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Thinking about Freedom of Speech

There are a number of issues of which popular British culture had previously been tolerant but no longer so, as events continue to show. Taking the example of the veil, whilst the nation-wide debate on the veil continues to reach new heights, it becomes very clear that however increasingly exhaustive the debate becomes, there remains a lack of interest towards the alternative perspective, namely, the views of the Muslims. At times, publicly ill-informed comments are made regarding the issue of the veil. So where does freedom of speech commence and conclude, and does it in fact, have any boundaries at all? Should our liberties be taken vis-à-vis with a certain level of appropriateness and political correctness?

Our liberties as citizens of the United Kingdom allow us the freedom of action and freedom of choice, whereby a person is not obliged to pledge allegiance to anybody except the Crown and it may be argued that there are none above it. In this manner, we enjoy a certain quantity of freedom of thought, academic emancipation, and self-expression. After all, it was Franklin D Roosevelt, the 32nd President of America, who in 1941 stated his vision, ‘A world founded upon four essential freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want . . . everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear . . . anywhere in the world.’1

One must pose the question as to whether freedom of speech can be subordinated to any specific principle, or that freedom of speech is incontestably above all. Should appropriateness subordinate freedom of one’s speech?

Another issue which became very apparent from recent debates is whether the morality of the masses is necessarily a standard for ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in speech and behaviour, or should the deciding factor be the principle of individual freedom. These two principles will result in an antagonistic conflict if they are not subordinate to other principles that will judge between them. Respect for others’ beliefs may be an example of this, whereby respect is maintained at all times.

‘If we accept that there is no deciding factor for the acceptance of behavioural values/ideologies except for that of individual or majority opinion, it is therefore possible for all values to change from one era to another, and from one society to another, according to majority opinion. This would infer that one cannot rely upon common set values in deciding what will benefit or harm people in their material and spiritual lives, or else all values become equally valid and it doesn’t matter which of the values a given society accepts or rejects.’2

However, does this mean that all behaviour considered objectionable by secular societies today such as incest (for which there are serious penalties in place), should be considered objectionable only because of contemporary inclinations? If so, we must appreciate that trends (which consist of popular opinion) do not remain at a constant, but alter and amalgamate. In the same manner, this may lead to the acceptability of crimes based on the principle of absolute unsubordinated individual freedom. Therefore, one cannot claim with absolute certainty, that an all inclusive unsubordinated freedom of speech by its very nature is beneficial for the public at large. If freedom of speech is not subordinate to any another principle, and the acceptability of behavioural norms are based upon popular opinion, alarmingly enough, ‘current trends’ become an absolute standard by which speech may be deemed as appropriate or otherwise. A simple example of this would be the trend of women’s suffrage; it was only in 1928 that women were allowed the vote on equal terms as men (over the age of 21). Should current trends mould our behaviour, or should our behaviour and speech be subtly subordinate to the respect for others?

At closer inspection one will find that it is not freedom of speech which is a necessity at all times and places, but any given situation may necessitate freedom of speech. An example of this can be given whereby one objects to the behaviour of an oppressive dictator for the common good. One of the fundamental aspects of freedom in one’s speech is not to create a nationwide uproar in anger, but to allow an exploration of innovative methods to conceptualize the discussion and add depth to popular discussions which all too often become superficial.3 The ill effects which arise as a result of superficial and ill-informed discussions make it very clear that if freedom of speech is not subordinate to principles of common decency and respect, the inevitable discussion which follows may become ineffective and destructive rather than constructive.

It is also from common decency for one not to draw upon other religious practices and making them ‘seem’ to be working against the progression of society, however significantly preposterous it might seem to an individual. A healthy discussion is always encouraged; however discussions with no positive outlet may lead to unnecessary escalatory hatred for ‘the other side’s’ views on the issue being discussed. The Archbishop of York – Dr. John Sentamu was quoted to have made some very irresponsible comments regarding the rights of British Muslim women in wearing the veil. The veil, or any other covering is a Muslim woman’s choice, and she may decide whether to wear it or not. The Archbishop of York stated that ‘Muslim scholars should ask three questions. First, does it conform to norms of decency? Secondly, does it render you more secure? And thirdly, what kind of Islam are you projecting by wearing it?’4 Questions which lead to healthy discussions (which include an alternative perspective to the debate) and progress are sincerely encouraged. However, unconstructive outcomes which result from discussions with no aim like the aforementioned are made worse, the reason being that its intended audience is largely varying in understanding, and as a result, a large part of the discussion will almost certainly be misunderstood (which goes against the aims and objectives of a healthy discussion). If the core objectives of a healthy discussion, which would be to have a positive outcome by means of it, are not met, how can one possibly claim it to be constructive? The effect is none other than adding an unhealthy discussion leading to another argumentative deadlock. Using this example it would also be unjustified if unhealthy ill-informed discussions with no aim criticised celibacy, practiced by Church Priests, as it does not conform to the norms of decency in current Britain.

One very vital point must be raised; in that there is a difference between an ignorant feud and an intellectual debate. Freedom of speech does not give one the right to cause disputes, and argue for the sake of quarrelling, but does however give one the right to a debate and this would only be constructive if done so in a thoughtful and intellectual manner; understanding that a certain level of respect and decency must be maintained at all times. A person has his or her right to freedom of speech, but a certain level of decency and appropriateness needs to be maintained at all times. Whenever confronted with these situations our prime task is not so much to follow popular attitudes towards religious principles of another faith, but to do otherwise by adding to any debate in a rational and logical manner. Many a time the nation tends to follow popular opinion, and then claim this to be their freedom of speech. All too often tabloid journalism has a tendency of making ‘a mountain of a mole hill’, and attempts to dupe their readers into firstly acknowledging, and then accepting their story, which yet again, is merely a snippet of the whole situation at hand. Instead, a basic but integral part of the conceptual freedom of speech is the fact that people are allowed to decide for themselves rather than allowing others to interpret situations for them. This allows the masses to be free of having to conform to authoritarian minority views, and in so doing, upholding parity in the acceptance of freedom in speech. Therefore merely uttering randomly aimed comments regarding the fundamentals of religion or philosophy, and then claiming this to being freedom of speech, is a completely flawed perception. Speaking one’s mind is not the same as blindly following another’s speech.

These are some of the many issues which differentiate between a productive and a non-productive debate. One should also keep in mind that a certain level of appropriateness must be maintained at all times, whereby unsubstantiated rumours are not propagated nor assumptions made about a particular religion or ideology. Another key point which arose from the recent debate is that of the responsibilities of people in authority, such as Jack Straw. Mr. Straw had every right to enquire about an issue which he thought to be of paramount importance. However, the manner in which this was conducted was extremely irresponsible and inconsiderate. If a genuine debate were to ensue, surely it should not be debated under the supervision of tabloid journalism; as such methods of journalism have tendencies of instigating very shallow and superficial discussions.

So superficial was the general knowledge on this subject that some parts of the nation assumed the veil was in fact the headscarf of Muslim women. Instead, Mr. Straw’s prime task should have been to provide a framework within which the discussion could have been conducted in a philosophically sound fashion. As discussions on these issues tend to be heated and over-polemical, as well as superficial, his task should have been to add a deeper understanding to it4. The Government, Mr Straw, or anyone else instigating a polemical discussion about religion should aim in trying to moderate the discussion. This can be achieved by using innovative ways in which to perceive the issue, that is, to highlight all the differing perspectives of a discussion rather than leaving the matter at hand to randomly take on its own direction. This presents a method by which an argumentative deadlock may be countered and how polemical pro- and contra-discussions can be overcome.

A popular argumentative deadlock only leads to confusion and misconception of the discussion at hand. The prime example, as it is relatively recent, is the Muslim women’s veil in Islam. An argumentative deadlock was reached which lead to misunderstandings and assumptions such as veiled Muslim women being oppressed by misogynistic male relatives. In complete contrast were the words of Na’ima B. Roberts, a Caribbean convert to Islam who in fact adorns the veil. She stated that the veil is something worn by Muslim women independent of domestic pressure, and is her mode of choice for the practice of modesty and believes it to be part of her religion. Another consequence of indiscriminately speaking at free will is the recent escalation of bullying towards Muslim pupils in the UK. Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, told a conference that the debate (on the veil) had ‘fanned the flames of prejudice.’5



Islam21c requests all the readers of this article, and others, to share it on your facebook, twitter, and other platforms to further spread our efforts.
1. Roosevelt Franklin D, 6 Jan 1941, Speech, United Sates, Unpublished.
2. Dr. Idris Ja’far S, “Secularism and Moral Values”, written for Islamic Network.
3. Prof. Dr. Grube M.D (Faculty of Theology, University of Utrecht), 2006, “Religion and Politics: Philosophical Implications of 9/11”, Ars Disputandi, (6).
4. Sands S, 2006, “Archbishop blames ‘chattering classes’ for collapse of Britain’s spiritual life”, Daily Mail 13th November.
5. Lewis A, 2006, “Rise in bullying of Muslim students”, The Independent 14th November.

About Akbar Khan


  1. Prohibitions
    If islam really prohibites Music and Television how i heard.. than i think 90 % of all us muslims dont follow this rule.. becouse i heard that even drawing of pictures and viewing of pictures are proibited , and if that is true .. than this website is prohibited too becouse its fully of gif files which are pictures too etc…
    please give me an explain for this brothers and sisters.

    Salamu Aleykum.

  2. Fatima Barkatulla

    Ma sha Allah, just the sort of article that was needed on this topic Sheikh. Barak Allahu Feek.


  3. Farouk Michaels

    really good article – we need more intellectual discussion like this as opposed to the deobandi method of blindly following.

  4. Poetry and Music
    Assalamu Alaikum,
    Some issues,
    1.Arent there a single hadees relating that Sahabas praised Shuhadas and Prophets? Why even when Prophet S.A.W. entered Madinah, what was the welcome method?

    2.Daff is allowed. Why? Because that form of music in accordance with Islamic verses induces one to concentrate on Allah. There were no other forms of music at the time of Prophet S.A.W.

  5. MashaAllah very good article, I could not agree with you more Sheikh!

    Keep up the good work and May Allah reward you and guide us all to the truth- Ameen

  6. explanation re shearing hair on the back of his head
    an explanation given is that he was vain about his hair so this was a threat to curtail him

  7. opps
    Sorry not hadeeth! but Caliph Umar Ibn Abdul‘Aziz (d.101 A.H.) sent a letter to one of his governors with the words… but still can someone please explain it to me.

  8. Hadeeth explanation request
    MashaAllah i am enjoying this series of articles!

    just one point can someone please explain to me “I had resolved to dispatch to you someone who would shear the hair on the back of your head, such vile hair!”

  9. re John G
    Please post again (did not receive?)

  10. Can you please use simple language for us common folk please ya shaikh.

  11. ??
    I wrote a reply to F, why was it not posted

  12. Abu Abdurrahman

    …It meas that the SOUND rationale will always tally with the correct and sound texts. So they esssentially will complement one another. But that is on condition of the rationale being truely sound and not merely distorted by surrounding and one’s environment.

  13. Asalaamu aleikom

    The article in this link should answer most of the questions posed:


  14. ???
    ‘valid absolute rationale operate in tandem’, what does that mean??

  15. A topic that needed to be desperately clarified; what our stance should be on this issue. May Allah Preserve the Shaykh, Ameen.

  16. “escapism of music”
    That is a very true point. I now and again listen to music when i know i shouldn’t and it does make you dream of things a lot 🙂 but absloutely no connection to what’s really going on and your own life!
    great article with some valuable points

  17. Thankyou for your comments, I think again …

    1) You mention “depicting his holiness”. The question that comes to mind is, for what purpose, if for commercial reason the prophet is not there to be commercialized. And if for holiness, the for someone who is confused about his prophethood, what holiness does he have to depict, that doesnt make sense, basides his holiness in beyond depiction.

    2) The way every artist will conceptualize his persona, will depend in many instances on the perception of the artist, which it self is open to many prospectives.

    3) Under no circumstances, I tried to suggest, you tried to justify the danish cartoons. However all I was trying to suggest was, that what you said was “non-provocative”, all i pointed out was from whose prospective. I am sure the one who drew then is standing with a banner saying ” I wanted to provoke”

    4) The fact someone depicts the prophet, knowing he didnt look like that, is in itself so provocative for many. Just as if someone depicts me in the wrong way, no matter how holy that is, the fact it doesnt look like me, i will find it offensive.

    5) You mention about sufis, to be quite frank as far as i was aware no one every drew the “face” of the prophet.

    6) And even if so then there are some sufis, and some shias, who allowed it not all sufis and all shias. And we dont know the cause of why some allowed it. Having said that, it doesnt mean, the vast majority of “muslims”, ( if by muslims you mean the “tribe muslims” independant of if they dont justify their existence with the principles of islaam) will take any depicition of him offensive from any prospective, be it holy, spiritual, material or any other prospective out there.

    7) “Disrespecting Mohammed is most certainly a no no, depicting him”, again this is your prospective.

    7) Well no one made a declaration “dont depict muhammad”, they just said “we find his depiction offensive”, i.e dont offend us, there is a difference. No one is putting a cap on someone else’s values, they just dont want to be capped on their values.

    8) You mention christianity, well i’m being forced to say one has to just go into history and see how the pictures of spiritual jesus were used during colonialization. Leaving that issue aside. Yes I agree with you muslims should find those just as offensive and quite frankly they do.

    Again thankyou for your time and attention..

  18. reply
    Firstly, I did not state that he did not exist, but informed yourself of doubts of his existence of ‘prophethood’. However, even if he did not exist, why not draw a character whom some have invested their outlook of life in? Muhammad plays a great role in approx 2 billion peoples lives and thus iconography depicting his holiness would be something which artists would crave. In art, it is more about the persona and appeal of a person rather than their factual substance. It is not a matter of need but also a matter of want. For example, Sufi’s have been depicting Muhammad for millenia – and these are members of your own faith!! Additionally, I have come to learn that Muslims also have a strong bond with Abrahamic prophets such as Moses and Jesus, however, I haven’t heard Muslims complaining and marching against their depictions (or are you biased only towards Mohammed?).

    I am in no way attempting to justify the Danish cartoons as I believe they were deeply offensive and agree with Abbas that there must be a limit. However, I believe two arguments have been intertwined and confused with one another. Disrespecting Mohammed is most certainly a no no, depicting him…hmmm…well that depends on many things. As I said the Sufi’s depict Muhammad and have done for a long time, so does the shi’ite sect of Islam as well as many others. Thus before a declaration is made to the world that Muhammad should not be depicted, maybe you should set your own house in order first?

  19. Author of article

    In response to the previous comment…..
    In response to the previous comment made by John.

    First and foremost, it would be befitting to mention one point. The purpose of this short discourse was to open-up a discussion on freedoms of speech and whether it should be subordinated with certain ethical principles. So, it would therefore be wise for ‘ethically-based’ comments to be made.

    Good comment. However, respected reader, I really doubt whether you actually thought and pondered upon what you just commented on. The reasons for saying this are many; of which only one will be mentioned at this moment in time.

    Firstly, the premise upon which you built your argument/comment is what you mentioned towards the end of your comment; ‘Live and let live’.

    Why is this premise flawed? It is this particular way of thinking which is in fact fallacious and at times deceptive. The primary goal of this idiom is to sincerely believe that “other people should be allowed to live their lives in the way that they want to” (Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms) regardless of how it affects society at large, which includes the much misused concept, freedom of speech. This then allows for the acceptance of erroneous behavioural norms.

    So what is wrong with this concept of ‘live and let live’?

    If (the article is) closely read, one may come to understand that “If freedom of speech is not subordinate to any other principle, and the acceptability of behavioural norms are based upon popular opinion, alarmingly enough, ‘current trends’ become an absolute standard by which speech may be deemed as appropriate or otherwise”.

    The whole premise of this article is the argument that the concept of ‘live and let live’ cannot and must not be fallaciously masked as “freedom of speech” which in essence fails to acknowledge an individuals actions/words as being harmful to society at large. Therefore any argument contrary to this must first and foremost dismantle the aforementioned premise, or else would have no foundation to base itself upon.

    Once again, thank you for your comments.

    Best Regards.

  20. Besides “non-provocative way” from whose prospective, from those who acknowledge him as a spiritual messenger and a moral reformer (even many those in rejection of his spiritual side while assuming his academic existence), will always find it provocative. I am sure, the person who drew those images can justify his “non provocative prospective-ness” but then thats just his prospective, not the rest of population of this earth.

  21. hmm
    I anticipated one might say that, point taken. Having said that I did want to assume of course that one is sure about his at least “academic existence”. However if one thinks he didn’t exist “full stop”, then i don’t see reason to paint something that one thinks didn’t exist. Then I suppose from your prospective he didn’t exist therefore the question of “depicting” shouldn’t be an issue as that would lead to a contradiction in thought. And the issues simply ends there.. For you he doesn’t exist no need to depict him, for me he does exist and as a prophet, he has forbidden us from depicting him. That’s a sensible conclusion..

  22. I don’t think so
    My friend Fahd, this answer is with all respect fallacious. Firstly, as a non-Muslim, I don’t believe in Muhammad and also question whether he existed. Thus to respect ‘his wishes’ would be non-nonsensical. Secondly, Muhammad (if he existed) would also want me to abstain from drinking alcohol – I should do that just because Muhammad said so?! Finally, Muhammad is dead, so what difference does it make to him? I have many personal wishes, but merely because a stranger does not fulfill them does not cause me to be disrespected. Live and let live!…

  23. Important point
    The point that also needs to be taken into consideration by the non-muslim world is that, even if they dont agree with the islamic principle that human images shouldn’t be drawn, still they must as human being respect the wishes of Prophet muhammad, who as a human forbid all humans from depicting his image. In that sense, once someone depicts his image, thats is just pure disrespect to Muhammad (SAWS) personal wishes. Plus he made his claim for humanity not just for muslims, a spiritual claim, so all his claims are for humanity. So even if one denies his spiritual message they should still respect his “human space”.

  24. Good article, but what would you say if two views were staunchly adhered to by Muslims and non-Muslims, would Muslims agree to disagree? For example, if Muslims could not provide a good enough reason as to why Mohammed should not be depicted in paintings etc, would they still mind his depiction by non-Muslims (of course in a non-provocative way)?

  25. Freedom of speech
    Thankyou very much for this wonderful writing. I wish to add a slight philosophical point here. in regards to freedom of speech, I think the question need be raised also is how to we contexualize the word speech. Can we further categorize speech to be negative speech and positive speech. For instance, If I openly “lie” in the court would that be justified under freedom of speech. Or one may be inclined to question, whether speech be further catagorized negative speech and positive speech, and how we draw the line. Point being, we need to be more specific as to what we mean by “speech”.

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