Islam, Dawkins, and Free Speech

27 July 2017

Tim Dieppe discussed Islam and free speech on BBC Radio Ulster this week with Ajmal Masroor, a London based Imam.

Earlier this week, prominent atheist Richard Dawkins had an event cancelled in Berkley, California due to what was described as his “abusive speech” against Islam. This raises important questions about free speech and our ability to criticise Islam. I was invited to discuss this on BBC Radio Ulster on Wednesday with Ajmal Masroor, who is a London based Imam who regularly appears in the media to discuss Islam related issues. In the course of the discussion, Ajmal claimed he would renounce his faith if there was an example where Muhammad said that someone should be killed for insulting him. The full 22 minute recording of this interview is available here. In what follows, I will transcribe parts of the interview and refer to the recording with timings in square brackets so that you can check for yourself what was said.

Should Dawkins be shut down?

Dawkins has been outspoken in his criticism of Christianity as well as of Islam. As he himself said:

“I am known as a frequent critic of Christianity and have never been de-platformed for that. Why do you give Islam a free pass? Why is it fine to criticise Christianity but not Islam?”

I pointed this out in the interview [5:00] and argued that Christians respond to harsh and offensive criticisms by looking to debate and discuss the claims being made. Indeed, Christians have debated with Richard Dawkins about Christianity and he can clearly be seen to have lost those debates, particularly the one with John Lennox which can be viewed on YouTube here. By contrast, criticism of Islam is too often seen as Islamophobic, or hate speech, and silenced as has happened to Richard Dawkins with the cancellation of his event in Calafornia.

Ajmal agreed that Richard Dawkins should not be shut down [3:03]. He also agreed that people feel limited in their ability to criticise Islam [6:42], but he claimed that Islam encourages free speech.

Are all religions equal?

Ajmal argued that all religions are forces for good in the world [8:37]. I was asked whether I agreed with this, or sympathised with Dawkins’s view that Islam is evil.

I began by comparing Jesus and Muhammad:

Me [9:12]: “I want to compare Jesus and Muhammad on these points. When Jesus was heavily criticised, insulted, beaten, tortured, nailed up to a cross, what did he say? He said, ‘Father forgive them’, for what they are doing. Whereas when Muhammad was insulted, he said they should be killed. That’s the real difference here that you have. You have to compare Jesus and Muhammad in terms of what they did and what their actions are.”

I then went on to discuss Dawkins contentious statement about Islam [9:39]. I began by putting his remarks in context.

Here is what he has said:

“It’s tempting to say all religions are bad, and I do say all religions are bad, but it’s a worse temptation to say all religions are equally bad because they’re not,” he added.

“If you look at the actual impact that different religions have on the world it’s quite apparent that at present the most evil religion in the world has to be Islam.

“It’s terribly important to modify that because of course that doesn’t mean all Muslims are evil, very far from it. Individual Muslims suffer more from Islam than anyone else.”

Note that he qualifies this by looking at the “actual impact” and, as I pointed out, more people are being killed in the name of Islam today, including many Muslims, than by any other religion in the world. I therefore agree with Dawkins, and against Ajmal, that all religions are not equally good.

Ajmal promises to renounce his faith

Ajmal then took great exception to my statement that Muhammad asked for people who insulted him to be killed.

Amjal [10:00]: “The prophet Muhammad was mocked, stoned, and all sorts of horrible things were perpetrated against him by his people. He never asked a single person to be killed because they insulted him or mocked him, never.”

Me: “Yes he did.”

Amjal: “If you do not know Islam, it is OK to say I don’t know Islam. I know my faith very well. Where in the Qur’an or the sayings of the prophet does it say kill a person who has mocked me? Can you give me one example of a statement of the prophet, which is authentic and referenced where the Prophet said ‘Kill the person who has mocked me.’?”

Me: “It is in the hadith.”

Ajmal: “It is not in the hadith, don’t give us the name called hadith. Which book, what reference, and what is the exact quote.”

Ajmal knows that it is unreasonable to expect exact quotations and references off the top of my head in a live radio interview. He then promised to renounce his faith if I could find a reference for Muhammad asking for someone who insulted him to be killed.

Ajmal [11:03]: “I will give you my own guarantee, I will renounce my faith if you can show me that the Prophet said kill a person who has mocked me, kill a person who has insulted me.”

I then promised to put up some references on social media straight after the interview.

Did Muhammad ask for anyone who insulted him to be killed?

I was able to do a quick google search on my phone while listeners were calling in and found some references to quote. I tweeted this link and quoted some of these references [19:00].

From the Qur’an:

Indeed, those who abuse Allah and His Messenger – Allah has cursed them in this world and the Hereafter and prepared for them a humiliating punishment. (Q 33:57)

Note that this includes abuse of the Messenger, and that they are cursed in this world. The passage continues as follows, commanding Muhammad’s wives to wear veils so that the insults will stop, and promising that the insulting liars will be “seized and massacred.”

O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful. (60) If the hypocrites and those in whose hearts is disease and those who spread rumours in al-Madinah do not cease, (61) We will surely incite you against them; then they will not remain your neighbours therein except for a little. Accursed wherever they are found, [being] seized and massacred completely. (Q 33:59-61)

Another passage promises a painful punishment for those who abuse the Prophet:

And among them are those who abuse the Prophet and say, “He is an ear.” Say, “[It is] an ear of goodness for you that believes in Allah and believes the believers and [is] a mercy to those who believe among you.” And those who abuse the Messenger of Allah – for them is a painful punishment. (Q 9:61)

This passage continues:

Do they not know that whoever opposes Allah and His Messenger – that for him is the fire of Hell, wherein he will abide eternally? That is the great disgrace. (64) They hypocrites are apprehensive lest a surah be revealed about them, informing them of what is in their hearts. Say, “Mock [as you wish]; indeed, Allah will expose that which you fear.” (65) And if you ask them, they will surely say, “We were only conversing and playing.” Say, “Is it Allah and His verses and His Messenger that you were mocking?” (Q 9: 63-65)

Note how those who have insulted or mocked Muhammad are described as “hypocrites.” Later on, this passage continues:

O Prophet, fight against the disbelievers and the hypocrites and be harsh upon them. And their refuge is Hell, and wretched is the destination. (Q 9:73)

From the Hadith:

Here is one story in which Muhammad asks for someone who insulted him to be killed.

Allah’s Apostle said, “Who is willing to kill Ka’b bin Al-Ashraf who has hurt Allah and His Apostle?” Thereupon Muhammad bin Maslama got up saying, “O Allah’s Apostle! Would you like that I kill him?” The Prophet said, “Yes,” (Sahih Bukhari 59.369)

The same incident is recounted in another Hadith:

“Who will kill Ka’b b. Ashraf? He has maligned Allah, the Exalted, and His Messenger. Muhammad b. Maslama said: Messenger of Allah, do you wish that I should kill him? He said: Yes.” (Sahih Muslim 1801)

In another incident, a man who mocked Muhammad by pouring the abdominal contents of a camel on Muhammad’s back was killed along with others who joined in the mockery.

Once the Prophet was offering prayers at the Ka’ba. Abu Jahl was sitting with some of his companions. One of them said to the others, “Who amongst you will bring the abdominal contents (intestines, etc.) of a camel of Bani so and so and put it on the back of Muhammad, when he prostrates?” The most unfortunate of them got up and brought it. He waited till the Prophet prostrated and then placed it on his back between his shoulders. I was watching but could not do any thing. I wish I had some people with me to hold out against them. They started laughing and falling on one another. Allah’s Apostle was in prostration and he did not lift his head up till Fatima (Prophet’s daughter) came and threw that (camel’s abdominal contents) away from his back. He raised his head and said thrice, “O Allah! Punish Quraish.” So it was hard for Abu Jahl and his companions when the Prophet invoked Allah against them as they had a conviction that the prayers and invocations were accepted in this city (Mecca). The Prophet said, “O Allah! Punish Abu Jahl, ‘Utba bin Rabi’a, Shaiba bin Rabi’a, Al-Walid bin ‘Utba, Umaiya bin Khalaf, and ‘Uqba bin Al Mu’it (and he mentioned the seventh whose name I cannot recall). By Allah in Whose Hands my life is, I saw the dead bodies of those persons who were counted by Allah’s Apostle in the Qalib (one of the wells) of Badr. (Sahih Bukhari 4.241)

Here is another story in which Muhammad endorses the killing of a slave who slandered him.

A blind man had a slave-mother who used to abuse the Prophet and disparage him. He forbade her but she did not stop. He rebuked her but she did not give up her habit. One night she began to slander the Prophet and abuse him. So he took a dagger, placed it on her belly, pressed it, and killed her. A child who came between her legs was smeared with the blood that was there. When the morning came, the Prophet was informed about it.
He assembled the people and said: I adjure by Allah the man who has done this action and I adjure him by my right to him that he should stand up. Jumping over the necks of the people and trembling the man stood up.
He sat before the Prophet and said: Messenger of Allah! I am her master; she used to abuse you and disparage you. I forbade her, but she did not stop, and I rebuked her, but she did not abandon her habit. I have two sons like pearls from her, and she was my companion. Last night she began to abuse and disparage you. So I took a dagger, put it on her belly and pressed it till I killed her.
Thereupon the Prophet said: Oh be witness, no retaliation is payable for her blood.
(Sahih Abi Dawud 4361)

Here is a further story in which Muhammad endorses killing someone who insulted him.

A Jewess used to abuse the Prophet  and disparage him. A man strangled her till she died. The Messenger of Allah declared that no recompense was payable for her blood. (Sahih Abi Dawud 4362)

There are many more examples if we also include examples from the biography of Ibn Ishaq. A list of killings ordered or supported by Muhammad is available here. Many of these were carried out for insulting Muhammad.

What does sharia law say about insulting the prophet?

Based on the passages above, the consensus of sharia law is that the punishment for insulting Muhammad is death. Several fatwas on line make this clear. One says:

The scholars are unanimously agreed that a Muslim who insults the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) becomes a kaafir and an apostate who is to be executed.

There are some cases where Muhammad chose to forgive people who insulted him. This same ruling argues:

The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) sometimes chose to forgive those who had insulted him, and sometimes he ordered that they should be executed, if that served a greater purpose. But now his forgiveness is impossible because he is dead, so the execution of the one who insults him remains the right of Allaah, His Messenger and the believers, and the one who deserves to be executed cannot be let off, so the punishment must be carried out.

Another ruling also states that repentance would not avoid the death penalty:

If the one who defamed him repents openly and is sincere, that will benefit him before Allaah, although his repentance does not waive the punishment for defaming the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him), which is execution.

The classic manual of sharia law The Reliance of the Traveller, makes clear that apostasy carries the death penalty:

When a person who has reached puberty and is sane voluntarily apostatizes from Islam, he deserves to be killed’ (p. 595, o8.1).

The manual includes a list of “Acts that Entail Leaving Islam. These include: “Reviling Allah or his Messenger.” (p597-98, o8.7). Thus, insulting Muhammad is regarded as an act of apostasy which therefore carries the death penalty.

Only last month, a man in Pakistan was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting Muhammad on Facebook. This is said to be the first ever death sentence involving social media.

Will Ajmal renounce his faith?

I have quoted several examples of Muhammad saying that someone who insulted him should be killed. These examples are the basis for sharia law carrying the death penalty for insulting Muhammad. Ajmal said  [21:06]: “No single person was ever put to death for insulting God or the Messenger.” This is plain false.

Ajmal clearly said that he would renounce his faith if Muhammad said that a person who insulted him should be killed. He challenged me to provide a single example, and I have provided several. He should therefore renounce his faith.

Later, Ajmal appeared to try to backtrack on his claim.

In the Qur’an, where does it say, ‘anyone who insults Allah, God, and his Messenger should be killed?’ It doesn’t say that. [20:12]

I agreed that those words do not appear in that form in the Qur’an, but this is not the point. Earlier, he had broadened his challenge to the Hadith, and to a single example, and promised to renounce his faith if one could be found.

Ajmal should become a Christian

I sympathise with Ajmal. It is embarrassing for Muslims that Muhammad was extremely intolerant of criticism, and that criticism of Muhammad carries the death penalty. As I said in the interview, this was not the case with Jesus who cried out for forgiveness for his tormentors. Ajmal obviously prefers Christian ethics to Muslim ethics. He should follow Jesus rather than Muhammad. He should make good on his promise, renounce his faith, and accept Christianity.

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