Making Islamic sense of free speech

While many celebrated the winter holidays, news broke of the arrest in Saudi Arabia of liberal writer Turki Al Hamad … Continued

While many celebrated the winter holidays, news broke of the arrest in Saudi Arabia of liberal writer Turki Al Hamad for allegedly insulting Islam on Twitter.  We also heard of another Saudi activist, Raif Badawi, who was arrested in June and will now continue with his trial, accused of apostasy for ridiculing Saudi Arabia’s religious police and making other comments that officials found insulting.  These incidents have re-ignited the age old debate about the use of freedom of speech, especially with regards to Islam. 

The difference between Islam’s view on free speech and the view promoted by free speech advocates these days is the intention and ultimate goal each seeks to promote.  Whereas many secularists champion individual privileges, Islam promotes the principle of uniting mankind and cultivating love and understanding among people.  Both endorse freedom for people to express themselves, but Islam promotes unity, whereas modern-day free speech advocates promote individualism.

Let me explain.

The ultimate goal of Islam is to unite mankind under a single banner of peace.  The Koran– Islam’s holy scripture – says God created everyone in unity, but our own man-made differences has compromised our unity (2:214).  In order to unite mankind, Islam instructs to only use speech to be truthful, do good to others, and be fair and respectful.  It attempts to pre-empt frictions by prescribing rules of conduct which guarantee for all people not only freedom of speech but also fairness, absolute justice, and the right of disagreement.

The Koran instructs people to speak the truth (33:71), to speak in a manner that is best (17:54), to speak to others kindly (2:84) and to refrain from inappropriate speech (4:149). With Islam’s guidance to purify our intentions, it promotes free speech when our intention is to serve a good purpose, promote peace, bring people closer to God and unite mankind.  If, however, our intentions are to insult others or promote disorder or division, we should refrain. 

The most vocal proponents of freedom of speech, however, call us towards a different path, where people can say anything and everything on their mind. With no restraint on speech at all, every form of provocation would exist, thereby cultivating confrontation and antagonism.  They insist this freedom entitles them the legal privilege to insult others.  This is neither democracy nor freedom of speech.  It fosters animosity, resentment and disorder.

Rather than focusing on privileges, Islam focuses on the principle to avoid speech that causes separation and conflict. Our words should have a positive impact on people’s lives, promote truth and promote justice.  We agree with former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, who once said: “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.”  Treating speech as supreme at the expense of world peace and harmony is an incredibly flawed concept. No matter how important the cause of free speech, it still pales in comparison to the cause of world peace and unity.

Opponents of Islam claim it denies freedom of speech and censors those who insult Islam.  This is factually incorrect.  Islam does not prescribe any worldly punishment for unseemly speech.  So people who insult should not be persecuted.  Islam grants everyone the right to express disagreements with others.  After all, the Prophet Muhammad called differences of opinion a blessing in society and never sought to censor or threaten those who verbally attacked him.

According to the Koran, disbelievers called him “a mad man,” “a victim of deception,” a “fabricator” and treated him as a liar.  Some claimed he was taught by another person instead of receiving revelations from God.  They called the Koran “confused dreams” and “mere stories of the past” and even tore it into pieces.

Through this all, he courageously endured all verbal assaults.  Rather than calling for any punishment, the Koran instructs us to “overlook their annoying talk” and “bear patiently what they say.”  The lesson here for all Muslims is that we are not to be afraid of insults.  Rather, we must have the same courage as our Prophet to face such insults in the eye and respond with forbearance and calm, righteous speech.  Muslims must learn how their faith instructs them to respond when they are verbally attacked.  No riots; no violence.  We respond to speech with speech, but our speech is to be better and more dignified.

So while antagonists and enemies of peace create slanderous videos, cartoons or advertisements – like the “Innocence of Muslims” film, Pamela Geller’s new ignorant NYC subway ads and Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon about Prophet Muhammad – let us not fall for their claim that an individual’s privilege to say whatever they want is more important than the higher principle of uniting people and saving this planet from a path of animosity, hatred and destruction.  Rather than falsely accusing Islam of censorship, let us understand the beauty of giving higher consideration to mankind over our own personal privileges.  And let us listen to the wisdom of the Khalifa of Islam, His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad, who said: “Let it not be that in the name of freedom of speech the peace of the entire world be destroyed.”


Harris Zafar is National Spokesperson for Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA – among the eldest Muslim organizations in America – and a frequently lecturer about Islam throughout the country.  He can be contacted by email ([email protected]) and followed on Twitter (@Harris_Zafar).



  • rodulfo-tardo


  • Kmt

    There are many good comments and observations above. If you want to read an excellent novel explaining the jihadist, islamist way of doing things, I highly recommend Leon Uris’ book, The Haj. It really explains the constant battling between the various factions of Islam. Sad for our islamist brothers here in America is they don’t realize their version of peace is hated by their overseas brethren and will be punished with all so-called infidels if Mr. Obama doesn’t start addressing terrorism and continues to let them invade our land and our government.

  • staffsgt71

    wow – all the koran verses that were quoted were abrogated to one degree or other. How about more than half of the koran, hadith, and sharia would have to be censored too! Go to a mosque and you will find such intolerant and nasty literature there – the mosque wouldn’t have any books at all. Most of them are just following what the koran teaches – intolerance. It teaches that non-moslems are pigs, apes, dirt and should be killed or subjugated. How about islam that still has slavery alive and well in many of its islamic countries – some moslems even in prison in the USA for bringing their slaves with them!

    While most religions relegated the violence to history and do not practice it anymore – islam does not. Deception is a primary directive in it – a big part of jihad and also part of their zakat is required to fund their violent jihadists. So – it seems islam itself should be censored!

    So, read islam’s texts and stop taking the moslem’s word for it since they are required to deceive us. It will explain why there is a total lack of empathy for the killing sprees that are going on world wide – started by moslems who then act like they are the victims when their targets start fighting back.

  • ThomasBaum

    Harris Zafar

    You wrote, “And let us listen to the wisdom of the Khalifa of Islam, His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad, who said: “Let it not be that in the name of freedom of speech the peace of the entire world be destroyed.””

    In other words, “Let it not be in the name of freedom that the subjugation of humanity was not accomplished”.

    Partial freedom of speech is not freedom of speech just as partial free will is not free will, not even close and what this article claims as freedom of speech, in an islamic sense, is partial freedom of speech.

  • CMartel732

    Obama is essentially a Muslim. During his speech to the UN General Assembly ( 9/25/12) Mr. Obama proclaimed,

    ” The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.”

    The exact opposite must be true or the West is doomed.

  • pkeyrich

    Zafar is either ignorant of accepted Islamic history, including authoritative Islamic sources, or he is practicing taqiyya (deception.) Muhammad dealt harshly with those who dared to mock or criticize him, including ordering their assassination.

    ACT! for America added:
    Harris Zafar defines “free speech” in a way that can only be described as classic doublespeak.

    Zafar’s premise reminds us of a column written by Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, which appeared in The Wall Street Journal on October 8, 2009. Gomaa wrote:

    We have upheld the right of freedom of conscience, and the freedom of expression, within the bounds of common decency…

    We are committed to human liberty within the bounds of Islamic law. [emphasis added]

    Who defines what is “common decency?” Sharia law, of course. For example, “common decency” does not include the right to criticize Islam.

    The Organization of Islamic Cooperation is fighting, with the help of our State Department, to get UN Resolution 16/18 passed. This resolution calls on nations to prohibit speech about religion that incites people to violence.

    Once again, we see who claims authority to define what speech should be protected and what speech prohibited. This is stealth jihad at its stealthiest.

    See if you can spot the doublespeak and the questions about who and what define what is acceptable and permitted speech.

    Here’s an example to get you started: “…it [Islam] promotes free speech when our intention is to serve a good purpose…” “Good purposes” in sharia law include “fighting in the cause of Allah” (jihad) against anyone who opposes Islam, but do not include questioning anything Muhammad said.

  • gordonsgirl

    CMartel732 is right on. This country needs to wake up! Serrano’s submission of a repeal of the 22nd amendment (limiting the President’s term of office) has its origin in the White House. Zafar’s diatribe of double speak is meant to appease those who have a raised concern. Free speech must be protected – even Mr. Zafar’s right to state his opinion.

  • Rawnaq

    I cant’ see how my comment violated the discussion policy.

    Please, would the admin appoint to the violence part of my comment

  • Rawnaq

    I cant’ see how my comment violated the discussion policy.

    Please, would the admin point to the violence part of my comment

    Why the moderator deleted my reply? Where the freedom of speech?

  • ccnl1

    This blog like many others probably is using a word/word fragment filter. Hyphenate some of the words/fragments that a filter might flag.

  • ccnl1

    I used s-ex, h-omo, cu-m and t-it as examples in my first reply and my comments were not posted so that should give you some examples.

  • Abey

    Zafar asserts:
    ” Both endorse freedom for people to express themselves, but Islam promotes unity, whereas modern-day free speech advocates promote individualism.”
    The unity that Islam promotes is one under the banner of Islam, which automatically cancels the notion of freedom of choice.Freedom of speech should advocate ideas in the marketplace of ideas so people can chose and not be herded like goats to any one spring.

  • leibowde84

    If people aren’t free to criticize religions, the religion itself is too dangerous to exist. Understanding that systems of faith are mere theories that can and have been altered throughout time to benefit certain social groups, it seems overly dangerous to legally protect one specific faith from any questioning or dissection. Nothing should be free from criticism!

  • geoff_periakis1

    Mr. Zafar is not exactly telling the whole story. Nothing new in that kind of argument, except that the subject is a little dearer to our hearts: free speech. I dont support hate speech. The question is what qualifies as actual hate speech, and what the politically or intellectually insufficient call hate speech. I’ve seen a number of quite reasonable challenges to Islamism or Islamic supremacism lumped into the former by the latter.

    Mr. Zafar specifies that:

    “Rather than focusing on privileges, Islam focuses on the principle to avoid speech that causes separation and conflict.”

    Well…sort of. Islamic countries focus on stopping free speech that insults _Islam_ specifically, and not minority religions. Conservative imams regularly insult other religions from the safety of the pulpit without being charged with hate crimes; some Islamic services actually contain liturgical curses against Jews and Christians. In that climate, it’s difficult to agree with Mr. Zafar’s thesis that Islamic discourse protects against separation and conflict.

    Then again, since Islamic nations essentially uniformly suppress such religions to one extent or another, it could be argued – in a twist of the spirit of discourse that would have George Orwell turning in his grave – that Islam does indeed focus on ways of avoiding conflict: by crushing all differences in favour of itself. Certainly fewer people challenge religious orthodoxy in Islamic countries, at risk of life, limb and liberty. Not a situation one should encourage or permit, however. We have better, more reasonable ways.

    When it comes to discussions of the religions and ethical limits to free speech, weasel words aren’t helpful. Maybe that would be the first and best kind of free speech to suppress. So long as there is such religious inequality, it’s best to challenge the orthodoxy of hate regularly and unequivocally, which I will continue to do.

  • geoff_periakis1

    I note that at no time does Mr. Zafar express any solidarity with those very bloggers he cites as having been arrested for their activism.

    Telling, perhaps.

  • ThomasBaum


    You wrote, “Conservative imams regularly insult other religions from the safety of the pulpit without being charged with hate crimes; some Islamic services actually contain liturgical curses against Jews and Christians.”

    This is what satan, the god of islam, teaches thru the koran, you are just pointing this out, aren’t you, this doesn’t come as a surprise to you, does it?

  • David Gifford

    Lots of interesting comments so far. What is missing is a defense of free speech. It is not a “priviledge” as the author states, but an essential right of any free people. Without free speech politicians and religious leaders (cough cough) can hide their crimes and corruption behind false claims that their critics are being “offensive” or “disruptive” or that they “foster animosity, resentment and disorder.” Without free speech people are made slaves to any authority, secular or religious, with the power to make such false accusations.

  • leibowde84

    Islam inhibits the free flow of ideas. This can be most easily seen by it’s denial of any speech that insults “Islam” itself. Any religion that condemns those who disagree with it is a destructive one. I’m willing to live harmoniously with everyone, but I will never ever join the Islamic tradition. There is too much wrong with it.

  • Kepha

    Look, you make fun of the Jews or Christians, they will either shrug it off or pray for you that you see the light. Making fun of Islam and Muslims, however, puts your life on the line. That’s why I say to Comedy Central and the Wshington Post, with my arms flapping and thumbs tucked in my armpits, “buck-buck-buck-AAA! Buck-buck-buck-AAAA!”

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