By Ali Khan Mahmudabad
1 November 2012
It is ironic that the very Muslims who criticise the west often end up imitating alien aspects of western thought
In the Qur'an there is no equivalent of blasphemy. The idea of reviling the sacred is of course condemned but this is markedly different from the way blasphemy is perceived in post-Enlightenment countries. Believers are urged in the sixth chapter of the Qur'an to "not revile those whom they pray to other than Allah so that they do not revile Allah through their ignorance". In modern Arabic the word used in newspapers and television for blasphemy is tajdeef, from the root ja-da-fa, which among other things can mean to propel a boat using oars. Importantly, the word tajdeef seems to be a recent addition to the language and is not mentioned in the Qur'an.
One of the earliest examples in "Islamic" history of public cursing is found in the books of both the Sunni and Shia traditions. It is recorded that the Umayyad caliph Muawiya ordered that Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, be publicly cursed from the pulpits of mosques. A number of people disobeyed the order and were punished for this. Subsequently, another Umayyad caliph, Umar bin Abdul Aziz, abolished this practice by invoking the 90th verse of the 16th chapter of the Qur'an which states that "Allah orders that justice and good deeds should be done to kith and kin, and forbids lewdness, immorality and oppression …"
There are strict Qur'anic injunctions for those who are deemed to be apostates and heretics or those who revile, curse, taunt or abuse, but these terms all have different contexts and jurisprudential uses from that of blasphemy. Similarly, the Qur'an takes a very strong view against those who create fitna (strife) but then almost every country has tough laws for the prosecution of those who instigate others in order to create public unrest. The second chapter of the Qur'an says that fitna is worse than killing. Importantly, it seems that the most severe condemnation in the Qur'an is for the Munafiqun (hypocrites). Notably, a hypocrite is the diametric opposite of a blasphemer in that he or she holds conflicting views in public and private while the latter openly airs their views. Thus, the hypocrite is much more dangerous.
The question then arises as to why "Islamic" countries, for instance Pakistan and Indonesia, have such stringent blasphemy laws. Pakistan's law dates back to colonial times and was made even harsher during the presidency of Zia ul-Haq who at the time enjoyed American patronage and was involved in arming the Mujahideen against Russia. Indonesia's laws were formulated in 1965. Recently there was a controversy in Indonesia because a Shia scholar was charged among other things with blasphemy and sentenced to five years in prison. This is particularly relevant because the Indonesia's President Yudhoyono, wanted to use his platform at the UN last week to call for an international anti-blasphemy law.
The basic motivation behind these laws seems less to do with religion and more to do with a desire by certain countries to create a homogenous society in terms of religious belief. Thus it leaves very little scope for any form of dissent and facilitates the persecution of minorities. This, of course, is also bolstered by the already exclusionary nature of nationalism. There are a whole series of laws in America and in Europe as well as in "Islamic" countries to do with hate speech and preserving the peace that should be utilised instead and blasphemy laws should be done away with.
Muslims are not permitted to "blaspheme" for in doing so they are actually disobeying clear Qur'anic injunctions that prohibit the slander of other people's beliefs. Those who revile the icons and sacred spaces of others' religions therefore only disrespect the teachings of their own religion. Respect for the sacred spaces of other faiths was famously demonstrated by the second caliph Omar. When Jerusalem was taken he was invited by the patriarch to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. He refused and prayed in the courtyard because he did not want to set precedent and endanger the church's status as a site of Christian worship. Today, it is ironic therefore that the very people who criticise the west and its policies often end up imitating and copying aspects of western thought that do not have their roots in Islamic thought.