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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.

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Tabari, who lived in Islam’s Golden Age, essentially argued that the criminal law of the Muslims already dealt with genuinely harmful crimes such as murder or assault. Extending harsh punishments to other crimes ought not to be undertaken lightly, he reasoned.
Tabari’s opponents among the scholars of Merv, in contrast, took a more activist stance toward non-Muslim insults. Thus, Jews might justifiably express their disapproval of the prophet having killed Jews because their belief that he had done so was part of their religion. However, saying that the prophet had a questionable genealogy, which Jews do not believe, would be an actionable offense.
For reasons that are not clear, but which may stem from Spanish Christians seeking martyrdom by insulting Muhammad in the mosques of Spain, a trio of hardliners strenuously disagreed with the earlier, humane interpretations.

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The first was the Moroccan scholar, Qadi ‘Iyad, in the 12th century. Then, in 1293, a priest in Syria insulted the prophet and subsequently converted to Islam, thereby avoiding the death penalty. This infuriated the eccentric thirteenth-century Muslim thinker Ibn Taymiyyah, leading him to write a book arguing for a draconian interpretation and application of the law.

In the following century an obscure Ottoman jurist named Ibn al-Bazzaz came to prefer Ibn Taymiyyah’s zeal to his own juridical school’s lenience. A  century later, when Ottoman incitement against Shiite Iran had reached fever pitch, al-Bazzaz’s once-marginal opinion became the norm. It was applied to deadly effect against the Shiite enemy and other nonconformists within the empire.

Yet some Ottoman scholars categorically rejected the way in which foreign policy needs had trumped the humane approach to the law. The 19th-century Syrian scholar Ibn ‘Abidin decried al-Bazzaz’s poor scholarship and called for the restoration of lenience.

Unfortunately, the hardliners won the day. Muslim fundamentalists adore the reactionary Ibn Taymiyyah. The scholar who offered his learned opinion on insulting the prophet for the al-Wakeel News website cites only Qadi ‘Iyad and Ibn Taymiyyah, authors of the harshest versions of the law. Ironically, in Pakistan, where the lenient Ibn ‘Abidin is ostensibly revered for his sharp mind, draconian legislation against blasphemy is the toughest in the Islamic world.
Today, Muslims can join the fight waged by the principled and orthodox figures who, at crucial points in Islamic history, opposed the killing of those who insult the prophet. And they need not choose between their faith and a Western concept of free speech imposed from outside.

The idea that non-Muslims can and will say offensive things about Muhammad that should simply be ignored is no less an authentically Muslim idea than fundamentalists’ militant interpretation. By rediscovering Islamic thinkers like Tabari, who lived at the height of Islam’s strength and self-confidence, or Ibn ‘Abidin, who did not, Muslims can respond to inflammatory propaganda while wresting from fundamentalists the very terms of the debate.  

Mark S. Wagner is assistant professor of Arabic and David J. Kriskovich distinguished professor at Louisiana State University.


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