There is no freedom of thought and expression in Islam [Part 1]

Saswati Sarkar
Saswati SarkarJan 14, 2015 | 16:13

There is no freedom of thought and expression in Islam [Part 1]

Indic religions have had a time honored tradition of debate on core doctrines of theological principles. As scholar Sitaram Goel notes, in early history of Hinduism we come across a few compendium of all schools of thought. Rather than postulating that "all schools are valid, they present expositions of various points of view together with a critique of them by the compiler concerned. What is more telling is the hoary Hindu history of shastrartha (debate) going back to the Vedas. In subsequent ages, we come across lively debates among the main schools of Sanatana Dharma - six systems of philosophy on which Buddhism, Jainism, Vedanta, Shaivism, Shaktism and Vaishnavism are based. Each of these schools has bequeathed to posterity a vast literature defending its own position and demolishing those of all others. Then there is a lot of debate among the sects within each school, following the same pattern. The language of these debates is not always refined. Quite often, it is harsh, and occasionally downright derisive."  None of these debates have however called for physical violence. He goes on to add: "In the long history of shastrartha we do not come across a single instance of any school or sect calling for suppression of any other school or sect, or mobilising its adherents to stage street riots in its support or against one another." Preface, p. 16-17, [1]. Indeed, renowned philosopher Adi Shankaracharya consolidated and propagated the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta through discourses and debates with thinkers of other schools, namely the Mimamsa, Sankhya and Buddhism [7]. The freedom of thought and expression ingrained in Hinduism  perhaps facilitated legal and social reforms that redressed the later malaises such as sati and untouchability, without substantial resistance. Hinduism continues to be  subjected to scrutiny on the residues of the same without detrimental consequences on the critics.  


Moving on from Indic schools of theology, among the Abrahamic faiths,  in its early ages, Christianity resisted debates of its core principles and severely penalised heretics and apostates. Old Testament for example prescribes death penalty for those intending to worship other Gods [4]. Naturally, within two centuries of the conversion of the Roman empire to Christianity, emperor Justinian closed down the last of the pagan academies of philosophy in Athens - the one where Plato had taught - and Europe entered the dark ages. [2], p. 61, [3]. In subsequent ages, starting  12th century AD, the Catholic church commissioned brutal torture of heretics through inquisition in Europe, Americas and Asia.[6] As late as in the 17th century AD, Galelio was tried merely because his scientific findings contradicted biblical scriptures [5].

Intolerances in the practices of Christianity has however been largely remedied in countries where it constitutes the majority religion through reform movements and subjection to critical appraisal. In 1767 Voltaire had written: "[Christianity] is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this world p  715, [8]". He also said: It is characteristic of fanatics who read the holy scriptures to tell themselves: God killed, so I must kill; Abraham lied, Jacob deceived, Rachel stole: so I must steal, deceive, lie. But, wretch, you are neither Rachel, nor Jacob, nor Abraham, nor God; you are just a mad fool, and the popes who forbade the reading of the Bible were extremely wise p 199 [9]. Between 1872-1970, Bertrand Russell had appraised Christ applying universal moral principles outside the dogma of established religions: "There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ's moral character, and that is that he believed in Hell. I do not myself feel that any person that is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find a repeatedly vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching - an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence. You do not, for instance, find that attitude in Socrates" p. 11, [10].


Russel is therefore comparing the son of God with an ordinary mortal here. Yet, he was awarded the order of the merit and the nobel prize in literature. Dr Koenraad Elst has cited several fierce criticisms of Christianity voiced in Europe during 1980-2000. Karl-Heinz Deschner surveyed the criminal history of Christianity: its scriptural fraud, complicity in social evils, disruption of the pagan majority culture, capture of state power by all means, persecution of pagans, falsification of history and book burning. Pierre Gripari has pointed out the racist trait in Abraham's family: Ismael is rejected as Abraham's son as his mother is Egyptian, Issau is rejected as Issac's heir as he has taken wives from the Hittite family. Bible scholar Michael Arnheim has argued that Gospel consists of innumerable concoctions and distortions. Flemish psychologist and Bible scholar Dr Herman Sommers have argued that Jesus suffered from pathological delusion pp. 106-109 [1]. Their scholarly contributions have been celebrated, and most certainly did not instigate mass violence among Christians in Europe.

Islam has however escaped large scale critical scrutiny despite, or may be because, such endeavors have incited violent reprisals and mass violence throughout its history. It is therefore imperative that the root cause of this intolerance, which has only exacerbated over time,  be identified unless we want to remain content with only one freedom of expression, that of lauding Islam. An honest investigation can not rule out any contributory cause apriori, including the impact of core doctrines of Islam on the value its practitioners associate with freedom of thought and expression. Since a host of intellectuals, political leaders, premiers of nations have already delinked Islam from large scale violence practiced in its name [36-40], I would highlight a contrarian position, that core principles of Islam are in conflict with freedom of thought and expression. For, if this is indeed the case, the educational curriculum worldwide must teach students to reject those  principles that are in conflict with modern universal civilisational values (this should perhaps be done for all religions but given the history of last fifty years the priority ought to be Islam). Such a systematic and rational approach would insulate practitioners of Islam, most of whom are as good samaritans as those following any other religion, from discriminatory backlash arising in response to the history alluded above.  


Core doctrines of Islam: Freedom of Thought

No free will on matters on which Allah or his messenger has decided 

The Quran contains the revelations of the Prophet of Islam; it is the word of God for Muslims. The Hadith contains all that the Prophet "did or said, or enjoined, forbade or did not forbid, approved or disapproved" p. vii, [42]. Quran provides basic Islamic beliefs concerning the existence of God as also worldly matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, interactions with infidels, war. Hadith provides the Prophet's views on religious matters (Allah, hell, heaven, faith, prayer, fast, pilgrimage) and worldly matters (holy war, war booty, crime and punishment, food, drink, clothing, personal decoration, hunting and sacrifices, poets and soothsayers, women and slaves, gifts, inheritances, dowries, toilet, ablution, bathing, dreams, christianing, medicine, vows, oaths, testaments, images, pictures, dogs, lizards, ants). As Ibn Warraq puts, "The Quran and the Sunna (Hadiths) are the expressions of God's command, the definitive and inscrutable will of Allah that must be obeyed absolutely, without doubts, without questions, and without qualifications." Chapter 6, [41]. Quoting Quran 33:36 "It is not for a believing man or a believing woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decided a matter, that they should [thereafter] have any choice about their affair. And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger has certainly strayed into clear error."[43] In other words, Islam expressly forbids choice in the wide range of issues - spiritual and worldly - which Quran and Hadith have rcovered. Freedom of thought is understood to be the freedom of an individual to hold or consider a fact, viewpoint, or thought, independent of others' viewpoints. Islam therefore infringes significantly on its practioners' freedom of thought.

Freedom of thought has consequences


We now examine the consequences that Islam inflicts on free will on a few issues on which Allah has ruled. We start with apostasy - the abandonment or renunciation of Islam by an individual. The Prophet of Islam  had decreed death penalty for apostates. We cite two instances to establish the same.

We quote verbatim from Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah, the earliest biography of the Prophet p. 552, [32]: "The apostle had instructed his commanders when they entered Mecca only to fight those who resisted them, except a small number who were to be killed even if they were found beneath the curtains of Ka'ba. Among them was Abdulla B' Sa'ad, the brother of the B. Amir. b. Lu'ayy. The reason he ordered him to be killed was that he had been a Muslim and used to write down revelations; then he apostatised and returned to Quraysh and fled to Uthhman B Affan whose foster brother he was. The latter hid him until he brought him to the apostle after the situation in Mecca was tranquil, and asked that he might be granted immunity. They allege that the apostle remained silent for a long time till finally he said yes. When Uthman had left he said to his companions who were sitting around him, 'I kept silent so that one of you might get up and strike off his head!' One of the Ansar said, 'then why didn't you give me a sign, O, Apostle of God?' He answered that a Prophet does not kill by pointing."  We quote the second instance verbatim from Shahi Bukhari, quoted in Dictionary of Islam, pp. 63-64 and cited in Chapter 16, [41]: "Some people from the tribe of 'Ukl came to the Prophet and embraced Islam; but the air of Medina did not agree with them, and they wanted to leave the place. And  the Prophet ordered them to go where the camels given in alms were assembled, and to drink their milk which they did, and recovered from their sickness. But after this they became apostates, and renounced Islam, and stole  the camels. Then the Prophet sent some people after them, and they were seized and brought back to Medina. Then the Prophet ordered their hands and their feet to be cut off as punishment for theft, and their eyes to be pulled out. But the Prophet did not stop the bleeding, and they died."    

Doubts, Scepticism, Concealing

Islamic scriptures refer to those who pretend to accept Islam to save their lives, but cling to polytheism or Judaism at heart as hypocrites. The Jewish rabbis who wanted to prove the apostle a liar and annoyed him with questions and introduced confusion are referred to as hypocrites p. 239, [32]. The similitude of a  hypocrite is also given as a sheep which roams aimlessly between two flocks. She goes to one at one time and another at another time (6696, 36th book, Kitab Sifat al-Munafiqin wa Ahkamihim, Sahih Muslim) p 243, [42]. Thus, doubters, skeptics, men of incomplete faith, those who entertain questions about apostleship of Muhammad are also hypocrites. Either way, the hypocrites clearly didn't endear them to the Prophet as he repeatedly threatened them with blazing hellfire. The Quranic scholars assigned the hottest region of the hell for them, the Hawaiah. Indeed, 9:68 of Quran says: "Allah has promised the hypocrite men and hypocrite women and the disbelievers the fire of Hell, wherein they will abide eternally. It is sufficient for them. And Allah has cursed them, and for them is an enduring punishment" [47].

Disbelief or Infidelity

At this point, it will be no surprise that Islam prescribes brutal punishments for the infidels, that is those who never accepted Islam, for no reason other than being infidels (eg, 8:12, 8:36,  Chapter 5:33-34) pp. 5-8 [51] citing [48-50] Quran enjoins Muslims to engage in jihad or religious wars against infidels (9:29) p, 9 in [54],[52-55].

Quran 8:12 When your Lord inspired to the angels, "I am with you, so strengthen those who have believed. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip [56].

Quran 5:33 Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth (to cause) corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment [57].

Quran 9:29 Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture - (fight) until they give the jizyah willingly while they are humbled [58].


Core doctrines of Islam: Freedom of Expression

A doctrine that is in fundamental conflict with freedom of thought will but naturally deny freedom of expression. This is borne out by the fact that Muhammad had had poets assassinated for merely composing  poems deriding him. We describe the corresponding incidents.

Muhammad had defeated the Quraish tribe of Mecca in the battle of Badr in 624 AD. A Jewish leader in Medina Ka'b bin al-Ashraf subsequently composed several poems lamenting the victims of Quraysh who had been killed at Badr. He had also composed amatory verses of an insulting nature about  Muslim women after a Muslim woman mocked him as a slave. Mohammad asked  his followers "who would rid me of Obnu'l Ashraf?" A team consisting of the poet's foster brother was formed for assassination. When Ka'b was sleeping at night with his newly wedded wife, the foster brother invited him out. Without heeding to his wife's warnings on the risks involved, he stepped out in the firm belief that his foster brother would do him no harm. Walking with his friends away from his home, Ka'b suspected no foul play until he was stabbed to death.  The apostle was duly informed of the success of the mission by the end of the night. There was no Jew in medina who did not fear for his life henceforth pp. 364-369 [32].

It seems that the Prophet took grave offense to satire. An apostate Abdullah b. Khatal had "two singing girls who used to sing satirical songs about the Apostle." He ordered that both should be killed along with him. One of the singing girls was killed, while the other escaped, and was later pardoned p. 551, [32].     

The next victim was the Jewish poet Abu Afak. He composed a poem expressing his disappointment when the apostle killed al-Harith b. Suwayd. Ibn Ishaq writes "The apostle said, 'Who will deal with this rascal for me?' Whereupon Salim b. Umayr, brother of B. Amr b. Auf, one of the "weepers", went forth and killed him." p. 675 [32].

Next, a woman of the Ummayad clan of Medina, Asma Bint Marwan composed the following verse blaming Islam and its followers for the assassination of Abu Afak:"I despise B. Malik and al-Nabit and Auf and B. al-Khazraj. You obey a stranger who is none of yours,One not of Murad or Maddhij.Do you expect good from him after the killing of your chiefsLike a hungry man waiting for a cook's broth?Is there no man of pride who would attack him by surpriseAnd cut off the hopes of those who expect aught from him?"

When the apostle heard he called upon his followers to "rid him  of Marwan's daughter." p. 676, [32] Umayr b. Adiy al-Khatmi volunteered. Ibn Saad writes: "Umayr Ibn Adi came to her in the night and entered her house. Her children were sleeping around her. There was one whom she was suckling. He searched her with his hand because he was blind, and separated the child from her. He thrust his sword in her chest until it pierced up to her back. Then he offered the morning prayers with the prophet at al-Medina. The apostle of Allah said to him: "Have you slain the daughter of Marwan?" He said: "Yes. Is there something more for me to do?" He [Muhammad] said: "No two goats will butt together about her" pp. 30-31, [59]. Ishaq writes "That was the first day Islam became powerful among her tribe; before that those who were Muslims concealed the fact. The day after Bint Marwan was killed her tribe became Muslims because they saw the power of Islam p. 676, [32]."


Is the conflict with freedom of thought and expression specific to Islam?

A similar  conflict extends to any religion that espouses absolute and inviolable truths, such as other Abrahamic faiths. As Lewis points out "Traditional Christianity and Islam differed from Judaism and agreed with each other in that both claimed to possess not only universal but exclusive truths. Each claimed to be the sole custodian of God's final revelation to mankind. Neither admitted salvation outside its own creed." p. 175, [44]. Thus the core doctrine of Christianity is in conflict with freedom of thought as well. But, the distinction in this case arises from the current practice stemming from the critical appraisal Christianity has been subjected to - we contrast the current practices in greater detail in subsequent sections.

In contrast,  a polytheistic religion may naturally be more conducive to freedom of thought given that it eschews the dogmatic certainty that it alone has access to truth - everyone else is "not only woefully misguided but doomed to perdition and everlasting hellfire" Chapter 5, [41]. We start with the Bhagavad Gita, an important philosophical treatise of  the only major polytheist religion surviving today, Hinduism. In Bhagavad Gita, after his discourse, Krishna eventually leaves the course of action to Arjuna's call:

iti te jñanam akhyatam guhyad guhya-taram maya

vimrsyaitad asesena yathecchasi tatha kuru [BG - 18.63]

This means, "I described to you knowledge more confidential than the confidential. Deliberate on this completely and then do as you like" [46]. Since Krishna is considered to be an Avatara, closest to the concept of Prophet in Hinduism, this suggests that in Hinduism man is entitled to his free will and a superior power will not decide on his behalf.

Next, as we argued in a previous article [66], "Hinduism does not divide the world into the believer and the infidel. That is the Abrahamic view. Whether you believe, or do not believe, the karmic fruit of your actions accrue to you and one can no more escape them than one can escape gravity after jumping off a cliff. This is Hindu thought. Belief is not a means for being saved, nor is unbelief a cause for being damned." Thus, Hinduism does not penalise views, including those that are not consistent with its core doctrines. Naturally, "There is no concept of apostasy in Hinduism. Naturally, Hindus do not either bestow death or any other penalty on deserters (apostates) unlike Islamic law."

Finally,  Hinduism accommodates multiple schools of diverging thoughts - many of these schools are atheists while some are theists. The tradition of debates among different schools, without keeping the core doctrines out of bounds, has ensured freedom of speech. In addition, many Hindus simultaneously observe practices of more than one school. For instance, Buddhist Chinese traveler traveler Xuan Zang (629-645 AD) recalls that king Harsha publicly engaged in sun worship, sacrificed to Shiva and supported Buddhist endeavors (p. 161, [45]).  

Appendix: Reconciling Contradictory Verses of Quran Pertaining to Tolerance

Several verses of Quran however preach tolerance and peace, eg, 2:256 [60] "There shall be no compulsion in (acceptance of) the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in Taghut and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing." Similarly, verses 18:25, 18:126, 109:1-6 are compatible with freedom of thought and expression. Verse 109:1-6 say: O disbelievers!I worship not that which ye worship; Nor worship ye that which I worship. And I shall not worship that which ye worship. Nor will ye worship that which I worship. Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion

The anomaly can be explained if we observe that many of these conciliatory verses were revealed during the initial days of his preaching - in Mecca when he was yet to receive sufficient traction. Islam moved from strength to strength once he moved to Medina. The Quranic verses cited in the preceding section as also the incidents mentioned from the Prophet's life pertain to this latter period . As Ali Dashti wrote [68], "With Islam in power, polite and rational discussions with dissentients was no longer deemed necessary." For instance when the Prophet was branded liar, mocked and insulted by his own people in Mecca, he did not order their assassination unlike in Medina. Those who gave him offense were however punished through  Divine intervention: one became blind and the rest died of dropsy (accumulation of fluid in his belly in this case), infection in a minor wound, and accident (thorn entering his feet) p. 187, [32]. 

Next, as Prof. Bukay explains "The Qur'an is unique among sacred scriptures in accepting a doctrine of abrogation in which later pronouncements of the Prophet declare null and void his earlier pronouncements" [62]. He cites  four verses in the Qu'ran that acknowledge or justify abrogation. This implies that the verses revealed in Medina would abrogate those in Mecca whenever there is conflict - thus large parts of the peaceful content advocating restraint as in this section have been abrogated by the violent ones cited in the previous. Harsh Narain p. 55, [63] has cited Qadi Abu Bakr Ibn Al-Arabi (b. 1076 A.D.), a great classical commentator in Arabic as follows:  "Wherever in the Qur'an there are directions to forget, forbear, forgive, and avoid the Kafirs, all such directions stand abrogated by the verse of the'sword (ayat as-say!), which is, "Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters whenever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ,ambush. But, if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo ! Allah is forgiving, merciful."



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[74] Robert Spencer: ``The truth about Muhammad: Founder of the world's most Intolerant religion''

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