Is There Really Freedom of Speech in Islam?

05 February, 2017
Q How come Muslims always claim that freedom of speech is a deeply rooted concept in Islam, while whenever anyone makes a negative comment about Islam, they object and say that no one is allowed to speak negatively about Islam or question any of its teachings? Where does the freedom of speech guaranteed to others lie among all this? Can you please clarify that, and give me evidence from Muhammad's life that freedom of speech was practiced at his time.

Answer

Salam (Peace) Marlin,

Thank you for contacting About Islam with your question.

From the point of view of Islam, Allah (God) Almighty created humans as free beings. This idea of human freedom certainly includes freedom of choice and freedom of speech.

At the same time, Islam holds humans as responsible beings. Every thinking person can see that responsibility is just the other side of freedom.

This responsibility before God is our responsibility towards the society.

Indeed, Islam visualizes the realization of a model society in space and time, for the creation of which, each individual needs to sacrifice a portion of their freedom.

How to balance between individual freedom and social control has always been a problem throughout human history.

In all the socio-political systems of the past, as well as in modern times, we see how the state, “a self-governing political entity” imposes restrictions on the freedom of the individuals through the exercise of power (Rosenberg).

The apparent objective of such restrictions is the general welfare of the citizens of the state.

Rousseau has written about a certain loss of freedom to natural man, consequent upon the gradual emergence of society through history. 

For him, natural freedom is in fact slavery to individual passions. To set aside individual freedom and accept the general will is to accept a higher moral order.

In other words, the freedom of natural man is a sort of lawless freedom. In order to make the freedom of each compatible with the freedom of all, there should be societal control, through serving our interest in justice.

When there is a conflict of different interests, some can prevail only at the expense of others.

In the present context, the conflict is between the individual’s interest in unbridled freedom for himself and the society’s interest in safeguarding the general freedom of the society as a whole.

This indicates the necessity of a proper balance between individual freedom and social control for the welfare of all.

In short, the rights of each individual are limited by the rights of others. These rights do not merely include freedom of speech, but equally the basic right to dignity, privacy, and respect; and the basic right not to be subjected to degrading or inhuman treatment.

The foregoing means that the idea of absolute freedom of speech, often hypocritically touted by Islamophobes, is absurd and untenable. We have a number of examples from the so-called “civilized world” itself to prove the point.

Take the question of anti-Semitism for example. Any person who says something anti-Semitic (and we agree it is not right to do so) is subject to prosecution in the western countries, where, it is claimed, freedom of speech is allowed to all its citizens.

If some people are allowed the freedom to defame and caricature Islam’s prophet, don’t the Muslims have the freedom to answer them?

Indeed, it is quite strange how the horrendous hypocrisy and double standards in the West get sidelined and covered up under blatant Islamophobia.

You have written: whenever anyone makes a negative comment about Islam, they object and say that no one is ”allowed” to speak negatively about Islam or question any of its teachings …

Obviously, what you state above is your perception of the Muslim attitude towards negative statements about Islam.

But even if we accept this as typical Muslim attitude-it’s not- but for argument’s sake, you should be prepared as a reasonable being, to accept Muslims’ freedom to make negative comments about those who make negative comments about them.

Freedom of speech does not mean the freedom to defame or malign a prophet. If it were not so, why did the Dutch newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, that published the notorious “Prophet cartoons” in September 2005, refuse to run drawings lampooning Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him), submitted by Christoffer Zieler in 2003? (Gwaldys)

See what the US law says on the use of “fighting words” (meaning words that create unrest and bloodshed). And remember, these cartoons, especially their current, repeated republication are the graphic equivalent of “fighting words”.

In its 1942 decision, Chaplinsky vs. New Hampshire, the Supreme Court of the United States articulated that “fighting words” doctrine, are not protected under the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. And defined fighting words as:

Those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. (Freedom Forums)

And in the US, in 2003 there was an alarming increase in the number of mainstream reporters fired for simply exercising their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech.

Just one instance among several was that of the journalist Dan Guthrie working in a newspaper entitled Grants Pass Daily Courier. He was dismissed for publishing an article that criticized President  G. W. Bush. There was no outcry for freedom of speech then.

You have asked about Prophet Muhammad’s attitude to freedom of speech. Critics often quote instances from the early history of Islam, where criminals’ intents on disrupting peace and harmony were punished.

These are sometimes depicted as denying freedom of speech. But the fact is that the Prophet never wanted to curtail people’s freedom of speech as long as this right was not grossly misused.

He never retaliated against those who personally insulted him. He did not seek vengeance on them.

In conclusion, I would like to underscore the fact that the basic human right of freedom of speech has its limits. We need to recognize that any right or freedom ends where it starts infringing upon the rights and freedoms of others.

I hope this answers your questions. Please, keep in touch.

Salam.

Works Cited:

Fouche, Gwladys. Danish Paper Rejected Jesus CartoonsThe Guardian

Rosenberg, Matt. Country, State and Nation.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques. Historian of the Heart

Bush’s War on the Press.

What Is the Fighting Words Doctrine? Freedom Forums. 

Please continue feeding your curiosity, and find more info in the following links:

Death for Criticizing Prophet Muhammad?

Why Can’t Muslim Depict Prophet Muhammad?

Was the Prophet Unjust to the Jews?

Personal Freedoms vs. Public Violations

What Freedom Does Islam Give?