Blasphemy is the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God, to religious or holy persons or sacred things, or toward something considered sacred or inviolable.
Blasphemy law is a law limiting the freedom of speech and expression relating to blasphemy, or irreverence toward holy personages, religious artifacts, customs, or beliefs.
Blasphemy laws are generally used to protect the religious beliefs of a majority or those who control the law.
Where blasphemy laws systematically target an identifiable section of the community with severe penalties that may include imprisonment or death they are a crime against humanity.
A prosecution for blasphemy in the United States would be a violation of the U.S. Constitution and no blasphemy laws exist at the federal level.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . . .”
Because of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and religious exercise from federal interference, and the Supreme Court’s extension of those protections against state regulation, the United States and its constituent state governments may not prosecute blasphemous speech or religious insults and may not allow civil actions on those grounds.
In Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that New York could not enforce a censorship law against filmmakers whose films contained “sacrilegious” content. The opinion of the Court, by Justice Clark, stated that: “From the standpoint of freedom of speech and the press, it is enough to point out that the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them which is sufficient to justify prior restraints upon the expression of those views. It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine, whether they appear in publications, speeches, or motion pictures”
In many countries either there are no laws against blasphemy, or long-established laws are no longer enforced.
Countries that abolish or repeal blasphemy laws include:
France in 1881
Sweden in 1970
Norway with Acts in 2009 and 2015
The Netherlands in 2014
Iceland in 2015.
In all of the developed Western world and East Asian developed democracies like Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan, blasphemy laws, when existent, are largely a dead letter.
In Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has recommended that countries enact laws that protect the freedom of expression.
United Nations General Comment 34 – Blasphemy laws are incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
(ICCPR) 1976, concerning freedoms of opinion and expression. Paragraph 48 states:
Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant, except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20, paragraph 2, of the Covenant. Such prohibitions must also comply with the strict requirements of article 19, paragraph 3, as well as such articles as 2, 5, 17, 18 and 26. Thus, for instance, it would be impermissible for any such laws to discriminate in favor of or against one or certain religions or belief systems, or their adherents over another, or religious believers over non-believers. Nor would it be permissible for such prohibitions to be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.
Anti-blasphemy laws are particularly common in Muslim-majority nations, such as those in the Middle East and North Africa.
There are a number of surah in Qur’an and sunnah in hadith relating to blasphemy, from which Quranic verses 5:33-34 and 33:57-61 have been most commonly used in Islamic history to justify and punish blasphemers
For example; The only punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is that they should be murdered, or crucified, or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides, or they should be imprisoned. This shall he a disgrace for them in this world, and in the Hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement. Except those who repent before you overpower them; so know that Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. Quran 5:33-34
Those who annoy Allah and His Messenger – Allah has cursed them in this World and in the Hereafter, and has prepared for them a humiliating Punishment. Truly, if the Hypocrites, and those in whose hearts is a disease, and those who stir up sedition in the City, desist not, We shall certainly stir thee up against them: Then will they not be able to stay in it as thy neighbours for any length of time: They shall have a curse on them: whenever they are found, they shall be seized and slain (without mercy). Quran 33:57-61
A variety of actions, speeches or behavior can constitute blasphemy in Islam. Some examples include insulting or cursing Allah, or Muhammad; mockery or disagreeable behavior towards beliefs and customs common in Islam; criticism of Islam’s holy personages.
Apostasy, that is act of abandoning Islam, or finding faults or expressing doubts about Allah (ta’til) and Qur’an, rejection of Muhammed or any of his teachings, or leaving the Muslim community to become an atheist is a form of blasphemy.
Questioning religious opinions (fatwa) and normative Islamic views can also be construed as blasphemous.
Improper dress, drawing offensive cartoons, tearing or burning holy literature of Islam, creating or using music or painting or video or novels to mock or criticize Muhammad are some examples of blasphemous acts.
In the context of those who are non-Muslims, the concept of blasphemy includes all aspects of infidelity (kufr).
Blasphemy in different Islamic schools of jurisprudence
The Quran does not explicitly mention any worldly punishment for Blasphemy as it does for Apostasy.
Islamic jurisprudence of Sunni and Shia have declared different punishments for the religious crime of Blasphemy and they vary between schools.
These are as follows:
Hanafi – views blasphemy as synonymous with apostasy, and therefore, accepts the repentance of apostates. Those who refuse to repent, their punishment is death if the blasphemer is a Muslim man, and if the blasphemer is a woman, she must be imprisoned with coercion (beating) till she repents and returns to Islam. If a non-Muslim commits blasphemy, his punishment must be a tazir (discretionary, can be death, arrest, caning, etc.).
Maliki – view blasphemy as an offense distinct from, and more severe than apostasy. Death is mandatory in cases of blasphemy for Muslim men, and repentance is not accepted.
For women, death is not the punishment suggested, but she is arrested and punished till she repents and returns to Islam or dies in custody.
A non-Muslim who commits blasphemy against Islam must be punished; however, the blasphemer can escape punishment by converting and becoming a devout Muslim.
Hanbali – view blasphemy as an offense distinct from, and more severe than apostasy.
Death is mandatory in cases of blasphemy, for both Muslim men and women, and repentance is not accepted.
Shafi’i – recognizes blasphemy as a separate offense from apostasy, but accepts the repentance of blasphemers. If the blasphemer does not repent, the punishment is death.
Ja’fari (Shia) – views blasphemy against Islam, the Prophet, or any of the Imams, to be punishable with death, if the blasphemer is a Muslim. In case the blasphemer is a non-Muslim, he is given a chance to convert to Islam, or else killed.
Some jurists suggest that the sunnah in hadith provide a basis for a death sentence for the crime of blasphemy, even if someone claims not to be an apostate, but has committed the crime of blasphemy. Some modern Muslim scholars contest that Islam supports blasphemy law, stating that Muslim jurists made the offense part of Sharia.
The Islamic law considers blasphemy against Muhammad a more severe offense than blasphemy against God.
Repentance can lead to forgiveness by God when God is blasphemed, however since Muhammad is no longer alive, forgiveness is not possible when Muhammad is blasphemed, and the Muslim community must punish his blasphemy by avenging blasphemer’s death.
In Islamic jurisprudence, Kitab al Hudud and Taz’ir cover punishment for blasphemous acts.
The penalties for blasphemy can include fines, imprisonment, flogging, amputation, hanging, or beheading.
Many nations prescribe and carry out the death penalty for apostasy, a similarly motivated action, and Pakistan and Egypt demand execution for some blasphemers.
Muslim clerics may call for revenge against an alleged blasphemer by issuing a fatwa (legal ruling), or simply provide guidelines on behaviors and lifestyle that is blasphemous. For example, in Malaysia, Islamic scholars issued a fatwa declaring yoga as blasphemous, because yoga is a form of spiritual practice in Hinduism.
Notable cases and debate on blasphemy
One famous case of the Islamic blasphemy law was the fatwa against English author Salman Rushdie for his book entitled The Satanic Verses, the title of which refers to an account that Muhammad, in the course of revealing the Quran, received a revelation from Satan and incorporated it therein until made by Allah to retract it.
Several translators of his book into foreign languages have been murdered.
As of 2011, all Islamic majority nations, worldwide, had criminal laws on blasphemy.
Over 125 non-Muslim nations worldwide did not have any laws relating to blasphemy
In Islamic nations, thousands of individuals have been arrested and punished for blasphemy of Islam
Several Islamic nations have argued in the United Nations that blasphemy against Muhammad is unacceptable, and laws should be passed worldwide to place “limits on the freedom of expression.” Non-Muslim nations that do not have blasphemy laws, have pointed to abuses of blasphemy laws in Islamic nations, and have disagreed.