9 – The limits of freedom of speech in Islam

The Limits of Freedom of Speech in Islam

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 Bible, 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)

The ongoing discussion is regarding freedom of speech and expressing belief. Previously, we said that, even though we did not find any direct reference to freedom of expressing belief in Islamic sources, it can be concluded that one is free to express one’s belief in an Islamic society by referring to historical, Quranic, and narrated evidence. Anyone who does not cross the boundaries of this freedom – which I will discuss shortly – can express one’s beliefs, not just those regarding religion but also those regarding political matters or different social schools of thought. But, as I mentioned earlier, this freedom has boundaries just like all other freedoms. These boundaries must be observed.

First, we should be aware that this discussion is very subtle and precise. It has been and will be misused by both sides. Some, in the name of freedom of speech and freedom of expressing belief, have abused it and used it against the interests of the people and to the detriment of public awareness, which is not permissible in any custom or by any sound logic. On the other hand, in the name of combating the abuse of freedoms and safeguarding interests, coercive actions were taken and brute force has been applied throughout history and around the world, which is also not acceptable. Therefore, when we say that freedom of expression is permissible, it does not imply that it can be misused. Also, when it is said that expressing a belief that is harmful to people’s interests and public opinion is not allowed, it should not be understood that, whenever misusage occurs in the name of public interest, we deem it acceptable. The boundaries between these public rights and interests and the Islamic principles [of freedom of speech and expressing belief] are quite clear in the Islamic system, which will be expanded upon to an extent.

Of course, the expression of a belief or a thought is not the same in every circumstance and therefore does not have a singular ruling. Some expressions have limited effects, and other expressions have very large effects. If some people express a thought or an opinion, the effect that is caused is restricted to a limited circle. In contrast, other people, when they express an opinion, will have a wider effect. Some may express a thing in simple language, which does not have a deep impact. But, others may express it artistically, using effective language that has a deeper impact on people. These two are not the same, and if there are harmful effects that result from the latter of such expressions, then Islam differentiates between these two types. Some opinions are expressed in ordinary conditions, and even if that opinion is misguiding, there is no particular sensitivity [towards its restriction], because society has the possibility of countering it and controling its ill effects. But, sometimes, an opinion or a belief is expressed in a sensitive social state, in a condition where society and the Islamic system needs unity, needs stability, needs concentration. There may be a war ahead. National security is in danger. Protecting people’s interest is being considered. The sensitivity of these two ways of expression are not the same in such situations. Sometimes, one insults an ordinary person in society. But, at other times insulting a person, denying him, degrading him becomes equivalent to insulting a nation, insulting a system, rejecting a society, and rejecting a country. These two are not the same. Therefore, it is unacceptable that we close our eyes and say that in Islam, freedom of expression is either allowed invariably or not allowed. The conditions vary, expressions vary, speakers vary, an audience varies, contents vary. This is why, at the beginning of Islam, you will see that the reactions of the Prophet (s) and the caliphs used to vary in response to different expressions. In one instance, the Prophet of Allah, in reacting to an opponent who insulted him, not only did not take revenge but instead did a favor to him. Keep this generally in mind so that we can briefly expand on a few boundaries of expression.

One of the important boundaries of expression is the issue of deception. This means that every expression of belief is free except the one that is misleading and causes deviation. Misleading and misguiding expression and misleading books are different from false speech and wrong speech. Sometimes, a particular content is false and wrong but does not mislead or affect anyone. For example, false content taught in the seminary, or among the intellectuals and experts. If a misleading book gets into the hands of an ordinary, less educated man, it will lead him astray. However, for a scholar, it is a tool for his intellectual work. Not only does it not lead him astray, but by studying it, he understands the views of his opponents, ponders over it, and expresses his opinions in response. So it is not harmful in this situation but, in fact, beneficial. Sometimes, in a society, due to its higher ability of understanding, an expression is not harmful. A statement, even though wrong, won’t mislead them. Sometimes, the condition of saying a wrong statement and the condition of the system that desires to respond to that wrong statement are equal. For example, someone stands at the foot of Amir al-Mo’minīn’s pulpit and expresses a thing; whereas, if the same thing were to be said in the absence of Amir al-Mo’minīn (as) and not in the Masjid of Kufa, in a place where Ali (as) is not present, many may have been misled. But, expressing these words in the masjid of Amir al-Mo’minīn (as) and in his presence is not misleading. Even if it is said out of bias, it is faulty, it is not constructive criticism, Amir al-Mo’minīn’s (as) attitude towards such a person used to be completely calm and not reactionary. This is because their conditions are equal. Someone has stood up, said something, created doubt, but Amir al-Mo’minīn (as) is also present. He will remove that doubt and everyone would accept the legitimacy of his reasoning and would understand the misleading logic of the other side. So this is not problematic; even though what is being said is wrong, and in other situations, it may be misleading. So, the conditions in which a wrong statement is expressed and the way it is expressed vary; it is not misleading in every case. Wherever it is misleading, it must be opposed, and such expressions are forbidden in Islam. Islamic laws prevent such expressions. Just as we can see today, the state officials or those who do not even have official responsibility but still express and defend the opinions of the system and the Islamic Republic, while speaking in public meetings, are asked questions in these settings. Some questions are biased, some are for creating doubts and are not just for the sake of asking, but answers are given only with the perspective of answering a question. That is, you would never see an official in any meeting who gets upset, angry, condemns, or possibly prosecutes the questioner, even if it is biased. No, it is a question, even if it is a biased one; it will be answered. Something similar to this used to happen at the pulpit of Amir al-Mo’minīn (as) and the first caliphs. This kind of expression, although false, is not misleading. However, some expressions are misleading; they are not allowed by Islam. It is forbidden in Islam if a statement is uttered by a person in a location and in circumstances and for an audience which causes a group of people to be misled. The rationale and wisdom of this prohibition are also clear: freedom is principally there to guide thoughts, to develop them, and to advance society. That freedom which leads to the misguidance of thoughts, to the stagnation of thoughts, to the backwardness of society, is certainly not acceptable. So, one of the boundaries of freedom of expression is when it becomes deceptive or misleading. Any expression that misleads the hearts and minds of a society is impermissible.

Another boundary is if an expression creates a panic in society. As I previously mentioned, I did not find a direct reference in the Qur’an regarding the freedom of speech. However, for not allowing speech in cases of creating social panic, there is clear evidence in Surah al-Ahzab in the following verse:

If the hypocrites do not relinquish and (also) those in whose hearts is a sickness, and the rumormongers in the city (do not give up), We will surely urge you (to take action) against them, then they will not be your neighbors in it except for a little (while)…[1]

“Murjafūn” means those who create panic in society, lead society towards stress and harmful actions.  “Murjaf” means the one who, with his words, with his rumors, with his stance, with his comments, pushes the general atmosphere of the society towards panic. This was not acceptable, even in that small society during the time of the Prophet (s). How big was Medina? All of Medina together was not as large or populous as one of the neighborhoods of Tehran. This was the extent of the Islamic state in the time of the Prophet (s). But, even in that condition, because there were many enmities, because the opposition of the enemies was serious, because all the large powers were united in the cause of destroying the system of the Prophet’s city, becauses parties collaborated to eradicate Islam, because the thoughts, beliefs, and hearts had not yet reache the necessary depth in Islamic issues, because of all this, someone who spread rumors in Medina could not be overlooked. لنغرینّک بهم That is, if these rumormongers, these panic-creators, these people who want to take society out of its order and tranquility, do not give up, We will send you to go after their lives, so as to take revenge on behalf of the people. That is a very harsh tone against those who are not prepared to allow society to remain in a stable state. Now, it is argued that this is contrary to the methods of Western democracy, that Western democracy does not accept this. Well, there are many aspects of Western democracy that we do not accept at all. What they claim is not freedom and democracy. It is sedition, it is a lie, it is deception. As I said in the previous discussion, despite raising the slogan of freedom of expression and throwing it in the face the Eastern bloc, saying that socialist and communist societies do not have the freedom, these Western democracies themselves have no freedom of speech in its true sense. The commotion they make against some true and truthful expressions is the same commotion that the disbelievers of Quraysh raised around the Prophet (s). No one came to close the Prophet’s (s) mouth to prevent him from reciting verses of the Qur’an, because, for whatever reason, they could not do so. Instead, they caused so much commotion and uproar around the Prophet (s) that no one could hear the recitation of the Qur’an. Today, the Western method, the American method, and the method of global Zionist propaganda are the same. And so, they have no freedom at all. Therefore, we do not accept the methods and foundations laid by biased policies, especially on the issues of freedom that I have discussed in detail in this series of discussions and don’t bear repitition here. In any case, Islam does not accept upheavals and panic in society. This is one of the boundaries of expression. No one has the right to say that I want to express my opinion and as expression is free in Islam, let me speak. Expression is free, but if someone wants to disturb the peaceful atmosphere of society, the peaceful coexistence of people within society, Islam does not accept this at all. Allah says: لنغرینّک بهم. The authorities will be obliged to oppose such an expression by prosecuting such a person legally and politically. This is one of the boundaries of freedom. In sum, an expression of one’s belief is different from creating panic in society.

One of the boundaries of freedom is revealing national secrets. There are cases mentioned in the Qur’an which indicate or refer directly to this. On the subject of war and exhorting people towards jihad, Surah al-Nisa has avibrant and comprehensive discussion.After discussing that, it states, regarding those who are against the norms of Islamic society:

When a report of safety or alarm comes to them, they immediately broadcast it[2]

The characteristic of these disreputable people according to this verse and other verses is that whenever they come across something regarding safety or alarm, the secrets of a country – whether considered good news or bad news by the people, without any diligence, without observing any expediency, they reveal this news to the public. According to this verse and in the divine legislation, this is reprehensible and forbidden. Commentators of this verse say that take, for example, the case that the news of victory arrives; of course the news of victory is good news, but should all good news be revealed? No, disclosing this news may have harmful side effects. When our forces are victorious over the enemy on the battlefield, this victory must be declared in its appropriate place and time, in a manner that it is not misused against the people and the war-efforts. But, if this very news of victory is shared without due diligence, the enemy may misuse it. Therefore, the verse says:

but had they referred it to the Apostle or to those vested with authority among them, those of them who investigate would have ascertained it[3]

Refer the news to the uwla al-amr, the authorities. Even the news should be referred to the officials, the officials would then provide the news to the people, in accordance with the peoples’ interests. At the beginning of the Islamic Revolution, slogans were sometimes written on doors and walls, asking the state to reveal certain things. For example, “So-and-so list, which is in the classified files at archive centers, why isn’t it released?” “Why don’t you give it to the people?” This was addressed to the officials, addressed to the government, the Revolutionary Council, and the officials of that day. We knew right then that treacherous hands were behind this. In this manner, they desired to portray that there is a secret, which the authorities should reveal to the peoples; however, the authorities are hiding it, because they do not trust people or for some reason or that it is not in the interest of the authorities for it to be exposed. Later, it became clear which group was behind this and for what purpose they wanted it to be exposed. It was not for the people to know; rather, it was for that group themselves to know. So that the superpowers, whom they used to work for from within the country, could know. Many secrets are like this. The people are certainly trustworthy regarding all the secrets of the government. The one who is not trustworthy is the illegitimate ear that plants itself among the people, that enemy agent, that enemy spy, that enemy ear, and their like. In Islam, even if that news reaches a friend, and he reveals it without paying attention, such an expression is also not allowed. Now, if someone under the banner of freedom of expression starts to talk about war, about politics, about the internal affairs of the country, or about the internal issues of the state machinery, which may be disruptive to the minds of the people, which may reveal national secrets to the enemy, which may reveal a weakness within the Islamic system to the enemy, this is also forbidden. Islam does not allow such news to be spread. Such expressions are impermissible.

Another of the boundaries to the freedom of expression is distortion. Of course, because distortion has an intellectual aspect, in principle, the intellectuals should swiftly come forward against it. Its political aspect is lesser. But, in some cases of distortion of facts, distortion of religion, distortion of the Islamic concepts that must be made available to the people, if these are expressed in a distorted way, this is where the Islamic government and the Islamic system should deal with it. These are some of the boundaries to the freedom of expression.

So, expressing an opinion and expressing a belief in a healthy environment is free. When the interests of the country are threatened for the reasons mentioned above – rumors, panic, disturbing the stability of society and public interests, freedom is limited. The people’s interest is so important that Islam, for its sake, sets fire to a masjid in some cases. The Holy Prophet (s) had set fire to a masjid, because it had become a place where the hypocrites would gather to discuss things against the Prophet (s) in order to create the grounds of upheaval within society. When the Prophet (s) returned from the Battle of Tabuk, before reaching Madina, he demolished this masjid, setting it on fire and levelling it, and then he entered the city. Islam has this kind of strong and decisive approach to the general interests of society. Of course, as I said earlier, there is a lot to discuss in this regard. Wherever the sensitivities to the effects of an expression are greater, naturally, the Islam’s reaction is stronger. This is the case even in personal matters. That is why you see that slandering a believing woman is forbidden in the Qur’an. Islam has prescribed such a harsh punishment for this so that slandering a believing woman does not take place. A rumor about the Prophet’s wife is discussed in Surah al-Ahzab[4], and perhaps, this verse is discussed more than other verses of this chapter. This is the event of ifk (slandering), in which, regarding one of the Prophet’s wives – there is a difference of opinion between commentators whether the wife was Mariah Qibtiyah or ‘Aisha – suspicions are spread and the hypocrites spread rumors. The Messenger of God (s) had to deal with this issue and becomes saddened. Jibraeel descends and those very harsh and reproachful verses of Surah al-Ahzab are revealed that why do you allow, even for believers, for one to spread such a rumor? This is because it is a sensitive situation. It is a matter of the Prophet (s); it is a matter of the dignity of the Prophet (s), the reputation of the Prophet (s), and the character of the Prophet (s). Of course, it is serious even for an ordinary woman, but not to this extent. Therefore, circumstances are different.

The final point in this discussion is that Islam has another characteristic, and that is, on occasion, Islam forbids silence. This means that not only is it permissible to express in this case, rather, not expressing is forbidden. On some occasions, one must express. When the concealment of the truth is against the interests of the Islamic system, against the interests of the intellectual development of society, expression is obligatory, and the concealment of the truth is forbidden. This is one of the characteristics of Islam. The Qur’an has many verses in this regard. Those who want to have a follow up can look up the verses of expression (bayān), explanation (tabayyun)[5], and the verses of concealment (kitmān) in the Qur’an.

You will see that it is necessary to express and present the truth in certain situation, and this is the true guarantee of the continuity of the system on the path of Islam. Even though the interests of the Islamic system and the interests of the officials – those that are related to Islam, not their personal interests – are considered so important that Islam does not allow freedom of expression in particular circumstances, if that same system, those same officials deviate from Islam, if the fate of the Islamic system is threatened by deviation from Islamic principles, here the law is different. Here, expression becomes obligatory. It becomes necessary to command what is good and forbid what is evil. It becomes necessary to advise the Muslims. The revealing of facts for the public becomes necessary. All these points together with this characteristic clarify Islam’s view on expression and the freedom of expression.


[1] Surah al-Ahzab, verse 60: لئن لم ینته المنافقون و الّذین فی قلوبهم مرض و المرجفون فی المدینة لنغرینّک بهم

[2] Surah al-Nisa, verse 83: و اذا جاءهم امر من الامن او الخوف اذاعوا به

[3] Surah al-Nisa, verse 83: ولو ردّوه الی الرّسول و الی اولی الامر منهم لعلمه الّذین یستنبطونه منهم

[4] Please note, the famous verses of slander are not discussed in Surah al-Ahzab, but in Surah al-Noor. This may be unintentional by the speaker.

[5] Surah Aale Imran, verse 187: You shall explain it for the people, and you shall not conceal it…(لتبیّننّهللنّاسولاتکتمونه)

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