5 – Freedom of thought in Islam

Freedom of Thought in Islam

In the name of Allah, the all-Beneficent, the all-Merciful.

Allah the all-Wise has said in His book:

الّذین یتّبعون الرّسول النّبىّ الامّىّ الّذی یجدونه مکتوبا عندهم فی التّوراة و الانجیل یامرهم بالمعروف و ینهاهم عن المنکر و یحلّ لهم الطّیّبات و یحرّم علیهم الخبائث و یضع عنهم اصرهم و الاغلال الّتی کانت علیهم

Those who follow the Apostle, the uninstructed prophet, whose mention they find written with them in the Torah and the Evangel, who bids them to do what is right and forbids them from what is wrong, makes lawful to them all the good things and forbids them from all vicious things, and relieves them of their burdens and the shackles that were upon them … (Surah al-A’raaf, 157)

In our discussion on freedom in an Islamic society and the responsibility of an Islamic government with respect to said freedom, we have so far explained the concept of freedom from an Islamic perspective and the source of freedom. Now, we will go over the different types of freedom that are either addressed in Islamic sciences or other sciences around the world. The first of these freedoms is the freedom of thought or belief which is an important topic of discussion both within Islamic thought and in the global culture of today.

Firstly, freedom of belief, freedom of thought, and freedom of religion are all widely accepted around the world today. This is to the extent that even those governments and countries in which various freedoms, and especially freedom of thought, are severely restricted still outwardly accept and chant slogans of freedom of belief, thought, and religion. Sometimes, there are even demonstrations in these countries that purport to display that such freedoms exist there. For example, countries that [actively suppress the expression of Islamic beliefs and] are extremely sensitive towards the religion of Islam carry out outward displays to show that this country guarantees freedom of thought and belief. Islam’s perspective on this matter needs to be explained. Of course, much can be said regarding the slogans of today; whether this freedom of thought that is claimed exists in the world is a discussion in itself and we will leave it for another time. In our discussion, we will cover the Islamic view from three aspects.

The first aspect is the Islamic principle that not only is the human being free to think and ponder, but in fact such use of the intellect is necessary and obligatory. Perhaps among all Divine scriptures and religious writings, one cannot find a book comparable to the Qur’an in calling for mankind to think, ponder, and study the occurrences in one’s life, physical events, spiritual matters, topics of humanity, history, and similar things. This wide-ranging emphasis on thought perhaps cannot be found in any other book. Even thinking regarding the basic tenets of religion is obligatory; finding proof of monotheism and prophethood and other principles of religion is necessary. Even a step further: if someone while undertaking religious investigations becomes afflicted with questions and doubts, this too is not regarded as something unseemly in Islam. Of course, it is not good to remain in a state of doubt; one is responsible for reaching certainty and reliability by way of struggling, thinking, and continuing to search and analyze. However, the actual falling into doubt with regards to a matter, a principle amongst the principles of religion, is not forbidden; doubting is not something that Islam considers as a crossing of the boundary of faith. In fact, it isn’t something that can even be voluntarily controlled, and therefore, it is not possible to forbid it. In several narrations, we see that someone goes to the Prophet (saw) or the Imams (as) and shamefully admits that he has fallen into doubt regarding some principle of religion – doubt about monotheism, about the very existence of God. These people thought that by becoming doubtful in these matters, they have exited the folds of Islam, but the Infallibles reassured them that just having doubt does not cause one to go outside of Islam. Of course, these people must be guided; they themselves must not stop their investigations and research. A person came up to the Prophet (saw) and said: Oh Prophet of God! I am ruined![1] The Prophet understood that this person had reached a dead-end in his studies in Islam and explained to him the concept that he was struggling to understand. That person accepted the Prophet’s explanation. The Prophet then said: This is exactly what faith is.[2] This is what the peak of faith is. You reflect on different matters, you fall into doubt, but then you refer to someone to resolve those doubts. Therefore, thinking, even if it is on the principles and bases of religion which have been definitively proven, is not only allowed; it is required. Finding doubt or being skeptical is not an issue. It is stated in a famous narration: Nine things are removed from my nation[3], meaning that there are nine situations due to which a person will not be punished. One of those is: doubts that come up by thinking about the world and creation.[4] If such doubts come to someone’s mind, this is not something forbidden. It is not to be rebuked; it is not a sin; and it will not be punished. This is the first aspect of freedom of belief, thought, and religion in Islam. There is much more that could be said, but what has been mentioned suffices for our purposes.

The second aspect is that as long as a particular religious belief does not extend to the extent of combatting Islamic beliefs, having such religious belief is not forbidden – meaning that it is not punishable [within an Islamic society]. There is a key difference here between “not being forbidden” and “being free” that will be elaborated on in future discussions so that the precise boundaries of this topic are clarified. Generally speaking, if someone in an Islamic society has a non-Islamic belief, but this belief does not command this person to oppose and fight the Islamic society, then having such a belief is not problematic. This is why Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Sabians, and people of other religious denominations live in an Islamic society, utilize their own rights, and in accordance to article 23 of the Iranian Constitution, are free in their religion. Their religion is not forbidden in an Islamic society. Regarding the verse of the Holy Qur’an: There is no compulsion in religion[5], it has been said that a group of youth from Yathrib (during the time that the Prophet had not yet come to Medina and Medina was still called Yathrib) would spend time with some Jews that lived in the outskirts of Medina. Since the Jews were more cultured than the polytheists, these youth became inclined towards Judaism. Some converted to Judaism. Others didn’t convert, but in their hearts they believed and were inclined towards what the Jews said. After the Prophet (saw)’s migration, Medina became a city of Islam, and the people became Muslim. Initially, there was cooperation between the Prophet (saw) and the Jews; but after a few years, because of the plotting that the tribe of Banu Nadhir had been doing against the Prophet (saw) and against Islam, God Almighty ordered that this tribe be driven from the outskirts of Medina. When the Jews of Banu Nadhir were leaving, some of these youth whose families had become Muslim but they had still not accepted Islam themselves expressed their attachment to Judaism and decided to go into exile with the Jews. Their families did not allow them to do so and insisted that they must stay and become Muslim. This is when the blessed verse was revealed: There is no compulsion in religion: rectitude has become distinct from error.[6] There is no compulsion in matters of faith, because today is not a day that reality is hidden from the people. The path of Islam and the path of guidance is distinct from the path of disbelief. You do not have the right to force these youth to become Muslim; rather, they can stay in Medina and remain non-Muslims. This is the occasion that the verse and the narration regarding this verse refer to. However, is it the case that this “freedom of belief” means that Islam is satisfied that someone has faith in something false? Of course not! This “freedom” means that a person holding a false belief within Islamic society will not be punished [in this world] as long as he does not stand up in opposition and conflict with Islamic beliefs.

The third aspect is regarding political thought. Political leanings and thoughts are free in an Islamic society. Islam does not allow for punishing someone for having a particular political thought or intellectual position. In the Middle Ages, it was common in Europe for such punishments to take place. Day after day, intellectuals were put under immense pressure because of their new findings and intellectual investigations. Some were killed as a result of such investigations, others due to their political stances. None of this is Islamic. This harsh reaction is not permitted for Muslims. In addition to all of this, inquisition into someone’s beliefs is not allowed in Islam. It is wrong to pressure someone into sharing their beliefs regarding a particular person, political trend, or religious ideology. This is the very same inquisition that happened in Europe for centuries. During the Renaissance, Europe, by overthrowing such a culture of inquisition [and starting to allow for greater freedom of intellectual and political thought], is seen to have brought something new to the world. However, in reality, Islam never had a culture of inquisition to begin with. Throughout Islamic history, there have always been individuals with beliefs that were in conflict with the beliefs of the Muslims in power. These individuals were not bothered. They were Jews, Christians, and followers of other religions. Of course, there are eras in history – for example, during the caliphate of Banu Abbas, the caliphate of Banu Umayyad, and the Seljuk and Ghaznavid dynasties in Iran – where various beliefs were suppressed. However, these actions are not of Islam. The Islam of Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi, for example, is like the Islam of many Muslim rulers and statesmen of today; their actions cannot be attributed to Islam. Islam does not allow such strictness regarding political beliefs. Inquiring into others’ beliefs is forbidden. Punishing someone because of their beliefs and putting them under pressure for those beliefs is forbidden. This is all written in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In summary, Islam guarantees freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom of political thought, freedom of intellectual thought, and other freedoms. However, conflict and opposition with the Islamic system and leading people astray in an Islamic society is definitely not acceptable and not permissible. The topic of apostasy still needs to be addressed and is left to be covered in detail in the following discussion.


[1] al-Kaafi, vol. 2, p. 425: يا رسول الله هلكت

[2] In al-Kaafi, it is narrated as: That, by Allah, is faith itself. “ذاك و الله محض الايمان”

[3] Bihar al-Anwaar, vol. 2, p. 280: رفع عن امّتي تسعة

[4] Ibid.: و الوسوسة في التفكر في الخلق

[5] Surah al-Baqarah, verse 256: لا اكراه في الدين

[6] Ibid.: لا اكراه في الدين قد تبين الرشد من الغيّ

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