Opinion – Nigeria: Islam, blasphemy and the growing religious intolerance


Taofeek Ajibade, Majlis Ansar Sultan Qalam (MASQ), Nigeria

On Monday, 10 August, 2020, the Nigerian society was greeted with the following news:

“A Kano Upper Sharia Court sitting at Hausawa Filin Hockey sentenced 22-year-old Yahaya Sharif to death by hanging. He was convicted based on Section 382 (b) of Kano penal code of 2000. The court also sentenced one Umar Farouq of Sharada quarters of Kano metropolis to 10 years imprisonment with hard labour for making derogatory statements concerning the Almighty Allah in a public argument.” (Premium Times, www.premiumtimesng.com/news/headlines/407936-kano-courtsentences-singer-to-death-for-blasphemy.html)

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The subject of blasphemy, as it concerns Islamic personages or symbols, has become more visible in recent times especially in countries or regions that pride themselves as adhering to the Islamic faith – no thanks to the attendant jungle justice usually handed down to alleged “blasphemers”.

Blasphemy is a widely disputed idea of the utterance of words or actions which the adherents of a religion consider unworthy or derogatory to the inviolable honour of their revered religious personages or sacred religious rites. This concept has for a long time been well entrenched and executed by religious institutions instigated majorly by the actions of some over-zealous adherents of religion.

In view of the fact that different religions have their sacred beings or objects against which their faithful followers would welcome no unbecoming or contemptuous utterances and actions, the question of blasphemy can be said to be as old as the history of religion itself. So, just as it is in Judaism, so too is it in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, as well as other religions of the world.

For instance, it is considered blasphemous to eat the meat of cows in Hinduism. In Islam, the most prominent figures are Allah the Almighty, His Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, and the sacred Book, the Holy Quran. Anyone suspected to malign any of these figures today is seen as a blasphemer.

Blasphemy is regarded by extremists as an offence that is punishable at their hands through the instrumentality of jungle justice or the manipulation of the conventional court as witnessed in recent times in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, where an accused was shot dead right in the court. (www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-53582578)

The truth is that neither Allah, nor the Prophetsa had vested in anybody the power or authority to punish blasphemy. The extremists have taken over the role of Allah in apportioning punishment to perceived erring members (or, as they call them, infidels) of the society.

Punishment for blasphemy in Islam

While the Holy Quran admonishes against blasphemy, it does not specify any corporal or even worldly punishment for the “offence”; rather, the Quran enjoins patience and forbearance and dignity. The instruction of the Quran, when confronted with a situation where someone utters a blasphemous statement against them or things they hold sacred, is to say, peace! “And the servants of the Gracious God are those who walk on earth in a dignified manner, and when the ignorant address them, they say ‘Peace!’” (Surah al-Furqan, Ch.25: V.64)

It is no doubt that a vast majority of those who support worldly punishment for blasphemy are either ignorant of the true position of Islam or deliberately quote the Quran out of context – probably oblivious of their disservice to the noble religion of Islam.

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Nevertheless, nowhere does the Quran prescribes any corporal, let alone capital punishment, for blasphemy. The Holy Quran supports physical combat only when a real war has been waged against Islam and Muslims, and disorder is being created in the community. Even then, the Holy Quran says that there shall be “a disgrace for them in this world, and in the Hereafter they shall have a great punishment.” (Surah al-Maidah, Ch.5: V.34)

In this verse, there is no mention of a worldly court passing judgement of physical punishment. The final judgement rests solely with Allah and that is even put till the Hereafter.

“The reward of those who wage a war against Allah and His Messenger and strive to create disorder in the land is only this that they be slain or crucified or their hands and their feet be cut off on alternative sides or they be expelled from the land. That shall be a disgrace for them in this world, and in the Hereafter they shall have a great punishment” (Surah al-Maidah, Ch.5: V.34).

This verse is clearly about those who wage real war against Islam. Even today, there is no law – secular or religious – that says belligerent persons or states should be left alone when they attack. In this sense, it would be clear to all fair-minded persons that the aim of this is communal and societal peace as doing otherwise may put the continued corporate existence at a great peril.

Some clerics have also bandied around a few ahadith in support of meting out punishment to blasphemers. However, such ahadith, like the one that said a Jewess was strangled to death by someone on account of abusing and ridiculing the Prophetsa, and the one where Ka‘b was provoked to blaspheme the Prophetsa and then killed, are considered rather weak by the majority of opinions of commentators.

The simplest, yet strongest proof against their authenticity is their direct contradiction to the unambiguous position of the Holy Quran. Such ahadith are also opposed to the well established and universally acknowledged practice of the Holy Prophetsa. Therefore, those ahadith cannot be relied upon as proofs of capital or even corporal punishment for blasphemy. It is a well-known fact that where a hadith contradicts a clear position of the Holy Quran, the latter takes precedence; just as it is held supreme over any other sources.

In Islam, obedience to the Holy Prophetsa or any other authority is derived from the Holy Quran. Sunnah is neither supreme, nor equal to the authority of the Holy Quran. By extension, it is rather derogatory or “blasphemous” to the inviolable honour of the Holy Prophetsa to ascribe to him any word or deed which in any way contradicts the position of the Quran.

The Holy Quran itself asserts its supremacy in the following verses:

“… the Immaculate one, who believes in Allah and His words; and follow him that you may be rightly guided.” (Surah al-A‘raf, Ch.7: V.159)

“We have sent no Messenger but that he should be obeyed by the command of Allah…” (Surah al-Nisa, Ch.4: V.65)

“O ye who believe! Obey Allah and obey His Messenger and those who are in authority among you…” (Surah al-Nisa, Ch.4: V.60)

“Follow that which has been revealed to thee from the Lord…” (Surah al-An‘am, Ch.6: V.107)

The Prophetsa thus bears witness to, accepts and believes in every word of the Quranic teachings in completeness. It is instructive to note that the Prophetsa endured more blasphemy than we can even cope with today, but he was never advised in the Holy Quran, nor did he deem it fit to respond in a like manner; rather, in the following verses, the Holy Prophetsa was enjoined to take the insults with equanimity and exercise exemplary patience:

“And bear patiently all that they say; and part with them in a decent manner. And leave Me alone with those who reject the truth, possessors of ease and plenty; and give them a little respite. Surely, with Us are heavy fetters and a raging fire.” (Surah al-Muzzammil, Ch.73: V.11-13)

“And the servants of the Gracious God are those who walk on the earth in a dignified manner, and when the ignorant address them, they say, ‘Peace!’” (Surah al-Furqan, Ch.25: V.64)

“And when they hear vain talk, they turn away therefrom and say: ‘unto us our works and unto you your works. Peace be to you. We seek not the ignorant.’” (Surah al-Qasas, Ch.28: V.56)

“And revile not those whom they call upon beside Allah, lest they, out of spite, revile Allah in their ignorance. Thus, unto every people have We caused their doing to seem fair…” (Surah al-An‘am, Ch.6: V.109)

Abuse against the Prophetsa

In his lifetime, the Holy Prophetsa was subjected to both verbal and physical pain by the pagans. In the beginning of his prophethood, he was almost killed before migrating to Medina. When he eventually became the leader of the whole kingdom, he never sought to avenge the pain the pagans had caused him.

In contrast, he forgave them all, including Hinda, wife of Abu Sufyan, who had torn out the liver of Hazrat Hamzara and chewed it to fulfill her vow of savagery. The Quran notes and answers some allegations made against the Holy Prophetsa by his enemies:

1. He was accused of confused dreams:

“Nay, they say, ‘These are but confused dreams; nay, he has forged it; nay, he is but a poet. Let him then bring us a Sign just as the former Prophets were sent with Sign.’”. (Surah al-Anbiya, Ch.21: V.6)

2. He was stigmatised as a man possessed:

“Or do they say, there is madness in him?…”(Surah al-Mominun, Ch.23: V.71)

3. He was called a madman:

“Thou art not, by the grace of thy Lord, a madman.” (Surah al-Qalam, Ch.68: V.3)

In contrast to these derogatory remarks and torments, his personal reactions were all exemplary and in complete adherence to the teachings of the Holy Quran.

One of his regular tormentors was a woman who used to regularly throw dirt at the Prophetsa. At a point in time, the Prophetsa observed that the woman was no longer coming and so he enquired about her. He was told she was suffering from ill health.

In line with the teachings of the Holy Quran, the Prophetsa made arrangement to visit her, offering his services in her household chores. What we have on record is the Prophet’s instructions:

“You do not do evil to those who do evil to you, but you deal with them with forgiveness and kindness” (Sahih al-Bukhari).

This explains that even perceived or real enemies should be shown compassion as much as possible.

Rulings on punishable crimes

The Holy Quran strictly limits the punishment for any crime committed by any member of society, irrespective of their affiliations.

A recurring theme in the Holy Quran, in respect of punishment for crimes, is forgiveness where such is capable of reforming the offender. Following are few verses in this regard:

“And if you desire to punish the oppressors, then punish them to the extent to which you have been wronged; but if you show patience, then, surely, that is best for those who are patient.” (Surah al-Nahl, Ch16: V.127)

“These will be given their reward twice, for they have been steadfast and they repel evil with good…” (Surah al-Qasas, Ch.28: V.55)

A cursory examination of the above verses show the clear position of Islam and the Quran in meting out punishment. On the other hand, it is important to note that while the Holy Quran does not prescribe any punishment for blasphemy, the Bible specifically states the punishment for blasphemy as found in Leviticus 24:16.

Here, both blasphemy and blasphemers are condemned to death.

“One who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death.”

Distorted views among Muslims

Commenting on the latest judgement by a Kano Upper Shariah Court sentencing a 22-year old man to death by hanging, Dr Sani Ibn Sina, the leader of Kano Hisbah Board, said:

“As an organisation charged with the responsibility of enforcing Shariah, we are in support of the court verdict because anybody who does what he did deserves to be killed. That is what the law says.” (The Punch, https://punchng.com/outragegreets-death-sentence-on-kano-musicianfor-blasphemy/)

It is noteworthy that Dr Sami did not quote any verse of the Holy Quran to support his position. In a similar reaction, Dr Uthman Ibrahim of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies University of Ilorin, speaking to an online audience on a Zoom conference on Thursday, 13 August 2020, was of the opinion that the judgement of the Kano Court was in order. However, he added that there is actually no verse of the Holy Quran to support such a position. His own conclusion, just like that of Dr Sani Ibn Sina, is based on the “opinions of scholars”.

How can we rely on the opinion of scholars when the Holy Quran is very clear on a case? If there is no such evidence in the Holy Quran – and in fact the Holy Book speaks against such judgement – what weightier evidence do the Islamic clerics rely on to make such far reaching pronouncements? If there is anything that has given more strength to the continued jungle justice that has always followed each allegation of blasphemy, it is the distorted views of many clerics who should have been a beacon of light to the ignorant and religiously-intolerant majority.

Unfortunately, they have remained the fuel that keeps the fire of intolerance burning in contradiction to the position of the Holy Quran, which is explicit about the freedom of blasphemers. This is nothing but the height of religious intolerance. Meanwhile, it is widely acknowledged and as shown in the various verses above, as well as the practise of the Holy Prophetsa, that Islam enjoins nothing but tolerance, compassion and peace.

The fact that a man speaks against Islam today does in no way mean that he could never be a follower of the religion. Some of the greatest defenders of Islam were once valiant enemies of the religion. With compassion and exemplary character, those men were won for Islam and they stood by their new faith with even greater zeal than they had shown while outside the religion.


As noted earlier, the Holy Quran neither prescribes punishment, nor supports punishing anyone for alleged blasphemy. Islam is a religion of peace and those who perpetrate or seek to perpetuate evil in its name neither represent the peaceful religion, nor help its cause in the least. It is a religion that emphasises forbearance and forgiveness. Any extremists who act in contravention of the golden teachings of Islam should be held personally responsible for their infamous acts and pronouncements and Islam should be removed from claims.

A religion that teaches peace cannot be held responsible for the uncivilised actions of a few adherents. It should equally be borne in mind that such extremists are found in almost all religions of the world in varying degrees. Though the extremists have made it possible for others to point accusing fingers at Islam, those with fair minds have a responsibility to see Islam from the pristine teachings of the religion and not from the prism of the utterances of some religious bigots and unguided zealots. Had Allah Himself wished to punish mankind for each of our sins, there would have remained none on the surface of the earth.

“And if Allah were to punish men for their wrongdoing, He would not leave on earth a living creature, but He gives them respite till an appointed term; and when their term is come, they cannot remain behind a single hour, nor can they go ahead of it.” (Surah al-Nahl, Ch.16: V.62)

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