How islamic are ‘islamic’ blasphemy laws?

Koran Politics Theology

January 4 has become an iconic day for moderate Muslims in the Indian subcontinent, reminding us every year that the battle for the soul of Islam has not even begun properly. Moderate, progressive, liberal Muslims are being killed in the name of blasphemy, but they are not able to defend themselves even with a coherent ideological counternarrative.

On this day in 2011, Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistani Punjab, had been murdered by his own body guard for having shown compassion for a Christian lady Asia Bibi, falsely accused of blasphemy. This despicable murderer Mumtaz Quadri has now been executed on orders of Pakistan judiciary, but has acquired the status of a saint and martyr in the eyes of millions in South Asia, particularly ulema of most schools of thought.

Asia Bibi is known to have been falsely implicated, as most victims of Pakistan’s Black Blasphemy laws are. Pakistan Press has reported that all cases of blasphemy against Islam are actually to settle personal scores or to acquire a non-Muslim’s property. But Pakistan and South Asian Muslims are not alone in misusing the concept of blasphemy. A celebrated case going on in Indonesia now is against Governor Ahok, a Christian who is supposed to have quoted, just quoted, some verses from Quran and thus angered many Muslims enough to slap a case of blasphemy against him. How can a Christian quote scripture, the only true scripture? (Do Christians represent the Devil for these Indonesian Muslims?)

Apart from the criminality, and totally anti-Islamic nature of such devious thinking, the stupidity of it all takes the breath away. And this in Indonesia which we progressive Muslims used to cite as an example of moderation in Islam. Should we be at all discussing such inanity in the 21st century? But this is a very popular blasphemy charge and millions of people cannot be imprisoned; we can only argue with them hoping to instil some sense in their minds.

The Holy Quran does not prescribe absolutely any punishment for blasphemy, though numerous verses describe in detail how Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) was reviled and abused by early Meccans in prose and poetry. As Quran exegete and a columnist for NewAgeIslam.com, Muhammad Yunus points out: “The Meccan enemies of the Prophet called him impostor, a madman (Quran 30:58, 44:14, 68:51), and an insane poet (37:36) and 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)9 and legends of the ancients (6:25, 23:83, 25:5, 27:68, 46:17, 68:15, 83:13). They accused him 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).”

He comments: “By definition, all these accusations were blasphemous. Nowhere in its text does the Qur’an prescribe any punishment for those who uttered these blasphemies.”

Yet ulema quote a consensus of scholarly opinion (ijma) in favour of blasphemy being an unpardonable offence. Indeed, if somebody simply questions this ijma, he meets the same fate, death. Ijma is an instrument of creative rethinking of Islamic provisions (ijtihad) in the absence of any clear guidance in Quran. The idea is to take the religion forward, in the absence of a messenger of God, not to regress to Dark Ages, as ulema are using this provision to do. Indeed, they have made ijma such a strong instrument that the Qur’anic dictates themselves have to be considered abrogated if they contradict the consensus opinion of Muslim jurists. “It is better that the verse (from Quran) is interpreted in such a way that it conforms to their opinion.” [Doctrine of Ijma in Islam, by Ahmad Hussain, New Delhi, 1992, p.16]

Regardless of any justification for Blasphemy laws in Muslim countries, common sense suggests that they can only be applied to Muslims. Otherwise, the term blasphemy can be stretched to mean anyone who doesn’t believe Islam to be a true religion. But anti-Blasphemy laws are applied to non-Muslims in every Muslim country that has such laws. So ultimately the question is related to whether Muslims believe in freedom of religion. Clearly many don’t, except when they live in non-Muslim-majority countries.

Although Quran, Islam’s foundational text, contains hundreds of verses asserting the legitimacy of other religions, a consensus in Islamic theology and jurisprudence has somehow emerged that other religions cannot be allowed to exist. Theologians cannot directly contradict the Quran by saying so, but this is the obvious implication of their doctrines of Jihad. Mainstream Islamic Theology and jurisprudence is completely based on a dichotomy between Muslim and Kafir. Kafirs have to be eventually eliminated from the world, either by persuasion or use of force. The only other option is they accept Muslim domination and accept the status of dhimmis (jizya-paying second class citizens).

Most Ulema do not even accept the religious freedom of those whom Quran gives the status of ahl-e-kitab, by virtue of their belief in previous prophets of God. Some of these have been mentioned in the Quran and many are not as they are too numerous (124,000, according to one Prophetic tradition). They were sent to all nations with revelations. Quran asks Muslims to have the best of and the most intimate including marital relations with all ahl-e-kitab. Iman or Faith is defined in Islam as, among other things, having faith in all previous prophets of God and considering them of the same status as Prophet Mohammad.’ (Quran 4:164; 2.21; 35:24; 10:47; 21:7).

To illustrate the point about Islamic theologians circumventing clear, unequivocal Quranic dictates about freedom of religions, I quote the following passage from the writings of Maulana Abdul Aleem Islahi, an influential cleric of Hyderabad. No Indian Alim (scholar, pl. ulema) has disputed this widely-circulated narration so far.

Discussing the oft-quoted Quranic verse 2: 256 “La Ikraha fid Deen” (meaning, let there be no compulsion in religion), the Maulana writes in his booklet, ‘Use of Force in Quran’: This is an established fact (that Quran gives religious freedom to all). But it is related only with accepting or not accepting the belief. This does not mean that ahl-e-Kufr, (infidels) should be left totally free on earth with their un-belief and should not be made accountable. If this were true, what do we mean when we say that the religion (Deen) of God has been revealed to dominate the world?

“It is He Who has sent His Messenger (Prophet Mohammad pbuh) with guidance and the religion of truth (Islam) to make it superior over all religions even though the Mushrikoon (polytheists, idolaters, etc.) hate it.” Surah at-Tawbah 9: 33. What will this verse mean then and what relevance will the obligation of jihad have (if we accept the Quranic decree of no compulsion in religion)?

“— It is the duty (of Muslims) to struggle for the domination of Islam over false religions and subdue and subjugate ahl-e-kufr-o-shirk (infidels and polytheists) in the same way as it is the duty of the Muslims to proselytise and invite people to Islam. The responsibility to testify to the Truth and pronounce the religion God has entrusted with the Muslims cannot be fulfilled merely by preaching and proselytising. If it were so there would be no need for the battles that were fought. “And fight them until there is no fitnah (mischief) and [until] the religion, all of it, is for Allah. And if they cease – then indeed, Allah is Seeing of what they do.” Surah Anfal 8:39)

“Jihad has been made obligatory to make the Deen (religion) dominate and to stop the centres of evil. Keeping in view the importance of this task, the significance of Jihad in the name of God has been stressed in the Quran and Hadith. That’s why clear ordainments have been revealed to Muslims about fighting all the Kuffar (infidels). “United, fight the polytheists as they fight against you.” (Surah Tauba:36)”

There is a consensus of ulema’s opinion (ijma) around such views. Peaceful, pluralistic, early verses revealed in Makkah are supposed to have been abrogated by aggressive war-time verses that came later in Madina. Guided by ulema as they are, Muslims have come to believe that ijma is more important than Quran, indeed Quranic commandments of peace and pluralism, co-existence with other religions, patience in times of adversity, not rushing to war on the slightest pretext, etc., have been abrogated for over a millennium. Ulema keep quoting these verses to non-Muslim audiences as part of their taqaiyya (a religious instrument to deceive the enemy), but Muslims are supposed to know that these verses are abrogated and are being quoted only as a strategy of deception.

Progressive Muslims keep quoting these peaceful verses as they are not well-versed in theology and jurisprudence. They still believe in Quran. Largely living in their own world, they have no idea what is going on in the community. They do not understand why pluralistic Quranic verses do not have any impact on the Muslim masses any more. No wonder they have not been able to come up with a cogent theological counter narrative.


Sultan Shahin

Sultan Shahin is the founder-editor of a Delhi-based progressive Islamic website NewAgeIslam.com. This article appeared first in The Sunday Guardian, New Delhi on 15 January 2017.

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