From Tahrir Square in Cairo to Times Square in New York City, the human cry for and celebration of freedom has come to define modern man's highest aspirations for himself and the one ideal that modern societies hold in highest esteem. After centuries of human history in which slavery and human bondage were accepted as norm, the struggle for individual and collective freedom ought to be commemorated as real progress in realizing the awesomeness of God-given human dignity.
"Truly, We have instilled dignity into the Children of Adam," God reminds us in the Quran (17:70). And, for this reason, perhaps, the Muslim sage and second caliph of Islam, Umar bin al-Khattab, reportedly warned one of his governors 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?"
When we speak of freedom, we speak of those physical and institutional barriers that restrict a person or peoples from exercising the right to follow their conscience. Beyond this, however, there are important philosophical and practical questions on the meaning and scope of freedom, for no human value can be limitless or left completely unchecked by other greater values. Every society will have to answer for itself these rather difficult and complex questions.
In this sermon I want to focus our attention on, arguably, the least considered aspect of freedom -- an aspect without which the human being and societies will never be able to realize the highest promise embedded within the genome of freedom. I speak of that most precious independence known as inner freedom.
This freedom is a freedom that allows us to unshackle ourselves from the bondage of our own egos, false desires, delusions, addictions, and evil inclinations. God alludes to this inner human trap that one must escape when God asks rhetorically in the Quran, "Have you ever considered [the kind of person] who makes his own desires his deity?" (25:43).
It is in many ways the most difficult freedom to attain, and the one that requires the greatest struggle. In a saying that is attributed to Muhammad, the Prophet turned to his companions after a long and difficult battle, saying, "You have arrived with an excellent arrival. You have come from the lesser jihad [struggle] to the greater jihad [struggle]: the striving against your false desires." While the chain of transmission back to the Prophet is questionable, scholars throughout the centuries of Islam have taken it as true at least in its wisdom and have written entire works on the meaning of greater jihad. The Quran itself speaks of this greater struggle when it says, "As for those who strive in Our path, We shall most certainly guide them onto paths that lead unto Us: for, behold, God is indeed with the doers of good" (29:69).
Inner freedom is not vague or idealistic. It is real and has very real manifestations. It is what allowed a young Abraham, upon him be peace, to oppose the false beliefs of his people, freeing himself from idolatry. It is what allowed Hagar, upon her be peace, to run between the mountains in the middle of a desert, searching for sustenance, freeing herself from despair. It is what allowed Moses, upon him be peace, to speak the truth in front of a tyrant, freeing himself from a fear that would have left him speechless. It is what allowed Mary, upon her be peace, to bear the false accusations against her reputation with patience and forbearance, freeing herself from resentment and anger. It is what allowed Jesus, upon him be peace, to pray to God for his people's forgiveness even when they abused and abandoned him, freeing himself from hatred and malice.
The Prophet Muhammad, too, was a constant exemplar of what it means to be a person and community of inner freedom. When, upon hearing that she was sick, the Prophet visited the rude woman who would throw filth on him, he showed us what it means to be truly free. When the Prophet smiled at the harsh Arab who pulled on the neck of his cloak, making demands, he showed us what true freedom really looks like. When the Prophet chose compromise and a peace treaty over continuous war with the belligerent Meccans at Hudabiyyah, he showed us how truly free people act wisely rather than foolishly. When, toward the end of his life, the Prophet entered Mecca victorious and granted amnesty to his former enemies, he showed us that truly free people choose forgiveness over revenge.
The attainment of this inner freedom does not come easily, nor does it happen overnight. Rather, it requires struggle over the course of a lifetime. It requires an inner revolution that overcomes the dictators within us. The aspiration for inner freedom requires a spiritual practice that disciplines the ego and moves the soul toward higher purposes. And this is where the spiritual discipline of fasting is related, intimately, to freedom.
The month of Ramadan, in which Muslims are prescribed to fast from eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse, at its most basic level, every day during the daylight hours from dawn to dusk, is nearly upon us. Fasting is the one prescribed discipline or practice that is actually about restraint rather than action. And in this there is a profound wisdom. It teaches us that there are times when restraint is just as powerful, if not even more powerful, than action. Fasting is like pulling back a wild, galloping horse from the brink of a cliff.
For the inner revolution, fasting willingly for a higher purpose than what is so natural and elemental proves to us that we can restrain ourselves from bad habits, wrong actions, negative attitudes, and ill feelings toward others. Ultimately, it is through this inner revolution and transformation that outward change is realized. God declares in the Quran, "Verily, God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is within themselves."
These are lessons that are carried forth in the best of humanity, from generation to generation. Nelson Mandela, the great anti-apartheid leader and first president of a multicultural South Africa (whom we pray for during his time of illness), said, upon leaving the prison where he was 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."
Wise words for a world that needs to grapple with the true meaning of freedom just as much as it longs for it.