Ramadan, Day 8: Finding Inner Freedom

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The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

During this July 4th weekend I have been thinking much about the concept of freedom as we celebrate Independence Day in the United States. I know that I am eternally grateful for the freedom of religion and conscience, and of speech, work, movement and so much more. And, I recognize that this freedom is a blessing that many are deprived of in the world.

When I was much younger I lived for a few years in Saudi Arabia. There, even though life was comfortable, the absence of freedom, in many ways, was strongly felt. It seemed to completely stifle any sense of civic life and society.

Nowadays, there is a lot of clamor in parts of the Muslim World for greater freedom. The Arab Spring and Tahrir Square in Egypt, for example, became symbols of this yearning to live freely. People took to the streets to topple their governments, believing that they could finally experience freedom if they were freed from the yoke of oppressive dictatorships. This desire to be free is not just an awareness of the freedoms enjoyed in parts of the West as many have suggested, but it is a much more innate and natural desire that stirs deep within the human soul. It may have something to do with the very way we come into the world…

The early Muslim sage and second caliph of Islam, Umar bin al-Khattab, reportedly warned one of his governors – in a quickly expanding Muslim empire – against taking slaves, saying, “O ‘Amr! When did you begin to enslave and subjugate people after their mothers have given birth to them as free people?”

Freedom in the modern world is almost exclusively spoken of in terms of outward rights. But, there is another aspect of freedom that deserves just as much, if not more, attention: inner freedom. In reality, without a philosophical discourse and sincere realization of inner freedom, people may experience all the outward freedom in the world and still feel totally imprisoned.

The Prophet Muhammad is an exemplar of what inward freedom looks like. When he was oppressed and mocked for his teachings during the first 13 years of his prophetic mission, he never replied rudeness with rudeness or harshness with harshness. When the Prophet became the leader of a people for the next 10 years and was forced to fight in battles to protect his community, even then he never allowed hatred to get the best of him and continued to pray for his enemies. When the Prophet was given a chance to engage in perpetual war with his rivals or sign a peace-treaty filled with concessions, he had the insight to choose peace. And, when the Prophet returned victorious to Mecca toward the end of his life, he chose amnesty and forgiveness over revenge. All of this the Prophet did because he was remarkably and truly free.

Nelson Mandela, may God rest his soul, said, upon leaving the prison where he had been held for 27 years, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

These are sagacious words for our times. In the midst of riots and revolutions for the sake of freedom, this inner freedom we cannot afford to forget. For once the outward dictator is overthrown we achieve nothing if the inner dictator is well and alive. Without inner freedom the cycles of oppression continue on and on.

Each one of us has a life long struggle to unshackle ourselves from the inner desires, passions, and ego that seek to be masters over us. Fasting during this month of Ramadan has been an intense and serious lesson in what it means to gain master over lower inner qualities and to attain to a higher state – a state that finds its freedom in God and godliness.

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Write to Sohaib N. Sultan at ssultan@princeton.edu