“These days, in the name of open-mindedness and freedom of expression and action, such an ideology has taken root that is less enlightened and more prone to lead to darkness. It is a concept that is inauthentic and superficial, whose advantages and disadvantages have not been considered in the slightest. There is more harm to some elements of this so-called freedom and enlightenment than there are benefits. It is not even being considered that in the name of enlightenment and freedom of thought and expression, we are compromising the future of the next generation, leading ourselves to the pit of darkness and also pushing our next generation towards it.”Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifa of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Jalsa Salana UK 2021, 7/8/21
There exist in this world two types of freedom. One is celebrated, the other maligned.
The first is what we all know as freedom. It is taken to be the highest virtue of mankind. It is the ability to do what you want, when you want. To have no constraints — to give in to your desires, to discard any old-fashioned sense of shame and embarrassment, to recognise that life is about living, and that finding yourself means trying to do everything, everywhere.
This vein of thinking has defined our moral culture. Sexuality is something not to be channeled into certain directions, but to be let loose with abandon. Drugs should be publicly condemned but privately sampled, for how else will we know who we truly are? We celebrate alcohol because it lowers our inhibitions, a social Freudian slip that reveals inhibitions to be our common enemy. We engage in light fraud where there are no consequences — sure that Deliveroo is for me and not my neighbour! — while the rich will evade tax because they can, not because they should.
From the lowest rungs of society to the highest, permissiveness reins free. Old school religious teachings on do’s and don’ts are either ignored or actively railed against, like a teenager resenting their mother’s stare. Indeed, other nations hate us because of our freedoms, so envious are they of our willingness to do anything, anywhere, at any time. We will wage war against such nations in the name of these freedoms, teaching them the valuable lesson that freedom doesn’t come cheap, that sacrifices must be made.
And yet, where are we now? Has our freedom brought us contentment? Have we found ways to have meaningful lives, to enjoy social and personal peace? On the contrary. The doctrine of freedom is responsible for the lion’s share of suffering in the world. It is our sense of moral freedom that has led the financial elite to consistently defraud everyone else. It is our sense of moral freedom that has allowed the world’s resources to be plundered, for natives to be genocided, for the innocent to be caged. The degree of human suffering at the hands of humans worldwide is impossible to capture, and largely shielded from our eyes in the West. But even within our own gaze there are ample consequences that are overlooked and undervalued. They are seen in psychiatrist’s clinics and emergency departments; in homeless shelters and women’s refuges. They are seen in prisons, confessional chambers and cemeteries. No-one talks about it because the truth is ugly: the truth that we are constantly hurting those around us.
While we celebrate pub culture and having a drink, we ignore the countless drunk abusive fathers whose daughters are seen in mental health facilities for decades. We ignore the thousands of people killed or maimed from drunk driving, with all the collateral social damage that provokes. While we celebrate sexual freedom, we ignore the realities of infidelity this breeds, the families it breaks, the tears that never dry. We ignore the struggles of single parenting it leads to, the shallow relationships, and ultimate isolation it results in for so many. While our society recognises pornography as acceptable, even healthy by some accounts, it turns a blind eye to the objectification of women in which it results, to the desires it stokes in an uninhibited youth, and the women trafficked to produce such debauchery. Meanwhile, our veneration of external beauty over internal beauty leads to an abundance of self-loathing reflected in the mirrors of the ordinary.
But it doesn’t stop there. Not being bound by any moral teaching, nor fearing any ultimate recompense for their actions, a minority feel emboldened to attack others in private or in public, to enter their homes and steal their wealth. Others will do the same through obscure financial policy. Such people are not aliens — they have been raised in the same society and are influenced by the same social culture as we are. If some people will do anything for money, it is because they follow the Gospel of Greed over any other.
These are the external consequences, but the private anguish that a life without moral restraint brings is even more keenly felt. In a society where we are taught to give into our every instinct, we are not free. Instead, we are enslaved to those instincts, enslaved to those base desires. Our every moment is spent trying to satiate them, but when we think the thirst has finally been slaked, it returns with a greater fire than before. Indeed, whole lives are spent satiating our desires for wealth, social standing and sexual gratification. Such desires can never be quenched, only temporarily abated, breeding a gnawing sense of pointlessness and despair over time. Those who respond by trying to kill their desires completely never succeed either. The same desires grow beneath the barriers like weeds, finding a way out, uprooting the wheat as they go.
Thus we see that the very value held above all others in modern society is the one that causes us the most pain. Our moral freedom is a vacuum, sucking us deeper and deeper into a black hole. We are free to do what we want, but like the stray animals in whose company we are, we don’t know what we should do.
This is of course an intolerable situation, and accordingly, few tolerate it. In response, we set ourselves an ultimate objective, and our morality is dictated by this ultimate purpose. This principle, like most, can be clearly demonstrated with a Zombie Apocalypse. The man who takes the feeding of his family as his ultimate purpose will kill and maim all others to ensure his family has a meal at the end of the day. Indeed, this is how tyrants are grown. A few doors down, one religiously bound to never steal and never murder will gladly let he and his family starve in order to preserve his moral values, content to have lived a good life and to die a good death. Morality is thus nothing but a set of ranked priorities. The first man puts the preservation of his family as his ultimate priority. The second man puts his relationship with His Creator above all else, and will die before he breaks that sacred bond.
In modern life, the old religious dictat to seek nearness to God and abide by His moral law is thrown out the window. Instead, we are told that we are cosmic accidents, and should live freely. As such, we choose for ourselves our purpose. Those who take career advancement as their end will sacrifice everything and everyone to get there — something we have all witnessed. Meanwhile, those who take getting high as their end will gladly sacrifice their social ties chasing the next drug and the next girl, fighting a failing body and a waning spirit.
Most pursue ‘normality’ — a partner and kids, and a job — and seek to follow natural moral instincts. But these moral instincts can be distorted by society, as evidenced by how that which was abhorrent yesterday is acceptable today. Such morality is entirely relative to our society around us, and cannot be trusted — it shifts like the colours of a kaleidoscope in different times and places. Meanwhile, those who finally have a stable family and a good-paying job find themselves suddenly disillusioned by their lack of fulfilment. Wasn’t this supposed to be it?, they ask, looking around in concern. This is the classic mid-life crisis, and the typical answer is to look for another worldly thing in which to find fulfilment — perhaps a new Ferrari will do… or maybe I should start running?
We are left then unfulfilled and following moral laws of our own creation. These can be discarded at will, for any moral philosophy that is freely selected can be freely disposed of. It is not binding. The only moral philosophy that is binding is one which is imposed externally. It is one that is made for us, and one for which we will be accountable. Only religious philosophy provides this. It teaches that man is created by God for a purpose. This purpose is the love, knowledge and worship of God. It is fundamentally relational — we are made to be close with God, to understand His qualities and emulate them as best we can.
In order to fulfil this purpose, man should follow a set moral law. This moral law is one that will lead to the betterment of society from God’s point of view, rather than our own self-conceived notions. It will ensure that society as a whole will prosper, so that every individual has the best potential to live a spiritual life. Such a moral law is already innate within us from birth, but it can be distorted and twisted by beliefs we adopt and habits we acquire. For this reason, we need a reminder in the form of religious teachings to show us how to live — how to be. We also need an exemplar to live these teachings, to see how they can be implemented practically. Thus religion always comes with a teaching and a teacher. And the message it brings is fundamentally beneficent — to love God’s creation as your kith and kin, and to serve them as best as you can.
As for our own personal morality, Islam in particular teaches that we should neither kill our desires completely, nor give them free rein. Instead, we are taught to restrain them, to limit them, and channel them in the best manner. The Prophet Jesus taught the same, exhorting his believers to follow the Jewish Law:
“Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 5:9
St. Paul, shunned by Jesus’ disciples as a liar and the Antichrist, taught the opposite:
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law”St. Paul, Galatians 3:13
St. Paul taught people that the Jewish law is a ‘curse,’ that through simply believing in Jesus’ crucifixion-death we could be free to do as we will. And so, according to Jesus’ own pronouncement, St. Paul’s lawlessness makes him ‘least in the Kingdom of Heaven.’ Alas, while Jesus’ Judaism prevailed in the East for many centuries, it is Paul’s version of Christianity that became predominant in the West. Thus, the origin of our fatal freedom is found in Pauline Christianity. The idea has spread like a germ throughout western civilisation, leading its people to free themselves from religion itself, from a defined moral code, and now they even seek to escape the confines of biology itself.
But there is a deadly paradox at the heart of this idea. What modern culture sells to us as freedom is merely enslavement to our base desires. When we serve ourselves, we are ruled by our instincts and passions. But when we serve God, we gain self-mastery through our own efforts and through His grace. While religious teaching confines us, it also frees us from our base desires. It makes our natural faculties our servants rather than our masters.
Freedom is thus a relative concept. Freedom from God is enslavement to the world. Freedom from the world is enslavement to God. But this enslavement is in fact a willing servitude, one where we are no longer ruled by our animal selves, but gain control over our inner world. In a sense, this is true freedom, only achieved by dedicating our natural faculties to One beyond us. We thus pass from one form of enslavement to another. In doing so we seek contentment rather than euphoria, seek service rather than being served, and seek meaning rather than distraction.
As the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas once commented, if this be prison, it is one where the inmates are content, for they have found the One whom they love within. The four walls are walls of security, a fortress against the storm outside. Our freedom does indeed come at a price — a willingness to surrender ourselves to our divinely ordained purpose, to restrict ourselves for the sake of spiritual growth. In doing so, we achieve a far higher goal than mere freedom:
“Everyone has a goal which dominates him; vie then with one another in good deeds. Wherever you will be, Allah will bring you together. Surely Allah has the power to do all that He wills.”— Quran, 2:149