While speaking on the unity of the Ummah the last and perhaps the most important point is that we should seek the right to freedom of opinion and expression for ourselves as well as for others. It is possible that some people may disagree with the proposals put forward by me in connection with creating proximity among different schools of thought.
I want to say to them that it is their right to not accept any or all of my proposals. I am ready to listen if they have any proposals in this regard. But I would like to say to them if they are convinced that it is their own right to have a certain belief or hold a particular opinion, then they should give the same right to others as well. As far as those people are concerned who are not ready to accept a particular Muslim sect or group as Muslims and honestly believe in it, I would like to say to them that they still have not the right to impose their belief or opinion on others and that they should uphold the sanctity of others’ lives, property, honour and dignity. No society can last without having faith in this principle. This article has been written keeping in view this perspective and its contents are useful for both Muslims and non-Muslims.
A right reserved for all
Everybody desires to have the right to express his views freely and everyone perceives his or her opinion as correct. Each and every person is firmly convinced about the truthfulness of his beliefs and wants to adhere to them without any interference. Moreover, he wants to propagate his beliefs and views and there is nothing wrong up to this point. But the matters come to a sudden stop when it is said that others should also be at liberty to adhere to their beliefs and doctrines. Problems start to arise at the stage when it is said that others should also enjoy the right to deem their beliefs and viewpoints as correct and truthful no matter whether their opinion and faith is contrary to someone else’s. We do not understand that we also have adopted views and beliefs which are running counter to others opinions and beliefs. Why not give others the freedom to follow a particular set of ideas and beliefs when we want the same kind of freedom for ourselves.
Religion by birth
As far as practicing different religions are concerned almost all people across the world follow the religion that their parents are observing. There is no exception among the followers of Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism in this regard. We get to know that some people change their religion, but the number of such people is very thin when compared with the large population of the world. We often hear that Islam is spreading rapidly in Europe and America. But in reality it is not the case. These assertions are far from being factual. The real picture becomes evident when we see these changes in proportion to the total population of the world. Besides Islam, people in the West convert to other religions as well. Some people who call themselves Muslims also change their faith. However, over ninety percent of the world’s total population consists of those who stick to the religion of their parents. The level of attachment with the religion is quite different thing. This devotion and loyalty to religion depends on various factors and it may increase or decrease during the course of one’s life. This shows that in general people do not adopt a particular religion after giving a serious thought to it. They rather accept it on the basis of blind faith. But in spite of blindly following the religion people are emotionally attached to it desiring they should enjoy freedom in this connection. A Hadith of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) comes to my mind which says:
کل مولود یو لد علی الفطرة حتی لیکون ابواہ ھما اللذان یھودانہ وینصرانہ
‘Every child is born upon Fitrah (nature). It is his parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a Magus.’
It is true that large scale religious conversions have taken place in the world and such events may also occur in future as well, but no such major happening has come to light for a long time. When any such conversion takes place with people acting at their own discretion it should be welcomed. But only those can approve such changes of heart who know the true value of the right to freedom of expression.
Do not label other’s viewpoint as a conspiracy
One of the many hindrances in the way of freedom of expression crops up when a person’s opinion is termed to be the result of a conspiracy and doubts are created about him. We often hear that so-and-so person has become an agent of a certain agency or govt and that is why he is talking in this manner. If a person holds a certain opinion which is at variance with our point of view, it does not mean that he is acting on behalf of another. Particularly if his arguments are based on reasoning, then reserving the right to highlight his weak points we should never make allegations and engage in character assassination in order to reinforce our standpoint. We should bear in mind how bad we will feel if someone adopts the same way with regard to us. Instead of harming someone’s character we must turn to sound reasoning to prove our point. The Noble Quran has put it in the best and most gracious way in the following verse:
جَادِلحھُم بِالَّتِی ھِیَ اَحسَنُ
‘Argue with them in a way that is best.’ (16:125)
The most dangerous behavior is of those persons who not only deem their beliefs and views as truthful and correct but are also not ready to tolerate doctrines and ideas which are in conflict with theirs. These people even do not hesitate to kill those holding different sets of beliefs and opinions. It is baffling that at times these people are demonstrating intolerant behaviour in the name of such personalities who throughout their lives have been a model of forgiveness and tolerance even though they were victims of narrow-mindedness and bigotry from their opponents.
The ‘Uswa-e-Hasna’ (good example) of Holy Prophet (PBUH)
The perfect example of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) should enlighten the way for us. Lives of the earliest companions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) were made difficult by their opponents. Many of them were tortured and killed. The enemies of Islam even chased after those companions who had migrated to Ethiopia to escape the harsh treatment and persecution. The Banu Hashim tribe was subjected to economic and social boycott due to which the Prophet (PBUH), along with his protectors, had to live under fear and face hunger and thirst for several years in Sh'ib Abu Talib, a ravine near Makkah. The Prophet of Islam (PBUH) had not used arms against his opponents but was peacefully expressing his views. The situation came to the point that the enemies conspired to kill Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH). Consequently, the Prophet (PBUU) had to leave Makkah in the dead of a night and migrate to Medina. This all happened due to the intolerance and parochialism shown by the opponents of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).
On the other hand, on reaching Medina the Prophet (PBUH) signed a historical treaty, based on peaceful mutual co-existence, with the Jews of Medina. This treaty is called the Charter of Medina. Pertaining to Ahle Kitab (People of the Book), the following verse in the Noble Quran is a reflection of the Islamic teachings with regard to others’ freedom of faith:
قُلْ يَا أَهْلَ الْكِتَابِ تَعَالَوْا إِلَىٰ كَلِمَةٍ سَوَاءٍ بَيْنَنَا وَبَيْنَكُمْ
Say, "O People of the Scripture, come to a word that is equitable between us and you. (3:64)
Others may also be on the right course
Being so sure about the accuracy and veracity of one’s belief and opinion and believing that there is no matter of truth beyond it is a very big claim. Acquiring more knowledge and experience make people change their views and beliefs. Some people take great pride in the fact that their point of view regarding so-and-so issue is the same even today, for example, let us say what it was thirty years before. Unchanging opinions of some people regarding certain issues can be proper, but we know that changes did occur in views held by personalities like Allama Iqbal, Quaid-e-Azam and Imam Khomeini, who were genius people of their times. The thoughts of Maulana Rumi and Imam Ghazali also witnessed changes. Great Islamic jurisprudents have been making changes in their fatawa (Islamic verdicts). There is nothing amazing if my opinion regarding some issue changes with the passage of time. Similar is the case when change occurs in the viewpoint of my friend or that of anyone whom I know. It is possible that someone familiar to me is subscribing to the same viewpoint about some issue that I was maintaining sometime in the past and there is no need to imprecate him. We should not be afraid of dissenting views but learn the skill to live with it.
Consequences of imposing views forcibly
A big problem surfaces when someone or a particular group starts to impose his views by force. How unfortunate and regrettable are the Mutazilites-Asharites disputes and use of coercion by Muslim rulers against dissenting voices. The animosities among the followers of different jurisprudential schools of thought, the quarrels between narrators of Hadith and Islamic jurists and the enmities between philosophers and Mutakallimun (scholars of Kalam – the science of discourse) are all identified as tragic happenings in history. It is essential to have difference of opinions, but it should be based on sound arguments and reasoning paying due regard to tolerance and open-mindedness. Nowadays, in the political arena, the world has not only given the right to live but also the right to respect to both the ruling party and the opposition. Today’s ruling party can be the opposition party of tomorrow or vice versa. This difference is described as the beauty of democracy.
Impacts of stagnation and audacity of thought
We should remember that all scientific development made by humans is the result of expressing doubt or uncertainty about something. Only those people have brought new thoughts who have not compromised on their right to freedom of opinion. Such humans also deserve respect because they presented enlightened ideas when people and nations, due to their sheer ignorance, were not ready to accept them. Allama Iqbal gave a description of the same situation when he said:
Aayen-e-nau se darna, tarz-e-kuhan pe arna
Manzil yahi kathan ha qoumon ki zindagi mein
(To be afraid of the new ways and to insist on the old ones; this is the only difficult stage in the life of nations)
Those who have committed the ‘crime’ of resisting and challenging the prevailing ideas and practices can turn into heroes of tomorrow. They become great because they are known as non-conformists, disbelievers and misguided persons during their times. This does not mean that every new thought is entirely correct, but there is no escape from the fact that the caravan of human intellect has moved forward because of such perceptive persons who refused to close their eyes in the face of what was accepted or believed. History has often given the title of imamate (leadership) to such rebellious personalities. Allama Iqbal says:
Hai wahe Tere zamane ka Imam-e-Barhaq
Jo tujhe hazir-o-moujood se bezar kare
(He alone is the true leader and guide of your age; who makes you discontent with the present state of affairs)
I have often contemplated about what is the major issue facing humans and what should a person do first if he wants to do a favour to mankind. I get the answer from within that depriving one from freely expressing his ideas is the main problem and anyone showing kindness towards humans should remove the obstacles standing in the way of this right to freedom of expression. Anyone who is ready to perform this act of kindness for the mankind is the most generous among the humans.
Revolt of western intellectuals against the Church
Today’s West is calling itself as being the champion of freedom of expression. It also terms the democracy prevalent there as a practical demonstration of respecting others freedom to hold opinions without any interference. There is no doubt in the fact that those intellectuals, who rejected the hegemony of the Church, are the benefactors of the humanity. They are the great people who didn’t compromise on their right to freedom of speech. They expressed openly what seemed right to them. They are the ones who refused to blindly follow what was generally done or believed in the society. They are the people who dared to form opinion about the beliefs and ideas regarded above reproach in the society after assessing them on the basis of Aql (intellect). They are the ones who have created the circumstances to enable people to ponder and reflect without any hindrance. Be it West’s industrial or social development, scientific evolution or advancement of human sciences, it all became possible because of the efforts and sacrifices of these brave people and the western civilization is indebted to them for their services. There is also no doubt that this light originating from the West heavily influenced the East in the same way the West gained from the latter’s knowledge and understanding in the previous centuries. It is because knowledge and wisdom as well as truthfulness and honesty do not belong to a particular nation or region, but these things are the pride of the whole humanity.
Trampling peoples’ rights in the name of democracy
West is proud of the change that has taken place there and it is justified to be delighted at this achievement. But gradually the reins of the West have been taken over by those groups, institutions and individuals, who consider their interests first and foremost. They are trampling the rights of people in the name of democracy. They are trespassing on others’ lands in the name of freedom of expression and gathering information. They are misleading people as powerful news-providing centers across the world are under the control of such groups and individuals. They even provide false information to their own public. What can be said about the lies told by Tony Blair and George Bush to create a favorable atmosphere for attacking Iraq? What about the lies about the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that triggered Iraq war. These reports were fabricated by the agencies of UK and USA. They created uproar across the world about it. Is it not equivalent to robbing the humanity of the right to provide correct information? What can one say about the Western media when it portrays some issues relating to Syria, Iran and Pakistan is such a way to mislead the public opinion? Is it providing access to information under the ‘right to freedom of expression’ or using the same right to hoodwink people. Which form of democratic values are being given due regard when election results in Algeria are not accepted and the people elected as a result of these freely held polls are put behind bars and authoritarian rule imposed against the will and wishes of public. Everyone knows what happened to Najmuddin Erbakan, his party and the government he led in Turkey. The USA has always come to the support of dictators in Pakistan. The warning about making a ‘horrible example’ of the elected prime minister was given by none other than the secretary of state of America, the country that claims to be the champion of democracy. How much is it consonant with the slogan of human freedoms to persecute hundreds of detainees without trial for years at the Guantanamo Bay. America and its Western allies back monarchies, military rulers and dictators throughout the world. The people of these countries should also be given the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Their opinions are being constantly dishonored. The drum beaters of human rights, in order to serve their own interests, are exploiting the problems of the people living in these countries.
Let Western intellectuals once again become standard-bearers of freedom of speech
It is required that the true western intellectuals and conscientious and informed human beings across the world inform people living in the west about all these facts. There is no doubt that even at the present some such thinkers and scholars are playing their part in this regard, and in order to widen their sphere of influence their efforts need to be reinforced. The world will change towards good if correct information is provided to people and they make effective use of their right to freedom of opinion and expression. Nature will be manifested in full glory and splendor if it happens so. The commonalities of human nature will connect people to each other and they will be able to confront the intrigues of Satan (the Devil) in an effective manner. There is need to establish a link between expressing opinions freely and correct information and anyone desirous of freedom of expression for him should also acknowledge the same right for others as well as respecting their freedom and liberty.