Punishment for Blasphemy: A Pre-Islamic Practice | The Speaking Tree | TOI | March 17, 2011
Those who believe that anyone who ridicules the Prophet Muhammad should be hanged, can produce no clear commandment from the Quran or Hadith to support this belief. They merely give a distorted version of some incident which took place during the Prophet’s time and say that such and such a person involved in this incident was put to death because he was a blasphemer. The case of Kab ibn Ashraf is generally cited in support their ill-conceived argument.
Kab ibn Ashaf (d. 624 A.D.) a native of Medina, was a poet as well as an orator. His mother belonged to the Banu Nadhir, a Jewish tribe. In the early days of Islam in Medina, he started defaming the Prophet and his followers, satirizing them in his poems and speeches.
It is clearly mentioned in Al-Bidayah wa’l Nihaya by Ibn Kathir (pp. 326-336, Vol. 5) that when Kab ibn Ashaf started defaming the Prophet, the only action taken by the latter was to ask Hassan ibn Thabit, one of the Companions who was a poet, to counter his false allegations. On the Prophet’s advice, Hassan ibn Thabit, then composed verses in which he refuted the false propaganda directed against the Prophet by Kab ibn Ashraf.
The Prophet entered into an agreement with several tribes of Medina, including the Banu Nadhir tribe of which Kab ibn Asharaf was a member, that they would not support any other tribe against the Muslims. But Kab ibn Ashaf broke this agreement by visiting Mecca and inciting the Quraysh against the Muslims. He told the Quraysh leaders to attack the Muslims from outside Medina and his tribe will attack the Muslims at the same time from inside the city. He became the ring leader of a group whose sole aim was to incite people against the Prophet and his followers. This was a clear violation of the agreement between the Prophet and the Banu Nadhir tribe. He not only turned his own tribe against the Muslims but also played a major role in inciting other tribes such as the Aws.
This was a clear act of violation of the agreement between the Prophet and the Banu Nidhir tribe and it amounted to treason against and betrayal of the state of Medina.
He was put to death on account of this act of treason and his conspiring against the state, and not because of his satire and ridicule of the Prophet.
The contention of a modern scholar, Sheikh Mohammed Riza, that Kab ibn Ashraf was hanged for blasphemy is meaningless, as it is unsupported by any clear reference from the Quran, the Hadith or from the writings of the early scholars of Islam.
Anyone who cares to go through the attached pages of Al-Badaya Wan Nihya by Ibu Kathir, will find that the case of Kab ibn Ashaf was clearly one of treason against the state and not of blasphemy.
Before Islam, during the pagan age, or jahiliya, many people were prosecuted on account of their faith. The Quran refers to this in the following verse:
They ill-treated them for no other reason than that they believed in God, the Almighty, the Praiseworthy. (Al-Buruj, 85:8).
With the advent of Islam, the age-old pagan practice of prosecuting people on account of their faith was abolished. But the Muslims in the Abbasi period revived the former pre-Islamic custom of prosecuting people on a charge of blasphemy against the Prophet. This was highly irregular and totally against the principles of Islam, as the Quran only sanctions capital punishment for those who have committed a crime such as murder. There is not a single injunction in the Quran and the Hadith to the effect that anyone who says anything against the Prophet should be put to death. Rather the Quran asks the Prophet and the believers to be as patient as the other great prophets who endured such conduct with patience (Al-Ahqaf, 46:35).
The world is a testing ground. Here, everyone is free to do whatever he likes. Without freedom, it is not possible to put human beings to the test.. People’s freedom of speech cannot then be snatched away when it has been given to them by none other than God Almighty Himself. Punishment for blasphemy cannot therefore be countenanced.
Secondly, the killing of a person accused of blasphemy by an individual (as was done recently in Pakistan) is definitely haram. In Islamic law, it is quite clear that if a person is accused of committing a crime, his case will go to the authorities who will file a case against him. His case will then be examined by a state authorized court in which the testimony of four witnesses will be heard, after which the court, having gone through a proper legal process, will give its verdict. If the accused is found guilty, then the law enforcement agencies will carry out the punishment. But if any member of the public picks up a gun and, taking the law into his own hands, shoots down a person whom he considers a blasphemer, he will be considered to have acted totally against the spirit of Islam.
In the same way, the case of Abdullah ibn Khatal was not one of blasphemy. It is true that he too, like Kab ibn Ashraf, used to ridicule the prophet in his poetry. But his punishment was not because of blasphemy of the Prophet, but on account of a murder he committed. He killed his servant and, as a punishment for that, he was put to death. Reference is made to this in Ibn Taimiya’s book, Al-Sarim al Maslul ala Shatim al-Rasul, page 265, Vol. 2. (Arabic text attached).
The most important thing which the proponents of the blasphemy law have chosen to ignore is that it is a very important principle of fiqh (Islamic law) that, before making such a law, there has to be a clear reference to it in the nass, or text of the Quran and the Hadith.
The Quran makes the very clear statement that if anyone killed a person, his action would be seen as killing the entire mankind (al-Maida, 5:32). Supposing the Almighty had seen fit to award such a punishment as the execution of anyone who ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad, how is it that, on this particular issue, the Quran makes no statement whatsoever?