This question has a simple answer: we should ignore people who are accused of blasphemy and tell them that the great man whom they are supposedly targeting in their acts of blasphemy was the one who taught us to ignore their actions and focus on more positive things in life.
There are several passages in the Quran which mention acts of blasphemy committed against the prophet and the message of Islam, three of which are more important than the others. None of these passages contains any indication that those found guilty of blasphemy ought to be killed. If there was a punishment for blasphemy in Islam, it should have been clearly mentioned in the Quran, especially in the passages where occurrences of it during the prophet’s lifetime are mentioned.
In the first passage that refers to blasphemy, the Quran informs us that hypocrites used to attend the Prophet’s (PBUH) gatherings intending to tease him. They used to say “ra‘ina” (please say it again), twisting their tongue to prolong the vowel sound ‘I,’ so it sounded like they were saying a different word which meant “our shepherd”. Instead of condemning the perpetrators to a punishment, however, the Quran said: “Believers, don’t say ra’ina; instead say unzurna and listen carefully (so that you don’t need to ask the Prophet to repeat his statements),” (Quran; 2:104). The word unzurna, like ra’ina, served the same purpose.
Another passage says: “Believers, don’t make such individuals from amongst the people of the book and the disbelievers (of Makkah) your friends, who tease and make fun of your religion. And fear Allah if you are true believers. When you are called for prayers, they make it an object of ridicule. This they do because they are a group of people who don’t know (the truth),” (Quran; 57-58). Had the intent of the divine law been to kill those who made fun of religion, this passage would have been an appropriate occasion to make this fact unambiguously clear. Instead, the believers were asked to ignore ‘blasphemous remarks’ and were told to refrain from befriending these people.
A third passage in the chapter titled “Hypocrites” talks about the designs of the leader of the hypocrites and his followers, who, during one of the expeditions of Muslims beyond Madinah, blasphemed against the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions in the following words: “They (the hypocrites) say ‘When we shall return to Madinah, the honorable shall expel the mean from there’, even though honour is for Allah and His messenger, and believers, but these hypocrites are unaware,” (63:7-8). Indeed what Abdullah Ibn Ubai’i, the leader of the hypocrites, and his followers said was blasphemy. The message of God, however, only clarified the truth in response to the blasphemy they had uttered. Abdullah Ibn Ubai’i later died a natural death in Madinah. Despite the fact that he was living in the very city that was ruled by the Prophet (PBUH), he wasn’t put to death nor did he suffer any lesser punishments in retribution for the act of blasphemy he and his companions were guilty of committing.
If the Quran does not sanction specific punishment for blasphemy, why then are Muslims bent upon demanding death for blasphemy? The answer is that according to some Hadith, some disbelievers were killed for being guilty of blaspheming against the Prophet (PBUH) during his lifetime.
The reality is that, as has been clarified above, there is no punishment for blasphemy in Islam. The only exception is this: according to divine law, those people who directly received the message of God through His messengers were destined to be killed if they rejected and condemned it. This was a law that was specific to the direct addressees of the prophet only. It has been clarified in the Quran that such people were destined to receive the punishment of death, in one form or the other, after a certain God-ordained deadline was reached. That deadline had already arrived for the disbelievers of Makkah thirteen years after the prophetic mission had started, at the time when the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions were forced to migrate from the city to Madinah. The first phase of that punishment took care of the entire leadership of Quraish, the clan that ruled Makkah, two years after the migration in the Battle of Badr. That process continued for different people on different occasions. When the people of the book, the Jews and the Christians, denied the Prophet’s (PBUH) message, they too became eligible for the same punishment. However, in their case the punishment was relaxed: they were forced to live the life of second-rate citizens and pay Jizya, the non-Muslim tax (Quran; 9:29). Only those Jews and Christians who had not only denied the Prophet’s (PBUH) message but had also gone on to tease, insult, and threaten his life, were considered worthy of being killed like their counterpart polytheist disbelievers of Makkah.
Clearly, such punishments were meant to be applicable only to a certain group of people living in a particular era. Their crime and the rationale for their punishment have both been mentioned in the Quran. Their punishment wasn’t based on a Shari’ah law; instead it was based on God’s own direct intervention. For the rest of the people, the general rule mentioned in the Quran states that blasphemers are meant to be ignored- this was meant to continue to remain applicable for all times to come.
According to the Quran, only two types of criminals can be sentenced to capital punishment: those who are guilty of murder, or those who create mischief on earth. Anyone who took the life of another soul for reasons other than these two, according to the Quran, would be as if he killed the entire mankind. (Quran; 5:32) The law stipulating capital punishment for the act of blasphemy therefore is clearly against the Quranic message of the verse referred to above.
Of course, one could say that blasphemy is a form of ‘creating mischief on earth’ — but this argument is not valid because ‘creating mischief on earth’ has been described in the Quran like this: “Those who wage a war against Allah and His messenger and strive to create mischief on earth.” That crime is committed when an individual or a group commit murders, burglaries, or rapes and cause the life, property, and honour of innocent citizens to be harmed. Indeed, making profane remarks about the prophet is a crime, but the one committing it neither declares a war against Allah and His messenger nor does he struggle to create mischief on earth.
Islam’s message is of peace and tolerance. Bigotry, aggression, and extremism have nothing to do with it. Those who promote the latter evils in the name of Islam are the real threat to the propagation of its message.
The author is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Central Punjab.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 2nd, 2011.