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The Right To Offend: Answering A Misconception

By Fraz Bari, Reading

According to Amnesty International, freedom of speech is defined as “the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, by any means.”

This is a fundamental human right which encourages transparency amongst people by creating a safe environment for discussion. By doing this, it plays an essential role in helping the wider society progress. However, freedom of speech becomes a hot topic for debate when some individuals take advantage of this right and, intentionally or not, begin to offend those around them through their words and actions.

A recent example of where the use of free speech became quite controversial is when a teacher in France showed his class cartoons of the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa. Unfortunately, and in stark contrast to Islamic teachings, an individual responded to this by cold-bloodedly murdering the teacher. Such a heinous act can never be justified under any circumstances.

Questions are undoubtedly raised in such situations, with one of the most important ones being: what is the correct way to respond to people who use free speech to offend others?

As is the case when looking for answers to many difficult questions, we as Muslims can refer to the example of the Messenger of Allahsa. The Holy Prophetsa stated:

“The height of excellence is that you should strengthen the ties of relationship with the one who severs them, and be generous to the one who is miserly to you, and be forgiving to the one who abuses you.” (Musnad Ahmad)

From this hadith it is clear that if we come across a person who abuses their right to free speech and hurts the sentiments of others, we must not retaliate. Rather than escalating matters, the Holy Prophetsa taught us instead, to treat that person with kindness, respect and forgiveness. This would make it easier to resolve any differences and allow both parties to walk away with a better understanding of each other’s views.

From this we learn that the murder of the teacher in France was not at all in line with the teachings of the Holy Prophetsa.

Despite this, when such atrocities occur, the religion of Islam is often placed under scrutiny and is criticised due to the acts of a minority of Muslims. If one looks to Islam’s primary source of guidance, the Holy Qur’an, they will find that Islam advocates nothing against the meaning of its very name – peace. However, some may point out the offence that Islam causes towards those who worship idols. The Holy Qur’an states:

“Surely, you and that which you worship beside Allah are the fuel of Hell. To it shall you all come.” [21:99]

Some may take these words as an indication and advance the objection that Islam does indeed attack the sentiments of others, but it is essential to understand the context behind this verse to realise that this is in fact not the case.

The issue of speaking against the idols in the time of the Holy Prophetsa related to a specific occurrence: the idolaters had overtaken the Kaaba and would subjugate the poor and weak into inhumane rituals, in essence what was supposed to be a universal house of religious practice had been monopolised by the chiefs of Mecca. To understand the significance of this, The Kaaba had been the first House of God established under the command of God Himself during the time of Prophet Adamas, the lost foundations from the time were revived by Prophet Abrahamas and Prophet Ismaelas. The Kaaba was an incredibly sacred site that symbolised the most fundamental beliefs of not just Muslims, but all Abrahamic faiths. During the time of the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa, the Kaaba was filled with idols contradicting with the core belief of all Abrahamic faiths – the oneness of God. Of course, alongside this, the idols symbolised the worst of humanity which is proved through the practice of the Arabs at the time.  As a result, it became necessary for the Holy Prophetsa to make it clear to the idolaters that their idols had no place in the House of Allah.

It should be noted, however, that the overarching principle has always been one that the verse of the Holy Qur’an speaks about:

“And revile not those whom they call upon beside Allah, lest they, out of spite, revile Allah in their ignorance. Thus, unto every people have We caused their doing to seem fair. Then unto their Lord is their return; and He will inform them of what they used to do.” [6:109]

Thus, let us end on the words of Hazrat Khalifatul-Masih Vaba who has provided a perfect summary of Islam’s stance on freedom of speech:

“People must realise that words can have far-reaching consequences and so rather than speaking of a ‘clash of civilisations’ or needlessly ratcheting up tensions between different communities, people should refrain from attacking the religious teachings of one another… Let us all, irrespective of our differences, join together and work with a spirit of mutual respect, tolerance and affection for the peace of the world and to promote freedom of belief.”

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