A Protest in the Prophet’s Mosque
A powerful event of peaceful protest happened two weeks ago (April 28) in Saudi Arabia at the Prophet’smosque – something not seen in Medina for over fourteen hundred years. A visiting delegation of Pakistani politicians, including Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and two Ministers from the recently installed government, were greeted by repeated chants by worshippers of “chor,” which in English translates as “thief”. Did Prime Minister Sharif, who is out on bail on multiple criminal charges for alleged financial improprieties, visit the holy places to burnish his religious bona fides to a citizenry back home? If that was the case, the optics of what happened has had the opposite effect. The images of the protest have been relayed and amplified with commentary and gone viral on social media. For adherents of the Islamic faith, being called a “thief” near the resting place of the Prophet Muhammad is a profound jolt. It has been interpreted by many as signifying that these politicians were not worthy of traversing such sacred terrain.
As was expected, the Saudi authorities who brook no dissent are incensed by the protests. Politically, one can understand the Saudi’s concern. Protests of “chor” against Pakistani officials if left unchecked could blossom to protests against Saudi governance or human rights violations. The Medina police have since arrested five suspects for “abusing and insulting” the Pakistani Ministers. The spokesperson for the police remarked the actions of the protesters is against Islam and “contradict the sanctity of the place.” The protest took place a distance from the Prophet’sgrave. Islamic scholars, all the way back to the Caliph Omar and the Prophet’s wife Ayesha instructed Muslims not to raise one’s voice next to the Prophet’s grave. Understandably, political discourse and protests in the mosque even far from the grave of the Prophet would undermine the worship of other pilgrims. Given the crowds, time, manner, and place restrictions on protest is needed. But the notion that no protests are permitted in Islam or that political discourse never took place in the Prophet’s mosque is incorrect. The efforts of smart phones and citizen reporting of the incident offers a monumental teaching teachable moment for Muslims and others about the correct Islamic conception of democracy, freedom of speech and accountability of government officials for malfeasance.
Saudi and “Freedom” of Speech
There is a litany of prophetic examples that illustrate the Saudi view of freedom of speech and protest, like so much of their brand of Islam, is the antithesis of Islamic scriptures and prophetic practice. Islamic scriptures is replete with calls on every Muslim to enjoin good and forbid wrong. Muslims unanimously agree that the Prophetproclaimed that speaking against an unjust ruler is the highest form of sacrifice in the path of God. Muslims also unanimously concur that the Prophet said when you see a wrong, change it with your hand. If you cannot change it with your hand, then speak against the wrong. And if you cannot change the wrong with your words, then despise that wrong in your heart but that is the lowest level of faith.
There are many examples of freedom of speech and protest in the Prophet’smosque, or during the pilgrimage during the life of the Prophet and the four immediate successors of the Prophet , who Sunni Islam unanimously proclaims as the four noble or rightly guided Caliphs. The latter’s instructions and examples represent sources of Islamic law. Here are a few illustrations.
The Prophetwas once delivering a speech and a man interrupted the Prophet and inquired about the unlawful detention of his neighbor. The man rose two more times and asked the same question. Thereafter, the Prophet