Islam and blasphemy law

A fairly common demand of conservative Muslim political parties is that the death penalty be implemented as punishment for blasphemy (by which is meant insulting Islam or its Prophet) in accordance with Shariah or Islamic law. It is therefore worth looking at the textual sources which are used to justify blasphemy law. Interestingly, investigation reveals that there is no Qur’anic basis for any blasphemy law at all. Further investigation reveals that 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 which might have provided a basis for blasphemy law actually seem to be dealing with secular nationalist issues, namely treason during wartime. Finally, the relevant Hadith (Prophetic sayings) which advocate blasphemy law may be the product of political tampering by the early Caliphate during the post-Prophetic ‘wars of apostasy’ (ridda). Even if the relevant Hadith is reliable, justification of any blasphemy law in Shariah through these religious sources may still be questioned.

To begin with, we can look at the Qur’anic position on blasphemy in the following verses. Blasphemy is indeed a serious offense against God, but no earthly legal penalty is ever mentioned. Rather, the Qur’an emphasizes that God will ultimately punish blasphemers, not any human law:

Those who disbelieve and turn from the way of God 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)

The above makes the point that God cannot be harmed even ‘a jot’: the logical implication of which is that blasphemy laws are not required for His protection. This is in keeping with the following verses, which 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 Qur’an even tells the Prophet 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 Qur’an? The answer is that traditional Islamic law is not derived only from the Qur’an but also from the Prophetic practice or Sunnah, as is established by the Hadith (reports of Prophetic sayings). A narrative of Prophetic actions, and hence of Sunnah, can also be derived from the Sirah (biographies of the Prophet). 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 which 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 Quraysh whom the Muslims had slain, and mocking the Muslim victors. He was slain by Muslims acting according to the Prophet’s 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, printed in 1955 by Oxford University Press).

On the face of it, this seemingly justifies death penalty for speaking against the Prophet. 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 Quraysh, 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 war-time.

A second incident which 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 Quraysh; as a result, after the Meccans had been repelled, the Muslims beseiged the Banu Qurayzah. The Banu Qurayzah surrendered on the condition that their fate be decided by a Muslim, Sa’d ibn Mu’adh, from whom they expected leniency. However, Sa’d 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 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 neither support for death penalty as punishment for blasphemy in the Qur’an, nor in the Sunnah as mentioned in the Prophetic biographies. The only remaining possible source for blasphemy law is the Sunnah as established by the Prophetic sayings of 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: 

‘Whoever changes his Islamic religion, kill him.’ (Sahih al-Bukhari, volume 9, page 45, translated by Muhammad Muhsin Khan and printed in 1984 by Kitab Bhavan, New Delhi, India).

Here we see that the position of the Hadith is remarkably different from the Qur’an, in that this Hadith report does explicitly advocate the death penalty for apostasy (abandoning the religion of Islam). 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 death penalty for both apostasy and blasphemy in traditional Islamic law.

It should be further noted that even this 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. The massive Hadith literature arose after the death of the Prophet. 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. 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 Qur’an; 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 Qur’an.

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 which 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. He mentions specifically a report regarding political pressure on al­Zuhri, a respected legal scholar, during the Umayyad Caliphate.

How the Umayyads made it their business to put into circulation hadiths which seemed to them desirable, and how people of the types of the pious al­Zuhri acquiesced in being their tools ... is to be seen from evidence ... Here we find an account which is handed down ... from ‘Abd al­Razzaq, a disciple of Ma’mar b. Rashid ... [of] the disciples of al­Zuhri. This account tells us that the Umayyad Ibrahim al­Walid ... came to al­Zuhri with a notebook he had written, and asked his permission to spread the sayings contained in it as hadiths communicated by al­Zuhri. 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 al­Zuhri ... [who] could not forever resist the pressure of the governing circles. (Muslim Studies, pages 46-­47, published by Ignaz Goldziher in 1890 and translated by SUNY Albany Press)

In Goldziher’s analysis, any laws adopted by the early Islamic empires which could not be found in the Qur’an 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 blasphemy and apostasy law, 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 Qur’anic leniency regarding blasphemy and the contrasting severity of death penalty advocated by the Hadith. 

After the Prophet’s 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 of them 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. But justification for such a harsh stance was distinctly lacking in the Qur’an, as we have seen. Thus it could be that the early caliphs encouraged Hadith be compiled establishing the death penalty for apostasy (and by extension blasphemy) in spite of the Qur’anic silence on punishment for apostasy.

Scholars following Goldziher have long suggested that doubtful Hadith reports may have been circulated by 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 which 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. Unfortunately, the work of Goldziher and Schacht is rarely read in the Muslim world. The view of the late Pakistani scholar Fazlur 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 Fazlur Rahman, printed 1979 by University of Chicago Press).

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 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 Quraysh 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 Quraysh/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 ends. 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 Qur’an, 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 Quraysh/Muslim war. And where there is clear difference between the precepts laid down by the Qur’an and the apparent legal stricture suggested by the Hadith, surely Islamic laws should follow the reasoning of the Qur’an.