I am not in the habit of replying to criticisms of my essays and books, but on the infrequent occasion I receive ostensibly reasonable ones like the one I will address here, I do feel obliged to respond. Good points were made within the critique of my paper on blasphemy in the Muslim world, and I do not disagree with all the points made therein.
You can read my paper here: Blasphemy in the Muslim World
Here is the well-thought-out critique:
You say in the conclusion section: “If blasphemy in Islam is interpreted as lacking clear sanctions, whether as a hudd offence or through an ijma within and between Islamic schools of theology and jurisprudence, then it may be possible to reform and repeal Islamic blasphemy laws within an Islamic framework.”
But a few sections before, you noted: “Unfortunately, there is an ijma within and between the four Sunni schools of fiqh (Hanafi, Malaki, Shafi’I and Hanbali) and the two Shia schools of fiqh (Ja’fari and Zaydi) concerning the punishment of Muslims who blaspheme, although the specific punishments vary between the schools; as blasphemy is generally interpreted as either an indication of an intention to apostatize or the perpetration of apostasy itself. Further, there are different categories of blasphemy which exist across different jurisdictions and across the schools of Sunni and Shia fiqh.”
If there is an Islamic consensus of the wrongfulness of blasphemy, can you really write that “it may be possible to reform and repeal Islamic blasphemy laws within an Islamic framework? I don’t think so.
I think that any increase in scholarship quite probably will spread this very knowledge, and, within an Islamic framework, blasphemy will be even more often condemned. And the discussion on the precise sanctions appears moot. After all, Mohamed’s chosen sanction, when he was able to enforce it, is death.
Unless the said scholarship leads to a more universal condemnation of Islam itself, as if is now clear, after over a thousand years of observation (and the current aggravation in a context where more Muslims than ever have access to their founding texts) are that this faith systematically leads to more “fitna”, more hatred (already generated by the mere standardised prayers), more violence and intolerance to, among other things, blasphemy. This result would also encourage non-Muslim actors to put more pressure where it is needed. No?
Firstly, allow me to concede that whether one accepts there is an ijma (consensus) within and between the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), the situation is grim for both Muslims and non-Muslims who blaspheme in countries governed by Shari’ah. The reason for this grim state of affairs primarly hinges upon two factors: 1. Despite contradictions, the Qur’an and Sunnah (which form the basis of Islamic jurisprudence and subsequently the various Shariah) do contain justifications for the severe punishment of blasphemy. 2. The current climate within most Islamic countries, even Indonesia which is held up as a bastion of moderate Islam, is becoming increasingly conservative in nature. These two factors, which can be seen as working together against more progressive and reformist interpretations of Islam, ensure that the schools of Islamic jurisprudence remain reluctant to employ the doctrine of al-Islah wa al-tajdeed (reform and renewal) to reform and repeal Islamic blasphemy laws. However, as I argue in my paper, …the principles of al-Islah wa al-tajdeed (reform and renewal) and ta’zir (discretion) would need to be employed in conjunction with one another, because the underlying principle of ta’zir is the ‘wellbeing of the society’. Given that blasphemy laws have been demonstrated to cause social chaos and violence, rulers in Islamic states could potentially reform and repeal blasphemy laws under the proviso that they are a source of “fitnah”. Repealing Islamic blasphemy laws on such grounds would have a greater chance of success – should such an avenue be held to exist – because the repeal would rest on a purely Islamic discourse accepted by the constituents of Muslim societies.
So, if the perpetuation of fitnah is held to be a fate worse than death, as the Qur’an so holds, then upon this consideration it may be possible for reformers and progressives to relegate the punishment of blasphemy as a ta’zir (punishment is discretionary) offence, and as ‘public good’ (absence of fitnah, here interpreted as ‘social chaos’ rather than its various other interpretations) is the main consideration in interpreting ta’zir offences, it may be possible to reform and repeal blasphemy laws within a discursive framework widely accepted within the ummah (Muslim community).
Also, I should point out that an ijma on any given non-hudd punishment may be replaced and reformed by the doctrine of al-Islah wa al-tajdeed. If blasphemy were a hudd (fixed/limit) offence, then such an avenue would be closed, yet blasphemy is not a hudd offence.
Your point about Muhammad sanctioning death for blasphemy later in his career, particularly for sabb e rasool (“insulting the prophet”), is a good point, and I do address this point regarding the Sunnah and the Qur’an, which are both widely interpreted by Islamic scholars and jurists as being subject to the exegetically doctrine of naskh (abrogation). Having said this, cherry-picking and revisionist distortions of doctrines is not a uniquely Christian phenomenon and so it would be possible to find interpretations that ignore naskh for whatever reason (excuse), although, again, I do concede that this is a primary hurdle to the reformation of both blasphemy and apostasy laws and Islam itself.
Your final point is also a good one. However, I was not proposing an exclusively Islamic-framework-focused approach – as loosening the grip of Islam from within and without are not mutually exclusive strategies. This was a point of heated contention between Maryam Namazie and I at the Rationalist International Conference, as she also interpreted my approach as an exclusively intra-Islamic approach, which she saw as me appeasing Islam, which was certainly not my intention. Should Islamic theocracy’s grip be loosened from within whilst attacked from outside of Islam by secularists and atheists, for example, then it would potentially unlock and open the door for those both within the ummah and beyond it, to reform Islam and eventually, hopefully, eradicate this noxious and misogynistic ideology and ensure that it is confined to history. At the very least, Islamic theocracies would have a real chance at an Enlightenment the likes of which were championed by Thomas Paine and other disinfected minds centuries ago in the West.
I sincerely thank you for your intelligent and well-thought-out critique and I do hope I have answered your questions.