The Arabic word for liberty or freedom is hurriyya, stemming from hurr, meaning "free." "Free" as a legal term signified the opposite of "slave," while it denoted, as an ethical term, "noble" character and behavior. The legal concept of freedom, which was already known to the pre-Islamic world, continued to be used in Muslim jurisprudence. Hurriyya occupied an important place also in metaphysics: one of the significant repercussions of Sufism on political thought was the retreat from politics. The Sufist doctrine of renunciation maintained that poverty, self-humiliation and complete surrender of personality was the highest value of life, which underpinned the apolitical character of the doctrine. Accordingly, a Sufi mystic philosopher, Ibn al-Arabi (1165–1240), defined hurriyya as "slavery to God," namely freedom from everything but God. Personal freedom was valued within the religious, moral, and customary sphere determined by the umma (Islamic community of believers), yet it was never considered to be an absolute moral value. Thus hurriyya never enjoyed exalted status as a fundamental political value.
It was Ottoman Turkey in the eighteenth century that introduced the Western ideas of liberty to Islam. The treaty of Kücük Kaynarch in 1774 between Russia and Turkey established the free and independent status of the Crimean Tatars from the two countries. The Turkish term first used for liberty, however, was not hürriyet, derived from the Arabic hurriyya, but serbestiyet. Serbest is a Persian word, meaning "exempt," "untrammeled," and "unrestricted"; accordingly, serbestiyet denotes the absence of limitations or restrictions. This negative concept of liberty does not convey such meanings as citizenship or participation to government. The use of serbestiyet in a political context dates from the early fourteenth century and was a commonplace in political discourse by the late eighteenth century. Celebrated Ottoman ambassadors, such as Azmi Efendi and Morali Esseyid Ali Efendi, used serbestiyet in terms of political liberty in their memoranda.
Hurriyya entered the Islamic political lexicon in 1798 when Napoléon Bonaparte arrived in Egypt and addressed the Egyptians in Arabic on behalf of the French Republic "founded on the basis of freedom and equality," and the term hurriyya was chosen for the translation of "freedom." Again, the Ottomans made a significant contribution to the widespread political use of the term. Sadik Rifat Pasa (1807–1856) was one such writer. He observed that European prosperity derived from political conditions such as security of life and property and freedom. Rifat's Concerning the Condition of Europe, which was written during his sojourn in Vienna, represents the early Ottoman reception of the Western idea of political liberty. But his understanding of liberty was limited to the security of subjects from arbitrary coercion by the government, not the right to participate in it. Rifat also introduced the new language of rights into his largely traditional framework of Islamic political thought.
The Ottoman assimilation of the concept of political liberty was accelerated by the rise of a new Turkish literary movement led by the Young Ottomans including Ibrahim Sinasi (1826–1871), Ziya Pasa (1825–1880), and Namik Kemal (1840–1888). Their popular weekly journal Hürriyet was launched in 1868. Perhaps Namik Kemal is the most systematic of these thinkers; he was the first to correlate the ideas of human right and parliamentary government so as to achieve a new vision of freedom and self-government. Heavily influenced by the writings of Montesquieu and Rousseau as well as the practice of the French Third Republic and the British parliamentary system, Kemal attempted to marry the language of modern liberal-parliamentary democracy to Islamic political language. For the first time in the history of Islamic political thought, popular sovereignty was based on the liberty of the individual. However, the tyranny of Abdülhamīd II (1842–1918) stifled the Ottoman pursuit of liberty.
Egypt under British rule assimilated liberal political thought quite independent of the Turkish experience. Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid (1872–1963) was probably the most systematic exponent of Islamic liberalism. Under the influence of Mill, Lutfi al-Sayyid squarely situated freedom at the center of this thought. For him, freedom meant absence of unnecessary control by the state: a negative concept of liberty. Freedom was "the necessary food for our life," the human's inalienable natural right: it was a necessary condition for humans to be human in the fullest sense. Hence, Lutfi al-Sayyid celebrated limited government: political and legal arrangements and institutions that safeguard liberty were the "natural" and "true" form of government. An opponent of pan-Islamism and Arab nationalism, Lutfi al-Saiyyd was also concerned with the freedom of the nation. He argued for the liberation of Egypt from foreign rule. In this context, liberty and independence were considered almost synonymous.
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