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What's the Punishment for Blasphemy? | Dr. Shehzad Saleem


Dr. Safiyyah: Every now and then we read a story, or we watch on television, a Muslim group, you know, punishing somebody for committing blasphemy. What is your take on blasphemy? What does Islam say about blasphemy?


Dr. Shehzad: Well, to my understanding, the Quran, and any authentic hadith, is devoid of any mention that blasphemy is punishable by death because generally people think that blasphemy is something which is punishable by death. Yes, blasphemy can be checked by laws that can be made, but generally the perception, which people have in this regard, is that whenever a person commits blasphemy, then the only solution is, or the only way forward, is just to put him to death. Now, this is something which is not found in the Quran and not in any authentic narrative of the prophet.


What I can say is that as far as the Quran is concerned, not a single verse speaks that people who blaspheme against the prophets of God have to be put to death.

There are actually two narratives, or two hadiths, which are taken, I mean they're made the basis of this punishment. The primary one I would say, is the hadith which says, which is the narrative which says if a person becomes an apostate, then you will kill such a person which says. And our classical jurists say that when a person blasphemes against a prophet of God, then he becomes an apostate. And apostasy is punishable by death. According to the hadith. And if a non-Muslim does so then because of the fact that he's a protected minority, then he loses that protection. And he goes to the original state in which he was to be punished.


Neither of this is, is conformity with my humble understanding. Then there's a second hadith which means that if you abuse or blaspheme against the prophet then you should be put to death. As far as this narrative is concerned, this is extremely inauthentic. It does not go back to the prophet. It cannot be ascribed in authentic way. Yes, the other narrative it does say that if changed your religion, of course meaning that if you leave Islam then you should be put to death. But then again, that apostacy, which has been mentioned has a very specific connotation. And as I think I've described in some of my earlier talks with you that in, regarding the messages of God there was a particular law that people who adhere to polytheism, they were to be put to death. If in spite of being convinced against it they still adhere to it. And this is the punishment that they would get on the day of judgment.


In the era of messenger of God, they were given this punishment either through natural disasters or through the hands of the followers of a prophet. So about them. It was said that if they change their religion, I mean if they accepted faith, because for them the only way to save themselves or to save their necks was to accept faith because they were polytheists. Now, if anyone among them, he left that faith and reverted back to the original position of being a polytheist, for them, it was said that now you be facing the same punishment because the only thing that saved you from that punishment was that you accepted faith. Therefore this apostasy is something which was specific to the era of messengers of God.


As I have described earlier on, that this is again a misreading of a practice of God in which the almighty selected his messengers. And he created lesser days of judgment on the face of this earth and people who accepted amongst the polities, Islam, they were spared, but, they were not spared. For such people who actually became Muslims and then they reverted back because that original state was something which made them worthy of that punishment. About such people, it is said that , which in other words means that after the era of messengers of God this is no longer a punishment to be meted out to anyone. And similarly, as far as the jizya verse is concerned in which the Zimma is mentioned that yes these are Zimmis and you have to protect them. This verse also relates to the era of Prophet Muhammad and it relates the people of the book. Just that sword verse relates to the idolaters this verse relates to the people of the book.


In my understanding, both these verses have actually played their role because in the times of the Prophet Muhammad, who was the last of these messengers and in whose times, this practice of God was in currency for the last time for them, is what was invoked. But once he has passed away, is a narrative, which cannot be invoked anymore. So today people change their faith for any reason it could be for any reason, they cannot be regarded as apostate. And so today, even people if they blaspheme against the Prophet, so you see you need to ask them, what exactly are they saying because at times they're just expressing their difference of opinion, which they have every right to.


They might have an unorthodox opinion. Everyone has that right to, you just need to accept that. And if they are being derisive disrespectful then of course you can enact laws to check that derision. But at the same time you have to realize that punishment of death is ordained by the book of God in only two cases. And it says that either it should be if you've killed someone, , and then it says that the only way in which this this punishment of death has to be invoked is either you kill someone or if a person is guilty of spreading disorder. So this particular punishment can be, I mean, in the purview of spreading disorder but it has to have certain specifications.


One, for example, that persons should insist on this. I mean, he's going to insist on showing disrespect to the Prophet. It's not out of any opinion that he's, I mean saying these words, it is like making fun of some person, some revert personality using bad words intentionally and then he would be called upon, well, if you give up this I mean, you can have all this, a chance to repent. And if a person says, yes, I did something wrong and I would like to go back. Then again, it'll not be implemented. And finally, the worst which has to be in war regarding the spreading disorder which is the famous versa of, It says that if the law, before the law reaches them they repent and they give up it says , even then it shall not be implemented.


So the Hirabah verse, which can be implemented to check apostasy to check this blasphemy is a verse which gives these four options. It says that you can exemplary execute that person. You can make him exile, going exile. He can just be, just be turned away from a particular place. And then these are the extreme two options. So it's not that it's always a death punishment that has to be involved. Yes, this verse can be made a basis. But I said, with the stipulation that a person would be asked to express his opinion only when he insists that yes, he is going to really make fun of these personalities. And at the same time, he's not entrusted in showing respect, only then we can proceed forth with the Hirabah verse which tells us that you can punish them. And even there, as I said, there are various grades of punishment. You mean the lowest one being used just can make him exile, go back from that place. You can have him exiled from that place. And the worst one being, yes, if he insists, yes, he can be even put to death.


But then again, as I said, this is a law that has to be first enacted at the moment. This law is not being enacted. So currently the the punishment of blasphemy is on the purview of the hadiths, such as I just referred to. And that hadith has a very specific connotation and it cannot be extended. It is only the Hirabah verse, which is verse 34 of Surah Al-Ma'idah which says that people who are guilty of spreading disorder they can be punished in this way. But then this disorder is something which has to be proven. You have to be absolutely sure that has taken place.


So today, what has been done is that without giving the person a chance to explain what he meant or what she meant, without giving him the chance to even to repent if he did something wrong you are pronouncing a verdict and that through your own personal way.


Another thing that needs to be understood is that Islam does not absolutely warrant the fact that you take the law on your own hand.

So even if something has been committed and you think that person has to be punished you have to report the matter to the authorities. And let me quote a very, I mean, a very very pertinent narrative, the prophet Muhammad (SAWS) in which we find how important he instructed us to obey the law and not take the law in his own hands. So once one of his companions hypothetically actually described the situation and he said, oh, Prophet of God, what should I do? I mean, he actually said, shouldn't I kill the person who I find in a compromising position with my wife? The Prophet (SAWS) remains silent and he repeated the question. He again, remains silent. The third time, the Prophet (SAWS) got a little angry. And he said, , that I am more honorable than you and God is even more honorable than myself. So you let the law take its place. Even if a person is in a position that he is, I mean taking liberty with your own wife even then you don't have the, I mean you don't have the prerogative to strike off his head even then you have to report the matter to the authority. So such is the importance of law that even if there is something that you think has taken place or people have been disrespectful to the Prophet (SAWS), before even that law procedure is started, your duty is to report that person to the authorities. And then they have to take care if any law has been enacted. So I think because of the fact that all these things have been jumbled up and it's more of a vigilante justice, that is that takes place in which people take the law in their own hands.


Dr. Safiyyah: I'm just wondering how these punishments became so popular. How is it that so many Muslim countries are enacting these punishments for blasphemy?


Dr. Shehzad: This is because, you see, for them apostasy is punishment, which is still practiced. So like Saudi Arabia and Iran and many other countries. Even in Pakistan, we have apostacy as a hud which means a punishment for a crime. So if they think that a person has committed blasphemy, for them, it's like apostasy. And apostasy are punishable by death. So that is how they take it to be. But I think that, as I said, that apostasy or the way apostasy has been described in our hadiths literature is something which was related to the era of prophet Muhammad. And it related to people who had already become worthy of being killed because of their insistence on polytheism. And it was their diversion back to polytheism which was said, it was described at, because you had already become worthy of this punishment. Now we have accepted faith, and now you've gone back. So your original punishment is now revived on you.


This is how it was in the times of the Prophet (SAWS). And this narrative is actually describing that particular situation and is wrongly being extrapolated. And the whole punishment of apostasy is a very, I would say, is an addition in Islamic penal code. For Islam, the punishments which have been prescribed by the Quran are just five. So we have the punishment of Hirabah which is spreading disorder. We have the punishment of Qatal or the death punishment for killing people, the qisas. Then we have alleging people to have, alleging people to have done Zina. We have have the punishment of Zina itself and the fifth is theft. So these are the five punishments or these are the five crimes which have been made culpable by law. We don't find blasphemy being mentioned there. Yes, it can fall under the purview of hirabah or spreading disorder, but then with all those stipulations, which I just referred to.




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