By Zeeshan Hasan
November 03, 2014
A fairly common demand of conservative Muslim political parties is that the death penalty be implemented as punishment for blasphemy in accordance with Sharia or Islamic law. It is therefore worth looking at the textual sources that are used to justify this law. Interestingly, investigation reveals that there is no Quranic basis for any blasphemy law at all. Further investigation reveals that the blasphemy law arises from the secondary legal source of Sunnah (or prophetic practice). However, the prophetic practice as described in the sirah (prophetic biographies) does not establish any death penalty for blasphemy. The Sirah passages that might have provided a basis for the blasphemy law actually seem to be dealing with secular nationalist issues, namely treason during wartime. Finally, the relevant Hadith (prophetic sayings) that advocate the blasphemy law may be the product of political tampering by the early caliphate during the post-prophetic wars of apostasy (Rida). Even if the relevant Hadith is reliable, justification of any blasphemy law in Sharia through these religious sources may still be questioned.
To begin with, we can look at the Quranic position on blasphemy in the following verses. Blasphemy is indeed a serious offence against God but no earthly legal penalty is ever mentioned. Rather, the Quran emphasises that God will ultimately punish blasphemers, not any human law.
“Those who disbelieve and oppose the messenger after the guidance hath been manifested unto them, they hurt God not a jot, and He will make their actions fruitless. Those who disbelieve and turn from the way of God and then die disbelievers, God surely will not pardon them” (Qur’an 47:32, 34). This verse makes the point that God cannot be harmed even “a jot”, the logical implication of which is that the blasphemy laws are not required for His protection. This is in keeping with the following verses that explicitly identify punishment for blasphemy and disbelief as being in the afterlife, with no mention of any earthly punishment. “ God hath promised those who believe and do good works: theirs will be forgiveness and immense reward. And they who disbelieve and deny Our revelation, such are the rightful owners of Hell” (Qur’an 5:9, 10).
The Quran even tells the Prophet (PBUH) directly that it is foolish to expect everyone to follow him, as only God knows who will find guidance and humans, including messengers of God, have no ability to control this. “They indeed are losers who deny their meeting with God until, when the hour cometh on them suddenly, they cry. Alas for us, that we neglected it!...We know how well their talk grieveth thee, though in truth they deny not thee, but the evil-doers flout the revelations of Allah. Messengers indeed have been denied before thee, and they were patient under the denial and the persecution till Our succour reached them. There is none to alter the decisions of God...And if their aversion is grievous unto thee, then, if thou canst, seek a way down into the earth or a ladder unto the sky that thou mayst bring unto them a portent...If God willed, He could have brought them all together to the guidance — so be thou not among the foolish ones” (Qur’an 6:31-35).
How can traditional Islamic law justify punishing blasphemy with death, given the lack of any mention of earthly punishment at all for this crime in the Quran? The answer is that traditional Islamic law is not derived only from the Quran but also from the Sunnah, as is established by the Hadith. A narrative of prophetic actions, and hence of Sunnah, can also be derived from the Sirah. So, these additional sources have to be considered. When we look at the prophetic practice as recounted in the sirah biographies, we do find a precedent that may initially seem to support the death penalty for blasphemy. This is the killing of Ka’b ibn al Ashraf, a Medinan who composed poetry opposing the Muslims. After the battle of Badr, Ka’b recited verses praising the Meccan Qureish whom the Muslims had slain and mocking the Muslim victors. He was slain by Muslims acting according to the Prophet’s (PBUH) instructions: “The apostle said ...’Who will rid me of Ibn al Ashraf?’ Muhammad ibn Maslama said, ‘I will deal with him for you, O apostle of God, I will kill him.’ He said, ‘Do so if you can’” (The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, page 367, by Alfred Guillaume).
On the face of it, this seemingly justifies the death penalty for speaking against the Prophet (PBUH). However, blasphemy implies a religious offence. A significant fact about Ka’b ibn al Ashraf is that his opposition to Muhammad was not religious in nature. Rather, he was a political opponent of the Muslim community of Medina. In spite of being a Medinan, and nominally at peace with the Muslims living there, Ka’b publicly allied himself with the Qureish, who had not only expelled the Muslims from Mecca but were still in a state of war with them. So, technically, this killing was not for blasphemy at all, but treason during wartime.
A second incident that throws light on the secular nature of the execution of Ka’b ibn al Ashraf is the punishment of the Medinan tribe of Banu Qurayzah. The Banu Qurayzah were punished after the “battle of the ditch”, when the Muslims of Medina protected themselves from the attacking Meccans by digging a protective trench around the city. During the battle, the Banu Qurayzah allied themselves with the Qureish. As a result, after the Meccans had been repelled, the Muslims besieged the Banu Qurayzah. The Banu Qurayzah surrendered on the condition that their fate be decided by a Muslim, Saad ibn Muadh, from whom they expected leniency. However, Saad gave the decision that all the men of Banu Qurayzah should be killed, their property seized and their women and children enslaved. The execution of the men of Banu Qurayzah was obviously for treason, not blasphemy, as unlike Ka’b they did not speak publicly against the Muslims.
The fact that the death penalty was used against both Banu Qurayzah and Ka’b ibn al Ashraf in similar circumstances points to the fact that their crime was the same. It is a fair generalisation that most states, including modern nation states, have maintained laws advocating the death penalty for treason, especially during war; the Medinan state of the Prophet (PBUH) was no exception. Thus, these two cases taken together do not provide any basis for establishing the death penalty as a punishment for blasphemy.
So far, it seems that there is support for the death penalty as punishment for blasphemy neither in the Quran, nor in the Sunnah as mentioned in the prophetic biographies. The only remaining possible source for the blasphemy law is the Hadith. In fact, there are Hadith reports supporting the death penalty for blasphemy, such as the following attributed to Ibn Abbas, one of the companions of the Prophet (PBUH): “Whoever changes his Islamic religion, kill him” (Sahih al-Bukhari).
Here we see that the position of the Hadith is remarkably different from the Quran, in that this Hadith report does explicitly advocate the death penalty for apostasy. It should be noted that apostasy is not exactly the same as blasphemy, as blasphemy usually implies publicly insulting religion, while apostasy can take the form of a purely private renunciation of religion, in which case it would not be blasphemy. However, a Muslim committing blasphemy in public may be legally judged to have become an apostate, and so the two offenses become related. Thus, Hadith reports such as the above become the legal justification for the death penalty for both apostasy and blasphemy in traditional Islamic law.
(To be continued)
Zeeshan Hasan holds a Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard Divinity School in the US.