Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

By Bernard Lewis | Go to book overview

25
The Idea of Freedom
in Modern Islamic
Political Thought

In traditional Islamic usage freedom was a legal, not a political concept. The Arabic terms ḥurr, “free,” and ḥurriyya, “freedom,” with their derivatives and equivalents in the other languages of Islam, denoted the status of the free man in law as opposed to the slave. In some periods and places, words meaning free were applied to certain privileged social groups which were exempt from taxes and other burdens to which common people were subject. This social usage is however exceptional and untypical, and the term ḥurr was normally used only in a juridical sense, with little social and no political content. When Muslim writers discussed, as they often did, the problems of good and bad government and denounced the latter as tyranny, they were distinguishing between just and unjust, lawful and wilful rule. Good government was a duty of the ruler, not a right of the subject, whose only recourse against bad government was patience, counsel, and prayer. The converse of tyranny was justice, not freedom; the converse of freedom was not tyranny but legal and personal slavery.1

The first examples in Islamic lands of the use of the term freedom in a clearly defined political sense come from the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and are patently due to European influence, sometimes to direct translations from European texts. Significantly, the word chosen by the Turkish translators to render this unfamiliar notion was not the legal term for non-servile status, but a quite different term, previously used mainly in fiscal and administrative contexts. Serbestiyet (later also Serbestī) is an abstract formed from serbest,

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