Writing in the tenth century, the Tunisian Muslim jurist Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani (d.996) issued the following sharia legal ruling about what to do with a person who initiates blasphemy against Islam and its Prophet Muhammad:
Whoever abuses the Messenger of God – peace and blessing of God be upon him – is to be executed, and his repentance is not accepted.
If any dhimmi (by 'dhimmi' is meant a non-Muslim subject living in a Muslim country) curses the Prophet – peace be upon him – or abuses him by saying something other than what already makes him an unbeliever, or abuses God Most High by saying something other than what already makes him an unbeliever, he is to be executed unless at that juncture he accepts Islam. (The Risala: A Treatise on Maliki Fiqh, p.359)
This is not simply one man’s opinion. According to Muhammad Hashim Kamali, a prominent Malaysian Muslim scholar, “Islamic law penalises both blasphemy and apostasy with death – the juristic manuals of fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] across the madhahib [legal schools] leave one in little doubt that this is the stand of the law.” Indeed, the two most detailed Islamic works on the subject of blasphemy – by Ibn Taymiyya (d.1328) and Qadi Iyad al-Yahsabi (d.1149) – both conclude that the only appropriate punishment for blasphemy against Islam and Muhammad is the death penalty.
At best, the death penalty has generally been considered a discretionary punishment by Islamic jurists, which can be applied if a sharia judge feels it is the best available option. Reliance of the Traveller, an important manual of Islamic law which carries an endorsement by Egypt’s prestigious Al Azhar University, says that if a subject of the Islamic state “mentions something impermissible about Allah, the Prophet, or Islam,” the Muslim leader has four options: “death, slavery, release without paying anything, or ransoming [the blasphemer] in exchange for money or for a Muslim captive held by the enemy.”
Such rulings stem from a pious desire to emulate the behaviour of a man the Qur’an describes as an “excellent example of conduct” for Muslims to follow (33:21) – Muhammad himself.
The Prophet of Islam is recorded to have had a number of people assassinated merely because they wrote poems that made fun of him and his followers. This included a Jewish poet called K'ab bin al-Ashraf, who, according to Muhammad’s earliest biographer Ibn Ishaq (d.773), “composed amatory [i.e. sexually suggestive] verses of an insulting nature about the Muslim women.” Muhammad asked his followers: “Who is willing to kill Ka'b bin al-Ashraf who has hurt Allah and His Apostle?” A Muslim volunteered to be the assassin, adding, “Then allow me to say a (false) thing (i.e. to deceive Ka’b).” Muhammad gave him permission to use deceit to achieve the murder, and the assassin duly obliged. (Sahih Bukhari v.5, b.59, no.369)
Towards the end of his life, after he had conquered Mecca, Muhammad also ordered the assassination of another Jewish poet, this time a pregnant woman who had written verses attacking Muslims for their blind obedience to the Prophet. She was swiftly killed, along with her unborn child. Before long the assassin began to feel guilty about what he had done. Muhammad reassured him by saying, “You have helped God and his Apostle”, and clearly without guilt or remorse, added, “Two goats won't butt their heads about her.”
In total, the early Muslim sources provide at least ten examples of people who were assassinated – or survived assassination attempts – on Muhammad’s order for writing verses which he considered offensive to the Islamic religion. According to another hadith, he also had no objection to his followers killing those who criticised him personally: “A Jewess used to abuse the Prophet and disparage him. A man strangled her till she died. The Apostle of Allah declared that no recompense was payable for her blood.” (Sunan Abu Dawud, b.33, no.4349)
Historically, this has been the typical fate of those who publicly criticise, mock or insult Islam, its Prophet and its holy book. Even in supposedly “tolerant” Muslim Spain in the Middle Ages, Christians were regularly sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam. In fact, the problem grew to such an extent that a movement of Christians arose who would deliberately criticise Islam in order to defend their own religion, despite the knowledge that they would be executed as a result.
An early example of such a “martyr” is Isaac, a Christian of noble birth who actually rose to an unusually senior administrative position for a Christian under Muslim rule. One day, in front of a Muslim qadi, or judge, he launched into an attack on Islam, saying that Muhammad was burning in Hell for leading the Arabs astray. The qadi was so outraged that he initially slapped Isaac, and then sentenced him to death. For his part, Isaac insisted that the “zeal of righteousness” compelled him to speak out against Islam and that he was prepared to die for his indiscretion. He was eventually decapitated and his corpse hung upside-down for public viewing.
The same week in Cordoba, six more Christians were arrested for blasphemy, pronouncing just before their execution: “We abide by the same confession, O judge, that our most holy brothers Isaac and Sanctius [another martyr killed that week] professed. Now hand down the sentence, multiply your cruelty, be kindled with complete fury in vengeance for your prophet. We profess Christ to be truly God and your prophet to be a precursor of antichrist and an author of profane doctrine.” This brought the number of Christians executed for blasphemy in a single week in Cordoba to eight.
As horrific as such stories are, they unfortunately cannot be described as mere history, for the persecution of “blasphemers” against Islam continues into the modern day, with a disproportionate number of Muslim countries still having laws on the books that impose penalties on criticism of religion.
The West must stand up and rationally call upon Muslims to accept standards of free speech which allow for the criticism and even mocking of their sacred texts and persons. Failure to do so is an unacceptable affront to individual freedom and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms.