In the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate
“Hesham,” the voice called out to me. “The pork ribs are quite good. You should have some!”
He knew that I am not allowed to eat pork; in fact, he knew this for quite some time. And yet, he suggested that I have some. He was not trying to be malicious or mocking. To him, it was simply unfathomable that I would deprive myself of something so tasty (in his eyes) out of an intangible religious obligation.
The same went with alcohol. As soon as I sat down on the table – I was having dinner with my partners – my boss and senior partner asked me if I wanted some white wine. I respectfully declined…several times. Then I heard our newest hire say to my senior partner: “I am lucky that I am not restricted by anything, be it religion or…”
I point this out to highlight the view of many, many people in today’s world about religion: not only is it the source of incredible fanaticism that has caused centuries of pain and suffering, but it also senselessly restricts and restrains human freedom.
Let us examine my voluntary restraint from eating pork that night. Many have speculated that the Judeo-Islamic prohibition on eating pork stemmed from the fact that pork in ancient times made people sick due to lack of proper preparation. The pork we had served before us was well-cooked; there was very little risk of my getting sick. And I am sure it tasted quite good. So, there was no specific reason why I should not have eaten some. Yet, I did not eat any, because my religion told me so.
The same went with the alcohol that was flowing from the bottle that night. No one was watching me from the Muslim community; my partners would not have cared; in fact, they probably would have celebrated my imbibing a few spirits with them. I could have drank and been merry without anyone knowing. Yet, I chose not to, because my religion told me so.
Is this senseless restriction on human freedom?
Absolutely not. There are a great number of people who refrain from eating pork, no matter how well cooked or prepared, and refuse to drink alcohol. They have a multitude of different reasons, and for me, my reason is religious obligation. What makes my reason any less legitimate than simply not liking the taste of pork or alcohol? Why is it that refraining from doing something due to religious belief is seen as somehow oppressive?
Having said that, religion does indeed restrain; religion does indeed restrict. It does so, however, toward a greater good.
Let us take religion’s restraint on sexual promiscuity. Religion mandates that sexual relations be enjoyed only within the boundaries and confines of a marital relationship. A sexual bond to another person necessarily is bound to the responsibility of being a spouse to that person. Many may see this is oppressive restraint on human freedom.
Yet, we see the results of unbridled sexual promiscuity before our eyes every single day in society. Sexually transmitted diseases are rampant; the family unit, the bedrock of a healthy and strong society, has been nearly decimated; thousands upon thousands of children are raised without knowing who their father is, and as a result, the gang becomes the father figure. Yes, religion may restrain the human sexual appetite, but society is stronger and healthier because of it.
Religion also restrains the ways and means of earning a living. It is prohibited for someone to exploit another person by entering into a financial contract in which the creditor is guaranteed a profit, regardless of the status of the debtor, i.e., a usurious contract. Again, some may see this as oppressive restraint on human freedom, and the Qur’an records this objection:
Those who gorge themselves on usury behave but as he might behave whom Satan has confounded with his touch; for they say, “Buying and selling is but a kind of usury” – the while God has made buying and selling lawful and usury unlawful. (2:275)
Yet, the current mortgage and credit crisis clearly shows the results of unbridled human greed and exploitation. This leaves aside the millions upon millions of individuals enslaved to the double digit interest debt charged by the credit card companies, a true usurious contract if there ever was one in the modern era. Yes, religion restricts unbridled profiteering, but in return, society remains financially solvent and economically healthy.
These are but two examples of the many benefits of the restraint of religion on unfettered human activity. So many point out the horrors that have been done in the name of religion throughout human history and therefore dismiss religion altogether as an unnecessary evil. “God is not great,” these people say. Yet, they neglect to point out that these horrors are the result of the abandonment of religion, not its perfected adherence. One may be defiling religion and all for which it stands, even if he tells the world, “Thus saith the Lord.”
In reality, religion has saved countless people from descending into the darknesses of the animal impulse that resides in each of us. A very dear acquaintance of mine recently confided in me that he was the victim of sexual abuse when he was a child. It was nothing other than religion that prevented him from abusing others and continuing the vicious cycle that plagues so many in our society.
In exchange for a small restriction in personal and societal conduct, religion allows one to gain personal, emotional, and – most importantly – spiritual security. And only when one is totally secure, does one become totally free.