Blasphemy: its uses and abuses

November 16, 2020

Rohit Dhankar

These days, again, deliberate blasphemy is becoming a hotly debated topic on social media.  This new wave of interest in blasphemy started after slaying of the French teacher Samuel Paty for showing Muhammad cartoons. This act of mindless bigotry invited President Emmanuel Macron’s tough stand against Islamic terrorism, which, in turn, provoked further Islamic violence in Europe and threatening protest in many parts of the Islamic world. Many Islamic clerics and Muslim politicians supported by large numbers of believers in Islam seem to hold the view that the only punishment for insulting Muhammad is beheading. The underlying message of this attitude is that ‘in expressing your views publicly and debating in your own countries you will have to behave according to standards dictated by us, or we will kill you’. A completely unjustifiable supremacist stand on part of Islam. This is a successfully practiced centuries old, though crude, method of controlling peoples thinking. Limiting discourse is a sure way of controlling thinking, as thoughts develop in conversation in societies.

This tendency, though most pronounced and most violently practiced in Islam, is by no means unique to Islam. All religions and all believers in religious precepts do have this tendency, even if not always practiced so violently. As a reaction another section of people is resorting to mindless blasphemy. I came across some examples on a twitter handle depicting Rama and Muhammad in a homosexual embrace and a similar depiction of Sita and Kali.

The twitter handle announces more ‘art’ like this, involving Hindu Goddess Kali and Muhammad. The person(s) seems to be mainly interested in Islamic religious figures and Hindu gods/goddesses. In my view this is precisely the kind of blasphemy that needs to be avoided and discouraged. By discouraging, however, I most certainly do not mean beheading, trolling, banning or any kind of forcible restriction. All I mean is expressing opinion against such art.

To my mind this expresses only filth of mind. Why do I say that?

When blasphemy is used as a tool against curbing of freedom of expression and action it serves a purpose of widening discourse and making an important point to protect freedom. But when it is indulged in only to test the limits of tolerance of real or pretending believers it creates undue reaction which will eventually harm the openness of discourse.

To use it as a tool against imposition of undue restrictions on freedom of expression one has to make relevant points through it. For example if one makes cartoons of Rama to bring out or critique issues in his preaching, behaviour; or preaching and behaviour of his followers, believers and pretending believers; then it serves a point in the ongoing ideological struggle and discourse. There can be many issues in Ramayana of this nature, depending upon one’s interpretation. One can take Shanbuk’s killing, Rama’s and Lakshamana’s behaviour with Shurpanakha, Sita’s agni-pariksha, Sita’s banishment to forest, and so on.

Similarly, with Muhammad. One can take his bigotry, issues of child marriage, behaviour with his wives and slave girls, his preachings on war-booty, claims of revelation, claims of angels fighting alongside Muslims, necessity of fighting in jihad and so on. This kind of blasphemy will serve the purpose of bringing out issues in Quran and Muhammad’s own behaviour.

But making caricatures of sexual indulgence and imagining other kinds of deliberately insulting caricatures serves no purpose. Of course, one can stretch the point that Quran pronounces horrendous punishment for homosexuality, and therefore, showing Muhammad in homosexual relations is a comment on his preaching on the issue. But in my view, it should be done only if there are any indications of Muhammad himself being inclined to homosexuality, if there is reliable evidence of such acts on his part. Simply because he was against homosexuality does not justify, to my mind, such caricatures. Also, if there is any evidence in mythology (any version of Ramayana) of Rama being inclined to homosexuality it may bring out a point in the discourse.

What I am trying to argue is that the blasphemy regarding religious figures and divinities (prophets, gods, sons and daughters of The God, etc.) should be around the historical or theological evidence. That will help in bringing out characteristics of those figures which arrest discourse and human freedom. And will weaken the arguments of their believers on the basis of authority of these figures. On the other hand mindless juvenile filth will discredit the attempts of useful and positive blasphemy, will create a reaction against it and destroy its power of pungent irony and deep cutting satire.

On the pain of repetition, I am not talking of banning blasphemy or killing for it. All I am arguing for is a thoughtful use that opens up minds and avoiding uses which will finally blunt the weapon itself.

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16th November 2020


Quran and violence 5: Two views from the same book

January 24, 2015

Rohit Dhankar

(Continued from part 4. This post is rather long for a blog. But I want to conclude it now.)

In this concluding part I will begin with looking at two articles, one of them written by a very well-known and rightly respected scholar of Islam Maulana Wahiduddin Khan and the other by some Dr. Jawwad Ahmed Khan from Jeddah who runs a blog called “Fundamentalist: How can the Ummah survive when its Prophet is cursed!”. [https://funadamentalist.wordpress.com/2010/11/23/blasphemy-reason-behind-aggressive-persuasion-and-islamic-perspective/]

The choice is deliberate to underline the tension between the liberal Muslims scholars and the fundamentalists.

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s article

The Maulana wrote the article under consideration in The Times of India on 2nd October 2012, titled “Blasphemy in Islam: The Quran does not prescribe punishment for abusing the Prophet”. He argues in this article that “[I]n Islam, blasphemy is a subject of intellectual discussion rather than a subject of physical punishment. This concept is very clear in the Quran.”

The Maulana quotes several verses from the Quran to prove his point. He admonishes Muslims for setting up “media-watch” offices and the attitude to “hunt for anyone involved in acts of defamation of the Prophet, and then plan for their killing, whatever the cost.” He further argues that this attitude goes against the freedom granted by the God (to test people) and the modern secularism; and Muslims should desist from this.

Dr. Jawwad Ahmed Khan

Dr. Khan argues for the exact opposite in his blog article “Blasphemy: Reason behind aggressive persuasion and Islamic perspective”. Why this blog article of an individual is interesting is that he also quotes verses after verses and in addition strengthens his argument on the authority of Islamic scholars.

Dr. Khan quotes four great Imams of Islam one by one, and on the further authority of Muhammad bin Sahnun comes to the conclusion that “There is consensus (ijma) amongst ulama that anyone who insults the Prophet (Peace be upon him) and finds his defects then such a person is “KAFIR” and there is promise of Allah’s torment upon such a person and in sight of Ummah the ruling regarding him is to “KILL HIM” rather whosoever doubts in Kufr of such a person then he/she commits kufr himself. The research in this matter is that anyone who abuses the Prophet (Peace be upon him) is Kafir and he is to be killed unanimously, this is “MADHAB OF ALL 4 IMAMS” Ishaq bin Rahwiyah and others have mentioned this Ijma. If the abuser happens to be a Dhimmi (non Muslim living in Muslim land) then according to Imam Malik (rah) and people of Madina he is to be killed as well.”

“The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) sometimes chose to forgive those who had insulted him, and sometimes he ordered that they should be executed, if that served a greater purpose. But now his forgiveness is impossible because he is dead, so the execution of the one who insults him remains the right of Allaah, His Messenger and the believers, and the one who deserves to be executed cannot be let off, so the punishment must be carried out”.
How is it possible to come to opposing conclusions while taking the same text as authority?

These opposite conclusions are puzzling to say the least. One can dismiss Dr. Khan’s interpretation as an unknown fundamentalist. But seems it will not do. As great Islamic scholars like the famous Ayatollah Khomeini came to the same conclusion in the case of Satanic Verses of Rushdie. And also Dr. Khan quotes great Islamic scholars.

One answer (among perhaps many others) can be found if one looks at the verses quoted by Maulana Khan and Dr. Khan respectively. Maulana Khan quotes verses 36:30, 40:24, 15:6, 16:101, 7:66 and 6:108. Interestingly all these verses are from the Makkan period after the revelations started. Muhammad at this time was behaving as a preacher and trying to convert the Makkan people. As far as blasphemy is concerned he routinely called their gods as false gods in these verses, who are just fabricated and have no authority. Obviously the believers were less in numbers and relatively weak in all kinds of power. The mission was to convert more from the Makkan population.

However, even at this time what Maulana Khan claims regarding blasphemy (that it was an issue of intellectual discussion) does not seem to be established. Most of these verses tell the believers stories about the prophets in the past who were reviled as liars, fabricators, etc. and several among them claim that these people who insulted the prophets were destroyed by the Allah. Maulana’a own translation of verse 36:30 makes this point clear if read with verses 36:29 and 36:31; that is, immediately before and after the quoted verse. The translation is “29 it was but one great blast and they fell down lifeless. 30 Alas for human beings! They ridicule every messenger that comes to them. 31 Do they not see how many generations We have destroyed before them? Never shall they return to them.” This hardly constitutes an intellection argument.

The points I am making are: 1. All the verses Maulana quotes are from the Makkan period of preaching. 2. They do not ask the believers to take any action against the blasphemers but issue threats directly from the Allah.

This issue becomes more curious when one notes the verses quoted by Dr. Khan. The verses quoted by Dr. Khan in support of killing the blasphemers are: 49:2, 24:63, 5:33, 9:65-66, 33:57 and 33:61. All these verses are from the Madina period.

In between the acrimony between the believers and polytheists intensified, Muhammad lost hope of converting them, and had to migrate to Madina. In Madina the believers came in power, formed a state, started plans for making the state an undisputed power in Arabia and making the Allah’s proclamation of He being the only God and Muhammad being the last prophet universal. Thus the religious movement turned into a political ideology and the prophet turned into a ruler. This was not use of religion for political gains; it was simply the metamorphosis of the religion itself into an empire building political ideology. There remained no religion outside the ideology and the ideology was based on the faith. They were the two sides of the same coin. And the coin was to have purchase for unmitigated power.

In this new situation blasphemy against the God and the prophet Muhammad could not be tolerated. However, one finds blasphemous verses against earlier prophets here and there, which may be quoted as examples of tolerance; but they are not about Muhammad, the seal of prophet-hood.

I looked at about a dozen articles on both sides of the divide; those who argue for a more tolerant attitude to blasphemy and those who argue killing blasphemers without fail. Largely the pattern of quoting verses from earlier Makkan period by the first and quoting verses from the Madina period by the second holds.

It seems the believers are trying to settle the issue on the authority of the Quran. The liberals among them are choosing the earlier revelations and the fundamentalists are choosing the later ones. [This requires more study, should be considered only an initial tentative hypothesis.]

 

Conclusion

The argument that Quran does not sanction violence against non-believers and those who are seen as enemies of Islam is not sustainable. The violence emanates from the Quran’s God himself. He is a violent God. Those who disobey him are killed and destroyed in this world and burnt in the hell fire hereafter. But then as far as hereafter is concerned many of the Gods love to burn people in the hell fire and cut them to pieces again and again, be they Hindu or Christian. It seems the very idea of God (in most of its forms, though not all) requires a very strong doze of fear and threats. So Allah is by no means unique in being the fountainhead of at the least imaginary violence in the hell. The issue seems to be how single-mindedly one believes in this ghastly imagination.

Since the argument that Quran does not sanction violence can be so easily refuted it cannot help deter fundamentalists. In addition repeated attempts to prove that they should not commit violence because their religion and religious book does not sanction it, actually ends up reinforcing the authority of their religion, as the only source of guidance. This precludes other humanitarian ideas from consideration, and renders them irrelevant. A more truthful, just, and perhaps even effective way could be to call a spade a spade. Admit that Quran is a violent book, that it often calls on believers to kill non-believer, it teaches them to hate idolaters, polytheists, and to wage a jihad to eradicate them, at the least in some parts of it. And explaining these parts away does not seem to be possible.

But it (The Quran) is also full of contradictions, repetitions and impossible stories. (I am sure, all religious texts, be they Hindu or Christian, have contradictions, impossible stories, adverse judgment and often even violence against their own unbelievers.) Therefore, it cannot be a book sent by the God, unless the God Himself is taken to be a creature whom today’s humans see as violent and even evil. It is a creation of ordinary human being(s) pretending or being under delusion to be messenger of the God. If people want to believe in it and prophet-hood of Muhammad, they are of course free to do so, no one has the right to stop them and ask them not to believe. But if they want others to live according to this book and obey Muhammad as prophet then they are taking their religious zeal too far beyond its legitimate scope. Other people have other religions and non-religions, and even the hated irreligion; and they have freedom to make their own choices.

There being sanction of violence in Quran, however, does not necessarily make the whole religion violent, nor does it mean that all believers are necessarily violent. To construct a non-violent interpretation of a religion based on Quran, however, has to be a strenuous theological task. There are practicing Muslims who are engaged in this task, but they will always be under pressure as their interpretation is striving against the natural reading and original impulse of the Quran.

The book Quran and Muhammad no more belong exclusively to the Muslims alone. Both, the book and Muhammad, have a profound effect on today’s world. Islam has become a political ideology like democracy, communism, Hindutva, and so on. Muhammad has become an ideologue like Gandhi, Marx, Plato, and so on. They impact peoples’ lives, I mean non-believers’ lives as well. And people in a democracy have full right to comment, criticise and lampoon all that impacts their lives. One cannot demand that ‘your life will be effected by my ideological beliefs but you cannot open your mouth against them’. That is plain oppression.

If someone reads Quran and finds it a violent book full of repetitions and contradiction and overwhelmingly plagiarised from the Bible, then that person has full right to express that thought.

If one reads the Quran, which is freely available in the market and can be downloaded for free from the internet, one can hardly miss that it contains many chapters and verse that are of direct benefit to Muhammad. They contain curses on his enemies, chapters 104 and 111, for example. Some give Muhammad special sanctions (33:50) and others threaten his wives into submission (66:1-5). A non-believer who notices all this is sure to suspect the genuineness of all three: the Allah, the Quran and Muhammad; in spite of elaborate explanation which all depend on first accepting the faith. The believers cannot ask these people not to think these thoughts, or not to speak them out if they have occurred to them. This would mean controlling other peoples’ minds and making others live according to the believers’ faith. No one has the right to expect that, no one has the right to impose one’s faith on others.

One should also understand that speaking out as a critique of, say; democracy, Hindutva, Islam, or communism; dos not mean forcing their respective believers into discarding these ideologies. This simply is expression of ideas in a free world. Therefore, the believers’ argument that free speech is being forced upon them is wrong. No one asks them to adopt free speech if they do not like to do so. None asks them to read books they do not like. But some of them would like to force other to abandon free speech even if others don’t like abandoning it.

In addition to these simple issues of coherence and credulity, the Quran raises many social and political questions. The issue of status of women (common to all religions), of non-believers in Islamic thinking, the issue of critical examination of doctrines and so on. These are genuine and important issues in a free society. The believers cannot expect everyone to accept their view points on these issues. Such issues cry for debate and democracies survive on open debates. Therefore, the believers have to learn to listen to hard questions and to engage in debate without losing their cool.

Obviously the same goes for the Hindu zealots in India, the argument is generalizable to all religious fundamentalism. As I said above, the topic in this article is Quran, that does not mean that Hindu zealots don’t have to learn to live with nude Saraswatis, critique of their religious books, those who don’t share their reverence for cows and medicinal benefits of cow’s urine.

As a matter fact, most of Muslims one meets can think on these issues with as much calm and criticality as anyone else can. It is a minority that gets up in arms on such issues, but that minority has to be restrained by the thinking majority in the community of believers. And in democracies, for the reasons above mentioned, right to expose a religion cannot be restricted to its believers alone. A fearless and un-tempered critique of all religious texts is everyone’s fundamental right. Those who demand respectful comment (in case of disagreement) on religious texts are asking people to be submissive in the face of belligerent threats. However, as a moral choice of someone to be respectful to faiths seems to be commendable to me. But that attitude cannot be made into obligation; it has to remain a personal morally preferred position. And when this respectful stance becomes so prevalent that some of the faithful (belonging to any faith) start demanding it as their right; it is a duty of a democratic citizens to speak against it clearly and resolutely.

(Concluded)