Islam does not prescribe capital punishment for blasphemy

Written by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan | Published on: July 27, 2017
This article focuses on what is called Shatm-e-Rasul or Ahanat-e-Rasul, that is, what is considered as blasphemy against the Prophet of Islam. In recent years, there has been much controversy and a lot of violence in different parts of the world with regard to this issue.

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

There is a widespread notion that in Islam, the punishment for someone who says or writes something considered blasphemous of the Prophet Muhammad is death. A majority of the Fuqaha or scholars of Muslim jurisprudence of the later period are of this opinion. They say that a blasphemer (Shatim) must be given capital punishment.

Now, announcing capital punishment for something is a very serious matter. Mere Qiyas (speculative reasoning) or Ijtihad (an opinion of a scholar or group of scholars) is not enough to come to this conclusion. For this, one needs to provide a Nass—a direct reference in the Islamic texts. The text of Islam is preserved in its original form in the Quran and Sunnah, and so for making any such claim, one has to provide a clear reference from the Quran or Hadith. But as far as the claim that a person who blasphemes the Prophet must be killed is concerned, there is no clear reference in either the Quran or the Hadith. By ‘clear reference’ I mean there must be a sentence in words like these: ‘One who blasphemes the Prophet must be killed.’ There is no such sentence in the Quran or in the Hadith. So, this claim that a person who blasphemes the Prophet should be killed is based entirely on Qiyas or Ijtihad. But, as pointed out earlier, in this matter, Qiyas and Ijtihad are not enough.

For such a claim there must be a Nass, a textual reference in the Quran or Hadith, to support it, but since there is no such clear Nassin either of these two sources, it is completely wrong to say that in Islam blasphemy is a crime that merits capital punishment. The claim that blasphemy is a crime that merits capital punishment is the opinion of some Fuqaha or scholars of Muslim jurisprudence, but the mere opinion of these scholars is not enough to validate this claim of theirs.

In Islam, there are two kinds of issues—basics, and non-basics. With regard to the basics, you need to provide some reference from the basic sources of Islam, the Quran and Hadith. Unlike non-basic issues, in the matter of basic issues you cannot rely on your own interpretive judgment or Ijtihad.

And who were these Fuqaha who claimed that blasphemers should be killed? They were from the period of the Abbasid Empire. Fiqh or Muslim jurisprudence was compiled in the Abbasid period, and these Fuqaha were born in that period.

Now, in Islam, only three periods are considered to be authentic as models. According to a Hadith:

“The best of my community would be those of my generation, then those who come after my generation and, then those who come after this generation.” (Sahih Muslim, Hadith no. 2533)

So, there are only three periods that are authentic in Islam.

The first is the Prophetic period. The second is the period of the Sahaba, the Prophet’s Companions. And the third is the period of the Tabayeen, the Companions of the Companions of the Prophet.

So, according to the above-cited Hadith, only these periods are authentic periods as sources of reference for following Islam. After these three periods there is no authentic period in Islam. And these Fuqaha who are of the opinion that the punishment for blasphemy is death were not born in these three periods. They were born after this—that is, in the Abbasid period. So, I can say that when the opinion that someone who is considered to have blasphemed the Prophet should be killed was not found in the three authentic periods of Islam but emerged only later, in the period of the Abbasid Empire, it gives us a clue as to why these Fuqaha developed this opinion. It was due to the then prevailing empirical situation—that of Empire.

Islam began in 610 CE. At that time, there was no empire. But in the later period, there was an expansion, and by the time of the Abbasids, Muslims had established a vast empire. Later, many more Muslim empires emerged, such as the Mughal Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Now, it was during this period when Muslims were living in empires that these kinds of opinions evolved. There were many other such opinions that were evolved in this period. For example, the Fuqaha of this period divided the political geography of the earth into three parts, which they named Dar Al-Islam (the abode of Islam), Dar Al-Harb (the abode of war) and Dar al-Kufr (the abode of disbelief). There was a consensus among these Fuqaha that where Muslims were in a ruling position, that would be Dar Al-Islam, that where non-Muslim people were in a ruling position would be Dar Al-Kufr, and a place with which Muslims were potentially at war would be called Dar Al-Harb.

So, These Fuqaha Categorized The World In These Three Parts. But This Was Wrong.
How can anyone have the right to categorize humanity in this way when there is no such categorization in the Quran and Hadith? You cannot find a single verse in the Quran or a single Hadith that categorizes the world in this way. So, it is completely wrong and unfounded. No one has the right to categorize humankind in three parts like this when there is no such categorization in the Quran and Hadith.

This is one example of how these Fuqaha formed such opinions that are not found in the Quran and Hadith. So is the case with Shatm-e Rasul or blasphemy. There is no Quranic verse or Hadith in this regard but the Fuqaha, through their own Qiyas and Ijtihad, formed this opinion and declared that one who is involved in blasphemy should be killed. It was completely wrong! Totally wrong!

I think this statement itself—that one who is engaged in blasphemy should be killed—is itself a derogatory remark against the Prophet of Islam. This kind of law is itself a derogatory law. Why? Because the Prophet of Islam was a Dai, or the preacher of the truth. And who is a Dai? A Dai is one who is a well-wisher (Nasih) for humanity (Quran 7:68).Nasih means well-wisher. Every prophet was a Nasih. That is, every prophet was a well-wisher for all of humankind. The greatest concern for the Prophet of Islam was to inculcate truth in every human being. He was a well-wisher for all humans. His mission was not to kill others. Rather, it was to embrace all of humanity and bring them within the fold of Divine Mercy.

There are many verses in the Quran that tell us that the Prophet of Islam was completely a well-wisher for all humanity. So, how would it be possible for the Prophet to say that someone who said something derogatory about him should be killed? If someone were to say, ‘If a person says something bad about me, you should kill him’, it would be the saying not of a prophet, not of a well-wisher for humankind, but of a king. Only an emperor would say something like that, and not the Prophet of Islam, who was, in the words of the Quran, Rahmat un lil Alameen, that is, “a mercy to all mankind” (21:107).

According to this Quranic verse, the Prophet was a mercy to all mankind, a blessing to all mankind. And so, a saying to the effect ‘If a person says something bad about me, you should kill him’ could be attributed to a tyrannical king but never to the Prophet.

There are many other references in the Quran and Hadith that prove that the Fuqaha’s opinion on the law of blasphemy is wrong. For example, in the Madinan phase of the Prophet’s life, it so happened that one day there was a heated exchange between a Jew and a Muslim. The Jew who had been slapped in the face by the Muslim came to the Prophet and said, “O Muhammad! A man from your Ansari Companions has slapped me.” The Prophet said, “Call him.” The person was called and when he came before the Prophet, he asked, “Why did you slap him?” He replied, “O Prophet of God, while I was passing by the Jew, I heard him say, ‘By Him Who chose Moses above all the human beings.’ So I said, ‘Even above Muhammad?’ So I became furious and slapped him.” The Prophet did not say a word to the Jew. He addressed only the Muslim. It is very important to know this. Now, when the Jew had said that the Prophet Moses was the superior prophet, it was a kind of derogatory remark against the Prophet Muhammad, because it implied that the Prophet Muhammad was inferior and the Prophet Moses was superior. So, clearly it was derogatory, but yet the Prophet Muhammad said nothing to the Jew. He addressed only the Muslim. He said:

 “Do not give me preference over other prophets. On the Day of Judgment all people will be struck unconscious and I will be the first to regain consciousness. Behold! There I will see Moses [already] holding on to one of the pillars of God’s throne. I will wonder whether he became conscious before me, or if he was exempted altogether [from becoming unconscious], because of his becoming unconscious [previously] at the Mount Tur [on the earth].” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Hadith no. 6917)

So, this Hadith is a clear example that tells us that if anyone passes a remark that is derogatory of the Prophet, one has no right to kill him. Instead, we have to advise Muslims not to react negatively. This Hadith is very clear in this regard. The Prophet never said anything negative to that Jewish person. He only advised the Muslim not to indulge in such discussions and not to react negatively.

This is a clear Hadith, and on the basis of this I can say that the current notion that Shatm-e Rasul is a cognizable offence that is liable to death is wrong: it is not based on the Quran and Hadith, but on Qiyas.

There is another important point to consider here. And that is, that Islam is a Dawah movement. Dawah means to call people to God and to inform them about His Creation Plan. Islam requires Dawah. Islam is a religion of Dawah. The Prophet of Islam and also all his followers are dais. It is their duty to communicate the message of Islam to all humankind. This is the most important duty of all Muslims. Now, this kind of mission requires normal and peaceful relations between Dais and Madus, between Muslims and others. Muslims cannot afford any behaviour that would disrupt these normal relations. To demand that a writer be killed because he has written a book which according to some Muslims contains some derogatory remarks is bound to produce hate and enmity and disrupt the relations that should prevail between Dais and Madus. But this is what has happened many times, as when Muslim scholars demanded death for Salman Rushdie after he came out with his ‘Satanic Verses’. Similarly with Taslima Nasreen and some others. Because some of their writings contained some remarks which Muslims felt were abusive of the Prophet or blasphemous, some Muslim scholars demanded that they should be killed. They issued Fatwas calling for their death.

But what actually happened to these writers? Salman Rushdie is still alive. Taslima Nasreen is still alive. So, what was the result of those Fatwas? They only caused vast numbers of people to turn against Islam throughout the world. Because today we are living in the age of the mass media, when these Muslim scholars issued their Fatwas, it was almost instantly broadcast on the media and people all over came to know about it. And this made them believe that Islam is against freedom of opinion that in Islam there is no freedom of expression.
In our age, many people, throughout the world, believe that freedom is the greatest good. And so, when these Muslim scholars issued these Fatwas, which were broadcast throughout the world through the media, people were led to believe that Islam was against the present notion of freedom as the greatest good. Freedom has become a religion in itself for many people today, and so these Fatwas were seen as directed not only against the particular writers who were said to have committed blasphemy but as also against this present religion of freedom itself, against the present dominant thought system. So, it was a very serious issue. Because of this, people everywhere became furious. They became very negative about Islam and Muslims. And what happened as a result? Although despite those Fatwas, those writers who were accused of blasphemy were not killed, the Dawah opportunities for Islam were killed. Those Muslim scholars who issued fatwa failed to kill those writers, but they killed the Dawah opportunities.

This is a very important issue. Islam requires normalcy. It requires normal relations between Dais and Madus, between Muslims and others, but because of these Fatwas and death threats, this normal atmosphere was completely jeopardized. So, these Fatwas just weren’t against some writers. They were against Islam, against Dawah.

So, It Is Very Important To Reassess The Whole Matter.
For the sake of argument I’d like to say that even if it is a commandment in Islam that one who commits blasphemy should be killed, even then you have to stop this commandment. Why? Because this kind of fatwa is bound to become counter-productive. You have to see the result of this kind of fatwa. It is an Islamic teaching that if the result of an action is negative, you must abandon it. The Prophet has said: “Among the excellence of a person’s faith is that he leaves that which is result-less.” (Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith no. 2317).This means that you have to keep yourself away from all things that are going to be counter-productive.

So, I’m saying that, first of all, this kind of fatwa—calling for death to people accused of blasphemy—is completely un-Islamic. This kind of fatwa has no basis in Islam, in the Quran and Hadith. It is based completely on Qiyas. And even if someone sincerely believes that it is indeed an Islamic fatwa, he must refrain from issuing it because it is certain that this kind of fatwa is counter-productive. A sincere person must refrain from all these kinds of negative practices.

If you read the Quran and Hadith, you will find that in the early period of Islam there were some people, in Makkah and in Madinah, men and women, who engaged in such kind of derogatory activities against the Prophet. And what happened? The Quran, the Prophet and the Prophet’s Companions answered them in a positive manner. They refuted those kinds of derogatory sayings about the Prophet on a rational basis, on a logical basis. They used logic and reason, not the sword. So, in line with the example of the early period of Islam, this sort of act must be taken as a challenge and not as a crime.

There is a difference between this sort of challenge and a crime. A crime is something that merits punishment, while this sort of challenge is something that one needs to meet on a rational basis. So, if someone is engaged in blasphemous activities, if someone issues a remark derogatory of the Prophet of Islam, it should not be taken as a crime but a challenge. So, Shatm-e Rasul is a challenge, and not a crime. Crime is a matter of the judiciary. Where there is a crime, there is punishment. And where there is a challenge, you have to meet it on a rational basis, on a logical basis.

If someone publishes a book against Islam or against the Prophet of Islam, you have to take it as a challenge—as an intellectual challenge—and you have to prepare another book to rebut it.

So, we have to note this difference between a challenge and a crime. If someone publishes a book that is derogatory of the Prophet or the Islamic religion, you have to take it as a challenge, and not as a crime. A criminal is liable to punishment, but where there is a challenge, you have to meet it on the intellectual level.  For example, if someone writes a book that is derogatory of the Prophet, you should study it and write another book in which you must refute, at the intellectual level, all the wrong arguments of the writer. This is the correct Islamic way. Anyone who claims to be a Muslim must follow this method. According to my study, it is completely wrong to take such a challenge as a crime.

What happened in the early period of Islam? The Prophet became the head of the city-state of Madinah. Then, the whole of Arabia was Islamized, so he became the head of whole Arabia. Even then he did not issue an order requiring the Muslims to kill one who blasphemed him. Some non-Muslims, who were poets, made some derogatory remarks about him, but what happened? The Prophet never ordered that they should be killed. What the Prophet did was that he told a Companion of his, Hassan ibn Thabit, who was himself a poet that he must meet this challenge. Hassan composed some poems in which he appropriately responded to those non-Muslim poets.

This was the way that the Prophet of Islam adopted. He took the poems that were very derogatory of him as a challenge, never as a crime, and instructed Hassan ibn Thabitto meet the challenge at the intellectual level. This clearly shows us what the way of Islam is in such situations.
So, the crux of the matter is that one has to differentiate between a crime and a challenge. If there is a specified crime, then of course one must take it as a crime. But when there is a challenge, one must take it as a challenge and not as a crime. And the response to a challenge is not punishment. Rather, a challenge must be dealt with at the intellectual level.

Those who respond to acts that are said to be blasphemous with Fatwas of death fail to know this difference between a crime and a challenge.

In the early period of Islam, there are several examples of people who were against Islam and the Prophet and were engaged in derogatory and blasphemous activities, but when they were addressed in the right manner, when they heard the Quran, their minds changed completely and they embraced Islam. Among the many examples of this was Umar ibn al-Khattab, who went on to become the second Muslim Caliph. Initially, Umar was against the Prophet. He was involved in defaming him and his mission. But when he studied the Quran—his sister Fatima gave him some parts of it—he was completely changed and accepted Islam.

So, This Is The Right Way Of Handling These Issues.
There is another very important point to bear in mind with regard to this discussion. And that is, in Islam we have a complete model. The Prophet of Islam is that model. The Quran is a book of ideology, and the Prophet of Islam is the practical model of that ideology. The Quran gives us the ideology of Islam, and the Prophet of Islam gives us the practical model of Islam. This is very important. From this it follows that in Islam, you cannot make any claims through your own Qiyas. You have to see what the Quran says and what the Sunnah of the Prophet says. You have to see what the model of the Prophet teaches.

In the light of this, the fact that there is no commandment about killing blasphemers either in the Quran or in the Hadith means that a commandment of this sort is not valid.

Once, when the Prophet was in Mecca, somebody directly addressed him as Muzammam. This person said this to the Prophet face-to-face. Muhammad means ‘praiseworthy’, while Muzammam means the ‘condemned one’. Now, this was a completely derogatory remark, a blasphemous remark, but what was the Prophet’s response? The Prophet simply smiled and said nothing to that person because he knew that these kinds of words were not going to become history; these were simply some words, which cannot produce any kind of negative results. So, he simply smiled. It means, he avoided and ignored the person who referred to him with these words.

The Best Reaction To All Such Things Is To Simply Ignore Them.
At the time on the Danish cartoon controversy—when a Danish paper had published cartoons that in the eyes of Muslims were derogatory of the Prophet—there was a big hue and cry. At that time, I published an article on the subject, titled ‘Ignore Cartoons’. This was based on this Sunnah or practice of the Prophet referred to above – when he heard some derogatory remarks about himself, some abusive remarks, some blasphemous remarks, he simply smiled. That means he ignored such issues.

This is, then, the Sunnah of the Prophet. You have to ignore all the Taslima Nasreens, all the cartoons, all the Salman Rushdies. This is the Sunnah of the Prophet of Islam.

The title of my article was ‘Ignore Cartoons’. It wasn’t simply a title, though. It was a reflection of the Sunnah of the Prophet of Islam. When the above person made that derogatory remark to the Prophet, the Prophet simply smiled, which means he ignored his words. According to the teachings of Islam, you must ignore all these negative things. You must respond positively. Positivity is a great teaching of Islam. We have to respond positively even in negative situations. This is an Islamic teaching. What is the positive response in a situation when someone says or writes something derogatory? It is to ignore the matter. You have to ignore all these things. You have to avoid all these things. You have to forget all these things. You have to engage yourself completely in Dawah work, calling people to God. It is our most important work. We have to spend all our time and resources in this work. We cannot afford these kinds of Fatwas and other negative activities that kill Dawah opportunities and that are counter to the Islamic spirit.

(The article is a modified transcript of a lecture delivered by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan on 14 December 2007.)

Courtesy: New Age Islam

The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Sabrangindia.