Acts against free speech by sections in the Muslim community go against Quranic teachings

Jur’at hai kis ki ke Musalman ko toke

Hurriyat-e-afkar ki ne’mat hai Khudadad

Who dares restrain the Muslims

Freedom of thought is a gift from God

The pithiness of this epigrammatic Allama Iqbal couplet reverberates even today. The great Poet of the East was actually paraphrasing a poorly appreciated Quranic truth. Had the purveyors of medieval literalism who ran a campaign against Amina Wadud — and allegedly inveigled some socio-political Muslim outfits to protest and have her lectures in Chennai cancelled — also been conversant with the substance of the Quranic message, they would have known that in the divine scheme of things it is not so much about the views of a person as his or her right to hold them. It is not necessary to agree with the exegetical interpretations of Dr. Wadud to appreciate the concept of freedom of thought as expressed by the Quran, in Prophetic teachings and Islamic history.

The Quran

Even as it was being revealed, the Quran distinguished between cynical sceptics, who merely disagreed with its teachings, and corrupt status quoists who violently tried to crush the Prophet’s reform movement. While the former were to be either ignored or debated, the latter were to be dealt with firmly. Accordingly, the instruction to Muslims was to “turn away from” and “not to sit with” those who ridicule the Quran (4: 140, 6:68), but they were free to challenge the contrarians and debate them openly provided such argumentations took place “in the most civilised way” (2:111, 16:125).

As is obvious here, the Quran does not consider the articulation of antagonistic opinions a threat to Islam. Hence, it did not gag those ill-disposed towards its message. This is because of the Quran’s supreme confidence in the indefectibility of its universal value system as this verse categorically asserts: “Truth has come, and falsehood has disappeared; surely falsehood is ever certain to vanish” (17:81). In other words, Islam can stand the test of any kind of theological scrutiny, and all that Muslims are required to do to nullify anti-Islamic propaganda is to counter it with the great intellectual jihad (jaahid hum bihi jihaadan kabeera) through the teachings of the Quran (25:52). They are strictly forbidden from forcing people into submission (2:256, 10:99, 50:45).

The Prophet’s example

The Prophet diligently adhered to these divine instructions. There is no record of his ever having prosecuted anyone for holding a different opinion.

An aspect of Prophet's life worth pondering over particularly in the context of Dr. Wadud being called an “American agent” is his commendable response to the treacherous activities of the Munafiqeen led by Abdullah Ibn Ubai. The literalists may take note that no “liberal scholar” today could ever match, through his/her views the damage caused to the Islamic state by the Munafiqeen who acted as the fifth column inside Medina for the idolatrous Meccans. Yet the liberties of the Munafiqeen were never curtailed although the Prophet took all measures to neutralise their threat. In his award-winning biography of the Prophet Ar-Raheequl Makhtum, Safiur Rahman Mubarakpuri writes that when Hazrat Umar wanted Ibn Ubai eliminated for subversive activities, the Prophet replied, “Why O Umar? The people will say that Muhammad kills his followers!” (p.390). Indeed, when this “follower” died, the Prophet offered his funeral prayer overruling the objections of Hazrat Umar.

Readers may want to know why the Prophet was so lenient towards the leader of a group whose sole aim was to destroy Islam. It was because Ibn Ubai and his entire group of hypocrites claimed to be Muslims. They even uttered the formula laa ilaaha illallah, muhammadur rasoolullah. The Prophet, being the first and the most honest follower of Quran, could not have proceeded against a “Muslim” (or for that matter anybody) unless he resorted to open violence. Compare this with the regime of takfeer (the declaring of Muslims as apostates for minor or “major” disagreements) that prevails among Muslims today.

Islamic history

Islamic history too is full of examples of both healthy and polemical dialogues. The one that immediately comes to mind is the contest between two great philosopher-theologians, Al-Ghazali (Algazel) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). When the former launched an onslaught on Islamic Neo-Platonism in his Tahafut al falaasifa (Incoherence of the philosophers), Ibn Rushd issued a systematic rebuttal through his classic work Tahafat al Tahafut (Incoherence of incoherence). Then there was the debate that snowballed into a huge controversy during the reign of the Abbasid Caliph, Mamun, between the Mu’tazili rationalists and literal traditionists on whether or not the Quran was “created.”

Apart from this, the Muslim world, particularly after the establishment of the awe-inspiring research institute Bayt al Hikma by the Abbasids in the 9th century, witnessed mind-boggling dialectical contributions from polymaths such as al-Kindi (who promoted Hellenistic philosophy) and al-Farabi (who placed reason above revelation). Not to mention Ibn Sina who followed in the footsteps of al-Farabi to find common ground between rationalism and theology. And finally, how can one ignore the existence of the various schools of legal, theological and Sufi thought together with the inherent inter and intra-school differences?

In short, the point that is sought to be made here is this: Muslims must desist from squandering their valuable resources and energy on polemical issues that have defied solution for centuries. We must learn to tolerate differences and resort to democratic protests only when Islamic symbols or personalities are openly abused with a view to polarise society. India is going through one of the toughest periods in its post-independence history with communalists lying in wait to dissever to the nation. A new catchphrase, “Unite the Hindus and divide the Muslims” is being bandied about brazenly. In these circumstances, the immediate priority of the Muslim leadership should be to team up with our Hindu brethren and save the country from falling into the hands of anti-democratic forces. All else can wait.

(A. Faizur Rahman is secretary general of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought. Twitter:@FaizEngineer; E-mail: