New Age Islam
Wed Oct 20 2021, 04:49 PM

Islamic Sharia Laws ( 5 Nov 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Comment | Comment

Islam and the Blasphemy Law — II


By Zeeshan Hasan

November 04, 2014

It should be further noted that even the Hadith does not provide support for the death penalty to be applied to a non-Muslim who is guilty of blasphemy, nor is what might constitute such blasphemy even defined. One point about the historical sources of Hadith becomes critical now. Massive Hadith literature arose after the death of the Prophet (PBUH). How long after is a good question. The earliest existing Hadith collection is the Muwatta of Malik, founder of the Medinan Maliki School of Islamic law, which was compiled 150 years after the death of the Prophet (PBUH). The widely read Hadith collections of Bukhari and Muslim were compiled several decades or even a century later. Thus, none of the Hadith collections have anything like the historical reliability of the Quran; this is precisely why each Hadith saying has a chain of transmitters as evidence of authenticity, whereas no chain of transmitters is required for the Quran.

As important as the late date of Hadith collections is the possible political motive for incorporating post-prophetic material in them; most likely the Hadith collections were undertaken under the authority of early Muslim caliphs who required justification of the laws that they were implementing to administer their newfound empire. In western Islamic scholarship, Ignaz Goldziher first argued that the Hadith generally reflected political and historical realities of the early caliphate rather than the time of the Prophet (PBUH). He mentions specifically a report regarding political pressure on al Zuhri, a respected legal scholar, during the Umayyad Caliphate.

How the Umayyads made it their business to put into circulation Hadiths that seemed to them desirable, and how people of the types of the pious al Zuhri acquiesced in being their tools, is to be seen from evidence. Here we find an account that is handed down from ‘Abd al Razzaq, a disciple of Ma’mar bin Rashid [of] the disciples of al Zuhri. This account tells us that the Umayyad Ibrahim al Walid came to al Zuhri with a notebook he had written, and asked his permission to spread the sayings contained in it as Hadiths communicated by al Zuhri. The latter gave his permission easily: “Who else could have told you the Hadiths?” The Ma’mar just mentioned preserved a characteristic saying by al-Zuhri: “These emirs forced people to write Hadiths.” Thus the Umayyad was enabled to circulate the contents of his manuscript as texts taught him by al Zuhri [who] could not forever resist the pressure of the governing circles (Muslim Studies, pages 46 to 47). In Goldziher’s analysis, any laws adopted by the early Islamic empires that could not be found in the Quran required establishment of a second religious source to justify them; this second source of the law came to be the hadith collections. In the case of the blasphemy and apostasy laws, this becomes especially relevant due to the wars of apostasy (Ridda in Arabic), which were fought by the early caliphs. If we consider the political and historical situation of the early caliphate in which the Hadith were recorded, we may be able to explain the difference between the Quranic leniency regarding blasphemy and the contrasting severity of death penalty advocated by the Hadith.

After the Prophet’s (PBUH) death, the newly established Muslim rule over Arabia was threatened by the wars of apostasy or Ridda. These wars had a number of different reasons but a common feature was the rise of local religious and political leaders who challenged the authority of Muslim rule. It was the first caliphs who first implemented the death penalty as penalty for apostasy. However, justification for such a harsh stance was distinctly lacking in the Quran, as we have seen. Thus it could be that the early caliphs encouraged the hadith be compiled establishing the death penalty for apostasy (and by extension blasphemy) in spite of the Quranic silence on punishment for apostasy.

Scholars following Goldziher have long suggested that doubtful Hadith reports may have been circulated by the early caliphs in order to justify their legislation. Joseph Schacht’s Origins of Muhammedan Jurisprudence, published in 1950, concluded that the Isnad, or chain of transmission that had traditionally been used to judge reliability of legal Hadith, had been subject to widespread forgery and thus could not prove whether particular legal Hadith actually traced back to the Prophet (PBUH). Unfortunately, the work of Goldziher and Schacht is rarely read in the Muslim world. The view of the late Pakistani scholar Fazl ur Rahman of the University of Chicago, certainly the most influential 20th century Muslim professor of Islamic Studies in the west, on Schacht’s criticism of legal Hadith is worth reading: “[T]o my knowledge, Professor Schacht is the first scholar to have undertaken an extensive and systematic comparison of legal traditions in their historical sequence; [this part of Schacht’s study] is unassailably scientific and sound in method and one only wishes that it were practised thoroughly in all fields of Hadith” (Islam, page 49, by Fazl ur Rahman).

In short, there is ample scope to question the death penalty for blasphemy under Islamic law. In the first place, even accepting that relevant Hadith, there appears to be no support for the imposition of the death penalty for blasphemy committed by a non-Muslim. In the second place, even if the Hadith establishing the death penalty for apostasy is reliable, this need not be interpreted as support for a blasphemy law as envisioned by its proponents today.

As we have seen, the Sirah prophetic biographies do record that the death penalty was implemented by the Prophet (PBUH) as punishment for treason by Ka’b ibn al Ashraf and the Banu Qurayzah. It should be recognised, however, in the context of the war between the pagan Qureish of Mecca and the Muslims of Medina, apostasy meant far more than a personal statement of faith. It was also a declaration of which side of the war one intended to fight. As such, within the context of the Qureish/Muslim struggle, it is not unreasonable that apostasy could be taken as evidence of treason against the Muslim state of Medina, and be punished by death.

However, once the Muslims triumphed over Mecca, the association of apostasy and treason ended. In peacetime, apostasy should once again be considered only a personal matter of faith and the death penalty based on treason during wartime is not applicable. Rather, the position of the Quran, which never advocates any earthly punishment for blasphemy or apostasy, makes more sense as the default position of any Islamic law outside the context of the Qureish/Muslim war. And where there is clear difference between the precepts laid down by the Quran and the apparent legal stricture suggested by the Hadith, surely Islamic laws should follow the reasoning of the Quran.


URL of Part1:—-i/d/99878

Zeeshan Hasan holds a Masters of Theological Studies degree from Harvard Divinity School in the US.