Philosophy and Religion: Freedom of Expression in Islam

By Afsaruddin, Asma | The Middle East Journal, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Philosophy and Religion: Freedom of Expression in Islam


Afsaruddin, Asma, The Middle East Journal


Freedom of Expression in Islam, by Mohammad Hashim Kamali. Cambridge, England: Islamic Texts Society, 1997. ix + 261 pages. Appends. to p. 301. Bibl. to p. 314. Gloss. to p. 330. Index to p. 349. $60.

Reviewed by Asma Afsaruddin

It is a truism among MusLims that Islam ensures human dignity by guaranteeing certain human rights to all and that, above all, it counsels tolerance for the beliefs of others. Such assertions made, however, to outsiders, especially Westerners, often elicit downright skepticism; they are so much at odds, after all, with the images of militant Muslims flitting across Western television screens or with the harsh editorializations on an intolerant, political Islam fed to Westerners in powerful sound-bites. Mohammad Kamali is well-positioned to counteract such skepticism for he draws upon a rich corpus of legal, hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), and tafsir (Quran exegesis) material, extrapolating broad moral injunctions which are understood to be consonant with democratic principles that ensure freedom of expression.

The author's basic premise is laid out succinctly in part one of his book. He emphasizes that "the principles of hisbah, that is, commanding good and forbidding evil, nasihah or sincere advice, shura or consultation, ijtihad, or independent juristic reasoning, and haqq al-mu'aradah, or the right to constructive criticism, all affirm the freedom of speech" (p. 2). This is very much the essence of the book. Part two, titled "Affirmative Evidence," provides examples of the legal reasoning that was undertaken to develop these basic principles into an elaborate code of public conduct, a process that started in the medieval period. In the juristic process, the majority of Muslim jurisconsults, especially of the Hanafi school, would come to uphold the importance of ra'y, or "personal opinion," as a necessary correlate to the hermeneutic of ijtihad. This in itself underscores the centrality of individual deliberation in legal ratiocination and, as Kamali affirms, entails the recognition of the right to express one's considered opinion.

Modern Muslim legists draw a parallel between "the essential interests" (al-masalih al-daruriyya) of the community and "the fundamental rights" provided by modern constitutional law. There are five masalih which are to be protected under all circumstances: life, religion, intellect, property, and lineage. Subsumed under life is a potential sixth "interest," that of `ird, or human dignity. As Kamali asserts, the difference between "rights" as defined in Western constitutional law and that of "necessities" in Muslim positive law is thus one of terminology rather than of concept. "Call them what you will," he says, "the point is that the Shari'a advocates them and validates their protection" (p. 23). Kamali thus follows in the footsteps of modernist reformers like Rashid Rida (d. 1935) and `Abd al-Wahhab Khalaf (d. 1956), for example, who similarly believed in an aggrandized role of maslaha in modern legal methodology. …

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