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Banish the Law of Blasphemy; It is Crippling the Muslim World

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

8 May 2021

Recently, Said Djabelkhir, An Algerian Professor, Was Sentenced To Three Years In Jail For Committing Blasphemy. His ‘Crime’ Was That He Wrote What He Believed To Be True

Main Points:

1.    Professor Said is a well-recognized authority on North African Sufism and through his writings, he has been warning against the excesses of Salafis in that region.

2.    He has written against a literal reading of the Quran and asked Muslims to distinguish between history and myth.

3.    The politics of blasphemy does not serve God in any way but is designed to maintain orthodox medievalist ideas. It is this orthodoxy that is being challenged by Professor Said and many others like him throughout the Muslim world.

4.    Under the garb of protecting the honor of Islam, the orthodoxy is robbing Muslims of their true potentials.

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Said Djabelkhir, an Algerian academic and activist was handed down a prison sentence of three years after being found guilty of blasphemy. In Algeria, blasphemy is a crime which is punishable by imprisonment up to five years and hefty fine. The term is defined as the insult of ‘Prophet Muhammad or the rest of the Prophets, or ridiculing the basics of Islam or any of its rituals either in writing, drawing, expression or any other manner’. One can see that the scope of this definition is so wide that any form of inquiry into Islam can be construed as blasphemy. Indeed, in Algeria, people have been accused of blasphemy simply because they were playing cards in Ramzan or in one instance because the person had accidently dropped the Quran into a bucket of water!

But Said Djabelkhir ‘crimes’ are more fundamental in nature. Said is a well-recognized authority on North African Sufi traditions and has published widely in the field. Through his writings, he has been warning against the excesses of Salafis who, he argued, have taken over Algeria. However, his worry is not about the linkages between Salafism and terrorism; on the contrary he argues that the majority of the Salafis are quietists. What worries him is the social impact of Salafism: increasing conservatism and a reliance on the literal understanding of the Quran.

Said has been writing and speaking against such a literal reading of the Quran which according to him does not help Muslims and their many modern predicaments. As part of his endeavor to humanize and therefore historicize the Quran and Islam, he suggested that parts of the Quran, such as that containing the story of Noah’s Ark, should not be taken as literal truths. He urges Muslims to make a distinction between history and myth. What landed him in trouble was his assertion that Islamic rituals like the Hajj and animal sacrifice associated with it had its roots in pre-Islamic Arabia. Moreover, he was highly critical of the practice of marrying pre-pubescent girls and appealed that Muslims should put an end to it.

In any sane society, these points would have been debated and thrashed out, first within the intellectual community and then perhaps by the public at large. But this is not the case in many Muslim countries which have blasphemy laws on their statutes. What is astonishing in the Algerian case against Professor Said is that he was dragged to court by a fellow academic. The judge agreed and handed down a three-year sentence. Although Said is out on bail and has vowed to continue the fight for ‘speaking his conscience’, his life is clearly in danger as he has received multiple death threats. Many Muslims think that killing a blasphemer is obligatory and it will assure them a place in heaven. In the coming days, the professor not just has to contend with the courts but also with the larger society which is now baying for his blood.

Is there anything wrong in what Said Djabelkhir has argued? Contrary to what many Muslims believe, Islam did not appear from a void. Pre-Islamic rituals similar to that of Hajj and animal sacrifice has been recorded by historians and it is certainly not a crime to argue that Islam appropriated some of these traditions and gave it a new name and purpose. Historians have even argued that the month of fasting and its culmination with Eid is also a tradition which predates Islam.

How is it problematic to argue that the practice of marrying pre-pubescent girls within many parts of the Muslim world should be stopped? There was a time when such marriages were common in all religious communities. But over time, other communities were able to bring their religious mores in tune with the demands of modernity. Why is it so hard for Muslims to do so?

Part of the problem is that the Quran sanctions such marriages. Again, this problem is not specific to the Quran alone. It is found in almost all religious texts. But other communities have moved on; they do not regard their holy texts as the divine utterance of Almighty. The trouble with Muslims is that they have invested the Quran with divinity and at times regard the text as the uncreated word of God. It is therefore nearly impossible for a Muslim to go against what is written in the Quran and in this sense the majority of Muslims are literalists. Till the time this peculiar relationship between Muslims and Quran is not reworked, they would continue to believe in antediluvian notions like blasphemy.

Normally, blasphemy is considered as an affront to God. But then, we know that in all such cases, God is never a party in the court. Muslims have arrogated to themselves the power of God; they represent Him in courts of law. Nothing could be more blasphemous than representing God Herself. In order to get around this problem, Muslims have expanded the definition of blasphemy to include affront to Prophets and even the rituals associated with religion. Thus, the whole idea behind invoking blasphemy is deeply political and it exists not because any God wants it to but simply because powerful people within the Muslim community want to perpetuate their hegemony of outmoded ideas. It is this orthodoxy that is threatened by Professor Said and many others like him throughout the Muslim world. They are being punished because they want to change the system; they are being punished because they have the courage to speak their minds.

Imagine a Muslim scholar who through her research comes to the conclusion similar to the one reached by Professor Said. Now as a researcher, she is obligated to publish and disseminate her findings. But the moment she does so, she will land in deep trouble because anyone can accuse her of blasphemy. What should she do? Should she change her conclusion so as to make it palatable to the normative structures of Islamic orthodoxy and in the process become dishonest? Perhaps that is the only way out for her for the other path is full of danger many would not like to tread on. It is not surprising therefore that the Muslim world is hardly known for original research in any field of inquiry. All Muslims, who have made fundamental contributions, are located outside the Muslim world’s sphere of blasphemy. 

Islam prides itself that it teaches Muslims to be honest and truthful. But it appears that the obverse is true. Till the time blasphemy is on statutes, truth, honest and originality will continue to be replaced by a servile pastiche. In the name of protecting the honor of Allah, the orthodox are robbing His devotees of their full potential.

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Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com      

URL:  https://www.newageislam.com/islamic-society/arshad-alam-new-age-islam/blasphemy-law-muslim-world/d/124804


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