Since Thursday, May 12, 2022, humanity has been rendered aghast by the brutal murder and lynching of Deborah Emmanuel, a Christian and student of Shehu Shagari College of Education, Sokoto, Nigeria, by Muslim students for blaspheming the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him).
In a viral audio record alleged to have been posted by Debora on a students’ WhatsApp platform, she could be heard making a statement (in Hausa) that:
“Holy Ghost fire, nothing will happen to us. The group is not created for sending nonsense things. It is created to send past questions, if there is test, or if we are given assignments not all these nonsense things. Which kind prophet, nonsense prophet”
Expectedly, the incident has continued to spark mixed reactions and heated controversy over the issue of Sharia and blasphemy by both Muslims and non-Muslims amidst academic and media circles across the world. What is the true attitude of the orthodox Islamic law towards blasphemy? Do the primary sources of the Sharia Law prescribe any physical punishment for blasphemy? This article seeks to expose the true position of Islam on blasphemy.
Foremost, it is important to state that Islam unreservedly condemns in strongest terms every blasphemous expression against God the Al-Mighty and divine Scriptures and Prophets or Holy Founders of revealed religions (Quran, At-Taubah 9:65-66; Al-Ahzab, 33:58). It is not debatable that committal of blasphemy against sacred personalities and scriptures is a gross abuse of freedom of speech, because not only does it evidences a transgressional act against such sacred personalities, but it also hurts the religious sensitivities and sensibilities of billions of humanity who revere such sacred personalities and scriptures.
In this light, since any blasphemy against one of the divine prophets or scriptures is a blasphemy against all of the divine prophets and scriptures, and by extension, against all religions and entire humanity in general, and God in particular, it is most appropriate that all adherents of all religions, all well-meaning, peace-loving and civilized world citizens and all civil societies, human rights organizations and governments at all levels should always condemn and discourage every act of blasphemy as totally anti-prophethood, anti-religion, anti-social, anti-human and anti-God.
Be the foregoing as it may, turning to the flip side, it is, however, compelling to state, that “while blasphemy is condemned on moral and ethical grounds by the Qur’an, however, no physical punishment is prescribed for blasphemy in Islam despite the commonly held view in the contemporary world. Having studied the Holy Quran extensively and repeatedly with deep concentration, I have failed to find a single verse which declares blasphemy to be a crime punishable by man. Although the Holy Quran very strongly discourages indecent behavior 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.” (1)
In this light, it becomes compelling to condemn and denounce every instance of jungle justice by overzealous and radical Muslims as well as the capital punishment for blasphemy codified in the Sharia penal laws of various Muslim countries and states as not only jurisprudentially un-Islamic, but also fundamentally anti-Islam and anti-Sharia in its implications. This is because such jungle justice and legal judgement are not based on the orthodox Islamic law as entrenched in the Quran and the practice of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him).
From every available evidence, it is incontrovertible that such jungle justice and penal code against blasphemy are merely based on or derived from the juristic consensus of the medieval Muslim scholars and jurists, like the Maliki jurist, Qadi ‘Iyad al-Yahsubi [d.544/1149] in his Al-Shifa and also Imam Ibn Taymiyya [d. 728/1328] in his Al-Sarim Al-Maslul ala Shatim Al-Rasul; all of which have been merely ratified and adopted by the modern Muslim states, scholars and jurists.
As Sirajul Haqq Khan noted, they strongly believed and adduced painstaking evidences from their preceding and contemporary scholars to prove that the punishment for blasphemy is death.(2) For example, Qadi ‘Iyad stated under a sub-chapter titled Ruling on the Blasphemer and Insulter of the Prophet, that, “Anyone who maligns the Prophet or discredit him or attribute degradation to him in his personality or his lineage or his religion or any among his traits or demonstrate with him or exemplified him with anything in a way of insult to him or underrating him or belittling his affairs or disregard him or attribute blemish to him, he is an insulter to him and hence, the ruling for him is the ruling of an insulter and hence he shall be killed.” (3)
Similarly, Ibn Taymiyya also stated in the opening paragraph of the first chapter of his above-mentioned book that, “It is legally binding to kill whoever blasphemes the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him), whether a Muslim or an unbeliever. This is the school of the preponderance of the scholars.” (4)
It is important to note that, as well-articulated as these legal provisions may appear, they are, however, not based on any Quranic or Prophetic source. Rather, as any scholar of Muslim history would agree, the legal ruling only reflects and was influenced by the turbulent political situations and judicial exigencies that characterized the medieval period of the Muslim era. More so, they are only modelled after the Biblical legal sources where, as evident in Leviticus 24 verse 16, it is particularly stated that, “And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the LORD, shall be put to death.”
Notwithstanding, for Muslims and entire humanity, it is imperative to appreciate that such a Biblical law – which has limited application in terms of time and clime – is one of those laws which Islam – being the summit of religious evolution– had actually abrogated and replaced with teachings which are far better, more civilized, and of universal and eternal application, as declared in the verse 107th of the Chapter al-Baqara of the Qur’an, and as will be mentioned in the following lines.
It is undisputed that the Quran – being the first primary source of the Islamic legal system – has very authoritatively and exhaustively dealt with the issue of blasphemy as evident in its numerous pronouncements on the subject. Notwithstanding, never was capital punishment for blasphemy stipulated in its entire 114 chapters, 6,236 verses (Kufic reckoning) and 330,000 letters. Similarly, the Prophet Muhammad’s Sunnah (Practice), which stands as the second primary source of the Sharia, also does not present any instance of proven and conclusive traditional evidences that the Prophet (Peace be upon Him) – in his capacity as head of the Islamic state and religion – ever practically ordered any of the scores of his blasphemers to be executed.
As this writer’s study of both the Qur’an and historical events in the Prophetic era shows, there were both non-Muslims and hypocrite Muslims who habitually committed blasphemy against Allah, the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be on him). Yet, none of those was sentenced to death on the pronouncement of the Quran or by the order of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him). Even when some hypocrite Muslims, particularly as mentioned in the chapter 9th of the Quran, were clearly adjudged disbelievers for their mockery of Allah, His Signs and His Noble Messenger, yet, we found that none was sentenced to death. Rather, while some of them were promised forgiveness, others were threatened with divine punishment (Quran, at-Taubah, chapter 9 verses 65-66).
The cases of Ka’b bin Zuhayr and Ibn Zaba’ra are good examples. Both of them were gifted poets who composed satires against the Holy Prophet. (5) Similarly, the case of blasphemy committed by Abdullah bin Ubayy has been mentioned in the 9th verse of Chapter Al-Munafiqun of the Qur’an. In all the above cases, however, no physical punishment have been recorded against them, rather, they were all forgiven by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him). In fact, history recorded that the Holy Prophet (saw) even led the funeral prayer of Abdullah bin Ubayy. (6) It is recorded in Sahih Bukhari (one of the canonical books of Ahaadith – Prophet’s Traditions) that whenever people sought his permission to kill the blasphemers, he would object, saying, “Leave them, lest people after me should remark that even Muhammad used to kill his companions.” (7)
This writer strongly contends that if truly death was the prescribed punishment in Islam, the Prophet would have applied the law, without fear or favour. This is corroborated by his popular saying that, “By Allah, if Fatima, daughter of Muhammad, were to commit theft, I would have her hand cut off,” (8) according to the law, without fear or favour!
Instead of killing blasphemers, the Holy Prophet and his faithful companions practised the true and orthodox Islamic teachings and commandments on blasphemy as enjoined by the Qur’an. And what are those teachings and commandments? For example, Quran commands that, “Allah and His angels send blessings on the Prophet. O ye who believe! You also should invoke blessings on him and salute him with the salutation of peace eternally. Verily, those who malign Allah and His Messenger – Allah has cursed them in this world and in the Hereafter, and has prepared for them an abasing punishment. (Quran, Al-Ahzab, 33:57-58) Thus, Allah has, in this verse, reserved the prerogative right to punish the blasphemers neither to the Prophet nor to the Muslim government and public, but to Himself exclusively.
Quran therefore enjoins on the Prophet to bear with patience all the blasphemies of the blasphemers and part with them in a decent manner (Quran, al-Muzzammir, 73:11). This is because, as it declares, nothing is said to him but what was said to the previous Messengers before him (Quran, Fussilat, 41:44). At another place, Qur’an commands the Prophet (peace be on him) and Muslims to adopt boycott as a protest against any blasphemer or a gathering of persons where blasphemy is being committed, including the blasphemous contents or messages (Quran, An-Nisaa, 4:141; Al-An’am, 6:69).
Again, Allah instructs Muslims never to blaspheme the idols of the idolaters, lest they would, out of spite, blaspheme Allah in their ignorance. He says that, in such manner He has caused every people’s doing to seem fair to them. But He will surely inform them about the consequences of all what they used to do (Quran, Al-An’am, 6:109).
Thus, Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) exemplified all the commandments by bearing all their insults with patience or with superior moral values that eventually even compelled some of the blasphemers (i.e. Ka’b bn Zuhair, etc.) to repent and become adorers of Muhammad (peace be on him). Sometimes when their insults became too much, he would allow his celebrated poet, Hassan bin Thabit, to compose eulogy in reply to the blasphemers. (9)
In the light of the foregoing, it is clear that the issue of the legal ruling on blasphemy does not come under what Muslim jurists would need to use their human legal reasoning (Ijtihād) to promulgate or hide under the permission of Ta’zir (discretionary punishment by a judge) to punish blasphemers. This is so, because, the commandments on them have already been appropriately given, as evidenced by the various Qur’anic pronouncements on blasphemy and Prophetic practical attitude toward the blasphemers. Therefore, Muslims are to go by what the Qur’an has enjoined upon them to do. They are to exemplify the Prophet’s Practice (Sunnah) in response to the blasphemers.
So, today’s Muslim states and public should learn to react like the Prophet (peace be on him). They should not behave like a person whose cloth a madman has removed while in the bathroom naked, and he ran out pursuing the madman nakedly. The world would see both of them as mad. Unfortunately, that has been how the world has often been seeing Muslims and Islam each time blasphemers are being subjected to jungle justice or sentenced to death. Rather, Muslims have been enjoined to engage the blasphemers in academic or intellectual discussions and prove to them where they are wrong; and use every civil and humane approach to show the world how uncouth and insane the blasphemers are.
Conclusively, this writer solemnly appeals to the entire world Muslim states, jurists, scholars, and public to consider as imperative the reform or repeal of the extant blasphemy laws in their respective countries and states.
The rationale of this appeal is informed by the fact that, as Sirajul Haqq Khan aptly maintains, “Notwithstanding all the ills of blasphemy, modern day blasphemy does not in any way threaten the existence, continuity and dynamism of Islam as a great religion, legal system and civilisation. Thus, although it should not pass without protest from the Muslims, the protests must be academic, philosophical, dialectical and must be grounded in the common and shared values of dignity and respect for humanity,” (10) as exemplified by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace be and blessings of Allah be upon him.)
1. Ahmad, Mirza Tahir, Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues, Islam International Publication Ltd, UK, 2007, p. 38
2. Sirajul Haqq Khan, Freedom of Expression and Islamic Ideals, p. 9
3. Al-Yahsubi, ‘Ayad bn Musa, Ash-Shifa Bita’rif Huquq al-Mustafa, Maktab ar-Rida Lid-da’wah wa al-Il’an, Egypt, 2008, vol. 2, p. 225
4. Ahmad ibn Abdul-Haleem, al-Sarim al-Maslul ala Shatim al-Rasul, Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, Lebanon, p. 3
5. Saheed O. Timehin, In Search of Peace, , p.62
6. Bukhari, Kitabul Jana’iz, Babul Kafanni fil Qamis alladhi Yukaffu ‘au laa Yukaffu
7. Sahih al-Bukhari, Hadith No. 4,905, narrated by Jabir bn Abdullah
8. Reported by Bukhari and Muslim from Aisha
9. Hassan bn Thabit, Maddah an-Nabi wa Sha’ir al-Islam, https://al-ain.com/amp/article/islam-hassan-thabet-prophet-ramadan Accessed 25th August, 2020
10. Sirajul Haqq Khan, Freedom of Expression and Islamic Ideals, p. 10
Al-Hafiz Yunus Omotayo is a Missionary and Journalist of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at of Nigeria, and the National Chairman of the Muslim Writers Guild of Nigeria. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org