Personal Privacy

By Mohammad Hashim Kamali
The Dignity of Man - the Islamic Perspective
Ilmiah Publishers, Malaysia and the Islamic Foundation, UK

Personal privacy of the individual is an integral part of his dignity. The private dwelling is therefore made immune against intrusion of all kind.

Strangers who wish to enter private homes are required to greet the inhabitants and familiarise themselves with courtesy and respect (al-Nur, 24:27). Permission to enter a private home is thus to be solicited thrice, and if it is still not granted, there should be no further repetition and the stranger must leave.

This is clearly stated in a hadith which directed the believers that "asking for permission is (allowed up to) three times. If it is not granted to you, you must return." [Muslim, Mukhtasar Sahih Muslim, hadith 1421.]

The hadith here elaborates on the two requirements of familiarisation (isti’nas) and greeting (taslim) that are laid down in the above-mentioned Qur'anic ayah. The order of priority between these two requirements has also been specified in another hadith which simply declared that "The Prophet sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam said: greeting precedes the speech". [Mubarakfuri, 'Aradat al-Ahwadhi Sharh Jami' al-Tirmidhi, IX, 170.]

Espionage (tajassus) is forbidden by the clear text of the Qur'an, and so is indulgence in suspicion and surreptitious activities that are degrading and offensive to the personal dignity of the individual (al-Hujurat, 49:12). The Qur'anic prohibition on espionage occurs in absolutely general and unqualified terms (i.e., wa la tajassasu, which means that it is totally proscribed regardless of the purpose that might be served by it, and also that it is addressed to everyone, including the government agencies and the muhtasib, that is the officer in charge of hisba, who is not permitted to use espionage as a means of promoting hisba (i.e., commanding good and forbidding evil). The mubtasib must act on the basis of what he knows through direct observation without recourse to espionage, eavesdropping and other methods of searching for evidence. [Al-Dughmi, Ahkam al-Tajassus, p. 149.]

The second Caliph, 'Umar Ibn al-Khattab has clarified the government position when he said that the government acts on what is evident; one who exhibits good character should not be suspected of anything but good; for the inner secrets of people are only known to God Most High. [Al-Tabari, Tarikh, V, 26.] The general text of the Qur'an on the prohibition of espionage similarly means that all varieties of espionage are included. Furthermore the Qur'anic text on espionage is immediately preceded by an address to the believers to "avoid indulgence in suspicion, for surely suspicion in most cases in sinful, and spy not ..." (al-Hujurat, 49:12).

Espionage originates in suspicion, which is also to be avoided as far as possible, although the wording of the text is not as categorical on suspicion as it is on espionage. The text here seems to permit suspicion that is based on reasonable grounds. The point, however, is that both are seen as a threat to personal dignity and a violation of the individual's right to privacy. The prohibition of espionage also includes opening of personal letters and confidential correspondence. This is, in fact, the subject of a hadith to the effect that "one who looks into the letter of his brother without his permission is like looking into the fire of Hell." [Al-Suyuti, al-Jami’ as-Saghir, p. 165; Ibn Majah, al-Adab al-Shar`iyya, II, 166] The prohibition of espionage is thus addressed to everyone and to all concerned, including, that is, the law enforcement agencies, the individuals and the government leaders.


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