Freedom of Expression: Dream of Islam, shattered by Muslims

Islam arrived on the world scene with the promise of freedom. It liberated man from chains – of his own fantasies and others. Man was essentially created free, but it was his own doings which shackled him. God gave him the free-will to act on his own without any external compulsion.

Freedom is the birthright of Man. To think and act freely are his basic nature. The Holy Prophet appreciated this principle in its fullest sense. Even Holy Quran insists that faith in God is a matter of personal free choice, not of compulsion.

We see that the Holy Prophet, when he became the ruler of Arabia, gave freedom to all his subjects including the non-Muslims and even the hypocrites. He did not persecute them for their dissent from the official line. They could even question or suggest better options than the decision of the Holy Prophet, without the fear of death or punishment.

The Rightly Guided Caliphate continued the same example of Prophet, accepting criticism and suggestion from the general public. Once an old lady questioned Omar, the second caliph, about a religious ruling and he exclaimed “All people have more knowledge than Umar, even the old lady”

But the end of era of Rightly Guided caliphate was also the beginning of end of the individual freedom. As the regime transformed into monarchy, the individual freedom was also crushed.

Hajjaj and others were well known for their tyrannical rule. Even saints and scholars were equally persecuted or killed or burnt for their arguments different from the regimes’

Across various stages of history, we see Imam Abu Hanifa, Ahmed bin Hanbal and Ibn Taimiyya, to name few, jailed for messing with freedom of expression. Ironically, even the despots who supported the Rationalist movement in Islam also persecuted those who upheld and propagated orthodox views.

Since then monarchy continued as the system of governance. It is true that Islam has produced brilliant personalities during this period. However, as the world progressed with science and technology, the Arab world missed the bus due to its stagnation in intellectual thinking. There was a sudden dearth of thinkers who could freely and PUBLICLY express their creative ideas to improve the society.


Today much progress has been made in regards to freedom of expression in the Arab world. The social media has broadened the horizons and hope is visible even before the end of the tunnel.

But yet we read reports of editors and columnists, writers and orators jailed for singing the tone of dissent. They are accused of anti-national activities or other crimes of serious nature.

With Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi at Barjeel Art Gallery

With Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi at Barjeel Art Gallery

Yes, local thinkers and writers have definitely bloomed on the Arabian sands. Modern (read foreign in most cases) educated have molded independent critical thinking. Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is one such amazing thinker whose observations on media, business and art have gained him many followers around the world, including this writer. He writes in a recent article:

“Sadly, in recent months there have been arrests and intimidation of public intellectuals in the Gulf. In one Gulf state, a professor was detained for writing an article questioning his country’s political future; in another, a lawyer was jailed for highlighting financial connections related to a government official. Both of these are legitimate concerns and independent thinkers deserve to be honored, not persecuted, for dealing with them.”

There are others also who have voiced new perspectives on old issues.

But time and circumstances are not yet fully ripe, as experience shows, for a full fledged expression of one’s critical thoughts in the public domain. It is too early to realize the word ‘public intellectual’ in the fullest sense of the word. Gulf States are still to come to terms with such civil liberties. Till such time, Public Intellectual will continue to be an oxymoron in the region. The situation is no different in Iran as any voice against the official tone is considered a crime punishable by law.

Edward Said, considered by many as a great Public Intellectual, lived in US “from his high school years until his death”. If he had lived in any of the “twenty terrestrial empires“, as Lamartine called the Muslim world, which had limited freedom for the public intellectual, would he have got the same amount of recognition?

History willed otherwise. For, freedom, of imagination and expression, is the oxygen of the Intellectual.

(This article is in response to a Twitter discussion on public intellectuals in the gulf. The discussion was triggered by the writer’s comment on, “I thought “public intellectuals” in the Gulf was an oxymoron!” Screenshots of some of the posts are given below (for reference purpose only)

Suppression of ideas is the bane of our existence : Katherine Schimmel Baki : A scholarly response to this article