healthy, we feel good – like taking a brisk walk in the morning. When we do a good deed for another person, we feel happy even though we may have exerted effort or given up something we value. Even when we do something personal and unnoticed by others – such as a prayer in the depths of the night – we feel good. God has helped us by hardwiring us to feel happy when we freely make good choices.
Many times we make choices not knowing if the outcome is going to make us happy or not. But to take some of the guesswork out of making lifestyle decisions, God has given us a lot of advice on what works and what doesn’t. For example, if we look in the Quran, we find a lot of prescriptions – for example, for prayer, charity and forbearance – as well as a lot of prohibitions – from intoxicants, gossip and indecency, to name a few. God promises that “Whenever guidance from Me comes to you – then for those who follow My guidance, they shall not fear nor shall they grieve.” (3:38) This promise encourages us to follow a path which is perhaps less obvious and more difficult at times. The devout Muslim does his best to follow God’s advice because he knows that it will bring him happiness – if not immediately, then eventually.
But sometimes, even though we make all the right choices, we face unpleasant, unhappy situations. For example, we can get a disease even though we eat well, exercise and don’t smoke. Is that fair? And how can we feel free when something like that happens? Actually, we are still free — free to choose our response. We can freely choose not to be overwhelmed by emotional pain such as anger or despair. We can freely choose patience and trust in God, because we know that He is the one in charge of this universe, that He does things for our benefit, and that He doesn’t make mistakes. We can look at God’s promise for the future also as instructions for the present: “…those who follow My guidance, they shall not fear nor shall they grieve.” (3:38) So not only does a free person make good choices that help him avoid unpleasant consequences, he also chooses to be happy, even when life is difficult.
Many people don’t understand that. When they see a Muslim happily choosing a lifestyle that seems to them restrictive or uncomfortable, they think that he is ignorant, oppressed or forced to act that way. They forget that every person is free. A Muslim will freely choose to follow God’s guidance and ignore the disapproval of others since he knows that God is the ultimate judge. The devout Muslim feels answerable, first and foremost, to God, which frees him from many things: from concern over the judgment of others, from bad choices that end in misery, and from distress over things beyond his control.
Everybody wants the freedom to seek pleasure and happiness without facing unpleasant consequences, and the Muslim does too. But his approach to achieving that is different; he carefully and deliberately exercises his freedom by choosing good thoughts and doing good deeds, focusing on God as his judge. This approach is a long term plan whose gradual implementation is satisfying and rewarding. Each small achievement is gratifying in itself and is a step on the path toward the ultimate happiness. It is the path that bestows true freedom, cultivates deep contentment, and surprises you with an exhilarating sense of happiness.
Go ahead, be free!