Shariah and Freedom of Speech and Expression

Benjamin Franklin on Free Speech

Source: Muslim Sunrise, Winter 2013 Volume

Author : Atif Mir

Introduction

The phrase free speech is a deceptive one. It implies that speech is always free but it is not so. In liberal democracies, free speech is not permitted when the speech is deemed to be publicly harmful, i.e. when it threatens security or infringes upon the right(s) of another. What constitutes public harm varies from culture to culture and from religion to religion. Thus Islamic view of freedom of speech and expression diverges from liberal democracies. In Islam public harm is defined much more broadly than in liberal democracies and this should come as no shock as Islam is a religion which prescribes rules that are designed to promote the spiritual welfare of its followers whereas liberal democracies allow individuals to seek their goals in society according to their personal preferences.

Despite the broader definition of what constitutes public harm, freedom of speech is held in high regard in an Islamic world view and understandably so because without the principle of free speech political, cultural and religious dialogues and debates won’t be possible and naturally such dialogues and debates enrich peaceful coexistence. It is freedom of speech that allows individuals to share their ideas and develop intellectual maturity.

Nature and Etiquettes of Speech

According to the Holy Quran, not all speech is considered equal. Speech that establishes social justice and uplifts the spiritual and moral well-being of individuals and society is naturally considered far more valuable than the speech that has ulterior motives and is designed to ridicule and offend.

One of the secrets of the progress of the western world is its legal system which is designed to ascertain truth. Without such a commitment to truth, the legal system of western countries would be reduced to a sham judicial system such as the ones that are unfortunately exist in quite a few Muslim countries today. Simply put, without the honest pursuit of truth, justice doesn’t stand a chance. Not surprisingly the Holy Quran again and again tells Muslims not to hide the truth and declare it openly but kindly and wisely.

O ye who believe! fear Allah, and say the right word (33:71)

And confound not truth with falsehood nor hide the truth, knowingly. (2:43)

…and speak to men kindly…(2:84)

Allah likes not the uttering of unseemly speech in public, except on the part of one who is being wronged…(4:149)

Those to whom We have given the Book recognize it even as they recognize their sons, but surely some of them conceal the truth knowingly. (2:147)

But they who repent and amend and openly declare the truth, it is these to whom I turn with forgiveness…(2:161)

The value of truthful speech cannot be underestimated. People these days have become cynical and even suspect the idea of truth itself. This cynicism is not helping. People should never stop expecting the truth from their politicians and social leaders and hold them accountable when they tell lies, twist or spin the facts. This is how the quality of a democracy improves. When the quality of democracy drops, the power shifts from the common people to those who are wealthy and in positions of power. The point is that the quality of speech in the political and social arena is closely intertwined with the quality of democracy. The political process and social activities need a healthy dose of truth and honesty from time to time to reinvigorate democracy and rescue it from the game of spin, lies and deceit. That is why we must always strive to “openly declare the truth”(2:161).

Speech that Pertains to Belief

The Holy Quran also explicitly grants freedom of speech that pertains to belief.

The Holy Quran says:

There should be no compulsion in religion….2:257

Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in a way that is best. Surely, thy Lord knows best who has strayed from His way; and He knows those who are rightly guided. (16:126)

Islam welcomes interfaith dialogues and discussions but of course, it is imperative that such discussions and dialogues be conducted with proper etiquettes.

Those Muslim societies that are trampling the rights of religious minorities today are not practicing shariah, rather, they are violating it. In a true Islamic society, places of worship such as churches, synagogues and temples are to be respected and protected.

The Holy Quran says:

Those who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’ — And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated. And Allah will surely help one who helps Him. Allah is indeed Powerful, Mighty —(22:41)

In other words, the place where God is worshipped is to be protected whether it is church, mosque or synagogue. The Malaysian government which has unfortunately banned the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims has violated this Quranic verse to its very core. By monopolizing the use of word Allah for Muslims, the Malaysian government has severely curbed the freedom of expression and religion of non-Muslims who want to simply practice their faith. This policy of intolerance is not only against the teachings of Islam but is also detrimental to social harmony.

Offensive, Blasphemous and Harmful Speech

Though the verses of the Holy Quran and the practice of the Holy Prophet (sa) clearly suggest that Islam celebrates and advocates truthful speech and advocates specifically that freedom of speech that pertains to belief, it also advises Muslims how to tolerate blasphemous and offensive speech.

The Holy Quran says:

“Revile not those whom they call upon beside Allah, lest they, out of spite, revile Allah in their ignorance…(6:109)

“He has already revealed to you in the Book that, when you hear the signs of Allah being denied and mocked at, sit not with them until they engage in a talk other than that; for in that case you would be like them. Surely, Allah will assemble the hypocrites and disbelievers in Hell, all together” (4: 141)

These verses teach us to respect others’ beliefs. It also teaches that disrespect towards the belief of others will make them disrespect your beliefs and this tit for tat behavior can only generate social conflicts and undermine peace.

To be clear, blasphemy is not a punishable offence in Islam. In other words, it is not illegal. Once returning from an expedition, a hypocrite used insulting words against the Holy Prophet (sa). The remarks made Muslims very upset and one Muslim even suggested that the culprit should be killed. The Holy Prophet (sa) did not permit anyone to do so. Even his freedom was not taken away. This incident clearly indicates to Muslims how they should respond to such incitements.[1]

The fourth successor of Ahmadiyyah Muslim community clarifies that blasphemy is condemned on moral and ethical grounds, no doubt, but no physical punishment is prescribed for blasphemy in Islam despite the commonly held view in the contemporary world.[2]

However, social and religious leaders should try to engage in healthy dialogue and put forth consolidated efforts to discourage blasphemous speech and encourage mutual respect and understanding.. That is why the Promised Messiah (as), the founder of Ahmadiyyah community and whose life was based on the teachings of Holy Quran (sa) and Sunnah said, almost 100 years ago, that people who “vilify the Prophets of other faith…sow the seed of enmity and discord among mankind”[3]

In his 1905 publication, he advocated a treaty of mutual respect between Hindus and Muslims. According to the proposed treaty, both sides were required not to use abusive language for founders of both religions. Islam demands of a Muslim society that it should seek and strive to inculcate good sense into its social fabric, by establishing a culture of respect and respectful inquiry.

Speech that defames or offends individuals is also disliked by Islam. The Holy Quran says:

O ye who believe! let not one people deride another people, who may be better than they, nor let women deride other women, who may be better than they. And defame not your own people, nor call one another by nicknames….(49:11)

Obviously, the decent speech is crucial to social harmony and spiritual growth.

Modesty and Freedom of Speech and Expression

It may be said that the discussion of freedom of speech in Islam is not complete without examining the concept of modesty in Islam. How does modesty impact freedom of speech and expression? In liberal democracies, for example, the way people dress and even what their T-shirt says is protected under freedom of expression. The Holy Quran asks Muslim men and women to dress modestly (24:31). What constitutes modesty has been interpreted differently by different Muslim societies but the undercurrent remains the same throughout and this undercurrent as per the fourth successor of Ahmadiyyah Muslim community is the protection and survival of the family system”.[4]

The detailed discussion of how modesty relates to freedom of speech and expression is beyond the scope of this article.

Conclusion

The verses of the Holy Quran and the life of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, have provided us with principles that guide us in practicing freedom of speech. The purposes of these principles are to uphold truth, establish justice and strengthen the moral fabric of society and thereby bring about social harmony and spiritual growth. Islam celebrates truthful speech in all spheres of life, invites interreligious dialogue and debates, and tolerates blasphemous and offensive speech. Muslim countries should revisit their legal systems and try to implement tolerance in their society in the light of Quranic injunctions and the life of the Holy Prophet.

References

[1] Ahmad, Hadhrat Mirza Tahir, “Inter-religious Peace and Harmony”, Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues, Islam International Publications, 2007, p. 42)

[2] ibid, p. 38

[3] Ahmad, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam, Message of Peace, Islam International Publications, 2007, p.32

[4] Ahmad, Hadhrat Mirza Tahir, p. 85

Additional Reading

Examining Both Sides: Freedom of Speech and Its Limitations?

 

3 replies

  1. Freedom of speech is not absolute. All of us want more of it for our own views and less of it for the views that we despise. This dilemma is perhaps best captured by one of the sayings of Jesus, may peace be on him:

    Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3-4)

    The best criteria, for freedom of speech, are an ongoing struggle in every country, culture and religion.

    Let me just link some materials as food for thought, in my comments here.

    Freedom of Speech: A Core Islamic Value!

    Freedom of Speech is not Absolute or ‘Gospel Truth!’

    A Critique of President Obama’s UN Speech

    Having said all of the above, my parting thoughts are below.

    Remember a time when Michael Servetus was burnt on the stake for denying the official formulation of Trinity and William Tyndale was burnt on the stake for translating the Bible into English.

    All cultures, countries, civilizations and religions should aim at building paradigms allowing for greater and greater freedom of speech, training their populace to distinguish good from bad speech, otherwise, in our Global Village, we will be spending, most of our efforts and energies on policing each other’s speech and very little in productive pursuits.

  2. I believe that exceptions to free speech that the European Union has claimed for herself, should be allowed to each country or religion, until we can have truly a Global Village and then we will need a universal understanding of these issues.

    European Convention of Human Rights
    I think many of the exceptions for freedom of speech are tackled in the Article 10 of European Convention of Human Rights.
    This Article provides the right to freedom of expression, subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society”. This right includes the freedom to hold opinions, and to receive and impart information and ideas, but allows restrictions for:

    interests of national security
    territorial integrity or public safety
    prevention of disorder or crime
    protection of health or morals
    protection of the reputation or the rights of others
    preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence
    maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary

    We would certainly need the best legal minds humanity can offer to give concrete and legalistic details of the above exceptions that may be acceptable to people of all faiths, ethnicities and nationalities.

    If the Supreme Court Justices do not come to our rescue, may be a good and an accomplished writer can help out with a best selling book. But, the key is to at least, win the moderates, in all the established religions of the world and among the agnostics and atheists.

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