8 – Freedom of expression in Islam

Freedom of Expression 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)

We have thus far discussed freedom from an Islamic perspective and the responsibilities an Islamic government has, based on the teachings of the Quran, with regards to the freedoms of society and individuals. First, we elaborated on the meaning of freedom according to Islam and how it differs with what is referred to as freedom in the West. Thereafter, freedom of thought and freedom of belief – be it religious or political – were briefly discussed. Now, we want to discuss the issue of freedom of expression and the freedom of expressing a belief according to Islam. This discussion is both precise and important with respect to the responsibilities of an Islamic state in providing clarification for freedom of expression . At this time, we will discuss briefly the view of Islam from what we can understand from evidences and contextual clues regarding the general topic of freedom of expression. In the next discussion, we will go over the boundaries and limits of freedom of expression.

In today’s world, freedom of expression is a major issue and has in fact become a slogan. The call for freedom of expression is one of the ideals proudly claimed in the Western world and democratic countires. What they mean by this freedom is that anyone living in a western society holding to any kind of belief and belonging to any political camp can express their views freely; there is no legal prohibition on their expression. Usually, this ideal is held in juxtaposition against the Communist world, since in communism there is no freedom for expressing beliefs. That means only those political beliefs or schools of thought which are accepted by the state are expressed in newspapers and public media. Only one school of thought is presented among the people, and there is no liberty for the people who hold other beliefs and  are from other schools of thought to express their beliefs at the societal level. Political diversity does not exist. Newspapers and media only pursue and express a single view, the state’s accepted view. The Western world claims to hold the distinction that it has always raised the issue of freedom of expression as an ideal, and for years it has been working for this freedom and promoting it. However, in the West, there is a scope for a discussion on how much freedom of expression is practically available. Is it possible to openly express all the political views that people within these countries hold? If we observe carefully, we can see that the ideal of freedom of expression and belief is not a ture ideal within the Western world. This freedom seems to exist, but in reality, the freedom that they claim to uphold does not exist. Rather, censoring and suffocation exist in a very sophisticated and cunning form in these countries. The censoring that exists in Western countries is similar in some aspects to the censoring that existed in Mecca at the advent of Islam against the revolutionary thoughts of the Prophet (saw) of God. The difference being that those who censored the Holy Messenger (saw) lived in the era of ignorance and those that censor in Western countries live in the age of modernity. The methodolgies have changed, but the spirit of the problem is the same. The Qur’an relates that: The faithless say, ‘Do not listen to this Qur’an and hoot it down so that you may prevail [over the Apostle].’[1] They used to advise each other not to listen to the words of the Qur’an. Don’t listen to the Prophet’s (saw) words. And when the Prophet (saw) would recite the Qur’an, they used to hoot and shout, creating a commotion so that the sound of the Qur’an, the divine words coming from the Prophet’s (saw) mouth, is not heard. It is related in historical accounts that the Prophet of God (saw) used to sit beside the Ka’bah and recite the verses of Qur’an. Some people were appointed to make a commotion and create turmoil so as to not allow the voice of the Qur’an be heard by others. What exists today in Western media is similar to this. It is true that they did not stop anyone from saying anything by law, but by the clamor of propaganda they have created, it becomes impossible to hear anything other than what they decide and want for people to hear.

It is certainly true that today the people of America, which is a democracy, or those of various European, western countries are not aware of many of the schools of thought in the world that affect their lives. They understand only what is told to them by the media. The media, in a very controlled political structure and in a calculated way, puts at the disposal of public opinion what they desire. As I have explained in a previous discussion, most of the major media groups across the world are controlled by the Zionist apparatus. Topics which are unrelated to their interest are given freedom, but those issues that they are sensitive to and where their interests are in danger, the media with utmost sophistication hides the truth. It feeds the minds of people with falsehood disguised as truth. Things such as the Islamic Revolution, popular revolutions across the world, the ideas that exist in the world, the atrocities and oppressions committed by European and American governments against other nations, and many other facts are not known to the people of these countries. No one is even capable of conveying this to these people. Therefore, the Western democracy that claims to guarantee the freedom of speech and expressing beliefs, is in fact just chanting a slogan. In practice, there is no real freedom of expression in those countries as well.

But regarding Islam’s perspective, I have not come across any direct reference to the freedom of expressing a belief or freedom of speech within verses of the Qur’an or narrations. It may be there, but I was not able to find it. However, as I pointed out earlier, there are many pieces of evidence and contextual clues by which one can understand that by principle, Islam is in the favor of freedom of expressing one’s beliefs. In fact, it is natural for Islam to be like that. The fear of the expression of beliefs exists when the ruling system or the ideology that has political power feels weak from the inside. If the rationale is strong, if the policies expressed can be defended, if the thought or ideology is attractive for the public, then there is no reason to be afraid of the opposite opinion being expressed. Islam is the strongest school of thought. It employs the best of the methods to deliver its views. The policies of the Islamic government are popular; they are clear and direct. Therefore, there is no hesitation in Islam for allowing the expression of opposing opinions and thoughts. Therefore, in principle, the freedom of expression exists in Islam. Although, there are boundaries and limitations. There is a possibility of this freedom being abused, which therefore needs to be controlled. As I earlier stated, this will be elaborated on in the second part of this discussion. In this first part, I wanted to make the point clear that Islam is not opposed to the freedom of expression. Expressing a belief is one of the natural rights of humans. When a person has a belief and is free to have it, then he must be free to express it as well, unless it is an objectionable belief about which we have already talked about in the discussion on the freedom of belief. Therefore, as Islam is an advocate of human rights, it supports this freedom as well. In practice as well, at the beginning of Islam, during the rule of the Prophet (saw), we do not come across any instance where the expression of belief was prevented. However, it should also be mentioned that we do not come across any such case where a person has gone to a public place, like a mosque, and delivered a speech in public against the directions and policies enacted by the Prophet (saw). Or, that someone gathers people in a certain corner and speaks of such things. Such instances, especially in the time of Prophet (saw), are rare or rather non-existent. At the time of the caliphs, it was more or less such there. However, we do see that when someone desired to say something directly to the Prophet (saw) or the first caliphs, we see that they had complete liberty to do so. In the masjid, at the pulpit of Amir al-Mo’minin (as), someone could stand up and object to a certain matter or ask a question. In the battle of Siffin, some people were influenced by the deception of the other side and said a few things [to the Imam]. Amir al-Mo’minin (as) did not treat them badly. He did not threaten them; rather, he went and discussed the matter with them. Or he sent Ammar-e-Yasir to talk to them and clarify the truth for them. When on the pulpit, the second Caliph said that if I make a mistake, correct me and guide me, a man stood up and said, if you make a deviated move, I will correct you with this sword. No one objected to this person. It was similar during the time of other caliphs.[2] This way continued till the time of the evil and wretched caliph ‘Abd al-Malik Marwan. ‘Abd al-Malik was the first one who officially and openly declared to Muslims that no one has a right to express thier views openly. He said: No one will command me towards the Godwariness, except that I will cut off their head.[3]Anyone who wants to stand up in the masjid by the pulpit, like they could in the time of the Prophet (saw) and the earlier caliphs and command me towards Godwariness, I will cut off his head. He employed the Umayyad’s suppression openly and overtly declared it. Although, that which was specifically banned in his time was expressing a particular political belief; expressing religious views and issues was relatively easier. We see that in the masjid of the Prophet (saw), an atheist, who is an opponent of Islam and a denier of God, sits with others and expresses his views. This is where the event of “Tawhid Mufadhal” occurs. Mufadhal saw some people were sitting in the masjid and talking. He protested to them saying, “You are sitting inside the house of God and are having these atheistic discussions?” They asked him, “You are probably a companion of Ja’far al-Sadiq?” He responded that he was. They said, “We have had more intense talks than this with your Imam and he does not react like this. Why then do you react like this?” He went to Imam al-Sadiq (as) and related the incident. Thereafter, he had those long discussions which have been recorded with the title of “Tawhid Mufadhal” and is available in our books. However, the Umayyad caliphs, and the Abbasids to a greater extent, could not hold themselves back. On theological issues, or issues such as the creation of the Qur’an, and other issues, they put tremendous pressure on those who differed from the opinions of the state in such matters. But principally in Islam, and in the method of the early rulers of Islam, one is free to express one’s belief if it is free from deviation and deception and is not misleading. The discussion on deviation and misleading books will be covered later in another session if God wills. In fact, it is in the interest of an Islamic society for thoughts to be free, so that people can express their thoughts and the different views that they have. In our constitution, it was predicted that dealing positively with diverse views would result in the progress of ideas. One person holds a view, while another has a different view. Here, an intellectual encounter occurs, albeit a healthy one. An encounter that occurs in an unhealthy manner should be prevented. The Islamic state should prevent these unhealthy ways, which I will later discuss in further detail. Overall, the progress of a society is guaranteed more in such an environment and is granted many positive social and political effects. In a society, if people feel that they can express their views, that society is heading towards unity and stability. As they express their views and others would answer them, views would come together. Differences of opinions emerging from not saying their view and hiding from each other would slowly lessen and fade away. This is the overall picture of the topic. And I can with surety and strongly do claim that our method in the Islamic Revolution and the Islamic Republic has been the same. This is what is accepted by the constitution and by the Islamic Republic. However, there are always some people in society who make use of this freedom and say there is no freedom! If they were in an authoritarian and despotic regime, they would be inside jails, or they would not be given space to breathe. These same people did not dare to breathe and say a word in the previous regime; whereas, in the Islamic Republic, they talk freely, write, publish, and question everything. Sometimes their activities are even unhealthy, meaning that the necessary conditions of utilizing healthy methods of expression required for the freedom of expression does not exist in their activities. Despite that, in those very writings that were allowed because of the freedom of expression, they say that there is no freedom! This is a type of deception. But the reality is that newspapers, articles, leaflets, and books contain different types of views. Today, many views exist on Islamic issues, economic issues, and issues related to governance and politics. They write them in books that are being printed, and no one objects to them as to why they are being printed. Of course, there are limitations which are part of the responsibilities of the Islamic Republic which will be covered in detail in another discussion on what is impermissible in the Islamic Republic.

To summarize, we can say that the clashing of thoughts and the freedom of expressing thoughts are there to guide thoughts. It cannot be that a system, regime, or government does not take steps to guide the thinking of its people and does not do what is beneficial for guiding their views. The proper action is for the government, the system that desires to work sincerely, should not allow actions which cause thinking to be mislead. If the goal of freedom of expression is for thinking to be correctly guided, then those expressions which do not guide thoughts and rather mislead people, deceive them, hide the reality, present falsehood as truth and truth as falsehood, those expressions which cause deviation, all such expressions are harmful. For this very reason that expressing the truth is necessary to rightly guiding thoughts and freedom of expression is necessary for the progress of thoughts, liberties that are misused to mislead thoughts are prohibited. But this principle of the freedom of expression, which is an established principle – can be derived from historical contexts and evidences, and also from the following verse: So give good news to My servants who listen to the word and follow the best of it[4],. There does exist some boundaries and limits that are also definite which we will discuss afterwards if God wills, and that will explain the view of Islam regarding freedom of expression in its entirety.


[1] Surah Fussilat, verse 26: و قال الّذین کفروا لاتسمعوا لهذا القران و الغوا فیه لعلّکم تغلبون

[2] This part may be sensitive to some Shia audience. Need a citation before publishing.

[3] لا یامرنی احد بتقوی اللّه الّا ضربت عنقه

[4] Surah al-Zumar, verses 17-18: فبشّر عباد الّذين يستمعون القول فيتّبعون احسنه

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