Free thinking is claimed to be the way forward for the whole of mankind, so much so that it is encouraged for us to be free thinkers for our own intellectual and cognitive development.
Very appropriate, because if free thinking is defined just as literally as the words suggest, which is to think independently, any sane and rational person on earth will agree with this. However, in reality it does not stop here, and most of us are able to appreciate the connotation that “free thinking” comes with. To remove all doubts, let’s put out a few definitions to understand what it actually refers to –
According to Wikipedia,
“Freethought (or free thought) is an epistemological viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed only on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, revelation, or dogma. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a freethinker is “a person who forms their own ideas and opinions rather than accepting those of other people, especially in religious teaching.””
It further adds –
“In some contemporary thought in particular, freethought is strongly tied with rejection of traditional social or religious belief systems.”
According to Dictionary.com, a free thinker is
“…a person who forms opinions on the basis of reason, independent of authority or tradition, especially a person whose religious opinions differ from established belief.”
And finally, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, this term means
“…forming your own opinions and beliefs, especially about religion or politics, rather than just accepting what is officially or commonly believed and taught”
If one looks at the definitions, one would very easily be able to understand the context in which the term is typically used, which is to look particularly at religion in a skeptical manner; in no way should the disparagement of religion be the basis of our reasoning. This is what ‘free thinking’ commonly means, and anyone who questions religions skeptically is called a ‘free thinker.’
The implications of such kind of thinking is what we witness around us, especially in cases where debates and discussions are happening between one who gives attention to his religion, and the other who considers religion to be nothing but a dogma. More often than not, the one who considers religion as an important part of life and of the world in general, is seen with pity for the way s/he thinks —only because ‘free thinking’ has been pushed as a correct manner of thought in the lives of the people living in today’s modern era.
The only way we can do intellectual justice to any subject is by studying the subject in itself without being affected by what the society at a particular time and place thinks. By doing this, we are not only taking a balanced approach but then also applying what ‘free thinking’ itself proposes, and that is to come to a truth using logic and reason to filter what claims to be divine authority, tradition, revelation, and fixed teachings. True religion can stand the test of scrutiny.
A good part of the past four centuries has been about living a ‘free’ life, not only in thought but also in day to day affairs. The real flag bearers of this way of life is the Western world —without having to mention that the world in general today craves to live the Western way.
The context to this can be traced back to roughly the period between the 6th and 15th centuries when the Christian Church used to hold sway over large groups of people. Priests in the name of God and religion started to oppress people during this course of history which went to the extent that any thought seen to be opposing the beliefs and hegemony of its sovereignty was met with extreme severity.
Consequently, this resulted in a bloody struggle between the ‘thinkers’ of that time and the authorities who were set against them. After years of this blood bath, what resulted was a compromise between these two struggling groups, which was to separate religion from life’s affairs. This idea is what we refer to as Secularism.
Furthermore, since the Church used to restrict the thinking of people under its authority, the people emphasized freedom as one of the most important propositions in organizing their affairs for moving forward. Hence, Freedom of Belief, Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Freedom of Ownership, and Personal Freedom became the four principles of Secularism according to which Europe was to be shaped in her politico-socio-economic affairs.
Since it was religion and priests —seemingly with the backing of God— that were the pivotal cause of this resentment, the clash of secularism with religion as an organizer of life for an individual or society per se is only obvious. It is only obvious that as the world progressed in time, the altercations between secularism and religion only grew.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the reign of the Church, in the name of God and religion, reached its extreme in oppressing people; however, looking upon all religions with disdain, Christianity included, is not appropriate. It needs to be asserted unequivocally that the beliefs of Christianity lack the profundity that is required to prove the creed of this religion; however, to come to this conclusion just because the teaching of Jesus was misrepresented by the Church, and then to paint all religions with the same brush, is far more than a reasonable assumption.
There have been numerous personalities and institutions to date that have misrepresented ideas, so proper blame should be carefully assigned accordingly. Without this cautionary approach, the same could be used to defy Democracy, Liberalism and Secularism when the governments oppress people. Therefore, to equate free thinking to being skeptical about religions because of some event that happened in the human history is not being fair.
Moving further, there is also a common, preconceived notion that religions somewhat ‘restrict’ the way a human should think. Any person moves in life according to the thoughts and concepts s/he carries. Breaking it further down, all these thoughts and concepts are based upon the foundational idea of how one looks at life. This philosophical orientation becomes the creed /starting point of all of his thinking.
Say for example, when a Muslim believes in Allah ﷻ with all his names and attributes, the Quran and in the Prophet-hood of Muhammad (ﷺ), this is not some vague philosophical idea that he carries; rather he moves in life with this idea, and builds thoughts, concepts and principles which are in line with it. The same applies for a person of any other religion, or a secularist who believes that religion should not have any say in the affairs of the world, or an atheist who does not even believe in the existence of God. Hence, a person, when arriving at judgments about an issue, refers to the concepts and principles based upon the foundational or the creedal idea that he holds, and this structural thought process is natural and obvious for every human, irrespective of the beliefs that he holds.
Hence, to label one’s religion as a restriction to one’s thinking is again an attempt to derogate it, and it only reflects a lack of clarity on how the thinking process in a human being works. In fact, to hold this notion today, that religion curtails thinking, is again a holdover of the time when the Church did not allow any free, independent or critical thought to flourish.
Also very interestingly, it needs to be mentioned that ‘free thinking’ in its literal sense does not exist —as anyone who holds any notion, right or wrong, will admit that his thinking is conducted within the framework of the ideas s/he already carries. To claim to be a ‘free thinker’ in the literal sense of the term is actually self-defeating.
These ideas of secularism, freedoms, ‘free-thinking,’ liberalism and the like need to be questioned today, and accordingly the correct conclusions need to be drawn in a rational manner. Today’s governments have deliberately pushed these ideas among the masses to maintain their hegemony —something the Church was doing during the Dark Ages. However, what is saddening is that the people in general have bought these ideas and made them an integral part of their lives without looking at them critically. The cliché ‘buying the rhetoric’ —just because it appears to be glittering— seems to define what is happening today, something against which Allah ﷻ also warns mankind in the Quran:
وَكَذَٰلِكَ جَعَلْنَا لِكُلِّ نَبِيٍّ عَدُوًّا شَيَاطِينَ الْإِنْسِ وَالْجِنِّ يُوحِي بَعْضُهُمْ إِلَىٰ بَعْضٍ زُخْرُفَ الْقَوْلِ غُرُورًا ۚ وَلَوْ شَاءَ رَبُّكَ مَا فَعَلُوهُ ۖ فَذَرْهُمْ وَمَا يَفْتَرُونَ
And thus We have made for every prophet an enemy – devils from mankind and jinn, inspiring to one another decorative speech in delusion. But if your Lord had willed, they would not have done it, so leave them and that which they invent. [Surah Al-An’âm, 6:112]
It goes without saying that fragments of society have begun discussing ideological alternatives in the Western countries as they realize the intellectual misery these anti-religion dogmas have caused, without even mentioning the failures of this entire system, especially in the political, economic and social realm.
On the contrary, Islam —which has governed the lives of people for more than 13 centuries— never stood on the basis of such feeble ideas, unlike what the Western world portrays. The creed of Islam —which is primarily the belief in Allah ﷻ, the Quran and the Prophet-hood of Muhammad (ﷺ)— did not come out of a blood bath. Rather, this creed challenged the best of minds. The Prophet (ﷺ) all throughout his preaching relied on rational, convincing arguments that drew people to accept Islam, paving the way for all the following generations. In fact, Allah ﷻ obliged him to take this approach:
ادْعُ إِلَىٰ سَبِيلِ رَبِّكَ بِالْحِكْمَةِ وَالْمَوْعِظَةِ الْحَسَنَةِ ۖ وَجَادِلْهُمْ بِالَّتِي هِيَ أَحْسَنُ ۚ إِنَّ رَبَّكَ هُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِمَنْ ضَلَّ عَنْ سَبِيلِهِ ۖ وَهُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِالْمُهْتَدِينَ
Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction and argue with them in a way that is best. Indeed, your Lord is most knowing of who has strayed from His way, and He is most knowing of who is [rightly] guided. [Surah Al-Naḥl, 16: 125]
Interestingly, those who didn’t accept Islam were still accommodated in a common society with the same rights as that of the Muslims, and there was no war waged against believers in other God-fearing traditions, unlike what has happened in the Western countries where people are killed in the name of freedom and democracy.
It is important to question rhetoric like ‘Free Thinking’ —which itself is not free of bias! This is because, at the surface level, ‘free thinking’ may appear to be favorable and attractive; however, in reality —as the term is commonly used— it may be subtly taking us away from Islam. Hence, the test of living in a country like ours is to challenge —rationally— ideas like these that have been pushed through. As we revive our Ummah, it must be based on a rational approach to —and a true understanding of— Islam.
إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يُغَيِّرُ مَا بِقَوْمٍ حَتَّىٰ يُغَيِّرُوا مَا بِأَنْفُسِهِمْ
Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. [Surah Al-Ra’d, 13:11]