Islam, Blasphemy And The Growing Religious Intolerance

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Written by Taofeek Ajibade

Introduction

On Monday, August 10, 2020, the Nigerian society was greeted with the following news:

A Kano Upper Sharia Court sitting at Hausawa Filin Hockey sentenced 22-year-old Yahaya Sharif to death by hanging. He was convicted based on Section 382 (b) of Kano Penal Code of 2000. The court also sentenced one Umar Farouq of Sharada quarters of Kano metropolis to 10 years imprisonment with hard labour for making derogatory statements concerning the Almighty Allah in a public argument. Premium Times

The subject of blasphemy, as it concerns Islamic personages or symbols, has become more visible in recent times especially in countries or regions that pride themselves as adhering to the Islamic faith – no thanks to the attendant jungle justice usually handed down to alleged ‘blasphemers’. Blasphemy is a widely disputed idea about the appropriateness of the utterances or actions by an individual or a group which the adherents of a religion consider unworthy or derogatory to the inviolable honour of their revered religious personages, sacred religious rites and sites. This concept has for ages been well-entrenched and executed by religious institutions, instigated majorly by the actions of some over-zealous adherents of the religion.

In view of the fact that different religions have their sacred beings or objects against which their faithful followers would welcome no unbecoming or contemptuous utterances and actions, the question of blasphemy can be said to be as old as the history of religion itself. So, just as it is in Judaism, so it is in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, as well as other religions of the world. For instance, it is considered blasphemous to eat the meat of cows in Hinduism.

In Islam, the most prominent figures and religious scripture are Allah the Almighty, His Prophet, Muhammad (peace and blessing be on him) and the sacred Book of Holy Qur’an. Anyone suspected to have disparaged any of these figures and text today, is counted as an enemy and could be attacked by extremists. In other words, blasphemy is regarded as an offence that is punishable at the hands of any extremists through the instrumentality of jungle justice or the manipulation of the conventional court as witnessed in recent times in Sri Lanka and Pakistan where an accused was shot dead right in the court.

The truth is that neither Allah nor the Prophet had vested in anybody the power or authority to punish blasphemy. The extremists have taken over the role of Allah in apportioning punishment to perceived erring members (or, as they call them, infidels) of the society.

Punishment for Blasphemy in Islam

While the Holy Quran admonishes against blasphemy, it does not specify any corporal or even worldly punishment for the ‘offence’. Rather, the Qur’an enjoins patience and forbearance and dignity. The instruction of the Quran when confronted with a situation where someone uttered a blasphemous statement against them or things they hold sacred is to say: Peace! “And the servants of the Gracious God are those who walk on earth in a dignified manner, and when the ignorant address them, they say ‘Peace!'(Q 25: 64).*

It is no doubt that a vast majority of those who support worldly punishment for blasphemy are either ignorant of the true position of Islam or deliberately quote the Quran out of context – probably oblivious of their disservice to the noble religion of Islam. Nevertheless, there is nowhere the Qur’an prescribes any corporal, let alone capital punishment, for blasphemy. The Holy Quran supports physical combat only when a real war has been waged against Islam and Muslims, and disorder is being created in the Community. Even then, the Holy Qur’an says that there shall be “a disgrace for them in this world, and in the Hereafter, they shall have a great punishment.” In this verse, there is no mention of a worldly court passing judgement of physical punishment. The final judgement rests solely with Allah and that is even put till the Hereafter.

“The reward of those who wage a war against Allah and His Messenger and strive to create disorder in the land is only this that they be slained or crucified or their hands and their feet be cut off on alternative sides or they be expelled from the land. That shall be a disgrace for them in this world, and in the Hereafter they shall have a great punishment.” (Q5:34).

This verse is clearly about those who wage a real war against Islam, and it is important that this verse I  understood within the right context of the prevailing socio-political dynamics of the time of its revelation. Even today, there is no law – secular or religious – that says belligerent persons or states should be left alone when they attack. In this sense, it would be clear to all fair-minded persons that the aim of this is communal and societal peace, as doing otherwise may imperil the sustainability of peaceful coexistence in the larger society.

Some clerics have also bandied around a few Ahadith (sayings attributed to the Holy Prophet(sa)) in support of meting out punishment to blasphemers. One of such narrated that  Ka’b Al-Ashraf was provoked to blaspheme the Prophet and then killed is rather untrue. However, Ka’b Al-Ashraf was killed for attempting to kill Muslims and asking that Quraysh to wage a war against Islam. His poems were not mere satires but actually inciting hatred and war against Islam – an act that was capable of disrupting the peace of the society. The simplest, yet strongest, argument against their authenticity is their direct contradiction to the unambiguous position of the Holy Qur’an. Such ahadith are also opposed to the well established and universally acknowledged practice of the Holy Prophet (Sunnah). Therefore, those ahadith cannot be relied upon as proofs of capital or even corporal punishment for blasphemy. It is a well-known fact that where an hadith contradicts a clear position of the Holy Qur’an, the latter takes precedence; as it is held supreme over any other jurisprudential sources.

In Islam, obedience to the Holy Prophet (sa), or any other authority, is derived from the Holy Qur’an. Sunnah is neither supreme nor equal to the authority of the Holy Qur’an. By extension, it is rather derogatory or ‘blasphemous’ to the inviolable honour of the Holy Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to ascribe to him any word or deed which in any way contradicts the position of the Qur’an. The Holy Qur’an itself asserts its supremacy in the following verses:

“. . . the Immaculate one, who believes in Allah and His words; and follow him that you may be rightly guided.” [Q7:160].
“We have sent no Messenger but that he should be obeyed by the command of Allah…” (Q4:65).

“O ye who believe! obey Allah and obey His Messenger and those who are in authority among you…”(Q4:60).

“Follow that which has been revealed to thee from the Lord…” (Q6:107).

The Prophet (peace and blessings be on him) thus bears witness to, accepts and believes in every word of the Quranic teachings in completeness. It is instructive to note that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) endured more blasphemous statements than we can even cope with today but, he was never advised in the Holy Qur’an, nor did he deem it fit, to respond in the like manner. Rather, in the following verses, the Holy Prophet (peace be on him) was enjoined to take the insults with equanimity and exercise exemplary patience:

“And bear patiently all that they say; and part with them in a decent manner. And leave Me alone with those who reject the truth… Surely, with Us are heavy fetters and a raging fire.” (Q73:11-13).

“And the servants of Allah . . . are those who walked on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say ‘Peace’” (Q25:64).

“And when they hear vain talk, they turn away therefrom and say: “unto us our works and unto you your works. Peace be to you. We seek not the ignorant.” (Q28: 56).

“And revile not those whom they call upon beside Allah, lest they, out of spite, revile Allah in their ignorance. Thus, unto every people have We caused their doing to seem fair…” (Q6:109).

Abuses against the Prophet (peace be on him)

In his lifetime, the Holy Prophet (sa) was subjected to both verbal and physical humiliations by the pagans. In the beginning of his Ministry, he was almost killed before migrating to Medina. When he eventually became the leader of the whole kingdom, he never sought to avenge the humiliation. In contrast, he forgave them all including Hinda, wife of Abu Sufyan, who had torn out the liver of Hazrat Hamza and chewed it to fulfill her vow of savagery. In the following verses, the Prophet (peace be on him) was molested in various forms:
1. He was accused of confused dreams: “Nay…’These are but confused dreams; …forged it…he is but a poet” (Q21:6).

2. He was stigmatized as a man possessed: “Or do they say, there is madness in him?…”(Q23:70).

3. He was called a madman:“Thou art not, by the grace of thy Lord, a madman.”(Q68:3).

In contrast to these derogatory remarks and torments, his personal reactions were all exemplary and incomplete adherence to the teachings of The Holy Quran. One of his regular tormentors was a woman who used to regularly visit the mosque with specks of dirt. At a point in time, the Prophet (peace be on him) observed that the woman was no longer coming and he enquired about her. He was told she was suffering from ill-health. In line with the teachings of the Holy Qur’an, the Prophet (peace be on him) made arrangement to visit her, offering his services in her household chores. What we have on record is the Prophet’s instructions that: “You do not do evil to those who do evil to you, but you deal with them with forgiveness and kindness.” (Sahih Bukhari). This explains that even perceived or real enemies should be shown compassion as much as possible.

Rulings on Punishable Crimes

The Holy Qur’an strictly limits the punishment for any crime committed by any member of the society irrespective of their affiliations. A recurring theme in the Holy Qur’an, in respect of punishment for crimes, is forgiveness where such is capable of reforming the offender. Following are few verses in this regard:

“And if you desire to punish the oppressors, then punish them to the extent to which you have been wronged; but if you show patience, then, surely, that is best for those who are patient.” (Q16:127).

“These will be given their reward twice, for they have been steadfast and they repel evil with good…” (Q28:55).

A cursory examination of the above verses would show the clear position of Islam and the Qur’an in apportioning punishment. On the other hand, it is important to note that while the Holy Qur’an does not prescribe any punishment for blasphemy, the Bible specifically states the punishment for blasphemy as found in Leviticus 24:16. Here, both blasphemy and blasphemers are condemned to death.

“Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death.”

Distorted views of the Sharia of Islam

Commenting on the latest judgement by a Kano Upper Sharia Court sentencing a 22-year old man to death by hanging, Dr. Sani Ibn Sina, the leader of Kano Hisbah Board, said, “As an organisation charged with the responsibility of enforcing Sharia, we are in support of the court verdict because anybody who does what he did deserves to be killed.  That is what the law says.” The Punch. It is noteworthy that Dr. Sami did not quote any verse of the Holy Quran to support his position.

In a similar reaction, Dr. Uthman Ibrahim of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies University of Ilorin, speaking to an online audience on a Zoom Conference on Thursday, August 13, 2020, was of the opinion that the judgement of the Kano Court was in order. However, he added that there is actually no verse of the Holy Quran to support such a position. His own conclusion, just like that of Dr. Sani Ibn Sina is based on the “opinions of scholars”. How can we rely on the opinion of scholars when the Holy Quran is very clear on a case? If there is no such evidence in the Holy Quran – and in fact, the Holy Book speaks against such judgement – what weightier evidence do the Islamic clerics rely on to make such far-reaching pronouncements? If there is anything that has given more strength to the continued jungle justice that has always followed each allegation of blasphemy, it is the distorted views of many clerics who should have been a beacon of light to the ignorant and religiously-intolerant majority. Unfortunately, they have remained the fuel that keeps the fire of intolerance burning in contradiction to the position of the Holy Quran which is explicit about not sanctioning any capital punishments for blasphemers. This is nothing but the height of religious intolerance.

Meanwhile, it is widely acknowledged, and as shown in the various verses above as well as the incidents in the life of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), that Islam enjoins nothing but tolerance, compassion and peace. The fact that a man speaks against Islam today does in no way mean that he could never be a follower of the same religion in future. Some of the greatest defenders of Islam were once valiant enemies of the religion. With compassion and exemplary character, those men were won for Islam and they stood by their new faith with even greater zeal than they had shown while outside the religion.

Conclusion

As already discussed, the Holy Qur’an neither prescribes punishment nor supports punishing anyone for alleged blasphemy. Islam is a religion of peace and those who perpetrate or seek to perpetrate evil in its name neither represent the peaceful religion nor help its cause in the least. It is a religion that emphasizes forbearance and forgiveness. Any extremists who act in contravention of the golden teachings of Islam should be held personally responsible for their infamous acts and pronouncements and Islam should be removed from such claims. A religion that teaches peace cannot be held responsible for the uncivilized actions of disoriented adherents. It should equally be borne in mind that such extremists are found in almost all religions of the world in varying degrees. Though the extremists have made it possibles for the traducers to point accusing fingers to Islam, those with fair minds have a responsibility to see Islam from the pristine teachings of the religion and not from the prism of the utterances of some religious bigots and unguided zealots.

Had Allah Himself wished to punish mankind for each of our sins, there would have remained none on the surface of the earth.
“And if Allah were to punish men for their wrongdoing, He would not leave on earth a living creature, but He gives them respite till an appointed term; and when their term is come, they cannot remain behind a single hour, nor can they go ahead of it.” (16:62).**

*All Qur’ān verses quoted in this article take Basmallah as the first verse of the Holy Qur’ān, except for Suratul Taubah (Chapter 9) which does not begin with basmallah.

**Much has been written on this subject; readers are advised to consult these scholarly expositions for further information:  ‘Murder in the Name of Allah’ and Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues.

Taofeeq Ajiabde is a teacher, educational evaluator, psychologist and a member, Muslim Writers Guild of Nigeria. Twitter: @taofeekajibade

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