Defending free speech is also the best way to defend Muhammad

Ayman S. Ibrahim — December 3, 2018

(Originally published at on November 6, 2018)

Two weeks ago the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the right to free speech does not include criticizing the Prophet Muhammad.

The decision is a troubling one for academics and researchers in general, and in particular for Islamic scholars, whose job it is to think, speak and write seriously about the life of the Muslim Prophet.

I am not here to question the integrity of the court’s decision, which supported a Viennese woman’s 2011 conviction in an Austrian court for calling “the prophet of Islam a pedophile” two years before at a seminar she promoted, titled “Basic Information about Islam.” Citing Muhammad’s marriage to a 6-year-old girl, the woman, identified in court only as “E.S.,” asked her audience, “What do we call it, if it is not pedophilia?”

The Austrian court stated that it had “carefully balanced [this woman’s] right to freedom of expression with the right of others to have their religious feelings protected.”

It’s long been part of Muhammad’s biography that he married his wife Aisha when she was 6 years old (or 7, in other reports) and, according to the most trusted Muslim accounts, consummated the marriage when she was 9 and he was about 53.

Growing up a Coptic Christian in Egypt, I was always taught to take care not to insult Muhammad, to respect my Muslim neighbors and what they consider most sacred. Today I am a professor of Islamic studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and I teach nine different courses on Islam every year. In all of them, I exhort my students to completely avoid shaming, insulting or undermining Muhammad. I specifically caution them about the story of his marriage to Aisha. In short, I believe that we should be sensitive to the feelings of believers in every religion.

Yet I am convinced that last month’s ruling hurts Islam more than it benefits it.

Silencing thinkers is always a huge mistake. Scholars study texts and evaluate them. To do so we require the freedom to question their validity, their reliability and their precepts. The court’s decision suffocates scholarly inquiry.

The ruling also comes in a time, during the age of ISIS and Boko Haram, when many academics are already discouraged from critically assessing Islamic texts, not only because of the threat of retribution but also to avoid further damage to Islam’s public profile. The last thing Islam needs at this time, however, is uncritical scholars. The Austrian court’s rulings only make the matter worse.

But Muslims — scholars and others — should also be very uncomfortable with the Austrian court’s decision. It would be different if other religions were afforded the same courtesy. But nowhere in the world, least of all in secularizing Europe, would a speaker be convicted for questioning Moses’ behavior, assessing Buddha’s deeds, critiquing Jesus and his life and teaching. Do Muslims want to be so singled out in academia and public life?

Doing so may actually fuel more suspicions of Islam. Placing a halo on Islam, claiming it is untouchable, will only suggest that Islam is an implausible faith. In the 21st century, everything is considered ripe for questioning and criticism; to put your cause off limits is to rob it of legitimacy.

Rather than ban speech critical of Muhammad, Muslims should meet arguments with arguments and silence claims with counterclaims. Advocating for free speech and critical thinking, not fighting against them, is what gives Muslims the greatest chance of defending Islam.

Without criticism, our scholarship grows flabby. I’ve seen educated Muslims make diligent attempts to reinterpret the story of Aisha, sometimes by arguing that she was actually 18, or that this story never happened. I have seen Muslim clerics defend Muhammad by claiming that, because Arabs reach puberty faster, Aisha was actually a grown young lady at that age.

Perhaps the decision of the ECHR court served to preserve religious peace for a while, but this won’t last. The sacred Muslim texts are ever more widely available and are being translated into English en masse. More arguments will come. Silencing them will only harm Muhammad’s image in the long run.

Ayman S. Ibrahim, PhD, is Bill and Connie Jenkins Chair and Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the Director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam, and a Post-Doctoral candidate of Middle Eastern History at Haifa University.

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