Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Can Blasphemy Laws Be Rationally Justified ?

The purpose of this post is to evaluate whether Islamic blasphemy laws can be defended rationally without appealing to faith-based arguments. The conclusion reached at the end of this post is that such laws cannot be rationally defended.

'Rational' justification Vs. 'faith-based' justification

By 'Rational justification' I mean justifications that appeal to general human reason i.e such justifications refers to secular arguments that take a neutral point of view without assuming the truth of religious beliefs. By 'Faith-based justifications' I mean justifications which appeal to the personal religious beliefs of the arguer. For example consider two arguments for the Existence of God :
  1. God exists because it is written in my scriptures that he does and I believe that my scripture is true.
  2. God exists because every complex thing needs a intelligent designer and universe is a complex thing.
First argument is an example of a faith-based justification which would only be accepted by the one who holds on to that faith in the specific scripture. Whereas second is an example of a rational justification which could be accepted by anyone irrespective of their faiths .

The reason this matters is because if something is defended only via faith then one can’t make a case for it against those who reject the truth of that faith. If only way to defend blasphemy law is to appeal to faith then non-believers are simply under no moral obligation to obey such a law. For example Hindus are under no obligation to avoid idol-worship merely because the Qur'an declares it be wrong. To force them otherwise would be unjust because the wrongness of idol worshiping merely due to it being condemned in the Qur'an is a faith-based argument not a rational one.

A Rational Case for blasphemy Laws ?

With the above terminologies in mind we move on to construct and evaluate the strongest possible rational case for Islamic blasphemy laws. Defenders of such a position will usually present an argument of the following sort, which in my opinion is indeed the only plausible rational argument worth considering:
1) It is morally wrong to insult any belief system without exception
2) X is an insult to a Belief system
3) Therefore X is morally wrong
Where X = actions like drawing offensive cartoons, burning the scriptures etc, basically anything which you subjectively finds as insulting.

Usually Sura Al-Anam Verse 6:108 is mentioned to religiously corroborate the above argument which says “And do not insult those they invoke other than Allah , lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge….

It will be assumed for the sake of argument that premise 2 is correct. It will be argued that premise 1 is false because there are many instances from Islamic literature which – when viewed from a neutral perspective - would be construed as insulting towards other religions. Please note that taking the neutral perspective is compulsory if we are going to present a rational justification for premise 1. Therefore It would not be a good objection to say "well we believe all these statements were ordered by God therefore it is okay to say them". that would be a concession that a rational case cannot be made for blasphemy laws.

Insulting content within Islamic Sources


What follows below is a discussion of a sample of materials within Islamic sources which may be deemed as insulting towards other religions when viewed from the neutral perspective, thereby undermining the first premise.

(1) Destruction of Idols by Prophet Ibrahim


In this famous narrative the Prophet Ibrahim destroys the religious artifacts (idols) of another religion :
Surat Al-Anbya Verse 21:57-60 And [I swear] by Allah , I will surely plan against your idols after you have turned and gone away." So he made them into fragments, except a large one among them, that they might return to it [and question]. They said, "Who has done this to our gods? Indeed, he is of the wrongdoers." They said, "We heard a young man mention them who is called Abraham."
For the idol worshipers their idols were as much sacred to them as Quran is to the muslims therefore this act would be akin to the act of a person entering a mosque and trying to damage the Quran. Hence viewing this from a neutral perspective this is a clear cut example of insult aimed at another religion. Clearly no Muslim would ever allow a non-muslim to enter a mosque and vandalize the books or any other artifacts that are present there.

(2) Destruction of Idols at kaaba on Conquest of Mecca


When the Prophet conquered Mecca the following events took place:
Sahih al-Bukhari (Tafseer of the Prophet (pbuh)
Narrated `Abdullah bin Masud: Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) entered Mecca (in the year of the Conquest) and there were three-hundred and sixty idols around the Ka`ba. He then started hitting them with a stick in his hand and say: 'Truth (i.e. Islam) has come and falsehood (disbelief) vanished. Truly falsehood (disbelief) is ever bound to vanish.' (17.81) 'Truth has come and falsehood (Iblis) can not create anything.' (34.49)
USC-MSA web (English) reference : Vol. 6, Book 60, Hadith 244
Arabic reference : Book 65, Hadith 4720 
Subsequently it was ordered that they be destroyed:
"...When the apostle prayed the noon prayer on the day of the conquest he ordered that all the idols which were round the Ka'ba should be collected and burned with fire and broken up .."  Ibn Ishaq/Ibn Hisham’s Sirat-ul-Rasoolullah (Translated into English by A.Guillaume) Page 552  (Source)

Yet again this action would be equivalent to the General officer of the US army in Iraq entering a mosque and first hitting the scriptures with a stick and then ordering them to be destroyed. From a neutral perspective, this would be a clear cut example of insult directed at another religion

Possible Objection and responses
(a) It could be objected that "The prophet was no mere human, he was ordered directly by god to perform such acts". but such an objection is pretty much a concession that the argument for blasphemy cannot be defended via reason but only via appeals to faith. this would give no reason to the nonbelievers to accept the requirement of the blasphemy law

(b) It may be objected that "The Kaaba originally had no idols when it was made by prophet Ibrahim so it was merely being restored to its original form."

Problem is not just that the idols were evicted but rather they were destroyed. After all they could have easily been relocated to a different place so that people could carry on with their religious practices. Thus even if this objection were to be conceded the subsequent destruction would still be an act of insult.

Secondly, the idea that Kaaba was originally formed by Prophet Ibrahim is itself a part of the Islamic mythology which tries to argue that all prior prophets came from God but people corrupted the message. This mythology is not accepted by people of other religions nor by secular historians. Therefore appeals to mythology is pretty much an attempt to defend the argument by appealing to faith rather than reason.

(c) It could be objected that "the Mecca pagans were attacking the prophet and his followers all the time and oppressing their belief so it was okay to destroy their religion in response."

This objection assumes that persecution justifies insult which is not a very strong position but lets accept this principle for a moment and apply it to Islamic societies: Within Muslim societies the apostates are the most oppressed group as their mere existence is punishable by death. Similarly in current times Christians in countries like Pakistan have become a deeply persecuted minority due to the abuse of blasphemy laws. So should It now be okay for these groups to start insulting Islam ? Clearly when the Christian pastor burned the Qur'an no Muslim said that such a burning was justified given the oppression that his fellow christian are facing in Pakistan.

(2) Destroying of the temple of Idol-worshipers

In the following hadith an army is dispatched by the Prophet to destroy the temple and religious artifacts of another religion.
Sahih al-Bukhari » Book of Military Expeditions led by the Prophet (pbuh) (Al-Maghaazi)
Narrated Qais: Jarir said "Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said to me, "Won't you relieve me from Dhul-Khalasa?" I replied, "Yes, (I will relieve you)." So I proceeded along with one-hundred and fifty cavalry from Ahmas tribe who were skillful in riding horses. I used not to sit firm over horses, so I informed the Prophet (ﷺ) of that, and he stroke my chest with his hand till I saw the marks of his hand over my chest and he said, O Allah! Make him firm and one who guides others and is guided (on the right path).' Since then I have never fallen from a horse. Dhul-l-Khulasa was a house in Yemen belonging to the tribe of Khatham and Bajaila, and in it there were idols which were worshipped, and it was called Al-Ka`ba." Jarir went there, burnt it with fire and dismantled it. When Jarir reached Yemen, there was a man who used to foretell and give good omens by casting arrows of divination. Someone said to him. "The messenger of Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) is present here and if he should get hold of you, he would chop off your neck." One day while he was using them (i.e. arrows of divination), Jarir stopped there and said to him, "Break them (i.e. the arrows) and testify that None has the right to be worshipped except Allah, or else I will chop off your neck." So the man broke those arrows and testified that none has the right to be worshipped except Allah. Then Jarir sent a man called Abu Artata from the tribe of Ahmas to the Prophet to convey the good news (of destroying Dhu-l-Khalasa). So when the messenger reached the Prophet, he said, "O Allah's Messenger (ﷺ)! By Him Who sent you with the Truth, I did not leave it till it was like a scabby camel." Then the Prophet (ﷺ) blessed the horses of Ahmas and their men five times.
Sahih al-Bukhari 4357
In-book reference : Book 64, Hadith 383
USC-MSA web (English) reference : Vol. 5, Book 59, Hadith 643
From a neutral perspective destroying the temple as well as the idols is clearly an act of insult against another religion.

Possible Objections and Responses:
(some objections raised in previous section is also applicable here)

(a) It might be said that "It was done during wartime and so it was justified."

Firstly, this objection would be applicable only to this instance and not to any of the previous instances therefore those are still valid even if this objection was correct.

Secondly, this objection is not correct. how does the act of being engaged in war justify committing insult against another religion? If war can be conducted without killing women and children then surely war can be conducted without insulting religion and destroying worship places. This is especially true in old times when there were no bombs, tanks etc and thus religious places of worship need not be harmed during battles. If mecca could be subdued without destroying the kaaba surely the same could have been attainable in Yemen
Thirdly, this argument actually supports the position instead of refuting it:   the west is indeed at war with Islam in the sense that either west is invading Muslim territories (which from their perspective is justified) Or the west itself is under attack by Muslim terrorist groups.

Verses promoting hate against disbelievers

There are numerous verses which - when viewed without the assumption of faith can be construed directly as insults aimed towards unbelievers .

As per Qur'an the Unbelievers are:  

(a) worst of creatures (while Believers are best of creatures) 
 Surat Al-Bayyinah 98:6-7 Indeed, they who disbelieved among the People of the Scripture and the polytheists will be in the fire of Hell, abiding eternally therein. Those are the worst of creatures (sharru l-bariyati). Indeed, they who have believed and done righteous deeds - those are the best of creatures.
The Classical Quranic muffassir Ibn Khatir agrees that the verse is general in sense applicable to all ahle-kitab disbelievers: “Allah informs of what will happen to the wicked disbelievers among the People of the Scripture and the idolators who oppose the Allah's divinely revealed Books and the Prophets whom He sent…. meaning, they are the worst creation that Allah has fashioned and created..” (Source)  
(b) Deaf, dumb & blind
Al Baqara 2:17-18  Their example is that of one who kindled a fire, but when it illuminated what was around him, Allah took away their light and left them in darkness [so] they could not see. Deaf, dumb and blind - so they will not return [to the right path].
Al Baqara 2:171 The example of those who disbelieve is like that of one who shouts at what hears nothing but calls and cries cattle or sheep - deaf, dumb and blind, so they do not understand.
(c) have Diseased hearts
Al Baqara 2:10  In their hearts is disease, so Allah has increased their disease; and for them is a painful punishment because they [habitually] used to lie.
(d) Unclean
Surat At-Tawbah 9:28 O you who have believed, indeed the polytheists are unclean (najasun), so let them not approach al-Masjid al-Haram after this, their [final] year. And if you fear privation, Allah will enrich you from His bounty if He wills. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Wise.

Ibn khatir notes that the "najasun" was due to their beliefs: “who are filthy in the religious sense, from Al-Masjid Al-Haram.”(Source). Tafsir Al-jalalyn concurs : “[they are] filth, on account of their inner vileness” .(Source) so does Maulana Maududi in Tahfim al Quran: “They are unclean in their creeds, in their morals, in their deeds, and in their ways of `ignorance', and not in their physical bodies by themselves”(Source).So this is not a mere statement of fact about personal hygience rather it is an insult directed at people of another religion because of their beliefs.
(e) Worse than cattle
Surah al-Araf 7:179 And surely, We have created many of the jinns and mankind for Hell. They have hearts wherewith they understand not, they have eyes wherewith they see not, and they have ears wherewith they hear not (the truth). They are like cattle(kal-anʿāmi), nay even more astray; those! They are the heedless ones..
(f) Compared to donkeys:
Surat Al-Jumu`ah 62:5 The example of those who were entrusted with the Torah and then did not take it on is like that of a donkey who carries volumes [of books]. Wretched is the example of the people who deny the signs of Allah . And Allah does not guide the wrongdoing people. Ibn Khatir agrees they are aimed at the Jews: "Allah the Exalted admonishes the Jews who were entrusted with the Tawrah and were ordered to abide by it. However, they did not abide by it, and this is why Allah resembled them to the donkey that carries volumes of books"(Source)
(g) Allah curses them because of their beliefs:
Surat An-Nisā' 4:51-52 Have you not seen those who were given a portion of the Scripture, who believe in superstition and false objects of worship and say about the disbelievers, "These are better guided than the believers as to the way"? Those are the ones whom Allah has cursed; and he whom Allah curses - never will you find for him a helper.

Surat At-Tawbah(9:30) And the Jews say: 'Uzair (Ezra) is the son of Allah, and the Christians say: Messiah is the son of Allah. That is a saying from their mouths. They imitate the saying of the disbelievers of old. Allah's Curse be on them, how they are deluded away from the truth!·

Surat Al-'Anfāl 8:55-56 Indeed, the worst of living creatures in the sight of Allah are those who have disbelieved, and they will not [ever] believe – The ones with whom you made a treaty but then they break their pledge every time, and they do not fear Allah
The above should only be considered as a sample of such verses. For a more detailed collection the following article is recommended. (Please note that this author doesnot endorse everything in the external articles that is linked to.)


A very simple way of determining if these verses are insulting is to use these terms in sentences that are referring to Muslims for example if someone were to say :

Indeed Muslims are the worst creation of God, they are vile creatures who break their oaths, nothing but deaf dumb and blind, even worse than cattle . Muslims are unclean and their hearts are diseased. Their behavior is like donkeys. Indeed the curse of our god is upon them.” Such a statement would immediately be called out as Islamophobic and hate speech. But it gets worse. Many of these statements are general in meaning applying to all disbelievers. Meaning that it also applies to many of the religious prophets that Islam donot recognize e.g. Bahaullah. They also apply to the great philosophers e.g. Bertrand Russel, David Hume etc which are held with great respect and authority by secularists. Imagine if someone were to use these terms for the personalities of Islam, what would happen to him ?  he would immediately be subjected to blasphemy laws. A classic example of hypocrisy.  yet the Qur'an openly performs this insult towards founders of other great religion and Philosophies. 

(4) Other Hadith containing insulting contents

(a) Jews turned into rats
Sahih Muslim » The Book of Zuhd and Softening of Hearts
Abu Huraira reported that Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said: A group of Bani Isra'il was lost. I do not know what happened to it, but I think (that it 'underwent a process of metamorphosis) and assumed the shape of rats. Don't you see when the milk of the camel is placed before them, these do not drink and when the milk of goat is placed before them, these do drink. Abu Huraira said: I narrated this very hadith to Ka'b and he said: Did you hear this from Allah's Messenger (ﷺ)? I (Abu Huraira) said: Yes. He said this again and again, and I said: Have I read Torah? This hadith has been transmitted on the authority of Ishaq with a slight variation of wording.
Reference : Sahih Muslim 2997 a
In-book reference : Book 55, Hadith 79
USC-MSA web (English) reference : Book 42, Hadith 7135
(b) Jews are greedy
Sahih al-Bukhari » Book of Sales and Trade
Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) said, "May Allah curse the Jews, because Allah made fat illegal for them but they sold it and ate its price. "
Reference:Sahih al-Bukhari 2224
In-book reference : Book 34, Hadith 171
USC-MSA web (English) reference: Vol. 3, Book 34, Hadith 427
(c) Cursing the Jews because of their religious belief regarding worshiping graves
Sahih Muslim » The Book of Mosques and Places of Prayer
Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: Let there be curse of Allah upon the Jews and the Christians for they have taken the graves of their apostles as places of worship.
Reference: Sahih Muslim 530 b
In-book reference : Book 5, Hadith 26
USC-MSA web (English) reference : Book 4, Hadith 1081

Many of the above statements are clearly antisemitic in their content and would constitute as hate speech. 

(5) Insulting Post-Islamic Prophets


Orthodox Muslims donot recognize any prophets after Islam as genuine. But then this leads to the problem of explaining the existence of those who indeed claimed to be such prophets (or otherwise created new religions after Islam). e.g. people like Bahaullah, Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard. If these were not authentic prophets then why were they claiming the things that they did ? only 2 plausible answers can be given by a Muslims :

"They were liars who intentionally deceived others for personal gain"
"They were madmen and therefore mistakenly convinced of their views"

But note that both of these statements are clearly insulting to the followers of that religion. This can be proven by considering  what response would be received if such statements were uttered about any of the prophets which are deemed as authentic by Islam . Clearly such a person would be accused of committing blasphemy.

Yet this statement cannot be avoided either because:  if a Muslim has to reject these false prophets then he must hold at least one of the above options. But if he holds anyone of the above options he is directing insult against that religion thereby refuting the argument that all beliefs must be respected. In this case the only way to avoid insult would be to never utter ones belief about such prophets: a position which no Muslim scholar would agree with. They would instead argue that it should be their right to attack such "fake" prophets people to expose their "false" religion.


As I have shown by the discussion of the 5 cases above, if we were to accept premise 1 then we must conclude that all of the above things are also insulting and therefore morally wrong. Yet no Muslim would ever hold such a blasphemous position as that would make him an unbeliever himself. Notice that it would not be enough to say that these examples only permit insults at specific beliefs (e.g. worshiping) because someone could equally respond by saying “I believe that only some religions should be insulted e.g. Islam and others should not be”. This sort of selective insulting would make our case worse not better.

Since blasphemy laws cannot be defended rationally therefore the only way to resolve the above problem is to appeal to faith In the following way: “all the cases mentioned above were related to the prophets or otherwise uttered by God. Since we know that Islam is the true religion therefore the criteria of rightness and wrongness is only determined by looking at the actions of the prophets and the statements of God. And since that criteria tells us that the selective examples of insult was justified therefore they are indeed justified while vice versa (insulting Islam) is not”.

Such a response would make perfect sense form the faith based point of view, but if that is the argument then one cannot ask for unbelievers to follow this. Afterall they Do not accept Islam. To force them to obey the blasphemy law would be similar to forcing them not to worship idols (e.g. as required by Hinduism) or not to call jesus God (e.g. Christianity): it is equivalent to applying sharia law on the threat of violence.

Finally the author does think that we should not insult each other. it makes for a more hostile world. Insulting others is a vice, but it is a vice in the same way as burping at the dinner table is a vice. Those actions would not lead to any one being jailed. Rather we should learn to develop patience and tolerate because if we are to call for a universal blasphemy law then parts of Qur'an and Sunnah would end up being the first victims of such a law.