Freedom of Expression: Islamic and Western Perspectives

Freedom of Expression: Islamic and Western Perspectives

The term freedom of expression, in a broad sense, has a lot of meanings and concepts. It is not based on a singular human right, rather it covers a wider range of rights such as the right of speech, opinion, conscience, press, thought, choice, religion, and culture, etc. Freedom of speech and freedom of press are parts of the freedom of expression. Expression of thought can present itself with all types of disclosures, such as paintings, songs, videos, movies, debates, essays, books, newspapers, and audio voice, etc.

The concept of freedom of expression has been acknowledged throughout the whole world since time immemorial, though, with the passage of time, some restrictions have been imposed where national interests or sacrilegious matters are concerned. The importance of freedom of expression is a reality which is universally admitted by all nations as a necessity to promote a socio-cultural moderate society. According to Islamic history, the practice of freedom of expression started in the 6th century, even though the West may claim that Islam did not introduce human rights,[1] which is not a fact. In Islamic history, several precedents ratify the reality that Islam implemented this right not only theoretically but also practically. In Western societies, it began from the charter of Magna Carta. In fact, the West borrowed the concept of freedom from ancient Greece. The term freedom of expression was introduced in the 18th century.

The constitutions of Western and Muslim countries grant freedom of expression but both schools of thought do not grant an absolute freedom of speech and do impose some restrictions on it.

After the First Amendment to the US Constitution, a dispute arose as to that how much it protected the freedom of expression. By virtue of this question, a ridiculous result shows that the philosophers and scholars are confused in defining the First Amendment. Some view that the words of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law” to represent the epoch of absolute right, but others differ. They even fail to agree on what is meant by the First Amendment. If it represents a limited freedom, what type of restrictions should there be?

Harry H. Wellington raises similar questions in an essay but has no comprehensive answers. Some of the questions are:

“What are the limits of this immunity?
Does the First Amendment allow private speech or interest?
Is it possible to make separation of public-private interests?
What expression is protected?”[2]

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights resolves the questions to some extent but does not protect an absolute freedom.

According to the Quranic and Hadith literature, the concept of freedom of expression is granted but limited. Islam protects individual rights but also prescribes some responsibilities. Rights and obligations have a reciprocal relation with each other. Islam supports and grants private and public rights likewise and because Islamic values care for human dignity, Islam sets a perfect example of the balance between private and public rights. So when the West claims that they also introduced fundamental human rights, that is because these are the demands of human dignity, as Jack Donnelly wrote in his book that human rights were needed not for life but for a life of dignity.[3] It seems that the Western concept of dignity is not comprehensive. On one hand, it wants freedom without chains; on the other, it protects individual freedom instead of collective and public freedoms. So it does recognise public and private rights but also gives preference to individualism. Islam prefers for one to lead a life with checks and balances and elucidates that living with rules and regulations is the best for a peaceful society. Muhammad Ali Musofer commented in his article,

“For instance, when a prominent Christian delegation came from Najran to engage the Prophet in a theological debate in Madina, its members were not only invited to live in the Prophet’s mosque but also allowed to perform their religious practices inside the mosque.”[4]

The West claims for absolute freedom which is an impossibility, as their actions contradict their own claim. For example, most Western countries are banning the headscarf worn by women, which shows a conflict between the concept of religious freedom and concept of West on freedom of expression. Their approach towards the freedom of expression seems to still be in a developing position. They have restricted what they dislike. They protect apostasy, blasphemous actions and propaganda against Islam but when someone uses the same right which affects their beliefs, they strictly prohibit it. It is strange that they consider themselves to be liberal and tactful, but are unable to differentiate between good and evil.

A research report prepared by a Muslim institute’s debate forum, “The Muslim Debate” concludes that the freedom of expression does not give one the right to insult. The debate took place online from 4th May 2015 to 24th May 2015, where people from over 70 countries participated through their votes and comments. After almost 3 weeks of extensive, well-articulated and coherent arguments by the West and the East, only 19% of the participants favoured the idea that freedom of expression gave one the right to insult. 81% of them disagreed and rightly so. [5]

Similarly, a majority of people in the world agree that there should be reasonable limitations on freedom of expression in order to maintain cordial relations among human beings.



[1]  Jack Donnelly, Universal Human Rights, p.75
[2] On Freedom of Expression, The Yale Law Journal, No 6, vol.8, pp.1105-1142
[3] Jack Donnelly, Universal Human Rights, p.14
[4] Muhammad Ali Musofer, Pluralism in Islam, Dawn News, http://dawn. com/news/689434


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any other organization with which she might be associated.

Rabia Khalid Sandhu

Author: Rabia Khalid Sandhu

The writer has done B.Ed. from Allama Iqbal Open University, Islamabad and Masters and M.Phil in Islamic Studies from Government College University, Lahore. She also writes articles for different newspapers.