Q. What is the Islamic view on censorship in general and banning (and sometimes burning) of books in particular?
Additionally, some Muslims believe that violent retribution is the only way to solve disagreements with other Muslims and non-Muslims alike. For example, what kind of treatment should have been given to Salman Rushdie under the shari`a?
A. Censorship and banning is in general not permitted except in the most extreme cases. In all societies, and until the Day of Judgment I think, the issue of banning will be problematic. But the general thing is this: Allah has forbidden us what is "khabaaith" -- that which we may consider as filth. Whose norms dictate what is filth and what is not? We may say that this is left to the sages of the society, those whom we elect to the senate, etc. In our case for example, child porn in an Islamic state would be banned. Now what about political writings? Are such writings subversive to the flow of law and order? Any rational person will state that when a document threatens the general good of society, then it should be censored.
The problem is that those who are elected are often carriers of a certain political message, and do not wish to be ejected from their positions, even if the literature of the opposition is based on truth. So they ban that which is even allowable, and it leads to a cycle. But the rule in Islam is general, as with religious freedom, banning and censorship is not allowed except where there is unanimity, or at least the preponderance of opinion that the material being banned is detrimental to the health of the society.
Regarding violence, the aspects of what may be considered as violent are clearly stated in the Qur'an, and these are indeed rare to establish, or in extreme situations, for example brigandage. The mujtahidoon have made astute syllogisms and so in some countries, the drug trafficker is also executed, since his actions are tantamount to mass homicide. The scholars also have a situation which they refer to as "ta'zir," which means punishment inflicted according to the personal discretion of the judge. For example, two persons are accused of adultery, but it cannot be established by the required amount of witnesses that penetration did occur, but that the parties were in passionate embrace. There is no stipulated punishment for such infraction in the Qur'an, so the judge may deem some sort of corporal action.
However, these are for those authorities appointed by the state, and not for the vox populi to decide. So the cases in Bangladesh, for example, where people take the law into their own hands and resort to violence against the alleged enemies of Islam is not a part of Islam. Such actions are strictly forbidden. In the Salman Rushdie affair, a great miscarriage of justice occurred. From a pragmatic point of view, the death sentence only garnered more publicity for his book, and made the rest of an already inimical non-Islamic world project him as some sort of hero. The goal of the shari`ah is to mete out swift justice in order to make society a better place to live. In the Rushdie case, it did not. It served to blacken the name of Islam. On the issue of world legal recognition, the requirements for passing such a sentence were not met. The Iranian scholar passed such a sentence in a unilateral declaration of what he termed Islamic justice. He had no jurisdiction outside of Iran, also there is no central Islamic world court.
Salman Rushdie wrote his book in England, a place where the laws are different. His material, however offensive to some Muslims, was done as fiction. And if the Muslim scholars felt so badly about it, then they should have taken the matter to the world court. The taking of a life is a grave matter, and in such a questionable issue, cannot be resorted to. Under the maxim "The lesser of two evils is chosen," then in Rushdie's case, the matter should have been treated as a non-issue. No publicity, no public outcry -- all of which may have seemed to the zealous believer a crime against his/her personal concept of propriety -- how dare a filthy work like Salman's be left unopposed? But all this would have been lesser than the greater evil: that of giving publicity to the man and making his book a bestseller, granting him interviews, and reaching the remotest corners of the world via television. Whichever way one looks at it then, through the lenses of pragmatism, through the secular forms of law, or through the Shari`ah, the Salman Rushdie issue should never have come up.
Posted May 11, 1999