From the archive of Abdelrahim Ali

Freedom of opinion and expression in Islam (Part 2): On the sidelines of the debate between El-Khosht and Sheikh El-Tayeb

Abdelrehim Aly
  • * The Quran is the constitution of Muslims in freedom and difference of opinion
  • * God Almighty is more exalted than the value of human freedom in the Quran
  • * He gave him the choice between believing or disbelieving and bestowed him the intellect with which to decide
  • * Some jurists did the opposite: they closed the door of ijtihad and used analytical tools that lead to fatalism
  • * It is time to use new tools of analysis to derive judgments that are reconcilable with our times


The controversy between Al-Azhar Grand Imam Dr. Ahmed El-Tayeb and Cairo University President Dr. Mohamed Othman El-Khosht sparked widespread controversy after it was understood from the Imam’s response that the issue of tajdid (renewal) does not concern anyone except Al-Azhar, and it seemed to the public that he closed the door of ijtihad (independent juristic reasoning) to thinkers and intellectuals who are not Al-Azhar graduates, at a time when the country needs every intellectual and everyone who believes in the necessity of employing reason. This debate opened the door for a sincere, honest and trustworthy dialogue that seeks the good of this nation and monitors everything that raises the status of reason and grants freedom of thought and human dignity. Here, we continue this series entitled “Freedom of opinion and expression”, and God is behind the intention and He guides the way.

Imam Muhammad Abduh wrote towards the end of the nineteenth century (1), stressing that the Islamic methodology depends only on rational evidence and does not know paranormal phenomena and miracles. The pioneering imam declared that belief in God precedes belief in the messengers and belief in what was revealed to them of the Book and wisdom, and thus Muhammad Abduh elevated the status of reason, making it a guide and leader to the right way. Faith does not stem from oppression and coercion, as it is the product of suffering, contemplation and consideration, and a logical outcome of mental fatigue within a framework of freedom and reliance on conscious will.

The discourse presented by Muhammad Abduh appears to be different from what was prevalent in the many decades, or rather centuries, prior, and this does not mean that he adds to Islam what is not in it, but that in fact he tries to remove a lot of the rust that had accumulated through the eras of decadence, closed-mindedness, and puritanism, where safety and mental laziness were preferred by choosing the inherited faith without relying on rational evidence and free contemplation. From here, Muhammad Abduh is characterized by the pioneering of tajdid (renewal), which continued his path during successive decades of the twentieth century, a renewal that has been matched by intransigence and stubbornness on the part of the conservatives, who present a counter-discourse that is easier and less stressful and therefore more endowed in its popularity and its ability to influence the general Muslims. Hence came the success of the discourse adopted by all political Islamist groups, whose principles were written by the elementary teacher Hassan al-Banna and the literary critic Sayyid Qutb, while the discourse of the venerable scholar Muhammad Abduh and his peers failed to reach the people, because they have no social leverage represented by a religious group that promotes, defends and spreads their ideas.

Muhammad Abduh belongs to that group of enlightened imams who believe that rational consideration is the basis in Islam, and in his view, reason takes precedence over the apparent meaning of the law when there is conflict. The sheikh says, “If reason and transmission conflict, he takes what reason indicates, and two paths remain in transmission: the way of accepting the authenticity of that which is transmitted while acknowledging the inability to understand it and delegating the matter to God in His knowledge, and the way of interpreting the transmission while preserving the laws of language until its meaning agrees with what the mind has established.” (2)

Reconciliation with reason is the second principle of the Islamic approach to dawah (calling to Islam) and life, and every conflict with it becomes an obstacle that must be removed. Based on these two integrated and intertwined foundations, we can reach the third principle, with which we are preoccupied in this article, namely “keeping away from blasphemy” in the language of Imam Muhammad Abduh, who says, “If a statement is issued by someone who bears disbelief from one hundred aspects and belief from one aspect, then it is predicated on belief, and it is not permissible to predicate it on disbelief.” (3)

Difference between human beings is the prevalent and dominant rule, and none of those who differ in opinion or vision can claim a monopoly of certainty or possession of the absolute truth. In this context, we can read the Noble Quran to see how many of its verses require freedom of opinion and allow the right to expression without restriction.


Freedom is the basis of human existence

Freedom is the basis for man's existence in this world. Rather, it is the basis for God Almighty's creation of the universe, and it is the basis for the idea of the Last Day.


Man is commanded to reflect on the wisdom behind the creation of the heavens and the earth

{Those who remember God while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], "Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You [above such a thing]; then protect us from the punishment of the Fire} [Surah Aal Imran: 191]. 

God Almighty did not create the heavens and the earth in vain. He created them for a true purpose and appointed for them a specific term, after which they will be destroyed: {We did not create the heavens and earth and what is between them except in truth and [for] a specified term. But those who disbelieve are turning away from that of which they are warned} [Surah Al-Ahqaf: 3].

Every human being has his experience when he is on this earth and lives there for the period of his life, which is predetermined for him. After this life, he dies and returns to the barzakh (that which is between the worldly life and the Hereafter) from which he came. It is required of man in this worldly life to know that God created him in this world to test his appointment in the next life: {[He] who created death and life to test you [as to] which of you is best in deed - and He is the Exalted in Might, the Forgiving} [Surah Al-Mulk: 2].

What is remarkable is that God Almighty has made the elements of the test balanced and fair. He created man upon pure fitrah (innate human disposition), i.e. the inner sensitive balance that distinguishes between good and evil and that believes in God alone. In return for this fitrah, He granted Satan the power of temptation over him, sent messengers to him and sent down with them the heavenly books. Above all that, He created him free to obey and disobey, to believe and to disbelieve, and made for him an inner self in which to keep all his secrets, impulses, feelings, obsessions and thoughts out of reach every creature other than himself in order to have his own independent self. If he wants to be free, he is free, and if he wants by his own choice to be a slave to other human beings and ideas, he is as such. The important thing is that the choice is in his own hands, and through this choice the person uses his freedom as he wants. If others overpower him with non-divine laws and confiscate his right to disbelief, he chooses in his heart to disbelieve, or rather he denies the fitrah within him and denies the existence of God who created him. To this extent, God Almighty created man with free will, to the degree that by his free thinking he reaches a denial of the existence of the Creator Himself. (4)

God Almighty has given us free will in this world to test us, and He sent down the religion that He commanded us to follow, and He sent down with that religion heavenly books. He did not send down with it a sword or angels commanding people to follow that religion, and He did not make the Hellfire in this world, so that whoever disbelieves and disobeys is brought to be cast in Hell before the eyes of the rest of mankind, for if He did that, there would be no trial or test. God Almighty did not give his authority in this world to some people to punish in His name those who differed with them in opinion or those who disbelieved in God. Those who claim this alleged right for themselves only corrupt the issue from its roots and assume the role of God, whereas there is no deity but God. They attempt to control what the Lord of Glory desires to control when he left the human mind free and unfettered, thinking without limits, believing if he wants and disbelieving if he wants. He declared that with His might how He wanted. This group of people, in addition to falsifying the religion of God and usurping His powers that He saved for Himself on the Day of Judgment, also give the argument for those who deny the reckoning of the Hereafter and the torment of the Fire, and their argument is that if there is coercion to believe and if there is compulsion in religion, then there is no room at that time for there to be an account and punishment on the Day of Judgment. Rather, they give the religion of God Almighty an ugly, extremist, bloody, ossified, backward face and contribute to alienating the majority of people from it. This ugly face has nothing to do with the religion of God Almighty. Rather, it is their face and their own religion, which contradicts the religion of God Almighty completely and minutely. (5)

Islam does not close the door of free contemplation in the face of man, but rather opens it to him in front of him, and the one who strives in the Islamic religion has no sin on him for what he strives for, even if he errs in the right path. He receives two rewards for his diligence and his correctness, while the erring one receives only one reward for his diligence and is not rewarded for his mistake, but is only excused for it. 

There is a group, headed by Amr ibn Bahr Al-Jahiz and Abu Bakr ibn Al-Anbari among the imams of the Mu’tazilites, who see that there is no sin on the mujtahid (one who practices ijtihad) at all, but the sin is on the obstinate one only, and he is the one who knows the truth and does not believe in it due to stubbornness and arrogance. The erring mujtahid according to this group is not a sinner, even if his ijtihad leads him to outright disbelief, because, according to them, burdening him with the opposite of his ijtihad is a mandate that is intolerable, and the mandates of what is intolerable are forbidden in Sharia and reason.

All the verses of fighting in the Quran are explicit in that our fight against the disbelievers is driven by them fighting against us, so we fight them on the basis of them fighting against us, not on the basis of their disbelief. (6)

Sheikh Mahmoud Shaltut goes on to say that whoever does not believe in God or in His Messenger or in such matters is not a disbeliever with God who will remain eternally in Hellfire, but rather the rulings of Islam are not applied to him in this world. Therefore, he is not demanded to that which God has imposed on Muslims of worship, nor is he forbidden that which Islam has forbidden, such as drinking alcohol, eating pork and trading in them, and Muslims do not ritually wash him if he dies, nor do they pray for him, and his Muslim relative does not inherit his money, just as he does not inherit from his Muslim relative if the latter dies. (7)

As for the judgment that he is a disbeliever according to God, it depends on his denial of those beliefs or any of them only after the call had reached him in the correct manner and he was convinced of them in his heart but refused to embrace it and testify to it due to stubbornness and arrogance, or greed for fleeting money or false prestige, or fear of immoral blame. However, if those beliefs did not reach him, or they reached him in a repulsive way, or a correct image was presented but he was not one of the people of discernment, or he was one of the people of discernment but did not succeed in it, and he kept looking and thinking in pursuit of the truth until death caught him while looking, then he is not a disbeliever deserving of eternity in the Fire according to God. (8)

In the light of this understanding, we have to reconsider all the verses about fighting in the Qur’an, and the verses on religious freedom, to realize that fighting was not prescribed to force people to convert to Islam, as some of those who have misunderstood the verses of this true religion say, but it was legislated to protect the dawah and prevent strife in the religion, as affirmed by the largest group of trustworthy Muslim scholars.

The real crisis is that some preachers repeat - without insight - the jurisprudential concepts that they encounter in the books of our great ancestors without realizing that these concepts have historical origins to which they belong and objective circumstances that caused their emergence, justified their existence, and under which they performed their function.

The Holy Quran includes dozens of verses indicating, explicitly and directly, that Islam advocates freedom of opinion, the right of expression, the necessity of ijtihad, and the importance of exercising reason.

The Quran states that, if God Almighty had willed, He would have made all people one nation, meaning that He created them without any choice from them, born guided as machines programmed to absolute obedience. But God Almighty willed to make them free with different opinions, among them the believer and among them the disbeliever, among them the guided and among them the misguided, and each of them according to His choice and according to His will. (9)

God Almighty says: {And if their reluctance is difficult for you, then if you are able to seek a tunnel into the earth or a stairway into the sky to bring them a sign, [then do so]. But if God had willed, He would have united them upon guidance. So never be of the ignorant} [Surah Al-An'am: 35].

God Almighty also says: {Say, “Allah has the most conclusive argument. Had it been His will, He would have easily imposed guidance upon all of you”} [Surah Al-An’am: 149].

That is, God Almighty’s will intervenes to make people believe, and if He willed, all people would be believers, since no one stands before His will. The evidence for it not intervening is the differences of people and their freedom in belief and disbelief, and they will remain different, because it is His will, which is not hindered by anything. God Almighty says: {And if your Lord had willed, He could have made mankind one community; but they will not cease to differ, except whom your Lord has given mercy, and for that He created them. But the word of your Lord will be fulfilled, “I will surely fill Hell with jinn and mankind all together.”} [Surah Hud: 118-119].

Humans have different options, and God Almighty revealed the Book and sent the prophets to clarify truth from falsehood and justice from injustice, leaving humans free to choose between this and that.

God Almighty says: {It is upon God to show the right path, as among the paths are those deviating. Had He willed, He would have easily imposed guidance upon all of you} [Surah Al-Nahl: 9].

When God Almighty calls for the truth and reminds people of it, He determines their freedom of choice and calls it “will” as well, meaning He exalts the value of this freedom.

In two surahs in the Quran, God Almighty says: {Surely this is a reminder, so let whoever wishes take the way to his Lord} [Surah Al-Muzammil: 19; Surah Al-Insan: 29].

So, guidance is before everyone, and whoever wills, let him be guided, and whoever wills, let him disbelieve. In the end, every soul is guided by itself or lost to itself. {Every soul is held responsible for what it has earned} [Surah Al-Muddathir: 38].

Is anything else needed after this to confirm the freedom of human beings to believe or disbelieve?

Freedom of belief in the existence of God is the pinnacle of freedom of opinion in Islam. If a person has the freedom to disbelieve in God within the texts of the Quran, then he has the freedom to disbelieve in the ruler or any religious or civil authority or any human idea, whatever its source. (10)

Here, it is necessary to touch upon God Almighty’s saying: {There is no compulsion in religion, for true guidance has become distinct from error, so whoever rejects false gods and believes in God has grasped the firmest hand-hold, one that will never break. God is All-Hearing and All-Knowing} [Surah Al-Baqara: 256].

Among the major rules of the religion of Islam, and a great pillar of its policy, is that it does not allow compulsion of anyone to enter it and does not allow anyone to force any of his family to leave it, even when some people disobey and talk about killing the apostate from Islam. One of the most notorious Muslim jurists to be described with extremism and strictness, the Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyyah, affirmed that the apostate in Islam is not killed for his apostasy from the religion of Islam, but for fighting Muslims. In his fatwa, Ibn Taymiyyah relied on the hadith of Aisha, which was mentioned by Al-Bukhari in his Sahih, “It is not permissible to spill the blood of a Muslim except in three [instances]: the married person who commits adultery, a life for a life, and the one who forsakes his religion and separates from the community.” Ibn Taymiyyah interpreted “separating from the group” in the hadith as “fighting against it”, and all the scholars of Sharia after him followed his path, especially the Hanbalis among them.

We have been commanded to call to the path of our Lord with wisdom and good exhortation, and to argue with opponents in a way that is best, relying on the fact that clear guidance from error is the straight path to faith, with freedom of invitation, and security from sedition. Jihad is part of the religion in this regard, as in it is not from its essence and purposes, but rather it is a fence for it and paradise. It is a political matter that is needed for it out of necessity. Do not pay attention to what the common people and their teachers are guided by, as they claim that the religion was established by the sword, and that jihad is required for its own sake, for the Quran is, completely and minutely, an argument against them. (11)

The previous verse was revealed in a Medinan surah when Islam had a state and power. But this principle was revealed beforehand in Mecca, when the Prophet (peace be upon him) was exaggerating in beseeching the people to believe, so God Almighty said to him, reminding him of the will of the Most Merciful: {Had your Lord willed, all the people on earth would have believed. So can you [Prophet] compel people to believe?} [Surah Yunus: 99].

God Almighty commanded the Prophet to turn away from the one who clings to his polytheistic belief, because God Almighty sent the Prophet just as a warner to deliver the message and not as a ruler over them. {Indeed, to Us is their return, and then it is for Us to call them to account} [Surah Al-Ghashiyah: 25-26].

The Prophet has his right to devote his religion to God alone, and he must respect the right of his opponents to worship other than God. God commanded him to say this: {Say, “It is God I worship, sincere to Him in my religion, so worship what you will besides Him.” Say, “Indeed, the losers are the ones who will lose themselves and their families on the Day of Resurrection. Unquestionably, that is the manifest loss.”} [Surah Al-Zumar: 14-15].

That is, He made a will for them, and an entire surah was revealed saying: {Say, “O disbelievers, I do not worship what you worship...”} and at the end of it, {“You have your religion, and I have mine”} [Surah Al-Kafirun: 1-2, 6].

God Almighty commands him to declare that he is saying the truth from God, and then they have the complete will to believe or disbelieve, and they must bear the responsibility if they disbelieve. {Say, “The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills - let him believe; and whoever wills - let him disbelieve.” Indeed, We have prepared for the wrongdoers a Fire whose walls will surround them. And if they call for relief, they will be relieved with water like murky oil, which scalds [their] faces. Wretched is the drink, and evil is the resting place} [Surah Al-Kahf: 29].

Regarding the Quran, He says: {Say, “Believe in it or do not believe.” Indeed, those who were given knowledge before it - when it is recited to them, they fall upon their faces in prostration} [Surah Al-Isra: 107].

That is, you have the freedom to believe in the Quran or not believe in it.

At a time when priestly institutions refuse to hold a dialogue and are content with issuing decisions of takfir, apostasy, and excommunication against those who disagree with them, we see the Lord of Glory, the Sustainer of the Heavens and the Earth, conducting a dialogue with His servants, the children of Adam, to convince them that He is the one God who has no partner. (12)




1. Muhammad Abduh, “Islam: Between Knowledge and Civilization”, p. 74.

2. Previous reference, p. 76.

3. Previous reference, p. 77.

4. Ahmed Subhy Mansour, “Freedom of Opinion Between Islam and Muslims”, p. 43.

5. Previous reference, p. 44.

6. Abdul Mutaal Al-Saidi, “Freedom of Thought in Islam”, p. 18.

7. Mahmoud Shaltut, “Islam: Creed and Sharia”, p. 112.

8. Previous reference, p. 20.

9. Ahmed Subhy Mansour, “Freedom of Opinion Between Islam and Muslims”, p. 45.

10. Previous reference, p. 46.

11. Abdul Mutaal Al-Saidi, “Freedom of Thought in Islam”, p. 18.

12. Ahmed Subhy Mansour, “Freedom of Opinion Between Islam and Muslims”, p. 52.