Is Blasphemy Punishable by Death in Islam?
Updated: Jul 31, 2020
There is nothing in the Quran and the authentic teachings of Prophet Muhammad that legitimize the killing of people who oppose, criticize, humiliate or show disrespect toward holy personages, religious artifacts, customs, and beliefs of Islam.
The Quran says:
"Revile not ye those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest they out of spite revile Allah in their ignorance. Thus We have made alluring to each people its doings. In the end, will they return to their Lord, and We shall then tell them the truth of all that they did." (6:108)
"O ye who believe! Let not some men among you ridicule others: It may be that the (latter) are better than the (former): Nor let some women ridicule others: It may be that the (latter are better than the (former): Nor defame nor be sarcastic to each other, nor call each other by (offensive) nicknames: Ill-seeming is a name connoting wickedness, (to be used of one) after he has believed: And those who do not desist are (indeed) doing wrong". (49:11)
"Those who avoid the greater crimes and shameful deeds, and, when they are angry even then forgive;" (42:37)
If blasphemy were punishable by death in Islam, then the Prophet would have been the first to order the killing of hundreds of his foes who later became his closest companions. In our religious books, there six incidents where the Prophet allegedly asked his companions to silence his opponents forever. A careful examination of all such events demonstrate that zealots concocted them. (A separate article on those incidents would be forthcoming) Except for a very few earlier Arabs who accepted the Prophet as the Messenger of Allah, the majority of people of Makkah opposed him, humiliated him, cursed, or blasphemed him or even tried to kill him. Yet, he preferred to practice forgiveness seeking the divine mercy for them. Even after being wounded severely in Taif, he refused to seek revenge.
The older woman who used to throw garbage on the Prophet was visited by him when he did not see her throwing it anymore to learn that she was not well. When Suhail bin Amr, a poet who composed poetry blaspheming the Prophet, was taken as a prisoner of war after the battle of Badr, the Prophet asked his companions to show kindness. There are examples after examples to prove that the Prophet never resorted to violence against those who were showing utter disrespect to him or Allah.
Violence against anyone criticizing Islam, Allah or Prophet Muhammad is unacceptable as the divine teachings make it clear. Any punishment against the so-called blasphemy is a stab in the heart of Islam. It humiliates the Prophet. Those who support the killing of people accused of blasphemy are the enemies of Islam because they neither understand Islam nor respect the Prophet. No matter who they are, they must be challenged based on the Quran and the Prophet's teachings.
Unfortunately, many Muslim religious scholars all over the world demand death for acts of apostasy and blasphemy, two of the practices that emerged the influence of corrupt, despotic Muslim rulers who misused their power to twist religious scholarship to serve their political interests.
The idea of blasphemy is foreign to Islam. Many medieval Muslim scholars justified it based on their understanding of Christian and Jewish texts supporting laws against those who blaspheme and vilify their religions.
The word "blasphemy" came via Middle English blasfemen and Old French blasfemer and Later Latin blasphemer meaning "I injure." Based on this definition, rulers used laws to victimize non-members of and dissident members of the ruling sect or cult. Countries that had a state religion used it often to serve the interests of the rulers. In Judaism, the third book of Torah, Leviticus 24:16, states that those who speak blasphemy shall surely be put to death. The seven laws of Noah seen by Judaism as applicable to all of the humankind prohibits blasphemy In Christian theology, the Gospel of Mark 3:29, describes blaspheming the holy spirit as unforgivable eternal sin. Thomas Aquinas considered blasphemy a major unforgivable sin, more severe than murder. The Book of Concord describes it as the greatest sin ever committed. The Baptist Confession of Faith calls it a disgusting and detesting act. Catholic Church has specific prayers and devotions as Acts of Reparation for blasphemy against God and the Church was a crime punishable by death in much of the Christian world. In England, last blasphemy execution was that of an 18-year-old Thomas Aikenhead who was executed for the crime in 1697. He was prosecuted for denying the accuracy of the Old Testament and the legitimacy of Christ's miracles.
The Quran and the Prophet's authentic teachings describe the practice of showing irreverence to God and his messenger as acts of ignorance, deliberate provocation or hatred, or rebellion. Yet the two sources of Islamic guidance never proposed punitive actions based on theological dissent or religious differences or irreverence. Some Muslim jurists have often misused the institution of ijtihad to serve the people's emotive interests. The fatwa or religious decree issued by Khomeini proposing murder of Salman Rushdie was a personal opinion with no direct support from the book of divine guidance.
The Islamic Republic of Pakistan also has in its penal code laws that prohibit and punish blasphemy against Islam ranging from a fine to death. The Criminal courts often decide a case of blasphemy based on public emotions and political interests rather than the divine writ. Pakistan's Criminal Code has its blasphemy laws. For instance, code 295 forbids damaging or defiling a place of worship or a sacred object. Code 296A forbids outraging religious feelings, code 295 B forbids defiling the Quran, and code 295 C forbids defaming Prophet Muhammad.
Defiling the Quran is punishable by imprisonment for life and defaming Prophet Muhammad by death with or without a fine. None of these codes have any basis in the Quran or the authentic teachings of the Prophet. It is a position that many scholars adopted under the influence of despotism that prevailed in the Muslim world for centuries and still prevails in many countries. This position has been challenged by many who knew the Quran and sunnah. But most of the time, their religious authority and opinions were suppressed by the rulers.
The tyranny of such religious scholars is so intense that those opposed to these laws condemned as non-Muslims punishable by death. Some of the scholars even encourage their followers to unleash terror against such people. Their arrogance has reached a point that they do not want to listen to any argument based on the Quran and the Prophet's teachings. Many religious and educational institutions of the Muslim world suffer from the tyranny of these scholars who justify their ignorance and arrogance based on a literature that emerged when Muslims had lost connection with the Quran. They were at the mercy of despotic rulers and their hired religious scholars.
Islam is not the monopoly of self-imposed scholars. It is a faith given to people for their well being and guidance without any interference from any authority other than Allah, the almighty. Those who assume the divine role in condemning people and deciding their lives and deaths based on their religious identity must at least be questioned for their opinions based on the Quran and sunnah.
If Muslim religious scholars are serious, then they should advocate universal laws for every religious community.
When some people make fun of Allah and His messengers, including Prophet Muhammad, it hurts and causes pain. As acknowledged by the Quran: "We do indeed know how your heart is distressed at what they say." Al-Hijr [15:97]
But Allah advises:
"Repel evil with that which is best: We are well acquainted with the things they say." Al-Mu'Minun (3:96)
"Nor can goodness and Evil be equal. Repel (Evil) with what is better: Then will he between whom and thee was hatred become as it were thy friend and intimate!" Fussilat [41:34]