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Freedom Of Speech And Protest In Islam: The Distorted Saudi View

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A Protest in the Prophet’s Mosque

A powerful event of peaceful protest happened two weeks ago (April 28) in Saudi Arabia at the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) mosque – something not seen in Medina for over fourteen hundred years. A visiting delegation of Pakistani politicians, including Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and two Ministers from the recently installed government, were greeted by repeated chants by worshippers of “chor,” which in English translates as “thief”. Did Prime Minister Sharif, who is out on bail on multiple criminal charges for alleged financial improprieties, visit the holy places to burnish his religious bona fides to a citizenry back home? If that was the case, the optics of what happened has had the opposite effect. The images of the protest have been relayed and amplified with commentary and gone viral on social media. For adherents of the Islamic faith, being called a “thief” near the resting place of the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is a profound jolt. It has been interpreted by many as signifying that these politicians were not worthy of traversing such sacred terrain.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif visits Prophet’s Mosque in the holy city of Madinah, Saudi Arabia. – (AP via Khaleej Times}

As was expected, the Saudi authorities who brook no dissent are incensed by the protests. Politically, one can understand the Saudi’s concern. Protests of “chor” against Pakistani officials if left unchecked could blossom to protests against Saudi governance or human rights violations. The Medina police have since arrested five suspects for “abusing and insulting” the Pakistani Ministers. The spokesperson for the police remarked the actions of the protesters is against Islam and “contradict the sanctity of the place.”  The protest took place a distance from the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) grave. Islamic scholars, all the way back to the Caliph Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) and the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) wife Ayesha raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) instructed Muslims not to raise one’s voice next to the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) grave. Understandably, political discourse and protests in the mosque even far from the grave of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) would undermine the worship of other pilgrims. Given the crowds, time, manner, and place restrictions on protest is needed. But the notion that no protests are permitted in Islam or that political discourse never took place in the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) mosque is incorrect. The efforts of smart phones and citizen reporting of the incident offers a monumental teaching teachable moment for Muslims and others about the correct Islamic conception of democracy, freedom of speech and accountability of government officials for malfeasance.

Saudi and “Freedom” of Speech

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There is a litany of prophetic examples that illustrate the Saudi view of freedom of speech and protest, like so much of their brand of Islam, is the antithesis of Islamic scriptures and prophetic practice. Islamic scriptures is replete with calls on every Muslim to enjoin good and forbid wrong. Muslims unanimously agree that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) proclaimed that speaking against an unjust ruler is the highest form of sacrifice in the path of God. Muslims also unanimously concur that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said when you see a wrong, change it with your hand. If you cannot change it with your hand, then speak against the wrong. And if you cannot change the wrong with your words, then despise that wrong in your heart but that is the lowest level of faith.

There are many examples of freedom of speech and protest in the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) mosque, or during the pilgrimage during the life of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) and the four immediate successors of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), who Sunni Islam unanimously proclaims as the four noble or rightly guided Caliphs. The latter’s instructions and examples represent sources of Islamic law. Here are a few illustrations.

The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was once delivering a speech and a man interrupted the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) and inquired about the unlawful detention of his neighbor. The man rose two more times and asked the same question. Thereafter, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) asked the police officer to release the man’s neighbor. The incident is instructive at several levels. First, it occurred in the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) mosque. Second, it was the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) that was being interrupted. Third, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) did not say that the interruption  disrespected him or his mosque. Fourth, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) recognized the validity of someone concerned about injustice and raising the concern publicly.

On assuming office after he was selected leader of the state after the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) death, Abu Bakr raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him), the first noble Caliph, addressed the community and remarked, “You have made me your leader, although I am in no way superior to you. Co-operate with me when I do right; correct me when I err.” He also said, “Turn away from me when I deviate.” Abu Bakr raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) admonished the community that if he errs and departs from ethical principles, which by definition preclude corruption, immorality, and injustice, the community has an obligation to speak truth to power.

Meanwhile, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Sultan recently asked the Saudi population to accept austerity measures whilst personally spending about half a billion United States dollars on a supposed Salvador Mundi painting of Christ, which turned out to be a fake. Islamic tenets demand that the public must hold leaders accountable for their actions. Caliph Abu Bakr raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) stated, “[T]o tell the truth to a person commissioned to rule is faithful allegiance; to conceal it is treason.”

Dynasty vs Khilaafah

Abu Bakr raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) recognized the equality of society, which is replete in the sayings of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). The legitimacy of Abu Bakr’s raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) leadership was not derived from dynastic rule. The subsequent three Caliphs were also selected  through a process of mutual consultation, which arguably represented the first implementation of a rudimentary democracy; rule by consensus as opposed to coercion. It was also a rejection of hereditary leadership. On his deathbed, the second Caliph, Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him), asked for a consultative committee of the leading personalities of the time to choose his successor. Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) was absolutely emphatic that his successor could not be his son, thus eschewing dynastic rule.

Neither the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) (considered by Muslims as the greatest personality that lived), nor the Caliphs gave the state their family name. The Saudi state is named after the ruling family and constitutes an absolutist, dynastic, and family-centered government, the members of whom have amassed enormous wealth. The Royal family treat the resources and treasury as their private piggy bank. Caliph Abu Bakr raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) warned his officials against making state appointments based on nepotism or leaders enriching themselves. On assuming the office of Caliph, Abu Bakr raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) asked his daughter to take stock of his assets so that a determination can be made at the end whether he had been enriched in office. This might be the earliest recorded instance of a leader concerned about corruption and providing a self-imposed check against corruption.

Limits to Obedience

Like his predecessor, the second Caliph, Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him), instructed the Muslim community that no leader should be obeyed if he acts against the tenets of the faith. Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) remarked that the community has rights over him and must be able to enforce those rights. Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) took meticulous measures to ensure that political power was not an entrée to richness. For example, Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) asked every officer he appointed to take a pledge that they would live simply and eat simply. Those that breached the rule were reported by the citizenry and were sanctioned. A detailed inventory of the assets of the officials was prepared at the time of their appointment and reassessed at the end of their tenure. The officials had to account for any increases in their assets.

The Saudi monarchy and the sycophant clerics on the government payroll distort material aspects of Islam to justify and fortify the survival of the Al Saud dynasty. They demand absolute obedience to a ruler. This is an inversion of Islamic teachings and contradict historical examples concerning issues of justice, morality, and corruption being addressed in the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) mosque or during the pilgrimage.

The Caliph Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) was confronted in public in the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) mosque and in the streets by ordinary people who raised concerns about inappropriate behavior by government officials. Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) protected the right of a person that once interrupted his speech, and is reported to have said “if the people do not give me good advice they are useless and if I do not listen to it, I am useless.” On another occasion, Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) asked the assembly what would they do if he, Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him), strayed from the straight path? A man stood up and responded he would confront Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) and even suggested he would take up arms against him. Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) replied, “praise be to God that among my people are present men who could put me on the straight part if I deviated from it.”

A Distortion of Islam

The Saudis demand the pilgrimage and visits to the holy mosques be conducted as an exclusive exercise of rituals and individual spirituality – a reflection and strengthening of the individual’s relationship with God in a morally blind manner. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) and the Caliphs conducted political and military meetings in the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) mosque. The Caliphs Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) and Uthman raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him)  required their senior government officials come to Mecca at the time of the annual pilgrimage and people were encouraged  to voice any complaints they might have had against any official. Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) is known to have taken action against aberrant government officials during these occasions.

The Saudi rulers distort the comprehensive Islamic injunction of enjoining good and forbidding evil, and turn it on its head to preclude any questioning of their rule. In doing so, they offer an obtuse and destructive assault on absolute principles of justice, ethics, morality, and good governance, which in Islam cannot be derogated from.

The protest in Medina in the last week of Ramadan did not happen next to the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) grave, which would be problematic. Not since the time of the noble Caliphs have we seen this sort of peaceful rebuke of public officials, albeit not Saudi, in the first Muslim capital. The protest offers Muslims an opportunity for self-reflection beyond the positivist diet fed by absolute dictators that they are owed unquestionable obedience by virtue of their hold on power. The Caliphs Abu Bakr raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) and Omar raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) rebuked an inert or indifferent citizenry, and ordered them to hold their leaders publicly accountable. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) and the noble Caliphs would not countenance illegitimate or dynastic rule, profligacy, corruption, authoritarianism, human rights violations, the slaughter of civilians in Yemen, or Saudi support for repression in Egypt and Palestine. The obligation to enjoin good and forbid evil requires every Muslim to talk out against these abuses. The concept of Deen -that Islam is an all-encompassing way of life- requires the rejection of Saudi and other brands of Islam that pigeonhole Islam as sanitized rituals, devoid of moral, ethical and political dimensions.

 

Related reading:

Politics In Islam: Muslims Are Called To Pursue Justice

Podcast: Priorities and Protest | On Muslim Activism with Shaykhs Dawud Walid and Omar Suleiman

 

 

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Professor Ziyad Motala is a Professor of law at Howard University School of Law. He served as an Honorary Professor of Law at the University Of Western Cape School Of Law in South Africa. Prior to his teaching at Howard, he also taught at Northwestern Law School as an adjunct law professor and a visiting professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. Motala is a native of Durban, South Africa, and was active in the struggle for liberation in South Africa. He received his B.A. and LL.B. degrees from the University of Natal (South Africa). He has an LL.M. and an SJ.D degree from Northwestern University in Chicago. He is an authority on international law, constitutional law, and comparative law. He served for eight years as the Director of the Graduate Studies Program at Howard University School of Law and currently serves as the Director of the Howard South Africa Summer Abroad Program, which he initiated. He has delivered papers and keynote speeches at numerous conferences all over the world. He served as the coordinator of a one week seminar on the Protection of Human Rights in Africa conducted by the International Institute of Higher Studies in Criminal Sciences Conference in Conjunction with the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Bureau, and the United Nations Center for Human Rights. He has written extensively in his areas of interest. Motala is the co-author of Constitutional Law Analysis and Cases with Cyril Ramaphosa the current President of the Republic of South Africa and former Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly of South Africa. He has also authored Constitutional Options For a Democratic South Africa: a Comparative Perspective. He has co-edited, The Protection of Human Rights in African Criminal Proceedings with M.C. Bassiouni. He also produced the following casebooks Constitutional Law Cases: The Structure of Government and more recently Constitutional Law Cases: Equal Protection and Fundamental Rights. He is the author of over seventy law review/journal, op-ed pieces or books. He is actively involved in projects pertaining to legal reform and administration of justice in various parts of the world.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. masood

    May 13, 2022 at 1:16 AM

    this is just an article to malign the muslims at large. his interpretations are just as weird as can be of any one with his background.

  2. SK

    May 13, 2022 at 10:09 AM

    You are attempting to malign the author. You are making broad sweeping accusations without giving any specifics of what you are speaking of.

  3. mm

    May 14, 2022 at 7:03 AM

    he is just trying to be political and using references which need to be examined in the current situation. just imagine if the authorities in saudia were not strict and let it pass there are a number of countries whose citizens will start doing similar praqctice. secondly doyou really know the politics of pakista. just rewad what type weired speeches are being made by the ousted ex-PM.
    donot mix relgion with poloitics

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