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Punishment for Blasphemy: A Pre-Islamic Practice


The Speaking Tree

March 17, 2011

Those who believe that anyone who ridicules the Prophet Muhammad should be hanged, can produce no clear commandment from the Quran or Hadith to support this belief. They merely give  a distorted  version  of some incident  which  took  place  during the Prophet’s time and say that such and such a person  involved  in this incident was put  to  death  because he was a blasphemer. The case of Kab ibn Ashraf is generally cited in support their ill-conceived argument.

Kab ibn Ashaf (d. 624 A.D.) a native of    Medina, was a poet as well as an orator. His mother belonged  to the  Banu Nadhir, a Jewish tribe.  In the early days of Islam in Medina, he started defaming the Prophet and his followers, satirizing them  in  his  poems and speeches.

It is clearly mentioned in Al-Bidayah wa’l Nihaya by Ibn Kathir (pp. 326-336, Vol. 5) that when Kab ibn Ashaf started defaming the Prophet, the only  action taken by   the  latter  was to ask Hassan ibn Thabit, one of the Companions who  was a poet, to counter his false allegations. On the Prophet’s advice, Hassan ibn Thabit, then  composed verses in which he refuted the false propaganda  directed against the Prophet  by Kab ibn Ashraf. 

The Prophet entered into an agreement with several tribes of Medina, including  the Banu Nadhir tribe of which Kab ibn Asharaf was a member, that they would not support any other tribe against the Muslims. But Kab ibn Ashaf broke this agreement by visiting Mecca and inciting the Quraysh against the Muslims. He told the Quraysh leaders to attack the Muslims from outside Medina and his tribe will attack the Muslims at the same time from inside the city. He became the ring leader of a group  whose  sole  aim was to incite people against the Prophet and his followers. This was a clear violation of the agreement between the Prophet and the Banu Nadhir tribe. He not only turned his own tribe against the  Muslims but also played a major role in inciting other tribes such as the  Aws.

This was a clear act of violation of the agreement between the Prophet and the Banu Nidhir tribe and it amounted to treason against and betrayal  of the state of Medina.

He was put to death on account  of this act of treason and his conspiring against the state, and not because  of his satire and ridicule of the Prophet.

The contention of a modern scholar, Sheikh Mohammed Riza, that Kab ibn Ashraf was hanged for blasphemy is meaningless, as  it  is  unsupported  by any clear reference from the Quran, the Hadith or from the writings of the early scholars of Islam.

Anyone  who  cares   to go through the attached pages of Al-Badaya Wan Nihya by Ibu Kathir, will  find   that the case of Kab ibn Ashaf was clearly  one of treason against the state and not of blasphemy.

Before Islam, during the pagan age, or jahiliya, many people were prosecuted on  account of their faith. The Quran refers to this in the following verse:

They ill-treated them for no other reason than that they believed in God, the Almighty, the Praiseworthy. (Al-Buruj, 85:8).

With  the  advent of  Islam, the age-old pagan practice of prosecuting people on account of their faith was abolished. But the Muslims in the Abbasi period revived the former pre-Islamic custom of prosecuting people on  a charge of blasphemy against the Prophet. This was highly irregular and totally against the principles of Islam, as the Quran only sanctions capital punishment for those who have committed  a crime such as murder. There is not a single injunction in the Quran and the Hadith to  the  effect that anyone who says anything against the Prophet should  be put to death. Rather the Quran asks the Prophet and the believers to be as patient as  the other great prophets who endured such  conduct with patience (Al-Ahqaf, 46:35).

The world is a  testing ground. Here, everyone is free to do whatever he likes. Without freedom, it   is not possible  to  put  human beings to  the   test.. People’s freedom of speech cannot  then be snatched away when it has  been given to them by none other than God Almighty Himself.    Punishment  for blasphemy  cannot  therefore  be  countenanced.

Secondly, the killing of  a   person accused of blasphemy by an individual (as  was done recently in Pakistan) is definitely haram. In Islamic law, it is quite clear that if a person is accused of committing a crime, his case will go to the authorities  who will file a case against him. His case will then be examined by a state authorized court in  which the  testimony  of  four witnesses will be heard,  after  which the court, having gone through a proper legal process, will give its verdict. If the accused is found guilty, then the law enforcement agencies will carry out the punishment. But if any  member of the public picks up a gun and,  taking  the law  into  his own  hands, shoots down a person whom he considers a blasphemer, he    will be considered  to  have  acted totally against the spirit of Islam.

In the same way, the case of Abdullah ibn Khatal was not one of blasphemy. It is true that he too, like Kab ibn Ashraf, used to ridicule the prophet in his poetry. But his punishment was not because of blasphemy of the Prophet, but on  account  of a murder  he  committed. He killed his servant  and, as a punishment for that, he was put to death.  Reference is  made  to  this in Ibn Taimiya’s book, Al-Sarim al Maslul ala Shatim al-Rasul, page 265, Vol. 2. (Arabic text attached).

The most important thing which the proponents of the blasphemy law have  chosen  to  ignore is that it is a very important principle of fiqh (Islamic law) that, before making such a law, there has to be a clear reference  to  it in the nass, or text of the Quran and the Hadith.

The Quran makes   the  very  clear statement  that if anyone killed a person, his  action would be seen as killing the entire mankind (al-Maida, 5:32). Supposing   the Almighty  had seen  fit  to  award  such  a punishment as  the execution  of  anyone who ridiculed  the Prophet Muhammad, how  is  it    that, on this  particular  issue, the Quran  makes no  statement   whatsoever?