A Prison of Your Choice

By Atayab Naeem 

In my experience, generally speaking, people don’t really like the idea of rules or rather I should say, they don’t like being told what to do. Why would anyone anyway? After all, it takes away your freedom and prevents you from doing something you really want to do, whatever that may be, and then life is no longer fun. Why would you want to kill the fun of your life especially when it is not harming anyone else? It would simply go against the YOLO principle!

No one likes that person in a social situation who reminds them every now and then that something is wrong with their actions. I mean, after all, rules are lame, and they are immaterial walls in your mind that suffocate your realm of free will. But if that is all they are, where does this leave you? Stuck in the middle of an ocean where you are at the mercy of its waves with no destination to go to or means to exercise control for that matter. The ocean, of course, in this example being your whims and desires. The Christian concept of seven deadly sins sums it up really well; the ocean here is your pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sluggishness. To assume to be free without rules is to ignore the human potential for evil, and what horrendous atrocities have been committed by people who have drowned in this very ocean, we all know that very well. Therefore it becomes absolutely necessary for a human being to have a belief system, a code of ethics, or a set of rules to discipline him if he is to avoid this fate. And what system could be more prime and encompassing in the human context than that taught by religion: the one given by the creator Himself?! It is very commonsensical that even a manufacturing company gives a user manual along with its product because it knows and deems it necessary to convey what kind of usage could damage that manufactured product. Would it make sense to create human, the most revered creation on the face of the earth, and not ask him to follow any belief system? A system that, if followed rightfully, would save us as well as the people around us from our innate evil. But since man has been given freewill and because this world is a place of action (D?r ul ?amal) as opposed to a place of judgment (D?r ul his?b), it has been left to us, humans, whether or not we bind ourselves with the belief system. God states in the Quran:

“…And who is more astray than the one who follows his desires without any guidance from Allah? Indeed, Allah does not guide the wrongdoing people.” [28:50]

            What is basically being said here in the verse is that without a compass to guide us, which for us as Muslims is our religion, we will be led astray by our lowly inclinations. Self-restraint then becomes a tool for us to push against this force. The purpose of the rules is not to “oppress” you but to provide you with a way to cleanse yourself. Just like privileged social settings have certain protocols and disciplinary rules in place in order to ensure a civilized and regulated environment, similarly, a set of rules is also necessary in order to ensure that earth becomes a peaceful dwelling for its residents.

In Islam, we are constantly taught to purify ourselves from our inclinations and to achieve this through various practices such as prayer, fasting and almsgiving. People often do not think about it but our religion is very meticulously designed in this regard. This can be understood by looking at a few commonly established Islamic practices. For instance, we have our mandatory prayers conveniently spaced out during the day which is not there just to serve as a spiritual reminder for us but helps us lay out our day. It sounds subtle but anyone who prays knows its importance in teaching you how to structure your day and manage time, both of which mark a common challenge of our lives. We have mandatory fasting once a year as a training exercise for self-control. We are constantly encouraged to give charity to learn the importance of self-sacrifice and to curb our greed.

I know it is not easy obviously, but nothing worth having ever is, right? Disciplining ourselves would surely require a huge amount of effort on our part. Going against the flow is never easy; it requires more time, more energy and more effort than going with the flow and doing what the majority is doing without guidance and knowledge. At the end of the day, no one can really force you to follow any belief system or keep a check on you all the time. So eventually comes down to the individual to choose to adhere to the principles they believe in, whether someone is holding them readily accountable for it or not. The concept of self-restraint and delayed gratification is not about always preparing for the future and never living in the moment but is a means to prevent us from abusing things that instantly gratify us so much so that we become subservient to them. So, in essence, we are all prisoners of one sort or the other, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. And so in that case, the ultimate exercise of choice is to choose the prison that will restrain you for your own good. This is the kind of prison that guarantees you not just freedom in your afterlife, but also a life full of bliss, secured from a humiliating and traumatizing abode. It becomes easier to choose a prison today when one has the hope of getting a never-ending freedom tomorrow!

“And as for him who fears to stand in the presence of his Lord and forbids his own soul from its whims and caprices then surely Paradise is the abode.” [Quran, 79:40-41]