1. Home
  2. Shari'ah
  3. Can the shari‘ah place restrictions on freedom of speech?

Can the shari‘ah place restrictions on freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech is not a black and white issue; it has nuances even in the western world. For example, a Canadian tourist was arrested for doing the Heil Hitler salute while visiting Germany. He thought it was funny, the German government did not. In the United States and Canada, it is part of our freedom of speech to make such gestures, but in Germany it can result in imprisonment. Also, there are differing definitions of hate speech, with Canada having stricter restrictions on hate speech than the USA. During his session with the Danish parliament, Hudur aba pointed out to them that there are even some countries where, if one denies the Holocaust and expresses anti-semitism, the law gets hold of him because there are restrictions already imposed by the law (Address at the Netherlands National Parliament, Oct 6, 2015).

Hudur aba also mentioned that the Pope said that freedom of speech has limits, and religions should be treated with respect so that people’s faiths are not insulted or ridiculed (Friday Sermon, January 16, 2015).

Thus, there are varying levels of restrictions from country to country in the West, and each interpretation of freedom of speech is generally considered a legitimate restriction according to their standards. Hudur aba said:

The law about freedom of speech is not heavenly scripture. This is what I told the politicians in my address in the USA. There can be flaws in man-made laws; some aspects can be missed while legislating because man does not possess knowledge of the unseen. But God is Knower of the Unseen and there is no flaw in His laws. People should not consider their laws so final that there could be no alterations in them.

 (Friday Sermon, September 21, 2012)

Islam gives guidance that in some areas there is no restriction on freedom of speech. For example, those countries that consider blasphemy to be a criminal offense act contrary to the teachings of Islam and impede on the religious liberties of their populace. Muslims are given three teachings regarding those who speak blasphemy against Islam. The first is to respond with love:

Repel evil with that which is best. And lo, he between whom and thyself was enmity will become as though he were a warm friend 

(Surah Ha Mim al-Sa- jdah, 41:35).

The second is to respond with refutation. When people wrote poetry against the Holy Prophet sas, he said to his court poet:

O Hassan! Reply on behalf of Allah’s Messenger sas. O Allah! Help him with the Holy Spirit. 

(Sahih al-Bukhari, Book 59, Hadith 23).

The third is simply to ignore. Allah Almighty says in the Holy Quran:

And bear patiently all that they say; and part with them in a decent manner.

(Surah al-Muzzammil, 73:11)

These are the only worldly means that Islam has given Muslims to respond to Holocaust. Some people claim that the Holy Prophet sas had two people, Asma’ and Abu Afak, executed for criticizing him. However, these narrations are of such weak authenticity that they are regarded by scholars in the science of ahadith as being fabrications (Seal of the Prophets, vol. 2, p. 266–273). There is no worldly punishment for blasphemy in Islam.
Islam also gives guidance that in some areas, restrictions on freedom of speech are needed. For example, if hate speech causes violence in society, then it is a freedom that has to be restricted to maintain peace. Such speech is not restricted because of its message; it is restricted only because of the response of society to that message. Some people claim that the Holy Prophet sas had a person named Ka‘ab bin Ashraf executed for criticizing him. However, the real circumstance was that:

When the state of affairs escalated to such an extent, and charges of infraction of treaty, rebellion, inciting war, sedition, use of foul language and conspiracy to assassinate the Holy Prophet sas had been established, he issued the verdict that Ka‘ab bin Ashraf was liable to be put to death due to his actions.

(Seal of the Prophets, vol. 2, p. 301)

To claim that the Holy Prophet sas had Ka‘ab bin Ashraf executed for criticizing him is as absurd as saying that the United States had Osama bin Laden executed because the United States does not like being criticized and he was making videos criticizing the United States. The United States had Osama bin Laden executed for he incited terrorism, not because he criticized the United States. Similarly, the Holy Prophet sas had Ka‘ab bin Ashraf executed for inciting violence against innocent civilians, among other universally accepted crimes. If any message is inflammatory to a degree that it begins to cause violence in society and has the potential to escalate into atrocities, then it can be restricted. This is the reason why various types of hate speech are restricted in western countries, and also why the Promised Messiah as advised the British government that freedom of speech should be temporarily restricted.

When violence between religious groups began to spread because
of the inflammatory speech of religious clerics, he as advised:

Because of these concerns, I have twice before requested His Excellency the Viceroy to suspend debates in which one party criticises the religion of another. However, up to this point no attention has been given to these suggestions. For the third time, I humbly request His Excellency to ban this practice of attacking the faiths of others for a period of at least five years. These practices are leading to chaos in the country, so much so that friendly meetings of different groups have ceased to occur. At times, one group with little real knowledge raises a baseless allegation and offends the others. Sometimes this leads to a riot. Criticism of the Islamic concept of jihad is an example of this phenomenon. Such criticism refreshes sensitive memories and results in disorder. I believe that the poisonous growth of envy and spite, which is secretly flourishing, will quickly disappear if our wise government passes a law that: [a] prohibits all parties, including the clerics of the Church, from indulging in negative attacks on other religions for a period of five years, [b] asks all parties to live together with love and civility, and [c] encourages all groups to focus on the positive features of their own religions.
Such action on the part of the government will be appreciated, will have a beneficial impact on the people of the Frontier Region and will also promote peace and friendship.

(Ruhani Khaza’in, vol 21, p. 33)

This principle applies universally to any speech that creates general disorder in society, whether religious or political. Obviously, to react with violence to offensive speech is a criminal offense, and anyone who does so breaks the law. However when it is observed that inflammatory speech is creating general disorder in society, then it cannot be permitted to escalate. Explaining our response to the media about the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine, Hudur aba said:

We told them this was an un-Islamic act and we expressed our commiseration, but we maintained that freedom of speech should have limits, otherwise, those who inflame others’ sentiments are responsible.

(Friday Sermon, January 16, 2015)

The misuse of freedom of speech, which is instigating violence and hatred today, must be restricted for there to be world peace. This environment of hatred was also escalating during the time of the Promised Messiah as. He as advised:

In my opinion, an easy way to deal with these problems is to adopt the example of the present Ottoman government. For an experimental period of a few years, every group should be strictly forbidden from using vicious language against other religions, be it explicit or implicit, in their writings or in their sermons. They should, however, be permitted to recount the virtues of their own faith. This will prevent the cultivation of new plants of hatred and as ancient tales fade away people will be inclined towards mutual love and reconciliation.

(Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 21, p. 22)

Hudur aba advised that the same restrictions on freedom of speech are needed today to create peace in the world, saying:

Muslims inhabit a large part of the world and God has also granted them natural resources. Muslim countries are also part of the UN. The Holy Quran is a complete code of conduct. Why do those who read it and follow it not present its beautiful teachings to the world on every level? Why do they not put it before the world that according to the Quran it is criminal and a big sin to play with the religious sentiments of others and to be offensive about the Prophets of God. It is important for world peace that it be made part of the UN Charter that no country will allow any of its citizens to play with the religious sentiments of others. It will not be allowed to destroy world peace in the name of freedom of speech.

(Friday Sermon, September 21, 2012)

In Islamic shari‘ah, restrictions can be placed on freedom of speech for purely secular reasons that apply universally to everyone. Hadrat Khalifatul-Masih IV rta said:

Once you really analyze the whole issue and make it thread- bare, only then can you establish Islam’s claim that it stands for the freedom of human beings while proposing certain restrictions, and there is no contradiction in that claim. Whatever we do, we do keeping the Islamic principles of freedom in view. Where Islam establishes absolute freedom, even there, there are restrictions imposed. For instance, Allah Almighty says:

There is no compulsion in religion (Surah al-Baqarah, 2:257).

However, if a hostile mullah begins to use filthy language against the respected heads of some religious community and says, “It is my liberty and freedom to do whatever I please,” will you not restrict him? Will you not impose certain laws to stop him from insulting others? If you do not, then you give him freedom but you put restrictions on the freedom of his opponents. They are left with no choice but either to listen to that filth or to counter in the same language. If that freedom is given to them as well, what would become of society? The whole society would turn into a society of invectives and the foulest languages. This is not going to stop there, ultimately it is going to excite the whole society to such a frenzy as will result in killings and stabbings and murders and looting and so on and so forth. All this under the name of freedom? Freedom has to be defined. The concept of freedom is for the wellbeing of society, not for the detriment of society as such. If freedom is misused to a degree that the whole society begins to suffer, or is likely to suffer, then such freedom has to be qualified and some rules and regulations are to be applied. This is the general philosophy under which the present governments also make their rules and regulations. All that is to be done by Islam will be done under these general principles. The Holy Quran gives these principles in details. For instance, at one place it says:

There should be no compulsion in religion. Surely, right has become distinct from wrong (Surah al-Baqarah, 2:257).

And at another place it says:

And revile not those whom they call upon beside Allah, lest they, out of spite, revile Allah in their ignorance (Surah al-An‘am, 6:109).

Under the general headline, it says that there is no compulsion in religion, but it is further defined. As far as Muslims are concerned, they are not permitted to call their opponents or their false Gods bad names. In religion, a restriction is imposed, but to begin with on your own people. That is a very beautiful principle laid down by Islam. Whatever restriction, in the name of morality, that will be imposed on non-Muslims would first be imposed on Muslims. That will show that Islam is just in its attitude. No restriction will be imposed on non-Muslims which Islam first does not impose on its own followers. Such restrictions belong not to religious affairs, but to the social affairs. Only in the name of social affairs will such restrictions be imposed.

(Question Answer Session, Aug 2, 1985).
Updated on January 4, 2019

Was this article helpful?

Related Articles