Debate: To blame or not to blame Islam for the Paris beheading?

‘Defamation in the guise of criticism is Western Hypocrisy’, argues Faizur Rahman; ‘Absolving Islam of all responsibility is an apologist argument,’ responds Arshad Alam

ParisImage Courtesy: Pascal Rossignol, Reuters

‘Defamation in the guise of criticism is Western Hypocrisy’

A. Faizur Rahman,

There can be no doubt that the murder of middle-school teacher, Samuel Paty, in France earlier this month for displaying cartoons of Prophet Muhammad was an act of sickening brutality. But what makes it even more horrifying is the fact that it was committed in the name of a prophet who is honoured in the Quran (21:107) as Rahmatal Lil Aalameen (embodiment of universal compassion).

Muslim Response

In his New York Times article, Muslims and Islamophobia: Quran Has Many Verses That Command A Courteous Response to Even A Terrible Insult to Islam Islamic scholar Mustafa Akyol reminds Muslims that blasphemy laws were invented by medieval Muslim jurists to punish anyone who insulted their religion but Muslims “don’t have to blindly abide by medieval jurisprudence.”  His plea was: “We can defend our faith not with the dictates of power, but the appeals of reason and virtue.”

Muslims have every right to protest against condemnable attempts to defame the Prophet. But they must refrain from violence, for it is the very antithesis of the term Islam, which means peace. Any reaction in defence of the Prophet has to be in accordance with his exemplary conduct which was totally inspired by the Quran. The Quran took note of some of the offensive insinuations hurled at the Prophet by his detractors (25:41 & 38:4-5) but advised him saying, “Have patience with what they say, and distance yourself from them with noble dignity” (73:10). It did not advocate any kind of retaliation against the offenders.

In fact, the Quran did not even criminalise blasphemy. It is the Old Testament which said that “…anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them.” (Leviticus 24:16)

Even the idea of retributive justice (Lex Talionis) has its theological basis in the Hebrew Bible, not the Quran. The second book of the Torah states that in cases of serious injury “you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21: 23-25). The third book goes further. It decrees: “Anyone who takes the life of a human being is to be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution—life for life. Anyone who injures their neighbour is to be injured in the same manner: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The one who has inflicted the injury must suffer the same injury.” (Leviticus 24: 17-20).

This crude kind of retributive proportionality was the temporal norm in ancient history. The Quran (2:178), however, tried to reform this law by removing the element of sublimated vengeance from it by saying, “O believers! Legal retribution (Qisas) is prescribed for you in cases of murder: the free for the free, the slave for the slave, the woman for the woman. However, if the convicted person receives pardon from the aggrieved party, the prescribed rules of compensation must be followed accordingly. This is a compassionate concession from your Lord (Takhfeefun Min Rabbikum Wa Rahmah).”

The notion of restorative justice, evident in the verse above, is found repeated in verse 41:34: “And not alike are the good and the evil. Repel (evil) with what is best, and he between whom and you was enmity would become as if he were a close friend.”

The Prophet meticulously followed this divine instruction and did not allow cowardly insults or physical attacks to come in the way of his great mission.

Once on a visit to Ta’if, a small town about 60 kilometres from Mecca, he was mocked and stoned to the extent that he started bleeding profusely. Yet he did nothing more than pray for the well-being of the people of Ta’if and express the hope that their next generation would accept his message.

Even during the signing of the historic Treaty of Hudaybiya in 6 AH (628 CE) the Prophet displayed his characteristic tolerance and peaceableness when he agreed to all its conditions, including the Meccan demand to sign in his personal capacity and not as the Prophet.  His companions were incensed and rejected the blasphemous exaction. But the Prophet in all humility, and in the larger interest of peace, endorsed the pact as “Mohammed, the son of Abdullah” thereby proving his greatness once again. It is no wonder that the Quran (68:4) praised him as the possessor of the most exalted standard of character (Khuluqin Azeem).

The Hudaybiya treaty was such a success for the Muslims that the Quran (48:1) called a clear victory (Fathhan Mubeen). Within a period of two years, it paved the way for the re-capture of Mecca from those who had driven out the prophet. Here again, the Prophet proved true to his divine title Rahmatal Lil Aalameen by declaring a general amnesty after entering Mecca. Even his staunchest enemies who fought wars against him, such as Abu Sufyan and Ikrima ibn Abu Jahal, were forgiven. The result was, anti-Islam forces, having come to know of the peaceful nature of the religion, not only gave up their animosity but became its foremost promoters.

There is a great lesson in this for Muslims whom the Quran (2:143) calls Ummatan Wasat (a moderate community). They must realise that vituperative attacks on the Prophet, apart from being the work of ignorant minds, is part of an attempt to project Muslims as religious extremists by eliciting violent reactions from them.

The Greatness Of The Prophet

One way of countering this would be to popularise the unimpeachable life history of the Prophet and ask those who seek to defame him through objectionable videos and cartoons to explain how distorting history and spreading lies about a non-vindictive, humane person constitutes artistic freedom.

They must be told how John Davenport, a British scholar, unable to tolerate the demonisation of the Prophet, wrote a 182-page book in 1869 “to free the history of Mohammed from false accusations and illiberal imputations, and to vindicate his just claim to be regarded as one of the greatest benefactors of mankind.” Titled An Apology for Mohammed and the Koran the book, it must be said, was an extraordinarily honest endeavour to acknowledge Prophet Muhammad “as the very greatest man whom Asia can claim as her son, if not, one of the rarest and most transcendent geniuses the world itself ever produced.”

In 1841, almost three decades before davenport, British polymath Thomas Carlyle in his classic work On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History had already recognised Prophet Muhammad as a true prophet. He wrote, “Our current hypothesis about Mahomet, that he was a scheming Impostor, a Falsehood incarnate, that his religion is a mere mass of quackery and fatuity, begins really to be now untenable to anyone. The lies, which well-meaning zeal has heaped round this man, are disgraceful to ourselves only.”

In his book The Humanity of Muhammad: A Christian View published earlier this year, Christian scholar Craig Considine advises his own community saying, “Muhammad’s pluralistic vision for his Ummah, and indeed the world at large, is timely considering the levels of extremism worldwide, particularly as they pertain to the persecution of Christians and other minority populations in Muslim-majority countries. Let me also remind Christian readers around the world that they would be wise to follow Muhammad’s pluralistic and civic ethos in terms of their relations with Muslims. Muhammad’s engagement with humanity can serve as a tool to counter our age of extremism.”

Another Christian researcher Anna Bonta Moreland in her probing study published this year Muhammad Reconsidered: A Christian Perspective on Islamic Prophecy concludes that there is enough latitude in Christian theology to recognise Prophet Muhammad as a prophet of God. Her argument is, “… Christians have internal reasons from within their tradition to take seriously the revelations Muhammad received in Mecca and Medina. In fact, Christians need to take all the resources used to interpret the Bible—historical, anthropological, philological, and theological—and apply them to a Christian reading of the Qur’an.”

Western Hypocrisy

In the light of such dispassionate assessments by eminent scholars Muslims cannot be faulted if they suspect that there is something sinister about the regularity with which hate propaganda against the Prophet emanates from the West. That the mischief-mongers there are leaving no medium unexploited to arouse passions is evident from the sustained unprovoked campaign against the Prophet by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and French weekly Charlie Hebdo. 

In September 2005 Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons of the Prophet which led to widespread protests across the Muslim world. In 2006, Charlie Hebdo reprinted all 12 of the controversial Muhammad cartoons from Jyllands-Posten, adding a few more as an act of defiance. In November 2011 Charlie Hebdo once again mocked the Prophet by making him the imaginary guest editor of an edition named Charia Hebdo which the magazine claimed was intended to criticise the sharia.

But the most despicably vindictive caricatures of the Prophet were published by Charlie Hebdo in September 2012 in support of the anti-Islamic video Innocence of Muslims which was uploaded to YouTube from within USA in July 2012. On September 1 this year the weekly republished the same cartoons to mark the start of the trial that week in the case pertaining to the violent attack on its offices in January 2015. The republication led to another attack on September 25 outside the weekly’s former headquarters in which two persons were seriously wounded. The attacker confessed that he had acted to avenge the republication of the cartoons.

“It was in this cauldron of social and religious turmoil” reported the Wall Street Journal, “that Mr. [Samuel] Paty prepared to give his lesson in early October” on the “contours and limits of free speech.” (Demonstrations Pay Homage to French Teacher Beheaded After Lesson on Charlie Hebdo). From the statement attributed in the Wall Street Journal to Mr. Ricard, the anti-terrorism prosecutor, the two cartoons Paty showed the class were extremely offensive. Perhaps he did not realise that the idea of free speech can be explained without showing defamatory cartoons. Nonetheless, as argued above, Samuel Paty did not deserve to be killed for that. But the “contours and limits of free speech” that he wanted to teach need to be openly debated.

Defamation Is Not Criticism

Muslims would certainly like to understand why extreme anti-Islam acts come under the umbrella of free speech in countries where even genuine criticism of Zionism is considered an anathema amounting to anti-Semitism.

In August 2012, around the time anti-Prophetic videos and cartoons were being published in the name of free speech, in a blatant attempt to circumvent the First Amendment, the California State Assembly passed a resolution titled HR 35 asking educational institutions to ensure that Jewish students were protected from anti-Semitic discourses on their campuses such as those that project Israel as a racist state “guilty of heinous crimes against humanity such as ethnic cleansing and genocide…” HR 35 also urged universities to neutralise “student-and faculty-sponsored boycott, divestment and sanction campaigns against Israel that are a means of demonising Israel…” (AMENDED IN ASSEMBLY AUGUST 28, 2012). This was vehemently opposed by the California Scholars for Academic Freedom (An Open Letter: From California Scholars for Academic Freedom).

More recently, documents obtained by The Guardian last year showed how pro-Israel and conservative lobbyists in the US were encouraging state lawmakers to outlaw anti-Semitism in public education, from kindergarten through to graduate universities. The newspaper reported that the proposed definition of anti-Semitism is so wide that, in addition to standard protections against hate speech towards Jews, it would also prohibit debate about the human rights violations of the Israeli government (Revealed: rightwing push to suppress criticism of Israel on US campuses).  A couple of days ago, Canada’s largest online news site, The Star, published a report highlighting the suppression of moderate voices criticizing Israel in Canadian Universities (Controversies at U of T Law, York University highlight escalating suppression of moderate voices criticizing Israel).

One fails to understand why Western societies which otherwise, make no attempt to conceal their pro-Israel bias are so unwilling to differentiate between genuine criticism and defamation.

Article 12 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to the protection of the law against arbitrary attacks upon his honour and reputation.

Similarly, Article 19(3) of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights lays down that the right to freedom of expression is subject to certain restrictions to protect “the rights or reputation of others” and “for the protection of national security or of public order (order public), or of public health or morals”. Article 10 (2) of the European Convention on Human Rights inter alia states that freedom of expression “since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society…”

Articles 32 of France’s own Law of 29 July 1881 on the Freedom of the Press defines defamation as any allegation or accusation of a fact that causes an attack on the honour or consideration of a person. When directed at private persons, defamation is punishable with a fine of €12,000. (Paragraph 3: Crimes against people. (Articles 29 to 35 quater) and Criminal Defamation

If so much care requires to be taken to safeguard the reputation of living persons, are not dead people — who cannot defend themselves — entitled to equal if not more protection?

Thankfully, Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) offers such a protection to the dead. Explanation 1 of this Section states: “It may amount to defamation to impute anything to a deceased person, if the imputation would harm the reputation of that person if living, and is intended to be hurtful to the feelings of his family or other near relatives.”

Videos such as Innocence of Muslims and cartoons such as those published in Denmark and France do not represent a critique of Islam. They are a bundle of outrageous lies about the Prophet and therefore, cannot enjoy protection under free speech laws. One wonders why Western societies refuse to legally protect the reputation of Prophet Muhammad when at least 16 European countries have laws against Holocaust Denial to secure the honour of European Jews killed in the horrific Nazi genocide.  It is time the West, especially an Emmanuel Macron-led “Christian” France, realised that a permanent state of conflict with Islam bodes ill for global peace.

(A. Faizur Rahman is secretary-general of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought). 

‘Absolving Islam of all responsibility is an apologist argument’

Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

One has benefited immensely from the writings of Mr. Faizur Rahman and it is with the sole intention of taking forward the debate on blasphemy and freedom of speech that I write this rejoinder.

Reading the article, one gets the feeling that Mr. Rahman is more concerned with presenting the ‘good’ side of Islam rather than trying to understand and situate the horrors that accompanied the brutal murder of the French school teacher, Samuel Paty.

To be fair, the article condemns the murder of Paty, but like most apologist attempts, it absolves Islam of all responsibility in this motivated and premeditated murder. The trouble with this obsession with highlighting the good side of Islam is that most religions (including Islam) do not come only with a good side. Islam does not come in discrete packages where one can pick and choose the good and leave out the ‘bad’. Rather it is a ‘structuring structure’ which wants to influence and direct all aspects of a persons’ life-world. The problem becomes more acute because in the process of doing this, it also wants to dictate how non-followers should behave and relate with Islam. And not everything is good about this desire of Islam to affect and alter the cultural conditions of people. Some of it may be good, but others are completely undesirable in the present context.

Leaving out the problematic parts of Islam and concentrating on the good parts, as Mr. Rahman does speak of a certain dishonesty, which has become part and parcel of Muslim apologia. Nothing good can come out of a debate where the intention is to ‘defend’ Islam rather than to see how the religion is implicated in things and events which we no longer hold dear.

Rahman Sb. approvingly quotes Mustafa Aykol to prove that blasphemy was ‘invented’ as a criminal offence by medieval jurists. More specifically, Aykol argues that it was instituted by the Ummayads, hinting that most Muslims do not have high regard for these caliphs. The problem with this argument is that flies in the face of Islamic history and theology. Most of the Islamic jurisprudence is the product of Ummayad period. It is also true that rather than detesting the Ummayads, Sunni Muslims have long held them in high regard, for the simple reason that unprecedented Islamic expansion took place during this period. For many Sunni Ulama, this is in fact the golden period of Islam. 

In order to prove the inherent good core of Islam which was corrupted by the Ummayads, Rahman goes back to the Quran, rightly arguing that there is no punishment specified against blasphemy in the holy text. While Muslims the world over revere the Quran as the literal word of God, most of them have second order knowledge of this text. The large majority depends on translations and interpretations of the Quran done by various scholars who simplify the message for the lay believers. The problem is not that the Quran cannot be accessed directly; the problem is that the text is at places so abstruse that an average reader becomes befuddled in trying to make sense of it. If this was not the case, then we would not have had the need to have a separate discipline to understand the Quran, as we have in most centres of Islamic learning.

The Quran is polyphonous; it not just speaks to different contexts but also at times appears to talk to different sets of audiences. It is not a surprise therefore that there are multiple readings of the same text; often linked to social and cultural contexts in which it is read. A Barelwi reading the Quran in India and a Salafi reading it in Saudi Arabia take very meanings from the same text. Therefore, trying to locate the Quran as the centre of Islamic experience is misleading, to say the least. The motivation of the young Chechen who murdered Samuel Paty cannot be shown to be un-Islamic just because Rahman Sb. thinks that the young lad did not understand the Quran properly.

We must also understand that while the Quran is basic to the formation of Islamic law, it is not the only text which informs the organisation of Islamic worldview. The biographies of the Prophet and the Hadith (which again was started by the Ummayads) are very important sources of Islamic law. In fact, the necessity to collect and compile hadiths arose precisely because the Quran was not sufficient to provide all the answers for the emerging Islamic caliphate. Not only were hadiths collected but they were also fabricated in large numbers to suit the interests of the powers of the day. Despite this, hadith is still an important source of Islamic law. So while Quran may be silent on the need to punish a blasphemer, the hadiths are clearly in the affirmative, even specifying how the person should be killed.

Rahman Sb. also argues that the prophet of Islam forgave all those who insulted and made fun of him. Certainly, he is not just relying on the Quran for this information but also on other sources of law from which we get information about the life of the prophet. But the same sources also tell us that the prophet of Islam ordered and supervised the killing of enemies, including women. The assertion that a general amnesty was declared after Muslims captured Mecca is simply fallacious. While Mr. Rahman is certainly entitled to his own hermeneutics of Islam, he must know that he stands on a very weak ground. The hegemonic reading of the Quran and allied texts, done by important seminaries and disseminated worldwide argue the exact opposite of what Mr. Rahman intends to do. There is enough in Islamic texts which justify killing for blasphemy. The dominant reading of Islamic law from Indonesia to Egypt affirms that a blasphemer must be killed. Quoting the Quran, and that too, selectively, is certainly not going to save us from this malaise.

The other part of Mr. Rahman’s article is an ingenious attempt to wilfully misread the problem at hand. Throughout the world, there are laws which are anomalous, and the western world is no exception to this rule. The current problem in France is not the result of a skewed application of such laws but because of a resurgent Islamist politics which ends up beheading those who think differently. There cannot be any discussion on French law without first decoding the motivations of such killings. And those motivations are purely religious; they are enacted because the person believes in a particular religious ideology. The bigger concern therefore should be to counter such tendencies and condemn this religious motivation. Rather, what we get in Mr. Rahman’s article is to point fingers at the hypocrisy of French law which does not take into considerations the feelings of Muslims. Will Mr. Rahman accept India as a Hindu theocratic state if majority of people in this country feel like having it? Law certainly should not be hostage to feelings of people, but should be based on rationality and wisdom.

Mr. Rahman points to two issues in order to bring out the purported hollowness of France’s commitment to freedom of speech. He argues that there is a law which protects citizens (who are alive) from defamation and wants its extension to cover people who are long dead. Through this, he hopes that those defaming the prophet by making films and cartoons can be prosecuted. Rahman Sb. completely misreads the situation. The prophet is no ordinary being; in fact he is not just a person, but represents an idea. Mr. Rahman is telling us that certain ideas should be above any criticism. This is a huge expectation. Europe is partly built on the tradition of critique. And everything is kosher within this tradition. The sweep of this tradition was such that the critique of Christian faith was not just done by secularists but also by church officials themselves. It is only recently that such criticism has been applied to Islam because today it is an important presence in Europe. If such a law is enacted then it will be applicable to all religions, which will mean negating centuries of scholarship against this institution. Or is Mr. Rahman asking for an exclusive law applicable only to defaming Islam and its prophet? Either way, instituting such a law would be disastrous for the simple reason that no society has progressed without ceaseless questioning of the world around them. In fact, one reason why Muslim societies are regressive is because of the existence of such laws which prohibit the free exchange of ideas. Certainly this state of affairs is most conducive for an authoritarian regime. In a fascist state, one doesn’t think; one just believes.

Rahman Sb. also points out that although one can offend religious sensibilities, but there is a European law which criminalises the denial of holocaust, thus the application of ‘freedom of speech’ is selective and a design to target Islam and Muslims. This oft-repeated clever argument misses the point that the two are not comparable.

One is about a certain set of ideas, the other is about the horrible sufferings of Jewish people. There is nothing wrong in critiquing ideas or even making fun of them. Judaism, Christianity and Islam for example, have continuously critiqued and ridiculed another set of ideas called polytheism. It is rather rich therefore of Islam to expect to be treated differently by another set of ideas, in this case, secularism. Ridiculing people or communities, on the other hand, should and must be severely restricted. Denying the holocaust is not just getting trapped in conspiracy theories, but is an insult to the lives of six million Jews who perished due to the madness of racial purity. And it started with caricaturing of people: Jews were talked about as evil, scheming, pests and eventually this propaganda became the common sense of a lot of people. When you reduce a community to the level of pest, there is not much remorse that one feels when the community is obliterated. Rahman Sb. would do well to remember that such a law is needed to prevent the recurrence of such brutality. Laws must be understood in their context and the purpose for which they are made. There is already a holocaust denying industry and one hopes Mr. Rahman is not part of this fantasy.

Mr. Rahman has also suggested that Samuel Paty could have had the same argument in class without showing those cartoons. We need to understand that the classroom space is sacrosanct and that teachers must be understood as the only ones who have the authority to decide what is best suited to his or her pedagogical strategy. In India and elsewhere, we have teachers being assaulted for teaching what they deemed fit for the class. I am sure Mr. Rahman would not condone the behaviour of Hindu right wing mobs who have assaulted teachers, accusing them of hurting their feelings. If these thugs, whether Hindu or Islamic are to decide what should or should not be taught in our schools, then we should just say good bye to all criticality which comes with schooling. The need of the hour is to protect teaching spaces from such right wing assaults; not to police them, as Rahman Sb. seems to be suggesting.        

Islam demands respect from others while at the same time being extremely disrespectful to other secular or religious traditions. Respect is always earned. Islam needs to earn it through an open embrace of all epistemologies, be they of different religions or sexual orientations. But in order to do so, it first needs a deep introspection of its own theological underpinnings which reeks of supremacism.

Those who want to ‘rescue’ Islam need not just limit themselves to the ‘inherent goodness’ of the Quran, but also see how the same Quran has been used to marginalise, exclude and subdue others.

(Arshad Alam is a columnist with 

This article was first published on



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