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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.