Ideas & Philosophy — 17 February 2012
Hamza Kashgari and the divide over ‘free speech’

Dr. Abdul Wahid – Why you won’t see Muslims adopting the ‘right’ to insult Prophets

The case of Hamza Kashgari is one that I think most people in the West simply don’t understand.

Even those who are not hostile to Islam find it hard to reconcile European notions of free speech – established after many battles with the religious establishment – with cases like this one, where a Saudi writer and poet has been extradited from Malaysia at the request of the Saudi regime after being accused of insulting the Blessed Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.

Kashgari appears to have posted the disparaging and offensive remarks on Twitter in a month when Muslims around the world remember his birth.

Thankfully, it’s been reported that Kashgari has retracted them, removed them from the web and apologized for making them, all of which ought mark the end of the matter.

Yet there has been much focus on the remarks of the Saudi ‘king’ calling for his arrest and that he was even extradited by Malaysia to face a possible death sentence. It’s been said that Abdullah al Saud has simply used this case for political reasons, and the outrage he has expressed is little more than hypocrisy by the regime.

It’s a pretty safe allegation to make, given that hypocrisy in this regime is more abundant than oil and sunlight in the ‘kingdom’ they dominate. Other than the fact that the regime doesn’t govern, run its economy or foreign relations according to the standards of God and His Messenger, it is infamous for its ill treatment of pilgrims who spend their life’s savings to visit the Prophet’s mosque out of heartfelt love. The accusation of playing politics may also be true, since the regime has been very concerned about growing disquiet, both from a younger generation and from its Shia community. It’s argued that by arresting Kashgari, Abdullah ibn Saud can send a strong signal to dissident voices.

Yet, this affair does draw a sharp distinction between Islamic standards and secular liberal standards – and it is important not to gloss over this aspect, for various reasons I will discuss.

Islam is a belief system that has encouraged accounting political authority since its earliest days. Even the Prophet faced questions and scrutiny by the people he ruled over. His closest companions, who succeeded him in political authority as Caliphs, faced (sometimes harsh) questioning by citizens in the state – men and women, Muslim and non-Muslim. The accounting of authority is considered not so much a right but a duty in Islam. The questioning of scholars is a norm – since there is no priesthood in Islam. Moreover, Islam – in its so-called golden age encouraged intellectual inquiry, debate and scrutiny.

So how is it, secular commentators may ask, that an insult to the Prophet can be a capital offence.

Yet it is important for people to know that this response is not some fringe or aberrant opinion. According to any orthodox reading of Islam, in an Islamic state (for the record, the Saudi ‘kingdom’ lacks legitimacy as an Islamic state) someone proven to have insulted the blessed Prophet and who did not retract what they said would indeed be punished by execution.

In his beautiful book about the status of the Prophet of Islam, known as ‘Al Shifa’, (the full title translates as ‘Healing by recognition of the Rights of al-Mustafa), Qadi Ayyad ibn Musa (1083-1149) – an Islamic scholar and judge from Granada in Andalusia, Spain – not only addresses characteristics of the Prophet – but also mentions the verdict on those who disparage him in any way.

One may certainly criticise the cynical false allegations of blasphemy in places like Pakistan that we may have come across. Or we can criticise vigilantism, where emotional people might act as judge and executioner without the legal authority to do so – for the rule of law in Islam is extremely important. Indeed, the Prophet explicitly said “Nobody has the right vested in him to establish anything from the Hudood without the Sultan (authority of the State).” [Baihaqi]

So the magnitude of the sin of any insult to the Prophet is without question; and the prescribed punishment from the judicial authority (if proven and the person did not retract and repent) is well established in Islamic law.

So why discuss it.

Firstly, a frank explanation of Islamic values gives a more honest engagement between Muslims and non-Muslims, which is important at a time when some Muslims may feel uncomfortable about responding to these issues for fear of being labelled ‘extremist’. There is, amongst some Muslim commentators, a desire to speak out positively for the Prophet but a reluctance to discuss capital punishment in liberal societies, fearing a backlash on these issues [which rather illustrates how liberal societies can be as supremacist as they sometimes accuse others of being].

Secondly, for a Muslim hearing the orthodox Islamic view on this issue, it is a sobering reminder of the magnitude of the offence according to Islam. Even if we don’t live in a land where there is an Islamic legal authority to try and punish anyone found guilty of the offence, being reminded of the standard laid down for centuries steers us away from the kind of flippant manner of addressing the Prophet’s of Allah that has become so common in secular Europe. Indeed, the Kashgari case shows how secular values, globalised via satellite and internet, have had an affect on individuals in the Muslim world; all the more likely because states like the Saudi state are intellectually arid from an Islamic perspective and tend to deal with people by discipline and not with stronger arguments, when individuals mimic a western discourse.

Thirdly, secularists love to use such issues to twist or erase any Islamic law or value that contradicts secular liberal norms that dominate the world today. Such attempts have been made before, and will be made again, but should not go unchallenged, and the traditional Islamic standard should be presented – and indeed Islamic values as regards respect for the Prophets should be championed.

If people understood the Islamic framework on the limits of speech (and every society and value system has a limit), they might see that it addresses something that secular Europe has lost; and which some people mourn the loss of.

When Western Europe developed its attitudes to ‘free speech’ in response to the hegemony of the Catholic Church, arguments about theology were seen as a challenge to political authority, so defiance of the papal authority became integral to people speaking their mind; and people fought for a right to question beliefs.

But, what started in this way went far beyond what was first envisaged. Over several decades challenging papal authority shifted to denigration of God and His messengers; and eventually to a situation where to insult others is a badge of pride. Humour is built around it; politicians thrive on it; and yet others will argue that disrespect has grown in society – and antisocial behaviour along with it. People in Europe respect the Prophet Esa [Jesus] as the source of their moral viewpoint and legal system on many issues (even if they don’t think of him as a prophet) – but they don’t think twice about ridiculing, parodying and mocking his name and cannot see how it undervalues that morality and legal system that has underpinned social relationships for centuries.

The Islamic Shari’ah welcomes intellectual inquiry and debate, and political accountability. It allows humour, art and cultural expression. But it draws a red line at the sanctity of God and His messengers – all of them, not just the Prophet Muhammad .

Muslims ought to celebrate that a red line separates the legal and moral standard for society, the Lawgiver and His messengers – from those who execute those legal and morals – the citizens and their rulers.


Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy and Prospect magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @abdulwahidht or emailed at [email protected] 

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