“Is it then other than Allah’s religion that they seek (to follow), and to Him submits whoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly, and to Him shall they be returned?” (Surat Ali Imran: 83)

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Everyone from my nation will enter Paradise except those who refuse.” They said, “O Messenger of Allah, who will refuse?” The Prophet said, “Whoever obeys me enters Paradise and whoever disobeys me has refused.” (Bukhari)

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In this day and age, we hear a lot about the importance of choice, autonomy, and all the other values associated with personal agency that make liberty and freedom so great and wonderful. But what if these concepts when examined more closely were not all that meaningful?

The Challenge of Choice

Islam is often portrayed as a religion that does not acknowledge free choice or sexual autonomy. Critics of Islam claim, for example, that Muslims do not have a choice in terms of how they can dress. Also, Muslims do not have sexual autonomy since Islam has strict constraints on sexual behavior.

How can Muslims respond to these charges? Given the importance with which modern society views these concepts — namely, free choice and autonomy — Muslims need to be able to speak to such concerns.

The temptation that Muslims face is to respond with straight denial, i.e., to insist that Islam does acknowledge and, in fact, champion free choice and sexual autonomy in the sense that these terms are deployed in liberal secular discourse. But this would be in many ways dishonest. We do not find concepts like free choice and autonomy as independent values as such in the way they are meant in the modern context within the corpus of Islamic ethical and legal thought.

A more honest and intellectually compelling response would be to question the coherence of these concepts on their own terms. Undermining these concepts allows Muslims to throw a wrench in the motor that drives the intuitions behind these attacks on Islam.

The Hijab as Choice

First let’s consider the question of dress and free choice. Can Muslim women, for example, freely choose to wear the hijab or are they coerced to do so?

Critics of Islam claim that Muslim women are forced to wear the hijab and therefore it is not a free choice in the slightest. What is problematic to these critics is Muslim women’s lack of agency. They have no choice in certain aspects of their dress.

Against this, many Muslims argue that, as a matter of fact, there is a choice when it comes to hijab. Those women who do wear it are exercising free choice by doing so, and that choice is empowering. Some even go so far as to claim that, in the age of Trump, wearing the hijab is an act of defiant resistance against tyranny, and what could be more free and liberating than that?

So who is right? What we can notice is that both sides take the notion of “free choice” for granted. This is a mistake.

Consider the distinction between the following kinds of choices.

You are at the ice cream parlor and you can choose what flavor ice cream you prefer. That seems like a benign choice. This is a scenario where the concept of choice seems perfectly suited. It is a preferential choice and our intuition is that preferential choices ought to be “free” in the sense that to restrict them is nothing more than an arbitrary exercise of power. The idea is, if someone prefers vanilla, why force them to get chocolate? What reason would there be to coerce a choice in this case other than malice?

Here is a second scenario. You are at a red traffic light and you can choose whether to stop or to pass through the red light. This is a choice that is available to you. But this is not about preference. In contrast to the preferential choice, this is a choice that has to do with obeying the law. And since obedience to the law of the land has moral implications, we can call this a moralistic choice.

Along those same line, imagine you are at home and you have just changed your car’s motor oil. You could illegally dump the old oil down your drain even though that would be illegal and cause considerable environmental damage by contributing to the pollution of the water system. Local environmental authorities would never know if you did it, but you have that choice. Again, this is not a preferential choice. Rather, it is a moralistic one.

The Ambiguity of Choice

Even though these scenarios can be described as involving personal choice, the two kinds of choices are in no way analogous. We do not understand the choices that involve following the law or doing the right thing as “free choices.” There is a moral and ethical obligation to do what is right and what is just. And though we do describe a person as having the ability to “choose” to do what is wrong, unethical, and unjust, clearly that is not the same thing as saying that a person has the “free choice” to completely ignore, forego, or violate the moral code.

It is this ambiguity between preferential choice and moralistic choice that causes a great amount of confusion when discussing Islamic ethics and law. Equivocating between the two kinds of choices allows critics of Islam to attack the religion and characterize it as intolerant and dogmatic. In reality, Islamic law is as “intolerant” and “dogmatic” as all other ethical systems and legal codes which, by definition, require and obligate people to behave in certain ways and refrain from behaving in others despite what they may choose to do otherwise.

We all seem to have an aversion to the idea of constraining and using coercion in the realm of people’s preferential choices. We should also note that, while it is obvious to many that curtailing preferential choice is an illegitimate use of power, it is equally obvious that moralistic choice ought to be subject to restriction. People ought to obey the law, which is to say, people ought to choose to obey the law, people ought to choose to do the right thing, etc., and if they fail to do so, there ought to be some sort of consequence.

The Illusion of Choice

The existence of such consequences for disobedience means that moralistic choices are not truly free choices per se. Yes, in one sense, a person has the choice to obey the law and the requirements of morality. But in another sense, no real choice is available since disobedience will be met with repercussions.

The driver behind the red light certainly can choose to run the light, but that could result in a hefty fine if he is caught. And the person who has changed his motor oil certainly can choose to dump the oil down the drain, but that could result in a fine as well and if others were to find out about this dumper’s selfish behavior, that could result in social opprobrium. So these cannot be meaningfully described as “free choices” at all.

Besides these examples, we all are faced with countless moral choices in our day to day lives. We technically can choose to act against the requirements of morality. We can choose to act out in wrong and detestable ways. But those choices have consequences, sometimes severe, sometimes not, sometimes tangible, sometimes social, sometimes worldly, sometimes otherworldly, etc. Unlike our preferential choices, our moralistic choices are not free. And we all recognize that that is a good and perfectly natural thing.

The same considerations apply wherever Islam is charged with not respecting “free choice.” Yes, technically Muslims have a choice to abide by the religious code, but these are considered moralistic choices, not preferential ones. As such, it is a category mistake to charge Islam with restricting free choice. In the case of hijab or any other aspect of Islamic dress code, it is true that Muslims have a choice, but it is a moralistic one. All else being equal, going against the law has consequences, e.g., the requirement for the violator of the law to repent. Ultimately, when it comes to hijab, both those who argue that Islam does respect free choice as well as those who argue that Islam does not respect free choice are incorrect in that they are making a conceptual error.

Rhetoric that Masks Substance (or Lack Thereof)

Claiming that “Islam violates free choice” is merely rhetorical bluster. Similarly, claiming some other religion or ethical system “upholds free choice” is equally vacuous since, as we have seen, all ethical systems permit free choice in the matters that fall squarely within the preferential domain. Of course, the boundaries between these two domains, viz., the preferential and the moralistic, are subject to debate.

And this is what the conversation about Islamic dress vis-à-vis “conventional” standards of dress really boils down to. What about the way we dress and present ourselves to others should be up to personal preference and what should be determined by larger ethical considerations outside of that and who gets to decide?

This is a deep ethical question that requires delving into a host of metaphysical and quasi-religious considerations. In its rejection of all things metaphysical and religious, liberal secularism does not have the conceptual resources even to begin to wrestle with these issues. But this crippling inadequacy of liberal secularism is masked behind a facade of “free choice.” Appealing to this empty concept allows secularism and its proponents to pretend to have an intellectually and morally compelling perspective on issues such as dress, when in reality, they have only constructed a house of cards.

To complicate matters further, this is not a straightforward question to answer for those who mistakenly believe that, as a matter of principle, all dress should be a matter of personal preference. But how could all dress be solely a matter of personal preference? The existence of dress codes, standards of dress at different social functions and in different cultural contexts, and even indecent exposure laws found in every single nation on earth all belie this silly idea that people in the “free world” exercise full, unfettered choice in their clothing decisions in contrast to those in the Islamic world who must submit to “draconian Islamic regulations.” In reality, no respectable person in the history of God’s green earth has ever made a truly “free” choice about what clothes to wear in public, “free” in the sense of “without significant outside influence.” All such “choices” are inescapably influenced by social and cultural norms. For Muslims who abide by the Islamic dress code, these choices are influenced by what are held by Muslims to be guidelines set by God. Within those guidelines, Muslims have historically cultivated a great diversity of fashions. But for the wider non-Muslim culture, there are also strict standards and guidelines of dress, but it is not clear from where those standards originated other than the unmoored ebb and flow of mass infatuation and, in recent times, commercial interests.

Islam and Sexual Autonomy

The notion of autonomy is as vacuous as free choice and for much the same reasons. No one believes in an autonomy that permits one to break the law and violate moral principles, whatever those may be. Autonomy is not conceived of as a license to be a vile person. But if people want autonomy within the boundaries set by ethics, then all religions and ethical systems guarantee this sort of autonomy. So again, the notion of autonomy is empty.

Autonomy as a concept rides on what ethical commitments one subscribes to. If an adult believes that having sexual relations with 16- or 17-year-olds (i.e., individuals just under the legal age limit) is morally acceptable, then anyone who hinders that person from having that kind of sex is violating that person’s autonomy as far as that person himself is concerned. But according to those who deem sex with minors immoral, this is not an issue of autonomy because, according to them, sex with minors ought to be criminalized regardless of what any particular individual believes to be his sexual right.

Islamic law restricts and prohibits certain kinds of sexual behavior in this way, and for this, many have branded Islam as blind to people’s right to sexual autonomy. But, again, this is fundamentally confused. If we recognize the hollowness of the notion of autonomy, then it easily can be claimed that Islam fully grants sexual autonomy to all. It is Islam’s definition of sexual autonomy that is really what people have a problem with. Here again, we reach a moral and metaphysical question: What is correct, moral sexual behavior and what is indecent and immoral and who gets to decide that? Secular thought simply does not have the ability to give a compelling story for all the complicated sexual norms the average secular Westerner dutifully abides by in the course of life.

(And no, the notion of consent is not very helpful either, by the way, given that there are plenty of sexual behaviors that are fully consensual but are still considered immoral and illegal within major strands of liberal secular thought, e.g., sex with minors, prostitution, incest, among others. Philosophers and legal scholars, such as Yale Law School professor Jed Rubenfeld, have also problematized the notion of consent and its adequacy in accounting for common contemporary moral intuitions regarding permissible sex. But this is a larger topic beyond the scope of this essay.)

This inability on the part of secularism to justify satisfactorily its sex norms is overlooked because the notion of sexual autonomy is put on a pedestal as the ultimate good we must all strive for. This allows liberal secularism to criticize the sexual mores of Islam (and Christianity and Orthodox Judaism) for the crime of not adequately respecting sexual autonomy in the way that liberal secularism does. All the while, secularism’s deficiencies go unnoticed and unaddressed. It’s all smoke and mirrors.

These deficiencies ought to be brought to light and openly discussed (as I have done in past articles that can be read here and here, on zina and homosexuality respectively). In the meantime, critics of Islam, especially those invoking empty liberal secular concepts of free choice and autonomy, need to find better arguments to make their case against the religion.