Freedom of speech vs. blasphemy: Wh...

Egypt's Dar Al-Ifta

Freedom of speech vs. blasphemy: Where to draw the line?

Freedom of speech vs. blasphemy: Where to draw the line?

Every now and then, the issue of blasphemy rises to the surface and makes headlines due to its infringement upon the right to free speech. It is saddening that some countries which call themselves “Islamic” have taken it upon themselves to assume moral authority and act as ethical judges by scrutinizing people’s freedom of free speech and expression; a case in question being the recent death sentence issued against a Christian Pakistani, Asia Bibi, for allegedly insulting Islam. Understanding the concept of free speech, and whether it is a legal right which should be granted and protected by the state regardless of its moral or immoral content, is an important issue. In addition, the role of the state as a moral guardian acting on God’s behalf is another thorny issue which needs necessary revision.

Freedom refers to a state of being in which an individual is able to make a choice in thought, behavior or speech, as he or she wishes, or to avoid doing so, without violating similar freedom on the part of others and within the restraints imposed by society. This freedom is often regulated by laws enshrined in the state’s constitution.

It is possible to extrapolate three main ideas from this general definition. First, freedom grants the individual the right to do something as well as the freedom to refrain from doing something. The second is that there are limits or restraints on individual freedom as it cannot impinge on other people’s freedom. Third, because it is a choice, the individual is accountable for his/her actions and the consequences deriving them.

From an Islamic perspective, freedom has two aspects. The first aspect has to do with individual liberty which is closely related to the position of human beings as members of society in a socio-political sense. The second aspect has to do with free will which identifies the relationship between human beings and God. This aspect is more of a philosophical and theological issue which does not enter the socio-political sphere.

These two aspects help in shaping the Islamic stance on the concept of freedom which is mainly composed of three elements. The first element is freedom from original sin i.e. human beings are born sin-free with a clean slate without carrying the burden of any error or sin committed by Adam and Eve. Their descendants have the privilege of a new start to shape their own lives. The second element is that humans are free to choose their actions as God created human beings with an innate ability to differentiate between right and wrong and good and evil. God says in the Quran, “And [by] the soul and He Who proportioned it, And inspired it [with discernment of] its wickedness and its righteousness, he has succeeded who purifies it, And he has failed who instills it [with corruption]” (Quran 91:7-10). Through this freedom, choosing to obey God becomes a meaningful process.

God emphasized that He seeks the submission of hearts and not of bodies. God says, “The truth has now come from your Sustainer: let him who wills believe in it and let him who wills reject it” (Quran 18:29).

Third, when God granted human beings the right to choose, this automatically led to bearing the accountability of their choices. Human beings will face the consequences of their actions before God on the Day of Judgment. Therefore, we can conclude that freedom is a natural state and a God given gift to human beings.
From these three elements which compose the concept of freedom in Islam, we can conclude that if humans are entitled to choose to embrace or not embrace a certain religion, then this freedom goes hand in hand with the freedom to express doubt or support. Upholding religion requires a commitment to critically examine and affirm its authority to ultimately judge its veracity or falsity. Therefore, no authority on earth can punish individuals for expressing their ideas regardless of whether they are true or false.
The Quran proves that expressing religious criticism and arguments is a valid and approved approach. This is exactly what Prophet Abraham did when he found his people worshipping idols. His father was angered by his son’s explicit criticism of his religion and the Quran narrates to us his response, “[His father] said, "Have you no desire for my gods, O Abraham? If you do not desist, I will surely stone you, so avoid me a prolonged time" (Quran 19:46). In response to his father’s anger, Abraham only said, “[Abraham] said, "Peace will be upon you. I will ask forgiveness for you of my Lord. Indeed, He is ever gracious to me. And I will leave you and those you invoke other than God and will invoke my Lord. I expect that I will not be in invocation to my Lord unhappy" (Quran 19:47-48). Prophet Abraham stood up to express his opinion and criticized the inherited religious dogma of his ancestors.
Other verses express the necessity of freedom of expression as a component of religion: “And a believing man from the family of Pharaoh who concealed his faith said, "Do you kill a man [merely] because he says, 'My Lord is God while he has brought you clear proofs from your Lord? And if he should be lying, then upon him is [the consequence of] his lie; but if he should be truthful, there will strike you some of what he promises you. Indeed, God does not guide one who is a transgressor and a liar” (Quran 40:28).
Expressing personal opinions and intellectual convictions is granted not only with regards to religion but in all fields including politics. An example of this can be found in the Quran when Prophet Moses encountered the Pharaoh of Egypt who was a radical tyrant and an oppressive ruler regardless of the fact that Moses was raised and sheltered by the Pharaoh. The Quran narrates, “[Pharaoh] said, "Did we not raise you among us as a child, and you remained among us for years of your life? And [then] you did your deed which you did, and you were of the ungrateful." Moses said, "I did it, then, while I was of those astray. So I fled from you when I feared you. Then my Lord granted me wisdom and prophethood and appointed me [as one] of the messengers. And is this a favor of which you remind me - that you have enslaved the Children of Israel" (Quran 26:18-22)? As the verse demonstrates, Moses was not deterred from speaking freely and challenging the tyrannical authority of Pharaoh. The expression of views and opinions is a divinely granted gift.
Thus, free speech is a natural extension of human freedom, dignity and moral autonomy. However, the moral or immoral content of speech is not an issue that can be regulated by human authority. Free speech is a means through which various ideas compete against each other in the public sphere, without judgment of their moral value or content. An even higher objective of comparing and contrasting ideas is ascertaining the “truth” through free speech to leave for individuals an intellectual sphere to determine for themselves without governmental interference or moral police. The only restriction to free speech is that it must not directly endanger public safety. After examining the Islamic sources, we can say that there is no direct and explicit definition of free speech as a legal and political right in the Shari’ah nor any discussion of criminal penalties for its violation.

Freedom of expression is referred to in the Quran primarily in the context of moral injunctions such that good speech is preferred over evil one and the punishment of evil speech is left solely to God. The only two forms of freedom of speech with temporal implications are mentioned in the Quran where they are identified as slander and libel. They are punishable by law because they infringe upon other people’s right to dignity.

When it comes to the issue of blasphemy which is usually tied to infringement on free speech, blasphemy is defined as a deliberate expression of contempt or insult towards God, the Prophet or the fundamentals of the religion and is considered as either a transgression of freedom of religion or freedom of speech. According to this definition, it is of great importance to differentiate between the right of God and the right of man in defining freedom of speech as a legal right. The right of God refers only to the moral obligations of Muslims towards God and is adjudicated by Him. The state cannot act as a coercive moral authority representing God’s will on earth because it does not have the right to do so.

In the context of freedom of speech, the state’s responsibility is to uphold and protect it as the right of all humans as granted by God without exercising moral judgment on the content and/or manner of speech. Because blasphemy comprises intentional offensive speech or behavior infringing upon the right of God, the state does not have the legal right to punish individuals, as it is an offense against the right of God and not of man. The action recommended is to fight speech with speech.

In brief, the Islamic perspective necessitates the broadest possible protection for freedom of speech as a legal right without placing moral restrictions on the content of speech. The law cannot be used to enforce one standard of morality over another because moral judgment lies in the hands of God and not of humans. The only restriction we can place on free speech is based on the concern for public safety so that any speech that poses a direct and explicit threat to it is prohibited.

Furthermore, the experience of autocracy and political repression in Muslim countries has shown us quite explicitly how easy it is to abuse the spirit of questioning and criticism allowed in Islam in the name of enforcing “Islamic standards” on political speech and behavior. Therefore, given what we have learned about the benefits of freedom and the ills of repression, we conclude with a strong insistence that in the contemporary context, any society which does not guarantee full protection of freedom of speech as a legal and political right, has betrayed Islam.
Source: In pursuit of Justice: the Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam by Maher Hathout


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