What is the Punishment for Blasphemy in Islam?6 Comments | September 2011
Blasphemy, derived from the Latin Blasphemia, is generally defined as the exhibition of irreverent behaviour or language towards God, religion or anything held sacred. It is a sensitive issue for many, especially those who have an unshakeable faith in their beliefs, religious leaders, holy book, places of worship and rituals.
What acts can be deemed ‘irreverent’, how those who carry out such acts should be punished, and what role the law should play in preventing blasphemy are questions that have instigated huge debate and controversy. Images of certain Muslim groups who adopt harsh punishments against people apparently blaspheming against Islam or turning apostate are displayed horrifically by the Western media. Seeing people being beaten and murdered for the crime of blasphemy has left a deep impact upon the Western World.
Unfortunately, certain misguided Muslim groups are attributing teachings to Islam that have nothing whatsoever to do with it; the media happily relay these stories to the world without considering the fact that such acts are not representative of Islam’s true teachings.
A person is naturally hurt whenever something he holds sacred is defiled or desecrated. Many consider it morally wrong to hurt the religious sensibilities of others, as it can disturb the peace and harmony of society and disrupt law and order, whilst others believe any form of censorship curtails necessary freedoms. The freedom to openly profess, practise and preach one’s religion by all, in particular by minority groups, is what determines the level of religious tolerance of a society. In this matter, justice is not only to be done but must also be seen to be done—actions speak louder than words.
Of great concern at the present time is the subject of whether Islam prescribes any punishment for blasphemy. Every true Muslim loves and regards the Holy Prophet Muhammad(saw), the Founder of Islam, more than any other human being. A Muslim may tolerate insults against his parents, relatives or friends, but he cannot endure anyone mocking the Prophet Muhammad(saw). But how exactly does Islam teach a Muslim to respond to insults against the Prophet(saw), or for that matter, insults directed at God or anything sacred in Islam? Unfortunately, many Muslims assert that death or other harsh measures are the only possible punishments for those who commit blasphemy. However, as will be explained, this belief is mistaken and incorrect according to both the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah—the Practice of the Holy Prophet(saw).
Islam enjoins fair treatment of all, including one’s enemies:
…Let not a people’s enmity incite you to act otherwise than with justice. Be always just, that is nearer to righteousness… (Ch.5:V.9)
But Islam does not only condemn the blaspheming of God. It also protects the feelings of polytheists, by forbidding Muslims from attacking their idols. On this point, the Holy Qur’an states:
And revile not those whom they call upon beside Allah, lest they, out of spite, revile Allah in their ignorance.… (Ch.6:V.109)
In other words, Islam teaches Muslims to be sensitive to the sensibilities of others—no matter how strongly they disagree with them. The implication of this verse is that if it is not permitted for Muslims to slander false idols, it certainly cannot be permissible for Muslims to defile other sects within Islam or other religions.
Here we will examine the concept of blasphemy in light of the true teachings of Islam, and also analyse the fall-out of the incorrect interpretations of Qur’anic verses by Muslim scholars in countries such as Pakistan. Pakistan has the 2nd largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia, and 97% of its approximate 170 million inhabitants are Muslims. An analysis of Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws in light of the Qur’an, Hadith and Sunnah is pertinent because it is important to reveal that the Western media wrongly target these so-called ‘Islamic’ laws in Muslim countries to try and prove that Islam discharges harsh, excessive and medieval justice, whereas the reality is that these laws do not reflect the true Islam, only a completely erroneous interpretation of the Islamic law.
Blasphemy vs. Freedom of Speech
One criticism against the concept of blasphemy is that, when enforced, it curtails freedom of expression. The freedom to speak freely, without censure, is a fundamental human right that should be guaranteed to citizens of every just state. While freedom of speech is necessary for the progress and development of a society, however, this freedom, like all other freedoms, is not limitless.
The truth is that both religious sensitivities and freedom of speech are important and need to be protected. There is no conflict if both operate within their limits and do not trespass into each other’s domain. Yet there are times when sensitivity and freedom will conflict. Nonetheless, although Islam regards blasphemy as heinous and offensive, it does not prescribe any worldly punishment for it, as this would seriously restrict freedom of expression.
Discussing this issue, Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad(ru) (1928-2003), the fourth Khalifa of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, writes in his book Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues:
‘Blasphemy: Islam goes one step further than any other religion in granting man the freedom of speech and expression. Blasphemy is condemned on moral and ethical grounds, no doubt, but no physical punishment is prescribed for blasphemy in Islam despite the commonly held view in the contemporary world.
‘Having studied the Holy Qur’an extensively and repeatedly with deep concentration, I have failed to find a single verse which declares blasphemy to be a crime punishable by man’.1
The one major restriction to freedom of expression in Islam is on speech towards someone’s beliefs that may be hurtful. This is deemed to be immoral, and this restriction also covers blasphemy under its umbrella. The Holy Qur’an states:
Allah likes not the uttering of unseemly speech in public, except on the part of one who is being wronged…. (Ch.4:V.149)
Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad(ru) explains:
‘Although the Holy Qur’an very strongly discourages indecent behaviour and indecent talk, or the hurting of the sensitivity of others, with or without rhyme or reason, Islam does not advocate the punishment of blasphemy in this world nor vests such authority in anyone.’2
Blasphemy Committed Against all Prophets of God
There has been no prophet upon whom derogatory words were not used. The Holy Qur’an confirms that God sent a Warner to every people, and that each and every one of the prophets has been the subject of mockery:
Then We sent Our Messengers one after another. Every time there came to a people their Messenger, they treated him as a liar.… (Ch.23:V.45)
Another verse of the Holy Qur’an also emphasises this:
Alas for My servants! There comes not a Messenger to them but they mock at him. (Ch.36:V.31)
The Holy Qur’an also points out that blasphemous speech was uttered against Mary(ra) and Jesus(as): For their disbelief and for their uttering against Mary a grievous calumny (Ch.4:V.157). According to this verse, the Jews during the time of Jesus(as) committed a grave blasphemy by declaring Mary(ra) to be unchaste and alleging that Jesus(as) was a child of questionable birth.
Yet despite the fact that the Holy Qur’an confirms that all prophets have been subject to attacks by others, there is no evidence that any of the offenders were ever ordered to be punished.
Blasphemy Against the Holy Prophet Muhammad(saw)
The Holy Qur’an mentions many blasphemous utterances by non-believers and hypocrites against the Holy Prophet Muhammad(saw) without sanctioning any physical punishment for the perpetrators:
Verily, those who annoy Allah and His Messenger—Allah has cursed them in this world and in the Hereafter, and has prepared for them an abasing punishment. And those who malign believing men and believing women for what they have not earned shall bear the guilt of calumny and a manifest sin. (Ch.33:Vs.58-59)
It should be noted that the ‘abasing punishment’ of blaspheming God and His Messenger rests with God alone and it is up to Him whether He punishes such persons in this world or in the hereafter. The authority to punish blasphemers has not been delegated to anyone, not even to the Holy Prophet(saw).
The Holy Prophet(saw) was repeatedly mocked by the believers. The Holy Qur’an points out that his opponents claimed he was “a madman” (Ch.15:V.7) and that “there is madness in him” (Ch.23:V.71). Indeed, many of the disbelievers thought that he was “a victim of deception” (Ch.17:V.48) and treated him as a liar. Furthermore, he was labelled a “poet” and “a fabricator” by the disbelievers (Ch.16:V.102).
But the blasphemous statements did not stop there. Not only did they make personal attacks on the Holy Prophet(saw), they also insulted the Holy Qur’an, calling it a book of “confused dreams.” Indeed, the Holy Qur’an itself points to the fact that they saw its instructions as “mere stories of the ancients” (Ch.16:V.25).
But this was not enough for the disbelievers—in addition, they tore the Qur’an into pieces and urged people not to listen to it; in fact, they encouraged others to make noise when it was being recited.
And yet, as the Promised Messiah(as) points out, the Holy Qur’an is the greatest blessing to have been bestowed on mankind:
‘The Holy Qur’an is the fountainhead of your salvation for all betterment and success…The supporter or falsifier of your faith on the Day of Judgement would be the Holy Qur’an…Realise, therefore, the value of the blessings bestowed upon you. It is a precious blessing and a great treasure…’3
The Holy Prophet(saw) loved and treasured the Holy Qur’an to such an extent that whenever a portion of it was revealed to him, he would commit it to memory and carry its whole text with him wherever he went. Given the reverence Muslims accord to the Holy Qur’an, any insult to it would also count as blasphemous.
Despite the ill-treatment and disrespect shown to both the Holy Prophet(saw) and the Holy Qur’an, God instructed him not to retaliate, because, says God: “We will, surely, suffice thee against those who mock” (Ch.15:V.96). In other words, God Himself is sufficient to deal with those who commit blasphemy against Him, the Holy Prophet(saw) or the Holy Qur’an and He does not allow anyone else to mete out punishment in this regard. The Holy Prophet(saw) was advised by God to remain patient and to …follow not the disbelievers and hypocrites, and leave alone their annoyance, and put thy trust in Allah; for Allah is sufficient as a Guardian (Ch.33:V.49).
The Holy Qur’an gives clear guidance on how Muslims should behave when they are faced with those committing blasphemy. Instead of punishing the blasphemers, believers are advised to leave the company of such people until they change the topic of their conversation. Allah says:
…when you hear the Signs of Allah being denied and mocked at, sit not with them until they engage in a talk other than that; for in that case you would be like them… (Ch.4:V.141).
With such beautiful guidance promoted in the Holy Qur’an, how can anyone contend that the punishment of death for blasphemy is justified in Islam?
Extremist Interpretations of Islam
Clearly the Holy Qur’an does not even remotely hint at the death sentence for those blaspheming against it or Islam. Unfortunately, the behaviour of extremists groups claiming to be Muslims, and the introduction of so-called Shariah law in Muslim countries, has led the media to pointing fingers at the religion of Islam in general. However, neither those extremist groups nor those Muslim governments practise the true and real Islamic teachings. In Pakistan, for example, several sections of its Criminal Code comprise its blasphemy laws. Blasphemy merits the death penalty under Section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code:
‘Use of derogatory remarks etc. in respect of the Holy Prophet[saw]: Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to fine.’
In 1987, the Federal Shariah Court revised the law to declare that blasphemy was punishable only with death and that no lighter punishment could be awarded. Accordingly, in 1990, the alternate punishment of life imprisonment was withdrawn, due to which death became the only penalty for the crime of blasphemy. This move opened up a floodgate for extremism and terrorism which the government was unable to subsequently control. The fact that the law is so vague—the clause ‘any imputation, innuendo, insinuation, directly and indirectly,’ can be interpreted in incredibly loose ways—means that all sorts of speech can be prosecuted under it.
Indeed, there have been many recent instances in Pakistan which manifest the extremism that has been supported by this law. For example, Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who supported reforms to the blasphemy law, was assassinated in December of 2010 for his opposition to the current law. And the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian who was put on death row for allegedly insulting Islam, has captured worldwide attention. In other words, the dangerous effects of this law are not merely academic—they are all too real.
In its 1987 ruling, the Court issued a 30-page judgement which used quotes from the Holy Qur’an, Traditions from a book of Hadith other than those in the ‘Six Sahih’ (widely considered the most authentic Books of Tradition). No space was given to opposing viewpoints. The main foundations of the case rested on two basic ideas: first, that blasphemy is practically the same as apostasy, and secondly, the idea that whoever insulted the Holy Prophet(saw) is, in effect, waging war with him.
Blasphemy Apparently Tantamount to Apostasy
The first supposed reason offered in favour of the death penalty is the idea that a person who uses derogatory words against the Holy Prophet(saw) becomes apostate and that the punishment of apostasy is death. The proceedings of the Shariah Court state:
‘Maulana Subhan Mahmood relied upon verse: 9:65 and 66; 33:57; 49:2; 2:217; 5:75; 39:1, 65; 47:28. He has related some Ahadith and juristic opinions wherein the contempter has been considered an apostate. He has further relied upon a Hadith related on the authority of Abu Qulabah wherein the punishment of contempter has been prescribed death. He has also relied upon the Hadith related by Qazi Ayaz that the Holy Prophet said:
“Kill the person who abuses the Prophet and whip the one who abuses his companions”’ (Para 4).
There are many problems with this view. First, it is not correct to contend that a disrespectful word is tantamount to apostasy. The Holy Qur’an records many disrespectful utterances and acts by the hypocrites. Yet they were not expelled from the main body of Islam, nor were they killed for apostasy. 4
Moreover, even if blasphemy did equate to apostasy, it is a misconception that the Holy Qur’an prescribes the death penalty for an apostate. On the contrary, while the Qur’an speaks repeatedly of those who disbelieved after believing, it does not once state that they should be killed or punished. The Holy Qur’an states:
…And whoso from among you turns back from his faith and dies while he is a disbeliever, it is they whose works shall be vain in this world and the next… (Ch.2:V.218)
Notice that this verse does not say that the disbeliever should be killed—rather, it is simply pointing out the fate of one who dies while having gone back on his faith. The Holy Qur’an would not have used this phrasing if it had wanted Muslims to punish apostates with death.
Another Qur’anic verse also points to this:
Surely, those who disbelieve after they have believed and then increase in disbelief, their repentance shall not be accepted, and these are they who have gone astray (Ch.3:V.91).
But surely, if the death penalty had been prescribed for apostasy, it would not have been possible for apostates to “increase in disbelief.” Nor, indeed, would it have been possible for them to repent.
The Holy Qur’an, referring to a group of hypocrites, says:
And a party of the People of the Book say, ‘Declare your belief (outwardly) in that which has been revealed unto the believers, in the early part of the day, and disbelieve in the latter part thereof; perchance they may return (Ch.3:V.73).
But if it were true that the Holy Prophet(saw) had administered capital punishment to apostates, this plan could have only been in vain. Instead, this verse points to the fact that this group was in fact able to believe and then disbelieve without any negative worldly consequences.
It is possible that this misconception was caused by the fact that during the Holy Prophet’s(saw) time, Muslims were engaged in defensive wars and those who became apostates would have joined the enemy afterwards and would therefore have been treated as part of the enemy force. In this case, if an apostate was killed, he would have been killed not for his apostasy, but for being part of an enemy force which was committing murder or other war crimes.
Further, the view that apostates are liable to be killed according to Islam goes in complete contradiction with the clear injunction of the Holy Qur’an:
There should be no compulsion in religion… (Ch.2:V.257)
Clearly, this verse expounds that religion is a matter for every individual to decide for himself. No one can be forced to remain a Muslim against his will.
Blasphemy Law Inconsistent with Practice of the Holy Prophet(saw)
The Holy Prophet’s(saw) life is a beautiful illustration of the word forgiveness, as incidents from his perfect life demonstrate how he pardoned even his worst enemies. For example, the Holy Qur’an records the statement of Abdullah bin Ubayy who, in the company of others, called himself ‘the most exalted’ and referred to the Holy Prophet(saw) as ‘most mean’ (Ch.63:V.9). However, Abdullah bin Ubayy was not given any punishment whatsoever and he continued to live peacefully in Madinah until he died a natural death. In fact, the Holy Prophet(saw) himself led his funeral prayer.
Another example of the Holy Prophet’s(saw) patient nature is demonstrated when Makkah fell to the Holy Prophet(saw). He pardoned all those who had dismissed him by calling him a sorcerer, madman, or liar.5
The Holy Prophet(saw) also forgave Abu Sufyan, the Makkan leader who led the most wars against him; Wahshi, who had killed the Holy Prophet’s(saw) own uncle, Hazrat Hamzah(ra); and Hinda, the wife of Abu Sufyan, who had torn out Hadhrat Hamza’s(ra) liver and chewed it out of spite.
Furthermore, he also pardoned Habbar, who speared and felled the camel that had been carrying the Holy Prophet’s(saw) daughter, Hadhrat Zainab(ra), from Makkah to Madinah. As a result, Hadhrat Zainab(ra), who was pregnant at the time, miscarried and eventually passed away. And yet the Holy Prophet(saw) forgave even him.
But these are just a few instances; the Holy Prophet’s(saw) life is replete with examples of his forgiveness of even his worst enemies. He was more merciful than any person ever born. Indeed, God Himself called the Holy Prophet(saw) a “mercy for all mankind.”
Therefore, to claim that 295-C is in accordance with the practice of the Holy Prophet(saw) is tantamount to saying that he put to death anyone who by words, either spoken or written, by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly defiled his sacred name. Such a view can only be held by those who take pleasure in destroying others in the name of God—it cannot be supported by the facts of the Holy Prophet’s(saw) life. In fact, such an understanding is just the opposite of what God has said regarding the Holy Prophet’s(saw) treatment of non-Muslims:
And it is by the great mercy of Allah that thou art kind towards them, and if thou hadst been rough and hard-hearted, they would surely have dispersed from around thee. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them, and consult them in matters of administration; and when thou art determined, then put thy trust in Allah. Surely, Allah loves those who put their trust in Him. (Ch.3:V.160)
These words of God give an insight into the beautiful character of the Holy Prophet(saw), of which the most prominent trait was his comprehensive mercy. He was full of the milk of human kindness and was not only kind towards his companions and followers, but was also instilled with unimaginable mercy and sympathy even for his enemies who were always prepared to inflict harm towards him. It is recorded in history that he took no action against those treacherous hypocrites who had deserted him in the Battle of Uhud; instead, he even consulted them in affairs of state.
In light of the Holy Prophet’s(saw) exquisite example, it would be, in fact, a serious act of blasphemy to declare that the Pakistan Penal Code was at all supported by the Sunnah (Practice) of the Holy Prophet(saw). All lovers of the Holy Prophet(saw) should ponder this question seriously. It can safely be concluded, therefore, that blasphemy does not have any criminal sanction under Islamic law, as has been proved from references available in the Holy Qur’an and examples from the beautiful life led by the Holy Prophet(saw). Spiritual offences should only be avenged by spiritual means.
Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad(aba), Fifth Successor to the Promised Messiah(as) and Head of the worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim community stated during a Friday Sermon6 that in the current age, the Promised Messiah(as) understood and respected the status of the Holy Prophet(saw) more than anyone else. The Promised Messiah(as) wrote:
‘That light of that high degree that was bestowed on the perfect man was not in angels, was not in stars, was not in the moon, was not in the sun, was not in the oceans and the rivers, was not in rubies, emeralds, sapphires, or pearls; in short, it was not in any earthly or heavenly object. It was only in the perfect man whose highest and loftiest and most perfect example was our lord and master, the Chief of the Prophets, the Chief of all living ones, Muhammad(saw), the chosen one…’ (Essence of Islam, Vol.1)
And the Promised Messiah(as) further stated regarding the Prophet Muhammad(saw):
‘One cannot reach the limit of his high status and it is not given to man to estimate correctly his spiritual effectiveness. It is a pity that his rank has not been recognised, as it should have been. He was the champion who restored to the world the Unity of God which had disappeared from the world; he loved God in the extreme and his soul melted out of sympathy for mankind…’ (Essence of Islam, Vol.1)
The Promised Messiah(as) has beautifully summarised how Muslims can best uphold the honour of the Prophet Muhammad(saw) and respond to the insults and abuse directed towards him, by adopting the following approach. The Holy Qur’an provides many instructions for mankind, such as: worshipping the One God and fulfilling his dues, being compassionate towards all of God’s creation, being truthful in every circumstance, adhering to promises, discharging one’s responsibilities to family and relatives, to forgive, to be humble, to trust God in every situation and so on and so forth. The Holy Prophet(saw) most excellently adhered to all of the commands of the Holy Qur’an. The Prophet never told a lie, never broke a promise, never acted rudely towards anyone and was always kind to all peoples. He was the perfect model of all the virtues and moral qualities listed within the Holy Qur’an, to the extent that even the fiercest enemies of Islam respected him and called him ‘Al-Amin’ (trustworthy) and ‘As-Siddiq’ (truthful).
A true Muslim, therefore, along with invoking Durud (sending salutations upon the Holy Prophet(saw)), should strive to follow the example set by the Holy Prophet(saw). He should obey all the injunctions given by God, and endeavour to lead every moment of his life in the way the Prophet(saw) did. When a Muslim adopts this approach, his Durud will emanate from his heart, and he will become a paragon of virtue and high moral standards. This is how the honour of the Holy Prophet(saw) can truly be upheld, rather than by holding rallies and burning tyres etc.. To silence others, a Muslim follows the example of the Prophet(saw), and thereby does not give an opportunity for anyone to raise objections against Islam or hurl abuse against it. Instead, his excellent behaviour would lead people, even the opponents of Islam, to stand up and take notice, and praise the teachings of Islam and the person of the Holy Prophet(saw) for inspiring such excellent conduct.7
1. Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad(ru), Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues, p. 38
2. Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad(ru), Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues, p. 38
3. Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad(as), Kishti-e-Nuh (Our Teaching), Ruhani Khaza’in, Vol.19, p.26
4. See the following Holy Qur’an verses: Ch.9:V.64; Ch.3:V.155, V.168; Ch.4:Vs.62-64; Ch.63:V.9; Ch.4:V.143-147; Ch.47:V.17.
5. See the following verses from the Holy Qur’an: Ch.51:V.52; Ch.15:V.6, Ch.23:V.70, Ch.16:V.101, Ch.17:V.47
6. Friday Sermon by Hadhrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad(aba), 21st January 2011