Thursday’s brazen killing of a market woman, Bridget Agbahime, at Kofar Wambai market in Kano, who was alleged to have blasphemed the Prophet Muhammad has left many people the world over shocked, saddened, and even infuriated.
As the smoke cleared and as the Kano State Government and the Nigeria Police announced the arrest of the prime suspects in the killing, PREMIUM TIMES requested its in-house faith writer (Islam) to conduct extensive research in the Qur’an and the Hadith with a view to establishing Islam’s position on blasphemy and killings.
Below is the result of his research.
As a Muslim, I was left having to grapple with – and answer- questions about the Islam’s stance towards free speech and whether this incidence was a natural consequence of mocking or abusing Muslim sentiments.
I call on all civil and community leaders to cooperate in ensuring lasting peace. And I urged all Nigerian leaders to emulate Governor Umar Ganduje’s initiative in ensuring brotherly co-existence in the country.
Blashemy and Islam
Blasphemy is a very controversial topic in Islam that has taken on new importance due to the proliferation of instant global communication. Muslim extremists incorrectly cite a precedent in classical Islamic law to justify gross acts of vigilante violence and murder.
Therefore, it is important for us to understand the context of the classical ruling and to view this issue in the larger perspective of the Qur’an and Sunnah as a consistent whole.
The general answer to blasphemy (Sabb ala Allah wa Rasulihi) as commanded in the Qur’an is to respond with patience, beautiful preaching, and graceful avoidance. The Qur’an records the fact that the Prophet was called a “sorcerer,” a “madman,” and a “liar,” yet Allah commanded him to be patient and to increase his acts of worship.
“Be patient over what they say and avoid them with gracious avoidance.” (Surah Al-Muzzamil 73:10)
And Allah said:
“So be patient over what they say and exalt with the praises of your Lord before the rising of the sun and before its setting.” (Surah Qaf 50:39)
And Allah said:
“So be patient over what they say and exalt with the praises of your Lord before the rising of the sun and before its setting.” (Surah Ta Ha 20:130)
These insults deeply hurt the feelings of the Prophet and his Companions, but Allah did not prescribe revenge for them.
“We already know that your heart is constrained by what they say, so glorify the praises of your Lord and be among those who prostrate.” (Surah Al-Hijr 15:97-98)
In fact, Allah told the Prophet and his Companions to expect more insults and mockery from the followers of other religions, and that they should remain patient and not let their abuse shake their faith.
“You will surely be tested in your possessions and in yourselves, and you will surely hear from those who were given the scripture before you and from those who associate others with Allah much abuse. But if you are patient and fear Allah that is of the matters requiring resolve.” (Surah Ali Imran 3:186)
In other verses, Allah commands the believers to simply avoid those who mock Islam and not to sit with them until they discuss something else.
“When you see those who engage in offensive discourse concerning our verses, then turn away from them until they enter into another conversion.” (Surah Al-An’am 6:68)
And Allah said:
“It has already been revealed to you in the Book that when you hear the verses of Allah, they are denied and ridiculed. So do not sit with them until they enter into another conversation. Verily, you would then be like them.” (Surah An-Nisa 4:140)
Generally, the Prophet was commanded to endure any insult or mockery from his enemies which resulted from their bad character.
“Show forgiveness, enjoin what is good, and turn away from the ignorant.” (Surah Al-A’raf 7:199)
Abdullah ibn Zubair explained this verse, saying:
“The Prophet was commanded to forgive the people’s bad character.” (Sunan Abu Dawud 4787)
There are many recorded incidents in the life of the Prophet in which he was mocked, defamed, and even physically attacked for his faith in Islam, but despite this abuse the Prophet responded with patience, forbearance, mercy, and forgiveness.
In one incident, a group of Jews insulted the Prophet in his own home. Although the Prophet was the leader of Madinah at the time, he did not order these men to be harmed. Rather, he used the incident to teach his Companions an important lesson about kindness.
“A group of Jews asked permission to visit the Prophet and when they were admitted they said, “Death be upon you.” I said to them, “Rather death and the curse of Allah be upon you!” The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said: “O Aisha, Allah is kind and He loves kindness in all matters.” I said, “Have you not heard what they said?” The Prophet said: “I said to them: And upon you.” (Sahih Bukhari 6528).
Al-Bukhari records this narration in his chapter regarding those who curse and abuse the Prophet, which strongly implies that he did not believe legal punishment should be applied to every case of blasphemy.
Badr ud-Din Al-Ayni, a scholar of the Hanafi School, comments on this chapter heading:
“Al-Bukhari has adopted the method of the people of Kufi on this issue, that if someone curses or berates the Prophet and he is a non-Muslim citizen, then he is rebuked but he is not killed. This is the opinion of Ath-Thawri.” (Umdat al-Qari fi Sharh Sahih Al-Bukhari 34/412).
In another incident, the Prophet was defamed and insulted by one of the men of Madinah who was upset with his method of distributing charity. The Prophet did not retaliate against him even though he was very disturbed by it, citing the fact that Musa (Moses), peace be upon him, was harmed by his people with much greater abuse.
Ibn Mas’ud reported:
“The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, was distributing charity among the people when a man from the Ansar said, “By Allah, Muhammad did not intend to please Allah with this distribution!” I came to the Prophet and informed him about this, then anger could be seen on his face and the Prophet said: “Moses was hurt with more than this, yet he remained patient.” (Sahih Bukhari)
Indeed, it was the practice of all the Prophets to patiently endure the harm they received from their people, even to the point of asking Allah to forgive their oppressors.
“They said: We will surely be patient with whatever harm you cause us, and let them rely on who would rely upon Allah.” (Surah Ibrahim 14:12)
Ibn Mas’ud reported:
“I saw the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, tell the story of a Prophet who was beaten by his people and he wiped the blood from his face, saying: “My Lord, forgive my people for they do not know.” (Sahih Bukhari 6530)
An-Nawawi comments on this narration, saying:
“In this is what the Prophets, peace and blessings be upon them, were upon of forbearance, patience, forgiveness, and compassion for their people, their supplications for them to receive guidance and to be forgiven, and that they should be excused for their sins because they did not know.” (Sharh Sahih Muslim 1792)
The Prophet continued to set this example throughout his life, even to the point of forgiving several people who tried to kill him.
In one incident, a woman came to the Prophet and fed him with a poisoned sheep. When the Prophet began to suffer and it was discovered what she had done, the companions asked him if they should kill her. In this case, it would have been a justified retaliation against attempted murder, but the Prophet pardoned her instead.
Anas ibn Malik reported:
“A Jewish woman came to the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, with a poisoned sheep and he ate from it. She was brought to him and he asked her about it. She said, “”I wanted to kill you.” The Prophet said: “Allah has given you no authority over me.” It was said, “Should we kill her?” The Prophet said: No.” (Sahih Bukhari 2474)
In another incident, a man from an opposing tribe attempted to kill the Prophet while he was sleeping. Allah miraculously saved the Prophet by causing the man’s hand to slip, after which the Prophet gained power him. Even so, in this position of strength the Prophet continued to show clemency.
“We took part in the expedition with the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, against Najd and when the time for afternoon rest approached, he was in a valley of thorny trees. He dismounted under a tree to rest in its shade and hung his sword upon it. The people dispersed among the trees in order to use their shade. While we were like this, the Prophet called us and we came to find a Bedouin sitting in front of him. The Prophet said: “This person came to me while I was asleep and he quietly took my sword. I woke up while he was standing over my head, holding my unsheathed sword. He said: Who will protect you from me? I said three times: Allah.” Jabir said: “The Prophet did not punish him and he sat down.” (Sahih Bukhari 2753)
In another narration, the Prophet said to the man:
“Will you bear witness that there is no God but Allah and I am the Messenger of Allah”? The man said, “No, but I give you my word that I will not fight you and I will not join anyone who is fighting you.” So the Prophet let him go. The man returned to his people and said: “I have just come to you from the best of people!” (Musnad Ahmad 14768)
The man was impressed by the Prophet’s character so much that he returned to his people and praised him. This is an excellent example of how mercy and forgiveness are among the best deeds for winning the hearts and minds to Islam.
In one of the most famous incidents, the Prophet finally gained power over his enemies after being persecuted for 23 years. He could have easily ordered their execution and the companions would have complied. However, the Prophet used this moment to teach the lesson of mercy just as Yusuf (Joseph), peace be upon him, had forgiven his brothers.
Al-Qasim ibn Salim reported:
“When they came to the Ka’bah they were holding onto its door and the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said: “What do you say? What do you think”? They said three times, “We say you are the son of our brother.” The Prophet said: “I say to you as Joseph said to his brothers: No blame upon you today. Allah will forgive you and He is the most merciful of the merciful.” (12:92)
Abu Yusuf reported:
“When they had gathered in front of the sacred Mosque, the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said: “What do you think I will do with you”? They said, “Only good, O noble brother, son of a noble brother.” The Prophet said: “Go, you are free.” (Sunan Al-Kubra of al-Bayhaqi 17714).
All of this evidence indicates the general rule that Muslims should respond to blasphemy with patience, forbearance, and graceful discussion. We need to behave in the serene manner of the Prophet as well as publish articles, set up websites, and otherwise spread authentic information about his life and teachings.
That said, the classical ruling in Islamic law imposes the death penalty upon those who blaspheme against Islam. This ruling is derived from handful of instances in which the Prophet executed some people for treason, not for merely insulting Islam.
For example, the Prophet ordered the execution of Ka’ab ibn Al-Ashraf as he conspired to wage war against Madinah. Ka’ab also wrote poetry satirizing the Prophet and his Companions, although this was not his only offence. Rather, he posed an imminent danger to the Muslim community due to his support for gathering an army.
Badr ud-Din Al-Ayni comments on the story of Ka’ab and other narrations:
“In these traditions it is shown that they were not killed merely for their insults. Indeed, they were only killed due to their aid of the enemy and gathering together for war and supporting it.” (Umdat al-Qari fi Sharh Sahih Al-Bukhari 34/413)
This was the general social and political context within which the classical ruling against blasphemy had developed.
Intisar Rabb, a one-time director of Harvard University’s Islamic Legal Studies programme, explains:
“The rationale underlying this rule was an argument linking several steps. To curse God was to blaspheme Him, which was implicitly to signal a departure from the community of Muslims and the laws governing them. The presumption was that a person could not possibly be a Muslim, fitting squarely within its system of laws and confessing to the oneness and supremacy of God, if he or she at the same time cursed God. The same applied to cursing the Prophet, the family of the Prophet, and the revered Companions of the Prophet. For (the jurists), if religious speech acts akin to confessing the Muslim creed reflected societal commitments to uphold the law, much as an oath of citizenship might in the contemporary world, then renouncing such an oath would conceptually signal a threat or possibility of treason, combat against the state, and opposition to the social order itself. In other words, members of the Muslim community under Muslim rule were expected to play by its rules, including its call to honour reputation, lineage, and religious status. For the jurists, signaling absolution from those expectations could very well pose a threat of violence against the state and its public order or rule of law.” (See Ellis Mark S. 2012 Islamic law and international human rights law: searching for common ground? P. 158/164)
Therefore, it is not mere blasphemy that warrants the death penalty, but rather only when it is combined with acts of treason and sedition.
There is one particular proof-text being used in support of vigilante violence which we must critically examine. Extremists and Mob cite this narration in isolation and without context to justify the murder of anyone who insults the Prophet. The fault in their interpretation results from their attempt to derive a legal ruling from an anomalous narration and in disregard for general rules and principles firmly established in stronger texts.
Ibn Abbas reported:
“A blind man had a lady servant who would abuse the Prophet and disparage him. He forbade her from doing it but she did not stop. He rebuked her and she still did not stop. One night she was reviling the Prophet, so he took a dagger and pressed it on her stomach and killed her. In the morning, it was mentioned to the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him and he said: “I ask by Allah and by my right over whoever did this to stand up.” The blind man said, “O Messenger of Allah, I am her master and she used to abuse and disparage you. I forbade her but she did not stop, and I rebuked her but she did not stop. I have two sons like pearls from her and she was my companion. Last night she began to abuse you and disparage you, so I took a dagger and pressed it on her stomach until she died.” The Prophet said: “Bear witness that there is no punishment for her killing.” (Sunan Abu Dawud 4361)
There are problems with this narration both in its chain of authorities and in the text itself. This is a solitary (Ahad) narration coming by route of the sub-narrator Uthman Ash-Shaham who is widely regarded as trustworthy, but upon whom some scholars have cast doubt.
Yusuf ibn Abdur Rahman Al-Mizzi reported:
“An-Nasa’i said: from what I have read, Uthman Ash-Shaham is not strong. And he said on other topics there is nothing wrong with him.” (Tahdhib Al-Kamal 5495)
An –Nasa’i expressed doubt on Uthman Ash-Shaham’s ability to narrate about certain topics. In addition, Al-Bukhari, the leading scholar of prophetic narrations, did not narrate from him. Certainly a narration involving such strong legal implications should be narrated by a wide range of authorities whose capabilities are beyond question, yet this is not the case. It is possible that Uthman Ash-Shaham made an error relating the narration’s context, details, and implication.
Furthermore, there is a degree of anomaly (shadh) in this narration as it apparently contradicts several of the verses and traditions we previously mentioned. An anomalous narration is one that is related from trustworthy sources, but is contradicted by stronger sources.
Ibn Salah reported:
“Ash-Shafi’i said: An anomalous narration is not one that has been narrated by a single trustworthy person and not narrated by others. Rather, and anomalous narration is a report from a trustworthy person that contradicts what is narrated from other people.” (Ulum Al-Hadith of Ibn Salah)
The fact that this narration contradicts what is authentically and abundantly reported elsewhere should make us very cautious about deriving a general rule from it.
And if we accept the narration as authentic (sahih) or at least trustworthy (hasan), as most scholars of prophetic narrations have done, then we must understand it in proper context and in agreement with the abundance of conflicting evidence.
This single incident occurred at time when the Makkans were waging war against Madinah. Repeated and stubborn expressions of defamation against the Prophet during this time would have strongly implied sympathy with the enemy forces. This means the woman potentially would have been in a position to relay sensitive information to the enemy, such as troop movements, which could have placed the entire community in danger. Consistent with the whole of Islamic scripture, we should conclude that her offence involved not simply insults on account of her bad character, but rather a repudiation of her loyalty to the community.
Moreover, the Prophet did not command or prescribe her execution. He initially considered it an evil deed that demanded an explanation. Upon hearing that the woman had posed a threat to the community, he only judged that the man not be punished for murder in this particular case, this makes the narration a description of a localized event rather than a universal prescription for all cases.
As such, we should not extract from this narration the idea that common Muslims may punish blasphemy against Islam without legal authorization. Islam does not authorize individual Muslims to appropriate for themselves the role of judge, jury, and executioner. It is a well-established principle in Islam that legal punishment may only be carried out by authorities who act upon due process. This solitary narration cannot be used to overturn this essential principle of Islamic law.
Does this mean that blasphemy should be tolerated in every case? Free speech is not merely a human right, but rather it is a responsibility. The purpose of free speech is to facilitate discussion in search of truth and justice. Consequently, the general rule is that people are free to speak their minds respectfully, but speech that serves no purpose other than to slander, defame, offend, or incite to violence is not worthy of protection. Indeed, the Muslims have been prohibited from cursing other religions and evens idols.
“Do not insult those they invoke besides Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge.” (Surah Al-An’am 6:108)
For this reason, many Muslim countries have statutes against defaming Islam as well as Judaism, Christianity, and other religions, as this harms the cohesion of peaceful communities. Most countries in the world impose legal or at least social restraints on free speech with laws against slander and defamation, as well as what they consider “blasphemy,” such as the many European countries that prohibit profaning the memory of the Holocaust.
Muslims and all people should respect such limits as it is the responsibility of good citizens to refrain from harming social order and peace.
However, the best way to counter false speech is by speaking the truth. The problem of blasphemy can usually be remedied by a number of peaceful solutions such as publishing articles, setting up websites, holding conferences, and arguing with good manners. Every non-violent means should be used to counter blasphemous speech before resorting to legal action and especially the death penalty. No doubt, the least likely to resort to killing are the true believers.
Ibn Mas’ud reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
“The most restrained of the people regarding killing are the people of faith.” (Musnad Ahmad 3720)
Muslims must avoid calling for the death penalty whenever possible, because indulgence in this matter indicates a lack of strong faith.
We also need to view this matter from the legal principle of public welfare (maslahah mursalah). Ibn Taymiyyah defines this principle as follows:
”The principle of public welfare is the case when a distinguished jurist views another action as more likely to bring benefit and there is nothing in the law to negate it.” (Majmu’Al-fatawa 11/342)
In so many cases, we see that the prosecution of blasphemy can cause greater harm to the community and the image of Islam than the blasphemy itself. We have a precedent in the practice of the Prophet to withhold such punishments when they cause greater harm.
Jabir ibn Abdullah reported:
“A man came to the Messenger of Allah on his way back from Hunain while there was some silver in the backpack of Bilal. The Messenger of Allah took a handful from it and distributed it among the people. The man said to him, “O Muhammad! Be just!” Umar ibn Al-Khattab said, “O Messenger of Allah, allow me to kill this hypocrite!” The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said: “I seek refuge in Allah that the people will say I am killing my Companions.” (Sahih Muslim 1063)
In this case, the Prophet refused to punish a dangerous man, a hypocrite who was pretending to be a Muslim in order to attack the community from within, on the grounds that it would have harmed the image of Islam in the eyes of the people.
Likewise, the age of instant communication ensures that cases of blasphemy are no longer confined to local areas, but instead they have global implications. Prosecution for mere childish insults and thoughtless, impromptu remarks, without evidence of treasonous intent, only project an image of Islam as intolerant and draconian. Rather, judges need to carefully consider the unintended consequences and they must justify any prosecution in terms greater than mere insults and hurt feelings.
Furthermore, we have the lessons of history which compel us to seek mitigation and restriction of the classical blasphemy law. Numerous Muslim scholars were imprisoned and persecuted because their views were considered “blasphemy” by the ruling regime. Most notably is the case of Ahmad ibn Hanbal who was imprisoned and tortured by the ruling Mu’tazilte regime for his alleged blasphemy of affirming the Quran was uncreated. An uncompromising and loosely interpreted blasphemy statute increases the possibility of it being misused by a corrupt regime to victimize callers to truth.
Therefore it is not permissible for a Muslim without judicial authority to implement Islamic legal punishments on his own initiative. Vigilante justice, or “taking the law into your own hands,” is unlawful in Islam because it will lead to chaos and possibly greater harm than the crimes themselves. Likewise, it is not permissible for a Muslim to declare war or to commit an act of war without lawful authority.
Abu Hurairah reported: Sa’ad ibn Ubadah said:
“O Messenger of Allah, if I find another man with my wife, should I leave him alone until I bring four witnesses?” The Prophet said yes, Sa’ad said, “Never! By the one who sent you with the truth, if that happened to me I would quickly grab the sword!” The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said: Listen to what your leader is saying.” (Sahih Muslim 1498)
In this example, the Prophet has forbidden a man who witnesses his wife committing adultery from implementing legal punishment by his own initiative. This is because legal punishments may only be applied by appointed judges and because the punishment for adultery requires the testimony of four reliable witnesses.
Ibn Muflih writes:
“It is forbidden to establish a legal punishment unless it is done by the leader or his deputy.” (See Al-Furu’ 6/53)
Sheikh Hani Al-jubayr, judge at the Jeddah Supreme Court, writes:
“The prescribed punishments in Islamic Law are only to be issued by the judge, since due process and proper procedures of evidence must be observed. They must thereafter only be carried out by properly empowered government officials. Otherwise things will deteriorate into public violence that may bring about dire consequences.”
Therefore, a Muslim who witnesses a crime (any kind) should inform the local authorities who will take appropriate action. He should never attempt to implement legal punishments on his own.
Sheikh Ahmad Deedat said:
“The biggest enemy of Islam is the ignorant Muslim, whose ignorance leads him to intolerance, whose actions destroy the true image of Islam, and when the people look at him they think that Islam is what he is.”
In conclusion, numerous verses and traditions in Islam demonstrate that the general rule for responding to blasphemy is to counter it with patience, forbearance, and speaking the truth in a beautiful manner. Muslims ought to behave this way in the overwhelming majority of cases.
The only exception to this rule is derived from the specific cases in which the Prophet punished some people for treason in addition to their harmful utterances. We must not expand this specific rule to all cases, thereby negating the general teachings of mercy, patience, and tolerance.
A PREMIUM TIMES faith writer and columnist, Murtada Muhammad Gusau is Chief Imam of Nagazi-Uvete Jumu’at Mosque and Alhaji Abdurrahman Okene’ s Mosque, Okene Kogi State Nigeria.
He can be reached via: +2348038289761.