Blasphemy Laws in Islam and in Muslim-majority Countries

[On September 24, 2022, the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy hosted a panel discussion on “Blasphemy Laws in Islam and in Muslim-majority Countries” moderated by Sahar Aziz. This our summary of highlights of the discussion and is not a transcript.  The use of the first person is for convenience only. The event can be seen in full here.]

Khaled Abou El Fadl. The Qur’an is very clear and ahead of its time that “There is no compulsion in religion.” Muslims have been more influenced by the khalifal policies in the “ridda wars” than by the practice of the Prophet. The question is why Muslim societies have not reformed their blasphemy and apostasy laws into conformance with the Prophetic model. I would argue that it is the absence of democracy. To understand this, it is useful to look at the example of Egypt where many people take to the airways to insult the Prophet with impunity but disagreement with President Sisi is not tolerated.

Mustafa Akyol. The early Muslim society adopted the laws on blasphemy and apostasy from other empires  of the time. Some modern translations now change the verse Dr. Abou El Fadl quoted by adding a parenthetical twist so that “No  compulsion in religion” becomes “No compulsion in (entering the) religion.” There is no punishment specified for blasphemy or apostasy. In fact, the Qur’an actually quotes blasphemies (to refute them), which puts the Qur’an itself in opposition to Pakistani laws against quoting blasphemies. “You are sure to hear much that is hurtful from those who have been given the scriptures before you and those who are polytheists. Be steadfast and mindful of God.” (3:186) The Qur’anic exegete Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi opines that the claim of some that this verse abrogated is weak because other verses instruct Muslims to win the disbelievers over by preaching and discourse. At-Tabari quotes verses that show Moses was ordered to speak gently to Pharaoh (the archetype of evil), and Muhammad is told to tell the believers to forgive those who do not believe. “If you hear people denying and ridiculing God’s revelation, do not sit with them unless they start to talk of other things”  (4:140). The Qur’an calls for disengagement from, not punishment of, mockery. Later episodes are taken as the basis for punishing blasphemers, in particular some poets killed by early Muslims for mocking the Prophet, e.g. Ka`b. But Ka`b was not just a disrespectful poet, he was engaged in propaganda to incite people to violence against the Muslims. The Prophet forgave those who insulted him. Ibn Taymiyyah has argued that the Prophet had the right to forgive people who insulted him, but we don’t. This opinion is cited in Pakistani High Court decisions, despite the fact that Prophet is supposed to be our model in all things. Blasphemy and apostasy laws are unIslamic and we Muslims do not need them.

Ahmet T. Kuru. There 70 countries with blasphemy laws today, half of which are Muslim majority countries where they are generally more severe (and six of which include capital punishment). This a societal, not just a state, problem. 70% in southeast and Southern Asia and 50% in the Middle East say apostates should be killed. This, the killing of other Muslims, and failing to make contracts written are the three most blatant departures of Muslim practice from Qur’anic commandments. In the 11th Century social, economic and military crises led to the rise of an uluma-state alliance embracing the killing of apostates. Today uluma (Islamic scholars), Islamists, and Sufi shaikhs embrace the idea of punishing blasphemers in order to establish a hegemony. It has become difficult to hold the middle ground because there has been a rise of an intolerant secularist camp that sees us as naive and an extremist religious camp that sees us as kafirs.

Basheer Ahmed. Rather than control blasphemy, the blasphemy laws spread it. I think Muslims have done more to spread blasphemy than non-Muslims. Without doubt blasphemy hurts the feelings of Muslims. Many Muslim countries today have laws calling for the incarceration or even execution of blasphemers. The existence of this laws affect both Muslims and those of other faiths. There are 150 people now incarcerated in Pakistan on blasphemy charges. Although none have been executed by the state there, many have been killed by mobs. Even a man who called for the fair trial of blasphemers was killed. A judge in a trial of a man accused of blasphemy was threatened and had to leave the country. Does this give a good image of Islam? Nearly all prophets were abused, but the Qur’an has never indicated that their supporters were encouraged to kill the abusers. The Qur’an says the punishment will be in the afterlife. Why did the Prophet never order the killing of his opponents?  When the lady who daily threw garbage at him failed to show up, why did he ask after her health?

Radwan Masmoudi. Most people in the world don’t care about the theory of blasphemy, but about the practice. One of the biggest misunderstandings of Islam is that it does not believe in freedom of religion or belief and that it imposes itself on Muslims and others. The biggest rebuttal to this is the existence of Islam with religious minorities in so many Muslim majority countries around the world. I will focus on freedom of conscience in the 2014 Tunisian constitution, the only popularly written constitution in the Arab World, written by an elected Constitutional convention after two years of public comment to build a consensus that would be backed by virtually all Tunisians and not just a majority. Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience were among the thorniest question. Tunisians are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. Should people be allowed to choose or to change religion, or to have no religion at all? Debates were often heated or intense. Some argued that we must protect Islam and allowing people to change or leave their religion would jeopardize Tunisia’s religious homogeneity. Can you achieve homogeneity by forcing people to pretend belief in something in which they do not believe? Or do you achieve homogeneity by open debate? Is the goal homogeneity or hypocrisy? And what does Islam itself require? The Qur’an is very clear and specific: “Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error. Whoever believes in God rejects evil has grasped the most trustworthy handhold which never breaks; and God is the All-knowing” (2:256). “Say, I am not a guardian over you” (6:104). How can Almighty God hold us accountable for our choices if we were not free to choose? The Tunisian people, allowed to choose, overwhelmingly approved Article 6 guaranteeing freedom of conscience and belief. Unfortunately the Tunisian democracy was overthrown in a coup and the new dictator has imposed a new constitution from which Article 6 has been deleted.

Sahar Aziz. Is any Muslim majority country governed by Islamic law? Are not almost all Muslim countries governed by a mishmash of colonial law and Islamic law (except for some elements of family law)?

Abou Fadl. Islamic jurisprudence has not survived the colonial moment. It has been deconstructed and all purported representations of Islamic law in effect are legacies of colonialism. Consider Saudi Arabia. Who has been put to death in Saudi Arabia for apostasy and blasphemy?  A Shia scholar who supported the Arab Spring and said protest against oppressive government is an Islamic right. In Egypt law is idra’ al idyana, disrespect of religion, a phrase that comes not from Islamic tradition but is a translation of a phrase from the French colonial period. One man was arrested on this charge at the request of the Coptic church.

Mustafa Akyol. It is respect for authority that is imposed by coercion. (It has secular versions, like the law against insulting Ataturk). Diversity of state law should not distract us from the main issue. Blasphemy law is not only an issue of state law but a driver of mob violence.

Ahmet T. Kuru. We are addressing two different audiences. To the Western audience the diversity of Islamic law is an important point. To the Muslim world, most have secular constitutions, but the blasphemy issue is a matter of teachings in mosques and schools. Rather than focus on the state law, look at the influence of Locke on the English speaking world, Descartes on the French, and Shafi on the Arab.

Radwan Masmoudi. The rulers of the Muslim world do not want any debate whether about religion or politics. Yes, we want a modern understanding of Islam, but it must be authentic and come from within the Islamic tradition. It is a long struggle. In Tunisia, we have trained over half of the imams on democracy and free speech.

Sahar Aziz. Should we be focusing on changing laws or changing popular attitudes? Is your position that Islamic law does not accommodate blasphemy law at all or does it merely require reform?

Ahmet T. Kuru. In the Western model, blasphemy laws were first made a dead letter. In Pakistan, the murderer of an accused blasphemer was killed by the state and now a political party celebrating him as a martyr is getting 10% of the votes.

Mustafa Akyol. Blasphemy laws can be used against Muslims, as in India where Muslims are subjected to violence for disrespecting Hinduism by eating beef. We can abolish blasphemy laws in the same way that we abolished slavery.

Sahar Aziz. We may fetishize American free speech rights, but people across the Atlantic, supposedly in the same tradition, disagree on things like hate speech laws.

M. Basheer Ahmed. All shariah laws were devised by human beings during the Medieval period.  When laws defeat their purpose, should they not be changed or abolished?

Khaled Abou Fadl. There are very good scholarly works challenging such laws. Abu Bakr’s decision to fight the apostasy wars laid the groundwork for the existing problematical laws. The prerequisite for a reasoned discussion of history is to take that history seriously and approach it with an open mind. We Muslims don’t take our history seriously. Works produced in Arabic, Turkish, Persian are for the most part reductive, derivative, and imitative. Consider Ibrahim Issa who has sold out to a despot equal to the Pharaoh allowing his call for reform to be used as a justification for Sisi’s oppression. The minute a Muslim starts dreaming of liberty and rights, he is told he is an exception to humanity that locks the Muslim mind into an endless pathology.

Sahar Aziz. There are many forces causing these problems, it is not just religious zealotry.

Mustafa Akyol.  The number one reform we need is of the rule that the ruler must be obeyed even when he is oppressive. It is true that U.S. standards of free speech and religion are higher than those of Europe, but I believe they are better for that reason. Let us not forget that hate speech laws can be used against us Muslims as well.  Does not the Qur’an say unbelievers will go Hell? Can that not be used against atheists?

Ahmet T. Kuru. I agree that as along as we do not harm one another there should be freedom of speech. We must also not forget that Muslims who continue to profess Islam have also been called apostates for questioning any particular of traditional Islamic law even though they pray five times a day and fast.

M. Basheer Ahmed. There is no reason we have to accept law as understood in the eleventh century.

Radwan Masmoudi. We need more of these debates and discussions. It is a long-term project to change the mindset of Muslims. Who speaks for Islam? Authoritarian regimes or institutions they create and control are not qualified. In true Islam there is no one charged to speak for Islam; all of us speak for Islam, which is more democratic than a Church establishment. It is time we speak louder and take back our right to define and defend Islam. We must convince the majority of Muslims that what we say is true and genuine.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute






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