What Exactly is Blasphemy?

Five days ago, an Igbo woman was killed by a group of irate Muslim youths in Kano, Nigeria, on allegations that she blasphemed against Islam. The killing has been condemned by everybody including moderate Muslims, from the President, the Kano State Governor, and Sultan of Sokoto, who are practising Muslims themselves to private Muslim Nigerian citizens who took to their social media platforms to condemn the killing in strong terms.

It’s important to note that this is not the first time this kind of blasphemy violence is happening in Nigeria. The list of reported incidents is endless, talk less of those that were not reported. Perusing this Wikipedia page, I was able to generate the following list (visit the link to see the references):

19 June 2009: In Jigawa state, Muslims burnt down a police outpost and injured about twelve people because someone distributed a pamphlet that allegedly blasphemed against Prophet Muhammad.

9 August 2008: In Kano state, Muslims killed a fifty-year-old man who blasphemed Mohammed.

20 April 2008: In Kano, Muslims burned shops and vehicles of Christians because one of them allegedly blasphemed against Mohammed.

9 February 2008: In Kano state, Muslims burned down a police station and the operational vehicles and killed a police inspector, and two civilians, and wounded twenty others just because a pamphlet that allegedly blasphemed against Mohammad was distributed.

4 February 2008: In Bauchi state, a Christian woman who was alleged to have desecrated the Quran sought refuge in a police station. Muslims burned down the police station, five churches, business belonging to Christians, and policemen’s homes. Many lives were lost in the ensuing violence.

October 2007: In Kano State, the Sharia court system sentenced one Sani Kabili, a Christian and a father of six, to a three-year imprisonment for allegedly blaspheming against Mohammed. The sentence was later successfully overturned at an appellate court.

28 September 2007: In Kano State, Muslims killed nine Christians, burned down a few churches, destroyed their homes and businesses just because Christian students drew a picture of Mohammad.

21 March 2007: In Gombe State, Muslim secondary school students beat to death one of their own teachers, Christianah Oluwatoyin Oluwasesin, a Yoruba Christian and a mother of two, for mistakenly touching a Quran while searching a student’s bag in an exam hall. Infidels must not touch the Quran.

February 2006: In several Northern Nigerian states, Muslims went on rampages killing Christians and burning churches, and businesses belonging to Christians because a magazine, Jyllands-Posten, published Muhammad’s cartoons in far away Denmark.

February 2006: In Bauchi state, Muslims killed more than twenty Christians because Florence Chuckwu, a Christian teacher, seized a Quran from a student who was reading it during an English class.

20 November 2002: In Kaduna and Abuja, Muslims rioted and more than 250 lives were lost. It was because when Nigeria’s effort at hosting the Miss World beauty peagent was met with resistance from Nigerian Muslims, Thisday newspaper published an article saying Muhammad himself would’ve picked one of the contestants for wife. The office of the newspaper in Kaduna was burned down, and several churches and businesses belonging to Christians were destroyed. Isioma Daniel, the lady who wrote the newspaper article, fled Nigeria when a fatwa was declared on her.

14 July 1999: In Kebbi State, Muslims beheaded one Abdullahi Umaru for allegedly blaspheming against Mohammed.

Definition of blasphemy

What do these people call blasphemy? What did their victims do that qualified for blasphemy? According to Concise Oxford English Dictionary,

▸ n. profane or sacrilegious talk about God or sacred things.

But that’s a loose definition. Anything can qualify to be called blasphemy. And based on happenings in Nigeria and around the world, the following have been called ‘blasphemy’:

Blasphemy against holy personages

  • speaking ill of Allah
  • finding fault with Muhammad
  • slighting a prophet who is mentioned in the Quran, or slighting a member of Muhammad’s family
  • claiming to be a prophet or a messenger
  • speculating about how Muhammad would behave if he were alive
  • visual depictions of Muhammad or any other prophet, or films about Muhammad or other prophets
  • writing Muhammad’s name on the walls of a toilet or naming an object after Muhammad
  • invoking God while committing a forbidden act

Blasphemy against beliefs and customs

  • finding fault with Islam
  • saying Islam is an Arab religion
  • saying the Quran is full of lies
  • believing in transmigration of the soul or reincarnation or disbelieving in the afterlife
  • finding fault with a belief or a practice which the Muslim community (Ummah) has adopted (e.g., saying prayers five times a day are not necessary)
  • finding fault with or cursing apostles (Rasul or Messenger), prophets, or angels
  • expressing an atheist or a secular point of view or publishing or distributing such a point of view
  • using words that Muslims use when the individual using the words is not a Muslim
  • praying that Muslims convert to another religion
  • whistling during Muslim prayers
  • flouting the rules prescribed for Ramadan
  • reciting Muslim prayers in a language other than Arabic
  • consuming alcohol
  • gambling
  • being alone with persons of the opposite sex who are not blood relatives
  • finding amusement in Islamic customs
  • publishing an unofficial translation of the Quran
  • practicing yoga
  • watching a film or listening to music
  • wearing make-up on television
  • insulting religious scholarship
  • wearing the clothing of Jews or of Zoroastrians
  • claiming that forbidden acts are not forbidden
  • uttering “words of infidelity” (sayings that are forbidden)
  • Muslims participating in non-Islamic religious festivals
  • converting from Islam to Christianity or publishing or distributing such a point of view
  • talking about or trying to convert others from Islam to Christianity or publishing or distributing such a point of view

Blasphemy against artifacts

  • touching a Quran or touching something that has touched a Quran because the individuals were not Muslim
  • spitting at the wall of a mosque

People have been accused of blasphemy for doing any of these things. You see now? Basically, just about anything that angers a Muslim can be termed blasphemy.

Punishment for blasphemy

It differs. It ranges from getting divorced by your spouse to being beheaded. It depends on the gender of the offender and whether they’re a Muslim or a non-Muslim. It also depends on the school of Islamic jurisprudence that’s delivering the judgement. Just like a large number of issues in Islam, there is no concensus as to what the punishment of blasphemy is.

In the wake of the Igbo woman killed last week, Murtada Muhammad Gusau, prominent Nigerian Islamic scholar, gave a detailed exegesis on what Islam says about the Kano incident. In the article, he joined the other prominent Nigerian Muslims to condemn the killing. The thrust of his write-up was that jungle justice and mob action are un-Islamic. So he concluded that what those Muslim youths did was un-Islamic. He also went further to opine that blasphemy could better be handled by nonviolence and peaceful discussions. He cited copiously from the Quran and the Sunnah to buttress this ‘Islam is a religion of peace‘ viewpoint. But there are several issues with that article.

One, he emphasized the parts of the Quran and Sunnah that appeared to encourage nonviolent approaches to blasphemy while deemphasizing other parts that appear to encourage violence. Quran 33:57, 61; Sahih al-Bukhari 4:52:270; 5:59:369; 3:45:687; 4:52:271; Sahih Muslim 19:4436 were all missing from his article. He cited only a Sunnah that seemed to promote violent punishment for blasphemy but quickly declared that it is an inauthentic Hadith. But the problem is those portions I quoted above have historically been used to justify beheadings for blasphemy. What can he do about that?

Two, his article was silent on what the real Islamic punishment for blasphemy is. It’s capital punishment. There are five schools of Islamic jurisprudence (Hanafi, Maliki, Hanbali, Shafi’i, and Ja’fari) and they all agreed that the final punishment for blasphemy is death. Where they differ is whether a blasphemer should be killed straightaway or be given some preliminary punishments pending repentance. The schools with the latter view also prescribe death for the unrepentant blasphemer. It is also a concensus that blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad is the worst of all blasphemies and some people think it deserves instant death. While Allah can later forgive you if you blaspheme against him, Muhammad is no longer alive and thus, you can never be forgiven. Therefore Muslims see it as a duty to prevent and resist blasphemy generally but blasphemy against Muhammad most especially.

This is why people are getting beheaded for blasphemy in North African and Middle Eastern nations. Those Muslim-dominant countries operate a Sharia system that prescribes beheading for blasphemers. So yesterday, after reading Gusau’s article, I put a call through to him (his phone number is at the end of his write-up). I gave him this background premise and then asked him what he thought the punishment for blasphemy was. He was sincere. He also agreed that death was the appropriate punishment. However this was missing in his article. I asked him why. He said it was because his focus was on condemning the mob action in Kano and not to really comment on what Islam says about blasphemy. Meanwhile, note that his article was titled ‘Islam and blasphemy’.

He told me on phone that a blasphemer is never to be mobbed to death. Rather a blasphemer that will be sentenced to death must be arrested and taken to the court where the presiding judge will declare the death sentence after conducting the trial. He emphasized to me on phone that the Sharia court judge is the only person that has the right to declare a death sentence on a blasphemer and Muslims do not have a right to turn themselves to arresters, jurists, judges, and executioners of a blasphemer.

In Muslim-majority nations, people accused of blasphemy are typically beheaded

In Muslim-majority nations, people accused of blasphemy are typically beheaded

Very nice and respectable position I must say but it still doesn’t address the issue. The issue is that some people in some parts of this world still considers blasphemy a crime worthy of death.

But there’s more. There’s something called fatwa. Muslims can approach a leader for clarification about any subject in Islam. What such a much respected leader declares as the truth is called a fatwa and such a leader is called a Mufti. While fatwas are not binding on the followers of a Mufti, the followers are at liberty to follow what he has said. And you know what? There are no internationally accredited criteria for deciding who can issue fatwas and who can not. In Muslim-dominated nations like Saudi Arabia, there are already recognized Muftis in the country whose fatwas are the only respected fatwas. This is because the whole national system runs on Sharia. But in a place like northern Nigeria, any community of Muslims can hold any leader in that position. This brings me to some of these killings. Some moderate Muslims call these actions ‘un-Islamic mob actions’. How are they sure that those mobs aren’t acting on fatwas declared by some Muftis somewhere?

Blasphemy and Nigerian politics

I’m afraid these killings will continue as long as we keep deceiving ourselves. There’s strong politics involved in these issues.

To start with, the Nigerian law is ambiguous about blasphemy. While the Constitution gives every Nigerian the right to freedom of thought and religion (section 38) and freedom of expression (section 39), section 204 of the Criminal Code expressly prohibits blasphemy. Furthermore, ⅓ of the federal units in Nigeria run a parallel Sharia court system which clearly prescribes death for the blasphemy offence. So you see? The politics is messed up around here.

Earlier this year, one preacher and six of his followers were handed death sentences by a system of Sharia courts in the same Kano state. This judgement was applauded by the state governor. But the same state governor came out to condemn the killing of the Igbo woman last week. This doublespeak is disturbing to say the least but the message is clear. Killing for blasphemy is allowed: don’t just let it be by a mob action. Needless to say that the same state governor is planning to submit an antiblasphemy law to the state assembly.

In the wake of this killing of the Igbo woman, the Nigerian President through his special adviser on media, Mr. Femi Adesina, issued a statement that contained this paragraph:

“The incident at Kofar Wambai market, Kano city, is utterly condemnable, and the state government has been quite proactive. Let us ensure that we keep the peace, as justice will be done. Let us learn to respect each other’s faith, so that we can know each other and live together in peace.”

Emphasis on ‘Let us learn to respect each other’s faith’. In other words, blasphemy is wrong. In other words, your freedom of speech doesn’t involve saying anything that hurts another person’s faith. So who are we deceiving?

Blasphemy in other religions

Well, it’s not only Islam that’s against blasphemy. Virtually all religions are against you blaspheming. Judaism prescribes a stoning to death for anyone that blasphemes against Yahweh while Christianity says blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable. The tribal religions of Africa also killed anyone that abused the gods. However those religions have outgrown their violent pasts when they killed people for such things as blasphemy. The religion whose members kill people for blasphemy today is Islam. That’s why the focus of this write-up has been Islam.

Should we still be talking about blasphemy?

This is where we’re going. This is the crux of this article. It’s sad that we’re still here talking about blasphemy. While some countries have abolished their own antiblasphemy laws since the 17th century, some people are still propagating the idea that people should be killed for blasphemy in 2016 CE.

Since 1999, member nations of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) kept pushing for antiblasphemy laws to be upheld by The United Nations. Despite repeated attempts every year, the support was declining and in 2011, the final resolution shot down the proposal. The UN resolved that all nations that have antiblasphemy laws should drop such laws as they’re against fundamental human rights of free expression.

Antiblasphemy laws are just plain wrong. Restricting what people can say just because of your love for unseen entities is just plain wrong. I’m against racist remarks. You didn’t choose to be African or Asian. And there are real, tangible differences between an African and an Asian. But you chose to worship a particular god and gods are abstract ideas. All abstract ideas should be open to criticism. If Islamophobia means hatred of Muslims, it’s plain wrong. If it means criticism of Islam and its God and prophets, it’s plain right. It’s high time we started drawing the line between real entities like fellow human beings and people’s shops/churches and unreal things like emotions, numbers, and gods. You don’t belong to this century if you think someone who has only spoken against an unreal deity should be killed when they have not hurt anybody.

If someone insults your father or mother or spouse, you should take him up. He has insulted a real person that’s close to you. If someone insults your race, he hasn’t done anything wrong. But if he insults you for your race, take him up as he has insulted your person. If someone insults your gender or profession, let him be. But if he insults you for your gender or your profession, take him up as he has insulted a real person. Same thing. If someone insults your religion or god, let him be. But if he insults you for your religion or God, then you’re free to take him up. But what do we have today? Folks going full or semi-violent when their religions and gods are insulted. If you belong to this group, you need some growing up to do.

Antiblasphemy behaviour only encourages hypocrisy. Every Christian, just by being a Christian, has blasphemed against Allah already. He believes Allah is not the true God and Muhammad is not a true messenger. That’s why he’s not a Muslim. Hasn’t he blasphemed already? Ooohhhh…because he doesn’t voice it out everyday? When people say it wasn’t right for that woman to have blasphemed, what they’re saying is that they’re OK with her blaspheming with her daily lifestyle but not by saying it. So who are we deceiving? Why not just kill any non-Muslim as a blasphemer?

On January 7, 2015, two terrorists accused a magazine of blasphemy and broke into their office leave several people dead

On January 7, 2015, two terrorists accused a magazine of blasphemy and broke into their office leaving several people dead

And why should humans be the ones defending their Gods? Shouldn’t the Gods fight for themselves? Why should you prescribe beheading someone who insulted your God and not you? Perhaps that says something. Perhaps it says when someone blasphemes, you’re the one being offended because you’re the god they’ve just blasphemed against. People are their gods. The gods aren’t real. They only reside in people’s minds. That’s why when you blaspheme against a god, it’s the human being that gets angry instead. It’s because when God, an abstract idea, resides in someone’s brain, the person becomes the God. That’s why human beings are the only ones telling each other about what God says. That’s why a man’s relationship with his god is personal and that’s why a particular god reflects the cultural perspectives of the people from which it emanated from.

Moderate Muslims say that Allah doesn’t want mob actions against blasphemers. How come he allows people to be mobbed to death in his name? For instance, if I notice that you’re about to do something that can tarnish my image, I’ll do everything within my power to prevent you from doing it. These mobs obviously aren’t rendering a good service to Allah’s reputation. How come an almighty entity doesn’t bother to prevent anything that will tarnish his image? This is one of the reasons why Muslims should chill about this theodicy bandwagon they always jump on whenever an evil act is carried out in Allah’s name. But just as I said above, since they’re actually Allah themselves, it’s only rational for them to clear Allah’s name which in reality is their own name.

And if Allah doesn’t condone what ISIS and Boko Haram are doing, aren’t those terrorists the real blasphemers? In other words, lying against Allah should be a blasphemy. ISIS and Boko Haram are lying against Allah, saying he asked them to do what they’re doing. When are we going to leave these innocent citizens alone and face ISIS and Boko Haram, the real blasphemers? If Allah truly doesn’t command violence, can we say terrorists who scream Allah Akbar when they’re about to let off a bomb are blasphemers? Why can’t those alimanjiris who killed the Igbo woman go after Boko Haram & ISIS who are even bother blasphemers?  Why should we leave the bigger blasphemers and keep beheading the minor blasphemers?

Meanwhile, blasphemy is a meaningless political jargon. Muslims talk about blasphemy because they’re a majority. People blaspheme against Sat Guru Marahji everyday. When will his worshippers scream blasphemy? Of course, if you’re in the minority, you don’t have a right to the antiblasphemy laws, do you?

Blasphemy is a political jargon. It’s don’t speak against my opinion. People blaspheme against Guru Marahji everyday. Who has fought for them? Of course, they’re a religious minority.

Organized religion is a fraud that can’t stand criticism. That’s why it needs to protect itself with things like antiblasphemy laws. Has anyone enacted antiscience laws? Shouldn’t we enact such laws to put behind bars the creationists and pseudoscientists who are working very hard to twist (‘blaspheme against’) science? Laws against criticism are only necessary against things that can’t stand criticism. Let’s do an experiment. Let’s allow everybody everywhere in the world to blaspheme against the organized religions as they wish without fear of victimization and let’s see for how long the religions can continue to exist!

The sacred is fake and powerless. The only way it can continue to exist and fester is for the followers to enforce it by violence and that’s exactly what antiblasphemy laws are all about. Just like what they call Orò in Yoruba land. It’s said that women must not behold the occultic procession, that the gods will be angry if they do so. But because in reality, nothing will happen if a woman beholds it, the Orò members go violent on any woman that tries to behold them. That’s how antiblasphemy violence rolls. Religion started when rulers operated in the authority of the deities and thus the best way to prohibit a revolt against the rulers was to prohibit a revolt against the gods.

Blasphemy and so many concepts in these religions are too anachronistic to even consider. These religions started in the era when there were no Facebook and Twitter, when there were no antibiotics and space travel, when literacy wasn’t everybody’s right or priviledge. That was the era when theocracy and monarchy-cum-dictatorship, rather than democracy, were the order of the day. That we’re still talking about blasphemy would’ve been good for historical purposes. But that we’re still talking about blasphemy as a contemporary issue shows that a part of humanity is not advancing at the same pace with the rest.

How did the gods come about? One person or a group of persons received a revelation. For instance, Prophet Muhammad received revelations about Allah and thus we knew about Allah. Moses received revelations about Yahweh and thus we knew about Yahweh. What antiblasphemy activity is telling us is that we will be punished if we choose to challenge what Muhammad or Moses saw. That we still can’t rationally challenge what some folks saw or said thousands of years ago is terrible. That some people will throw fits of rage and visit violence on us if we choose to voice out our disagreements with their revelations thousands of years after is not a good sign for the advancement of human civilization. Whether some of them will physically behead offenders or they will just get angry with the offenders is not the issue. That we consider it an offence at all is the big issue here. Considering it an offence is the basis for beheading. To a rational mind, these things shouldn’t constitute any offence whatsoever.

See where we are now. We’re debating whether capital punishment is right or wrong. We’re discussing even if we’re to do capital punishment, what’s the best method? Our prisons are now called ‘correctional facilities’, no more dungeons. We now view slavery as a horrible evil. And you’re still thinking of punishing someone for blasphemy?

Anyway, there’s now something called World Blasphemy Rights Day that’s already being celebrated in some parts of the world. Let those who still want to hold on to their antiblasphemy activities know that the days of the blasphemy idea are numbered.

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One Response

  1. Yusuf Solihu June 8, 2016

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