Iftekhar Ahmed, Ahmadiyya Archive and Research Centre (ARC)
Advancement and Decadence
Despite the high level of material advancement in virtually every conceivable area of human concern – made possible primarily by scientific and technological innovation – it has failed to coincide with an improvement in the correlated and reciprocal categories of peace – peace of mind, domestic peace, social peace, etc.
Instead, discontentment, anxiety and a loss of confidence in the future have become manifest and a great deal of the trust in civil intercourse has been banished from human life. Disturbing phenomena such as the rise in suicide rates, especially among youth, and the unfolding of the many movements constructed around rights and their underlying motives are taking on unprecedented proportions.
Identifying the cause behind all this is subject to public debate, and I seek to contribute to this ongoing debate by providing an insight into one specific aspect from an Islamic perspective: the aspect of verbalisation in today’s rampant hypersexualism; for in hardly any other field has materialism produced such wild blossoms as in that of sexuality.
Hypersexualisation – how did we end up here?
It is clear to anyone who has studied even a little of the history of the Occident that the pre-modern occidental socio-sexological concept of existence and the one which dominates today in these climes are diametrically opposed to each other. According to the outward impression, there exist today, as far as socio-sexology is concerned, a great many different models of life, among which plays an apparently free and lively competition.
Over time, the worldview and mindset of the Occident – which had once been shaped by Christianity for a very long time – culminated not only in the emergence but also in the universal strengthening of an aversion to faith and God; giving rise to massive criticism and scepticism of faith on the part of a significant part of the population in the westernised world. One of the decisive factors in this development were the Christian ideas and perceptions, which were highly perceived as alienated from real life. One of these fundamental ideas is the hostility to lust and sexuality and the sexual pessimism of the church and its fathers.
In addition to social and cultural revolutions, the post-World War II period also saw the emergence of the so-called sexual revolution, which sought to free society from the prudishness of Christianity, which was by then perceived as bigoted. In the course of this change, however, disinhibited forces were released, and inhibitions suspended, which inevitably caused society to fall from one extreme to the other.
The dark side of deregulation and permissiveness
Unlike our predecessors, we now have access to something they lacked – 50 years of sociological, psychological, medical and other similar evidence about the consequences of the sexual revolution. Women in particular have been the sufferers of what continues to be seen as a successful upheaval. The public sexuality that prevails today has only replaced one kind of objectification with another. A sexual revolution in the socio-theoretical sense of its intellectual “grandfathers” did not take place – neither then, nor at any time later.
Instead, a media hype was unleashed under the same name. For those who have studied the sexual revolution movement in-depth, the winners of the story are clear. It is the sex marketers whose liberation efforts have paid off in hard cash.
The increase of the public exposure of the human body and trivialisation and normalisation of crass and lewd speech did not lead to more freedom. The media and advertising industries have become fixated on presenting the same objectifying image of the human body all the time. In addition, the ubiquity of sexual images – in film, advertising, magazines and pop culture – and the ubiquity of pornography through the Internet is hugely detrimental.
Among the problematic manifestations of today’s rampant sexual permissiveness, however, pornography is only one extreme – the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. The particular aspect I intend to address here is often neglected or not given due consideration, namely the public use of permissive and licentious language from an Islamic perspective.
Islam’s response to this crisis
Islam is a religion that regards this world and the circumstances, conditions and laws that prevail in it as God-made and God-willed. The Holy Quran, endowed by God, is referred to in itself as the “clear book” (kitab mubin), and the nature of man, endowed by God, is referred to as the “hidden book” (kitab maknun), and there is an absolute and unconditional congruence between the two. For this reason, it is Islam that takes perfect account of man’s nature and thus helps it to blossom to its fullest, since it aims at the coherence of the inward and outward.
It is not sexuality or sexual pleasure that are negative; they become so through excessive indulgence, for example, by making them a public phenomenon, also in terms of mere speech. Channelising the sexual drive and the complete renunciation of it are two disparate things. Liberty must be exercised within a healthy framework that avoids touching or nearing extremes – one being that of libertinism. What Islam intends to curb is the unbridled permissiveness that exists under the guise of freedom – one of the social degenerations of our time – and to channel human drives accordingly.
A methodological principle of jurisprudence in Islam is to fight causes and not merely symptoms. This principle is complied with by blocking lawful actions and means about their preconditions and consequences, the so-called sadd adh-dharai‘. For example, the Holy Quran not only states that believers should not commit adultery or fornication, but it states:
وَلَا تَقْرَبُوا الزِّنَا
“And go not nigh unto fornication or adultery”. (Surah Bani Isra‘il, Ch.17: V.33)
And it says:
وَلَا تَقۡرَبُواْ ٱلۡفَوَٰحِشَ مَا ظَهَرَ مِنۡهَا وَمَا بَطَنَ
“And go not nigh unto indecencies, whether open or secret”. (Surah al-An‘am, Ch.6: V.152)
Besides many very apparent and obvious implications of this methodology, such as the regulation of public nudity, a demure dress code, gender segregation, etc., it also entails the governance of language and freedom of expression.
Believers have the divine mandate to create a human system based on virtue in terms of Islamic morality. Those who communicate are expected to actively promote good deeds and prevent evil. In this case, there is no place for communicating events and issues that contain unseemly messages that are detrimental to religious beliefs, community safety, public decency and individual privacy. Communication in Islam is a tool for promoting the good aspects of community life and combating its evils; therefore, those who communicate are not merely transmitters of information, but integral parts of engaged communication.
Limits in freedom of expression
When we think of the most fundamental features of our society today, freedom is one of the values that stands out. We are currently in the midst of a crisis of freedom. We have started to shun everything that was, in the long journey of civilisation, stabilising and formative for us. It has become very easy to reject truth and decency. Political correctness has become a dirty word.
Of the two kinds of freedom – freedom from something and freedom to something – it is not freedom from things, such as getting free and rid of truth and decency, that we should value and cherish, but freedom to things, such as the freedom to lead a meaningful, fulfilling self-determined life. The latter seems to become increasingly rare. Thus, we have a disparity and imbalance in terms of the concept and understanding of freedom.
Acknowledging that restrictions on freedoms, such as the freedom of expression, are necessary is something that Islamic norms have in common with international human rights conventions. The purpose of freedom of expression in the context of Islamic law is, first and foremost, the enablement of the recognition of truth and the preservation of human dignity. Thus, according to Islamic law, the right to freedom of expression is not absolute, but limited to appropriate expression and speech. Within the Islamic tradition, certain types of expression and speech are considered highly problematic. In this context, the common good largely determines the scope of acceptability of free expression, the limits of which are derived, among other things, from ethical imperatives such as the promotion of compassion and respect for the rights of others.
Legal restrictions on freedom of speech include defamation, slander, libel and insult. A further restriction on freedom of speech arises if the speech is considered constituting a contemptuous and hostile attack on the foundations of religion. Incitement to hatred that leads to threating the societal and communal security is punishable and is considered a capital offence.
The main moral restrictions on freedom of speech include lying, slander, mockery and hate speech. There is a general moral code in Islam that discourages exposing the faults and shortcomings of others. There is also a general moral restraint that Islam imposes on ill-will or the deliberate humiliation of others (mira‘).
That there must be restrictions on freedom of expression is something that Islamic norms have in common with international human rights conventions. Freedom of expression in Islamic law has the main objective of identifying truth and preserving human dignity. Under the guise of freedom of expression, neither is spreading indecency allowed, nor the spreading of gossip. (Surah al-Nur, Ch.24: V.20)
Freedom of expression is thus not absolute under Islamic law but is limited to appropriate expression and speech. Within the Islamic tradition, certain types of expression and speech are considered highly problematic. The question of public welfare is what largely determines the acceptable limits of free speech. The limits are, among other factors, derived from ethical teachings such as the promotion of compassion and respect for the rights of others.
In this regard, there are two categories of constraints that can limit free speech: moral and legal. Moral restrictions do not entail any legal consequences and encompass the private sphere. On the other hand, what become legally relevant in terms of Islamic law are public defamation, hurtful speech, slander, insult, sedition, obscenities etc.
Honour of humans
Humans, as bearers of spiritual and moral values, have both an inner honour and an external reflection based on it, namely a good reputation in society. The essential basis of inner honour and thus the core of human honourableness is personal dignity, which is inalienably conferred on humans by God from birth. From inner honour arises the legal claim of every human being that neither their inner honour, nor their good external reputation will be disdained or even completely disregarded, but that they will be treated according to their inner honour.
Even if the unseemly is indeed true, it would still not be permissible to speak about it publicly, because the disclosure of the sin would mean humiliation and embarrassment for the sinner, which in turn would entail the risk of depriving them of the possibility of repenting of their mistake one day and asking Allah for forgiveness and thus purifying their soul from that sin. For it is not humiliation but the fear of humiliation that is one of the things that prevents a person from committing a sin. However, when the sinner knows that more and more people have already learned of his sin, the shame they felt before becomes less, which may encourage them to sin openly.
Islam and unseemly speech in public
One of the most important Quranic verses dealing with the regulation of public discourse is unfortunately misunderstood and misinterpreted by many. It states,
لَا یُحِبُّ اللّٰہُ الۡجَہۡرَ بِالسُّوۡٓءِ مِنَ الۡقَوۡلِ اِلَّا مَنۡ ظُلِمَ
“Allah likes not the uttering of unseemly speech in public, except on the part of one who is being wronged” (Surah an-Nisa, Ch.4: V.149)
From this it can be deduced that any public utterance of unseemly, evil and indecent speech is prohibited under Islamic law. The prohibition enunciated in this verse includes, for example, all spoken or written obscenities, blaming others or attributing misdeeds to them, speaking about evil deeds one has committed oneself, etc. All unseemly and hurtful speech is thus forbidden, even if it contains truth or has a supposedly good purpose.
The only exception to this rule mentioned in the verse is that someone who has been wronged is given a little more leeway in his pursuit of justice to speak out to the public authorities. The verse is very clear in that the exception for public mention of the unseemly applies only to those who have been directly wronged. It is contrary to the spirit of this verse for third parties who have not been directly wronged, who are not victims, or who do not speak as official representatives of those who claim to be victims, to speak publicly on their own behalf and for their own motives, and to publicly disseminate accusations made by known or anonymous persons.
This means that one should most definitely raise their voice against injustice but that ought only to be done before the right type of forum. History of early Islam has it that the Holy Prophetsa and his rightly guided Khulafa asked for witnesses and any evidence that the claimant could provide, hence facilitating them to acquire justice in the matter in question – all done before the dedicated forums.
The prohibition in the verse against spreading accusations pertaining to others carries the implication that a distinction of those who are directly affected and those who are not is a necessity. Unrestricted permission would inevitably lead to the disintegration of society, as any accusation could then be made by anyone against anyone and what is alleged would then be widely disseminated, risking the destruction of the livelihoods and reputations of potentially blameless individuals. For this reason, the Islamic system of divine law only allows those who believe they have been wronged to make the claim that they have been wronged. This allegation is then investigated by the relevant judicial bodies to ultimately determine truth.
Speaking of freedom, one characteristic of God that is particularly emphasised in Islamic theology is His work as a Liberator. This emancipatory work is repeatedly explicitly directed towards the destruction of structures that are hostile to life. In this respect, God is by no means always described in the Quran as being reconciling and forbearing. In our case, He refuses His love and affection to those who publicly speak about obscenities. The goal here is the transformation of people whose lifestyle harms others and creation as a whole.
At this point, God demands transformation and is not willing to accept the dire state of the world uncontested. Humans are thus called to a decision. God invites them to surrender to Him – surrender to God is the meaning of the word “Islam” – and thus also to be a believer as someone who entrusts themselves to God without reserve and tries to implement His goodwill in this life.
Private and the public sphere
One of the many classifications and divisions for the accurate description of earthly life is the distinction between private and public. This partition is also upheld and taken into account in the Islamic context, as this and its contingencies and implications are deeply rooted in the psyche of the human being and are relevant to their very make-up.
There is underlying wisdom for the fact that no human being can divine the thoughts of others, namely that there shall be no acts in the private sphere that may be legally relevant or even punishable. In this sense, the Islamic legislature also has no power to regulate matters that take place in private. However, the safer and more ungoverned the private space is, the more controlled the public space will be.
A detailed study of Islamic jurisprudence reveals that there is no earthly punishment for extra-marital or pre-marital intercourse that happens in private. What is punishable according to the Holy Quran is unlawful sexual intercourse in a manner that four righteous and impeccable individuals observe the act of penetration with their own eyes.
Yes, in order to create a harmonious balance, the safer and more uncontrolled the private space is, the more governed the public space has to be.
Presumption of innocence
As is the case in all constitutional systems that follow the rule of law, the presumption of innocence also applies under Islamic jurisprudence.
It is stated in the Qur’an, “And whoso commits a sin, commits it only against his own soul. And Allah is All-Knowing, Wise. And whoso commits a fault or a sin, then throws the blame thereof on an innocent person, certainly bears the burden of calumny and a manifest sin.” (Surah an-Nisa, Ch.4: V.112-113)
The Messenger of Allahsa said, “The burden of proof is on the claimant and an oath is a duty upon the one who denies the claim.” (as-Sunan al-kubra li-l-Bayhaqi, Kitab ad-Da‘wa wa-l-bayyinat, Bab al-Bayyinah ‘ala l-mudda‘i wa-l-yamin ‘ala l-mudda‘a ‘alayh)
Spreading indecencies (fawahish)
Another aspect of the unseemly, which is forbidden to be spoken of in public, is what is called indecency (fahishah) in the Qur’an. Now, what does the spreading of indecency involve? It does not only refer to those who blatantly encourage indecency, but also, and more importantly, to those who use a range of devices to make it appear that the community of believers would abound in moral and social evils.
The Messenger of Allahsa said, “If someone says that the people are ruined, then he himself is the one who ruined them.” (Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Birr wa-s-silah wa-l-adab, Bab an-Nahy ‘an qawl halaka n-nas)
Publicly decrying moral abuses in society is therefore tantamount to perpetuating these abuses.
The Holy Qur’an says, “Those, who love that indecency should spread among the believers, will have a painful punishment in this world and the Hereafter. And Allah knows, and you know not.” (Ch.24: V.20)
From the broader textual context this verse is embedded in, it is evident that the specific issue here is those who do not treat allegations of sexual misconduct with the due caution of confidentiality, but instead propagate it.
Remarkably enough, this verse equates spreading rumours and accusations of misbehaviour, wrongdoing and indecency with the very spreading of that misbehaviour, wrongdoing and indecency in society.
The average person who hears such rumours and calumnies is further influenced by them insofar as their spread sows a general suspicion and prejudice (sūʾ aẓ-ẓann) against society and its goodness in their mind.
Islam’s image of mankind
The image of mankind, as the total of ideas about what constitutes it, is found often in highly diverse forms in different religions, philosophies, world views and ideologies, encompassing world-images and self-images, providing existential and moral orientation. In our post-modern world, we are confronted with an enormous supply – an overwhelming oversupply of life concepts that claim validity, i.e. an existence-shaping and -determining cogency.
The image on which God, according to the Quran, declares to have created mankind, is that mankind is fundamentally good but can incline towards bad or evil as a result of extrinsic factors in conjunction with intrinsic choices.
However, it can be observed that mankind’s tendency to take the good for granted in general degrades the good to a state of normality. Against the backdrop of this state of normality, evil clearly stands out.
Hence, if the evil remains in public discourse and is disseminated, the consciousness perpetuates itself that mankind is actually evil. This in turn has the detrimental effect that moral concepts are questioned, and immorality is considered and envisaged as an option, under the misguided assumption and the erroneous conclusion that it would be in the nature of mankind to be evil. Since, according to this flawed perception, all people would more likely to be evil, there would be nothing wrong in joining evil for survival in an evil world – wrongly preconceived to be so.
When sins are mentioned repeatedly, for example in gatherings, etc., the fear of committing sins disappears from people’s hearts. At first, sin will roll off people’s tongues more easily, and gradually the person who is not ashamed to mention sin will have no difficulty in committing it. This is how sins spread in society.
It is, hence, essential that the Islamic concept of mankind being intrinsically good is upheld and any weakness that leads to vulgar and lewd acts are not made public and if their weakness has led to any injustice, the victim should seek the appropriate forum to raise their voice against it. We must not forget that Islam aims at reforming individuals who have wronged themselves and not at leaving them to remain evil forever. Thus, Islam does not allow vulgarity to be discussed by way of gossip but to be reported to the right forums. Once injustice is established on the part of the accused, Islam commands them to be punished publicly – hence saving the honour of all and providing justice for all.
Conclusion – Warnings of the Messengersa
The Messenger of Allahsa said, “Everyone from my nation will be forgiven except those who sin in public. Among them is a man who commits an evil deed in the night that Allah has hidden for him, then in the morning he says: O people, I have committed this sin! His Lord had hidden it during the night but in the morning, he reveals what Allah has hidden.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Adab)
He also said, “Whoever fulfils the needs of his brother, Allah will fulfil his needs. Whoever relieves a Muslim from distress, Allah will relieve him from distress on the Day of Resurrection. Whoever covers the faults of a Muslim, Allah will cover his faults on the Day of Resurrection.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Kitab al-Mazalim)
Lastly, he said, “O you who have embraced Islam with your tongue while faith has not reached your heart! Do not harm the Muslims, nor revile them, nor spy on them to reveal their secret faults. For whoever tries to reveal the secret faults of his Muslim brother, Allah will reveal his secret faults even if he were to be in the depths of his house.” (Jami‘ at-Tirmidhi, Kitab al-Birr wa-s-sila)