Islamic Perspectives

On Blasphemy

Aslam Abdullah

 

Is Allah (God) so insecure of his majesty that he wants us to kill those who insult him or his messenger and prophet?

Mumtaz Qadri was hanged in Pakistan on Monday, February 29, 2016. His crime was killing the Governor of Punjab for whom he was working as a body guard. He took the life of the man he was appointed to protect because in his view the Governor was guilty of being critical of Pakistan’s “Islamic” blasphemy laws.

In Qadri’s view anyone who blasphemes the Prophet (PBUH) or supports those who do so deserves to be killed. This is not what was revealed to Qadri by the Law Giver, God, or by His messenger. It is what he learned from his teachers. Qadri was true to what he was taught. He preferred death over living in a situation where his prophet (PBUH) was maligned and his religion ridiculed. Consequently, he paid the price of a misrepresented theology that the religious oligarchy in many Muslim societies has promoted for centuries, unchallenged.

In reality, the blame lies with those who have promoted this distorted belief against the will of God and His messenger (pbuh).

Unfortunately, the Muslim religious establishments have perpetuated a literal application of what they call blasphemy laws that were evolved and developed by Muslim schools of thought for a different time over several centuries. A number of Sunni and Shia scholars decree death to those who blaspheme the Prophet (PBUH) or Islam.

Hanbali jurisprudence views blasphemy as an offence distinct from, and more severe than apostasy. Death is mandatory in cases of blasphemy, for both Muslim men and women, and repentance is not accepted.

In the Hanafi school of thought blasphemy was synonymous with apostasy. Repentance is acceptable but for those who refuse to repent, death is the punishment if the blasphemer is a Muslim man, and if the blasphemer is a woman, she must be given rigorous imprison till she repents and returns to Islam. If a non-Muslim commits blasphemy, his punishment wastazir (punishment for offences at the discretion of the judge: death, arrest, caning, etc.).

Malikis view blasphemy as an offence distinct from, and more severe than apostasy. Death is mandatory in cases of blasphemy for Muslim men, and repentance is not accepted. For women, death is not the punishment suggested, but she is arrested and punished till she repents and returns to Islam or dies in custody. A non-Muslim who commits blasphemy against Islam must be punished; however, the blasphemer can escape punishment by converting and becoming a devout Muslim.

According to Shafi’i school of thought blasphemy is also a separate offence from apostasy, but the repentance of blasphemers is acceptable. If the blasphemer does not repent, the punishment is death.

Shia school of thought views blasphemy against Islam, the Prophet (PBUH), or any of the imams, to be punishable with death, if the blasphemer is a Muslim. In case the blasphemer is a non-Muslim, he is given a chance to convert to Islam, or else killed.

But what is blasphemy? Based on laws of various countries and religious decrees given by scholars, the definition includes the following.

Speaking ill of God, finding fault with Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), insulting a prophet mentioned in the Qur’an or slandering a member of the family of Prophet (PBUH) claiming to be a prophet, and visually depicting the Prophet (PBUH). But is there a word in Arabic that means blasphemy. The English translators of the Qur’an have no consensus on choosing an Arabic word equivalent to blasphemy.

For instance, Muhammad Asad and Yusuf Ali use blasphemy or its variations 18 and 23 times respectively in their Qur’an translation, mostly for the words kufr and makr to mean blasphemy, even though the word kafar and its derivatives appear 500 times in the Qur’an. (Example MA: 13:42, 14:46, 16:26, 16:112 … YA: 2:88, 2:102, 4:155, 5:17 …) Marmaduke Pickthall limits the translation of blasphemy to the Arabicalhada. (7:180).

Despite this ambiguity in the definition, however, all four schools of thought have used the following reasoning to justify death to blasphemers.

Those who annoy God and His Messenger (PBUH) - God has deprived them of His mercy in this world and in the Hereafter, and has prepared for them a humiliating punishment (Qur’an 33:57).

Truly, if the Hypocrites, and those in whose hearts is a disease, and those who stir up sedition in the City, desist not, We shall certainly stir thee up against them: Then will they not be able to stay in it as thy neighbors for any length of time: They shall have a curse on them: whenever they are found, they shall be seized and slain (without mercy)?(Qur’an 33:61).

Even though the verses do not talk of death penalty, yet scholars chose to conclude that the Divine intent was to ask believers to kill those who speak ill of God.

Scholars also provide the following ahadith (traditions of the Prophet (PBUH)) from Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim and Sunan Abu Dawood to justify the killing of blasphemers.

The Prophet said, “Who is ready to kill Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf who has really hurt God and His Apostle?” Muhammad bin Maslama said, “O God’s Apostle! Do you like me to kill him?” He replied in the affirmative. So, Muhammad bin Maslama went to him (i.e., Ka’b) and said, “This person (i.e., the Prophet (PBUH)) has put us to task and asked us for charity.” Ka’b replied, “By God, you will get tired of him.” Muhammad said to him, “We have followed him, so we dislike to leave him till we see the end of his affairs.” Muhammad bin Maslama went on talking to him in this way till he got the chance to kill him. Narrated by Jabir bin Abdullah, Sahih al-Bukhari, (4:52:270). 

It has been narrated on the authority of Jabir that the Messenger of God said: “Who will kill Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf? He has maligned God, the Exalted, and His Messenger”. Muhammad b. Maslama said: “Messenger of God, do you wish that I should kill him?” He said: “Yes”. He said: Permit me to talk (to him in the way I deem fit). He said: “Talk (as you like)”.?Sahih Muslim, (19:4436).

Narrated Ali ibn AbuTalib: A Jewess used to abuse the Prophet (pbuh) and disparage him. A man strangled her till she died. The Apostle of God declared that no recompense was payable for her blood.?Sunan Abu Dawood, (38:4349).

 

A thorough and closer look at the Qur’an and the life of the prophet provides clear evidence against the theology of death for those who blaspheme..

Despite all these theological decrees, the number of actual prosecutions for blasphemy in the Muslim historical record is extremely infrequent. One of the “few known cases” was that of a Christian in the year 1293 CE who was accused of insulting Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). It ended in an acquittal though it was followed by the protest against a decision led by the famed jurist Ibn Taymiyya.

However in Pakistan where laws on blasphemy were introduced in the 1980s, over 1,300 people have been accused of blasphemy from 1987 to 2014, (generally non-Muslim religious minorities), mostly for allegedly desecrating the Qur’an. Over 50 people accused of blasphemy have been murdered before their respective trials were over and prominent figures who opposed blasphemy laws (Salman Taseer, the former Governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minorities) have been assassinated

A thorough and close look at the Qur’an and the life of the prophet (PBUH) provide clear evidence against the theology of death for those who blaspheme. What is often implied in this theology is that God and His messenger allow deception and lies to get rid off those who blaspheme. It is unthinkable to attribute this understanding to God and His messenger. It is not only a lie but a sin against God, especially when the Qur’an is very specific about speaking the truth in no ambiguous terms.

The Qur’an says: “Revile not ye those whom they call upon besides God, lest they out of spite revile God in their ignorance. Thus We have made alluring to each people its own doings. In the end will they return to their Lord, and We shall then tell them the truth of all that they did” (6:108). “O ye who believe! Let not some men among you ridicule others: It may be that the (latter) are better than the (former): Nor let some women ridicule others: It may be that the (latter are better than the (former): Nor defame nor be sarcastic to each other, nor call each other by (offensive) nicknames: Ill-seeming is a name connoting wickedness, (to be used of one) after he has believed: And those who do not desist are (indeed) doing wrong” (49:11).

“Those who avoid the greater crimes and shameful deeds, and, when they are angry even then forgive” (42:37).

If blasphemy was punishable by death in Islam, then the Prophet (PBUH) would have been the first one to order the killing of hundreds of his foes who later became his closest companions. In our religious books, references are made to six incidents where the Prophet (PBUH) reportedly asked his companions to silence his opponents forever. A careful examination of all such incidents reveals that they are concocted and far from the truth. With the exception of a very few earlier Arabs who accepted the Prophet (PBUH) as the Messenger of God, the majority of people of Makkah opposed him, humiliated him, cursed and blasphemed against him, or even tried to kill him. Yet, he preferred to practise forgiveness seeking Divine mercy for them. Even after being wounded severely in Taif, he refused to seek revenge.

 

The idea of blasphemy was justified by many medieval Muslim scholars on the basis of their understanding of Christian and Jewish texts ..

The old woman who used to throw garbage on the Prophet (PBUH) was visited by him when he did not see her throwing it any more to learn that she was not well. When Suhail bin Amr, a poet who composed poetry blaspheming the Prophet (PBUH) was taken as a prisoner of war after the battle of Badr, the Prophet (PBUH) asked his companions to show kindness to him. There are examples after examples to prove that the Prophet (PBUH) never resorted to violence against those who were showing utter disrespect to him or to God.

Violence against anyone criticising Islam, God or Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is unacceptable as the divine teachings make it clear. Any punishment against blasphemy is a stab in the heart of Islam and a humiliation of the Prophet (PBUH) by those who claim to be his followers. Those who support the killing of people accused of blasphemy do no understand the spirit of Islam nor respect the Prophet (PBUH) who was sent as a mercy to humankind. No matter who they are, they must be challenged on the basis of the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet (PBUH).

The idea of blasphemy was justified by many medieval Muslim scholars on the basis of their understanding of Christian and Jewish texts supporting laws against those who blaspheme and vilify their religions. Unfortunately, their argument is built on a position that is supported by a number of Muslim religious scholars all over the world that demand death for acts of apostasy and blasphemy, that were developed under the influence of corrupt despotic Muslim rulers who misused their power to twist religious scholarship to serve their political interests.

The word “blasphemy” came via Middle English blasfemen and Old French blasfemer and Later Latin blasphemare meaning “I injure.” Based on this definition, rulers used laws to victimise non-members or dissident members of the ruling elites or cult. Countries that had a state religion used it often to serve the interests of the rulers.

In Judaism, the third book of Torah, Leviticus 24:16 states that those who speak blasphemy shall surely be put to death. The seven laws of Noah seen by Judaism as applicable to all of humankind prohibits blasphemy. In Christian theology, the Gospel of Mark 3:29, describes blaspheming the holy spirit as unforgivable eternal sin. St. Thomas Aquinas considered blasphemy a major unforgivable sin, more serious than murder. The Book of Concord describes it as the greatest sin ever committed. The Baptist Confession of Faith calls it a disgusting and detestable act. Catholic Church has specific prayers and devotions as Acts of Reparation for blasphemy against God and the Church was a crime punishable by death in much of the Christian world. In England, the last blasphemy execution was that of an 18-year-old Thomas Aikenhead who was executed for the crime in 1697. He was prosecuted for denying the accuracy of Old Testament and the legitimacy of Christ’s miracles.

The Qur’an and the authentic teachings of the Prophet (pbuh) describe the practice of showing irreverence to God and his messenger as acts of ignorance, deliberate provocation, or hatred, or rebellion. Yet, the two sources of Islamic guidance never proposed punitive actions on the basis of theological dissent or religious differences or irreverence. Some Muslim jurists have often misused the institution ofijtihad to serve the emotive interests of the people. The religious decree issued by Ayatollah Rouhullah Khomeini proposing killing of Salman Rushdie was an opinion with no direct support from the Book of Divine Guidance.

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan also has in its penal code that prohibits and punishes blasphemy against Islam that ranges from a fine to death. The criminal courts often decide a case of blasphemy on the basis of public emotions and political interests rather than the divine writ. For instance, Pakistan’s Criminal Code 295 forbids damaging or defiling a place of worship or a sacred object. Code 296A forbids outraging religious feelings, Code 295 B forbids defiling the Qur’an, Code 295 C forbids defaming Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

Defiling the Qur’an is punishable by imprisonment for life and defaming Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)  by death, with or without a fine. None of these codes have any basis in the Qur’an or the authentic teachings of the Prophet (pbuh).  It is a position that many scholars adopted under the influence of despotism that prevailed in the Muslim world for centuries and still prevails in many countries. This position has been challenged by many who have knowledge of the Qur’an and Sunnah. But most of the time, their religious authority and opinion are suppressed by rulers.

The tyranny of such religious scholars is so intense that those opposed to these laws are condemned as heretics punishable by death. Some of the scholars even encourage their followers to unleash terror against such people. Their arrogance has reached a point that they do not want to listen to any argument based on the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet (PBUH). Many religious and educational institutions of the Muslim world suffer from the tyranny of these scholars who justify their ignorance and arrogance on the basis of a literature that emerged at a time when Muslims had lost connection with the Qur’an and by and large were at the mercy of despotic rulers and their hired religious scholars.

Islam is not the monopoly of self-imposed scholars. It is a faith given to people for their well being and guidance without any interference from any authority other than God the Almighty. Those who assume the divine role in condemning people and deciding on their life and death on the basis of their religious identity must be questioned for their opinions on the basis of the Qur’an and Sunnah.

If Muslim religious scholars who support blasphemy laws are seriously concerned about the sensitivities of people with regards to their faith and its holy figures, then they should advocate common laws for every religion and religious community emphasising that respect must be shown to all religions and freedom of speech must not be seen as a licence to hurt and provoke others.

When some people make fun of God and His messengers it hurts and causes pain. As acknowledged by the Qur’an: “We do indeed know how your heart is distressed at what they say”  Al-Hijr (15:97).

But God clearly advises: “Repel evil with that which is best: We are well acquainted with the things they say” Al-Mu’minun (23:96). “Nor can goodness and evil be equal. Repel (evil) with what is better: Then will he between whom and thee was hatred become as it were thy friend and intimate!” Fussilat (41:34).

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 April 2016 on page no. 20

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