On Freedom of Expression and Conscience in Islam


SHAFAQNA - In light of events of the past few years, notably, the publication of the cartoons in Denmark caricaturing the Holy Prophet Muhammad(saw) and the recently dismissed criminal prosecution for apostasy in Afghanistan, I will discuss freedom of conscience within the context of the Islamic legal view regarding: (1) freedom of expression, where I discuss the issue of blasphemy, and (2) freedom of religion, where I will discuss the issue of apostasy.

Freedom of expression

According to 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.i This freedom also connotes the freedom of the press and 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.

Although the Qur’an does not explicitly state “thou shalt have freedom of expression”, it does place obligations on Muslims which presuppose this right. According to the Qur’an, the ultimate goal of all speech is to promote the discovery of truth and to uphold human dignity. One of God’s attributes is Al-Haqq (True and Right One), and all Muslims must endeavour to emulate this attribute by forwarding the cause of truth; tell the truth, even if it be unpleasant. (Al-Suyuti, I, p.111) Therefore, restrictions on freedom of speech and expression necessarily inhibit the discovery of truth and thus degrade humanity. For example:

…So what would you love after discarding the truth except error… (Ch.10:V.33)

This last verse signifies the one major restriction on freedom of speech, namely, when it is unseemly. Speech is unseemly or evil when it is obscene, immoral or hurtful. Evil speech interferes with the discovery of truth and thus violates human dignity. Therefore, restricting evil speech is justifiable on freedom of expression.

Allah likes not the uttering of unseemly speech in public, except on the part of one who is being wronged… (Ch.4:V.49)

However, even the most insulting type of speech, namely, blasphemy, is not criminally sanctioned and thus not restricted under Islamic law.

Islam also instructs us as to the manner of how to exercise one’s freedom of expression and speech. The manner in which free expression is exercised is through the concepts of hisbah and naseehah. Hisbah, a term coined by Hadhrat ‘Umar(ra), the second Khalifa of Islam, encapsulates 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 practise 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.

And let there be among you a body of men who should invite to goodness, and enjoin equity and forbid evil. And it is they who shall prosper. (Ch.3:V.105)

Note that “Let there be” (Arabic: “waltakun”) conveys a command or obligation upon the Muslims.

And the believers, men and women, are friends one of another. They enjoin good and forbid evil and observe Prayer and pay the Zakat (alms to the poor) and obey Allah and His Messenger. It is these on whom Allah will have mercy…. (Ch.9: V.71)

As stated, naseehah, which means to give sincere advice, friendly admonition or friendly reminder, is best understood by distinguishing it from the concept of tawbikh (reprimand). Tawbikh is public and tactless and is associated with ridicule and belittlement, while, by contrast, naseehah is private and courteous.

…And speak to men kindly... (Ch.2:V.84)

When one of you gives advice to his brother, let him isolate him (from) the company of others. (Al-Maqdis, I, p.328)

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. (Ch.16:V.126)

And argue not with the People of the Book except with what is best; but argue not at all with such of them as are unjust. And say, ‘We believe in that which has been revealed to us and that which has been revealed to you; and our God and your God is one; and to Him we submit…’ (Ch.29:V.47)

“People of the Book” means any people who have received a revelation prior to the Holy Qur’an, including the Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus and any others.

In Islam, freedom of expression is restrained only where the failure to do so would result in harming the cause of truth. According to many Muslim scholars, the primary offence which justifies such a curtailment of free expression is blasphemy. However, as the discussion below will demonstrate, even this type of speech is not curtailed in Islam.

Blasphemy in Islam is defined nowadays as contemptuous hostile statements against either the fundamentals of Islam, against Allah, the personality of the Holy Prophet(saw), or any other prophet or anything sacred in Islam, such statements being made with the intention to offend the sensibilities of Muslims. The Arabic word for blasphemy is sabb (insult). Although blasphemy is considered an offence in Islam, either committed by a Muslim or a non-Muslim, no punishment is prescribed for it in the Holy Qur’an. Rather, the punishment for it is always in the hands of God alone, to be meted out by Him either in this life or in the Hereafter. Therefore, based on the Qur’anic references to it, and the Holy Prophet’s reaction to it, blasphemy cannot be considered a type of speech for which legal curtailment is justified. Although it is an offence according to the Holy Qur’an, it is not an offence for the purposes of criminal law as it is a matter for God and God alone, to deal with. The Qur’an states,

Verily those who annoy Allah and His Messenger – Allah has cursed them in this world and in the Hereafter, and has prepared for them an abasing punishment. And those who malign believing men and believing women for what they have not earned shall bear the guilt of calumny and a manifest sin. (Ch.33:V.59)

Note that no earthly punishment is referenced in this verse.

… and you shall surely hear many hurtful things from those who were given the Book before you and from those who set up equals to God. But if you show fortitude and act righteously, that indeed is a matter of strong determination. (Ch.3:V.187)

There exists an authentic Tradition in which the Holy Prophet(saw) advocates restraint and gentleness. In this tradition, an event is described, in which a group of Jews happened to pass by the Holy Prophet(saw) while he was sitting with his wife and some friends. Playing off the traditional greeting “Assalamu ‘Alaikum” (peace be upon you), the Jewish group instead greeted the Holy Prophet(saw) with the words “Al-saam ‘Alaikum” (death be upon you). Upon hearing this, the Holy Prophet(saw) remained silent. However, in anger, his wife, ‘A’ishah(ra), angrily responded with the words “Al-saam ‘Alaikum Wa’l-la‘nah” (may death and curses be upon you). In other words, she not only responded, but her response constituted an escalation in the exchange. Upon hearing her response, the Holy Prophet(saw) stated, “O ‘A’ishah, God the Most High loves gentleness.” Astonished, ‘A’ishah(ra) replied by asking the Holy Prophet(saw) if he had heard what was said to him. His response was “yes, but you could have just said ‘Wa ‘Alaikum’ (on you too).” (Al-Bukhari, Vol. 1, 311-12) You will note that, in the face of his insult, the Holy Prophet(saw) himself did not respond, but instead, criticised his wife for her response. Indeed, in returning to the Holy Qur’an:

… and those who suppress anger and pardon men; and Allah loves those who do good. (Ch.3:V.135)

and the following Hadith,

A Muslim is one from whose tongue and hand other Muslims are safe. (Muslim, No. 69)

As the Holy Prophet(saw) made this statement in the context of a predominantly Muslim population, commentators are unanimously of the view that he meant that the members of any community where a Muslim resides is safe and secure from him or her.

There are numerous other incidents from the life of the Holy Prophet(saw) and his Companions (peace be upon them) demonstrating their reaction to statements that can be considered blasphemous. These incidents are starkly contrasted to the behaviour of today’s so-called Muslim extremists who believe it is their God-given duty to murder anyone uttering anything regarded blasphemous.

Once Abu Bakr(ra), who would later become the first Khalifa of Islam, was being inflicted with vehement verbal abuse from a non-Muslim. The Holy Prophet(saw) was sitting nearby. Listening to the abuse, Abu Bakr(ra) bore it patiently and in silence. Observing this, the Holy Prophet(saw) smiled. Eventually having had enough of the non-Muslim’s tirade, Abu Bakr(ra) began to reply, at which point the Holy Prophet(saw) rose and walked away. Later, Abu Bakr(ra) inquired of the Holy Prophet(saw), “O Prophet, whilst this person was abusing me, you remained seated, and smiled, but when I replied, you stood up and walked away. Why?” The Holy Prophet(saw) replied, “While you remained quiet, the angels were replying on your behalf, but when you spoke, the angels went away and Satan appeared instead. Therefore, how could I have remained present?”

During the lifetime of the Holy Prophet(saw), a Jew and an Arab quarrelled over the superiority of their respective prophets. The manner in which the Muslim asserted his claim injured the sentiments of the Jewish person. When the Jewish person complained to the Holy Prophet(saw), he reprimanded the Muslim, saying, “Do not exalt me above Moses”. Such was the high standard of courtesy that the Holy Prophet(saw) required from his followers.

After the conquest of Makkah (when the non-Muslims peacefully surrendered to the Muslims), despite years of merciless persecution, both verbal and physical, the Holy Prophet(saw) granted amnesty and forgiveness to the entire population making specific reference to the mercy extended by the Prophet Joseph(as) to his brothers as his reason for doing so. In other words, despite years of cruelty and suffering inflicted upon Muslims by the Makkans, the Holy Prophet(saw)’s first reaction was forgiveness and tenderness.

One rare exception to this policy of amnesty was ‘Ikramah who had been sentenced to death on account of his having inflicted exceptionally great violence upon Muslims and murdering scores of them. Anticipating this reprisal, ‘Ikrimah fled from Makkah. However, upon receiving a request for mercy from his wife, the Holy Prophet(saw) granted amnesty and forgiveness to ‘Ikrimah as well. When ‘Ikrimah returned to Makkah, he asked the Holy Prophet(saw) whether the grant of amnesty was genuine or whether it required his conversion to Islam. The Holy Prophet(saw) stated that his forgiveness was indeed genuine, unconditional conversion was not required. At that moment, of his own volition, ‘Ikrimah converted to Islam on the basis that such magnanimity was proof that the Holy Prophet(saw) was a true prophet of God.

The life of the Holy Prophet(saw) is replete with examples like the foregoing. These examples demonstrate that, whilst not condoning evil speech, Islam also does not restrict freedom of speech as it is God alone Who is the ultimate Reckoner. Islam was spread with love and compassion, maintaining religious freedom and conscience.

Regarding the Danish cartoon controversy, we know that, in April 2003, an artist named Christopher Ziele submitted a series of unsolicited cartoons to the Jyllands-Posten newspaper (the same newspaper which published the cartoons of the Holy Prophet(saw)) which depicted Jesus Christ’s resurrection in an apparently light-hearted manner. The editor of this newspaper correctly rejected them on the grounds that he felt that his readers would find little value in them and that they would likely cause an outcry. Two and a half years later, this same editor authorised the publication of the cartoons of the Holy Prophet(saw). The Jyllands-Posten knew well what it was doing and that an outcry would ensue. When it did within Denmark, they did not care and ignored criticism defiantly citing the right to free speech. It was only until a boycott resulting in a loss of almost $500M in sales of Danish dairy products abroad that the right to free speech was trumped by economics, and both the Jyllans-Posten and the Prime Minister of Denmark apologised.2

Further, while we know that the overwhelming number of protests in the world staged by Muslims were civilised and peaceful, all of the media reporting seemed to focus exclusively on the few, but admittedly, horribly violent riots that took place exclusively in so-called Muslim countries. Worthy of note is that not one of these violent riots took place in Europe by European Muslims. It is hard not to be cynical and take note of the double-standard employed by the media. When cartoons of Jesus(as) are at issue, their relative value and whether they would be injurious to others is a paramount editorial consideration thus resulting in a justified curtailment of free speech, but when cartoons of the Holy Prophet(saw) are at issue, then the same editorial judgment determines that the right to free speech must not be compromised, at least until the sale of dairy product exports is compromised. Most certainly, had the cartoons contained the slightest hint of anti-Semitism, they would have been universally condemned, and rightly so.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim community strongly condemns all violence that ensued from Muslim reaction to the cartoons. Many Muslims sympathised with the violence stating that it was a natural and human reaction, or the last straw, due to the current debasement and persecution of Muslims throughout the world today. However, our view is that there is no justification for such violent protests and the destruction of property. If one were to resort to the alleged “natural” reaction, then they need not refer to it as Islamic or in conformance with the Islamic ideal as espoused in the Qur’anic verses or Prophetic traditions cited here.

Instead of engaging in protests or staging violence, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community remained mindful of its obligations regarding hisbah and naseehah. After the publication of the cartoons, Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad(aba), visited Denmark, and during a hotel reception, addressed the Danish press and officials of the Danish Government. This address was reported by the press and thus is a matter of the public record.3 He explained why the cartoons were offensive, and did so in a manner that was courteous and exhibited quiet discretion – hisbah and naseehah – advising good and giving courteous and private counsel. No loud public statements were made or authorised by him. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community reacted to the Danish cartoon controversy in strict accordance with the injunctions of the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah (Practice of the Prophet(saw)). In fact, this has always been the practice of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community since its inception, Ahmadis have never responded to any attacks against Islam with force, rather, with the motto “love for all, hatred for none” have used their literature, media and reason to debate and rebut allegations. The Promised Messiah(as), Founder of the Ahmadiyya community, said this was the time of the Jihad of the Pen i.e. the pen is mightier than the sword.

Canadian law is potentially more restrictive than Islamic law in this context. While Islamic law forbids hurtful or blasphemous speech – it does not mete out any criminal punishment for it. By contrast, Canadian law prohibits speech which incites hatred or perpetuates dangerous or racist stereotypes and imposes criminal sanctions on those who engage in such speech. Therefore, while certain types of speech may not be prosecutable under Islamic law, they are prosecutable under Canadian law.

Freedom of religion

According to Western legal standards, freedom of religion not only allows for the freedom to practise one’s faith in accordance with its tenets but also the freedom from being coerced into converting to a particular religion.4 This concept of freedom of religion was established almost 1500 years ago by the Holy Qur’an and was upheld by the Holy Prophet(saw) and the early Muslims. Indeed, historians like Thomas Arnold, have challenged the traditional Western view that Islam was spread by force.

According to Professor Thomas Arnold, in his book, The Preaching of Islam (p.46), European historians deliberately obscured the genuine missionary character of Islam and misrepresented its spread throughout Asia and Africa. In reality, the incredibly rapid conversion rate of the early Arabs and Africans of the time actually resulted from the historically amicable relationships between Christians and Muslims. Indeed, the continued existence of Christian Arabs today living peacefully within a dominant Muslim population is “living testimony of this toleration.”

The support for freedom of religion and non-coercion in the Holy Qur’an is as follows:

There should be no compulsion in religion. (Ch.2:V.257)

And if your Lord had enforced His will, surely, all who are on the earth would have believed together. Will you, then, force men to become believers? (Ch.10:V.100)5

Included in the freedom to practice one’s faith and to be free from coercion is also the freedom to change one’s faith. This freedom is included in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In Islam, a Muslim who leaves his or her faith is considered an apostate. The word for apostasy in Arabic is riddah, which literally means to “turn back”. Although the offence of apostasy is mentioned 19 times in the Holy Qur’an, like the offence of blasphemy, nowhere is there a prescribed criminal punishment for it. Therefore, like blasphemy, apostasy is not an offence punishable under Islamic criminal law.

The following are examples of how the Holy Qur’an addresses the issue of apostasy:

Whoso disbelieves in God after he has believed – save him who is forced thereto while his heart finds peace in the faith – but such as open their breasts to disbelief, on them is Allah’s wrath; and they shall have a severe punishment. (Ch.16:V.107)

O ye who believe! whoso among you turns back from his religion, then let it be known that in his stead, Allah will soon bring a people whom He will love and who will love Him… (Ch.5:V.55)

In these verses, again, no criminal punishment is mentioned.

Within the context of people committing apostasy or “turning back”, the Holy Prophet(saw) is repeatedly told by God in the Qur’an that his role is confined to conveying the message, and that if people reject him in any way, he should not concern himself.

…If they submit, then they will surely be guided; but if they turn back, then thy duty is only to convey the message… (Ch.3:V.21)6

Admonish, therefore, for thou [Muhammad(saw)] art but an admonisher; thou hast no authority to compel them. (Ch.88: Vs.22-23)7

(O Prophet) proclaim, ‘This is the truth from your Lord, so let him who will believe, and let him who will, disbelieve… (Ch.18:V.30)

Despite the foregoing, one can ask on what basis the courts of Afghanistan justify prosecuting someone who converted to Christianity for the offence of apostasy. The problem is that Afghan courts do so on the basis of two Traditions and in complete disregard of what the Holy Qur’an states. The only two Traditions which exist for prosecuting the offence of apostasy as a criminal offence are very weak. One is a supposed Hadith of the Holy Prophet(saw), and the other is based on the alleged precedent set by the Apostasy Wars in 632 CE, waged immediately after the Holy Prophet(saw)’s death.

Regarding the Hadith, it states, “kill the one who changes his religion”. Scholars throughout the past fourteen centuries have consistently raised serious questions as to its authenticity8. Indeed, the Holy Prophet(saw) himself instructed his followers to reject any alleged Tradition of his if it was in direct contradiction to the Holy Qur’an. It is inconceivable and impossible that he would say or do anything that contradicted the Qur’an. Based on the Qur’anic verses cited here, this Hadith is clearly in direct contradiction with the Qur’an thus making this Hadith unworthy of consideration.

Regarding the Apostasy Wars, these wars were waged against certain Bedouin tribes, some of whom who had converted to Islam, some of whom had not, and all of whom had agreed to pay Zakat or Jizya to Madinah, the then capital of a newly established Islamic Empire. After the Holy Prophet(saw)’s death, some of the tribes rebelled by refusing to continue remittance of the tribute. As the Islamic Empire was then newly established, allowing some of the “conquered lands” to renege on their obligations would have seriously damaged the stability of the new Empire, especially so soon after the Holy Prophet(saw)’s death, when his successor, Hadhrat Abu Bakr(saw) would have been most concerned about consolidating the empire and establishing his position. Therefore, these wars were not about apostasy per se, but rather about the continued remittance of the tribute. What complicates the facts regarding these wars is that some of the Bedouin tribes did apostatise with one of their leaders even claiming prophethood. However, not all of the tribes apostatised.

Given that the Holy Prophet(saw), throughout his lifetime, always left unchallenged and unpunished instances of apostasy and rival claims of prophethood, one cannot assert that they were the motivation for the Apostasy Wars, regardless of the name they were given. Therefore, to state that the Apostasy Wars are a convincing precedent for the punishment of apostasy in Islam is a stretch, to say the least.


The Holy Qur’an and Hadith maintain and uphold the right to freedom of expression, only apparently restricting it when it would result in impeding the cause of the discovery of truth. However, even where speech is offensive and hurtful, such as with the offence of blasphemy, no worldly criminal sanction exists for it under Islamic law as the matter is left solely to God.

The Holy Qur’an teaches how one should express oneself, namely, through gentleness, courtesy and quiet discretion through the concepts of hisbah and naseehah. It was in strict accordance with these concepts that Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad(aba), the Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, addressed the Danish cartoon controversy.

The foregoing discussion also demonstrates that the Holy Qur’an maintains and upholds the right to freedom of religion, including the right to change one’s religion. While the Qur’an refers to apostasy as an offence, as with blasphemy, no worldly criminal sanction exists for it under Islamic law as the matter is left to God alone.

– See more at: http://reviewofreligions.org/2342/freedom-of-conscience-and-expression-in-islam/#sthash.jkjv46cj.dpuf


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