There is no Licence to Ridicule

“O Children of Adam! Let not Satan seduce you in the same manner as he got your parents out of the Garden, stripping them of their clothing, to expose their shame.” (Al-A’raf 7:27)

The local story that has dominated news and the airwaves sometimes with surreal twists over the past week has undoubtedly been about the now infamous painting that was on display at the now closed Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.

The defenders of the artists have cited freedom of expression as a constitutional right which has to be respected at all costs regardless of the revulsion from the ANC, the presidency and several religious, civil society and interest groups.

Freedom of expression is a product of the era of the Enlightenment. This was the period Europe emerged from the Dark Ages through the renaissance, a revival of learning and great leaps in artistic expression.

Western civilisation and thought has in many ways been shaped by the scholarship of this era. Ironically, in the name of artistic freedom of expression, the Enlightenment placed nudity in the public domain as a break from the hitherto ‘conservative’ medieval period.

Iconic sculptures which have become celebrated signatures, permanent fixtures of central squares of major cities and at entrances of public buildings, are invariably unclad.

The controversy which has come to our shores is rooted and informed by these notions of limitless liberties and freedoms.

However, both freedom of expression and humanity dignity are values that are enshrined in the country’s constitution. The former has from time to time been fiercely guarded by members of the press as a holy grail of their profession.

Other interest groups too, however, need to be given the space to champion the cause of human dignity, in itself a cardinal and founding principle of our constitution.

From a Muslim’s point of view, we find the painting as hurting, insulting and totally unacceptable on a number of grounds some of which are as follows:

Freedom of Expression has limits. It is not a licence to demean, ridicule and insult another. Time and again it has been shown that this freedom is not and cannot be absolute. The Prophet Sallallahu alayhi wasallam said:
“Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should speak a good word or remain silent…” (Bukhari and Muslim)

Honour of humanity is sacred. Protection of honour is one of the objectives of the Shariah. Regardless of the personality of the one satirised, every human being deserves respect. President Jacob Zuma’s honour and dignity should neither be an exception nor abridged.

The Qur’an commands: “O You who believe, do not let one set of people make fun of another set…”(49:11)

Notions of justice and fair-dealing are built-in under Shariah. Regardless of the justifications which have been put across for the kind of portrayal of President Jacob Zuma, who has been considered as ‘fair game’ for ridicule by sections of the media, the Qur’an instructs “…and, if ye judge between mankind, that ye judge justly.” (4:58)

Islam shuns indecency and lewdness. Every Friday we hear the Imam conclude his sermon by reciting the following verse of the Quran: “…Allah enjoins justice, kindness and the doing of good, to kith and kin; and He forbids all that is shameful, indecent, evil, rebellious and oppressive. (16:90) The vulgarity of the painting has been apparent and even on that score alone, it is utterly obscene and objectionable.

As for republishing and circulation of such indecent material, we have to remember that a Muslim is prohibited from speaking about everything that one hears: “It is sufficient for one to be called a liar the one who speaks about everything that he hears.” (Muslim)

As a concluding note, while the press is at liberty to inform, report and critically analyse news and events including the personalities involved, it is important that such reporting is done responsibly without trivialising and desensitising the public about the gravity of the scandals that bedevil our society.

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