Book Review: Demystifying Islam: Tackling the Tough Questions


And 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. (Al Quran 4:141)

harris zafar

Harris Zafar, National Spokesperson for Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, USA

Book by Harris Zafar

Reviewed by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

The book has been released in May, 2014 and is available in now.  The website also offers a fairly detailed preview of several parts of the book.

Firstly, a few words about the rising star among the Muslim writers, Harris Zafar, whose articles and appearances in different talk shows, in defense of Islam, as a National Spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, has won him a large number of readers and admirers.

Harris Zafar is a public speaker, writer, adjunct instructor, and activist, as well as a commentator on Islam, human rights, pluralism, and freedom of religion. As National Spokesperson and Director of Youth Outreach for Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA — among the oldest Muslim organizations in America — Harris addresses issues facing Islam and the Muslim world in various media and works with thousands of Muslim youth on speaking out about the true teachings of Islam. A staunch advocate for universal human rights, Harris was praised in a March 2012 motion raised on the floor of the House of Commons in Great Britain for his work in defending religious freedom.

Secondly, let me share the brief review of his new book, from the Amazon website:

Despite heightened interest in the study of the Muslim faith, for many people Islam remains shrouded in mystery and confusion. What really is Shariah law? How is a Muslim to understand Jihad? Does Islam oppose Western values such as free speech or freedom of religion? What place do women have according to Islam?

Understanding that this confusion has as much to do with the behavior and words of Muslims as it does with allegations made by anti-Islam activists, Demystifying Islam offers refreshingly bold answers to provocative questions about Islam today. Author Harris Zafar—lecturer, writer, teacher and national spokesperson for Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA—is forthright about issues where Muslims disagree, and he digs into history through vast research and scholarship to track the origins of differing beliefs. From the burqa to the role of Jesus in Islam, Demystifying Islam is an essential resource and concise guide to understanding the fastest growing religion in the world.

Before, I opine on one of the chapters of the book, let me share, the table of contents of the book, with the readers, as it gives a nice snapshot or a good glimpse into, what the book has to offer:



Chapter 1: Begin with the Basics—Before We Can Demystify  

Chapter 2: Demystifying the Origins of Islam  

Chapter 3: Demystifying Jihad  

Chapter 4: Demystifying Shariah  

Chapter 5: Demystifying Islam’s View of Religious Freedom  

Chapter 6: Demystifying Islam’s View of Free Speech  

Chapter 7: Demystifying Women’s Rights in Islam  

Chapter 8: Demystifying Islam’s View of Jesus Christ  

Chapter 9: Demystifying the Sects of Islam  


About the Author 

The chapter that is of the greatest interest to me is the sixth, ‘Demystifying Islam’s View of Free Speech.’  My reasons are simple and pragmatic.  As the Chief Editor of a premier Muslim publication, it is a constant question on my mind.  I have to face suggestions and comments, both from friends and critics alike, to steer in one direction or the other, as to what should be published and what should not be. 

It is a constant tug of war.  So, any good advice on this subject is near and dear to my heart and Harris Zafar’s book is certainly in this category, for me.

The Muslim Times has frequently written on the subject of free speech and its possible limitations, which I will link at the end of this review.

Here, I want to applaud, how Harris Zafar has very articulately tackled this subject, in his book.  To fully enjoy, his scholarship, one would have to buy his book and read the chapter.

But, I propose to share two excerpts from his book here, to give the readers a glimpse, into what is in store for them.

Firstly about what is allowed to give everyone a chance for free dialogue to understand and weigh the religious teachings:

With all prophets before him, Muhammad was rejected by  the people of his nation, which is verified by the numerous  examples in which he was openly mocked and insulted. Far  from censoring such people or responding with threats,  Muhammad responded with restraint and self-control.  The Quran records disbelievers repeatedly ridiculing the  Prophet Muhammad, saying to him, “Thou art surely a  madman,”25 a word bearing the accusation that he was  smitten with insanity. They referred to him as “a man who is  a victim of deception”26 and “a man bewitched.”27 When  speaking about the Quran and Muhammad, they said,  “These are but confused dreams; nay, he has forged it  himself: nay, he is but a poet”28—bearing an accusation of  deception repeated in the Quran with the words “Thou art  but a fabricator.”29 Some claimed, “It is only a man who  teaches him,”30 alleging that Muhammad was being taught  by another person instead of receiving revelations from God.  Some disbelievers used their speech to tell others, “Listen  not to this Quran, but make noise during its recital.”31  Through this all, the Prophet Muhammad never retaliated  nor called for these people to be attacked, seized, or  executed; rather, he courageously endured all of their verbal  assaults. He did so because Allah did not prescribe any  punishment at all for such verbal abuses. To the contrary,  Allah instructed: “And follow not the disbelievers and  hypocrites, and overlook their annoying talk and put thy  trust in Allah; for Allah is sufficient as a guardian.”32 Thus,  the Prophet Muhammad continued to overlook the unseemly  and derogatory speech of his detractors instead of getting  upset. This is the way of all prophets of the past, as indicated  in the Quran: “And how many a Prophet did we send among  the earlier peoples! But there never came to them a Prophet  but they mocked at him.”33 Thus, all prophets have been the  subject of mockery, but they remained focused on the  completion of their mission. This was certainly not due to a  fear of those who mocked. Rather, it was due to the undying  conviction that being on the side of God’s truth was  sufficient and one need not lower their own standards to  those of the ignorant.  The instruction for Muhammad to remain patient in the  face of hurtful words by his enemies is further reinforced in  two different places in the Quran, when God instructs to  “Bear patiently what they say.”34 35 This is a clear  instruction for Muslims to remain patient in the face of  negative speech. The most one can do is to avoid the  company of those who continue their derogatory attacks  against Islam. The Quran validates this teaching when it  commands: ‘When you hear the Signs of God being denied  and mocked at, sit not with those who indulge in such talk, until they engage in a talk other than that; for in that case you would be like them.’36

Islam ensures religious freedom, but, at the same time, Islam encourages and promotes harmony and peace in society and for this goal it does aim to promote responsible speech.

Many of the proponents of absolute freedom of free speech, in the West, think or at least pretend that there are no limits to free speech, whatsoever.

We do not have to work too hard to expose their lack of knowledge or insight.  I think many of the exceptions for freedom of speech are tackled well 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 of different countries, 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.

Islam is not oblivious to the needs to limit ‘free speech,’ for smooth operation of any society that the European Convention of Human Rights has highlighted.

Religion has two aspects, firstly ‘man relation to God’ and secondly, human rights or ‘man relation to man.’

Whereas, discussion is fully allowed in the domain of ‘man relation to God’ and there is no worldly prohibition for blasphemy, in Islam or modern societies, any speech that leads to problems in ‘man relation to man,’ needs to be confined, within the limits of reason.  There is the well known cliche,  “Your freedom to swing your stick ends where my nose begins.”

Harris Zafar writes in the sixth chapter of his book pertaining to limits of free speech:

Among those vigorously fighting for freedom to say  anything, there are many who focus so highly on whether  they can say whatever they like, that they seem not to  pause and think whether they should. Islam draws a  distinction between what may be lawful to say and what is  good and appropriate to say, and it calls people toward the  principle from the Quran to say that which is best.  Regardless of whether or not insulting speech is protected by  state law, Islam says to set a higher standard for our words  and actions. This was precisely the point emphasized by the  Prophet Muhammad not only by his own example but also by  his instructions to his followers. One of his companions,  Wabisa ibn Ma’bad, spoke of his experience when he asked  Muhammad about the trait of righteousness. He states: “I  went to the Holy Prophet [Muhammad] and he asked me:  Have you come to inquire after virtue? I said: Indeed. He said:  Ask your heart. Virtue is that which satisfies the soul and  comforts the heart; and sin is that which perturbs the soul  and troubles the heart, even if people should pronounce it  lawful and should seek your views on such matters.”22  With these words, the Prophet Muhammad makes it clear  that one should refrain from any act that perturbs  someone’s soul and troubles someone’s heart, even if that act has been declared lawful by society. He advised to  consider such troubling acts to be a sin, which all believers of  God should shun. In their stead, one should adopt virtue  through piety by performing those acts that satisfy souls and  provide comfort and solace to hearts. With regard to speech,  the teachings of Islam, thus, call all people toward this  higher principle of uniting mankind through truth, respect,  and a good word rather than focusing on any privilege  provided by man-made law to say anything one desires in  any manner one so chooses.  During his first inaugural address in 1953, former  president Dwight Eisenhower said: “A people that values its  privileges above its principles soon loses both.”23 His words  are just as profound today as they were sixty years ago and  are in perfect harmony with the concept found in Islam. One  should give higher value to the principle of avoiding those  things that lead to separation and conflict instead of  focusing on a privilege to say as one pleases. Humankind  cannot be united if people continue to trouble the hearts of  others through crude, uncivilized, or untamed forms of  expression. One need not even sacrifice one’s legal right to  speak; rather, one simply should set higher standards for  oneself regarding how to speak.  Islam does not contradict the fact that freedom of  expression is absolutely necessary for the progress and  development of any society. It simply prescribes a code of  conduct with this freedom, which teaches humankind that  all words and actions have consequences. Poorly chosen  words have the potential of creating conflict not only  between individuals but also between communities and even  nations. Yet, staunch free-speech fighters encourage people  to throw caution to the wind and hurl insults as they please,  disregarding the discord that will surely ensue. Treating  speech as supreme and uninhibited at the expense of peace  and harmony is an incredibly flawed concept. This is  precisely the point made by Mirza Masroor Ahmad—the  worldwide spiritual leader (Khalifa) of the Ahmadiyya Muslim  Community—in regard to the issue of insulting forms of  speech when he responded to the “Innocence of Muslims”  film that allegedly instigated worldwide chaos in September  of 2012. Ahmad said, “Let it not be that in the name of  freedom of speech the peace of the entire world be  destroyed.”24 Since the cause of world peace and unity is  paramount, it must trump any petty desire to offend or  insult others.

For the rest of the story, please go ahead and buy the book in,

Few of Harris Zafar’s References

22. Imam Nawawi, Riyas as-Salihin (Gardens of the Righteous), translated by Sir Zafrullah Khan (Curzon Press Ltd, 1975), p. 125.

23. Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural  Ceremonies, ed., Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the  United States (Cosimo, 2008), p.298.  

24. Ahmadiyya Muslim Community International, “Press  Release: World Muslim Leader Condemns Anti-Islam film,”  September 22, 2012, http://www.alislam  .org/egazette/press-release/, accessed July  5, 2013.

25. Malik Ghulam Farid, ed., The Holy Quran: Arabic Text with  English Translation and Short Commentary (Islam International  Publications Ltd, 2010), 15:7, pp. 505–6.  

26. Ibid., 17:48, p. 558.  

27. Ibid., 25:9, p. 732.  

28. Ibid., 21:6, p. 648.  

29. Ibid., 16:102, p. 539.  

30. Ibid., 16:104, p. 539.  

31. Ibid., 41:27, p. 966.  

32. Ibid., 33:49, p. 859.  

33. Ibid., 43:8, p. 984.  

34. Ibid., 20:131, p. 644.  

35. Ibid., 38:18, p. 921.

36. Ibid., 4:141, p. 221.  

Additional Reading

Examining Both Sides: Freedom of Speech and Its Limitations?

Freedom of Speech: A Core Islamic Value!

4 replies

  1. Thank you brother Zia for the wonderful introduction to the book. Now I want to buy the book !! Do you think it will be available at U.S. and Canada jalsas??

  2. Have been waiting for this book for quite some time now, finally published! Alhumdolillah! Such books are really a need for our youth to read and be inspired by. JazakAllah for your efforts Harris!

  3. Thank you for the detailed review and for the kind comments people have left. JazakAllah.

    @Najmie – indeed the book is available at this weekend’s Canada Jalsa. So if you are attending, you can pick up your copy! It should InshaAllah be available at the US Jalsa as well.

    @Sadaf – JazakAllah for the kind words. I would love to read your feedback/review about the book. I hope it does indeed help our youth, InshaAllah.

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