Economist Walter Williams stated the following regarding the true test to a an individuals commitment to the freedom of speech:
“The true test of one’s commitment to free speech…does not come when you allow people to say things that you think they should say. It comes when you allow people to say those things that you find despicable.”
Consistently in the Quran we see that God strongly promotes the freedom of speech. God advocates for people to be able to speak freely about their views, understandings, or beliefs without fear of violence or banishment. But how does the Quran hold up to the test put forth by Walter Williams?
One of the worst sins one can commit through speech is mocking God’s revelations, and in such situations God in the Quran does not command us to silence such people or to use force to compel them from speaking. Instead, God simply informs us to avoid being around such individuals as they do this by not sitting with them until they delve into another subject.
[6:68] If you see those who mock our revelations, you shall avoid them until they delve into another subject. If the devil causes you to forget, then, as soon as you remember, do not sit with such evil people.
وَإِذَا رَأَيْتَ الَّذِينَ يَخُوضُونَ فِي آيَاتِنَا فَأَعْرِضْ عَنْهُمْ حَتَّىٰ يَخُوضُوا فِي حَدِيثٍ غَيْرِهِ وَإِمَّا يُنْسِيَنَّكَ الشَّيْطَانُ فَلَا تَقْعُدْ بَعْدَ الذِّكْرَىٰ مَعَ الْقَوْمِ الظَّالِمِينَ
[4:140] He has instructed you in the scripture that: if you hear GOD’s revelations being mocked and ridiculed, you shall not sit with them, unless they delve into another subject. Otherwise, you will be as guilty as they are. GOD will gather the hypocrites and the disbelievers together in Hell.
وَقَدْ نَزَّلَ عَلَيْكُمْ فِي الْكِتَابِ أَنْ إِذَا سَمِعْتُمْ آيَاتِ اللَّهِ يُكْفَرُ بِهَا وَيُسْتَهْزَأُ بِهَا فَلَا تَقْعُدُوا مَعَهُمْ حَتَّىٰ يَخُوضُوا فِي حَدِيثٍ غَيْرِهِ إِنَّكُمْ إِذًا مِثْلُهُمْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ جَامِعُ الْمُنَافِقِينَ وَالْكَافِرِينَ فِي جَهَنَّمَ جَمِيعًا
The best disinfectant to speech that we do not agree with often times is simply to ignore it. What most people want when they perform public acts of abhorrent speech is attention, and by not providing them this valuable resource it effectively diffuses and demotivates people from speaking.
Ironically what most people do when they hear speech that offends them is the opposite. They shine a huge light on it and provide the very thing the person speaking is so desperately searching for: an audience.
[25:72] They do not bear false witness. When they encounter vain talk, they ignore it. [25:73] When reminded of their Lord’s revelations, they never react to them as if they were deaf and blind.
Even in the case of disbelief, God in the Quran advocates tolerance. We read in the Sura 109 entitled The Disbelievers (Al-Kaaferoon) what we are to say to individuals who disbelieve.
In contrast, we see that it is the disbelievers in the Quran who are the ones consistently opposing free speech.
[8:30] The disbelievers plot and scheme to neutralize you, or kill you, or banish you. However, they plot and scheme, but so does GOD. GOD is the best schemer.
وَإِذْ يَمْكُرُ بِكَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا لِيُثْبِتُوكَ أَوْ يَقْتُلُوكَ أَوْ يُخْرِجُوكَ وَيَمْكُرُونَ وَيَمْكُرُ اللَّهُ وَاللَّهُ خَيْرُ الْمَاكِرِينَ
[20:71] He said, “Did you believe in him without my permission? He must be your chief; the one who taught you magic. I will surely sever your hands and feet on alternate sides. I will crucify you on the palm trunks. You will find out which of us can inflict the worst retribution, and who outlasts whom.”
قَالَ آمَنْتُمْ لَهُ قَبْلَ أَنْ آذَنَ لَكُمْ إِنَّهُ لَكَبِيرُكُمُ الَّذِي عَلَّمَكُمُ السِّحْرَ فَلَأُقَطِّعَنَّ أَيْدِيَكُمْ وَأَرْجُلَكُمْ مِنْ خِلَافٍ وَلَأُصَلِّبَنَّكُمْ فِي جُذُوعِ النَّخْلِ وَلَتَعْلَمُنَّ أَيُّنَا أَشَدُّ عَذَابًا وَأَبْقَىٰ
The People of Lot
[26:160] The people of Lot disbelieved the messengers. [26:161] Their brother Lot said to them, “Would you not be righteous? [26:162] “I am an honest messenger to you. [26:163] “You shall reverence GOD, and obey me. [26:164] “I do not ask you for any wage; my wage comes only from the Lord of the universe. [26:165] “Do you have sex with the males, of all the people? [26:166] “You forsake the wives that your Lord has created for you! Indeed, you are transgressing people.” [26:167] They said, “Unless you refrain, O Lot, you will be banished.”
[27:54] Lot said to his people, “How could you commit such an abomination, publicly, while you see? [27:55] “You practice sex with the men, lustfully, instead of the women. Indeed, you are ignorant people.” [27:56] The only response from his people was their saying, “Banish Lot’s family from your town; they are people who wish to be pure.”
As if threat of banishment wasn’t enough, we see that prior to this the People of Lot even prohibited him from contacting anyone.
[15:70] They said, “Did we not enjoin you from contacting anyone?”
The enemies of God in the Quran resort to any means necessary to silence opposing views: threats, intimidation, violence, or banishment. They will not cease until the believers are stopped or they revert to their religion by choice or by force.
[14:13] Those who disbelieved said to their messengers, “We will banish you from our land, unless you revert to our religion.” Their Lord inspired them: “We will inevitably annihilate the transgressors.
وَقَالَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا لِرُسُلِهِمْ لَنُخْرِجَنَّكُمْ مِنْ أَرْضِنَا أَوْ لَتَعُودُنَّ فِي مِلَّتِنَا فَأَوْحَىٰ إِلَيْهِمْ رَبُّهُمْ لَنُهْلِكَنَّ الظَّالِمِينَ
[7:88] The arrogant leaders among his people said, “We will evict you, O Shu`aib, together with those who believed with you, from our town, unless you revert to our religion.” He said, “Are you going to force us?
قَالَ الْمَلَأُ الَّذِينَ اسْتَكْبَرُوا مِنْ قَوْمِهِ لَنُخْرِجَنَّكَ يَاشُعَيْبُ وَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مَعَكَ مِنْ قَرْيَتِنَا أَوْ لَتَعُودُنَّ فِي مِلَّتِنَا قَالَ أَوَلَوْ كُنَّا كَارِهِينَ
From these verses we see that God is setting an example for us by contrasting believers against disbelievers: where consistently the believers advocate the freedom of speech, while the disbelievers will use any means to curtail it.
Ironically this is what we see in so-called Islamic countries who establish blasphemy laws with strict punishments. These laws have no basis in the Quran, and actually perpetuate the traits of the enemies of God; similar to their laws regarding stoning as was covered previously.
[25:63] The worshipers of the Most Gracious are those who tread the earth gently, and when the ignorant speak to them, they only utter peace.
وَعِبَادُ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الَّذِينَ يَمْشُونَ عَلَى الْأَرْضِ هَوْنًا وَإِذَا خَاطَبَهُمُ الْجَاهِلُونَ قَالُوا سَلَامًا