Criticism and Freedom of Expression in Islam. Surah al-An’am
Updated: May 29
During the Prophet’s time, some of his Companions used objectionable language against the Gods of non-believers. This resulted in a reaction from the other party. They would get provoked and in return abuse God and his Prophet. In this situation, God Almighty gave an important piece of advice to the believers. This is recorded in the chapter Al-Anam (The Cattle): “Do not revile those (beings) whom they invoke instead of God, lest they, in their hostility, revile God out of ignorance. Thus to every people We have caused their action to seem fair. To their Lord they shall all return, and He will declare to them all that they have done.” (6:108)
In this verse, we see a principle set by God. God Almighty did not advise the Makkans or the opponents to not to abuse God or the Messenger; instead, God Almighty advised Muslims to refrain from using derogatory language about other people’s gods and their religion.
First, we have to refrain from all kinds of negative activity in the name of religion. Religion certainly cannot be defended by speaking against the religion of others. Second, if we think deeply we also find that the Quran does not command Muslims to fight or clash with those who speak against Islam. Clearly, the Quran is acknowledging here that some people are using vile or abusive language for God. But Muslims are not directed to run after them, and clash with them.
For us, what lesson does this verse has? One option that we have is to make a hue and cry against those activities that we feel are derogatory to Islam. Such behaviour in the name of Islam is nothing but de-Islamisation of Islam as it is quite against the Islamic spirit as laid down in the Quran. V16:125 advises Muslims to deal with dispute in the best and the most honourable manner possible. That is, they should respond in a positive rather than negative way. Another verse tells us that if Muslims follow this course of action, they will find that what was apparently a disadvantage has turned into an advantage: “Good deeds and bad deeds are not equal. Do good deed in return for bad deed; then you will see that one who was once your enemy has become your dearest friend” (41:34). It means if someone speaks against your religion, don’t take it as an expression of enmity; take it as a misunderstanding or a difference of opinion. Try to remove that misunderstanding, and the concerned person will reform his opinion. This is the best and honourable way of dealing with something you consider abhorrent.
This kind of culture can be maintained only when there is freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is not an evil; it is the greatest good for human development. All scientific developments happen through this dissent culture. When an idea is put forward, all scientists try their best to disprove it. When they cannot, they raise it to the level of a theory, a universal principle governing the universe. Thomas Kuhn in his Structure expresses this by the term ‘paradigm shift’ in our understanding of the cosmos. This shift occurs through a rigorous process of critical thinking in science.
According to the Quran, God Himself has set an example in this regard. He allowed the angels to express their dissent at the time of the creation of Adam (2:30). Islam believes in rational discussion, for it leads to clarification of matters. Freedom of expression is good for both sides. Cancelling freedom of expression is tantamount to cancelling intellectual development. This will only lead to stagnation. Promoting freedom of expression will lead to promotion of enlightenment.
The whole scheme of Islam is based on the process of peaceful dialogue. This is the standard Islamic response to problems, and the case of those who express critical opinion about Islam is certainly no exception. Muslims must, therefore, engage with people in a friendly and agreeable manner. They must try to address their minds. The Quran by its very nature is a book of persuasion and repeatedly exhorts the reader to apply his reason to understand the realities outlines in the Book. So Muslims must deal with such cases by reasoning and not by becoming provoked and causing a furore.
It is tantamount to defamation of Islam to say that Islam cannot give a reason-based response to its criticism, and that is why it endeavours to inflict physical punishment on those who make any kind of negative remark against their religion. Islam, after all, is a rational religion; all Islamic teachings are based on reason and argument. This very chapter of the Quran says with God rests the most conclusive proof, lillahi-hujjatul balighah (6:149). Islam relies on rational argument rather than on any kind of physical punishment.
Q1. How to take criticism to our advantage?
A1. Criticism is important. It is a means to grow and discover deep truths. In any exchange, in a feedback, between a receiver and a giver, it’s the receiver who is charge – the receiver decides what they’re going to let in, what sense they’re going to make of it and whether and how they choose to change.
On Feedback, On Difficult Conversations
People and organizations all over the world struggle with feedback.
At first we taught givers how to give more skilfully, clearly, more often. In any exchange, in a feedback, between a receiver and a giver, it’s the receiver who is charge – the receiver decides what they’re going to let it, what sense they’re going to make of it and whether and how they choose to change.
The key is learning how to take in the blizzard of feedback that we come in contact with every day. Feedback is our relation to the world and it’s the world’s relationship with us. Criticisms are annoying. What if we can receive feedback as a skill and get better at learning from feedback and driving our own learning. We don’t have to wait around for good givers to show up. What if we could draw learning from all.
Why it’s so hard to receive feedback? If we could better at it, it would make huge difference. Those who solicit negative feedback, are looking at what they can improve. Those people report higher work satisfaction and higher performance. If you get better at handling everybody’s feedback it doesn’t just change you, it changes how other people see you and experience you.
You may have rejected advice. Why didn’t you do so? Think about that. Maybe it was wrong. Maybe it was upsetting. We usually decide too soon. We are incredibly good at wrong spotting. I need to figure out what’s wrong with it. If I can find it wrong, I can set it aside and relax and go on with my life. If it’s right, I’ll keep worrying about it. Some feedback might be just what you need to grow.
We all have blind spots.
Individual sensitivity to feedback. Individuals can vary.
Marti Seligman. Our reactions are based on 50% genetic, 40% on the story you tell about what happens and 10% based on actual circumstances of life.
Insensitive or under-sensitive to feedback. You don’t realize people are trying to give you feedback. Dismissive of feedback. If you don’t know what you need to be working on. No pain-free learning system. Learning to understand and manage the pain to enrich our relationship.