Elaborating on John Brennan’s Deliberate Misrepresentation of “Freedom” in Islam (in Rosenthal’s Classic 1960 Work)

My recent blog on John Brennan’s predilection for totalitarianism included this brief discussion of what I characterized as his misrepresentation of the diametrically opposed Islamic, and Judeo-Christian/ Western philosophical conceptions of freedom:

“Ignoring Islam’s antithetical concept of freedom as hurriya—perfect slavery to Allah’s Sharia—Brennan’s thesis also argued that freedom “cannot be labeled as a Western idea,” and “is very much a part of Islamic culture.”  Hurriya, “freedom,” is—as Ibn Arabi (d. 1240) the lionized “Greatest Sufi Master,” expressed it—“perfect slavery.” This conception, moreover, is not merely confined to the Sufis’ perhaps metaphorical understanding of the relationship between Allah the “master” and his human “slaves.” Following Islamic law (Sharia) slavishly throughout one’s life was paramount to hurriyya, “freedom.” This earlier more concrete characterization of hurriya’s metaphysical meaning, whose essence Ibn Arabi reiterated, was pronounced by the Sufi scholar al-Qushayri (d. 1072/74). ‘Let it be known to you that the real meaning of freedom lies in the perfection of slavery. If the slavery of a human being in relation to Allah is a true one, his freedom is relieved from the yoke of changes. Anyone who imagines that it may be granted to a human being to give up his slavery for a moment and disregard the commands and prohibitions of the religious law while possessing discretion and responsibility, has divested himself of Islam. Allah said to his Prophet: “Worship until certainty comes to you.” (Koran 15:99). As agreed upon by the [Koranic] commentators, “certainty” here means the end (of life).’”

Both arguments—Brennan’s and my own—derive from a seminal work by the late Yale scholar of Islam, Franz Rosenthal, “The Muslim Concept of Freedom,” published in 1960.  John Brennan’s 1980 University of Texas MS thesis cites Rosenthal’s work (from p. 14) in this full, verbatim discussion on p. 73 of the thesis:

“At this time it should be pointed out that the concept of liberty being employed in this essay [i.e., his thesis] cannot be labeled as a Western idea that is being imposed on a non-Western Islamic nation. The earliest reference to freedom in Islam is from the writings of a Syrian named Barhud. He writes that, ‘Freedom is the unconstrained power of the rational natures, both those concerned with the senses and those concerned with intellectual perception.’ Although there are numerous concepts of freedom in Islam, as well as numerous words to describe it harr [hurriyya], ikhtiyar, etc…], the basis of the concept itself is very much part of the Islamic culture.”

While Brennan accurately quotes “Barzud” from p. 14  of Rosenthal’s monograph, the full context Rosenthal provides highlights Brennan’s fundamental misrepresentation, and is a negation of Brennan’s central argument about “Islam”!

“The oldest definition of ‘freedom’ from the Islamic Near East does not come from Muslim circles and is not expressed in Arabic. It is to be found in a Syriac work on definitions, ascribed to a certain Michael [emphases added] or Barzud, which was composed around 800 A.D. Following upon a definition of ‘will,’ it reads: ‘‘Freedom is the unconstrained power of the rational natures, both those concerned with the senses and those concerned with intellectual perception.’”

The paraphrase I referenced to Ibn Arabi, and the al-Qushayri extract I reproduced in full come from pp. 115, and 110, respectively, of Rosenthal’s The Muslim Concept of Freedom:

[p. 115] “[A]ccording to Ibn Arabi…There is no absolute freedom for human beings… ‘freedom is true slavery with God as the master.’”

[p. 110] “The Professor (al-Qushayri) said: ‘Let it be known to you that the real meaning of freedom lies in the perfection of slavery. If the slavery of a human being in relation to Allah is a true one, his freedom is relieved from the yoke of changes. Anyone who imagines that it may be granted to a human being to give up his slavery for a moment and disregard the commands and prohibitions of the religious law while possessing discretion and responsibility, has divested himself of Islam. Allah said to his Prophet: “Worship until certainty comes to you.” (Koran 15:99). As agreed upon by the [Koranic] commentators, “certainty” here means the end (of life).’

The critical centrality of these Sufi ideas about hurriya “freedom” as perfect slavery to Allah and his Sharia, was highlighted by Rosenthal on p.25:

“At the final stages of medieval Muslim civilization, the Sufi interpretation of hurriyah became decidedly popular and widely accepted.”

Not surprisingly, Rosenthal’s own concluding remarks from his monograph (p. 122) make plain Brennan’s thorough misrepresentation of the Yale scholar’s views:

“Consciousness of the basic human need for freedom was not general and not strongly developed. It was not sufficiently strong, for example, to produce rebels against restraint who might have fought such restraint openly in the name of individual liberty. Muslim society, as a completely integrated structure, could have hardly tolerated attempts to change it in the name of so powerful an idea as that of freedom, which once unleashed might have endangered the whole structure…As a political force it lacked the support which only a central position within the political organism and system of thought could give it.”

Finally, Franz Rosenthal also analyzed the larger context of hurriya in his official Encyclopedia of Islam entry on the subject, noting the historical absence of hurriya as  “a fundamental political concept that could have served as a rallying cry for great causes.”  An individual Muslim “was expected to consider subordination of his own freedom to the beliefs, morality and customs of the group as the only proper course of behavior…” Thus politically, Rosenthal concluded,

“…the individual was not expected to exercise any free choice as to how he wished to be governed…In general, …governmental authority admitted of no participation of the individual as such, who therefore did not possess any real freedom vis-à-vis it.”

Andrew G. Bostom is the author of The Legacy of Jihad (Prometheus, 2005) and The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism " (Prometheus, November, 2008) You can contact Dr. Bostom at @andrewbostom.org

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