Intellectual Freedom, Censorship and the Spirit of Islam

The idea that ‘Islam’ is a set of idealism-defining principles with which Muslims often fail to conform, almost seems a clichéd notion. Amongst these lofty principles is allowing the intellect freedom to manoeuvre, to challenge and to break faulty ideas in order to replace them with more accurate ones. Thus we find the inevitable contraposition to this ethic found within many Muslim societies, whereby barriers of censorship are erected in order to shield the masses from intellectual opinions that challenge the presiding point of view, be it ideological in nature or otherwise.

Ironic then, that the birth, and subsequent growth, of Islam was only made possible by the demolishing of such barriers; and that intellectual censorship was a tool upon which the opponents of Islam depended. The Quraysh’s prohibition to Al-Ṭufayl ibn ‘Umar from listening to the Holy Prophet (pbuh), out of fear that he may convert, was by no means an isolated instance[1].

It may well have been the case that the censorship imposed in Mecca, 1400 years ago, was decreed in order to protect prestigious financial and social positions of the Qurayshi elite; it may also be the case that intellectual censorship in today’s Muslim societies does not always spring from such sinister self-serving motives. Nevertheless, the frantic want to silence opinions that challenge the status quo, is the bitter fruit of insecurity; either fearing that the ideas we have adhered to for so long may crumble in the face of a more indubitable argument, or that we lack the scholarly prowess to intellectually defend the beliefs we hold, regardless of how correct they may be.

Islamic philosophy, jurisprudence and even ideological convictions have all evolved over time due to the willingness of scholars, with critical minds, to entertain novel ideas in Popperian spirit[2].

The early history of Islam is riddled with examples of how the progeny of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) debated, discussed and intellectually defeated ideological and jurisprudential conjectures put forth by those less learned. Shying away from debate or attempting to repress contending opinions would have been unbefitting of them.

It is regrettable to see, therefore, that it is now deemed acceptable for religious figures in authoritative positions, to censor and silence academic opinions that are not in harmony with what is considered ‘mainstream’ – regardless of whether or not they are correct.

This unfortunate trend results in the numbing of the collective intellect of the Muslim community by shielding them from controversial views, patronisingly keeping them aloof from mental exercise in a religious context.

However, the refusal to engage and entertain differing views, and blocking them from the community by building a rampart of censorship, could lead to an even more potentially perilous possibility – what if they’re right?!

[1] Majlisi, M. B. (1988). Biḥār al-Anwār. Beirut: Dar al-Fiqh. V. 17 P. 81

[2] Karl Popper (d. 1994): “I speak of the growth of scientific knowledge, the repeated overthrow of scientific theories and its replacement by better or more satisfactory ones”. [Popper, K. (1963). Conjectures and Refutations. London: Routledge Publications. P. 215]