At present, an ethical crisis exists within Islamic theology and plays a major factor within Islamic extremism. A reading of Islam that suffers an ethical disconnect leads to ethical disorientation. We live in a time where Muslim reactions to the mundane/trivial are met with outrage and condemnation (e.g. Happy Muslims video) while moral crimes such as apostasy killings are met with apathy and silence. Too often influential religious leaders can be seen defending the morally indefensible; their views filter down to the Muslim masses, which can help create intolerant attitudes and destructive zealous mindsets.
No better illustration of this problem is the reaction to Mumtaz Qadri’s assassination of a leading politician, Salman Taseer, in January 2011 for his stance against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Taseer had defended Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman, who allegedly insulted the Prophet Muhammad and as a result was placed on death row. On Tuesday, Mumtaz Qadri was executed for murder in Pakistan and an estimated crowd of more than 100,000 people attended his funeral in show of support. It is believed that before his death Qadri was praised and showered with petals as he went to trial. The news of his execution was followed by support and tribute by some British imams, Muslim groups and individuals in the UK – to the extent some were declaring him a “martyr” who defended the honour of the Prophet Muhammad. What is the source of this moral blindness, which encourages the praise of a murderer and condemnation of a man calling for religious tolerance? Just as the Charlie Hebdo murders saw themselves as “defenders of the prophets” acting upon supposed Islam’s blasphemy laws’, Mumtaz was also motivated by such laws and this applies to his supporters and sympathizers.
In defense of blasphemy laws, Hadiths (historical accounts of sayings and actions of the prophet Mohammed) are often cited. The most famous hadith attributed to the Prophet is, “whoever insults the Prophet should be killed/kill them”. Three things can be said regarding this ‘command’: the first, in terms of ‘evidence’, namely the reliability of the chain of narration, the most optimistic view is that it is spurious, as some classical scholars have argued. Thus, given the gravity of the command versus the weakness of the evidence it should be avoided at all cost.
The second, any scripture understood to the exclusion of its socio-political context of 7th century Arabia is simply void and amounts to conjecture. Such interpretations would be unfaithful to the intended meaning of the ‘commandment’ of Prophet Mohammed and God. During the time of the Prophet Mohammed, political and religious identities were identical. Derision of Prophet Mohammed was an attempt to galvanize the hostile tribes, with military capability, to cause instability within society potentially leading to treason and war. Within such a context, blasphemy laws were necessary in order to preserve the peace within society. They were not about the safeguarding the ‘honour’ of the Prophet according to some jurists.
However, more importantly, if we ethically critique the commandment it will fall short of any intelligibility. It cannot be a command of the Prophet to kill someone for a mere insult since this is patently disproportionate. Any punishment should be proportionate to the crime, something the Quran attests to. Moreover, blasphemy laws that hold one should be killed contravene the principle of religious freedom, which is also upheld by the Quran. It is commonly held by Muslims, to compromise God’s divinity and to attribute partners to God is the most egregious insult to God. If insulting sacredness had to be met with the death penalty the consequence would have been to kill all Christians at the time of Prophet Mohammed, for merely pronouncing a tenant of their belief, that Jesus was God. For Muslims, this is attributing human qualities to God, a violation of his divinity. But Christians were clearly not killed for such a belief throughout the Prophet Mohammed’s lifetime. This raises the question – given that God is higher than the Prophet Mohammed in terms of sacred hierarchy and those who insulted God were not killed, why would death be sanctioned for those who insult the Prophet? Blasphemy laws by implication contradict its own principle of religious freedom. Thus, such a command lacks any ethical substance and is plagued with inconsistencies.
Moral blindness that plagues thinking, creates a deafening silence of religious leaders illustrated by Taseer’s murder and drives the religious support of Mumtaz. Without reform of how Muslim scholars interpret and understand the Islamic faith, this moral blindness will continue and such incidents, like the murder of a man fighting for the rights of minorities, will escape them. It can be said that religious zealously marks Mumtaz’s death and that his support demonstrates everything that is wrong with how Islam is understood. Salman Taseer dead for justice, compassion and Islam’s beauty. The true martyr is Salman Taseer not Mumtaz Qadri.