Islam and Freedom of Thought

Akbar Ahmed and Lawrence Rosen

Posted Jul 27, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Islam and Freedom of Thought

“What was once an occasional event—silencing scholars—increasingly has become a way of life in most Muslim countries.  From South Asia to North Africa, an entire generation of Muslim intellectuals is at this moment under threat: Many have already been killed, silenced, or forced into exile.”

By Akbar Ahmed and Lawrence Rosen

As America and its allies have set about building coalitions that include many of the Islamic nations, it is easy to lose sight of the issue of intellectual freedom within the Muslim world. While the safety of Western countries may depend on alliances with other regimes, those alliances should not come at the price of abandoning scholars and intellectuals in the Middle East, whose ability to speak out is no less under attack, often by these same governments.  Our concern is that scholars in Muslim countries will be overlooked in the rush to forge expedient alliances.

The image shown to the world on the cover of the June 17, 2001, New York Times Magazine, of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a respected Egyptian sociologist, caged and on trial for the exercise of his intellectual freedom, ought to send a chill through both the Muslim world and the West. Before his arrest for alleged homosexuality, embezzlement, and spying for the United States and Israel, he was conducting research on Cairo voters’ sentiments about why Muslims join militant groups. From South Asia to North Africa, an entire generation of Muslim intellectuals is at this moment under threat: Many have already been killed, silenced, or forced into exile.

Consider Pakistan. The late nuclear physicist Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s only Nobel laureate, was pressured to leave early in his career, in the late 1950s, because he belonged to a sect not recognized by most Pakistani Muslims.  Fazlur Rahman, instrumental in starting Islamic studies at the University of Chicago in the late ‘60s, was chased out earlier in that decade by Islamic religious parties.

There is considerable irony in the fact that Pakistan’s record in relation to freedom of thought is not good, given the nature of its founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Jinnah believed in human rights, women’s rights, minority rights, and the rule of law. Along with his followers, he hoped to create a modern Muslim nation, one that would respect Islamic tradition but at the same time be part of a modern community of nations.

Jinnah so respected women’s rights that he insisted that his sister, Fatima Jinnah, be with him publicly in his struggle for the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Fatima Jinnah herself became a role model for women. And Jinnah deeply loved his wife, Ruttie, who was a non-Muslim (and half his age), and his only child, Dina, who, as a young woman, refused to marry a Muslim. The women in Jinnah’s family thus created problems for those who wished to portray Jinnah as a straightforward religious extremist.

That view of Jinnah was pushed most strongly after General Zia-ul-Haq took power in 1977 through a military coup and launched a campaign to “Islamize” Pakistan. But how do you explain a wife who is not a Muslim, and a daughter who refused to marry a Muslim? The historian Sharif al-Mujahid—whose 1981 biography of Jinnah, Quaid-i-Azam Jinnah, is perhaps the best known in Pakistan—did not mention either woman in his 806-page volume. Nor do Pakistan’s official archives, pictorial exhibitions, or official publications contain more than a picture or two of them.

To portray the real Jinnah, Akbar Ahmed, one of the authors of this essay, along with several friends and colleagues, spent the 1990s on several related projects, which came to be called the Jinnah Quartet. They included the feature film Jinnah (released in English and Urdu in 2000); a television documentary, Mr. Jinnah—The Making of Pakistan (released in 1997); an academic book called Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity: The Search for Saladin (published by Routledge in 1997); and a graphic novel (published by Oxford University Press in 1997).

The Jinnah Quartet attempted to answer a crucial question about Muslim society that many scholars and intellectuals—Muslims and non-Muslims alike—are asking in their respective countries: Can Muslim countries produce moderate leaders? Do Muslims have leaders who care for human rights, women’s rights, minority rights, and the sanctity of law, and who can lead their nations to the international community with honor? The authors of the quartet believe that Jinnah was one such leader who provides a relevant, contemporary model. The Jinnah Quartet attempted not only to challenge images and ideas of the last days of the British Raj, but also communicate ideas about leadership, the nature of the Islamic state, and the compassionate and tolerant nature of Islam.

The Jinnah Quartet project was controversial. Once the filming started in 1997—in England, where the author was living, and on location in Pakistan—the Pakistani press and various political parties launched a disinformation campaign, claiming that Salman Rushdie had written the script for the film, or that it was part of a Hindu or a Zionist conspiracy.

While filming in Pakistan, the author and others involved in the project were verbally attacked and threatened by journalists and “concerned citizens,” and important officials repeatedly warned them not to portray a tolerant Jinnah and the tolerant Islam he represented. Journalists demanded money to publish positive articles about the project or threatened to write slander; bureaucrats tried to stop the project through delays and denials of permissions necessary for filming. (Eventually, the government of Pakistan reneged on a written agreement and pulled out almost one-third of the budget it had committed during the shooting of the film.) The project was completed, and the film won several awards at international film festivals. But despite gratifying responses in the West, Africa, and even Pakistan, the Jinnah model appears to have failed in the Muslim world. Even those political leaders who believe in democracy, once in power, fall back on tyranny and corruption to stay in office.

Ordinary citizens have little idea that an indigenous democratic model is available to Muslim society, because the scholars and intellectuals who can articulate that vision are being silenced.

When Muslim scholars and intellectuals—those who seek and foster knowledge—are silenced, Muslim citizens are cut off from part of who they are. Islam places enormous emphasis on knowledge. It charges humans to use their God-given reason to better themselves and their dependents, and throughout history ordinary Muslims have cherished that expectation and the benefits such knowledge has produced. They appreciate the control that knowledge gives them over their destiny, the connections it allows them to form with people different from themselves, the insight it gives them into their faith, and the limits it may place on those who exercise power. For that multifarious search for knowledge to be jeopardized is to risk not only the loss of information but a crucial element of who Muslims know themselves to be.

We think of knowledge in this information age as readily accessible to all. When we see an Internet cafe in a dusty town of South Asia or a satellite dish hooked up to a car battery in the countryside of North Africa, we assume that authoritarian regimes can no longer control the flow of communication. But being hooked up and online may make it easier to know what is happening across the world than to know of events in the next town or district.

In many Muslim regimes, intelligence agencies with their own agendas and presidents who exercise their powers capriciously create a constant state of uncertainty that spreads well beyond the challenge of any one thinker’s ideas or proposed reforms. When the scholar is silenced it is not useless knowledge that is lost: It is the sense that pursuing knowledge, wherever it may be found, is no longer part of the expression of God’s will.

Pressures on intellectual freedom come from many sources.

Throughout much of the Muslim world, university students are among the most ardent fundamentalists, fueled by the literal interpretation of Islam taught at madrassahs (Muslim religious schools). The network of madrassahs in turn links up with religious political parties across national boundaries. In Muslim countries, madrassahs are seen as a legitimate Islamic alternative to unaffordable private schools patronized by the westernized elite.

Professors, particularly in the liberal arts, are often cowed by their own students into silence, both in their teaching and in their writing. Like some postmodernist gone mad, the student of literature may see fiction as nothing but the expression of the writer’s politics, while the science student is not concerned with questioning fundamentals, but with applying technologies to religious and political ends.

The results for intellectuals range from a denial of the finest traditions of open debate to working in an environment of omnipresent threat. (In Islamabad, a professor at a medical college this year was found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to death, after students complained about him to the local religious leader.) It is impossible to ignore the discrepancy between the Islamic emphasis on knowledge and the questionable climate for scholars and intellectuals in Muslim countries. Great scholars of the past, men like Ibn Khaldun, a 14th-century Arab historian; the 14th- century writer Ibn Battutah; and the 11th-century writer Abu Raihan Muhammad Al-Beruni may have made the rulers of their day uncomfortable, but they continued the Islamic tradition of the pursuit of knowledge for the benefit of all. That such renowned Muslim thinkers might today be placed in a cage or threatened with physical harm undermines the Islamic belief that any person may develop his or her intellect to the fullest, yielding a diminished and alienated sense of Islam itself.

Indeed, knowledge, for Muslims, is integral to justice, for how, from the Muslim perspective, is one to determine what balance is to be struck among alternatives if one lacks the knowledge to assess choices in the first place? How is one to attach oneself to reliable others if there is no way to tell how they comported themselves in other contexts or made use of the other connections they have forged? How, indeed, is one to achieve the Islamic ideal of knowledge if one is not free to inquire, probe, and appraise the world, for which Allah has told the believer he bears responsibility? When Abdus Salam needed to be protected by riot police on his first visit home after winning the Nobel Prize in 1979, when the co-author of this essay, on returning home after a year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, was asked by a Pakistani general, “Why have you returned home? We don’t need scholars and intellectuals in Pakistan,” when researchers like Professor Ibrahim must risk their freedom to publish a survey of voter sentiment, the loss to ordinary Muslims is far greater than each individual case may appear to suggest.

What was once an occasional event—silencing scholars—increasingly has become a way of life in most Muslim countries. Along with the appearance of open information—access to e-mail and the Internet, for example—in Muslim countries like Egypt and Indonesia has come a more intense denial of intellectual freedom than at any time in recent history. Large numbers of the educated middle class are trying to leave, or have already left, their home countries.

Their exit further weakens the equation of knowledge and Islamic virtue, leaving the field to those, like the followers of Osama bin Laden, who see injustice, but have stilled or lost the voices that could assess it in terms both objective and Islamic. The prophet Muhammad said, “The death of a scholar is the death of the universe.” And the president of the American University of Beirut, Malcolm Kerr, gunned down in his office in 1984, once wrote: “If ideas are not available to shape events, then by default events will shape ideas, in keeping with their own unplanned and, perhaps, grotesque course.” At a time when it is easy to ignore intellectual freedom while concentrating on combating terrorism, we must remember that only when Muslims have a full range of options freely and openly available to them can creative alternatives to extremism be entertained; only when we in the West support the same openness of thought in the Muslim world that we expect in our own societies can the hopes of ordinary people for improvement in their lives become the basis for a common bond. Saad Ibrahim remains behind bars in Egypt, the quiet American pressures to gain his release obscured by the needs of momentary alliance with that country’s government.

If Ibrahim and others like him are, like truth itself, further casualties of a war on terrorism, the victory that will be gained will only fertilize the seeds of perpetual disaffection in Muslim countries and reinforce the image that Westerners are not concerned with freedom except for their own citizens. Meanwhile the lack of clarity and stability in Muslim society will further encourage those who interpret Islam to mean violence and anarchy.


This article first appeared in the November 2001 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Akbar Ahmed is a professor of Islamic studies at American University, a former high commissioner of Pakistan to the United Kingdom (1999-2000), and the author, most recently, of Islam Today: A Short Introduction to the Muslim World (I.B. Tauris, 1999).

Lawrence Rosen is the chairman of the anthropology department at Princeton University, an adjunct professor of law at Columbia Law School, and the author, most recently, of The Justice of Islam (Oxford University Press, 2000).

Reprinted in TAM with permissioin of Akbar Ahmed