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Specific Traditions as Islamic Foundations for Freedom of Speech with Special Reference to Books and Press

Human intellectual development and the maturity of his intellect require his freedom in thought, expression and behavior. However, this freedom is limited since unconditional freedom is nothing but chaos and depriving others of their freedom.

The question now is what is the scope of this freedom and how can all people’s freedom be protected so as not to compromise the security of society and the rights of all citizens.

The religion of Islam, which bases its ideological foundations on reason and intellect and always relies on logic and wisdom, has not only removed any obstacle to the expression of thought but also, from the very beginning, has invited its opponents to intellectual argumentation and debates.In Islam, on the one hand, “the principle of ibaha” (i.e. the principle that everything is allowed unless you know otherwise) has been confirmed and in Islamic texts and sirah (way of life) of the leaders, freedom of expression has been emphasized, and on the other hand, there are specific narrations in this regard.

Specific Traditions

Islamic commands such as enjoining the good and forbidding the evil, the uprising against the heresies, well-wishingfor the Muslim leaders, the necessity of seeking truthfulness and righteousness and so on are all clear indications of freedom of expression under an Islamic government since they are only practicable with the freedom of expression. As mentioned, specific narrations can be referred to for freedom of expression.

The traditions of the Infallibles (as) emphasize the freedom of expression of beliefs as well as the benevolent advice and constructive criticism of the officials in the Islamic Government. Of course, it is clear that freedom of expression is valid from the Shari’a point of view as long as it is within the framework of Islamic law and norms, and therefore, it is not possible to deliberately pose false statements. The following hadiths are noteworthy in this regard:

  • In sermon no. 216 in Nahj al-Balagha, Imam Ali (AS) says:

«فَلَا تُكَلِّمُونِي بِمَا تُكَلَّمُ بِهِ الْجَبَابِرَةُ وَ لَا تَتَحَفَّظُوا مِنِّي بِمَا يُتَحَفَّظُ بِهِ عِنْدَ أَهْلِ الْبَادِرَةِ وَ لَا تُخَالِطُونِي بِالْمُصَانَعَةِ وَ لَا تَظُنُّوا بِي اسْتِثْقَالًا فِي حَقٍّ قِيلَ لِي وَ لَا الْتِمَاسَ إِعْظَامٍ لِنَفْسِي فَإِنَّهُ مَنِ اسْتَثْقَلَ الْحَقَّ أَنْ يُقَالَ لَهُ أَوِ الْعَدْلَ أَنْ يُعْرَضَ عَلَيْهِ كَانَ الْعَمَلُ بِهِمَا أَثْقَلَ عَلَيْهِ فَلَا تَكُفُّوا عَنْ مَقَالَةٍ بِحَقٍّ أَوْ مَشُورَةٍ»

”Do not address me in the manner despots areaddressed.Do not evade me as the people of passion are (to be) evaded, do not meet me with flattery anddo not think that I shall take it ill if a true thing is said to me, because the person who feelsdisgusted when truth is said to him or a just matter is placed before him would find it moredifficult to act upon them.Therefore, do not abstain from saying a truth or pointing out a matter of justice.”

Here Imam Ali (AS) explicitly refers to the freedom of expression within the framework of truth and justice, even with regard to the highest officials.

  • In his well-known letter to Malik al-Ashtar, Imam Ali (AS) explains how people should feel free before the officials to mention their views without being afraid of anyone. He declares how obstacles for this purpose should be removed:

«وَ اجْعَلْ لِذَوِي الْحَاجَاتِ مِنْكَ قِسْماً تُفَرِّغُ لَهُمْ فِيهِ شَخْصَكَ وَ تَجْلِسُ لَهُمْ مَجْلِساً عَامّاً فَتَتَوَاضَعُ فِيهِ لِلَّهِ الَّذِي خَلَقَكَ وَ تُقْعِدُ عَنْهُمْ جُنْدَكَ وَ أَعْوَانَكَ مِنْ أَحْرَاسِكَ وَ شُرَطِكَ حَتَّى يُكَلِّمَكَ مُتَكَلِّمُهُمْ غَيْرَ مُتَتَعْتِعٍ فَإِنِّي سَمِعْتُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ ص يَقُولُ فِي غَيْرِ مَوْطِنٍ لَنْ تُقَدَّسَ أُمَّةٌ لَا يُؤْخَذُ لِلضَّعِيفِ فِيهَا حَقُّهُ مِنَ الْقَوِيِّ غَيْرَ مُتَتَعْتِعٍ ثُمَّ احْتَمِلِ الْخُرْقَ مِنْهُمْ وَ الْعِيَّ وَ نَحِّ عَنْهُمُ الضِّيقَ وَ الْأَنَفَ يَبْسُطِ اللَّهُ عَلَيْكَ بِذَلِكَ أَكْنَافَ رَحْمَتِهِ وَ يُوجِبْ لَكَ ثَوَابَ طَاعَتِهِوَ أَعْطِ مَا أَعْطَيْتَ هَنِيئاً وَ امْنَعْ فِي إِجْمَالٍ وَ إِعْذَارٍ»

Out of your hours of work, fix a time for the complainants and for those who want toapproach you with their grievances. During this time, you should do no other work but hearthem and pay attention to their complaints and grievances. For this purpose, you must arrangepublic audience for them during this audience, for the sake of Allah, treat them with kindness,courtesy, and respect. Do not let your army and police be in the audience hall at such times sothat those who have grievances against your regime may speak to you freely, unreservedlyand without fear.All this is a necessary factor of your rule because I have often heard the Holy Prophet (s)saying, “That nation or regime, where that rights of the depressed, destitute and suppressedare not guarded and where the mighty and powerful persons are not forced to accede theserights, cannot achieve salvation”. You must remember that in those audiences the mostcommon men will gather. therefore, if you find them misbehaving, becoming unmannerly orif you feel that their talk is irrelevant, tolerate them; do not be rude and do not insult them, sothat Allah may be kind and merciful to you and may reward you for obeying His commandsexplicitly. Treat them courteously, hear their grievances patiently and if you are forced toreject their demands then reject them in such a way that your rejection may please them asmuch as your grants.”[1]

  • In his sermon delivered shortly after the battle of Nahravan, Imam Ali (AS) explains the mutual rights and duties of the subjects and the people in charge:

«أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّ لِي عَلَيْكُمْ حَقّاً وَ لَكُمْ عَلَيَّ حَقٌّ فَأَمَّا حَقُّكُمْ عَلَيَّ فَالنَّصِيحَةُ لَكُمْ وَ تَوْفِيرُ فَيْئِكُمْ عَلَيْكُمْ وَ تَعْلِيمُكُمْ كَيْلَا تَجْهَلُوا وَ تَأْدِيبُكُمْ كَيْمَا تَعْلَمُوا وَ أَمَّا حَقِّي عَلَيْكُمْ فَالْوَفَاءُ بِالْبَيْعَةِ وَ النَّصِيحَةُ فِي الْمَشْهَدِ وَ الْمَغِيبِ وَ الْإِجَابَةُ حِينَ أَدْعُوكُمْ وَ الطَّاعَةُ حِينَ آمُرُكُمْ»

O’ people, I have a right over you and you have a right over me. As for your right over me,that is to counsel you, to pay you your dues fully, to teach you that you may not remainignorant and instruct you in behaviourism that you may act upon. As for my right over you, itis the fulfilment of (the obligation of) allegiance, well-wishing in presence or in absence,response when I call you and obedience when I order you.”[2]

Thus, one of the rights of the people is to express benevolent words to the leaders and officials of the Islamic system, which in our time is interpreted as “constructive criticism”. Of course, just as in criticizing an ordinary person, one must observe some standards not to spoil his personality in others’ eyes, the same standards need to be observed in criticizing the authorities, in such a way that it does not undermine their personality and position.

It is to be noted that as such well-wishing criticisms require the authorities to hear them and act accordingly, various narrations advise the people in charge to do so:

«وَ اسمَعوُا النَّصِيحَةَ مِمَّنْ أَهْدَاهَا إِلَيْكُمْ وَ اعْقِلُوهَا عَلَى أَنْفُسِكُمْ»

“and accept good advice of one who offers it to you and preserve it in your

Interestingly, Imam Ali (AS) calls such advice from the people, “a gift offered by them to the authorities”.

Furthermore, there are various narrations asking each and every Muslim to be careful about the affairs of other Muslims and prohibiting them from neglecting others. In his Wasa’il al-Shi’a, ShaykhHurr al-‘Amili has dedicated a chapter to “the obligation of being mindful of the Muslims’ affairs” where he quotes Imam Sadiq (AS) as saying:

«مَنْ لَمْ يَهْتَمَّ بِأُمُورِ الْمُسْلِمِينَ فَلَيْسَ بِمُسْلِمٍ»

”The one who is careless about Muslims’ affairs is not a [true] Muslim”.[4]

Clearly, one of the ways for taking care of Muslims’ affairs is to present constructive suggestions and criticisms to the authorities.

From what has been said, it can be concluded that in Islam, the principle is the freedom of thought and expression, except where there is a logical reason. Freedom is a gem but if considered unconditional, it causes its decline, since such freedom creates chaos and diminish social security and deprives others of their freedom. As such, social freedom is limited in its essence, and reason or religion represents its limits.

As far as the newspapers, press, and books are concerned there are at least two Islamic principles that define the scope of the freedom of expression: the principle of forbidding the evil and ban of spreading misguiding books.

The Principle of Forbidding Evil

According to clear verses of the Holy Qur’an and various narrations, enjoining the good and forbidding the evil areamong the most important duties of every Muslim and neglecting them brings about deleterious consequences. According to the Holy Qur’an, this makes the Muslim community the best nation among all nations:

«كُنْتُمْ خَيْرَ أُمَّةٍ أُخْرِجَتْ لِلنَّاسِ تَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَ تَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنْكَرِ وَ تُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللَّهِ»

“You are the best nation ever brought forth for mankind: you bid what is right and forbid what is wrong, and have faith in Allah.”(The Holy Qur’an, 3: 110)

Imam Kazim (AS) is quoted as saying:

«لَتَأْمُرُنَّ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَ لَتَنْهُنَّ عَنِ الْمُنْكَرِ أَوْ لَيُسْتَعْمَلَنَّ عَلَيْكُمْ شِرَارُكُمْ فَيَدْعُو خِيَارُكُمْ فَلَا يُسْتَجَابُ لَهُمْ»

”You should enjoin the good and forbid the evil or else, evil people will have authority upon you. Under such circumstances, good people would pray but their requests will not be fulfilled.”[5]

Therefore, any book, paper, magazine and press which intends to misguide the Muslim community through spreading false notions is liable to be stopped by individual Muslims or Islamic government.

Ban of Spreading Misguiding Books

Publishing misguiding books (KutubZallah) has been explicitly forbidden by Muslim jurists. KutubZallah refers to any text written and published to mislead Muslims and disseminate wrong beliefs and deeds among them and pervert their minds. It also includes written materials that make fun of or insult those doctrines and personalities which are respected by Muslims. All kinds of press, by the same token, need to observe this rule and take into consideration the moral and theological values of the community.



  1. The Holy Qur’an
  2. Nahj al-Balagha, Sermons, Letters and Wise Sayings of Imam Ali (AS) as collected by SayyidRazi
  3. AllamaMajlisi, Bihar al-Anwar, al-Wafa’ Institute, Beirut, 1404.
  4. ShaykhHurr al-‘Amili, Wasa’il al-Shi’a, Al al-Bayt Institute, Qom, 1409.

Tamimi, Abd al-Wahid, Ghurar al-HikamwaDurar al-Kalim, DaftarTablighat Publication, Qom, 1366.

[1]Nahj al-Balagha, Letter No. 53

[2]Nahj al-Balagha, Sermon No. 34

[3]Ghurar al-Hikam, p. 225

[4]Wasa’il al-Shi’a, vol. 16, p. 336.

[5]Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 97, p. 93

The article was written by Hujjat al-Islam Sayyid Mostafa Daryabari and Dr.Morteza Karimi.

About Ali Teymoori

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