Affirmation of Freedom of Expression and Belief in the Quran

Haris Aziz

Posted Mar 24, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Affirmation of Freedom of Expression and Belief in the Quran

By Haris Aziz

And had your Lord so willed, all those who live on earth would have attained to faith - all of them, do you then think that you could compel people to believe?- The Holy Quran (10:99)

In recent years, a lot of disinformation has been spread concerning Islamic principles. One assumption in public discourse has been ‘Islam’s inherent opposition to freedom of belief or expression’. This has been not only been latched upon by Islamophobes but also readily accepted by Muslims of a fascist and extremist disposition. Perhaps they are not aware that Imam Shafi, the founder of the Islamic jurisprudence tradition when issuing a Fatwa [legal opinion] used to say that I think I am right although I may be wrong and I think that the opposing opinion is wrong although it may be right. Moreover the Islamic tradition is based upon Shura [mutual consultation], debate and discussion. Tomes have been written on Adab-Ikhtalaf [Ethics of Disagreement] by classical Islamic scholars. Moreover in Islam, personal freedom and liberty are such lofty ideals that once Caliph Omer Ibne Al Khattab asked the rhetorical question: “When (implying by what right) ... when did you enslave the people, knowing that they were born free by their mothers?”

This article does not ignore the malicious media trial of Islam as a whole due to the misguided acts of some Muslims in the current political turmoil. There should be no excuse in invoking freedom of speech to make hateful, racist and ignorant comments about Muslims. Similarly there is no intention to condone any bigotry in Muslim discourse or the misuse of ‘blasphemy charges’ to silence non-Muslims and Muslims alike. The legal and moral constraints in freedom of expression are part of a complex debate which must be discussed by Muslim intellectuals and the jurists in the light of the new developments. However, so much is being written nowadays about Islam as criticism by well wishers along with virulent propaganda by Islamophobes that the essence of the Islamic message is lost in the deluge of voices. What one aims to highlight here is that the Holy Quran, the foremost authority among Islamic sources affirms the freedom of expression and belief:

Let there be no compulsion in religion (2:256)

Said (Noah): O my people - what do you think? If ( it be true that) I am taking my stand on a clear evidence from my Lord . . . to which you have remained blind, can we force it on you even though it is hateful to you? (11:28)

And so (O Prophet) exhort them; your task is only to exhort; you cannot compel (88:21-22).

If then they run away, We have not sent thee as a guard over them. Thy duty is but to convey (42:28)

Whether We shall show thee (within thy life-time) part of what we promised them or take to ourselves thy soul (before it is all accomplished),- thy duty is to make (the Message) reach them: it is our part to call them to account. (13:40)

And to recite the Qur’an. And whoso goeth right, goeth right only for (the good of) his own soul; and as for him who goeth astray - (Unto him) say: Lo! I am only a warner.(27:92)

Say, “The truth is from your Lord”: Let him who will believe, and let him who will, reject (it) (18:29)

Verse 2:256 is indeed the Magna Carta of religious freedom. Muslims believe that a religious belief is not meaningful if it does not come through personal conviction, contemplation and a conscious effort to love and obey Allah [God]. The general message is exhorting and sincerely advising instead of using coercion. In the face of such clear verses concerning religious freedom and also the Sunnah [example] of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), it is surprising that some Muslims have no qualms in demanding execution of any Muslim who is perceived to leave Islam. This appears to be based on a couple of ahadith [sayings attributed to the Holy Prophet]. These ahadith must be seen in the light of the cited verses and the general dealing of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). The Quran talks about apostasy at least twenty times but does not mention any worldly punishment. The only warning given is about the consequence in the life here after. Moreover there is a good possibility that the referred ahadith have a specific context of hirabah [high treason], breaking away from the authority, breaking a treaty, defying the direct commands of a living prophet in violent times and incitement to wage war against Muslims when the very survival of a small Muslim community was in danger. Many celebrated jurists have alluded to this kind of takhsis [specification] to conclude that an apostate should be re-invited to Islam but not condemned to death. It is critical that the Ulema [scholars] address this issue. Moreover if some Muslim country does not allow non-Muslims to observe their religion freely, it is totally against Islamic principles of justice and fair play and should be tackled.

The Quran also demands that Muslims should discuss with non-Muslims in a courteous and patient manner and act admirably even in the face of ignorance and insults:

Call to the way of your Lord with (great) wisdom and solicitude and argue with them in ways that are most appropriate. (And remember that) your Lord knows best those who have strayed from His path and (also) those, who are rightly guided. (16: 125)

Nor can goodness and evil be equal. Return (evil) with what is best. Then will he, between whom and you was hatred become as he was your friend and intimate. And no one can exercise this except those, who are steadfast (in the way of God); no one except persons of the greatest good fortune. (41: 34 - 35)

Ye shall certainly be tried and tested in your possessions and in your personal selves; and ye shall certainly Hear much that will grieve you, from those who received the Book before you and from those who worship many gods. But if ye persevere patiently, and guard against evil,-then that will be a determining factor in all affairs?(3.186 )

Hold to forgiveness; command what is right; But turn away from the ignorant. (7:199)

These foundational verses seems to be in direct contrast to the prevailing attitude of some Muslims who are keen to kill any one who might say something offending about Islam. There is no adherence to basic Islamic values of mercy, tolerance, patience, inviting to goodness and allowing for repentance. This is surprising considering that Rahmah [mercy] is one of the most used word in the Quran. Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) said:

Have mercy on those who are on earth, the One in heavens will have mercy on you. (Tirmidhi).

The sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) shows how he tolerated all kinds of insults and taunts with extreme patience. Moreover, even if there is insistence on some kind of penalty for serious blasphemy, Islamic tradition demands that a proper trial be held. The Quran (5:8) also requires that any contract or agreement made, based on the free will of the person, has to be adhered to by the person. Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) established this by his example through out his life. This means that all national and international laws must be adhered to. Therefore it is disturbing that violent and illegal acts of vigilantism are sometimes done in the name of Islam. Muslims need to speak out against criminality if they are true to their faith.

It is evident that the Quran provides a foundation for Muslim societies to allow freedom of religion and expression. These fundamental values must be encouraged if we want to recapture the true spirit of Islam.

Suggested Reading

1. Kamali, Mohammad Hashim. Freedom of Expression in Islam, The Islamic Texts Society, 1997.

2.  Rahman, S.A. Punishment of Apostasy in Islam, Kitab Bhavan, 1996.

3.  Saeed, Hassan. Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam, Ashgate, 2004.


Haris Aziz is pursuing a PhD in Theoretical Computer Science and training as a professional journalist at Warwick University. He was the Lady Noon Scholar at Exeter College, Oxford University in 2004-2005.

(© Copyright Haris Aziz 2006, do not reproduce without permission)