Some Muslim countries have legislated punishment for blasphemy. This draws on the Classical Sharia (Law) of Islam that evolved in the medieval ages and was inevitably informed by the historical realities and entrenched customs and practices of the era. However, with a sea change in civilizational paradigms, many of its rulings suffer anachronism, stand in conflict with international human rights charters and conduce to injustice, anarchy and barbarism in today's politically volatile and globalized world. All such rulings need to be examined in light of the universal message of the Qur'an which is by far the highest and incontestable authority in Islam.
This essay - an exercise in ijtihad (intellectual scrutiny with the limits set by God) investigates the case of blasphemy. It draws on a recently published focused exegetic work, the Essential Message of Islam [Amana Publications, USA- 2009] that is duly approved by al-Azhar al-Sharif and endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, Alfi Distinguished Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law.
The Qur'anic pronouncement "not to insult those whom others (lit., 'they') invoke besides God" (6:108) is a clear reminder against profaning any deity, idol or symbols held sacred by other people. The Qur'an, however, does not prescribe any punishment for the offenders. It warns humanity that there will always be some people who will hurl seductive remarks at the Prophet (6:113) or be inimical to him (25:31) for fun or cupidity and asks the believers to simply ignore them. In other words, the Qur'an treats blasphemy as a moral vice and does not regard it as a punishable/ criminal offence.
The Meccan enemies of the Prophet called him impostor, a madman (30:58, 44:14, 68:51), and an insane poet (37:36). They ridiculed the Qur'anic revelation (18:56, 26:6, 37:14, 45:9), which they declared to be strange and unbelievable (38:5, 50:2), a jumble of dreams(21:5) and legends of the ancients (6:25, 23:83, 25:5, 27:68, 46:17, 68:15, 83:13). They accused the Prophet of forging lies and witchcraft (34:43, 38:4), forging lies against God, forgery and making up tales (11:13, 32:3, 38:7, 46:8), witchcraft (21:3, 43:30, 74:24), obvious witchcraft that was bewildering (10:2, 37:15, 46:7), and of being bewitched or possessed by a Jinn (17:47, 23:70, 34:8). By definition, all these accusations were blasphemous. Nowhere in its text does the Qur'an prescribe any punishment for those who uttered these blasphemies.
The advocates of blasphemy law may raise the following points:
1. The slanderer and maligner of the Prophet can upset peace and harmony like priests of Cordova (Spain, 851-859) .
2. Maligning any religion, religious leader, text etc. purports to demonize and dehumanize it and can fuel hatred, religious bigotry and animosity, and in the present day context, feed Islamophobia and Islamofacism.
The arguments appear convincing but there are more compelling grounds against prescribing any punishment for blasphemy.
The highly porous and subjective character of the 'offense' (blasphemy) can lead to a chaotic situation within the Muslim community and persecution of the minority community as is happening in Pakistan these days.
An uncouth citizen can use it to settle a score with a non-Muslim or even a Muslim neighbour or financially exploit him by a threat of blasphemy charge.
An Islamic State can use it for political repression of dissidents.
By strict application of blasphemy law in a broader sense, a Sunni Sharia Court can charge the entire Shia community of blasphemy for their invectives against the Prophet's close relatives - the first three Caliphs, who were either his father-in-law (Abu Bakr and Umar) or son-in-law (Uthman).
The theologians in the Islamic heartlands can issue an endless stream of fatwas for the heads of the countless Islam bashing scholars and writers, whose speech, writing and symbolism can sometimes be construed as blasphemous.
The very notion of killing a person for blasphemy contradicts the Qur'anic cardinal principle of justice that relates only to offences committed against fellow humans.
Conclusion: The relativism and porosity in the definition of 'blasphemy' can open a floodgate of blasphemy charges against unsuspecting individuals, members of the minority, Muslim sects and Islam.critcal scholars and writers. Since the Qur'an, conceivably cognizant of these caveats, does not prescribe any punishment for blasphemy, the blasphemy law needs to be repealed. Blasphemy symbolizes and epitomises hatred that inevitably breeds hatred - regardless of any law against it. This can in turn feed radicalisation, foster terrorism, and trigger communal riots. Muslim jurists will do better by insisting on getting a firm Security Council Code of Conduct and may be limited punishment for blasphemy depending upon the gravity and potential impact of the offence and the attitude of the offender, rather than legislating a capital punishment or even, any punishment for blasphemy - which remains a porous act of misconduct and moral turpitude.
. Between 851 and 859, some priests in Cordova, now southern Spain, used to utter in public places highly insulting and abusive remarks against the Prophet deliberately seeking capital punishment. They were an embarrassment to both the Christian community and the Emir and were executed by application of Sharia law as this was the only way to prevent them from a highly provocative behaviour in public.
Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur'an since early 90's, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.
August 24, 2012.