Bernard Lewis on Blaspheming Muhammad: “The jurists on the whole tend to take a rather mild view of this offense.”

Regarding the “crime” of blaspheming Islam’s prophet, thus spake the Islamic Yoda of our generation, circa April, 2006:

“The jurists on the whole tend to take a rather mild view of this offense.”


Professor Carl Brockelmann (1868-1956), the renowned scholar of Semitic languages, and arguably the foremost Orientalist of his generation,  made these candid observations in 1939 about the Sharia’s injunctions pertaining to penal law in general, and so-called “blasphemy and apostasy,” specifically—Islamic Law being “valid” eternally, and all too widely applied in Brockelmann’s era, till now.

The penal code of Islam has remained on a rather primitive level… Blasphemy with respect to God [Allah], the Prophet, and his predecessors is punished by death, as is defection from Islam, if the culprit persists in his disbelief.

“Rising Restrictions on Religion,” a report by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life issued August 9, 2011, examined the issue of “defamation” of religion, tracking countries where various penalties are enforced for apostasy, blasphemy or criticism of religions. “While such laws are sometimes promoted as a way to protect religion, in practice they often serve to punish religious minorities whose beliefs are deemed unorthodox or heretical,” the report noted. The Pew report, consistent with Brockelmann’s assessment from 1939, found that application of the Sharia at present resulted in a disproportionate number of Muslim countries, twentyone—Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Brunei, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Maldives, Morocco,Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Western Sahara and Yemen—registering the highest (i.e., worst) persecution scores on their scale. Furthermore, the Pew investigators observed,

Eight-in-ten countries in the Middle East-North Africa region have laws against blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion, the highest share of any region. These penalties are enforced in 60% of the countries in the region.

As a predictable consequence of this Sharia-based application of apostasy and blasphemy laws by Islamic governments, the Pew report also documented that,


…the share of national governments that showed hostility toward minority religions involving physical violence was much higher in countries where laws against blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion are actively enforced than in countries without such laws (55% versus 22%).

Such abundant contemporary evidence demonstrates that Islamic law and mores regarding blasphemy, today, remain distressingly incompatible with modern conceptions of religious freedom, and human rights. Thus writing in the early 1990s, the esteemed Pakistani scholar Muhammad Asrar Madani, whose opinion was accepted by Pakistan’s Shari’a Court, defined “blasphemy,” focusing on the Muslim prophet, as:

Reviling or insulting the Prophet (pbuh) in writing or speech; speaking profanely or contemptuously about him or his family; attacking the Prophet’s dignity and honor in an abusive manner; vilifying him or making an ugly face when his named is mentioned; showing enmity or hatred towards him, his family, his companions, and the Muslims; accusing, or slandering the Prophet and his family, including spreading evil reports about him or his family; defaming the Prophet; refusing the Prophet’s jurisdiction or judgment in any manner; rejecting the Sunnah; showing disrespect, contempt for or rejection of the rights of Allah and His Prophet or rebelling against Allah and His Prophet.

And in accord with classical Islamic jurisprudence (for example, The Risala of al-Qayrawani [d. 996]), Madani argues that anyone who defames Muhammad—Muslim or non-Muslim—must be put to death. Here is Qayrawani’s classical formulation, representative of the Maliki school of  Sunni Islamic jurisprudence—the same school of Islamic law which prevailed in mythically “tolerant” Muslim Spain:

If someone curses the Rasulullah (i.e., the Muslim prophet Muhammad) he is killed and his repentance is not accepted. If one of the people of dhimma [non-Muslim Christians and Jews etc., subjugated by jihad] abuses him outside of that which constitutes his disbelief or curses Allah other than what constitutes his disbelief, he is killed unless he becomes Muslim.  When he says something to deprecate him. His execution is a hadd and hence it is of no use if he repents or denies it when there is clear evidence of it. Repentance does not cancel a hadd. This is why he says that his repentance is not accepted.  The same principle applies to someone who curses one of the Prophets  or one of the angels or denies one of the Books of Allah. If someone abuses someone whose prophethood is a matter of dispute, like al-Khidr , he is strongly punished but not killed. Statements of dhimmis which constitutes their disbelief would be things like a Jew saying, “He is not a messenger to us, Our Messenger is Musa (Moses).” Abuse beyond their intrinsic disbelief would be criticizing the character of the Holy Prophet An example of that which constitutes his disbelief is saying that God is three or that He has a son.

Consistent with this prevailing code, Charles Emmanuel Dufourcq, a pre-eminent scholar of Muslim Spain, observed that one of the more draconian of the myriad religious and legal discriminations suffered by non-Muslim dhimmis included lethal punishments for “blaspheming” the Muslim prophet, or the Koran:

[For] having insulted the Prophet or blasphemed against the Word of God (i.e., The Koran)-dhimmis were executed.

Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo has documented how this orthodox Islamic doctrine—incorporated into the “modern” Pakistani legal code (Section 295-C, “defiling the name of Muhammad”)—has wreaked havoc, in our era, particularly among Pakistan’s small Christian minority community:

…the blasphemy law is felt to be a sword of Damocles and has developed a huge symbolic significance which contributes substantially to the atmosphere of intimidation of Christians. The detrimental effect of the law…is most dramatically illustrated by the incident at Shanti Nagar in February 1997 in which tens of thousands of rioting Muslims destroyed hundreds of Christian homes, and other Christian property, following an accusation of blasphemy. Furthermore the blasphemy has engendered a wave of private violence. Equating blasphemy with apostasy and influenced by the tradition of direct violent action and self-help which goes back to the earliest times of Islam, some Muslims feel they are entitled to enforce the death penalty themselves.

Yet, despite this overwhelming doctrinal and historical evidence—past as prologue to the present, and affirmed in 1939 by an earlier generation’s leading Orientalist,  Brockelmann—the contemporary sage of Islam, Bernard Lewis, asserted the following about blasphemy in Islam, during an April, 2006 Pew Forum interview:

If a non-Muslim subject of a Muslim state says or does something offensive to the Prophet, he is to be tried – accused, tried, and if necessary, punished. The jurists on the whole tend to take a rather mild view of this offense. They say, well, he is not a Muslim; he doesn’t accept Mohammed as the Prophet; we know that. So saying that Mohammed is no prophet does not constitute this offense. It has to be more specifically insulting than that.

Lewis apparently believes decreeing lethal punishment for the “crime” of insulting Islam’s prophet—as outlined by Muslim jurists, ancient or modern, and reproduced herein—constitutes a “mild view of this offense.”

Thus spake the Islamic Yoda of our generation, circa April, 2006.

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