Freedom of Expression in Islam
By. Dr. Amir Parviz Parsa

Islam is sometimes criticized by its enemies to lack any regards for freedom of expression. What these critics do not realize is that only fundamental laws [such as Do not Kill, Do Not Steal, etc] are created by God, in the forms of commandments given to us through God’s Prophets. Muslims believe,
rightfully, that such fundamental Divine laws should not be changed. But God has been gracious to tell His Prophet how to run the society of his time, and the times thereafter ─such as ours─ by allowing what is called Ijmaa’ [Consensus of the Jurisprudents and/or Unanimous view of the Knowledgeable Scholars on a given subject].

It is the purpose of this article to show that freedom of expression is not only existing in Islam, and tolerated, but also encouraged.

Evidence will be cited from various parts of the Glorious Quran which clearly show that freedom of expression is well-respected even by Allah (swt) for His creation. There will also be some brief reference to Islamic Literature, other than the Holy Quran, which will be cited as further evidence.

On Freedom of Expression:
1. Verse 260 of Surah 2 of the Holy Quran says:

وَإِذْ قَالَ إِبْرَاهِيمُ رَبِّ أَرِنِي كَيْفَ تُحْيِـي الْمَوْتَى قَالَ أَوَلَمْ تُؤْمِن قَالَ بَلَى وَلَـكِن لِّيَطْمَئِنَّ قَلْبِي قَالَ فَخُذْ أَرْبَعَةً مِّنَ الطَّيْرِ فَصُرْهُنَّ إِلَيْكَ ثُمَّ اجْعَلْ عَلَى كُلِّ جَبَلٍ مِّنْهُنَّ جُزْءًا ثُمَّ ادْعُهُنَّ يَأْتِينَكَ سَعْيًا وَاعْلَمْ أَنَّ اللّهَ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ
Behold! Abraham said: “My Lord! Show me how thou give life to the dead.”
He said: “Don’t you believe?” Abraham answered: “Yes! But to satisfy my own understanding [To assure my hear]:God then said: “Take four birds; Tame them to turn to thee; put a portion of them on four hills, and call to them: They will come to thee (Flying) with speed. Then know that God is exalted in Power, All-Wise.”

Think about this verse a little and ask yourself: Did God tolerate Abraham’s curiosity or not? Could not God tell Abraham, that the subject should be none of Abraham’s concern! And did He do so? Or, rather, did God graciously allow Abraham to be curious, and to speak freely, even giving him instructions on how to satisfy his curiosity [assure his heart] by a prescribed set of actions that Abraham was supposed to do?

The answer is obvious. And when God Almighty Himself allows this privilege, who are we, to take it away? Why can’t we adhere to the same Code of Graciousness that Allah (swt) showed and has granted to Abraham, to satisfy his curious mind and heart?

In yet another verse of the Quran we are told not to blindly follow everything; and if we do, our ears, our eyes, and our hearts would be responsible for it (Verse 36 of Surah 17):

وَلاَ تَقْفُ مَا لَيْسَ لَكَ بِهِ عِلْمٌ إِنَّ السَّمْعَ وَالْبَصَرَ وَالْفُؤَادَ كُلُّ أُولـئِكَ كَانَ عَنْهُ مَسْؤُولاً
And follow not that of which you have not the knowledge; surely the hearing and the sight and the heart, all of these, shall be questioned about that.

 2. Verse 256 of Surah 2 of the Holy Quran says:

لاَ إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ قَد تَّبَيَّنَ الرُّشْدُ مِنَ الْغَيِّ …ٌ
Let there be no compulsion in Religion….

meaning that if anyone wants to go to a religion, be it Islam, or otherwise, he is to do it on his own free will, rather than by being compelled or coerced to do so. The reason is obvious: Further down in the same verse the reason is given to us!

… قَد تَّبَيَّنَ الرُّشْدُ مِنَ الْغَيِّ فَمَنْ يَكْفُرْ بِالطَّاغُوتِ وَيُؤْمِن بِاللّهِ فَقَدِ اسْتَمْسَكَ بِالْعُرْوَةِ الْوُثْقَىَ لاَ انفِصَامَ لَهَا وَاللّهُ سَمِيعٌ عَلِيمٌ
Truth stands out from error: whoever rejects Evil and believes in God ,has grasped the most trustworthy Hand-hold, that never breaks, and God hears and knows all things.

So, if anyone says: There is no God but Allah, whether be a Muslim, a Christian, or Jew, he must have arrived at that freely, without coercion, and he is even free not to announce it as that is between him and God.

3. The latter portion of Verse 107 of Surah 6 which is addressed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), His Own Messenger, says:

…ْ وَمَا جَعَلْنَاكَ عَلَيْهِمْ حَفِيظًا وَمَا أَنتَ عَلَيْهِم بِوَكِيلٍ
…and We have not appointed you a keeper over them, and you are not placed in charge of them.

In here, Allah (swt) is telling His Prophet that you have only a mission: to give My message to people, but you are not their
”Wakeel “ which in Arabic literally means a Protector, an attorney, or Advocate. The clear implication is that the Prophet (pbuh), should recognize the limit of his responsibility and has no right to carry it too far by imposing it on them. He is only a Warner and Giver of Glad Tydings, but he has no right to impose the faith on any one.

4. Verse 41 of Surah 39 tells us:

إِنَّا أَنزَلْنَا عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ لِلنَّاسِ بِالْحَقِّ فَمَنِ اهْتَدَى فَلِنَفْسِهِ وَمَن ضَلَّ فَإِنَّمَا يَضِلُّ عَلَيْهَا وَمَا أَنتَ عَلَيْهِم بِوَكِيلٍ
Verily We have revealed the Book to thee in Truth, for instructing mankind. He, then, that receives guidance benefits his own soul: But he that strays, injures his own soul. Nor are thou set over them to dispose of their affairs.

Again, the word used at the end of the quoted Ayah is “Wakeel” meaning: Advocate (or defender, attorney, or one responsible for them). Indeed, in five different verses in the Holy Quran God says: “No one carries the burdens of the actions of other individuals” (Laa Tazer wazeraton wezra okhra).

5. Verse 70 of Surah 17 talks about an “Honored” status that Allah Taala has Graciously endowed His human beings:

وَلَقَدْ كَرَّمْنَا بَنِي آدَمَ وَحَمَلْنَاهُمْ فِي الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ وَرَزَقْنَاهُم مِّنَ الطَّيِّبَاتِ وَفَضَّلْنَاهُمْ عَلَى كَثِيرٍ مِّمَّنْ خَلَقْنَا تَفْضِيلاً
We have honored the sons of Adam; provided them with transport on land and sea; given them for sustenance things good and pure; and conferred on them special favors, above a great part of Our Creation.”

Please recall that God Almighty, in His Wisdom, made animals, plants, birds, etc, all subjected orsubordinated to human beings. They constitute, at times, part of our food and diet. The Arabic word that God Almighty has utilized in this verse is “Fadh’lna” which literally means “We Preferred over” and then the adverb: “Tafdheelan” is added to emphasize it. Indeed We preferred such a preference to allow human beings to have domination upon other creatures of us! Cited conversations between Prophets and God on the one hand, and between their followers on the other hand, clearly show their freedom of expressing their thoughts. More verses will be cited on this at a later point.

6. Rumi, The Persian Poet [Molana Jalaleddin Rumi Molavi] relates an interesting but figurative story about God Almighty and a simple farmers.

The farmer was praying to God in his own simple language telling God allow me to wash your cloth, fix your scarf, clean your garment, bring you milk to drink, sacrifice for you my goats, and so forth, (as if he was talking with God, imagining God as a human being with human needs!) The shepherd had full devotion in his heart to be having the pleasure of conversing with God.

Moses heard the shepherd’s talks and thought of them to be disrespectful to God Almighty and considered what was uttered by the man to be blasphemous and disrespectful.

Moses lectured the shepherd on a proper method of talking to God and how to praise Him. The shepherd felt intensely sad and off he went to the desert ashamed as to why he had said what he had said, the way he had said it, and how belittled he felt because of his own stupidity, not recognized until Moses told him.

According to Rumi, revelation came to Moses, saying : Why did you turn Our servant away from Us, discouraging him sadly? Don’t you know that your mission is to gather human beings together with Me, rather than causing them to go away? Get up quickly, go after him, apologize to him, bring him back home, be kind to him, feed him, while you realize that We hear the supplication of everyone, no matter how they put it in words.

Indeed words do not matter too much to Me while I am aware of what is there in their hearts! Moses did so and offered his apology to the shepherd and to God Almighty also.

Rumi, (who was one of the great poets of then Persia now Iran), adds to the facts by saying that it is NOT the words, or the type of language one uses in his/her supplication; rather, it is the purity of the heart, mind, and soul, plus the degree of sincerity (Ikhlaas) and devotion which truly matters in one’s supplications.

An excellent lesson to be learned from this tale. God Almighty emphasizes to Moses that We are not looking at the manner of how one offers his supplication, but We look at their hearts and the shape of their sincerity when they utter what they say. Quite interesting! Isn’t it?

7. Remember we have already established the fact that it is what is there in your hearts which matters, rather than how you say it, whether in beautiful language, or casual conversation manner, God hears it anyway. Verses 12 and 13 of Surah 67, tells us the following:

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ يَخْشَوْنَ رَبَّهُم بِالْغَيْبِ لَهُم مَّغْفِرَةٌ وَأَجْرٌ كَبِيرٌ

وَأَسِرُّوا قَوْلَكُمْ أَوِ اجْهَرُوا بِهِ إِنَّهُ عَلِيمٌ بِذَاتِ الصُّدُورِ

As for those who fear their Lord unseen, for them is Forgiveness and a great reward.

And whether you hide your word or make it publicly clear (by publishing it), He certainly has full knowledge of the secrets of all hearts.

This same concept is repeated in other verses of the Holy Quran.

8. In Verse 5 of Surah 12 of the Holy Quran when Joseph tells his father about his dream in which he had seen eleven stars plus the sun and the moon prostrating themselves to Joseph (pbuh), his father Jacob (pbuh), does not tell him don’t speak up at all! Rather, he advises Joseph:

قَالَ يَا بُنَيَّ لاَ تَقْصُصْ رُؤْيَاكَ عَلَى إِخْوَتِكَ فَيَكِيدُواْ لَكَ كَيْدًا إِنَّ الشَّيْطَانَ لِلإِنسَانِ عَدُوٌّ مُّبِينٌ
He said: O my son! do not relate your vision to your brothers, lest they devise a plan against you; surely the Shaitan is an open enemy to man.

9. Verse 110 of Surah 17 says:

قُلِ ادْعُواْ اللّهَ أَوِ ادْعُواْ الرَّحْمَـنَ أَيًّا مَّا تَدْعُواْ فَلَهُ الأَسْمَاء الْحُسْنَى وَلاَ تَجْهَرْ بِصَلاَتِكَ وَلاَ تُخَافِتْ بِهَا وَابْتَغِ بَيْنَ ذَلِكَ سَبِيلاً
Say: Call upon Allah or call upon, the Beneficent Allah; whichever you call upon, He has the best names; and do not utter your prayer with a very raised voice nor be silent with regard to it, and seek a way between these.

Again, note that it is NOT what you say, or how you say it, but what your intent is, and God is aware of the intentions and what is in people’s heart, regardless of the mode of language they use.

10. Verse 88 of Surah 19 tells us, referring to some so-called Christians,

وَقَالُوا اتَّخَذَ الرَّحْمَنُ وَلَدًا
They say: (God) Most Gracious has begotten a son!

Note that God Almighty does not deny them the chance to say what they wish to say, or how they want to say it. He merely rejects it in verse 92 of the same Surah:

وَمَا يَنبَغِي لِلرَّحْمَنِ أَن يَتَّخِذَ وَلَدًا
For it is not consonant with the Majesty of God Most Gracious that He should beget a son.

Note that God Himself respects freedom of expression.

11. The names of Moses and Jesus are mentioned repeatedly in the Holy Quran, and when they are spoken of, their words freely uttered, without coercion, are also quoted. Look for example, at Verse 116 of Surah 5:

وَإِذْ قَالَ اللّهُ يَا عِيسَى ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ أَأَنتَ قُلتَ لِلنَّاسِ اتَّخِذُونِي وَأُمِّيَ إِلَـهَيْنِ مِن دُونِ اللّهِ قَالَ سُبْحَانَكَ مَا يَكُونُ لِي أَنْ أَقُولَ مَا لَيْسَ لِي بِحَقٍّ إِن كُنتُ قُلْتُهُ فَقَدْ عَلِمْتَهُ تَعْلَمُ مَا فِي نَفْسِي وَلاَ أَعْلَمُ مَا فِي نَفْسِكَ إِنَّكَ أَنتَ عَلاَّمُ الْغُيُوبِ
And behold! Allah will say: “O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah’?” He will say: “Glory to Thee! never could I say what I had no right (to say). Had I said such a thing, thou wouldst indeed have known it. Thou knowest what is in my heart, Thou I know not what is in Thine. For Thou knowest in full all that is hidden.

Or in Verse 118 of the same Surah:

إِن تُعَذِّبْهُمْ فَإِنَّهُمْ عِبَادُكَ وَإِن تَغْفِرْ لَهُمْ فَإِنَّكَ أَنتَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ
If Thou dost punish them, they are thy servants: If Thou dost forgive them, Thou are the Exalted in Power, the Wise.

Remember also that Prophet Jesus (pbuh), did not bar his disciples from wishing and wanting a Table of food (Maa’ida) set from heaven, and even prayed to get it from God for them, maybe to strengthen their faith, and he actually got it too.

Verse 112 and113 of Surah 5 say:

إِذْ قَالَ الْحَوَارِيُّونَ يَا عِيسَى ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ هَلْ يَسْتَطِيعُ رَبُّكَ أَن يُنَزِّلَ عَلَيْنَا مَآئِدَةً مِّنَ السَّمَاء قَالَ اتَّقُواْ اللّهَ إِن كُنتُم مُّؤْمِنِينَ

قَالُواْ نُرِيدُ أَن نَّأْكُلَ مِنْهَا وَتَطْمَئِنَّ قُلُوبُنَا وَنَعْلَمَ أَن قَدْ صَدَقْتَنَا وَنَكُونَ عَلَيْهَا مِنَ الشَّاهِدِينَ

Behold! the disciples, said: “O Jesus the son of Mary! can thy Lord send down to us a table set (with viands) from heaven?” Said Jesus: “Fear Allah, if ye have faith.”

They said: “We only wish to eat thereof and satisfy our hearts, and to know that thou hast indeed told us the truth; and that we ourselves may be witnesses to the miracle.”

Is this not freedom for the disciples to freely express what they wanted of God Al-Mighty, without Jesus preventing them from expressing what they wanted?

CONCLUSION: verses cited from the Holy Quran as mentioned above without a shadow of doubts demonstrate that Freedom of Expression does exist in Islam. The Founders of the U.S. Constitution included that in the document. If our behavior is such that we do NOT respect God’s commandments, that is one thing. But it is quite another thing to have been given God’s commandments and instructions and then for us human beings to neglect or ignore them. The latter is our fault.