Rafed English

The Islamic View on the Freedom of Expression and the Press

Adopted from the book : "Freedom; The Unstated Facts and Points" by : "Ayatullah Misbah Yazdi"

First Exposition

The discussion on whether the press and mass media must be free or must not be free is included in the group of “must and must-not” cases and the class of values-related cases. Therefore, the discussion on this issue opens another fundamental discussion on the criterion and origin of determining values.

There are those who believe that values are based on the desire and preference of people in every society. For this reason, one cannot talk about “must” and “must-not” as well as universal values that remain in every period and place. It is natural that on such a basis we have to determine in which period and in which society we are in so that we could know what to tell based on the desire and preference of people of that period and that society.

Yet, in our opinion, this basis is unacceptable and we believe that all social values cannot be determined by means of conducting opinion survey and referring to the public demand. Instead, many of the values are described on the basis of the real interests of human beings. This is apart from the fact that all social values of a society must finally have a rational foundation and must emanate from a coherent and logical system.

On this basis, regarding the second question we will also naturally arrive at the conclusion that the “must” and “must-not” we are talking about in the context of the freedom of the press will be based on the values system of Islam in the same manner that this issue in any other values system in which it is discussed will be based on the same values system.

The values system of Islam is a pyramid-like system with a central point on top and its surfaces below are arranged together in such a way that their placement together would lead us to the top of the pyramid. The ultimate point of valu29es on top of the pyramid is the same thing that we described as “nearness to Allah” [qurb illa’lla-h].

In the parlance of philosophy, we regard the “ultimate perfection” of man as “nearness to Allah”. All values in Islam are designed and arranged in such a manner that they are gearing toward the attainment of the ultimate perfection of man, i.e. “nearness to Allah”. In this manner, the criterion and standard of values are also specified.

With the acceptance of this basis, every thing that has role in attaining perfection will find a positive value, and every thing that is a hindrance in the attainment of that perfection will be considered anti-value. Every thing that draws man toward Godliness is a “good” and desirable affair, and every thing that separates man from God and draws him toward materiality and bestiality is “bad” and will have a negative value. The Islamic government and state is also duty-bound to endeavor to preserve and promote values, and to negate and hinder the growth and spread of anti-values.

So, the single criterion in determining “must” and “must-not”, “good and bad” and “value and anti-value”, and philosophically speaking, “hasan” and “qabah” is whether or not it is along the ultimate perfection of man and nearness to Allah. Freedom of the press and mass media can be evaluated on the basis of the same ruling.

If the press and mass media are effective for the perfection and nearness of man to God, it is a desirable affair and will have a positive value, and if they cause separation from God and lagging behind in the path toward his perfection, it will be considered anti-value and in many cases it is incumbent upon the government to prevent them.

If we give opinion on the issue from the philosophical viewpoint, speech and statement are among the human acts. Although in the common usage and public culture it is possible that sometimes action is used in contrast to speech, philosophically, speech is actually a kind of action. In philosophy action means any movement performed deliberately and willingly by man. In sum, action means deliberate movement.

With such a perspective, action is sometimes done by hands, at other times by the tongue, at another by the mind, and at yet other times by the other senses. Now, the general ruling we mentioned about values will be conformed here. That is, human actions, both individual and social, must be placed within the framework of the value system of Islam, and they must not be inconsistent with the movement of man toward the pyramid summit of “nearness to Allah”.

Of course, not all values can be related to “law” in its general sense. One set of values is technically called “moral values”, which are beyond the domain of law. The moral values are also sometimes called religious values notwithstanding the fact that in one sense religious values can also be divided into two: legal values and moral values.

The significant difference between ethics and law is that ethics is related to the domain of private, individual and personal lives of human beings while legal laws are enacted in the context of social actions of human beings and are responsible in organizing social relations.

Therefore, moral values, i.e. individual values, and legal values, i.e. social values and in other words, so long as an action—as per its philosophical definition we have just made—is done totally within the personal and private domain of individual and having no social implication whatsoever, is not covered by the legal laws, and the state and government, which guarantees their implementation, has nothing to do with it.

However, as soon as an action acquires social dimension and in some way finds relationship with others, the legal laws will encompass it and the political system and the government as the guarantor of their execution will take supervision of it.

Earlier, we have also pointed out that freedom of thought and freedom of belief, for example, are essentially not subjects of legal laws because belief and thought are purely personal and private affairs related to the heart. Yes, if the belief and thought wanted to be expressed by the tongue or to be published in the newspaper, magazine and book, this is no longer freedom of belief.

Instead, it entered the domain of the freedom of expression, which is the subject of our present discussion. But regarding the freedom of expression and the press, we have to state that it is natural that they are covered by the legal laws, for speaking and writing are two kinds of actions, which are not only related to the person in question as they may have relations with other members of the society.

In such an assumption, they are social actions and will be covered by the legal laws unless we assumed that a person writes something only for himself and delivering a talk only to himself. Of course, it is obvious that the point of the discussion, and in other words, the point of dispute on the freedom of expression and the press can never be such assumptions.

Speech and writing have social effects, and as such, they are social actions. Apart from that, it must be said that sometimes speech and writing have such social effects that other social actions do not have. The greatest social developments, whether in the positive dimension or negative dimension, have been the result of effects of these two actions.

The most important instrument of the prophets who have been the greatest catalysts of change throughout history in the realm of social life of humanity has been speech and talking. Many political and social tumults and disorders are also formed as a result of the influence of speech and writing.

Nowadays, the role of the newspapers and periodicals in the different arenas of human societies cannot be denied. Thus, there is no doubt that speech and writing must be regarded as important social actions and that the state and government has the right in the set of legal laws to take into account particular rulings for them. It is for this reason that speech is a very important and influential action and it is never been a simple action. Islam has also opened a special account for speech, explaining many decrees and teachings about language and speaking.

Second Exposition

From the viewpoint of Islam, everybody is free to express his or her own belief unless doing so is inconsistent with the human interests. What is referred to as “interests” includes material and spiritual as well as worldly and otherworldly interests. This issue is similar to the case of a food manufacturer and pharmaceutical company that are free to produce any food or drug unless it is detrimental to the health of human beings. The mere probability of the existence of poisonous and dangerous food or drug in the productions of a producer will render its productions as banned.

Now, you have observed that due to the effect of the spread of the mad cow’s disease in Britain, 29 other countries have banned all imported beef products from Britain. Here, there is no more discussion about free trade. Why? It is because with a probability, let’s say, of one in a million, there is a chance that on account of consuming contaminated meat one person will be harmed.

Owing to this minute probability, (import-export) transactions are stopped and no one in the world has also complained as to why you, for example, are acting against the spirit of free trade.

If other things which are detrimental to the human health are also banned, no one will protest why buying and selling them are declared prohibited and their producers prosecuted, and no one either will say that it is against human rights and that human beings are free to produce whatever they like. They are free to produce so long as it is not harmful to others.

Those that exist in the world and are the focus of attention are usually these harms that will be inflicted on the human body and physique. But apart from physical harm, Islam also pays attention to the spiritual and religious damages. It acknowledges freedom so long as it is not physically and spiritually harmful to man.

The people of the world usually regard justifiable the imposition of limit on freedom only on matters harmful to man from the material and physical dimensions, while paying little attention to cases that are damaging to the humanity from the spiritual and religious aspects; in the present period, it can be said that the latter has not been given attention at all.

Alcoholic drinks that obliterate the human intellect, damage the heart and liver, and have numerous other harms, are not prohibited, for the people like them. They say that since the primary right of every human being is freedom in the choice of occupation, if someone wants to open a beverage shop you cannot and should not prevent him.

If we would prevent such an occupation and job, we have behaved against human rights. Prior to the Revolution, by resorting to similar arguments there were hundreds of liquor stores in Tehran and other cities in our country. They were saying that the concerned person has freedom to sell liquor and of course, you are also free to buy as the demand of human rights is that he is free in his job and those who regard it as unlawful [hara-m] and against the religion are also free not to buy.

Concerning hija-b [Islamic modest dress] they are also saying that it must be free. Anyone who wants to have hija-b can have it while anyone who does not like it can have without it. Freedom in the choice of attire and dressing is a primary right of human beings. You cannot compel anyone to have hijab.

This is against human rights! What is interesting is that such words are sometimes uttered even by those holding offices or partially holding offices in the Islamic system particularly in some ministries and government organs. Recently, they allegedly sought for the solution in such a manner that a non-government organization in a government building held a meeting for the removal of discrimination against women, and numerous foreign women without hija-b participated in this program.

Perhaps, you have also seen in the newspapers its picture. They wanted to issue a decree and put to test the people so as to see to what extent the people are sensitive toward the religious laws and decrees. Thanks to God, because of the intense reaction that was shown by the people, they kept silent. So long as such people are present in this country, the other Islamic values will remain respected, and if some things have ever diminished, by the grace of God and His will, they will be redressed.

In any case, in the Western culture these freedoms do exist and are deemed respectable. They are saying that no law can set limit on them. We who are Muslims and observing the Islamic law have fundamental disagreement with them in this context. For them to merely say that they have been stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for us the said declaration is not a divine revelation. They have stated and written them based upon their culture while we do act based also upon our own Islamic and religious culture, and we do not have any compulsion on the observance of matters contrary to the decree of God and His Messenger (s?).


29. See, for example, M.S. Ahmed, “Mad Cow Disease: ‘Proud UK’ can’t admit it is poisoning the world,” Crescent International, November 1-15, 1997, http://www.muslimedia.com/archives/special98/madcow.htm. [Trans.]

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