What Constitutes Blasphemy in Islam?
Mass protests have erupted across the Muslim world in recent years over Western material deemed as insulting or blasphemous toward Prophet Muhammad. A 2012 US film that mocked Prophet Muhammad, and 2005 Danish cartoons depicting him in an unfavorable light, were among the most prominent cases. Muslim preachers have rallied against the blasphemous material, exhorting on the believers to take a stand, some even calling for the perpetrators to be killed.
But the concept of blasphemy in Islam is contentious, because the holy scriptures offer no unequivocal guidance on the issue. The Holy Quran, the primary authority in Islamic jurisprudence, offers no explicit definition of blasphemy. The hadiths, a collection of sayings attributed to Mohammed, mention briefly the “abuse of the Prophet” as a capital punishment offence, but likewise provide no clear definition of the crime – or specify who has the authority to administer justice.
What is the Punishment for Blasphemy?
Proponents of strict implementation of Sharia religious law usually argue that blasphemy should be punishable by death. Muslim clerics that condemn cases of blasphemy sometimes exhort on fellow Muslims to punish the perpetrators, while in some countries, conservative clerics with influence over the state judiciary pursue suspected blasphemers in state courts.
Yet in the Muslim world only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates currently permit blasphemy to be punishable by death. Novelist Salman Rushdie is perhaps the most famous recipient of a death sentence over his novel Satanic verses. In 1989, Iran’s late Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, personally issued a fatwa, religious decree, sentenced Rushdie to death and authorizing any Muslim with the right to carry out the sentence.
More recently, Pakistan gained in international notoriety with a string of prosecutions of members of the country’s Christian minority allegedly insulting Mohammed or desecrating copies of Quran. The cases are often based on flimsy evidence provided by the defendants’ neighbors, but conservative religious groups invariably stage public campaigns demanding the death penalty.
In riots that followed the release of a trailer of film “Innocence of Muslims” in September 2012, armed groups attacked a US consulate in Libya, with clear intention to kill US diplomatic stuff. The apparent justification consisted of the sole fact that the film was produced on US soil, thereby making US government complicit in the crime.
The attack was clearly far from a spontaneous outburst and had no basis in Islamic jurisprudence. Quoted by the Christian Science Monitor, Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, said that blasphemy laws are manipulated by “those who want to raise a mob and wield power within a society.”
Who Has the Authority to Prosecute Blasphemy?
In other words, it’s up to human faculty to define crimes against God or the Prophet, and there is no universal agreement on what qualifies as blasphemous offence. The loose clerical hierarchy in Islam adds to the problem.
Unlike, for example, the Catholic religion with its holy seat in the Vatican, Islam has no equivalent supreme authority that would define and implement religious law. The Al Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, is one of the most respect sources on Islamic jurisprudence but it doesn’t have the power to enforce its opinions on all the Muslims. As a result, there is no universally accepted, written form of Sharia religious law. It’s all about interpretation.
So in practice, it will be up to individual Muslim clerics – with varying degrees of juridical knowledge and reputation – to declare an individual a blasphemer. A wide variety of alleged offences have been branded as blasphemous in different environments, ranging from cultural production deemed offensive to Islam to bizarre allegations of blasphemy such as the Sudanese case of a teddy bear named Mohammed.
Obviously, there is ample room for controversy and politicization of what is nominally a religious issue.Go to Current Situation in the Middle East