Free Speech and Islamic Thought by Farzanah Adam

19 Sep 2016
Free Speech and Islamic Thought by Farzanah Adam

Farzanah Adam wrote this piece on free speech and Islamic thought following a discussion on Salaamedia with journalist Azhar Vadi and PEN SA President Margie Orford. The discussion was about freedom of expression and the right to offend and was held following PEN SA’s publication of responses to UCT’s decision to rescind its invitation to Danish journalist Flemming Rose to deliver the TB Davie Lecture on Academic Freedom.

By Farzanah Adam

Islamic views on Free Speech are often misunderstood and misrepresented. So to begin, I will quote from my Holy book, the Qur’an, wherein Allah Almighty says that humankind is intrinsically hasty: Khulikal Insaanu min Ajal – “Man is created of haste.” (21:37).

Declarations of religious blasphemy laws are particularly characterised by haste. There is also a particular hastiness in the increasing theism of Leftist or liberal views when it comes to this subject. In this light, the 21st century is not very different to medieval times. We humans don’t like unresolved debates. We prefer absolutes rather than murky, dim spaces. And if someone dare opine that a discussion like ours here is work in progress, there is some rickety wiring, or there is no absolute answer, many of us will find that weak, lacking or an absolute cop-out.

Let us start with fundamental absolutes.

One is the right to voice an opinion, publically, without fear of punishment, and another, the law against violence toward life and property. These are absolutes in Islamic teachings, just as they are in the canon of human rights.

I feel that the right to free expression is similar to the concept of free will in Islam. As Muslims we accept that just because Allah Almighty knows what we will eventually choose to do, that does not negate our free will. Similarly, just as we’ve been given the right to express ourselves freely, it doesn’t mean we’re negated of a sense of responsibility in the use of this right.

How to utilise this right is a moot point.

In Islam we believe in the merging of theoria and praxis. If the Holy Qu’ran may be called the theoria, then the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), his disciples after him and the consensus of Muslim scholars thereafter, is the praxis. And it is in the combination of theoria and praxis that knots around free speech and Islam can be loosened.

While the European world may be obsessing at how best to rile and offend the two billion Muslims of the world, or even to show them up for their ‘intolerance and violence’ the early casualties of so-called blasphemy laws were God-fearing Muslims themselves – victims of political duress rather than ‘Shariah’.

In a previous discussion on this subject, I offered the example of the freed slave Bareera in Islamic texts. She expressed her disinterest in the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)’s suggestion to her about staying with her husband, and the Prophet (pbuh) gladly accepted her right to free will and free speech.

There is also the example of Ka’b bin al-Ashraf who many insist was killed because he had insulted the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) via vile poetry. The 14th-century Islamic scholar Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani (ra) mentioned that the reasons behind his death decree had less to do with poetry and more to do with high treason.

In this discussion I also mentioned how despite Muslim scholars interpreting ‘blasphemic’ poetry favourably for Mansur al-Hallaj, he was executed due to the Abbasid regime exerting political muscle.

Similarly, the famous Imam of Islamic Jurisprudence, Ahmad bin Hambal, one of our most celebrated theologians was called before the Inquisition of the Abassid Caliph al-Ma’mun. Due to his refusal to accept Mu’tazilite authority, he was called a blasphemer. Ahmad ibn Hanbal (ra) was imprisoned and tortured for 28 months, often flogged to unconsciousness. He was banished from Baghdad due to his ‘blasphemic’ views.

Just like the Salem witch-hunts and the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was a convolution of imperialistic and political fear-mongering using the vehicle of religion, so too are the blasphemy laws that were used against Raef Badawi and Hamza Kashgari in Saudi Arabia, and Salman Taseer in Pakistan. To be clear, if Pakistan was serious about its blasphemy laws in the name of Islam, then why the double standards in dealing with Junaid Jamshed who insulted and belittled the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)’s wife Ayesha (ra), and Aasiya Noreen, the Pakistani Christian woman who was convicted of blasphemy?

The contemporary discourse on this subject, whether in the context of Jyllands-Posten or Charlie Hebdo is more complex than the debate around absolute freedom. Consider literary devices, artistic expression; emotional offense; racism; xenophobia; terror-mongering; fear-mongering and Islamophobia to mention a few.

Whether in the right to offend, or outlining the supposed paradox of free speech, or even citing religious vilification laws, let us not be hasty. Perhaps the Latin phrase ‘primum non nocere’ or “first, do no harm” is just as applicable to us as it is to health care providers when considering interventions that carry an obvious risk of harm but a less certain chance of benefit.

Farzanah Adam, also known as Umm Abdillah is an Islamic scholar, radio presenter and media contributor.