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Opinion

Time to argue for Islam's humane view of blasphemy

Violent protests over the video that insults the prophet Muhammad highlight a fundamentalist view of blasphemy. But this interpretation relies on only a handful of sources and ignores Islamic authorities with a far more humane view. Muslims should rediscover these Islamic thinkers.

By Mark S. Wagner / September 17, 2012

Protesters in Lahore, Pakistan, on Sept. 16, demonstrate at an anti-American rally to condemn a video produced in the United States mocking the prophet Muhammad. Op-ed contributor Mark S. Wagner writes: 'A quick and brutal response to blasphemy that leaves no room for any type of mitigation developed relatively late in Islamic thought.'

Mohsin Raza/Reuters

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Baton Rouge, La.

Under Islamic law, or sharia, it is a crime to insult the prophet Muhammad – but the seriousness of the blasphemy crime is up for interpretation.

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Islamic fundamentalists have embraced the idea that those who insult the prophet ought to be killed immediately. We have seen these views play out recently in response to video uploads previewing the film “The Innocence of Muslims,” in the Danish cartoon controversy, and in other similar events.

However, this interpretation of Islamic law is one-sided, meant only to promote a fundamentalist view. It relies on a handful of sources. It ignores authority figures who argue that someone who insults the prophet ought to be offered the opportunity to repent. In this far more humane view, non-Muslims, as serial unbelievers and therefore blasphemers, should not be held liable for the crime.

Fundamentalists have succeeded in presenting their version of blasphemy law as official Islam. Now is the time to change this view with a persuasiveness that can be found in Islam itself.
  
That will not be easy. The widespread acceptance of the fundamentalist view is visible on the streets and in the media. On Sept. 13 the al-Wakeel News website featured an interview with ordinary Jordanians about “The Innocence of Muslims.” Several opined that Islam demands the execution of those who insult the prophet. A day earlier, a Muslim religious scholar posted the same argument on the organization’s website with citations from two authoritative sources.

A quick and brutal response to blasphemy that leaves no room for any type of mitigation developed relatively late in Islamic thought – the 12th century rather than the 7th century, in which Islam emerged. Even after “insulting the prophet” had been made into a crime, Muslim thinkers mounted principled and impeccably orthodox opposition to the execution of Muslims and non-Muslims for this crime.
 
Some Muslim jurists argued that a person who insulted the prophet could repent of his crime, thus causing the death sentence to be lifted. If the perpetrator was a non-Muslim he could convert to Islam.

Others argued that it made little sense to prosecute non-Muslims for saying things about Muhammad that Muslims found offensive. One prominent figure argued that non-Muslims’ practice of infidel religions, something the Islamic state allowed, surely represented a much greater sin than any single offensive statement about Muhammad. 

In the 11th century, Muslim jurists based in Baghdad squared off with others in Merv, in modern Turkmenistan, over this very question.

The idea that a non-Muslim who insulted the prophet actually caused harm to Muslims troubled Abul-Tayyib al-Tabari, a Baghdad religious judge so renowned that successors simply referred to him as “The Judge.”

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