Initially published in The What And The Why
Syria 636 AD ___The Ghassanid Arab East Mediterranean Christian Kingdom and its King, Jabalah Ibn al-Aiham, faced a challenging ordeal after the Arab conquest. Should they stay Christians under the new Muslim rule and lose their prestigious position granted by the previous Byzantine rulers, or should they convert to a new faith they knew little about?
King Jabalah Ibn-al-Aiham initially decided to please the new Arab ruler, Caliph Omar, and convert to Islam. Various historical texts dispute what happened next; however, all texts agree that King Jabalah Ibn-al-Aiham later decided to leave Islam. He fled from Muslim-controlled areas after Caliph Omar threatened him with death as punishment for his apostasy.
I remember King Jabalah’s story every time I read about a case of apostasy or blasphemy. Countless tales exist from the infamous case of writer, Salman Rushdie , and the Iranian fatwa against him over the book Satanic Verses to the current ordeal of the Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to a decade in prison and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam.
A court in Mauritania has condemned blogger, Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed, to death for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. In Bangladesh, a prominent American blogger of Bangladeshi origin, Avijit Roy, was hacked to death with machetes by unidentified assailants in Dhaka. Moreover, in Pakistan alone, an estimated 1,274 people have been charged under stringent blasphemy laws since 1986. In 2013, Amnesty International expressed alarm over the increase in criminal blasphemy cases in Egypt. Recently, the Egyptian prosecutor has referred a female writer, Fatima Naoot, to trial for insulting Islam.
The debate on apostasy and blasphemy as well as the punishments for these acts is not new. However, duelling sides resurface when a new case is presented in the Muslim world. To be clear, no cited and clear earthly punishment exists in the Quran for apostasy (defined as leaving Islam) or blasphemy (defined as insulting Islam). In fact, the word blasphemy is never mentioned in the Quran. The Muslim Holy Book only mentions punishment in the afterlife. This theme of after-life punishment is not alien to how Judaism and Christians view non-believers and defectors.
Furthermore, no record exists of the Prophet punishing anyone for blasphemy; in fact, the opposite is true. When the poet, Suhai Ibn Amr, who composed poetry blaspheming the Prophet, was taken as a prisoner of war after the battle of Badr, the Prophet asked his companions to show him kindness. Despite the Prophet’s demonstration of benevolence and lack of clear reference to earthly punishment in the Holy Book, increasingly more contemporary accusations of blasphemy and/or apostasy are making the headlines in the Muslim world today.
Why has such intolerance taken hold in the Muslim world?
The reasons are many. First, advocates of punishment for apostasy and blasphemy cite a Hadith (Prophet saying) that states, “If somebody changes his religion, kill him.” This saying has been used as a blanket pretext for punishment. Nonetheless, many ancient and contemporary Muslim scholars have challenged the current orthodox Islamic concept of apostasy and blasphemy.
The problem is that these arguments circulate only among elite and academic circles, and they have failed to spread to the legal system in Muslim countries. The result is a legal system that claims to be based on Islamic law, but is full of black holes where anyone who feels a valid case for apostasy or blasphemy exists can file a court case. It is then up to the judge to deliver a strict or lenient verdict.
However, many judges tend to be zealous in their verdicts to protect themselves from domestic criticism.
Second, Muslim jurists originally articulated a punishment designated for apostasy and blasphemy during the very turbulent genesis of the Islamic empire. Defection, switching loyalties, and criticism were always within a political context that coloured the crime and often the punishment. The story of Jabalah Ibn-al-Aiham is one example. In this account, Caliph Omar, the Muslim ruler reportedly threatened Jabalah with death based not on true religious reasons, but on a politically motivated attempt to prevent any potential revolt by Jabalah’s supporters in the conquered territories. The distinction between religious and political elements in judging apostasy and blasphemy is lost to most Muslim jurists today. In fact, apostasy and blasphemy are used as a weapon to punish modernist thinkers who try to liberalize Islam from the orthodox doctrine.
Third, and more importantly, the political climate in the Muslim world supports an environment where accusations of blasphemy and apostasy flourish. It easy to take any critical thinking as blasphemous, especially in societies where criticizing the ruler is considered blasphemy.
In Pakistan, prior to the 1986 blasphemy law introduced by General Zia ul Haq, only 14 cases of alleged blasphemy had been reported. In Egypt, the January 2011 revolution and the call for freedom did not tame the religious fervour that has been slowly emerging since the 1970s. During president Morsi’s tenure, a court sentenced a blogger to three years in prison for blasphemy and contempt of religion. Later, the ousting of the Brotherhood’s President Morsi did not change the zealous climate. Writer, Fatima Naoot’s, backing of the military takeover in July 2013also did little to protect her from criticism and trial.
Oddly, on the other hand, Egypt’s al-Azhar has refused to declare the Islamic State (ISIS) an apostate. In a statement last December, al-Azhar said, “No believer can be declared an apostate, regardless of his sins.” Although this statement is theologically logical, it is deeply alarming, especially when radical groups such as ISIS continue to commit brutal acts like beheadings, rape, and destruction of cultural heritage.
If we are not going to question the faith of barbarians, how can we justify questioning the faith of intellectuals? Bold and daring views should trigger public discussions; not public executions.
It is about time that the Muslim world re-visits the concept of apostasy and blasphemy in a way that aligns with the true merciful spirit of Islam. Islam is neither an emotional entity that can be insulted, nor is it so fragile that a blog article or a Facebook comment can challenge it.
Jabalah ibn-al-Aiham’s apostasy did not weaken ancient Islam. Salman Rushdie’s book did not weaken contemporary Islam. The same is true for all the other recent blasphemy cases. In this era of social media and globalization, Muslims cannot stop every critical thought. Instead, Muslims can learn to take the higher moral ground, rather than retorting with zealous, emotional responses.