Islam and blasphemy

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Writer Salman Rushdie was accused of blasphemy and became the subject of a fatwā issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, in February 1989.

Blasphemy in Islam is any irreverent behavior[1] toward holy personages, religious artifacts, customs, and beliefs that Muslims revere. The Quran and the hadith do not speak about any worldy punishment for blasphemy.[2] Jurists created the offence, and they made it part of Sharia.[2] Where Sharia pertains, the penalties for blasphemy can include fines, imprisonment, flogging, amputation, hanging, or beheading.[3][4] Muslim clerics may call for the punishment of an alleged blasphemer by issuing a fatwā.[5][6]

Blasphemy versus apostasy[edit]

Muslim jurists dispute about what irreverent behavior amounts to blasphemy. They dispute about whether behavior that is deemed blasphemous amounts to a rejection of Islam, that is, apostasy. Some jurists believe that blasphemy automatically removes an individual from the fold of Islam.[2] Jurists may conflate and confuse apostasy, blasphemy, hypocrisy, heresy, and unbelief. An individual may find himself accused of being an atheist, a heretic, a hypocrite, a blasphemer, and an apostate on the basis of one action or utterance.[7][8]


Islamic legal authorities agree that a blasphemer can be Muslim or non-Muslim. To be convicted of blasphemy, an individual must be an adult, of sound mind, and not under duress. Some jurisdictions do not punish individuals who commit blasphemy accidentally. The Maliki school of jurisprudence permits the exoneration of accused individuals who are converts to Islam.[8]

Blasphemy against holy personages[edit]

Individuals have been accused of blasphemy or of insulting Islam for:

Blasphemy against beliefs and customs[edit]

Individuals have been accused of blasphemy or of insulting Islam for:

Blasphemy against artifacts[edit]

Individuals have been accused of blasphemy or of insulting Islam for:

  • touching a Qur'an or touching something that has touched a Qur'an because the individuals were not Muslim (Nigeria).[74][75]
  • spitting at the wall of a mosque (Pakistan).[76][77]


The punishments for different instances of blasphemy in Islam vary by jurisdiction,[2][78][79] but may be very severe. A convicted blasphemer may, among other penalties, lose all legal rights. The loss of rights may cause a blasphemer's marriage to be dissolved, religious acts to be rendered worthless, and claims to property—including any inheritance—to be rendered void. Repentance may restore lost rights except for marital rights; lost marital rights are regained only by remarriage. Women have blasphemed and repented to end a marriage. Women may be permitted to repent, and may receive a lesser punishment than would befall a man who committed the same offense.[8] In some jurisdictions blasphemy may be subject to the death penalty.[80] Many severe punishments are imposed in various Islamic societies.

Blasphemy against God[edit]

Islamic law makes a distinction between a blasphemer who insults God and a blasphemer who finds fault with Muhammad. The distinction is based on the notions of the "right of God" and the "right of Man." Reviling God violates the "right of God," who has the power to avenge the insult. Reviling Muhammad violates the "right of Man," who, in the case of Muhammad, does not have the power to avenge the insult. A blasphemer who violates the "right of God" can seek forgiveness through repentance.[2]

The Qur'an speaks of punishment in relation to those who make mischief in opposition to God and Muhammad:

The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the Hereafter, Except for those who return repenting before you apprehend them. And know that Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” (5:33-34)

—Qur'an, sura 5 (Al-Ma'ida), ayah 33-34[81]

Blasphemy against Muhammad[edit]

A blasphemer who violates the "right of Man" must seek forgiveness from the person insulted. In the case of an insult to Muhammad, the Muslim community is considered to be under an obligation to avenge the insult because the possibility of forgiveness expired upon the death of Muhammad.[2]

One of the best and the most well-known examples used by Muslim activists against the punishment for blasphemy is of an old woman who threw garbage on Muhammad every time he passed in front of her house. One day the garbage was not thrown; Muhammad got worried and inquired about the woman. He found out that she was sick, when he went to meet her, she felt guilty and finally she accepted Islam.[82] However, the authenticity of this story has been questioned by Islamic scholars as no such story appears in the authentic hadith.[83]

When still alive Muhammad called for the murder of Ka'b ibn al-Ashraf, because he insulted him.[84]

The Prophet said, "Who is ready to kill Ka'b ibn al-Ashraf who has really hurt Allah and His Apostle?" Muhammad bin Maslama said, "O Allah's Apostle! Do you like me to kill him?" He replied in the affirmative. So, Muhammad bin Maslama went to him (i.e. Ka'b) and said, "This person (i.e. the Prophet) has put us to task and asked us for charity." Ka'b replied, "By Allah, you will get tired of him." Muhammad said to him, "We have followed him, so we dislike to leave him till we see the end of his affair." Muhammad bin Maslama went on talking to him in this way till he got the chance to kill him. Narrated Jabir bin 'Abdullah

Sahih al-Bukhari, 4:52:270, see also Sahih al-Bukhari, 5:59:369, Sahih Muslim, 19:4436 Sahih al-Bukhari, 3:45:687 Sahih al-Bukhari, 4:52:271

Blasphemy against beliefs and customs[edit]

The punishment for non-conformity with prevailing beliefs and customs varies by jurisdiction.[78] In September 2009, Abdul Kahar Ahmad pleaded guilty in a Malaysian Sharia court to charges of spreading false doctrines, blasphemy, and violating religious precepts. The court sentenced Ahmad to ten years in prison and six lashes from a rattan cane.[85] In October 2009, Somalia's hardline Islamist group al-Shabaab whipped women who were wearing a bra, and whipped men for being beardless. The group said violation of Islamic custom deserved whipping.[86]


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