In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, ever Merciful.
True Islam upholds freedom of belief and speech. However, many muslims, sunnis as well as shi’ites, advocate legal punishment for blasphemy. In this article, we shall carefully examine what the Holy Qur’an teaches us in this regard.
The Holy Qur’an repeatedly asks unbelievers to produce their proofs and arguments for Muslims to consider:
[6:143] Inform me with knowledge, if you are truthful.
[6:148] Say, ‘Have you any knowledge? Then produce it for us.
[2:11] … Say `Produce your proof, if you are truthful.’
[27:64] … Is there a god with Allah? Say, `Bring forward your proof if you are truthful.’
[46:4] Say, ‘…Bring me a Book revealed before this or some vestige of knowledge (in your support), if you indeed speak the truth.’
The encouragement in these verses for unbelievers to present whatever knowledge, proofs and arguments they have to support their claims is proof that Islam does not seek to suppress or penalise speech which is different or opposed to the message of Islam.
What does the Qur’an teach on how to respond when someone starts insulting/reviling that which is honoured in Islam? Let’s consider some relevant verses:
[73:10] And bear PATIENTLY whatever they say, and LEAVE THEM in a decent manner.
[3:186] You shall surely be tried in your possessions and in your persons and you shall surely hear many HURTFUL things from those who were given the Book before you and from those who set up equals to Allah. But if you show PATIENCE and act RIGHTEOUSLY, that indeed is a matter of strong determination.
[6:112] “Thus we made for every messenger an enemy – Satans from among men and jinn, some of them suggesting others seductive speech (in order to) deceive (them), and had your Lord had enforced His will, they would not have done it. Therefore, LEAVE THEM and what they forge.
The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) was advised by Allah to remain patient and to:
[33:48]: …follow not the disbelievers and hypocrites, and LEAVE alone their annoyance, and put thy trust in Allah; for Allah is sufficient as a Guardian.
The idolatrous enemies of the Prophet s.a. called him impostor, a madman (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) 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].
By definition, all these accusations were blasphemous, yet the Qur’an prescribes no punishment for them to be carried out by the people. [research by Khalid Saifullah Khan (deceased), whose article can be read here:
So, the Qur’an records blasphemies, but prescribes no punishment for them to be carried out by people. The Qur’an clearly states:
[50:45] We know best what they say; and thou hast not been appointed to compel them in any way. So admonish, by means of the Qur’an, him who fears My warning.
Though we have no prescibed punishment stipulated by Allah after referring to blasphemy in several verses, most muslim scholars do not ponder over the fact that this is as an indication of complete freedom of speech.
It is interesting to note that the Qur’an itself records the blasphemous utterances of non-believers for Muslims to read and recite in private as well as in public, so how and why should Muslims argue that their sensibilities are hurt on hearing blasphemies directly from non-Muslims? Such an attitude arises due to not pondering over the Qur’an properly, or refusing to accept what is evident within it.
A leader of muslims endorsed a statement of the pope that one would naturally punch someone who insults ones’ mother was wrong and irresponsible, viz:
“Pope Francis has defended the right to freedom of expression but has said it was wrong to provoke others by insulting their religion. His comments followed the fatal attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week. To illustrate his point, the pontiff told journalists on the papal plane his assistant could expect a punch if he ”cursed his mother”. ”It’s normal – you cannot provoke, you cannot insult the faith of others,” he said.”
The more appropriate expression might have been ‘non-cerebral’, i.e. instead of using the word ‘normal’. It might be permissible to punch someone who punches you, and ‘react’ to insults by insulting back, but it’s not ‘right’ or ‘appropriate’ to exceed the limit in retaliation. Pope Francis appears to have forgotten about the teaching of Jesus a.s. to turn the other cheek, i.e. non-retaliation, which is the most appropriate and sensible thing to do in many situations. Returning insults is not quite the peaceful way of the true servants of God anyway, certainly not by way of habit or routine, but to punch someone on verbal provocation would constitute an assault, a crime. Whatever both ‘religious leaders’ were trying to excuse, maybe the wrongs of others, or of their own people, it was irresponsible to promote such thinking. It is recorded:
“During his sermon, His Holiness praised recent comments made by Pope Francis in which he said that there ought to be limits to freedom of expression – that no faith or religion should be mocked or insulted and that the dignity of each religion should be respected at all times. His Holiness said that the views expressed by the Pope on this matter were “completely correct”.”
The views expressed by the Pope were incorrect. He may be provoked to attack. But it should not be considered a crime to insult. One should admonish people to exercise patience and restraint, and that it is wrong to become physically violent when hurtful remarks are made. True religious teaching urges rising above the ‘natural state’ of reacting to provocation, as in fact does sublime human conscience and reflection. If someone feels inclined to argue that his holiness the pope was being understanding of muslim reaction, he definitely lost the opportunity to invite to the pacifist gospel message. Other christians also ought to have used the opportunity to spread the much needed peace, but didn’t live up to it at the time. The thought that you might have been considered biased against the catholics is not that acceptable, given that his group opposed him on this behind the scenes. Allah s.w.t. states:
[15:11] And never came a Messenger to them but they did mock at him.
[7:199] “Be tolerant, command what’s right, pay no attention to foolish people”
[25:63] “The Servants of the Lord of Mercy are those who walk humbly on Earth, and who, when the foolish address them, reply ‘Peace’”
[15:95] “We have spared you those who ridicule you”
[4:140] And He has already revealed to you in the Book that, 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. Surely, Allah will assemble the hypocrites and the disbelievers in Hell, all together.
[6.68,69] “When you see those who engage in vain discourse concerning Our Signs, then turn thou away from them (not kill) until they engage in a discourse other than that. And if Satan causes you to forget, then sit not after recollection, with the unjust people. And those who are righteous are not at all accountable for them, but their duty is to admonish them (not to kill them), that they may fear God.”
Thus, Muslims are instructed to remain patient and use their wisdom, setting a noble example for others to follow in such matters:
[6:108] 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. Then unto their Lord is their return; and He will inform them of what they used to do.
As we can see, the Holy Qur’an teaches that the duty of the righteous ones is to admonish (with wisdom) those who revile, not to punish them, because it is for Allah to judge and punish them (if He so wills). So, how are we to deal with the blasphemers? An example is furnished for our guidance in the Holy Qur’an, some details concerning which are given in ahadith which we can only accept to the extent to which they are consistent with the Qur’an:
[63:8] They say, ‘If we return to Medina, the one most honourable will surely drive out therefrom the one most mean;’ while true honour belongs to Allah and to His Messenger and the believers; but the hypocrites know not.
It is related in connection with this verse that:
“… Abdullah bin Ubayy (bin Salul, chief of the hypocrites) heard that and said, ‘Have the (the emigrants) done so? By Allah, if we return to Medina, surely, the more honorable will expel therefrom the meaner.” When this statement reached the Prophet, ‘Umar got up an, said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Let me chop off the head of this hypocrite (Abdullah bin Ubayy)!” The Prophet said “LEAVE HIM (lest the people say that Muhammad kills his companions).” (Bukhari 4:56:720, 6:60:428 & 430)
Narrated Jabir r.a.: The Prophet s.a. came to (the grave of) ‘Abdullah bin Ubayy after his body was buried. The body was brought out and then the Prophet … and clothed it in his shirt. (Bukhari 2:23:360)
Narrated Umar bin Al-Khattab r.a.: When Abdullah bin Ubayy bin Salul died, Allah’s Apostle s.a. was called in order to offer the funeral prayer for him. When Allah’s Apostle r.a. got up (to offer the prayer) I jumped towards him and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! Do you offer the prayer for Ibn Ubayy although he said so-and-so on such-and-such-a day?” I went on mentioning his sayings. Allah’s Apostle s.a. smiled and said, “Keep away from me, O ‘Umar!” But when I spoke too much to him, he said, “I have been given the choice, and I have chosen (this); and if I knew that if I asked forgiveness for him more than seventy times, he would be forgiven, I would ask it for more times than that.” So Allah’s Apostle s.a. offered the funeral prayer for him and then left, but he did not stay long before the two Verses of Surat-Bara’a were revealed, i.e. ‘And never (O Muhammad) pray for anyone of them that dies…. and died in a state of rebellion.’ (9.84) Later I was astonished at my daring to speak like that to Allah’s Apostle and Allah and His Apostle know best. (Bukhari 2:23:359, 2:23:447, 6:60:192-193)
I have omitted references to some of the reports about this event which are not quite in keeping with what is evident from the Qur’an. It becomes an academic exercise to try to determine whether those reports are accurate or not, for not being in accordance with the Qur’an means that true believers would not act on them anyway. In any case, the final outcome even from those erroneous reports is that Ibn Ubayy was not killed and died a natural death years later, after which the Prophet (peace and blessings of God be upon him) would appear to have made the error of leading his funeral prayer despite being informed that it would be futile to pray for the forgiveness of such hypocrites [9:80], even after the protests of Umar r.a. That the Prophet (peace and blessing of God be upon him) was so concerned for the forgiveness of the chief of hypocrites is not compatible with those ahadith which suggest he was inclined to have him killed. The relevant verses are:
[9:80] Ask thou forgiveness for them, or ask thou not forgiveness for them; even if thou ask forgiveness for them seventy times, Allah will never forgive them. That is because they disbelieved in Allah and His Messenger. And Allah guides not the perfidious people.
[9:84] And never pray thou for any of them that dies, nor stand by his grave; for they disbelieved in Allah and His Messenger and died while they were disobedient.
In actual fact, the prohibition on uttering blasphemies, mockery, ridicule, slander, foul language and lies etc. is given to Muslims, and instructions in this regards are followed as a result of one’s faith, and not due to coercion. When there is to be absolutely no compulsion in religion whatsoever according to the Qur’an [2:256], how can one compel a non-believer to only utter such speech which is consistent with faith? It is to be expected that non-believers will utter words of disbelief from time to time. One ought to admonish those who revile, in a wise manner.
An attitude attributed to the French writer historian and philosopher, Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, 1694 – 1778) by a historian/author (Evelyn Beatrice Hall), that is often mentioned in the context of blasphemy, is that he adopted the stance: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is supported to a significant degree by the Holy Qur’an [22:40] in which the prevention of the destruction of opposing religious institutions (examples given are temples, synagogues and churches) is given as a reason for checking oppressors (in the form of a Jihad), viz:
[22:40] Those who have been driven out from their homes unjustly only because they said, ‘Our Lord is Allah’ – And if Allah did not repel some men by means of others, there would surely have been pulled down cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft commemorated. And Allah will surely help one who helps Him. Allah is indeed Powerful, Mighty.
From these opposing religious institutions arise voices of dissent against Islamic teachings along with their own differing religious teachings, which in some cases constitute blasphemy (e.g. polytheism, trinity, divine sonship). If some Muslims find themselves unable to accept the idea of having to defend to the death the rights of those who blaspheme against Allah and/or His Messenger s.a., I would ask them to consider whether the state should do it’s constitutional duty of preventing the murder of blasphemers or not, when the constitution should uphold the right of freedom of faith, conscience and expression according to the Qur’an?
The following excerpt from the writings of Ahmad a.s. is in keeping with the letter of other verses (e.g. 5:32) , and with the spirit of the verse quoted above:
“The principle to which we adhere is that we have kindness at heart for the whole of mankind. If anyone sees the house of a Hindu neighbour on fire and does not come forward to help extinguish the fire, most truly I declare that he does not belong to me. If anyone of my followers, having seen someone attempting to murder a Christian does not endeavour to save him, I most truly declare that he does not belong to us. … I love mankind with the love that a compassionate mother has for her children; even more so.” (Siraj-e-Muneer p. 28; Ruhani Khazain Vol 12)
Ahmad a.s. discarded the attitude inherited from many scholars that the state should intervene against blasphemy (everyone is influenced somewhat by nurture at the hands of one’s parents, associates and the wider society, with some being able to move away from erroneous views more than others), as the following (1902) reference illustrates:
The beautiful original 1898 advertisement can be read in Urdu (pp. 40-46; pp. 45-51 of the pdf document) here:
One argument given here is that as the Qur’an declares that there is to be absolutely no compulsion in religion whatsoever [2:256], to call upon the state to prosecute (or otherwise punish) people for blasphemy is a form of compulsion, and therefore unIslamic.
It would be appropriate to point out here that the grammatical construction of the words ‘Laa ikraaha fid deen‘ (i.e. no compulsion in religion) in the verse [2:256] is an emphatic one, known in Arabic grammar as ‘Laa an-naafiatu lil jins‘ i.e. complete and absolute negation, without exception. It means that the scholars who restrict it to forbidding the forcing of people into Islam, making room for the punishment of those who apostatise, or do not act on expected Islamic instructions whilst within Islam, are in error. The same emphatic grammatical construction is used in the Islamic creed: ‘Laa ilaaha ilallaah’, i.e. that there is absolutely no deity worthy of worship except Allah, neither apparent idols, nor idols kept within the heart. Another example of such absolute negation is in the phrase ‘Thaalik al Kitaab, Laa rayba feehi‘ [2:2], i.e. this is a Perfect Book, there is absolutely nothing of doubt within it.
Although not stated in the announcement linked above, it may be advisable to prevent disorder in society by urging both those inclined to publicly blaspheme, as well as those in the public who are angered by their blasphemies so much as to call for and seek to murder the blasphemers, to try to desist, on the one hand from unnecessarily inciting and provoking people to anger and madness by hurting their loved/revered ones, and on the other hand, by reminding those who would lose control of their senses, of the limitations of the law, the rights of others in society, and that the Qur’an strongly inculcates patience and self-control in such circumstances.
They could also be advised that some blasphemers might well conspire to cause unrest in society for ulterior motives, such as a plot to destabilise muslim nations and societies, by exploiting a predictable weakness, i.e. lack of restraint, in the muslim response to blasphemy. Moreover, the masses can be advised that their religious sentiments may be exploited by unscrupulous religious clergy who have a political agenda or other personal motives. Thus, wise words of advice in the form of appropriate educational campaigns by the state authorities from time to time, may well help to proactively prevent chaos and curb disorder in society.
To what extent there is a need to enact some laws for this purpose, in order to maintain peace in the society, seems questionable at the moment from a purely religious perspective, in that the Qur’an prescribes leaving the company of, and then admonishing blasphemers, rather than prohibiting blasphemy by means of compulsion at the state level. I’m not really convinced with the argument that just as denial of the nazi holocaust is illegal in some countries, so should blasphemy. I perceive this as yet another case of violation of free speech, however erroneous such a denial of reality may be. It may be that those who deny the holocaust are likely to be associated with a neo-nazi or fascist organisation, but then that may be the reason for watching them, and taking appropriate legal action against them when the evidence becomes available, and not for the mere denial of a fact.
On the subject of laws, here is a relevant verse instructing electing or selecting people for authority on the basis of merit, those who are capable of being just:
[4:58] “Verily, Allah commands you to make over the trusts to those entitled to them, and that, when you judge between (all types of) people, you judge with justice. And surely excellent is that with which Allah admonishes you! Allah is All-Hearing, All-Seeing.”
So those in authority are required to judge with justice between all the people, which means that religious (or any other) bias should not have a role in framing and implementing laws. How then can it be right to criminalise offending the sensibilities of believers of one type, as is often the case in blasphemy laws, and not affording the same protection against those of other faiths, and the mockery and ridicule of (the views and ideologies of) people of no faith?
There is persecution of minorities in muslim countries, such as christians, which muslims should strongly speak out against and prevent. It is unjust and hypocritical to remain silent about non-muslims or muslim minorities being persecuted in muslim countries, and speak out against wrongdoing only when muslims become an object of hatred, persecution and violent crimes in non-muslim nations:
[61:2,3] O ye who believe! why do you say what you do not do? Most hateful is it in the sight of Allah that you say what you do not do.
There is an urgent need for muslims to call for an end to persecution, and justice for all, addressing the human rights violations that occur in muslim nations first, without which, what effect can the muslim voice have when pointing fingers at human rights violations in non-muslim nations, or inviting to a just and merciful monotheistic faith?
[3:104] And let there be among you a body of men who should invite to goodness, and enjoin equity and forbid evil. And it is they who shall prosper.
[3:110] “You are the best people raised for the good of mankind; you enjoin what is good and forbid evil and believe in Allah. …”
How can muslims be the best people when enjoining good and forbidding evil ceases? To be the best people, muslims have to enjoin good and forbid evil, and then an invitation to Allah may be heard by others. Why would others listen to people who behave badly and perpetrate manifest wrongs themselves, not even speaking out against, or taking effective action to prevent the wrongdoing of their own people? How does this fit in with the fake shouts of ‘Allahu Akbar’ by those with the apparent label of ‘muslim’, when committing glaring atrocities such as stabbings or murder such as suicide bombing, or sexual violations?
Here is an article of interest which highlights the injustices and human rights violations in the Muslim world despite the emphasis on freedom of expression promoted by the Qur’an:
It is unfortunate that we heard the following irresponsible statement by a leader who refuses to uphold the truth:
“The law about freedom of speech is not heavenly scripture or the Gospel truth. ” as mentioned in the article here:
As regards what is ‘Gospel truth’, I’ll refer to a christian writer:
“The very concept of freedom finds its roots in the Bible in one of the most famous quotes of Jesus: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). According to this scripture, we can only be free by knowing the truth. In order to arrive at the true definition of “freedom of speech,” we need to define the terms “freedom” and “truth.” The basic definition of “freedom” according to Webster’s dictionary is as follows: (1) The quality or state of being free: as the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.  Freedom involves a choice.”
An argument is being made by a christian in favour of freedom of speech on the basis of just one verse from one of the Gospels. There are a multitude of verses in the Qur’an inculcating freedom of speech and religion, which muslims would do well to calmly reflect over.
[19:76] Allah increases in guidance those who follow the guidance.
[20:47] Peace be upon those who follow the guidance.