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Sacred Concepts and Profane Anxieties – Fear of Freedom of Thought

Shirk is the opposite of Islam: it means “to participate” but it is used to describe the chaos before 630 (when Muhammad came back to Mecca), before the establishment of the monotheistic religion. This word can well be considered the translation of “freedom of thought”.
Before 630 there was freedom of thought (and there were 360 idols in Mecca), but this freedom came to be feared -> it was identified with jahiliyya (the chaotic pagan world before Islam). This is why freedom of religion is perceived in some way as negative in Islamic world.

Rahma means sensitiveness, tenderness and forgiveness. Islam was successful in 630 because, differently from the previous 360 idols, it was able to establish rahma. It won against violence in the city promoting knowledge and education instead of ignorance and war.

Hawa is the individual desire, which should be sacrificed in order to get rahma (peace in the community) and it comes out of jahiliyya. It can also mean “personal opinion” -> it is needed to have rahma (collective meaning) instead of hawa (individual meaning): this is the “pact” of Islam -> need to subordinate oneself to the group and to renounce freedom of thought.
However, hawa is not to be completely eliminated: it has to be limited within the hudud (the “sacred limits”) -> need for equilibrium between individual and group: in absence of a “punishing” clergy within Islam, it’s up to the individual to maintain a sense of moderation within a collectivity.

Imagination ( khayal, coming from the same root of “horse”) is intended as a thought process detached from the reality, an individual space over which the group cannot impose control. It is linked to al-hurriyya (freedom), a word that has never gained a positive connotation because it has always been connected to the jahiliyya. Traditionally, freedom has been observed with suspect in a society that feared individualism as the source of all disequilibrium (a society based on the central role of the caliph).


Imagination ( khayal) and ikhtiyal (arrogance) come from the same linguistic root. Arrogance is condemned in the Qur’an, and imagination is feared because it is the power to create and to think in images. This refusal of imagination and images comes from the pre-Islamic period, when the images were those of the 360 idols, meaning essentially polytheism instead of Islamic monotheism. This is why, for instance, Muslims do not want to take pictures: they link the images to the pre-Islamic chaotic period, which is strongly feared.

“Imagination” and “creation” are dangerous words for Muslims, and they are stamped with bans. All innovation is a contravention of the order of things. Creation and innovation mean divergence from the group, so they are sometimes called kafir, mulhid, zindiq (words that all mean “deviation from the right way” and, for religious intolerants, are sufficient to determine a punishment). These three words are used to talk about Shaytan (Satan), who plays his games on the field of hawa (desire or passion) and embodies rebellion and subversion.
However, the traditional contrast between public interest and individual interest should be observed in a new way, according to the current economic and cultural development. If Arab parliaments began to implement democracy, it would be possible to overtake the “classical” link between freedom of thought and jahiliyya.

The message of Muhammad – the idea of one sole God – was simply absurd for his contemporaries, used to a polytheistic faith. Before 630, there was a flourishing “industry” of idols, since every tribe could “create” its little gods apart from the “official” ones.
However, in 17 years the Prophet was able to unify the Arabs around al-wahid (“the One”), despite the opposition of many members of his own tribe, the Quraysh. He was expelled from Mecca due to his commitment to eliminate polytheism: this created a split ( shiqaq), a concept strictly linked to shi’a (which means “those who see differently”, therefore “those who split their religion and become sects”). Muhammad came to correct the divisions and bring everyone back to the right path, that of Islam.
Opposition to the consensus is perceived as traumatic: divergence of opinion is seen as a weakening of the group. This is why Muhammad was expelled from Mecca in 622 by the Quraysh council (this is the beginning of Muslim calendar), but he was able to come back as a hero to unify Arabia before his death. The battle between Islam and shirk was a “cosmic” battle that involved the establishment and the maintenance of the religion. This is why Muslim people did not see the Gulf War as a “modern” war: since Bush invoked the protection of God instead of talking about democracy and freedom, it appeared as a religious war, a global conspiracy against Islam promoted by “arrogant” and “capitalist” America.
di Luca Porcella
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