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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Fundamental System of Freedoms

Statement by Al-Azhar and Intellectuals on the Fundamental System of Freedoms

       Following the liberation revolutions which paved the way for freedom, giving new impetus to the spirit of renaissance in all spheres, the Egyptians and the Arab-Muslim peoples turn to the Muslim scholars and to intellectuals for them to define the relationship between the general principles of the noble Islamic Sharia and the system of fundamental rights agreed upon by international treaties and from which the experience of civilization of the Egyptian people originated. They are called on to lay the foundations, to confirm the constant values and to define the conditions that will guarantee progress and open up the horizons of the future. These rights include the freedom of belief, the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom of scientific research, and the freedom of artistic-literary creativity, all founded on the solid basis of the noble objectives of Sharia and the understanding of the spirit of the modern constitutional legislation as well as the needs of man’s cognitive progress.

       In this way, the spiritual strength of the people will become a fuel for renaissance, a stimulus for progress, and a way for material and spiritual development in a continuous effort in which the well-directed cultural discourse harmonizes with the enlightened religious one, as the two elements coincide in a fruitful future order. It is in this order that shared ends and objectives will find their unity.

       Guided by these facts, a group of Al-Azhar scholars and Egyptian intellectuals who drafted their first document under the sponsorship of Al-Azhar -followed by a declaration of support for the mobilization of the brother Arab peoples for freedom and democracy- pursued their activity debating the general intellectual principles in the ordinance of freedoms and human rights. They thus reached a set of principles and standards for the regulation of these rights in the light of the needs of the present historical moment to safeguard the substance of the social agreement and the common good during the present phase of democratic transition. As such, the nation may build its constitutional institutions peacefully and moderately, guided by the Divine Wisdom.

First: the Freedom of Belief

       The freedom of belief and the right of full citizenship connected to it for everyone, on the basis of absolute equality in rights and duties, is considered the cornerstone of the modern social order. This freedom is guaranteed by conclusive religious texts and explicit constitutional and juridical principles. The Omnipotent God (may He be exalted and magnified) says, "No compulsion is there in religion. Rectitude has become clear from error".(Qur᾿ān, 2:256); "So, let whosoever so wills believe, and let whosoever so wills disbelieve" (Qur᾿ān, 18:29). It follows from this that any form of compulsion in religion, persecution, or discrimination in God's name is condemned as a crime. Each individual in society has the right to embrace the ideas he prefers, provided this does not harm the right of the society to preserve the heavenly faiths. In fact, the three divine religions have their own holy nature. Individuals are, therefore, free to practice their own rites without offending the feeling of others, violating the sacredness of the three religions in words or in deeds, or threatening the public order.

       Since the Arab fatherland is the cradle of the heavenly revelation and the protector of the divine religions, it is particularly committed to safeguarding their holy character, respecting their rites and protecting the rights of their faithful believers in freedom, dignity and brotherhood.

       From the right to religious freedom derives the recognition of the legitimacy of pluralism, the protection of the right to difference as well as to each citizen's duty to respect the sensibility of others and their equality built on the solid basis of citizenship, participation and equal opportunities in rights and duties.

       Similarly, from the respect of religious freedom stems the refusal of intolerant tendencies that are always ready to exclude or excommunicate others, condemn their doctrines, or attempt to check the consciences of the faithful believers. Such a standpoint finds foundation in the constitution ordinances, based on the explicit norms formulated by the Muslim scholars and established by the noble Sharia on the basis of the following illustrious prophetic statement: "Have you opened his heart?" Inspired by this statement, Imam Muḩammad ‛Abdou -the leader of reformation and revivalism, quoted past Imams as saying, "If a person is heard to make a statement which can be interpreted as unbelief from a hundred perspectives and as belief in just one, that person must be judged in favor of the point of faith and may not be accused of disbelief." Most of the well-established scholars spoke highly of the human reason and gave precedence to it in practice in the cases of conflict by virtue of interpretation in favor of public interest and the wisdom of Sharia.

Second: the Freedom of Scientific Research

       Serious scientific research in human, natural, and mathematical sciences stimulates the human progress, being a means to discover the norms of the universe and identify its laws, so as to put them to the service of humanity. Research cannot bear fruits, either theoretically or practically, unless the scientists dedicate the public energies to it and set its potentials in motion for its own sake. The texts of the Noble Qur᾿ān urge people to observe, think, and contemplate on the universe and humanity in order to discover their customs and laws. They have paved the way to the greatest scientific movement in the history of the East. The Muslim scholars have led this scientific movement and transmitted its flame so that it may enlighten the Western Renaissance, as is really well known and demonstrated. If reflection on the various branches of knowledge and arts is generally an Islamic precept, as legal experts claim, theoretical and experimental scientific research is the instrument to achieve that.

       The most important condition for it to take place is the existence of free research bodies and specialists who enjoy total academic freedom in their experiments, formulation of hypotheses and suppositions, and in putting them to the test according to precise scientific standards. It is necessary for these institutions to have creative imagination and experience that guarantee the achievement of new results for the sake of enriching the human knowledge. In this scientific investigation, the scholars are only guided by the ethics of science and its methods and principles. The great Muslim scientists Al-Rāzi, Ibn Al-Haytham, Ibn Al-Nafīs and others were the greatest exponents of scientific knowledge of their age and the pioneers in the East and West for several centuries. It is time for the Arab and Muslim scientists then to compete again in this era of knowledge and power. Science has become the source of military and economic power, the means of progress, growth and prosperity. Free scientific research has become the core element that can lead to the rebirth of education, of the dominion of scientific thought, and the flourishing of production centers. Considerable funds are reserved for this and work groups are set up. Furthermore, important projects are proposed. This requires the guaranty of absolute freedom for scientific and humanistic research.

       The West took control of all scientific progress and monopolized the course of science until the rebirth of Japan, China, India, and south-east Asia. These countries have offered enlightening models of the capacity of the East to break this monopoly and enter into the age of science and knowledge on a large scale. It is time that the Egyptians, Arabs, and Muslims also share in this scientific and cultural competition. They, in fact, have the spiritual, physical, and human energy needed for progress, in a world that has no respect for the weak or for those who are left behind.

Third: the Freedom of Speech and Expression

       The freedom of expression is the mother of all other types of freedom, It is manifested in freely expressing one's own opinions by all means of expression in writing, speech, artistic production and digital communication. It represents that aspect of social freedom that goes beyond the individuals to include other subjects, e.g. the formation of parties and civil society institutions. Furthermore, it includes the freedom of the press, radio, television, and digital information as well as the freedom to acquire the information needed to form an opinion. This must be guaranteed by the constitutions so that it may be above ordinary laws which are subject to change.

       The Egyptian Constitutional Court set to broaden the concept of the freedom of expression to include constructive criticism, even when this takes on strong expressions. It declared that "the freedom of expression in public affairs cannot be restricted by fears of going beyond what is necessary. It must be well tolerated". Nonetheless, due attention must be paid to the need to respect the creed of the three divine religions and their rites, due to their importance for the fabric of society and public security. Nobody has the right to fuel religious tensions or sectarian fanaticism in the name of the freedom of expression, even if the right to practice scientific interpretation is guaranteed when supported by evidence within the specialized contexts and away from tensions, as mentioned before with regard to the freedom of scientific research.

       The writers of this declaration state that the freedom of expression is the true expression of democracy. They invite to educating the young generations in the culture of freedom, the right to diversity, and respect for others. They urge those working in the context of religious, cultural, and political discourse within the media to remember this important dimension during their activity and wisely contribute in forming a public opinion characterized by tolerance and broadmindedness, inclined to dialogue and opposed to fanaticism. In order to realize this objective, it is necessary to draw the attention to the cultural traditions of tolerant Islamic thought in which case the greatest leaders of jurisprudential interpretations used to say, "I see my opinion as right though it is liable to be wrong, and see the other's opinion as wrong but it could be right". There is no way to protect the freedom of speech without having evidence and counterevidence compared according to the etiquettes of dialogue and the customs of civilization in advanced societies.

Fourth: Freedom of Artistic-literary Creativity

       Creativity can be either scientific as mentioned above, or artistic and literary which finds expression in various literary genres: in lyrical and dramatic works, poetry, narrative, theatre, autobiographies, visual and plastic arts, cinema, television and music, as well as in other recently-created forms in almost all of these spheres.

       Altogether, literature and the arts aim at making the awareness of reality grow, stimulating the imagination, elevating the aesthetic sense, educating the human senses, widening intellectual ability, and deepening the experience of life and society distinctive of human beings. Sometimes literature and arts criticize society by referring to more elevated and better realities. All these noble functions lead to the enrichment of the language and culture, stimulate the imagination, and enhance thought, while protecting the supreme religious values and moral virtues.

       Arabic language has distinguished itself, from its very origins, with its literary richness and renowned eloquence. The descent of the Noble Qur᾿ān, the inimitable peak of eloquence, increased the beauty of Arabic and highlighted its genius. Poetry, prose and wise reflections drew inspiration from the Qur᾿ān. Poets and writers were also inspired by the Qur᾿ān. As Muslims, they -though belonging to various races- expressed themselves in Arabic. They freely excelled in all the arts for a great number of centuries, without obstacles. Many of the sheikhs and imams who laid the foundations of the Arab-Muslim culture were themselves producers of poems and narratives in all shapes and sizes. Nonetheless, the fundamental rule regulating the limits of the freedom of creativity is the receptiveness of society, on the one hand, and the capacity to take on elements of tradition and renew them through literary and artistic creativity on the other, without external interference so long as the established religious sentiments or moral values are not affected.

       Literary and artistic creativity continues to be one of the most important aspects of a fruitful ordinance of the fundamental rights and one of the most efficient means to mobilize social awareness and enrich the conscience. The extent of well-directed freedom is indicative of the level of civilization achieved, since literature and arts are a mirror of societies and a faithful expression of the stable and changeable elements that make them up. They offer a lively picture of the aspirations for a better future. May Allah grant us success and guide us to what is good and just!

Aḩmad Aṭ-Ṭayyeb
Grand Imam of Al-Azhar

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