DOES Islam allow Muslims to have freedom of speech and expression? I ask myself this question following the recent celebration of the 31st anniversary of the Edsa People Power Revolution in 1986.
Many Muslims around the world today find the slogan of freedom of speech seductive primarily because of what is happening within their communities. Occurrence of oppression, persecution and prejudices reinforces the desire to speak out and express disapproval and even condemnation of these acts; taking the concept of freedom of speech at face value to be a universal concept.
After studying law and the principles of human rights, I have learned that there can never be complete freedom of speech. Laws will always be required that would limit freedom of speech in order to preserve society at large.
Expressing our thoughts and feelings sometimes are completely harmless and protected under the right to freedom of expression. However, there must be limitations. In “seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas” includes expression which some or even few societies could not tolerate, such as incitement to murder or the sale of pornography to children. Therefore, freedom of expression is not absolute and can be limited when it conflicts with other rights. On a global scale, international law declares freedom of expression to be the rule. Limitations are the exception, permitted only to protect: the rights or reputations of other, national security, public order, public health and morals.
Mohammad Hashim Kamali in his article, Freedom of Expression in Islam (1996), wrote: “Based on Western legal standards, freedom of expression or speech means the absence of restraint upon the ability of individuals or groups to communicate their ideas to others, subject to the understanding that they do not in turn coerce others into listening or that they do not invade other rights essential to the dignity of individuals”. This freedom relates with two freedoms: the freedom of the press and freedom of expression. The latter deals with the ability to communicate ideas through words and pictures in order to reveal truth or to clarify or eliminate doubt. This is similar to the definition mentioned in the Holy Qur’an.
The Holy Qur’an does not explicitly state “thou shalt have freedom of expression”, however, it does place obligations on Muslims which presuppose this right.
Muslims are taught and reminded that the message of the Holy Qur’an is to promote the discovery of truth and to uphold human dignity.
In Islam, truth is held in highest regard. Islam reminds Muslims to tell the truth. Allah says in the Holy Quran: “O mankind! The Messenger has indeed come to you with truth from your Lord; believe therefore, it will be better for you. But if you disbelieve, verily, to Allah belongs whatever is in the heavens and in the earth. And Allah is All-Knowing, Wise.” (4:171)
However, Islam doesn’t force us to accept the truth. Allah says, “There is no compulsion in religion. Surely, the right way has become distinct from error… (2:257)
What about those who disagree with Muslims? Do they have the freedom of speech to disagree with Muslims? How much disagreement does Islam allow? The following example from the Holy Prophet’s (SAW) life gives us an idea.
Once returning from expedition, a hypocrite used insulting words against prophet Muhammad (SAW). The remarks made the Companions of the prophet very upset and one of them even suggested that the culprit should be killed. However, prophet Muhammad (SAW) did not permit anyone to do so. This incident clearly shows to Muslims how they should respond to such incitements.
During the early stages of Islam in Mecca, Muhammad (SAW) forgave those who threw stones at him, who harassed him and tortured his followers. This clearly proves that even insult to the Holy Prophet (SAW) is not punishable in Islam.
The verses mentioned clearly show that Allah has granted free speech to humanity regardless of their faith but how you exercise your free speech will be judged by Allah.
The following hadiths give an idea as to what the prophet Muhammad (SAW) preached and practiced with respect to exercising freedom of speech: a. “A believer does not taunt, or curse or abuse or talk indecently”; b, “Ruined are those who exaggerate”; c. A good word is a charity.
Based on these principles, prophet Muhammad (SAW) has taught us the core principles of freedom of speech: to be decent; not to embellish stories; saying good things is a virtue provided that the good things said are true.
Muslims are instructed and guided to exercise one’s freedom of expression and speech through the concepts of hisbah and naseehah. Hisbah, a term coined by Hadhrat ‘Umar (RA), the second Khalifa of Islam, refers to the duty to advocate good and advise against evil referred to in the Holy Qur’an. Naseehah refers to the manner in which hisbah must be conducted, namely, the requirement that Muslims practice hisbah by giving sincere and friendly advice and counsel. Hisbah, or the advocating of good, presupposes the right to freedom of speech. One cannot advocate good without first having the right to advocate.
Moreover, Muslims are further instructed in the Holy Qur’an regarding the manner in which to engage in hisbah and naseehah: Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in a way that is best. (16:126)
In summary, the Holy Qur’an and Hadith maintain and uphold the right to freedom of speech and expression, only apparently restricting it when it would result in impeding the cause of the discovery of truth. Our challenge now is how we teach the young generation of Muslims to know the authentic Hadiths and how to properly interpret Islam that follows the strict Islamic traditions.