Freedom of Expression and Blasphemy Laws

In Islam, the concept of Blasphemy is related to the disrespect and overall insult to the last and final messenger, Muhammad ﷺ, and certain aspects of the divine. In recent years, there has been an uptick in blasphemous actions against Islam and violent retaliation against perceived blasphemy. 

In an environment of ignorance, hate, and anger there has been an abuse of the blasphemy laws in Muslim countries resulting in injustice against people of other faith at the hands of Muslims. This is in contradiction to the teachings of Islam.

Quranic Verses for Understanding Blasphemy

“If you hear God’s revelations being mocked and ridiculed, don’t be with them unless they delve into another subject. Otherwise, you will be as guilty as they are. God will gather the hypocrites and the disbelievers together in Hell” (4:140

“… do not befriend to those among the recipients of previous scripture who mock and ridicule your religion, nor befriend the disbelievers.” (5:57)

“... but indeed, they uttered blasphemy. If they repent, it will be best for them. But if they turn back (to their evil ways), Allah will punish them ... (9:74

Their just requital is Hell, in return for their disbelief and for mocking My revelations and My messengers. (18:106)

He had punished these people, annihilated them, and destroyed them as they did not take the truth seriously. (36:30

The evil of their deeds will become evident to them, and the very things they mocked will come back and haunt them. (45:33)

Furthermore, have patience with what they say and leave them with noble (dignity) (73:10).

Verses 33:60-61 indicate that blasphemers who are hypocrites were to be executed for committing treason against the state, not for blasphemy. According to Kamali, the dominant Quranic meaning of fitna (tumult) is “seditious speech that attacks a government’s legitimacy and denies believers the right to practice their faith.” 

Prophetic Guidelines

The Prophet never called for executing his opponents or those who abused him. When an old woman who regularly threw garbage at him fell sick, he visited her. He didn’t take revenge on Suhail bin Amr, the poet who cursed him but asked his companions to treat him kindly after he was captured during the Battle of Badr. He also rejected his companions’ advice to execute Abd Allah b. Ubayy, the chief hypocrites.

Pro-death penalty scholars often cite the execution of the Jewish poet Ka‘b ibn al-Ashraf to justify the death sentence, disregarding the fact that he was killed for treason, not blasphemy. When Prophet was stoned in Taif and blood was oozing from his feet, angel Gabriel came to give him comfort and offered to bring the mountain down on the people; his response was not to take revenge with them because one day their progeny may become believers in the one almighty God.

While negotiating the Hudaybiyah Treaty, the Makkah delegation asked Muhammad ﷺ not to sign his name as the “Prophet of God.” He did so, reminding the upset companions that an angry response is counterproductive, for even the worst offenders could become friends by humility and gentle treatment. He forgave his archenemy Abu Sufiyan and his wife Hind, who freed a slave to kill and then mutilate Hamza, the Prophet’s uncle. 

Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was sent as a mercy to humanity and a blessing to the universes and was entrusted only with the charter to deliver the message of peace and belief in the one supreme creator of all.

Unjust Blasphemy and Reaction

In October of 2020, a young Chechen immigrant named Abdullah Anzorov beheaded Samuel Paty, a schoolteacher in Paris, France. Apparently, Paty taught a class about “freedom of expression” and showed cartoons of prophet Muhammed published in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, a magazine universally condemned by Muslims. 

In response to the killing of Paty, French president Macron conferred the highest civilian award posthumously on Samuel Paty as a sign that the country stands by its courage and conviction of freedom of speech while the Muslims suffered a backlash. There was a shutdown of the grand mosque in Paris along with several other mosques all over the country. Many Islamic organizations were closed, and many Imams and Muslim leaders were deported. French people believe that the refugees fleeing from North Africa to Europe are bringing their Islamist culture with them, causing social stress.  Muslims lost the support of the French public as most people in France feared that their secularist society is under threat. Many months after Mr. Paty’s murder the French interior ministry continued closing mosques  under the pretext of “the radical nature of its imam's preaching.”     

 In western secular societies, an individual has a right to ridicule religion or revered religious figures. There is little sensitivity and wisdom, knowing that such freedom of expression creates incitement to hatred and group defamation. In multicultural societies – cultural sensitivity ethnic and political awareness is a must for maintaining a harmonious relationship among all members of the society.

Freedom of Speech versus Freedom of Religion in France

The French and Muslim cultures have different interpretations of freedom of expression. 

Muslims consider the humiliation of the prophet of Islam as a personnel humiliation of everything they hold sacred. Whereas, for the French, freedom of expression supersedes the sanctity of religious beliefs. French secularists believe that religion is an expression of ideas, and just like any philosophical idea, it should be open to criticism. It is only recently that such criticism has been applied to Islam

In response to the French public’s hostility towards Muslims and Mr. Macron’s statement that “Islam is in crisis,” President Erdogan of Turkey called Mr. Macron mentally unstable and that he needed mental treatment. Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan also gave assurances to a Muslim cleric in Pakistan who made a hateful speech justifying the killing of blasphemers by saying that he would ask parliament to break its diplomatic relationship with France. Many other Muslim leaders also made strong statements against Mr. Macron only to create more hatred and animosity in French people against Islam and Muslims. These statements made by leaders did not show the use of emotional intelligence where it is necessary to channel anger and hatred and express emotions to help resolve this serious conflict and work towards solving the problems. I am certain that these statements must have generated similar anger and hatred in the French president and French people, and this will result in more stringent anti-Muslim regulations causing more suffering of French Muslims. Mr. Macron could have played the role of a statesman by using emotional intelligence and initiating a dialogue with Muslim leaders to calm down their fears and issuing a joint statement that would have a positive effect and perhaps lead to peace and harmony among all people of France. Many problems of the world can be solved if our leaders do not have an impulsive reaction but rather show wisdom and issue statements with the sole purpose of diminishing hatred rather than inciting more anger.

President Macron did finally take a positive step and met Muslim leaders in France to diffuse the rising tension and appealed to them to approve the memorandum of understanding to help the integration of Muslims in France which will hopefully lead to developing a better understanding between the French Muslims and the rest of the community. Muslims have every right to protest condemnable attempts to defame the Prophet but they must refrain from violence, for it is the very antithesis of the term Islam, which spreads the message of peace.

The Muslim Need to Understand Blasphemy

Of course, any criticism of one’s religion may hurt one’s feelings, but it in no way lowers the value of faith in its adherents’ eyes. Most of the prophets sent by God throughout history were ridiculed, mocked, and even tortured. The Quran states that only God has the prerogative to punish the opponents of God and His prophets. All Prophets, including Muhammad ﷺ, showed kindness towards the people who abused them. Islam does not approve of the murder of an individual committing blasphemy. Many Muslim countries in the world and members of the Muslim community in France consistently denounced such brutal acts, describing them as against the tenants of Islam. 

The fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing his blasphemy novel only led to an increase in the sale of his books. Rushdie received honors and recognition in many countries, including a knighthood from the U.K. Angry Muslims demonstrated against Charlie Hebdo of Paris, a satirical magazine, for publishing cartoons that ridiculed God and the Prophets. On Jan. 7, 2015, two Muslims killed 12 of its employees. The subsequent edition had a print run of 7.95 million copies in six languages, compared to its typical print run of 60,000 in French only. Clearly, the Muslims’ negative reaction only made the magazine more popular. By just neglecting the blasphemous act, the problem could have been subsided and not become an international issue. Muslim violent reactions did not produce any positive results for Muslims or Islam. 

Can we prevent violent Muslim reactions to perceived blasphemy in Muslim countries?  No, so long as the punishment for blasphemy laws exists and violent ideology is preached in Muslim communities, which fuels anger and hatred towards people of other faiths. Extremists who kill in the name of blasphemy are doing a disservice to their faith. 

Abuse of Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan

From 1987 to 2017, more than 1,500 cases of blasphemy were registered in Pakistan. Most of the accused are in prison and some are facing the death penalty and 75 extrajudicial killings have occurred.

In 2010 Asia Bibi, a Christian female farm laborer from central Punjab was accused of insulting the Prophet, charged with blasphemy, and sentenced to death. Pakistan’s Supreme Court acquitted her in January 2019. Punjab governor Salman Taseer and federal minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti were killed for supporting her rights to a fair trial.

A Fulbright scholar in Mississippi, Hafeez returned home in March 2013 and joined the faculty of a university in Multan. He was arrested after some students accused him of posting derogatory comments on social media about the Prophet. Rashid Rehman, a prominent human rights lawyer who took up his case, was shot dead on May 7, 2014. In December 2019 Hafeez, who maintained his innocence and states that he comes from a religious family, was found guilty and sentenced to death.

In April 2017, a journalism student named Mardan at Wali Khan University was brutally murdered and his body was mutilated by his fellow students. It is said that Khan had posted content disrespectful of Islam on his Facebook page. He was an Ahmadi and allegedly had views that were different from the mainstream Muslim society. The brutal murder showed that the media, the courts, the government, and right-wing political parties have been creating an enabling environment for extremism and religious violence. The Muttahida Ulema Council (MUC) held a rally at which senior members of the council, politicians, and religious leaders participated in supporting the killers and blasphemy laws. 

On December 3rd, 2021, a lynching mob in Sialkot, Pakistan tortured a Sri Lankan man to death before burning his body over blasphemy allegations for desecrating posters bearing the name of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.

Muslims who Condemn Blasphemy Laws

Sheikh Ahmed Deedat (d. 2005), a well-known speaker on Islam, once stated: “The biggest enemy of Islam is an ignorant Muslim. His ignorance leads him to intolerance, and his actions destroy the true image of Islam. The people, in general, think that he is what Islam is.” 

Many classical-era Muslim scholars justified capital punishment based on their understanding of the relevant texts. However, their opinions are not eternal norms. Mohammad Hashim Kamali (“Freedom of Expression in Islam,” 1994), Taha Jaber Al-Alwani (“La Ikraha fi al-Din: Apostasy in Islam,” 2003) and other scholars oppose such rulings. 

Some argue that earlier scholars feared that those who renounced Islam and joined the enemy might annihilate the Muslims. Given that there are 1.8 billion Muslims today, is this “fear” still realistic? 

I am sure we all know the example when a non-Muslim came to visit the Prophets Mosque in Madinah and urinated in the sacred Mosque. The companions of the Prophet were furious and ready to kill him but Prophet stopped them saying “let him relieve himself.” The man finally accepted Islam as he was impressed with the toleration shown towards him. 

Many Muslims condemn the young French man who murdered the teacher but insist that the teacher is responsible for the provocation. Some argue a double standard exists giving the example of punishment for Holocaust deniers. It would have been more effective if the young man would have written a letter to the teacher on “how one's feelings get hurt if somebody used bad language towards one’s mother” and he loved the Prophet more than his own mother, and how the cartoon hurt his feelings and how he had to control his anger as per teachings of his Prophet who was sent to the world as a mercy to mankind. 

Appeal Against Blasphemy Laws

I appeal to Muslim Leaders to make every effort to abolish apostasy and blasphemy laws. I appeal to all World Leaders, Muslims, and Non-Muslim, to save humanity from further destruction. One needs to exert control over expressions of anger and develop a goal to support a multicultural society in this global village we live in, showing respect and dignity towards all individuals irrespective of their religion, culture and their country of origin.

Punishing alleged blasphemers violates the Quranic and Prophetic teachings. In fact, people who seek to “protect” God or His Messenger via lynching or issuing death threats are themselves an insult to Islam and the Prophet. 

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