1989 demonstration against The Satanic Verses in Den Haag, Netherlands

Salman Rushdie and the Islamic Punishment for Blasphemy

For centuries, the orthodox Muslim view has been that those who insult Muhammad must be summarily killed.

Gordon Nickel
Gordon Nickel
13 min read

The stabbing of Salman Rushdie in Chautauqua, New York on August 12th, 2022 drew a flurry of media coverage. But few journalistic reports explained the Islamic injunction against blasphemy in a way that would allow non-Muslims to understand the beliefs that typically motivate such attacks.

The first time that many Western observers learned of the Muslim injunction against blasphemy was following the release of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in 1988 and the Iranian fatwa against him that ensued. The issue again became front-page news in 2004, following the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in the streets of Amsterdam; in 2005, following the deadly response to the publication of cartoon depictions of Muhammad in Denmark; and in 2015, following the mass murder that took place in the Paris editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo.

Journalistic explanations of these incidents rarely have gone beyond the repeated commonplace that visual depictions of Muhammad are not permitted in Islam. But most accusations of blasphemy in Islam—including the fatwa against Rushdie—have nothing to do with visual images. Complicating matters is the fact that the word “blasphemy” is typically used in the West to refer to “speech that is derogatory to God,” whereas Muhammad was a human religious figure.

This article attempts to summarize the development of the Islamic punishment for blasphemy in Muslim thought and life. Several essential primary sources of Islam are examined in this regard, including the Qur’an; the sunna (practice) of Muhammad, the messenger of Islam, as presented in early Muslim narratives and the traditions attributed to him; and Islamic Law. I also describe writings by later Muslim authorities that both explained the theological reasons for the prohibition against blasphemy, and sharpened the application of the punishment meted out to offenders. When these sources are taken together, it may be said that all of them reflect the extreme veneration that Muslims exhibit toward Muhammad.

The punishment in primary sources

Islamic Law—that is, fiqh expressed in written form in furūʿ (branches)—is relatively straightforward when it comes to the punishment for blasphemy. Most Muslim jurists ruled that any Muslim judged to blaspheme is thereafter considered an apostate and is therefore condemned to death. Some jurists ruled that the accused blasphemer could still be considered a Muslim, even while agreeing that he should be executed for a ḥadd (serious) crime. As for non-Muslim offenders, many jurists called for the punishment of death to be dispensed equally to such blasphemers.

In these sources, blasphemy was understood to apply primarily to speech directed at Muhammad, and it seems that only later on was the rule applied in regard to Allah, or to prophets. Notably, German scholar of Islam Lutz Wiederhold (1963–2012) excluded blasphemy against Allah entirely from his study of blasphemy in Islam because “the sources used mention it only occasionally.”

The distinction between language judged to be against Muhammad and language against God was based on the concept of the “right of Allah” (ḥaqq Allāh) and the “right of man” (ḥaqq al-‘abd or ḥaqq al-ādamī), which Afghan Islamic scholar Mohammad Hashim Kamali explains as “the personal right and honour of the Prophet.” In the case of speech judged to be against Muhammad, “Islamic law takes a more severe view than in the case of reviling God,” according to University of Melbourne scholar of Islam Abdullah Saeed and co-author Hassan Saeed: As Muhammad is not in a position to avenge himself, they write, “it is seen to be the responsibility of the Muslim community to seek vengeance on his behalf by imposing the death penalty on the offender.”

According to Kamali, reviling Allah is considered to be pardonable when the offender repents. But there is disagreement among Muslim jurists over whether repentance by a person accused of insulting Muhammad should even be considered in weighing the accusations against him. The Ḥanbalī and Mālikī schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, Kamali explains, support the view that if Muhammad’s “personal right” is violated, only Muhammad could pardon this. Following Muhammad’s death in 632 AD, such forgiveness obviously became impossible. “As a result, punishment in this case is enforced regardless of whether the offender repents.” (I am focusing here on Sunni sources. Shiah jurists expressed views very similar to their Sunni counterparts, except that they also considered the 12 Imams of the majority Shiah sect as prohibited subjects of blasphemy.)

Muslims typically believe that Islamic Law is properly derived from four main sources, the first two being the Qur’an and the sunna, comprising the behavior and sayings ascribed to Muhammad. Do these two sources support capital punishment for blasphemy under Islamic Law?

The basic vocabulary for blasphemy in the Islamic sources is a pair of Arabic verbs: shatama and sabba. Shatama does not appear in the Qur’an, while sabba appears only once—as part of a commandment directing Muslims not to insult the idols of polytheists (Q 6:108). Academic treatments of blasphemy in the Qur’an tend to highlight verses that contain the verbs iftarā (invent lyingly, slander), kadhdhaba (give the lie to, deny), and kafara (disbelieve). In such verses, blasphemy would be taken as meaning the denial of standard Islamic views.

Kamali, however, indicates three Qur’anic verbs that, in his view, distinguish blasphemy from other forms of unbelief: ḥādda (to oppose, e.g., Q 9:63), shāqqa (to break with, e.g., 8:13), and ādhā (to hurt, e.g., 33:57). Sura 33:57 reads: “Surely those who hurt (yuʾdhūna) Allah and his messenger—Allah has cursed them in this world and the Hereafter, and has prepared a humiliating punishment for them.” One can see where ambiguity might arise: The curse in this verse is not only presented as manifesting itself in the world to come but also in the present world. And while the verse does not specify when the “humiliating punishment” is to fall, there are other Qur’anic passages that specify that a painful punishment would come in the temporal world (dunya), including Sura 9:74—a verse cited by some Dēobandīs (an influential Sunni revivalist movement in South Asia) as supporting the death penalty for blasphemy.

The literary sources of the sunna—sīra (narratives about Islamic origins), maghāzī (accounts of the messenger’s military raids), ṭabaqāt (chronologically organized biographical profiles), hadith (traditions about the messenger’s words and deeds), and taʾrīkh (annals)—present stories of Muhammad requesting or agreeing to the assassination of people who mocked, insulted, or troubled him. But there are also stories of Muhammad tolerating insults or leaving the punishment to Allah.

Many of the blasphemy-related stories come from the Sīrat al-nabawiyya of eighth-century Muslim chronicler Ibn Isḥāq (d. 767), as edited by ninth-century scholar Ibn Hishām (d. 833); and from the Ṭabaqāt al-kubrā of Iraqi annalist Ibn Saʿd (d. 845). Other stories appear in the hadith collections of Sunni archivists al-Bukhārī (d. 870) and Imam Muslim (d. 874). The most common narrative here presents people who satirize Muhammad through poetry as being killed. Several of the poets in the stories are women, while some are slaves and others are Jews.

The Jew Kaʿb ibn al-Ashraf is considered by some Muslim scholars to be the first person executed for speaking against Muhammad. However, the early blasphemer par excellence seems to have been ʿAbd Allah b. Saʿd. According to Muslim sources, he was a scribe of Muhammad who eventually began to question both the accuracy of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s status as a prophet. ʿAbd Allah is depicted as having invented his own recitations, then reading them at the end of the day to Muhammad, who approved them as his own.

In fact, this is the story that Rushdie tells through his character Salman the Persian in The Satanic Verses. Along with the “satanic verses” story itself, which details “satanic suggestions” that Muhammad was alleged to have misinterpreted as divine messages, this story drew the ire of some Muslim readers. Yet both stories are part of the authentic Muslim tradition.

The stories of Muhammad tolerating insults or leaving the punishment to Allah tend to appear less frequently in the early Muslim narrative sources, but are nevertheless familiar to many Muslims. One of the best-known stories of this kind relates to the resistance that Muhammad faced when he visited the town of al-Ṭāʾif (in what is now south-west Saudi Arabia). According to Iranian scholar al-Ṭabarī (d. 923), the elders of the town would not help Muhammad, and “their ignorant rabble and their slaves” shouted at him and reviled him. In this account, Muhammad is alone following his initial rejection by the Quraysh of Mecca, but does not seek violent retribution. Muhammad finds refuge in a garden, where a Christian slave from Nineveh named ʿAddās brings him a bunch of grapes and converses kindly with him.

Notwithstanding the apparent ambiguity of the sources contained in the sunna, advocates of the death penalty for those accused of blasphemy base their argument on hadith, sīra, and ijmāʿ (the consensus of Islamic jurists). Mufti Obaidullah Qasmi of the Dr. Zakir Hussain College in New Delhi has even gone so far as to claim that, based on such sources, “the death punishment assigned for blasphemy” is the subject of “unanimous agreement of all Islamic scholars in all the ages.”

But there is also a separate issue to consider: the place and importance of Islamic Law in everyday Muslim belief and practice—what might be called the Islamic worldview. On this topic, British historian Norman Calder (1950–1998) wrote that, “since the topics of the law cover all the major categories of a pious, and a social, life … a work of furūʿ [the written form of Islamic Law], formally at least, constituted a literary depiction of social reality in normative form.” In other words, according to Calder, the intention of Islamic Law is to both reflect and prescribe culture.

Influential later writings

The most extensive legal discussion about the punishment for people judged to speak against Muhammad came from the influential late medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) in a book titled The Unsheathed Sword Against Whoever Insults the Messenger. The book’s creation was evidently sparked by an accusation against a non-Muslim—a Christian scribe who lived near Damascus. Ibn Taymiyya’s severe and uncompromising thesis was that anyone—Muslim or non-Muslim—who abuses (sabba) Muhammad must be summarily killed.

He built his case on the basis of seven specific Qur’anic passages, and from episodes in sīra literature “that demonstrate that the Prophet dealt harshly with those who insulted him.” A Muslim offender becomes an apostate, he wrote, and a non-Muslim offender forfeits the so-called “pact of protection.” By Ibn Taymiyya’s view, this made both kinds of offender worthy of immediate death.

In his analysis, Ibn Taymiyya was required to deal with dissenting opinions that served to allow apostates the chance to repent before facing the death penalty. He argued that speaking against Muhammad fell into a special category of apostasy called “aggravated apostasy” (ridda mughallaẓa). As University of Nottingham Islamic Studies expert Jon Hoover has argued, the large number of modern editions of The Unsheathed Sword in circulation today would suggest that Ibn Taymiyya’s view remains influential.

Veneration of Muhammad

The punishment for blasphemy may seem like a discrete and isolated element of Islamic belief and practice. But it relates to a number of other phenomena that, taken together, affect a substantial portion of Muslim life. The common element that binds them together is the deep and widespread Muslim veneration of Muhammad.

This wider practice includes the exaltation of Muhammad as the perfect human, and the claim that he was not only sinless, but entirely immune from sin. The life example of Muhammad is held out as the model for all of humankind to emulate, with the sayings attributed to Muhammad in the hadith presented as having authority over human behavior according to Islamic Law. While the Qur’an may not present a uniform message regarding the punishment for blasphemy, it is quite clear when it comes to the great value ascribed to the messenger, Muhammad. The Qur’an associates “the messenger” with Allah at least 85 times, and links obedience to the messenger with obedience to Allah 28 times (e.g., Q 3:32: "Say, 'Obey Allah and the Messenger.' If they turn away from this, Allah does not love the unbelievers."). Muslims have historically tended to draw from this close pairing a conclusion such as that drawn by Kamali: “It would appear eminently logical, and consistent with the central role of [Muhammad] in the creed and dogma of Islam, that an insult to him is treated in the same way as a revilement of God.”

Other phenomena that reflect the venerated status of Muhammad include the popular belief that he remains alive and so may intercede before Allah on behalf of his community. It is claimed that the coming of Muhammad was prophesied in the Bible, and that Jews and Christians are judged by their response to this claim. A popular Muslim devotional book is the Dalā’il al-khayrāt, which ascribes to Muhammad 201 names—many of which are also assigned to Allah. It is claimed that Allah and the angels “pray upon” the prophet (the literal sense of the verb ṣallā ʿalā in Q 33:56) and believers are commanded to do the same. Immediately following this command comes the above-cited verse, “Surely those who hurt Allah and his messenger—Allah has cursed them in this world and the Hereafter” (Q 33:57).

This extreme veneration of Muhammad often seems to cross over into deification, a topic of academic research exemplified by Annemarie Schimmel’s study, And Muhammad Is His Prophet: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety; and especially the classic monograph written by Swedish religious scholar Tor Andrae (1885–1947) more than a century ago, Die Person Muhammeds in Lehre und Glauben seiner Gemeinde (The person of Muhammad in the teachings and beliefs of his community). Andrae’s description of the thinking of Muslim scholars regarding the punishment for blasphemy draws largely on the works of Ibn Taymiyya and Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ (the latter being described in the paragraph below). After describing the 201 names ascribed to Muhammad in the Dalā’il al-khayrāt, Andrae asks, “Did the difference between the [names given to Allah and the names given to Muhammad] not become imperceptibly blurred for the simple pious people who prayed through this breviary, the most popular devotional book [among Muslims] after the Qur’an?”

An important primary source that explicitly connects the punishment for blasphemy to these wider aspects of Muhammad’s veneration is the book Healing Through the Announcement of the Rights of the Chosen One, by Spanish jurist Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ ibn Mūsā al-Yaḥsubī (d. 1123). The book includes ambitious claims in regard to Allah’s praise of Muhammad and Muhammad’s miracles; and the obligation to believe in, obey, pray upon, and love the sinless Muhammad. The book concludes with a long section on the punishment of those who deem Muhammad imperfect or curse him. Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ is unequivocal that this punishment must be death. He presents extensive material from the Qur’an, hadith, sīra, and judgments of famous jurists. He claims that there is no real dispute about this punishment, and adds that even if people speak against Muhammad without intent, through ignorance, or by a slip of the tongue, they must be killed without hesitation.

And it is this understanding of blasphemy that seems to have informed the enactment of Section 295-C of the Pakistani Penal Code in 1986, which prescribes that

Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.

In tracing a link between classical sources and modern societies, Louisiana State University Arabic professor Mark Wagner has written that the influence of Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ’s Healing was passed through Ibn Taymiyya’s Unsheathed Sword and Ibn Taymiyya’s advocate Ibn al-Bazzāz (d. 1424), to the Ḥanafī scholars of South Asia, and, in due course, to proponents of “Islamicization” in Pakistan during the 1980s.

Differences in thinking and action

To what extent are 21st-century Muslims agreed on the punishment for speech about Muhammad that they consider to be blasphemous? In Pakistan, where various high-profile killings have taken place since blasphemy was made a capital offense in 1986, the difference of opinion within society seems to lie principally between (1) Muslims who believe that death is the correct punishment for those accused of blasphemy, but that it should be administered by a legitimate Islamic ruler; (2) those who believe that Muslims may inflict such fatal punishment on their own individual initiative, without the approval of government; and (3) those who believe that blasphemy, while a serious offense, should not be treated as a capital crime.

One reason why an orthodox understanding of Sunni Islam—the majority branch of the faith—continues to yield such a severe view on blasphemy is that Islamic interpretation of the Qur’an, hadith, and sharīʿa (religious law) tends to remain traditionally rooted in medieval authorities rather than in new and creative approaches. A recent illustration of this tendency is The Study Quran—a widely marketed 2015 HarperCollins publication that promised readers “an accessible and accurate translation of the Quran that offers a rigorous analysis of its theological, metaphysical, historical, and geographical teachings and backgrounds, and includes extensive study notes, special introductions by experts in the field … edited by a top modern Islamic scholar, respected in both the West and the Islamic world.” Notwithstanding the publisher’s description, the book mainly presents interpretations dating from many centuries ago, and features little commentary drawn from modern critical academic scholarship.

Some Muslim writers, especially in the West, are in the habit of casually declaring that Islam prescribes no death sentence for blasphemy—a claim that seems more oriented toward reassuring Western readers than summarizing orthodox Muslim opinion. But it is true that some prominent Muslim authorities have been willing to go on record as disagreeing with the requirement that blasphemy be punished by death under Islamic Law. The Indian modernist Muslim Wahiduddin Khan, for instance, roots this view entirely by reference to the Qur’an; while Laiq Ahmed Atif, the leader of Malta’s Ahmadiyya Muslims, quotes both the Qur’an and stories in which Muhammad forgave insults. But neither writer mentions Islamic Law on blasphemy, which would, in my opinion, make their case impossible to argue.

Other revisionist writers do mention Islamic Law, but downplay its importance. These include Mustafa Akyol, a senior fellow on Islam and modernity at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC. In a 2018, New York Times op-ed titled and subtitled, True Islam Does Not Kill Blasphemers: The Quran has 6,236 verses, none of which tell the faithful to stifle blasphemy by force, he selectively quoted three verses from the Qur’an, but called hadith that support orthodox Islamic Law “dubious.” Obviously, it would be preferable if the kind of “moderate” view that Akyol describes really did hold sway in the Muslim world. But it doesn’t. And the proof of this is that modernists such as Akyol would face great risk if they promoted their ideas in many Islamic nations.

In 1990, Pakistani legislators inquired as to whether a more lenient punishment than death could be considered for blasphemers. The Federal Shariat Court rebuked them, ruling that “the penalty for contempt of the Holy Prophet” should be “death and nothing else.” More recently, in 2010, liberal Pakistani lawmaker Sherry Rehman tried to introduce changes to Section 295-C, and was herself accused of blasphemy. She escaped harm or punishment. But her example shows why even many reformers are hesitant to address the issue.

One theoretical avenue of reform was proposed in 1986 by Abdullahi Ahmad an-Na’im, a professor of Law at Emory University. Relating to a similar punishment (the punishment for apostasy), an-Na’im argued that new formulations of Islamic Law might be based on those parts of the Qur’an associated with the story of Muhammad’s early period in Mecca, when his followers were few and enforcement was not an issue. An-Na’im referred to these verses as “texts of freedom of choice,” and explained how Muslims could choose to act on these; rather than on parts of the Qur’an that he called “the texts of compulsion and jihad,” which Muslims associate with Muhammad’s political and military rule in Medina (upon which sharīʿa is based).

Unfortunately, as Dr. Na’im reported, a Sudanese advocate of the views he was describing, Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, had been convicted of apostasy and executed in Sudan one year earlier. His fate symbolizes the extreme intolerance toward blasphemy that, unfortunately, holds sway throughout the Muslim world to this day.

Portions of this essay were adapted from a scholarly 2021 article published by the author in the Journal of the Institute of Islamic Studies.

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Gordon Nickel is a retired professor of Islamic Studies living in the Shuswap.