Engaging blasphemy in Islam

Sent On: 
Thu, 2018-05-24
Newsletter Number: 

Islam and the secular West have clashed repeatedly over blasphemy. This is a new phenomenon that came to the fore with Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, in 1988 that in turn resulted in Ayatollah Khomeni’s fatwa calling for his death. A well-known quote of Salman Rushdie is “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”


The belief that freedom of expression means that one is also free to offend or to ridicule has taken on new forms and intensity in Europe and North America and appears related to a rapidly progressing secularism in the West. In past centuries, Christians strongly resisted blasphemous speech and actions.


After Rushdie, other crises erupted such as the Danish cartoon crisis, Charlie Hebdo, Geert Wilder’s film Fitna and the murder of Theo van Gogh.


Arab-West Report has always opposed the belief that freedom of expression necessarily includes the right to severely offend. Freedom of expression, in our view, includes the right to express differences in opinion but offense and ridicule end all normal forms of communication.


In this light it was extremely interesting that Matthew Anderson defended on May 22 at Georgetown University his dissertation entitled, “Prohibited Speech and the Sacred: Critically and Constructively Engaging Taqī al-Dīn al-Subkī’s (d.1355) al-Sayf al-maslūl ‘alā man sabba al-rasūl.”




Matthew Anderson during the defense of his dissertation. (Photo: Matthew Paul Buccheri)


In his presentation, Anderson explained why he chose this topic. The controversies over a number of blasphemy cases in the West served as an underlying motivation. He was motivated to engage in this discussion because of his involvement in Muslim-Christian dialogue. As a Christian, he feels sympathy for Muslim concerns about blasphemy. He also saw this as a case study in “the relationship between religion and what has emerged as modernity’s preeminent moral discourse, which is the discourse of human rights.”                                              

Taqī al-Dīn al-Subkī’s treatise is interesting because it was written around 40 years after another treatise on blasphemy of Ibn Taymiyya (d.1328), who is often seen as the father of modern Islamic radicalism. Like Ibn Taymiyya, al-Subkī sees blasphemy as a criminal offense that deserves death. In contrast to Ibn Taymiyya, al- Subkī argued that a blasphemer should be forgiven after repentance. He ultimately based his argument on the ethical character of the Prophet, which includes his mercy, his compassion, his sympathetic kindness and ethics in general.


The discussion shows that Islamic legal tradition is not monolithic. It also reveals the “creative dynamism of traditional Sunni jurisprudence.” The dissertation shows a direction in which a future discourse could develop, not just following in the footsteps of Ibn Taymiyya but one that is more open to compassion.


For Anderson’s edited remarks, please click here.


Matthew Anderson received his PhD. We hope that he will be able to publish his dissertation in book form so that his work becomes available to a wider audience and, hopefully, will have a positive impact on diffusing tensions.


Washington, May 24, 2018

Cornelis Hulsman

Editor-in-chief Arab-West Report