WILL “moderate Muslims” finally “speak up” against their militant coreligionists? People around the world have asked (but, as in the past, have not all seriously examined) this question since last week’s horrific attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and on a kosher supermarket in Paris.
In fact, Muslim statesmen, clerics and intellectuals have added their voices to condemnations of terror by leaders around the world. But they must undertake another essential task: Address and reinterpret Islam’s traditional take on “blasphemy,” or insult to the sacred.
The Paris terrorists were apparently fueled by the zeal to punish blasphemy, and fervor for the same cause has bred militancy in the name of Islam in various other incidents, ranging from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa against the writer Salman Rushdie in 1989 to the threats and protests against the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten for publishing cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad in 2005.
Mockery of Muhammad, actual or perceived, has been at the heart of nearly all of these controversies over blasphemy.
This might seem unremarkable at first, but there is something curious about it, for the Prophet Muhammad is not the only sacred figure in Islam. The Quran praises other prophets — such as Abraham, Moses and Jesus — and even tells Muslims to “make no distinction” between these messengers of God. Yet for some reason, Islamist extremists seem to obsess only about the Prophet Muhammad.
Even more curiously, mockery of God — what one would expect to see as the most outrageous blasphemy — seems to have escaped their attention as well. Satirical magazines such as Charlie Hebdo have run cartoons ridiculing God (in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim contexts), but they were targeted with violence only when they ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad.
Of course, this is not to say extremists should threaten and harm cartoonists for more diverse theological reasons; obviously, they should not target them at all. But the exclusive focus on the Prophet Muhammad is worth pondering. One obvious explanation is that while God and the other prophets are also sacred for Judaism and Christianity, the Prophet Muhammad is sacred only for Muslims. In other words, the zeal comes not from merely respect for the sacred, but from militancy for what’s sacred to us — us being the community of Muslims. So the unique sensitivity around Muhammad seems to be a case of religious nationalism, with its focus on the earthly community — rather than of true faith, whose main focus should be the divine.
Still, this religious nationalism is guided by religious law — Shariah — that includes clauses about punishing blasphemy as a deadly sin. It is thus of vital importance that Muslim scholars courageously, even audaciously, address this issue today. They can begin by acknowledging that, while Shariah is rooted in the divine, the overwhelming majority of its injunctions are man-made, partly reflecting the values and needs of the seventh to 12th centuries — when no part of the world was liberal, and other religions, such as Christianity, also considered blasphemy a capital crime.
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The only source in Islamic law that all Muslims accept indisputably is the Quran. And, conspicuously, the Quran decrees no earthly punishment for blasphemy — or for apostasy (abandonment or renunciation of the faith), a related concept. Nor, for that matter, does the Quran command stoning, female circumcision or a ban on fine arts. All these doctrinal innovations, as it were, were brought into the literature of Islam as medieval scholars interpreted it, according to the norms of their time and milieu.
Tellingly, severe punishments for blasphemy and apostasy appeared when increasingly despotic Muslim empires needed to find a religious justification to eliminate political opponents.
One of the earliest “blasphemers” in Islam was the pious scholar Ghaylan al-Dimashqi, who was executed in the 8th century by the Umayyad Empire. His main “heresy” was to insist that rulers did not have the right to regard their power as “a gift of God,” and that they had to be aware of their responsibility to the people.
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Before all that politically motivated expansion and toughening of Shariah, though, the Quran told early Muslims, who routinely faced the mockery of their faith by pagans: “God has told you in the Book that when you hear God’s revelations disbelieved in and mocked at, do not sit with them until they enter into some other discourse; surely then you would be like them.”
Just “do not sit with them” — that is the response the Quran suggests for mockery. Not violence. Not even censorship.
Wise Muslim religious leaders from the entire world would do Islam a great favor if they preached and reiterated such a nonviolent and nonoppressive stance in the face of insults against Islam. That sort of instruction could also help their more intolerant coreligionists understand that rage is a sign of nothing but immaturity. The power of any faith comes not from its coercion of critics and dissenters. It comes from the moral integrity and the intellectual strength of its believers.
Mustafa Akyol is a contributing opinion writer and the author of “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.”