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The Issue of Blasphemy
Islamic Punishments
Dr. Shehzad Saleem


These days the blasphemy law concerning the defamation of the Prophet (sws) has become a subject of debate. The ‘Ulamā’ are unanimous in demanding the imposition of the death penalty on every person found guilty of such a sacrilege, while there are some intellectuals who consider punishing such criminals as against freedom of expression. Since we view this matter from a different perspective, we present here our observations on it.

The first and foremost thing which must be kept in mind in this regard is that the Qur’ān explicitly states that the death punishment can only be given to a person who is guilty of either murdering another person or of spreading disorder in the society. It says:

He who killed a human being without the latter being guilty of killing another or of spreading disorder in the land should be looked upon as if he had killed mankind altogether, and he who saved a human being should be regarded as though he saved all mankind. (5:32)

The meaning implied by the words ‘spreading disorder in the land’ is that a person or a group openly challenges the system of law and order, which in accordance with Divine directives, an Islamic government establishes in a country. The Qur’ān specifically states the punishments which should be administered to such criminals and calls this rebellious attitude as ‘waging war against Allāh and His Prophet (sws)’. It says:

The punishments of those who wage war against Allāh and His Prophet and strive to spread disorder in the land are to execute them in an exemplary way or to crucify them or to amputate their hands and feet from alternate sides or to banish them from the land. Such is their disgrace in this world, and in the Hereafter theirs shall be an awful doom, save those who repent before you overpower them for [in this case] you should know that Allāh is Oft-Forgiving, Ever-Merciful. (5:33-34)

In our consideration, defaming personalities as revered as the Prophets (sws) amounts to spreading disorder in an Islamic State and, therefore, an Islamic State should deal with such criminals according to the above mentioned Qur’ānic verse. In this regard, there must be no discrimination against any of the Prophets (sws). All the Prophets (sws) deserve equal respect. For Muslims, in particular, the exalted position held by the Prophet (sws) demands profound regard. According to the Qur’ān, the Prophet's rights (sws) on the believers are greater than their rights on one another; he is entitled to more respect and consideration than even blood-relations. The Qur’ān stresses that it is imperative on the believers to honour him and assist him in his mission as much as they can; such is his lofty position that the believers must not even raise their voices above his voice lest all their deeds be reduced to nothing without their even being aware of this tremendous loss.

The above quoted verse spells out a wide range of punishments which can be administered to such criminals, depending upon the intensity and nature of a particular instance of such a crime. These punishments include Taqtīl, Taslīb, amputating limbs from alternate sides and Nafy. In Arabic, Taqtīl means to execute someone in such a way that there is severity in the process of killing. The punishment of Rajam (stoning to death), in our opinion, is one form of Taqtīl. The punishment of Taslīb (crucifixion) in which a criminal is nailed on an erected framework through his hands and feet and abandoned there till death and the punishment of amputating his limbs from alternate sides are also severe forms of physical chastisement. The punishment of Nafy (exile), it is obvious, is the least in intensity. The first two punishments end a criminal's life; the third, though it does not end his life, makes him an example in the society; however, the fourth punishment, without harming his body in anyway, only deprives him of his house or his city. The last part of the verse ‘save those who repent before you overpower them’ must also be carefully analyzed. It implies that if such criminals come forward and give themselves up to the law before the government is able to lay hands on them, then they should not be given the punishments mentioned in the verse. Instead, they should be treated as common criminals, and even forgiven if they deserve any lenience.

An important thing which must always be kept in consideration in this regard is that only a State has the authority to administer punishments to criminals. No person has been given the right by Islam to take the law in his own hands and spread anarchy. The duty of a common man is to report the matter of criminals to the State. The State shall register a case and give a proper hearing to it. Only after this hearing will it deliver a verdict according to the law legislated in this regard. We are afraid that many scholars have grossly misinterpreted some of the occurences during the time of the Prophet (sws) and on their basis given the masses the authority to chastise such criminals. Such instances must be understood in the light of the law specifically meant for the Prophets (sws). According to the Qur’ān, those who deny a Prophet (Rasūl) are punishable by death. In case of the Prophet Muhammad (sws), most of the people of his nation accepted faith. Those who did not do so either perished in the battlefield or were were given a final ultimatum before being declared by the Prophet (sws) as Mubāhu’l-Dam (punishable by death wherever found). In the words of the Qur’ān:

Slay them wherever you find them. Drive them out of the places from which they drove you. (2:191)

Some Munāfiqīn were also punished in this way as they were responsible of spreading disorder in the society. Inspite of being in the Muslim camp, they were guilty of intrigue and conspiracy against the Islamic State. While addressing the Prophet (sws), the Qur’ān says:

If the hypocrites and those in whose hearts is a disease and the scandal-mongers of Madīnah do not desist, We shall certainly stir you up against them and their days in living in the city with you will be numbered. They shall have a curse on them and wherever found they shall be seized and slain mercilessly. (33:60-61)

This law, as mentioned before, is specifically meant for the Prophets (sws) only and cannot be extended for general application.

As far as the people, who regard punishing such criminals as against freedom of expression, are concerned, we would only ask to be a little more consistent in their views: they should not consider a person guilty of sedition worthy of being severely punished. After all, punishing him is against freedom of expression!


A word here at the end seems appropriate about the attitude which the Muslims have generally adopted in this regard. We believe that this attitude has been most injudicious and irrational. At times, it is this attitude which is actually responsible for spreading disorder in the society. In many such cases, in which the accused is a local person, we believe, that it is the accusers who have created a law and order situation in the society and proved themselves worthy of the punishments mentioned in the verse quoted before. In other cases, where the accused is residing in some non-Muslim country, the collective attitude has generally been equally immature. Virtual non entities like Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen have shot into stardom and international fame simply because their worthless views have been given importance. In our opinion, the views of such persons are not even worthy of taking any notice. The attitude which a Muslim should adopt in this regard is to totally ignore people who open their mouths against a personality as established as the Prophet (sws). Such people only belittle their ownselves. One of the greatest luminaries of the subcontinent, Maulana Abul Kalam Azaad, had severely reprimanded the Muslims on this behavior on one such instance that took place in his times. He admonished them that the personality of the Prophet (sws) is too elevated in stature to be smeared by such inconsequential views. While replying to a question from one of his companions, he writes:

In your letter you have written that the defamation of the Prophet (sws) -- an offence which is purely religious in nature -- is the most important current issue in the country. My very dear brother! we should not overlook reason and rationality by thoughtlessly following the masses? I want to tell you that the right approach to tackle such problems, which I have learnt from Islam, does not allow this. I absolutely disagree with the notion that since 1927 or since any point of time before it, a few insignificant and insane beings, by writing a few books, have abused the greatest man in history and have tarnished his image and his integrity... [and that] the time has arrived in which Muslims should fight to death for this cause; they should raise an uproar, incite a tumult and stir up an agitation that all is lost since Islam has been struck by a great calamity. (Ghulam Rasool Mehr, Tabarrukāt-i-Azād, p. 55)

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