By N.M Rishard –
“Apostasy and Blasphemy: A perspective” a book written by a well-known Sri Lankan Muslim scholar MAM Mansoor was published via virtual platform on 13.01.2022. At the beginning of the session, the moderator delightfully announced that the book would be also published in both Sinhala and English languages in near future. Then, the author briefly explained the key ideas of the book in his own style. As he finished his brief talk, I realized the importance and the need of this book in the present context of Sri Lanka where misunderstandings and mistrusts among the communities are getting worse day by day.
This book consists of publisher’s note, preface and two main topics namely Apostasy and Blasphemy respectively. The president of Mishkath research institute, the publisher of the said book, clearly points out in his note that the institute focuses more on contextualizing contemporary Islamic thought. Accordingly, it has already published some books of the same author such as “Does Quran encourage violence”, which has been recommended by the Presidential commission of Inquiry into the Easter Sunday attacks to include as a text book in Quranic schools, and also the book named “Quranic thought” which should be considered as one of the greatest contributions to Quranic literature. The institution expects to publish some more books in near future on the topics related to contemporary Islamic thought such as relationship with non-Muslims, Arts, Women, Political theories and Human rights. The author, in preface, draws attention to two theoretical outlines in support of his whole argument: Firstly, Islam has two dimensions: Rites of Worship and Social affairs. Former is immutable and the latter is mutable due to changing contexts and some other factors. Secondly, being adherent to the past and traditional opinions, in the sphere of social affairs which tend to change constantly from time to time, is not acceptable at all. If “Copy and paste theory” is applied it would be a major dilemma to be confronted. The author, by highlighting these two ideas, tries to emphasize that he carefully takes the context where he lives into consideration while being faithful to the core message of the revelation, the Quran and prophetic traditions, in social affairs. This doesn’t mean that he totally rejects inherited opinions of the Muslim scholars. Rather, he gives priority to the “relevance” of those opinions to our contemporary context.
The first topic, Apostasy, can be divided, according to my understanding, into three categories: 1) Apostasy in Quran, 2) Prophet Muhammad and his reaction to apostasy, 3) Traditional Muslim scholars and their opinions on apostasy. Usthaz Mansoor explains that the “Freedom” of thought and belief is one of the foundational ideologies which the Quran advocates and he brings number of Quranic verses (10:99, 06:149, 88:22, 06:107) to strengthen his argument such as the verse “There is no compulsion in religion” (02:256). Compulsion, in his view, has three dimensions: compulsion to embrace Islam, compulsion to do any kinds of rituals/worships and compulsion to not to leave Islam. The Quran recognized each individual’s right to choose his or her own religion and it didn’t mention any worldly punishment for apostasy (02:217, 47:25). In addition, Quran refers to some incidents that took place in Madina, where prophet Muhammad had the leadership and ultimate political authority. During the prophet’s time in Madina, some people used to reject Islam and then return to it, only to reject it again and again, seesawing back and forth between Islam and their former religions, in order to make fun of Islam and Muslims. Religion was obviously instrumentalized by these people to corrupt the atmosphere of Madina. Even in this situation, the Quran didn’t mention any punishment for this unethical behavior (03:72, 2:14, 04:137).
Next, the Prophet’s reaction to Apostasy has been analyzed by the author. Taking a holistic approach to prophetic traditions while being mindful of the context of that time, the author categorizes apostates into two groups: 1) Those who apostatize and “declare war” against the religion and society publicly. In this case, the leader of the land has the choice either to execute them or deport them to another country (Hadis book Sunan Nasa’i 4059). The Prophet, here, acted as a political leader and his judgements in this regard can be fine-tuned according to the changing contexts, which is known as “Tha’hzir” in Islamic legal tradition. 2) Those who leave Islam of their own will without instigating or causing war against the religion. In this particular circumstance too, prophet Muhammad didn’t punish or even hurt them by his words. The author brings an example from a very authentic Hadis literature Sahih al-Buhari to prove his argument (Sahih Buhari 7322).
Finally in this chapter, Usthaz Mansoor sheds some light on why the traditional scholars took the view that the punishment for apostasy is death. He explains the context from where this opinion emerged. Back then, it was predominantly surrounded by wars and rivalries between empires. This phenomenon had remarkably impacted the psyche of the traditional scholars while dealing with some of the legal issues such as apostasy. This can even be noticed in their legal rulings itself. Scholar Abu Hanifa was of the view that the women should not be killed if they become apostates. In the same vein, some companions of the prophet Muhammad like Umar Bin Katab and a few other scholars such as Ibrahim Naha’i and Sufyan Savri also held the opinion that the apostates should not be killed.
The author inclines to the view that Islam does not compel or force anyone to profess Islam. Rather, it gives every human being the right to enter and exit at any point of time. Meanwhile, he argues that the prophetic traditions that demand the death penalty for apostasy should be understood based on contextual terms. Furthermore, the particular punishment is not an immutable rule of Islam as the prophet in that case did not act as a “religious authority” but merely as a “political leader”.
Second topic of the book discusses another sensitive issue which is known as “Blasphemy”. Usthaz Mansoor divides this topic into five chapters, including an introduction at the beginning and a concluding remark at the end. In the introduction, the author states that it is a generally accepted fact that most of the people in the contemporary pluralistic world order, identify with a particular faith or religious group. In this sense, while reiterating the importance of coexistence and pluralism among the communities there is a dire need for discourse on the topic of blasphemy in order to enhance the cordial relationship among the communities. Accordingly, the author draws attention to several acts, within the scope of blasphemy, that could harm the pluralistic social order such as insulting, mocking or making fun of a particular religion or insulting the founder or the scripture of a religion.
First and second chapters have been drafted as a framework to understand the chapters that follow. The author explains Qur’an’s perspective on “Religious freedom and pluralism” in chapter one and “Quranic worldview on those who don’t believe in Islam” in chapter two. He argues that Islam provides every human being with the right to choose the path he wants to take. This approach lays the foundation for a pluralistic social structure. Usthaz Mansoor brings a number of verses from the Quran for his argument (2:256, 109: 06, 88: 22, 10:99, 11:118,119). Quran further guides the human agent to instrumentalize this pluralistic social order optimistically to have a positive competition among communities in common good and welfare activities as pointed out in the Quranic verse 5:48. While discussing about the people who didn’t believe in Islam in the second chapter, the author elaborates two major themes that were explicitly stated in Quran, namely “Universal brotherhood” and “Human dignity”. Thus, a Muslim should respect each and every one of the society regardless of his or her ethnicity, religion and other affiliations. Further, the Quran encourages us to create an atmosphere where individuals with different identities understand and respect one another (49:13, 04:01, 60:08).
This framework, drafted by the author in chapter one and two, indirectly indicates his stances on blasphemy. However, he brings another two direct arguments in order to strengthen his stance further in the third chapter, under the topic “Rejecting blasphemy”. On the one hand, he tries to correct the misconceptions about “Conveying the message of Islam”. On the other hand, he proposes that respecting a religion literally starts with respecting the “Founder of the religion”. Conveyance doesn’t mean to colonize the people or compel them to admit. Rather, conveying a message that I rationally believe in, by peaceful means, is a basic human right (16:125). In this point, the “culture of sharing thoughts among religions” helps the citizens to mutually understand each other. Usthaz Mansoor argues that the Quran adopts a very systematic approach in terms of respecting the founders of the religions. The Quran repeatedly says that hundreds of thousands of prophets were sent and only few of them were mentioned by their names in the Quran. Prophet Muhammad was the last messenger in the chain. This fact reiterates that the basic principles and ideologies preached by the prophets were interconnected and almost the same, even though there were few differences in secondary issues. In this backdrop, the author tries to say that having a feeling of superiority over others paves the way to division and misunderstanding among the communities. He quotes a saying of prophet Muhammad about Yunus Ibn Matta, which clearly forbids from making distinction between the prophets and the founders of the religions: “Nobody should give me preference over Yunus ibn Matta” (Sahih Al-Buhari 3414). The author’s argument can be summed up as that the society that sticks to the feeling of superiority complex and looks down on others ultimately divides the communities and becomes a threat to the pluralistic social order.
Further, the author brings another Quranic verse and he interprets it in a very different way: “There is no community to which a warner has not come” (35:24). As per this Quranic verse, a prophet was sent down to every society, but the Quran preferred not to mention each and every one of them by name. Accordingly, there is a strong possibility that considerable amount of reformers and intellectuals might have been the prophets. If this conjecture fails it can be said that they were reformers for sure and they dedicated themselves for the enhancement of the society. In this regard, prophet Muhammad respected Kus Ibn Saida and Zaid Ibn Amr, who were good human beings. By bringing this worthy point, Usthaz Mansoor believes that blasphemy is not limited to insulting Islam and its prophets only, rather its scope is even broader. Hence, insulting a religion or a religious leader or a reformer or an intellectual, who eventually dedicated themselves to uplift humanity, is a kind of blasphemy.
Then, the author moves to the fourth chapter entitled “Blasphemy and punishment”. The topic starts with a brief introduction, in which he argues that blasphemy is a punishable crime, followed by another two critical sub headings related to traditional Islamic scholarship: “Punishment for blasphemy in traditional Islamic thought” and “The difference of opinions among traditional scholars on blasphemy” respectively. At the beginning, Usthaz Mansoor quotes the Quranic instruction, 06:108, that was revealed in early Maccan period where Muslims were tortured and marginalized. This verse prohibited Muslims from scolding others’ Gods even in a situation where they were oppressed. He further argues, along with this instruction, that since the blasphemy brings divisions within the society and threatens the pluralism and the universal brotherhood, this particular misbehavior should be considered as a punishable act. At the same time, blasphemy totally contradicts the basic characteristics of a value based pluralistic society, in which mutual understanding, mutual respect, especially respecting the founders of the religions and sharing thoughts by peaceful means are predominantly prevalent. In a positive social construction, it is expected from the citizens, regardless of their affiliations, to unanimously agree upon a punishment for blasphemy. This national consciousness makes pluralism flourish further.
In this backdrop, even though Islam is of the opinion that the person who commits blasphemy should be punished, it didn’t define the kind of punishment that should be implemented. Rather, it gives the power to the authorities, either the political leader or the court, to determine the type of punishment after considering some facts such as the person who commits the act, consequences of the act, the surrounding context and so on. This type of legal procedure is called in the Islamic legal philosophy as “Tha’hzir”, where the office bearers have the sole authority in determining the punishment. Having said that, the author draws a distinction between criticism and blasphemy. Criticism is an intellectual process and a scientific approach, while blasphemy is a violent act. In this case, the government has a huge responsibility to take necessary measures to curb violent activities and to build bridges between communities to maintain a cordial relationship.
The first sub heading, “Punishment for blasphemy in traditional Islamic thought”, starts with the early scholars’ opinion that the people who committed blasphemy should be killed. Their arguments are formulated from two Quranic verses, 09:65, 66 & 09:12, and a prophetic Hadis narrated in Sunan Abu Dawud 3795, Nasa’i 4022. Usthaz Mansoor takes these arguments into his analysis and summarizes his thoughts as follows: the first Quranic verse, they pointed out, talks about hypocrites, who were part of the Muslim society and it doesn’t subscribe any punishment for them. Apart from that, this verse has nothing to do with the people who didn’t believe in Islam. The second Quranic verse describes the context of war where people usually break the codes and conducts and engage in exchanging hateful words and poems in order to insult the enemy. Contextualizing the Quranic verses provides us a clear idea on the issue. The prophetic Hadis, that they referred to, is a weak narration in terms of its chain of reporters as well as of its content. This methodology is known in Hadis literature as “weak in both Sanad and Matan”. According to some experts in Hadis discipline, such a weak Hadis cannot be quoted as an evidence to support a claim especially when the issue at hand is very serious and sensitive as in the case of blasphemy. Even if we consider this to be a strong Hadis, this particular incident should be regarded as a personal issue and should not be generalized to all. Hadis scholars frequently quote a legal maxim in such a case “A specific event that cannot be generalized”. Yet, some other scholars said that the two Jews, Kahb Ibn Ashraf and Abu Rafi sallam, were killed under prophet Muhammad’s leadership. The author clarifies the fact that they both went to Macca soon after the battle of Badr and they again started inciting violence and hatred. Further, both of them were constantly engaged in inciting Jews of Madina against the Muslims of the same land.
The second sub heading, “Difference of opinions among traditional scholars on blasphemy”, talks about the binary view that was adopted by the scholars on this particular issue. In other words, traditional scholars emphasized that if a Muslim insults the prophet Muhammad or Islam, thereby he would be considered to have left the fold of Islam and, according to their argument, he would be executed because of his apostasy. Contrary to this opinion, the author advocates a very different view as he elaborated in the first part of this book. Scholars had difference of opinions regarding a non-Muslim, who insults the prophet or Islam. Some scholars, like Malik and Ahmad, were of the view that he should be killed, while some others, like Abu Hanifa, Sufyan Sauri, opined that the punishment should be determined by the officials. Having said this, Usthaz Mansoor reminds three major points to be considered while handling the issue of blasphemy: the opinion in favour of killing does not carry sufficient evidence and generalizing the content of some prophetic traditions related to blasphemy is not a scientific approach. There is no clear-cut text that says that the death penalty is the determined punishment for blasphemy.
In the final chapter of this topic, the author moves from legal opinions to “ethical perspective”. Even though the author brings number of Quranic verses and prophetic traditions (05:03, 43:89, Buhari 6927, Muslim 1780, Buhari 2617, Muslim 1795, Siyar A’lam an Nubala 324) that illustrate the ethical dimension of the prophet Muhammad, I would like to highlight only one of them: The tribe of Quraish were the arch enemies of Islam back then and, for a period of thirteen years while he was still in Mecca, they used to rebuke the Prophet, taunt and mock him, beat him and abuse him, both physically and mentally. They even placed the afterbirth of a camel on his back while he was praying, and they boycotted him and his tribe until the social sanctions became unbearable. They plotted and attempted to kill him on more than one occasion, and when the Prophet escaped to Medina, they rallied the majority of the Arab tribes and waged many wars against him. Yet, when he entered Mecca victoriously, he did not take revenge on anyone. The Prophet said to the Quraish: “O people of Quraish! What do you think I will do to you? Hoping for a good response, they said: “You will do good. You are a noble brother, son of a noble brother.” The Prophet then said: “Then I say to you what Joseph said to his brothers: ‘There is no blame upon you.’ Go! For you all free!”
Following the footsteps of the prophet Muhammad, the author suggests that the Muslims too should adhere to ethical characteristics of their leader such as forgiveness and humility. It doesn’t mean to be silent all the time. Contrarily, Muslims should come forward to clarify the misunderstood norms and concepts about Islam. Furthermore, he recommends that some basic rules and regulations should be introduced and implemented nationally as well internationally in order to curb blasphemy in any sense. At the same time, blasphemy should be regarded as immoral acts of the individuals and as an influential factor in inciting disharmony among societies.
To sum up, Usthaz Mansoor has made a courageous effort in reconstructing two misunderstood concepts, Apostasy and Blasphemy respectively. Methodologically speaking, the author goes back to primary religious texts, Quran and Hadis. Firstly, he tries to go into a comprehensive reading to the text, instead of partial and literal reading, in order to outline a framework for his whole work. In this sense, he talks about pluralism and universal brotherhood during the discourse of apostasy and blasphemy. Secondly, when he reads the text, he gives great importance to the context where the text was revealed and applied. Thirdly, he takes all the opinions, given by the traditional scholars as well as contemporary intellectuals, into his consideration to scrutinize the text further. Finally, he carefully observes the prevailing context in which we live and interpret the text seeking answers to the problems we confront.