Dissent in Islam

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan I The Pioneer | May 24, 1998 | Page 5

The Quran has commanded us to settle all matters at issue through counselling (42:38). Unlike arbitration, counselling implies the freedom to dissent. If diversity of opinions were not allowed to emerge, no fruitful counselling could ever be done. That is why Islam grants total freedom of expression. In the first phase of Islam, there is not a single instance of anyone being held blameworthy on account of a difference of opinion or the frank voicing of criticism. There are many interesting instances of dissent in Islam.

The first telling example to be set forth in the Quran is that of the angel’s reaction to God’s decision to create human beings and settle them on the earth as His creatures. When the Lord told the angles of this, they remonstrated: “Will you put there one that will do evil and shed blood...? (2:30). This was an expression of dissent against God Himself. But God did not disapprove of this. Instead, he simply explained the matter to the angels, after which they were satisfied. This shows that putting a curb on dissent or criticism, or upbraiding dissenters, is not the Islamic way. The method of Islam is to listen to opposite viewpoints and then attempt, by well reasoned argument, to remove the grounds for dissent. In the Quran, the Prophet has been upheld as a model: “You have a good example in God’s Apostle. (33:21). A study of the Prophet’s life shows that he invariably adopted the same approach to dissent or criticism as the Almighty did on the very first day of creation. This is illustrated by an incident in the life of the Prophet in Mecca. There, one of his opponents denounced him, couching what he had to say in lines of verse.

(In those ancient times the recitation of poetry, a time-honoured custom, was the best means of circulating an idea among the Arabs). The poetess from the opponents’ side, who had composed the offending verses, approached, the Prophet and recited a couplet, one line of which is as follow: Muzammaman asaina wa amrahu (We have disobeyed the Condemned — muzammaman meaning condemned — and rejected his teachings). The Quraysh tribe of Mecca had called The Prophet Muzammam, and used to denounce him by this name. On hearing this line of verse, the Prophet remarked to his companions: “Are you not surprised that God has turned the abuses of the Quraysh away from me? They abuse one whom they call Muzammam and denigrate him. But I am Muhammad (meaning ‘praiseworthy’), so their abuses are not going to apply to me. (Seerat Ibn Hisham Vol 1, p.39). We learn from this example set by the Prophet that if anyone directs any unwanted criticism at one, the best response is to take it in good part, and to pass it off with a good-honoured comment. We find an abundance of such examples in the Prophet’s life.

When he migrated to Medina, there, too, people used to abuse him. On such occasion, he would request one of his poet companions to arise and conduct his defence in verse. (Seerat Ibn Hisham). This shows that to Islam the best answer to invective is not in the meeting out of severe punishment to offenders, but in countering it with argument, the power of argument being a thousand times more effective than that of violence. This was the example set by God. Inspired by this precedent. His Prophet placed no curb on dissent in the society of the first phase of Islam. As we see from the above example, not even vituperation or calumny was suppressed. If healthy criticism could be responded to by argument, so could abuse and denigration. Umar Ibn al-Khattab was a great and powerful Caliph of the first phase of Islamic history. He had granted such great freedom to the people that both men and women could freely criticize him in public. Umar then either coolly accepted their point of view, or gave them reasons as to why his stand was right and proper. Once as Caliph, Umar made a mistake in giving a judgement. When one of his companions pointed this out to him, he promptly admitted his fault, saying, “If this man had not been here, Umar would have been ruined.” On another occasion, Umar once said prayers for someone who had sent him the ‘gifts’ of his own shortcomings. Islam allows freedom of expression to the greatest possible extent: neither dissent nor criticism nor abuse are punishable crimes. Islam advocates finding solutions to all matters of contention by means of discussion rather than by violence.