Blasphemy, Apostasy and the Death Penalty

“They thought their god was offended and so volunteered to do his work for him.”

Much outrage has been sparked by recent events regarding blasphemy laws, including the Satanic Verses controversy and the subsequent fatwa from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.

The definition of blasphemy is notably variable, ranging from “insulting the Prophet Muhammad (sws)” to making “unsavory” posts on social media. Other organizations have been targeted for creating offensive cartoons of the Prophet. On top of this, legal penalties have also been prescribed in multiple Muslim-majority nations for acts of apostasy (changing one’s religion).

Freedom of Religion

It should be understood that the Qur’an guarantees freedom of religion within reasonable boundaries. According to verse 2:256, there is “no compulsion in religion.” Members of other religions are to be treated respectfully according to 60:8. Fighting other individuals is never allowed except in cases of self-defense, and if the other side ceases hostilities, then Muslims are commanded not to transgress against them (2:190-193). Believers are ordered to leave others alone to practice their religion (see Surah Kaafiroon: “To you is your religion and to me, mine”).

When is the death penalty prescribed?

The Qur’an only prescribes the death penalty in two cases. The first is for causing “extreme mischief/oppression throughout the land, striving with might and main” (Arabic: fasad-fil-ard). The second is as a punishment for murder.

“Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment. Except for those who return [repenting] before you apprehend them. And know that Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” 5:33-34

*Fasad-fil-ard is not a reference to petty theft or minor illegal activities. It is a very strong term that denotes vast amounts of corruption and gross transgressions against societal order.

Note that repentance automatically waives the punishment. Qur’anic punishments are nearly always established with a concession of mercy for those who sincerely renounce their sins.

The laws of equal retribution (qisas) for murder are established in the following verses:

“O you who have believed, prescribed for you is legal retribution for those murdered – the free for the free, the slave for the slave, and the female for the female. But whoever overlooks from his brother anything, then there should be a suitable follow-up and payment to him with good conduct. This is an alleviation from your Lord and a mercy. But whoever transgresses after that will have a painful punishment.” 2:178

“And We ordained for them therein a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and for wounds is legal retribution. But whoever gives [up his right as] charity, it is an expiation for him. And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed – then it is those who are the wrongdoers.” 5:45

Even in these verses, believers are encouraged to give up their right to retribution for the sake of charity. Taking a life for any reason other than the two specified by the Qur’an amounts to murder. Taking one innocent soul is equivalent to “slaying all of mankind”:

“…Whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land – it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he had saved mankind entirely.” 5:32

According to the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad (sws) was frequently targeted with mockery for preaching Islam. He was simply told to remain patient. No retribution was prescribed:

Therefore be patient over what they say, and celebrate (constantly) the praises of thy Lord, before the rising of the sun and before its setting. Celebrate them for part of the hours of the night, and at the sides of the day: that you may find joy!” 20:130

Additional Notes

In the end, only God is able to judge between believers and disbelievers. The Quran states that all human beings are given vicegerency (Arabic: khilafah) on Earth. This includes the right to decide for oneself whether to follow truth or falsehood. It includes the right to freedom of belief within reasonable boundaries. When legal punishments for blasphemy are established, the fundamental human rights to khilafah and free belief are desecrated. This constitutes a manifest violation of Quranic principles.

It is up for God to decide the fate of every soul in the Hereafter. In this dunya, we are commanded not to infringe on others’ right to believe what they like, as long as nobody is harmed in the process. Legal retribution is only prescribed in cases where violence and murder occur without right. Everyone’s eternal fate will be decided in the akhira.

*If outright blasphemy is committed to the extent that it causes grievous violence, this could potentially come under the category of “causing great corruption on Earth.” In such a case, the punishment for fasad may be applicable.



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