Islam, Blasphemy, and the East-West Divide




On a February morning three a long time in the past, hundreds of thousands of Westerners woke as much as learn within the information about an unfamiliar idea: a “loss of life fatwa” by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, chief of the Iranian Revolution and the founding father of the Islamic Republic, towards British writer Salman Rushdie. The reviews despatched shockwaves all through the West and made the time period fatwa, which in Arabic merely means “authorized opinion,” the chilling phrase that it’s for a lot of right now.

Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, printed a couple of months earlier than United Kingdom, had angered Muslims world wide. However no response had but been as radical as that of Khomeini, whose verdict, as introduced on Tehran radio on February 14, 1989, learn:

Within the title of Him, the Highest. Them is just one God, to whom we will all return.

I inform all zealous Muslims of the world that the writer of the e-book entitled The Satanic Verses—which has been compiled, printed, and printed in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur’an—and all these concerned in its publication who had been conscious of its content material, are sentenced to loss of life.

I name on all zealous Muslims to execute them shortly, wherever they might be discovered. in order that nobody else will dare to insult the Muslim sanctities. God keen, whoever is killed on this path is a martyr.

As well as, anybody who has entry to the writer of this e-book, however doesn’t possess the ability to execute him, ought to report him to the individuals in order that he could also be punished for his actions.

Might peace and the mercy of God and His blessings be with you.[1]

To make the decision extra interesting, the Iranian Aid Company additionally introduced a bounty of 1,000,000 to a non-Iranian murderer, and 200 million Iran riyals (equaling $170,000) to an Iranian one. Rushdie, who heard the information first from the BBC World Service, quickly went into hiding beneath the safety of the British police. He would spend the subsequent decade and extra beneath police safety and in secrecy.

Khomeini embraced this trigger as a chance to make himself into the premier defender of the religion within the eyes of the world’s over one billion Muslims. It was for the glory of the Iranian Revolution, a motion that he had spearheaded a decade earlier, which he envisioned as a mannequin to be exported to different Muslim nations. This was a dream that had, within the years for the reason that 1979 ouster of the shah of Iran, remained largely unfulfilled—not least because of the sectarian divide between the Shia Muslims of Iran and the world’s way more quite a few Sunni Muslims. Khomeini’s Iran was, because it nonetheless is, additionally in competitors with one other Muslim energy, Saudi Arabia, which was passionate to export its personal model of Islam referred to as Wahhabism (a pietistic and literalist type of Sunni Islam).

Some commentators ascribe to Khomeini extra mundane motives for the fatwa as nicely, primarily related along with his must shore up political help amongst Iranians. The federal government had simply concluded a humiliating armistice with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after eight devastating years of the Iran-Iraq warfare. Then, too, there have been the embarrassing revelations of dealings with Washington within the Iran-Contra affair.

In any case, the Ayatollah Khomeini wouldn’t have been capable of difficulty a loss of life fatwa if such a harsh response to blasphemy had no precedent in Islam—and if The Satanic Verses didn’t actually look blasphemous in Muslim eyes.

Mahound and Jahilliyah

Rushdie was born in 1947 to a Muslim household in India, was educated in Bombay and in Warwickshire, England, and went into promoting in London after studying historical past at Cambridge. He described himself as a “secular human being” who didn’t consider in “supernatural entities.”[2] His prizewinning 1981 novel, Midnight’s Youngsters, made his status in literary circles. The Satanic Verses (1988), which might give him worldwide fame and notoriety, was his fourth e-book.

It made use of magic realism to inform the story of two Indian expatriates in up to date England. Considered one of them, Farishta, skilled dream visions having to do with a flawed prophet named “Mahound”—a derogatory time period for the Prophet Muhammad that was utilized in medieval Christian texts. Mahound was based mostly in a metropolis referred to as “Jahilliyah,” which is how Muslims consult with pre-Islamic Arabia. Mahound claimed to have revelations from God, however these had been really tainted by the satan. And even perhaps extra irreverently, the ladies who appeared within the novel as Mahound’s wives had been additionally prostitutes working at a neighborhood brothel.

Literary critics discovered the e-book attention-grabbing, however Muslims discovered all of it too offensive. Ali Mughram al-Ghamdi, a British Muslim chief of the time, referred to as it “probably the most offensive, filthy and abusive e-book ever written by any hostile enemy of Islam.”[3]

Quickly Muslim organizations mobilized to get the e-book banned by the British authorities, which, beneath the management of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, refused to invoke the nation’s long-obsolete regulation on blasphemy. Extra offended reactions adopted. Copies of The Satanic Verses had been publicly burnt in cities round the UK, a ritual that was repeated in cities all through the Muslim world, the place mass rallies had been held to protest the e-book’s publication. After which got here the Ayatollah’s loss of life fatwa.

Rushdie, who now lives in the USA, finally survived the menace. He stopped hiding in 1998, when President Mohammad Khatami, who led Iran between 1997 and 2005, declared that the fatwa wouldn’t be pursued. (However Khomeiniites wouldn’t surrender. In 2005, the Revolutionary Guards, with the blessing of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor, declared that the fatwa remained legitimate. In 2016, a hardline Iranian media group raised the bounty on Rushdie’s head.)

In the meantime different acts of violence associated to The Satanic Verses did damage different individuals. Earlier than the fatwa, the anti-Rushdie disturbances in the UK and the Center East produced few casualties. After the fatwa, extra critical assaults got here. A number of bookshops in London had been attacked with firebombs. The novel’s Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was stabbed to loss of life in July 1991 in Ibaraki, Japan. This was a couple of days after the novel’s Italian translator, Ettore Capriolo, was stabbed in Milan (he survived). There was additionally an assassination try on the lifetime of the writer of the Norwegian version of The Satanic Verses, William Nygaard; he was shot thrice in October 1993 in Oslo, however survived.

Extra such incidents had been to return. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa opened the best way for violent retribution towards those that would depict the Prophet Muhammad or publish works that subjected, or had been perceived to topic, Islam to criticism. In 2005, the publication of a collection of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad by Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, provoked worldwide protests and boycotts. In 2011 after which 2015, the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo was attacked for daring to print cartoons of Islam’s prophet. Within the latter assault, which occurred in Paris, 12 individuals had been killed by terrorists belonging to “Al-Qaeda within the Arabian Peninsula.” Their motive, they claimed, was “revenge for the respect” of the Prophet Muhammad.

And this summer time, the world solely barely prevented yet one more drama. The “Muhammad Cartoon Contest” introduced by Geert Wilders, the far-Proper and unabashedly anti-Muslim Dutch politician, was cancelled on the finish of August because of loss of life threats. The latter got here particularly from Pakistan, the place Tehreek-e-Labbaik, a fiery Islamist occasion, organized mass rallies and its chief vowed to “bomb Holland” if his group had been ever capable of purchase nukes.

In brief, the friction uncovered by the Satanic Verses controversy nonetheless haunts the world and can probably achieve this, time and again, sooner or later: a friction between the West’s dedication to free speech and Muslims’ aversion to blasphemy.

It’s a friction that begs to be addressed.

Blasphemy Actual or Perceived

The friction right here is not only about vigilantes wielding weapons and knives towards those that blaspheme, or are believed to have blasphemed, towards Islam. It’s also about anti-blasphemy legal guidelines which can be applied in some 30 Muslim-majority international locations, and are sometimes supported by mainstream Muslim authorities. (In complete, there are some 50 international locations on the planet that outlaw blasphemy, in accordance with a 2014 Pew Analysis Heart report. Considered one of them, Eire, abolished the “medieval” ban on blasphemy with a referendum in October.)

The people who find themselves focused by such legal guidelines may be actual blasphemers—individuals who overtly desecrate Islam’s holy symbols, such because the Qur’an or the Prophet Muhammad. However extra usually they’re individuals who haven’t any intention of disrespecting Islam however whose unorthodox opinions or faiths are labelled blasphemous. Such is the case of the Ahmadis in Pakistan, an unorthodox Muslim sect whose members consider in a 19th century Muslim messiah, and who’re liable to be jailed, or bodily attacked, merely for declaring themselves Muslims.

In Pakistan, one of the vital censorious international locations on this rating, legal guidelines can be cynically used to persecute non-Muslims over private conflicts or variations of opinion. Such was the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian girl who had a dispute in 2010 together with her Muslim coworkers on a farm over whether or not she had the fitting to drink from the identical cup. The coworkers accused her of “insulting Prophet Muhammad,” and he or she needed to spend the subsequent eight years in jail. In October, she was pardoned and let loose by Pakistan’s Constitutional Courtroom, whose prudent resolution that saved Ms. Bibi famous the Prophet Muhammad’s tolerance of Christians. Pakistan’s militant Islamists had been enraged by the latest upholding of her acquittal, and proceed to threaten her life. As this AP report factors out, radicals shot and killed a provincial governor who publicly referred to as the case a travesty, and a Pakistani authorities minister who challenged the blasphemy regulation met the identical destiny.

Id Politics

Why is the Muslim-majority a part of the world so averse to blasphemy—why does it, within the phrases of a 2017 story in International Coverage, have a “blasphemy downside”? The solutions to this query are complicated, with some stemming immediately from faith, others solely not directly so.

Let’s start with the latter. Fairly a couple of Muslims within the fashionable world really feel by some means alienated, humiliated, or persecuted by exterior powers—not at all times however usually Western powers—and the result’s an anxiousness that breeds reactivity. In different phrases, we aren’t speaking about spiritual perception per se however an insecure identification that yields a reactionary political psychology. Blasphemous, even essential, therapy of Islam, on this view, is obtained as yet one more assault towards the oppressed peoples of the world that should be countered with fury.

One who witnessed the Satanic Verses disaster within the UK, the Indian-born British author Kenan Malik, captured this secular motive in a latest article within the Guardian newspaper. “The Rushdie affair,” writes Malik, “was an early expression of what we now name ‘identification politics.’” As he observes,

Many anti-Rushdie campaigners weren’t spiritual, not to mention ‘fundamentalist,’ however younger, leftwing activists. Some had been my mates and a few friendships foundered as we took reverse sides within the controversy. They had been drawn to the anti-Rushdie marketing campaign partly due to disenchantment with the left and its failure to take racism severely, and partly as a result of the left itself was abandoning its attachment to universalist values in favour of identification politics, easing the trail of many younger, secular Asians in the direction of another worldview.

In Islam different prophets, reminiscent of Abraham, Moses, or Jesus, are as sacred because the Prophet Muhammad; and God is extra sacred than they. This results in the conclusion (which I’ve drawn elsewhere) that the Muslim obsession with punishing insults, actual or perceived, solely in regards to the Prophet Muhammad is an indication that identification politics is in play. Islamist militants are motivated by the therapy of Muhammad greater than anything. The supply of the zeal is not only respect for that which is sacred, however a militancy to defend that which solely the neighborhood or ummah holds sacred.

In different phrases, what we’re seeing is related to spiritual nationalism, which is distinct from faith itself. That will clarify why, as Malik tells us, “many anti-Rushdie campaigners weren’t spiritual.” That will additionally clarify why Pakistan is usually the main nation in zealotry to police blasphemy—for in Pakistan, a nation based on Muslim identification, nationalist fervor and non secular fervor simply merge to develop into one.

East Versus West

One other side of the issue is a spot that exists, not between the West and Islam, however between the West and the East. In most Jap cultures, honor and disgrace are determinative. One’s honor is fiercely defended, and placing disgrace on prime of honor results in even better fierceness. Notice that the Jap cultures in query would possibly embrace Jap Christians as nicely, displaying how cultural attitudes can lower throughout spiritual boundaries.

An commentary which will assist clarify this phenomenon comes from Matthew Anderson, a doctoral fellow within the Division of Theological and Spiritual Research at Georgetown College, who has studied blasphemy legal guidelines in Islam. In 2015, he went to Egypt to analyze an incident on the village of Kafr Darwish, the place a Coptic Christian man named Ayman Youssef Tawfiq allegedly posted offensive materials associated to the Prophet Muhammad on his Fb account. The perceived provocation led to violence towards Coptic houses, which in flip led to a brief exodus of the Coptic neighborhood from the village.

The incident sparked a nationwide outcry. At its core there lay the idea that blasphemy is a criminal offense—and it was shared by all. “Unexpectedly,” Anderson wrote, “I discovered that at the least some Copts additionally consider that blasphemy, whether or not towards Islam or Christianity, is a criminal offense punishable by regulation.” He added:

Two Coptic monks we interviewed had been express that it was certainly a criminal offense if Ayman had really posted offensive materials on Fb towards the Prophet Muhammad. This may maybe come as a shock to these beneath the impression that each one Christians in Egypt maintain views on free expression or spiritual freedom which can be similar to these of recent American liberalism.

Anderson additionally found, among the many Muslims he interviewed, “a standard insistence that there’s a important distinction between what they thought of to be formal criticism of the Islamic faith and speech or imagery (e.g. cartoons) supposed to ridicule their religion. The previous many deemed permissible, whereas the latter was to be handled as a criminal offense.” This too appears to replicate a cultural hole: Within the West, satire is perhaps seen as a type of criticism; within the East, it may be seen as not mere criticism however insult—and there’s broad consensus that insult is a critical crime which deserves critical punishment.

Roots inside Faith

Except for this intolerance’s cultural roots, it clearly has spiritual roots as nicely—which, in fact, could also be seen as both a mirrored image, or a sustainer, of the cultural roots.

Islam, not like Christianity, is a legalistic faith with a physique of regulation protecting many facets of life. It’s referred to as Sharia, which suggests a divinely ordained “path,” whereas its human interpretation is known as fiqh, or jurisprudence. The latter passes a verdict on blasphemy and it isn’t a lightweight one. In all 5 main faculties of Islamic jurisprudence—the Sunni Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi, and Hanbali faculties, together with the Shia Jafari faculty—blasphemy towards God or prophet (sabb Allah or sabb al-Rasul) is a capital crime. The one dispute is about whether or not the blasphemer should be saved from execution if she or he repents. Hanafis, Shafis, and Jafaris pardon the blasphemers who repent; the others don’t.

For sure, for a dialog in regards to the compatibility of Islam and free speech to even start, such verdicts in Islamic jurisprudence should be reformed.

And arguments for reform have been mounted, going again at the least to the 19th century. That was a time when Muslim students positively influenced by Western liberalism—reminiscent of Ahmad Khan, Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, and Muhammad Iqbal—started to query a number of the long-honored injunctions within the Sharia that conflicted with free speech, freedom of faith, or equality earlier than regulation. The reformist views they initiated have been handed right down to new generations, together with present students reminiscent of Rashid al-Ghannushi, Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Abdullahi An-Naim, and Abdullah Saeed.

The reformist argument has a two key elements. The primary and an important is to return to probably the most basic supply of Islam, the Qur’an. A lot of what later turned established as Islamic regulation is absent from the Qur’an, and that’s true for earthly punishments for blasphemy (or apostasy) as nicely. The Qur’an, quite the opposite,  has verses that command peaceable responses to blasphemy reminiscent of refusing to “sit collectively” with those that “ridicule [God’s] revelations” (as, once more, I’ve defined elsewhere).

The second part of reform is to revisit the Sunna—the custom of the Prophet Muhammad that’s written down in “hadith” collections, or sayings, that had been canonized virtually two centuries after the Prophet’s loss of life in 632 AD. These hadith collections, on which a lot of the Sharia relies, do embrace tales of the Prophet Muhammad’s ordering the execution of some blasphemers through the early life of Islam. Specifically, the story of Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf, a Jewish poet in Medina, whose execution by Muslims is narrated in probably the most authoritative hadith assortment, has been taken by jurists as a precedent to execute blasphemers.

The reformist argument right here is to motive that Ka’b ibn al-Ashraf was not killed for insulting the Prophet or Islam, however fairly for “inciting individuals to go to warfare [against Muslims],” as Ismail Royer notes in an essential article that criticizes Pakistan’s blasphemy legal guidelines from an Islamic perspective. Royer refers to conventional Hanafi students who had a extra liberal tackle the matter, together with the 15th century jurist Badr al-Din al-Ayni, who insisted that Ka’b and some different like him “weren’t killed merely for his or her insults [of the Prophet], however fairly it was absolutely as a result of they aided [the enemy] towards him, and joined with those that fought wars towards him.”

There may be one other type of reformist argument as nicely, which is known as “historicism.” It means that no matter one might discover within the Qur’an or the prophetic custom when it comes to jurisprudence constitutes a physique of historic details which can be bounded by their context, and will not be essentially normative for all Muslims always. The truth that the Qur’an legislates slavery, for instance, doesn’t imply that slavery is a justified establishment. One of many pioneers of this “historicist” studying of the Qur’an and the broader Islamic custom was the Pakistani-born scholar Fazlur Rahman Malik (1919-1988), who spent his later life in the USA, instructing on the College of Chicago. At this time there are “Fazlur Rahmanist” theologians in Turkey, Indonesia, and elsewhere who’re attempting to advance his method.

The Manner Ahead for Islam

Such reformist arguments may be heard everywhere in the Muslim world—together with the conservative reactions to them. Comparatively talking, the Muslim world, on common, is at the exact same interval when John Locke wrote A Letter Regarding Toleration (1689) or John Stuart Mill wrote On Liberty (1859). There are liberals pushing for change, in different phrases, towards conservatives who suppose the heretics and the infidels should be punished and all subversive concepts should be banned.

There isn’t a straight path alongside which this reform might proceed, on condition that Islam, not like Catholicism, has no central authority that may change the spiritual doctrine of its 1.5 billion followers. On this sense it’s extra like Protestantism, the place authority is subtle into numerous numbers of nationwide establishments, conventional facilities of studying, charismatic leaders, televangelists, fashionable theologians, moderates, radicals, and lots of perplexed people.

Progress—in the direction of liberalism—might happen solely as an increasing number of Muslims discover reformist arguments convincing. And that may happen solely as an increasing number of Muslims really feel themselves at residence within the fashionable world, fairly than being “otherized” by that world—not to mention being threatened, invaded, or bombed by it.

On blasphemy, particularly, Muslims will come to simply accept liberal norms once they perceive that they don’t seem to be serving to their faith by assembly criticism, and even mockery, with violence and fury. They’re solely proving to be immature, and are solely scary extra insults towards the religion.

This can be exhausting to know for the militant Islamists within the slums of Pakistan, however Muslims residing within the West appear to be lastly getting how issues work right here. This was evident within the remarkably gentle stance that Dutch Muslims took when Wilders tried to prepare his “Muhammad Cartoon Contest” in Holland. Anger waxed in Pakistan, however not within the streets of Dutch cities or cities, because the Guardian reported. “It’s simple to unfold hate,” mentioned one Dutch Muslim, Usman Firdausi, “however the very best response is dignity.”

Dignity, certainly, is the fitting response to the Muhammad cartoons or The Satanic Verses. And 30 years after the Ayatollah’s loss of life fatwa, not all Muslims however at the least some Muslims appear to be getting this proper.


[1] Daniel Pipes, The Rushdie Affair: The Novel, The Ayatollah, and the West (Birch Lane Press, 1990) p. 27.

[2] “Reality, Religion and Fiction,” Far Jap Financial Evaluation, March 2, 1989.

[3] Leonard Williams Levy, Blasphemy: Verbal Offense In opposition to the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie (UNC Press Books, 1995), p. 562.

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